The Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex IIa

Alfred's Camera Page

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I would have probably never bothered with this camera if I hadn't inherited it from an uncle. If you've read some of my other TLR (twin lens reflex) articles, you'll know that I'm not a big fan of TLRs, mainly because of their impossible viewfinder system with the reversed image and their fairly limited system possibilities. But that's just my taste in cameras. Other photographers have learned to love the viewfinder system and the all-in-one functionality, and why let my personal preferences get in the way of a good review?

History of the Ikoflex

I don't know a lot about Zeiss, and especially not about the Ikoflex, so I'm going to keep this section short and not pretend to know things I don't. You can find the complete story at numerous other web sources; see the links at the bottom of this page.

Zeiss Ikon made the Ikoflex series of TLRs between the early 1930's till the late 1950's in various models and classes. The idea seemed to be that Zeiss Ikon wanted to compete with Franke & Heidecke's Rolleicord. If you look at the shared features of the Rolleicords and the Ikoflex IIa, their functional similarity is obvious. The Rolleicord had a 75mm f/3.5 Xenar lens; the IIa had an 75mm f/3.5 Tessar. The Rolleicord didn't have a self timer; neither did the IIa. The Rolleicord had knob wind instead of the Rolleiflex's crank; so did the IIa. The Rolleicord didn't have a self-cocking shutter, neither did the IIa. And so on. If I owned a Rolleicord I'd put the cameras back to back and organise a shootout, but since I don't, I'm going to have to drop further investigation.

Pity for Zeiss, but they never really succeeded in pushing Rollei off the market. And that's by a long shot. I blame it on Zeiss not getting all the details as right as professional photographers wanted them to be, but for the casual user, that shouldn't be a deal breaker.

A closer look

If you take the Ikoflex IIa in your hands, you notice that it's fairly small. It beats my Yashica-635 in terms of width, height and length. When put next to a Lubitel-2, both have appproximately the same length and width, but the IIa is much taller. For 35mm you'd call this a big camera, but for 6x6 it's definitely small. That means it's very portable, and if you have an ever-ready case for it, you can wear it around your neck reporter-style without problem.

If you become familiar with the IIa, you'll notice that it's a somewhat unimaginative camera. Oh, it's built like a tank and its quality is out of the question, but the design, the controls, the enormous strips of leatherette, they all make this camera sort of boring. Look at the focusing knob for instance. It's just a big flat round knob with knurled edges, a focusing range, a screw in the middle, and lots of leatherette. Oh, it's a very good boring knob, one of the best boring knobs I've ever seen, but it's totally uninspiring and nothing more than purely functional. That goes for all of the knobs, for the lens assembly, and for the whole camera for that matter. This camera was designed by a structural engineer behind a drawing board who had more eye for function than for flair. Some niceties were thrown in here and there to make it more palatable; for instance the Zeiss Ikon symbol on the viewfinder hood or the decidedly strange U-shaped rim around the taking lens, but it's all not as persuasive as the stylish design of the Rolleicord.

This camera is very well built. Everything is metal, the finishing is excellent, and you can feel that it was put together by skilled technicians. But is it rugged? Probably it is, but the black paint and the simplistic design don't betray it. This is a camera that screams "caring amateur use". This in contrast to the Rolleicords, that always had an image of being very tough. Combine that with their greater appeal, and you have the world's preference towards them.

The lenses

The viewing lens is a Teronar 75mm f/3,5; the taking lens is a Zeiss Opton Tessar 75mm f/3,5 in a Compur-Rapid shutter with a range of 1s–1/500s + B. This is for my camera; your mileage may vary. I've never heard about the Teronar (it's just the viewing lens anyway), but the Tessar is, of course, a very famous design with numerous outstanding properties. This one is T coated, so not your average four lenser – which probably explains the IIa's enduring popularity as a user camera.

I haven't shot film so far with my Ikoflex (but am planning to), so the bit where I relate about image quality is on hold.

The shutter

The shutter may be the trickiest part of this camera. There are a number of things you need to be aware of before using it. First, never set the shutter speed with a cocked shutter. At least, that seems to be the rule. I read on the Internet somewhere that you can over-strain the spring for 1/500s if you cock your shutter first and then set speeds. At first I didn't even know the IIa had 1/500s, because the figure is so far off the scale that you have to move the shutter speed lever unnaturally far to reach it, so the story about the separate spring is probably true. Second, the shutter will only fire under the right circumstances. It will refuse duty when the shutter is uncocked, or the viewfinder hood is down (physically blocking the exposure button's motion), or the film hasn't been advanced since the last exposure, or you've passed 12 exposures. In practice all this means that it's hard to go wrong with this camera, but also that it's not very intuitive to use. You can't just press the release button and expect it to fire.

