Three film cameras; ten rolls of film. That’s what I packed for a recent week away. Among these cameras was the Contax T, an unbelievably compact 35mm film rangefinder that somehow marries luxurious excess to simple practicality and impressive performance. By the end of the week, the Contax had claimed seven of those ten rolls of film and solidified its place in my mind as the ultimate traveling camera. It’s also one of the best 35mm cameras I’ve used all year.
The Contax T debuted in 1984 and was jointly designed by Yashica, Carl Zeiss, and the Porsche Design Group. It was manufactured in Japan by Kyocera (the first camera produced by that brand under license from Zeiss), and all indications point to a real desire by all parties involved to begin this partnership with a bang. The camera used nothing but the finest materials, showcased simple and effective technology, and produced images through the finest optics seen fitted to a camera of its type. It was an instant hit within the photo world and was gobbled up by those who could afford it. For shooter’s whose budgets precluded ownership, it long remained a covetous object. Today, it’s just as special and, happily, far more obtainable.
It’s a solid, weighty machine, the skeleton of which is an aluminum chassis, wrapped in a skin of titanium. The lens barrel, including focus and aperture rings, is made of metal, as is the manual film advance lever and the lens door and film gate. There’s a rubberized grip, front and rear, made of a material that seems to have avoided the deterioration so prevalent in the rubber grips of many classic cameras. The shutter release is (somewhat ridiculously) made of synthetic ruby, a flourish provided by Kyocera’s Advanced Ceramics group (who you may know, depending on your other hobbies, for their cutlery).
Film is exposed via a leaf shutter mounted behind the lens, capable of speeds from 1/500th of a second down to 8 seconds, which works fine in all shooting situations when coupled with the right film for the available light. This shutter is timed via a quartz crystal auto-exposure system (as seen in other Contax cameras) operating in aperture-priority mode only. Set the seven-bladed aperture, manually focus, and shoot; the camera handles the rest. There’s a self-timer, ISO selector, frame counter, +1.5 exposure compensation button, and a manual film rewind mechanism. And as far as controls, that’s all you get. If this spec sheet seems sparse, that’s because it is. There’s no parallax correction in the 0.75X viewfinder, only a basic LED display, no auto-exposure lock, no manual shooting mode, no autofocus, no built-in flash (there’s an accessory flash that nearly doubles the camera’s size and is made out of plastic).
But don’t confuse this sparsity of doodads for a failing – the camera is about as far from ineffective as possible. What we’re seeing with the T’s concise feature set is actually the hallmark of impeccable design; that is, the stripping away of all that is unnecessary in pursuit of pure excellence. The component parts of the camera are built to a standard of quality that defies comparison, tolerances are amazingly tight, and the tech contained within is nearly foolproof. The Contax T gives us everything we need to make amazing photos in the simplest, and smallest of forms. Its few functions live in balance with one another, resulting in a camera that’s simple to use, and incredibly effective.
The retractable Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens is a revelation, and it’s this glass that really elevates the camera to rarefied heights. The five elements in four groups 38mm lens produces incredibly sharp, virtually distortion-free images with zero light falloff and incredible clarity. The T* multicoated glass effectively mitigates optical aberrations and promotes exceptional color rendition and contrast. Though the relatively slow maximum aperture of F/2.8 coupled with the wide-standard focal length doesn’t encourage subject isolation or bokeh, and the somewhat long minimum focus distance of one meter (three feet) can be a bit standoffish, the payoff of shooting one of the best “F/8 and be there” cameras ever made makes these shortfalls easy to ignore. As a zone-focus lens, this thing shines.
And this is no happy accident; this methodology was intended by its designers. This is evidenced by the scale focus markings on the lens barrel (and the helpful tip in the user’s manual). The aperture ring shows a green “8” while the focus ring shows a green dot flanked to left and right by green lines. These indicators hint at what is the Contax T’s not-so-hidden talent. It’s a manual focus camera that’s faster than AF.
