Clash of the Classics
I thought I would try out a new blog feature, a poll. The subject as seen at top right is people's choices today in one of the great marketing competitions from the past. Zeiss Ikon and Leitz fought toe to toe for three decades for the allegiance of luxury camera buyers. The Soviet Union mirrored the competition with it's production of FED, Zorki and Kiev cameras for about the same length of time.
I'm pretty sure that a lot more Leicas, FEDs and Zorkis were sold than Contax or Kiev rangefinders, but that doesn't really address the issue of quality or the particular features which attracted users. My own preference will be obvious from the amount of work I've done with the two camera lines. I've put quite a few rolls of film through my FED 1g since acquiring it just a short time ago. Although I was originally very taken with the Kiev IIa, I have really done very little with it since acquiring it five years ago.
The big thing for me is pocketable design, and there is really no contest there -- you don't want to try jamming the Contax or Kiev cameras in your pocket. Beyond that, the Barnack Leica has, in my opinion, never been bested for its combination of elegance and usability.
That said, Contax II and III and their Soviet counterparts were nice to look at and hold, and there were some features that were definitely better than what the Barnack Leicas could offer. The bayonet quick change lenses were obviously an attractive feature for photojournalists and others needing quick response. The wide-base rangefinder of the Contax design is probably superior to the Leica, and the metal shutter curtain and general build of the Contax/Kiev cameras was extremely sturdy.
Cartier-Bresson gave a big push to Leica sales, but some other very fine classic photographers chose Contax -- I'm thinking for instance of Russell Lee and Robert Capa. It might be interesting to come up with a list of who used what among the greats.
The lenses on both cameras were amazingly good in their time, and it seems somewhat pointless to attempt a critical comparison. While the Soviet examples tended to have poorer materials and workmanship, the image quality is often as good or better than the original German designs -- I'm thinking particularly of the coated Soviet Elmar-type collapsible lenses that came on the later Zorki and FED cameras.