Shootout: Contessa vs. Contarex

Pittsburgh Zoo, April 9, 2004

I took both cameras with the purpose to see how each would perform. These are two of my favorites. Actually, these are two of about 25 favorite cameras. The Contessa is equipped with the Tessar -- one of the greatest lenses of all time. For the Contarex, I decided to use just two lenses: 135mm Sonnar and 35mm Distagon. I metered everything with a Sekonic L-508 meter (incident). For film, I used some bargain Kodak VR200 -- a nice general-purpose film that I bought in three-roll packs at Aldi's.

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Zeiss-Ikon Contessa, 45mm f/2.8 Zeiss-Opton Tessar

The Contessa isn't necessarily the best camera for the zoo, which became obvious very quickly. The reason is that many animals are simply too far away. Take a look at the lioness and sea lion photos. The subjects are very tiny. However, the Contessa did much better at shooting overall scenes. And yes, I know I could have gotten closer to the sea lions. Couldn't do much about the lions though.

Sea lions

Two giraffes


A lioness



Zeiss-Ikon Contarex, 135mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar
35mm f/4.0 Carl Zeiss Distagon

With the 135mm f/2.8 Olympia Sonnar and the 35mm f/4.0 Distagon at my disposal, I found I used the 135mm lens most of the time because it was able to bridge the gap between guests and animals. Of the shots below, the giraffe reflection and swimming fish were shot with the Distagon.

Giraffe reflection

Pacing cheetah

Swimming fish

Hungry zebras

Licking llama

Two lions

Verdict: While the Contarex held the edge in flexibility, the Contessa certainly was no slouch. Shooting outdoors with a fast film required smaller apertures, avoiding the Tessar's round out-of-focus highlights you get with large apertures.

While I expected and got great things from the Contarex, the Contessa came through, delivering very sharp photos with excellent color rendition. The Contarex also gave very sharp photos, and the advantage of interchangeable lenses was a real plus for this setting.