In 1984, Zeiss’ Contax brand partnered with Yashica to make the Contax T cameras, a series of luxury compact cameras aimed at moneyed enthusiasts. The cameras were small jewels of photographic design and technology, and quickly gained a reputation as the finest compact cameras money could buy. The line performed and sold very well, and placed Contax/Yashica at the top of the luxury compact camera segment, as intended.
What Contax/Yashica probably didn’t intend was for the Contax T-series to evolve into one of the most infamous lines of cameras in film photography. They’ve become the late-2010s cameras-du-jour, the Yeezy Boosts of film photography, the favorite camera of influencers and the social media savvy. Through endorsements by popular socialites, steady representation on Instagram, and a reputation for delivering high quality images with almost zero effort, the Contax T-series have (for better or worse) become status symbols.
With such a reputation comes a rather obnoxious elephant in the room – price. The Contax T-series is one of the most expensive lines of cameras out there today, with prices regularly cracking four figures. The prohibitive price point presents an issue; which Contax T-series camera is the right one to buy?
Of course, none of them are the right cameras to buy if you don’t have the money, so us plebeians are out of the running. But if you’ve got the scratch (and an itch) to own a Contax T, you may still be wondering which model is best for your style, for the type of photography you want to do, and for the way you like to shoot.
I can help. Here’s everything you need to know about each Contax T series camera. By the end, you’ll know which model is your best choice.
The T-series started in 1984 not with an autofocus point-and-shoot, but with a compact, manual focus rangefinder called the Contax T. The sleek and elegant Porsche-designed Contax T set the standard of high quality and ostensible luxury for which the T-series would become famous, and it’s a camera that James loved in his review. Solid, all-metal construction combined with a surprisingly intuitive control layout, set it a cut above its contemporaries, and it still impresses to this day.
The crown jewel of the T was its Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38mm f/2.8 lens. This lens catapulted the Contax T straight to the top of many photographers’ wish lists for its exceptional sharpness and signature vivid T* color rendition. Its focal length of 38mm makes it suitable for general photography, and its moderately quick maximum aperture of f/2.8 made it suitable for most forms of photography in natural light.
The original T does have a couple of limitations. There is no built-in flash, and the attachable flash nearly doubles the size and weight of this famously compact camera which makes photographing those racy American Apparel ads harder to do on the fly. The minimum focusing distance of one meter (three feet) also makes it less capable of traditional forms of head shot portraiture. But the biggest limitation of all (at least, for those of us who just want to point and then shoot without thinking), the original T’s manual focus methodology will slow down casual shooters who are looking for a fully-automated autofocus machine.
The Contax T is mostly suited towards more experienced enthusiasts looking for more control in their compact camera. The camera operates as a manual-focus rangefinder camera with aperture priority as its only AE mode, which demands a little bit more care and attention from prospective shooters. Shooters experienced with manual machines will find the Contax T a joy to shoot, especially those well-versed in the dark art of scale focusing, which the Contax T is basically made for, given those glorious green index dots on the lens and aperture ring.
The original T runs cheaper on average than its successors. Clean examples can be had from $550 to $800, which is as good a deal as you’ll find in the main line Contax T-series.
The Contax T2 is easily the most hyped camera in the series. Kendall Jenner (of Kardashian fame) used one on The Tonight Show to shoot Jimmy Fallon. Chris Hemsworth (of Thor fame) used one while taking a dig at certain members of the film camera community. Its Instagram hashtag is filled with trendy flash snapshots reminiscent of a certain photographer. It’s trendy, popular, and good looking. In other words, it’s bad news.
The Contax T2 wasn’t always like this. Introduced in 1991 as the long-awaited successor to the Contax T, it was a camera that added autofocus, an even sharper version of the original T’s Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38mm f/2.8, and an even slicker, cleaner design. It was a runaway success, and cemented the Contax T-series as the world’s most coveted line of compact cameras.
As a photographic tool, the T2 is an impressive machine with a few key features. To complement the single-point autofocus, the camera features a nifty manual focus override, made even more usable with a digital rangefinder visible in the viewfinder. Combined with the AE lock, it’s possible to focus on a subject and meter elsewhere in the scene for more accurate exposure, as one would with a professional SLR. It also features a programmed AE mode and a built in flash, which makes the camera ready for pretty much anything. I could see this camera being used well by a talented street photographer, or by somebody looking for a good automated compact camera that won’t skimp too much on controllability.
