What does a film camera look like? A silver metal body and black leatherette? Imagine a manual-focus lens shift on smooth machine oil to the sound of an audible click as the mirror flashes open. The tool of a professional with an eye for the decisive moment. This is all true, but swap out the retro aesthetic for a sleek, black, modern camera powered by the miracle of micro circuitry. At the apex of the film era, the badge across the prism housing reads clear in white lettering: “CONTAX.”
I feel like a lot of today’s photographers aren’t aware of Contax as a brand, except maybe for their legendary line of compact cameras such as the T2, which is ubiquitous with NYC and Hong Kong street photographers. Contax started out in the 1930s as a series of rangefinder cameras made by Zeiss. It returned in 1975 as the name of a sub-brand of Yashica cameras, specifically designed in partnership with Carl Zeiss. Though Contax cameras share the same bayonet mount as Yashica lenses (It is often referred to as the Y/C or Yashica/Contax mount), the glass that Contax cameras were designed to use is a step above the rest.
The styling of most Contax Cameras was born out of the 80s and 90s. Their design is more modern than their contemporaries made by Canon or Nikon, forgoing leatherette in favor of soft touch rubber. A word of warning if you’re looking to buy one of these cameras. The greatest enemy to the would-be buyer is rubber-reversal. Double check with the seller that the rubber hasn’t turned gummy with age. Inside however, they’re solid.
Contax was top of the line then, and it still holds up now. As such, they do command a higher price tag than you might be expecting for such an old camera. However, that price tends to vary depending on rarity rather than ability. While there are some throwback Contax models with vintage aesthetics that were limited editions and go for nearly a thousand dollars, my 167MT with a 50mm F/1.7 lens cost me a cool $150 (and the rubber was still in good shape!). In general, if the model was popular and had mass-market appeal, the prices will remain reasonable. This is part of why the compact Contax cameras are so expensive. The market for premium point and shoot film cameras simply wasn’t as big.With my 167MT, I picked up a Zeiss Tessar 35mm F/2.8 for about $130, alongside a Contax-to-Sony E mount adapter (more about that later).
When shooting my Contax lenses with film, I find it best to load up some very fine grain stock to get the full effect of the sharpness of the lens. Doing so has revealed wonderful color reproduction and a delicate and lovely depth of field. The experience of taking those shots isn’t always perfect however. My 167MT has a substantial weight to it, but it lacks the sure feeling of a truly mechanical camera. Firmly in the age of the circuit board, all the systems on my 167MT are electronic. While this does mean that the camera conveniently runs on AAA batteries and has a whole host of advanced exposure options such as spot metering and continuous shooting modes, the trade-off is an auto winder that could be prone to breaking (I’ve never trusted those things), and a very chintzy sounding electronic shutter. A shutter capable of 1/4000 of a second, but a very delicate sounding shutter nonetheless.
The other issue with the 167MT is the physical controls. This probably has done the most to keep the cost of the 167MT down as opposed to those with traditional dials. The 167MT uses a really strange button and slider switch mode of operation which is dependent on reading a small LCD display on the left of the camera body. This is how you select mode, shutter speed, and ISO. The right-hand dial is only used for selecting exposure compensation, automatic continuous exposure, and automatic bracketing control. At least for me, I find it a little frustrating that so much real estate on the camera body is taken up by features that I never use.
One final note about some Contax camera models is that there is a programmable auto mode that will set both shutter speed and aperture. All you have to do is focus the camera. This programmable auto mode gives you the choice between high-speed program, program, and low-speed program. The presence of this feature is signified on lenses by a green number at high end of the f-stop range. On eBay only some sellers are aware of this distinction, so it will be up to you to double check. These green labeled lenses are newer and some resources I’ve read claim that the coatings of these later lenses were improved by Zeiss. The price wasn’t very different, so I sprung for all green lenses, and as such I can’t make any direct comparisons to their normal counterparts. Just be warned that if you want to use these programmable auto settings, you need to have a camera body capable of it in conjunction with green labeled lens. I believe the 167MT was the first, so all other Contax bodies after that should have the feature.
To be honest, the 167 MT is far from my favorite camera to shoot with. The convenience of the batteries is a plus, but the delicate electronics of the camera never really give me confidence. Because of the electric shutter, the sound the camera makes when firing is always the same. With my Minolta SRT201, I can feel the film with the winder moving, and I can hear the shutter speeds to know that they are functioning as I expect them to. If something goes wrong with my Contax, I’d probably never find out until the roll came back. I also feel that the camera does TOO much. There are so many extra functions that populate the various buttons that you need to memorize your way around these to get the shot you want when not using them. I always move slower with my Contax, and my photographic thought process feels sluggish as a result. With my Minolta, I don’t have to think at all. The camera feels like an extension of me rather than a complicated clock-like tool I’m babying around.
This leads me to the REAL reason you might want to invest in a Contax system. If you still want to shoot with Zeiss glass without paying Sony’s modern-day exuberant prices, this is the best way to do it. I shoot on a first-generation Sony a7 and it works great with adapted Contax lenses. The sharpness I’ve gotten out of them is much better than what I can achieve with my beloved Minolta lenses on similar adapters. They’re not great for video without a tripod because of the lack of stabilization, but for stills I love them. At literally a 10th the price of modern Zeiss glass, they’re a fantastic deal. That being said, if you are looking for one of the rarer Contax lenses with zoom or extremely wide apertures, be prepared to pay a few hundred more to import one from Japan.
I know this review was less about the ethos of the camera than what I normally write, but I think that really is an honest reflection of the camera itself. These Contax lenses and bodies are technically perfect, but they can feel a little soulless at times. I think I feel a closer connection to my equipment when I shoot with my Minolta, but if I really want sharpness, I have to go with the Ziess Tessars. But I must say, the operational quirks of the camera body are something that I have really had to learn to love. However, for the pinnacle of technical brilliance at the end of the age of film, look no further than Contax.