To unlock this secret potential and convince everyone you’re the fastest shooter east (or west) of the Mississippi, set the aperture to the green F/8 marker, set the focus ring to the green dot, and never touch them again. With these settings, everything from infinity to approximately 1.7 meters away will be in sharp focus. It’s incredible, it works, and it makes this camera, for a traveler or street photographer, one of the simplest and most effective photographic tools available. And that amazing lens and the camera’s faultless metering system mean we don’t even have to think or worry about our exposure, beyond occasionally noticing when we should hold the +1.5 exposure comp button when shooting at a backlit subject. Easy enough.
I spent the better part of the week shooting with the camera locked to these settings, only occasionally shooting wide open in low light or focusing with the rangefinder patch (which is bright and vivid) and the sheer freedom of process was a welcome relief. For the most part, I wasn’t looking at the camera, manually focusing, or worrying about exposure. I was, instead, watching my daughters’ faces react to meeting Tinkerbell, or snapping a one-handed shot while holding a Mickey Mouse pretzel in the other. I was grabbing shots of a flying elephant from atop another flying elephant, while holding onto a wriggling infant. Any of these shots simply wouldn’t have been possible with any other of the cameras I brought on the trip. And beyond ergonomics, I wouldn’t be making those shots with any other camera because, frankly, the other cameras I brought were too big and heavy to carry for a full day of Walt Disney Worlding (which could and should be an Olympic event).
Though I’ve hinted at it plenty, let’s just say it explicitly – the Contax excels over so many other cameras not just because it makes objectively excellent images, but because it does this while retaining an impossibly tiny form. At an absurd 9.6 ounces (that’s just over half a pound), the T is a truly pocketable camera that won’t weigh you down. It’s also dimensionally small enough to fit into a pocket and be forgotten until it’s needed. It’ll fit in any bag, in the pacifier compartment of a baby’s stroller, in a cupholder – anywhere you’d put a wallet, really. It’s the smallest camera I own, and to have this kind of portability without sacrificing image quality is simply amazing.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, let’s take a step back. Not all is perfect with this camera. For one, the metering system only works with film up to ISO 1000. This could be seen as limiting for shooters who may like using faster film, such as Fuji’s Superia 1600, but it’s not such a big deal. The high exposure latitude of film these days means that shooting 1600 speed film at 1000 ISO will simply lead to better photos due to the extra two-thirds stop of light (today’s film loves light). Additionally troublesome is the simple fact that the focus and aperture rings don’t encourage actuation; they’re small, stacked closely together, and defy adjustment with their lack of tabs. When shot as intended (F/8 and be there), this isn’t a problem, but the clumsy lens controls do annoy when we need to precisely focus with the rangefinder and shoot wide open. It’s also an electronic camera, reliant on battery power to fire the shutter. This doesn’t bother me, because I’m not insane, but if it goes unmentioned there will certainly complaints in the comments (we love you guys, even the nitpickers among you).
But the few minor things that the Contax T gets wrong all occur so far on the periphery of the camera’s usual photographic process that they don’t detract from the overall package. No camera is perfect. The T comes closer than most.
When first released in the 1980s, the T commanded an MSRP of over $1,000. Today, they can be found in perfect condition for around $350. This is a fantastic value brought to you by the horrific and inexorable march of unrelenting Time (the same wretched force that brings us random aches and failing vision). Hey, at least it’s good for something.
As with all classic cameras (especially those with electronic guts), hunt out an example that’s in great condition from a reputable seller. It’s the best way to ensure you’ll get the most from your T. Shops that specialize in classic cameras or known friends from within the hobby are the best places to find these things. Not eBay; not a Craigslist seller offloading dear old dead Grandad’s collection. There’s no point in risking bad electronics, or a camera that’s been dropped or dunked in order to save a hundred bucks. Just don’t do it.
And that’s about all you need to know about the Contax T. If you’re a street photographer or traveler, there are very few cameras better than this. Even compared to Contax’s later autofocus T2 and T3, the T may be the better camera. Its scale focus methodology makes it the faster camera for snapshots and candids. It’s smaller than most other compacts, offers true rangefinder focusing when precision is required, and costs quite a bit less than much of its competition. And if all that isn’t enough, I’ve got four words for you – synthetic, ruby, shutter release.