I’ve waited long enough to speak. We’ve broken up, it’s over. The romance was hot and quick. A flash in the pan. It’s time to do a review on the Contax G2. If I could anthropomorphize the G2, it’s an unapologetically awkward, runway-gorgeous genius. The Contax
excels conquers in every way that matters, and falls criminally short in a few ways that are easy to overlook if you’re in the right mindset.
After the untimely death of my beloved GA645 I spent some time fooling around with point and shoots, some old box cameras and the like. When it was time to get to work again I decided on a Contax. The G2 kit came from a chap on RFF, the last true ivory tower of internet-forum rangefinder-camera snobbery. It cost around $1100 Canadian for the body, 28mm Biogon, 45mm Planar and 90mm Sonnar, hoods, bags and all that stuff. I rounded out the kit with a mint TLA200 from Japan. Champagne instead of the black due to a 40% price difference. For the same camera. Who cares? Lots of people pay extra for a black setup and then tape over the high-contrast nameplate and logos. Not this kid. I sorta like that it looks like your grandma’s Bell & Howell. Wanna go shoot?
Starting with the body, the Contax is a winner. It’s titanium sheathed, solid and all-business. Very little on this camera is superfluous, and all the switch-gear has a perfect amount of feedback in operation. Built-in motor drive, AF and a small LCD on the top panel round out the features list. The lenses attach with a satisfying clunk. There is no wiggle in the lens mount, feeling more like a well-made pump-action shotgun than any camera I’ve used before or since. The G is a camera that’s a joy to own and handle before you even add film. All automated actions performed by the G are quick, precise and are accompanied by the most pleasant motor noises possible. The focus and advance motors sound like superbly damped dental drills.
The dark side of this machine happens to be the viewfinder. It’s lovely, contrasty, changes magnification with lenses, just the right amount of information presented to the user. If only it was 50% larger though, right? Of course would compromise the rest of the design and feel of the camera as well. I understand that sacrifices must be made and that good design is always on a high wire. Truly, if you’ve shot anything less than professional level bodies with 100% coverage finders, you’ll be happy as a clam with the finder in the G2.
When I first used it, I admit to being crestfallen. My coveted object was fundamentally crippled in a way that was unforgivable. Then, as I adapted to the camera’s other quirks and got it set up the way I was familiar with using on the Canon 1-series bodies (CF4, baby!) the finder suddenly became what it was designed to be: a framing apparatus.
When you consider that this camera does not need your input beyond composition, the finder makes absolute sense. The finder is there to make sure you have the camera pointed in the right direction, and gives you a reticle to let you know
exactly sort of where it will be placing the razor sharp plane of focus from the Zeiss lenses. There’s no DOF preview to worry about, no critical focus patch to wring hands over. So what’s the big deal?
Many reviews compare the G to any one of the Leicas you can buy on the used market. I’m not sure thats a fair comparison. Aside from the finder and motorized operation, the G2 is every bit as well built and (in my opinion) better to use. If the Leica didn’t need that big tasty rangefinder to ensure focus, wouldn’t it just be taking up space? The lenses are what matter and these lenses are as good as any produced for 135 format. Ever, by any maker.
But Matthew, I’ve read about how terrible the autofocus is. The internet tells me the camera is probably unusable and that I’m a filthy cretin for considering it in the first place. They just never know where the camera is focusing! Help!
Don’t be a dork. Learn how the AF system works and exploit it. The AF is snappy, accurate and hunts very little. It’s got a single AF spot, how hard is this for people to understand? It’s the same gripe you read over and over about the brilliant Fuji GA645 and its kin. Just because you don’t care enough to learn how a camera without 256 AF zones works, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to slow down for you to catch up.
Centre focus, recompose, relocate. Victory!
28mm F2.8 Biogon
The Biogon is easily the most clinical and sharpest 28mm I’ve ever used. Any format, any brand. Distortion is minimal, the photos are clean, clear and so very sharp. Usually stored on the camera, so good.
45mm F2.0 Planar
It’s the perfect normal lens. Again, super clinical, perfect colour rendition, zero distortion and no flare. Weirdly, I used this lens the least of the three. People rattle on about 3D rendering and colours that pop, but most of the prints from the Planar felt like you could dip your fingers into them. It made images that looked real.
90mm F2.8 Sonnar
This dark-horse was probably my favourite lens in the trio, contrary to most of the loud opinions on the internet. The focal length is very usable, the AF was quick and accurate, and the portraits from the Sonnar are gorgeous. Transition from focus to blur is perfect, and the lens is just sharp enough wide open to flatter your subject. Of course like the rest of the Zeiss lenses in this series, even moving down half a stop from wide open gives you an optical scalpel. This 90 deserves all the praise heaped on any other Zeiss Sonnar formula lens available.
I’ve been using words like Clinical and Scalpel in this review, and I think that’s a fair assessment. These lenses are more like scientific tools than soft, artists’ playthings. Like any other precision instrument, this system rewards preparation, efficient use and accuracy. It’s not for the touchy-feely plastic-flare camera crowd. It just doesn’t exist in that world. It’s stereotypically bushido.
Flash integration is perfect. The TLA200 is simple, quick to recycle and the only time I blew flash balance was when I metered incorrectly. Sure, you need to use CR lithium batteries for both the camera and flash. But at least they’re all the same size, cheap and available at any corner store. Worst case scenario, you rob the flash if the camera dies and push the rest of the film.
So I’ve extolled the virtues of the Contax G2. It is a very good casual camera, quick and packing a lot of heat in a tight package. But it doesn’t look the part, has a limited range of lenses available and was laughably expensive when new. So it would be easy to write this off as a well-to-do amateur’s plaything, right?
I was able to use the Contax to cover a wedding ceremony. It was the last job I accepted before hanging it up as a pro. The Contax offered one of the smoothest, most discrete and relaxed experiences I’ve had in a decade of shooting weddings, both digital and film.
One body with a 28 Biogon (or the 35mm F2.0 Planar) and another with the 90 Sonnar would be well-nigh unbeatable for wedding work. I’m ashamed I wasn’t using a G for all the years I worshipped blindly at the altar of Canon EF. Contax G was the one that got away.
The patient monster lurking under the bed of every Contax owner though, is electronics. Contax is no longer a solvent company, and these machines (though superbly made) are extremely complex. There will come a day when each and every Contax G will simply refuse to complete its mandate, leaving a heartbroken owner in its wake. This is partly why I chose to break up with the system prematurely, also the siren song of 120 wafting from the fridge.
I’ve also successfully resisted the lusty call of the G’s cousin, the Hexar RF and the modern, excellent Zeiss Ikon and ZM lenses. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, I’ve played the long game and invested my time and modest budget into medium format and mechanical cameras.