Contax G2 Camera Review – The Anti-Rangefinder That’s in a Class of Its Own

The Contax G2 is like no other rangefinder on Earth. In fact, its technological ethos employs certain tricks that are outright heresy to diehard fans of the classic rangefinder; it runs on batteries, its manual focus mode is terrible, and its viewfinder lacks frame lines and a focusing patch. But in spite of these radical departures from the classic formula (or rather, because of them) the Contax G2 is one of the most impressive rangefinders in the world, and one of the best 35mm film cameras ever made.

I never planned to own a Contax G2. The cost of entry, coupled with a misplaced belief in the internet myth that they’re prone to breaking and utterly unfixable in such an event had me regarding them with a cocked eyebrow and a shrug. But when my pal at the local camera shop dangled one from behind the counter and offered a potent discount, I couldn’t resist. Rather suddenly, I was shooting a G2.

Since then, it’s become the camera I’ve owned for the longest span of time. As other masterful machines come and go, the G2 stays. I can’t seem to part with it, and I use it whenever I want guaranteed results. As with some other cameras we’ve covered in the past, the G2 is almost like cheating. Point it, shoot it, and as long as you understand and employ a basic knowledge of the things that make a photograph decent, you’ve made an excellent shot.

But the G2 isn’t just a good camera that’s capable of making good photos. To stop there would be an undersell. The G2 is much more than that.

A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is a good camera. Like the Contax, as long as the shooter knows how to make good photos, the Canon 5D will make good photos. But when talking about what elevates a camera from a good camera to a truly special camera, the ability to make a good photograph is almost beside the point. Plenty of cameras can make good photos. Not all of good cameras are worth shooting.

The real reason we shoot classic cameras (and likely the reason you read this site’s content, own seventeen cameras, and love film) isn’t just to make good photos. It’s to experience a fantastic machine while making good photos. And the Contax G2 is very near to the essence of what makes a camera a fantastic machine.

To start, it’s gorgeous. The titanium body was produced in three finishes (champagne, black paint, and black chrome), and in any of the three it cuts a figure. Like all of the best designs, things are kept simple and details are well-managed. The body eschews superfluous flair, adhering to a more business-like identity. There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be here, and where edges could be beveled or shaved, they have been.

Could it be sharper, more angular? Absolutely, and if it were I’d only love it more. But given the camera’s 1995 release date, we should all be happy it’s not sporting a couple of plastic hood scoops and ground effects. What’s here is, essentially, a streamlined brick.

Build quality is fantastic. Though it may be a bit too heavy for some users, it retains a compact form factor (about the same size and weight as a Leica M) and feels dense and solid. The cool touch of titanium gives the shooter confidence that we’re holding an actual machine, and the fine knurling of its metal dials, deliberate clicks of its controls as they settle into their detents, and the rapid precision of its moving parts only reinforce this belief.

Not just a feast for the eyes and the hands, the noises this camera makes are equally intoxicating. The whirr of its four-frames-per-second automatic film advance, the thwick of its incredibly quiet shutter, and the bzzz of its speedy auto-focus motor are as appealing to the ears as any camera noise has any right to be.

Its ergonomics are deliberate and intuitive. The top plate, at first appearing simple, is loaded with controls. More notably, these controls are arranged in a most intelligent way, with secondary adjusters positioned near or within other adjusters. This burying of secondary controls results in a design that’s deceptively simple, yet immediately accessible for shooters doing more acrobatic photography.

For example, the large exposure compensation dial (which thankfully foregoes any annoying locking system) is found right where it needs to be, and will see heavy use when we’re shooting in the camera’s aperture-priority auto-exposure mode. But hidden under this dial is the camera’s automatic bracketing switch, a useful but far less-often-used control. The AEL is incorporated into the On/Off switch. Focusing controls are relegated to a perfectly positioned button on the back of the camera, a button which naturally rests under the shooter’s thumb and which not only allows focusing, but also toggles focusing method between single, continuous, and manual focus modes. The manual focusing wheel lands under the middle finger of the holding hand, allowing one-handed focus and shutter release.

This one-handed methodology isn’t complete; aperture controls are strictly handled via a classic manual ring around the barrel of G mount lenses. Still, compared to other rangefinders, the G2 is among the most modern in control implementation, making it as fast and easy-to-use as the best DSLRs.