The most counter-intuitive feature to understand is the way the shutter reacts when you've passed 12 exposures. Namely, it just blocks and does nothing until you press in the exposure counter with your thumb and rotate it counterclockwise until you reach "1". Then the dial clicks in and the camera is ready for use again. If you don't press in and rotate the counter, it will keep on rotating across the scale forever and ever without clicking in. A nice feature of the blocking mechanism is that it shows a white flag in a window just behind the shutter release when the shutter is blocked, and a red one when it isn't. If you then cock the shutter, you're set to take pictures.

There are three control levers sticking outside the shutter assembly: one is for the aperture, another is for the shutter speed, and the third is to cock the shutter. The aperture and the shutter speed are read out on the "shoulders" of the U-shaped rim around the taking lens.

The big round focusing knob is on the left of the camera, which is a bit impractical at first, but leaves the right hand for picture taking and transporting. The distance scale runs from infinity to 1m, with close-up kits available. The shutter release button is on the upper right hand corner, in a bit of a strange spot from an ergonomic point of view. Much better would have been to place it on the bottom right, like on the Rolleiflex. The film wind knob is on the top back right of the camera, and is pleasant in size and texture. Also on the right is a large X contact (or is it M?). The left of the camera is home to the focusing knob and to two small retractable knobs that are connected to the film spool spindles. Retract them to free the spools and take them out. On the top back of the camera is a round sliding knob that opens the hinged back. On the bottom of the camera is a tripod mount (large German brush, 3/4") and a rudimentary red window with flimsy metal cover plate, that you only use when loading film.

The viewfinder

On top of the camera we find the viewfinder. It's the usual chimney type with metal latches on all sides that collapses to a small package. The whole assembly appears to be attached to the body by only three screws, so perhaps it was removable and could be replaced by a prisma viewfinder. Some investigation shows that prisma finders were indeed available. In collapsed state, you open the viewfinder by sliding a spring-loaded latch on its back to the left. When the viewfinder is open, you can access the magnifying glass by first flipping open the sports viewfinder with the magnifying glass behind it, and then flipping back the metal viewfinder frame. The magnifying glass is best used from a distance, because the enlargement factor is larger. Without glasses, it's possible to oversee the entire image with your eye pressed to the magnifying glass, though it will appear so large that you don't have overview. If you can't afford to look into the waist-level finder, you can flip up the frame on the front and use it as a sports viewfinder. Pity that the ground glass is obscured by the flipped-up frame, so you can't double-check anything quickly. The ground glass itself is a fresnel lens, and fairly dim for today's standards. Don't forget however that fifty years ago they didn't have very sensitive films, so this camera's field of use wouldn't have been low light situations in the first place.

A very nice, but probably uncommon, feature on my camera is the German exposure table to one side of the viewfinder. My uncle, this camera's first owner, bought it either in Germany or Austria, and it seems likely that only cameras sold in those countries were sold with these particular tables. On it you can find rubricised exposure info for 40 ASA film, and some rules of thumb, like the underlined "when strongly overcast, fourfold exposure". This camera dates from the early 1950's when light meters were fairly uncommon, so such a table had its uses.

Loading film

When loading film, make sure that you have an empty spool in the film bay. I once took this camera out on a photographic excursion, only to discover on location that I'd forgotten the extra spool. That's what you get when you only shoot 35mm! As a result I've never actually loaded this camera, so maybe I'm forgetting something, but this is how I think it works. Place a film in the lower film bay by lifting out and locking the knob with spindle. Thread the film into the empty spool in the top bay. Close the camera. While looking through the red window in the base plate, wind the film on to exposure number one. When arrived, rotate the film counter counterclockwise with your thumb to position 1 till it clicks – and you're set. Then take pictures, and enjoy this no-nonsense machine with its high-end lens.


Camera:Ikoflex IIa (early model)
Manufacturer:Zeiss Ikon; West Germany
Model number:855/16
Viewing lens:Teronar 75mm f/3.5
Taking lens:Zeiss Opton Tessar T 75mm f/3.5
Film:120 film
Image format:6×6cm
Shutter speeds:B; 1s–1/500s
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