Zeiss Ikon Colora F: I have tested this camera twice

Front view of the Zeiss Ikon Colora F
Front view of the Zeiss Ikon Colora F. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I’ve written this review in my head a dozen times in the year I’ve been testing the Zeiss Ikon Colora F. It’s not bad, but it’s not memorably good, either.

The most memorable thing about the Colora F is the flip-up flashbulb holder hidden under the accessory shoe. It’s a spiffy feature (and inspired the “F” designation), but it sticks out in my mind because it’s kind of annoying.

I’ve checked my notebook at least a half dozen times during testing to make sure I wrote a note about the flashbulb holder, because nearly every time I put the camera in my bag, and sometimes when I removed it, I managed to trigger the spring-loaded accessory shoe and flip it out. All I have to do is push it closed again to continue on my way, but having to do it so many times seared the minor aggravation into my mind, and I cannot think of this camera without thinking of that foible.

Beyond that, it’s got a few things about it that might prove memorable in the long run, and which could go either way in different people’s opinions — meaning I could be convinced that what I see as a liability might be an asset in someone else’s eyes. Nevertheless, this review will be relatively short.

By the numbers

The Colora was made from 1960 to 1965. The body style changed distinctly in 1963 to share components with other cameras made by Zeiss Ikon’s sister company, Voigtländer. In 1964 the F variant was introduced, adding only the flash bulb option and battery compartment. Both models were discontinued after the 1965 models with the advent of Instamatics, and Zeiss Ikon replaced them with the Ikomat line.

Zeiss Ikon Colora F lens and markings
The Zeiss Ikon Colora F lens and shutter assembly, and their markings. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Both Coloras are identical aside from the flash features on the F. They feature a big viewfinder with brightline guides and parallax correction marks, and a Novicar 50mm f/2.8 lens mounted in a Gauthier Prontor 125 shutter, offering speeds of 1/125, 1/60 and 1/30 seconds, and Bulb. The shutter release is on the front of the camera body and has a threaded socket for a cable release.

The Colora uses scale focusing, meaning you have to measure or estimate the distance to the subject, and dial it in on the focus ring at the front of the lens, which is marked in both feet and meters. Apertures from f/2.8 through f/22 are marked, but there are no detents so it’s infinitely variable. There are depth-of-field guide marks on the front of the aperture ring where they align with the focus distance scale.

The cold shoe on top of the camera hides the flash bulb socket on the F variant, and flips up when you slide a small switch below the viewfinder to the left.

The film rewind knob on the top left features a rudimentary flash calculator on the F model (and a very elegant nothing on the regular model). Turn the dial until the correct film speed is shown in the small window, and the two rings will align to show the correct aperture setting for given distances based on the guide number for standard AG-1 flash bulbs.

Zeiss Ikon Colora F viewfinder
Looking through the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon Colora F. Note the pink cast and not-quite-straight framing guides. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The rewind knob pops up to release the film cassette, and the back of the camera is opened by pulling up a small tab on the left side of the body. The take-up spool release button is on the top cover next to the accessory shoe, and must be held down while rewinding.

The frame counter, located on the bottom plate, counts down and does not reset automatically. When loading film, turn the frame counter to the diamond mark if you are loading a 36-exposure roll; for 20-exposure rolls, set it to the 22 mark. The owner’s manual does not cover 24-exposure rolls, but it follows that you would set the counter to the 26 mark when loading one. You could also just ignore the frame counter and shoot until the film advance offers resistance, which is my standard operating procedure (so I didn’t know about setting the frame counter until I read the manual for this review).

The film advance lever is a piece of stamped metal that is twisted 90 degrees at the end to form a tab. The main portion slides through a slot between the body and the top cover, and the tab lays flat on the back of the camera until pulled. It rotates through an arc of about 180 degrees.

There’s a tripod socket on the bottom of the camera, and it bears its name and that of the manufacturer on its top and front covers, respectively. That’s about it for the tech specs and features — it’s an exceptionally simple camera.

Vespa 400 car
A tiny Vespa 400 automobile in really sad shape. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Shooting the Colora

I posted in March of 2015 that I had added the Colora F to my camera bag for testing.

I remember running through two rolls of film, one color and one black and white, as is my habit. I do not, however, have the foggiest notion what happened to the film. I may have misidentified it as something other than the test rolls for this camera, or it could have just been misplaced — meaning it was probably curled, and might be hiding between the pages of some heavy book that I may or may not still own.

Regardless what happened, I decided to simply repeat the tests this summer, and having done so, get this review out finally. Since I have effectively tested the camera twice, I have two pages of notes — some from the first test and some from the second. Many points overlap, however.

1965 Plymouth Valiant
A 1965 Plymouth Valiant parked in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Overall, I found the Colora F to feel cheaply made — certainly not like other Zeiss Ikon cameras I’ve handled, or other Voigtländers. My expectations were not high as a result.

The three-element Novicar lens is evidently a middling quality model among Zeiss Ikon’s consumer-level lens offerings, although it may have been manufactured by Rodenstock, who evidently built a lot of Zeiss Ikon’s budget-friendly lenses. Consequently they are often well-reviewed, though they are probably uncoated or have only rudimentary lens coatings, and so color performance reviews seem less favorable.