This modernization of the rangefinder formula extends to the camera’s decidedly non-rangefinder-ish viewfinder. In the past, rangefinder viewfinders were extremely limited. Even as technology progressed, the rangefinder viewfinder lagged behind, creating an environment in which a rangefinder fan needed to choose which camera he wanted to use based on the lenses he was likely to shoot. And even when a buyer deliberately chose Camera X because it had the best viewfinder for, say, 50mm lenses, that shooter would be compromising anytime a non-50mm lens was fitted to the machine.

Be honest; frame-lines are dumb. Let’s stop dressing them up with claims that they allow us to compose easier, or that somehow the wasted space is a good thing. Shoot a 90mm lens on a Minolta CLE and tell me the rangefinder viewfinder isn’t fundamentally flawed.

The G2 essentially reinvents the rangefinder viewfinder and brings it into the modern age, or more accurately, it updates the rangefinder viewfinder to a level of capability that SLR shooters have enjoyed for more than half a century. Fit a 28mm lens and the viewfinder immediately changes to show the world as seen through the viewing angle of a 28mm lens. Fit the Vario-Sonnar zoom and we’re able to immediately see the changes in framing as we zoom from 35mm to 70mm, and at every increment between. The viewfinder also automatically compensates for parallax error for close focusing, and features a diopter adjustment.

In addition to this optical wizardry, we’re treated to nearly all the information we could ever ask for. There’s a backlit LCD display in the bottom of the frame that shows the manually- or automatically-selected shutter speed, a light reading in manual mode with suggested adjustment arrows, exposure compensation status, a digital focus indicator when using auto-focus and an analog-style focusing scale when using manual focus, and the whole LCD display flashes to show when a photo’s been shot (useful in noisy situations). The only thing missing is a readout of the selected aperture, the inclusion of which would have made this viewfinder effectively perfect.

In use there’s very little to complain about. With the Contax G2, things happen instantly. It knows what you want to do, and it does it. Half press the shutter release and it focuses. There’s virtually no hunting or waffling, even in low light (though shooters should expect longer lenses, like the 90mm Sonnar, to take a bit longer than the 45mm or 28mm). It might miss one or two frames out of 36, sure; autofocus technology is imperfect, even in 2018. The G2 is from 1995 and performs like a camera made 20 years later. Not bad.

For the first year of G2 ownership, my daughter was pretty slow. But now that she’s three years old and running faster than Sonic the Hedgehog, the G2 still nails the shot. Even in a beachside photo shoot with heavy backlighting, the G2 picked her out with the same frequency of missteps as experienced with my Sony a7.  Once focus is locked, full-press the shutter release and the shutter fires with eagerness; no lag.

These are marked improvements over the earlier G1, which had serious auto-focus trouble due to its reliance on a single phase-detection focusing system. The G2 uses this same system, but also incorporates a second, active infrared triangulation system. These two focusing systems work in conjunction to provide a really capable auto-focusing system. Especially impressive when considering the camera’s birth-year.

When we switch to manual focus, things aren’t as pleasant, and this is the only measure by which the G2 is bested by classic rangefinders. Manual focus is controlled via a wheel on the front of the camera. While rotating the wheel to the right or left we’re given a visual indication on the LCD display in the viewfinder that allows us to focus on our subject. When the LCD display shows a centered position, the center of our frame is in focus. A focus distance is also displayed in the top panels LCD display, which creates a kind of digital scale focusing methodology that could be useful for waist-level or street shooting. But this electronic focusing method feels altogether lackluster and pointless, especially when compared to the delicately weighted focus action of classic rangefinder lenses, and especially when weighed against the effectiveness of the G2’s auto-focus system. With AF so good, why use manual?

The camera’s exposure system is exceptional and will not disappoint in even the most challenging light. It uses a through-the-lens, low-center-weighted meter that will be immediately comfortable for users who’ve shot any kind of DSLR or mirrorless camera (or any relatively modern film SLR). Metering off the grey shutter curtain, the camera calculates exposures as fast as 1/6000th of a second (in AE) and as slow as 16 seconds. With this versatility, exposures are always correct. Even mindless shooting in aperture-priority auto-exposure will yield an impressive hit rate. And shooters who understand how to meter with a half-press and recompose, or those who understand how exposure compensation works, should get 36 perfect frames per 36-exposure roll of film.

These exposures happen though a suite of Carl Zeiss T* lenses that are among the best ever made. In fact, the standard 45mm Planar was for a time the world’s highest-rated standard focal length lens in certain publications, and Zeiss fans won’t let anyone forget it. And though the constant repetition of this accolade can get annoying, I can’t argue; in my time with the 45mm, it’s helped me make some of the best photos I’ve ever made. Impeccably sharp with zero distortion, incredible contrast and color rendition, and decent bokeh when shot close and wide open, it really is the most effortless and usable lens I own.

