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.