Nevertheless, as you’d expect from Zeiss, the lens is of good overall quality. Barrel distortion is present but minimal, and chromatic aberration seems quite minimal, as well. The lens does tend to soften toward the edges of the frame, but that’s to be expected with a three-element design, and it’s well-restrained on the Novicar. Overall, I’m very pleased with the results of these test photos — the expired color film had more negative impacts than the old, inexpensive camera, I think.

The metal used for the top and bottom plates feels very thin, and they aren’t attached as securely as you might expect. The top cover, on mine at least, feels rather wobbly — it wiggles front to back a bit. It does not appear to be worn, rather just poorly designed and affixed with insufficient screws (in size, quantity, or both), and doesn’t seem to impact its function. The focus ring spins quite freely and is easy to throw off just by moving the camera around, though this may be a symptom of age and exhausted lubricants.

1973 Plymouth Road Runner
A 1973 Plymouth Road Runner in the lovely In Violet purple paint (Plymouth’s name for the same paint Dodge called Plum Crazy — though it was only offered in 1970-71, so this is obviously a custom job), seen in Denver’s Speer neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shutter release’s position on the front of the camera isn’t the most comfortable, and I found it difficult to operate it without camera movement, especially with the camera oriented vertically. It travels a longer distance than you’d expect, and doesn’t travel completely smoothly through that distance. In spite of all that, the required pressure is minimal and it is possible to misjudge the distance at which the shutter actually fires, leading to accidental shutter releases.

The take-up spool in the Colora F is immense — probably 18 or 20 millimeters in diameter. Thanks to the immense mechanical advantage this provides, the film advance lever operates quickly and smoothly, but with so little resistance that it offers no feedback. It doesn’t feel like it’s actually moving the film at all, in fact, which is rather unnerving when you think you’re nearing the end of the roll. The lever itself is not particularly comfortable to use, either, as the gap between the body and the raised edge of the tab is very narrow and I did not find it easy to get a grip on.

The viewfinder feels too long, or too deep. It’s a little like looking through a toy telescope, where you can sense the distance between the front and rear elements. It’s not painted on the inner surfaces, either, so it’s shiny and silver, which often can lead to flare interfering with your view. You have to get your eye really close in to see the brightline framing guides in the viewfinder, as well. Once you’re there, however, the viewfinder is very big and bright (and has a slight pink cast). The brightline guides don’t appear to be quite straight, either, which I think may be a result of the combination of being etched on a curved optical element and the visible internal distance between the elements.

Work truck in alley
Someone’s work truck, which appears to be a 1964-65 Chevrolet, parked off an alley in Denver’s Speer neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The extremely low resistance of the focus ring left me with a number of pictures out of focus, if only by a tiny bit. Those that came out sharp prove the camera is capable of taking a decent picture, though. The out-of-focus areas of the pictures are not particularly pleasing, probably owing to the very basic 4-bladed aperture.

The shutter is very quiet, as you’d expect from a leaf shutter, but having only three available speeds (not counting Bulb) is a limitation, especially with faster modern films (the manual uses ASA 40 as an example of common film speed).

The large take-up spool has big hooks on it that latch onto the sprocket holes in the film and hold on for dear life. When rewinding the film it is more-or-less impossible to completely pull in your film leader since the teeth will not let go. My advice is: don’t try. When you get to the end and meet sudden resistance while rewinding, it’s time to open the back and unhook the leader with your fingers before pulling it into the cassette (if that’s your thing — it is mine).

Power line reflection
Power lines reflected in an alleyway puddle in Denver’s Speer neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As described in the introduction, I found that the pop-up flash holder was constantly opening up when I put the camera in my bag, which might qualify only as an annoyance if the camera had other noteworthy features that overrode it. Sadly, that idiosyncrasy is by far the most memorable thing about the Colora F.

All that said, the Colora F is capable of taking surprisingly good photographs when it is in focus. My findings with color film were not super impressive, though I did use expired Kodak Gold for my tests, and shot a lot of them on a rainy day.

The Colora F is very lightweight in the hand, but somewhat awkwardly shaped. It’s relatively small and a little on the tall side, and the leaf shutter is very quiet. The flash socket is a fairly useless option in this day and age, with AG-1 flash bulbs all-but-extinct and the required 15-volt batteries long since relegated only to dusty memories.

The fairly cumbersome operation of this camera and the comparatively poor optics, not to mention its size, make it a poor competitor for a camera like the Olympus Trip 35 or Konica EE-Matic Deluxe. Except as a short-term plaything, I would avoid this model in the future. As a plaything, it does offer a little bit of fun.

Duality garage
A garage with a split personality in Denver’s Speer neighborhood, just off Alameda Avenue. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Inspiration Point Park
The walking path winds between native pine trees, red sandstone rocks, and prairie grasses in Denver’s Inspiration Point Park. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Speer neighborhood garage doors
A pair of redwood garage doors on a brick garage in Denver’s Speer neighborhood. You can see the very slight barrel distortion in the gutter along the top of the building. (Daniel J Schneider)
Review Summary
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Zeiss Ikon Colora F camera
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