The amazing story of the Biotar
When photojournalists David Douglas Duncan, Jun Miki, and Carl Mydans reported in 1950 on the excellence of Japanese optics, thus starting the Japan photo industry ball rolling, little did anyone imagine that within 10 years these camera types and lenses would be obsolete, fit primarily to be collectors' curios.
What country would be responsible for the next generation of cameras and lenses? Not Japan, but Germany.
|Created in the 1920s by Zeiss Jena, this six-element, five-group optic is still the formula used in most 50-58mm f/1.8-2 range, normal lenses for SLRs.|
Following World War II, to avoid Soviet domination, a good percentage of East German Zeiss executives, department heads, and their families fled west. Zeiss had camera-manufacturing facilities in the Western Zone (Stuttgart) and by 1950 was able to show a Contax IIa rangefinder camera at Photokina, which would be followed by many rangefinder camera models similar to, but updated from, those produced in pre-war Dresden.
Most of what was left of Zeiss Dresden was then smoldering wreckage. In mid-February 1945, the USAAF and RAF had bombed Dresden to a pulp, creating a massive firestorm. The airstrikes pulverized the remaining Zeiss manufacturing facilities, destroying all plans that Zeiss had been developing since 1937 for a new type of 35mm camera, and killing many of the designers and machinists who were working on these plans.
|Contax S eye-level SLR: Conceived by Zeiss in 1937, it had 23 years before the Japanese beat a path to its door.|
Yes, I said 1937. As early as '37, Zeiss Dresden had been working on prototypes of the first 35mm eye-level SLRs with pentaprisms. Miraculously, designers and engineers after the war patched together the wherewithal to show a prototype of this camera, the Contax S, in 1949 and to export these cameras by 1950. It was the very first 35mm eye-level single lens reflex with a glass prism finder and interchangeable lenses -- nine years before the Nikon F, Canonflex, and other eye-level SLRs with interchangeable lenses and focal-plane shutters. Cosmetically, it was neat, clean, elegant.
When the Japanese and West Germans finally did get around to producing such SLRs, virtually all, save Canon, Nikon, and Topcon, adopted the 42mm screw-thread interchangeable mount of the Contax S. But only the Nikon F matched the beautiful lines of the Contax S.
|Freed at last from the 3-foot minimum rangefinder camera focusing distance, I closed in to 18 inches on friend Alfred Eisenstaedt with my 58mm f/2 Biotar in natural light. Sorry, I don't remember the Exakta VX exposure on Kodak Plus-X Pan.|
For the normal focal length lens of the Contax S, which most purchasers bought with the camera bodies, Zeiss reached far back in its optical closet and came up with the six-element, five-group 58mm f/2 Biotar -- the same design used on the 35mm Exakta waist-level cameras since 1936! It focused to 18 inches instead of the rangefinder cameras' 3 feet, and its 58mm focal length provided 1:1 viewing on the Contax S focusing screen.
Almost all the other camera manufacturers aped the Contax S lens focal length specs (or near them) and close focusing for their initial lenses: the 58mm f/1.2 Canon, 55mm f/1.4 Chinon, 57mm f/1.4 Hexanon, 58mm f/1.4 Nikkor, 58mm f/1.4 Auto Rokkor, 58mm f/1.4 Topcon.
What happened next? International courts decreed that the Contax name belonged to West German Zeiss. Ergo the camera in the U.S. bore the name Pentacon, although Eastern European models continued to bear the Contax branding. Prices fell to a bit more than $100 from $475 as more modern Japanese SLRs eclipsed the feature set of the Contax S. Ultimately, the Contax died of East German mismanagement and neglect. Accountants' examination of the camera makers' books showed that these state-run factories had all been losing vast sums of money and recommended they be closed.
The Japanese camera makers went on to produce the splendid film and digital SLRs we all know. But if you look at the 50mm f/1.8 or f/2 lens designs of nearly every one, you will find, lurking underneath, the same Biotar five-group, six-element design of the Contax S lens. And if you test one, you may be as amazed as I at how very good a 1950 58mm f/2 Biotar is, even against today's best.
Zeiss 58mm f/2 Biotar (1950)
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor (2006)