And the extreme quality found in the Planar 45mm extends throughout the entire range of G mount lenses, a range that’s concise and focused. With just seven lenses total (six primes and one zoom), it’s easy (albeit pricey) to own every one of the amazing lenses made for the G2. The intelligent choices in offered focal lengths results in a system that’s essentially perfect for any photographer.

Want to shoot an ultra-wide? You can do that with the 16mm Hologon. Portraits? Get the 90mm Sonnar. Since choice is limited and each lens is a masterful Zeiss creation, there’s no worrying about whether you’re buying the best lens for the job. Pick your focal length, and (if you’ve got the money) you’ve got a world-class lens for a world-class camera.

The conversation surrounding the G2, when not filled with repetitive misinformation from people who’ve never held one, often centers around pedantic bickering over whether or not it’s an actual rangefinder. I struggle to think of a question with less relevance. Is it a rangefinder? Yes; the camera’s internal workings make it, objectively, a rangefinder. Does it feel like a rangefinder? Not really. And for me, that’s a good thing.

The Contax G2 is what a modern rangefinder should be. Fast, accurate, incredibly capable; it’s the advanced rangefinder Leica should have made, but never did. It pulls all the assets of the rangefinder (sharper lenses, less internal movement, compact size) together with the strengths of the SLR (incredible viewfinder and excellent auto-focus) to create a kind of super-camera; a camera in a class of its own.

If this sounds like your kind of machine, buy one. Just don’t ask to buy mine. It’s not for sale.

Want your own G2?

Buy it on eBay

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    mpve
    January 19, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Nice review. But as a former owner (2002 – 2016) I like to add a few things:
    Firstly it really is a nice camera. And it really is and handles as nice as the review states. It also (indeed) oozes quality. When I first bought one (brand new) I was delighted with its look and feel. Everything just felt so good, so solid. The camera really tells you: “hey buddy, if pictures made with me are not any good it is your fault, not mine”. And that is a really good thing.

    But start shooting it for a longer time and you notice a couple of quirks. And they get more annoying with time. Quirks such as:
    Autofocus does not really work well against the light. And since the manual alternative uses the same sensors/method there is no way you can avoid problems.
    The viewfinder may be SLR like (as the review says) it definitely is not as big and bright as an SLR viewfinder. And this lets the camera down, reduces its appeal for a shooter vs. a collector.
    The autofocus feedback is not reliable. You cannot rely on a shot when pressing the shutter. Except when you use the pre-focus button.
    Finally: after prolonged shooting the end result of the above quirks is that your confidence in the camera is eroded. The camera is not an extension of your hands (like my OM-1 is, in example). The camera gets in the way.

    I sold it when the viewfinder window frame was lost during a shooting. And as the reviewer says: if the camera gets one problem, it is irrepairable.

    Buy this camera if you like beautiful cameras. Do not buy it if you are a shooter. Is my advice…

    • Reply
      Duccio
      January 20, 2018 at 12:50 pm

      I just wanted to mention that you can still order replacement eyefinder frames from Nippon Photoclinic (I did… twice).

    • Reply
      rollbahn
      January 23, 2018 at 6:30 pm

      Agreed – I have owned and sold the G1 and G2 series about 5 times as I love them and hate them at the same time so I keep selling and then buying them again. The lenses are superb and the camera is a delight to use in almost every way – a G3 seemingly would have been the perfect camera.

      However, as good as the AF is, it does miss and never inspired me with confidence. I always focus and recompose and using the back AF button works really well but you always miss a few shots and not having a visual indication of nailing the focus feels a little unnerving especially if you’re travelling and needing to get the shot.

      The viewfinder is very clever but it is a bit like looking down a very long tunnel after a while and in some situations it can be difficult to see especially in bright light.

      In the end I went back to my Hexar RF which gives me all the good bits of the Contax G2 (and many of the parts look the same on both cameras) but allows me to focus manually and nail it every time.

      I keep a G1 on the shelf just to stop me getting the urge to buy this system again 🙂

  • Reply
    timberedplum
    January 19, 2018 at 8:08 am

    All that and only 5 sample images? :\ Seems this reviewer might like the camera more than shooting it….

