Zeiss Tenax II A candid camera
A gem from the 1930s, the Tenax II was technologically advanced for its time and surprisingly good for discreet shooting
Of the hundreds of film cameras that I’ve used in my ‘52 cameras in 52 weeks’ projects, only a handful have any significant monetary value. Some are simply not of interest to collectors, and therefore not highly priced; others, while potentially worth something, are devalued by their poor condition, though for me, so long as I can squeeze an image out of a camera, this is not a big deal.
The Tenax II, from Zeiss Ikon, which dates back to the 1930s, is one of my more collectable cameras. It was given to me by my father when he found he was no longer able to use it. It may have been designed to compete with the Robot, another German camera of the era. A key feature of the Robot was a clockwork motor- drive which allowed shots to be taken in quick succession. These cameras made 24mm x 24mm square negatives on 35mm film, which meant that a standard 36- exposure cartridge could yield 50 photos. The Robot, however, didn’t use standard cartridges; you had to load one of their own proprietary cassettes using a dedicated device. With the Tenax II, Zeiss offered a viable alternative; admittedly it didn’t have a motor- drive, but a clever lever system rapidly advanced the film and set the shutter using one finger, meaning that with another finger poised over the shutter release, shots could be taken in quick succession.
Surprisingly this is an interchangeable-lens camera. The standard lens has a focal length of 40mm; mine has the f/2 Sonnar. The camera body has a unique bayonet mount, and each lens has its own range-finder prism attached. These cameras were never cheap – an advert from 1938 shows them priced at £31, which amounts to around £1,500 in today’s terms. The same advert gives the price of the Leica IIIa as £34. Interestingly, a quick search of sold listings on eBay shows that the Tenax tends to go for a little more than the Leica – you would have to shell out in the region of £200-£300 for either.
I enjoyed using the Tenax II. It’s quite heavy, but feels like a precision instrument, with all the mechanics operating smoothly. At 80 years old, the Compur- Rapid shutter still fires accurately on all speeds, which run from 1 second to 1/400th. The range-finder is easy to use, as is the rapid film advance, but what struck me most is how quiet it is. I’m not one for drawing attention to myself, and taking pictures of strangers in public is not something I feel comfortable with, but in the dimly lit Serpentine Gallery last summer, the silent shutter gave me the confidence to take some candid shots without fear of being caught.
The near-silent shutter is ideal for taking covert people shots
The Zeiss Tenax II feels like a precision instrument and runs very smoothly