  • Reply
    eggsovereasy
    January 19, 2018 at 10:09 am

    People keep saying the G2 isn’t fixable but Nippon Photoclinic in NYC still fixes them. Mine was acting up and I sent it to them, they replaced some control board and it works great now.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      January 19, 2018 at 10:51 am

      Totally with you on this. I called the idea that they can’t be fixed an “internet myth” in the second paragraph of this review, hoping to dispel it a little bit. In the lead up to writing this piece, I contacted the two repair shops I use and they both said “no problem” when I asked if they would work on the G2. It’s a myth, people. Everything can be fixed.

  • Reply
    Michael
    January 19, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    I saw one on the flea market. It was Champagne, body only. It was sitting among 20 other cameras and yet was eye-catching. G2 was for sale for “mere” 150$. Way beyond my budget. Another time I saw something like that was coincidentally Contax I, for 1000$. And I’m not even a fan of German cameras, in spite of owning Contax II.

  • Reply
    Cory
    January 19, 2018 at 1:53 pm

    I owned one and sold it. The lenses really are magic and combined with the meter, perfect images result MOST of the time. Flash photography doesn’t get much easier than a g2 with a tla200

    That being said, I never trusted the autofocus. Shots I was certain I had the focus point on what I wanted sharp turned out blurry because the camera defaulted to infinity. Manual focus seemed like an afterthought Contax put on the camera to appeal to more traditional photogs: not useable in practical terms. The zooming viewfinder sans framelines gets rid of any true rangefinder advantages and provides an awkward pseudo-slr experience. The bulky Eyepiece dug into my side when carried on a strap cross-body which is how I prefer to carry a camera.

    A technical marvel with world-class optics, yes. A camera to replace my daily shooters, no.

    Just my opinion. I know and appreciate many people consider this the perfect camera which is why I sold mine to someone does.

  • Reply
    Callum
    January 19, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    ‘Fit a 28mm lens and the viewfinder immediately changes to show the world as seen through the viewing angle of a 28mm lens. Fit the Vario-Sonnar zoom and we’re able to immediately see the changes in framing as we zoom from 35mm to 70mm, and at every increment between.’

    I never understood why no other rangefinder could do this, or at least let you ‘zoom’ the viewfinder in set increments to match whatever lens you have attached. Even point and shoots like the Olympus Mju Zooms do this over a massive zoom range. I can’t imagine the basic technology (a few movable lens elements, albeit very small) is particularly complex, although I admit the electronics must complicate things exponentially.

  • Reply
    Huss Hardan
    January 19, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    The thing I didn’t like about the G1 and G2 is that you have to trust the camera that the subject is in focus. It’s the worst not best of both worlds of SLR viewfinders and ‘real’ rf viewfinders. With SLRs, you can get a feel if the AF worked/is correct because the entire viewfinder will show focus on it’s matte screen. With ‘real’ rfs, you will know if focus is correct because the rf patch will show it. The G1/G2 removes the rf patch, and removes the SLR type focus screen. So you only know if you nailed focus when you get your film back. In that way it behaves like a giant P&S camera.

    By the way, I found the manual focus override very useful for zone focusing. That way you can nail your shots w/o having to get the af pointer on the right spot.
    And the lenses? Awesome.

  • Reply
    Scott Edwards
    January 19, 2018 at 10:31 pm

    Really fun and nice review – along with your “best” images post. 🙂 Feels good…even better on a Friday.

  • Reply
    Jonathan Fung
    January 20, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    Hello, nice review done on the camera!
    I had one of these for almost three years (2012-2015) and absolutely adored it. Sadly it got stolen in Vienna, now I just own a G1 as an alternative.
    The lens are true gems, but the bodies are quite tricky.
    My first G1 body is very unreliable with autofocus, only 60-70% of the shots I had are accurate, however my G2 and second G1 have less of this issue, only missing ~5% of the shots. I guess the quality control of Kyocera is not the best during its time, and maybe that’s one of the reasons causing its downfall.
    The G2 is really a remarkable machine, every shot taken with it is enjoyable and satisfying. Hold on to one while it’s still working!

  • Reply
    scenethroughthelensblog
    January 23, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    I really loved my G2 Millennium kit when I had it for about a year or so. I took the camera through Vietnam and the 28 and 45 in particular helped me shoot some of my favourite photos. The autofocus would sometimes fail to lock in bright light, but this only happened rarely.

    The full kit with 45 28, 90 flash and body in black cost me more than £1800, and I was scared that the body would die on me and my investment would turn into a brick overnight. That’s one clear benefit of the Leica M over the G series, repairability.

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