The biggest downside to the T2 is its outsized reputation, which results in a legendarily inflated price tag. Prospective T2 owners can be expected to shell out from $750 to $1,000 for a working example, which is frankly absurd, even if the T2 is as good as its reputation suggests. You can buy a pro-spec film SLR system, lenses and all, for less than a T2. You can buy a really great Leica M-camera with a stellar old-school Japanese lens for less than a T2. Hell, you can buy a similarly exceptional point-and-shoot, a black-and-white processing kit, a scanner, a brick of film, and go on a nice date for less than you’ll spend on a T2. To buy a Contax T2 today is to buy into hype, literally, and it may not be the wisest decision, especially when other options are technically, and dare I say aesthetically, better.
But if you really want one and your shooting style absolutely requires a Contax T2 as your main camera, go for it. To each their own, I guess.
The Contax T3 is the final iteration of the fixed focal length Contax T-series. And assuming that the curve continues, the Contax T3 should be the best, most expensive, and most infamous camera of the series. All of this is correct.
The T-series hit its high note with the Contax T3 in 2001, the very end of the film era. It was more compact than the comparatively chunky T2, recalling the almost impossibly small original Contax T. I won’t mince words – this is an incredibly attractive camera, possibly the most attractive in the line.
The T3 featured a menu-based control layout with a couple of useful dials dedicated to the two auto-exposure modes (program mode and aperture priority mode) and manual focus mode, reminiscent of the focus-by-wire Contax G-series cameras. The camera also features a rather interesting focus lock which increases shooting speed ever so slightly for those suited to calculated, quick-fire shooting.
Beyond looks and features, the T3’s main attraction was the reconfigured Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens, which featured a slightly wider (and to some, more familiar) focal length of 35mm, with the same maximum aperture of f/2.8. The T3 also reduced the minimum focusing distance from 70cm on the T2 to 35cm for greater usability at close range, almost essential for any 35mm focal length lens. 35mm die-hards will love this camera and lens in particular, and I could see such devotees pledging undying allegiance to their Contax T3’s.
The T3 does, however, suffer from the same problem that many cameras from the late 90s and early 2000s suffered from – an unhealthy addiction to menus. Almost all of the special functions that set the T3 apart are buried under menus that are only accessible by repeatedly pressing buttons, such as the manual focus mode and exposure compensation mode. It’s a little ridiculous considering the T2 has a comparatively fiddle-free design.
And then there’s the price. The T3 has had its fair share of hype, most notably with comedian and actor Aziz Ansari, and this hype has inflated the T3’s price to truly legendary proportions. At the time of this article’s publication, the T3 cannot be bought for less than $1,000 on eBay, with pristine black editions nearly reaching the $2,000 mark.
All of the points regarding price previously said about the T2 apply doubly to the T3; you can buy a lot of great things with the same money you’ll spend on a single T3.
I’d never buy a T3 myself, but if I was a shooter who valued the 35mm focal length, loved the way Zeiss lenses rendered, and wanted the best looking point-and-shoot ever, the T3 would be at the top of my list. Thankfully I prefer 50mm, so there goes that.
Contax TVS Series
If only there was a Contax T camera that made ownership accessible to us mere mortals. Oh, wait. There’s an entire series of cameras that does just that! It’s the Contax TVS series, and despite what some people moan about, these cameras are very good.
The Contax TVS cameras are the zoom lensed variants of the Contax T-series. Differences between the three run parallel to the differences between the Contax T2 and T3. The TVS I and II offer a more manual-style control layout with a manual zoom and aperture control, while the TVS III has updated electronic zoom and electronic aperture control. Beyond that, the TVS series has all of the features present in the T-series – aperture-priority and fully programmed auto-exposure, exposure compensation, focus lock, the works.
The three variants also feature a couple different lenses; a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 28-56mm f/3.5-6.5 on the TVS I and II, and a Vario Sonnar T* 30-60mm f/3.7-6.7 on the TVS III. No matter the variant, these are some seriously impressive lenses. Not much, if any, of that legendary Zeiss quality is lost on these zoom lenses. They offer the selfsame vivid color rendition and biting sharpness of their fixed focal length brethren while adding an incredibly useful range of focal lengths. While these lenses do slow down significantly on the longer end, their versatility and portability more than makes up for their sluggishness. In enough light, these lenses will make amazing images.
Compared to the T-series, the TVS series is dirt cheap. Examples of the TVS I and II range from $175 to $400, while the more advanced TVS III sits between $450 and $700. Shooters looking for a more practical (and fiscally reasonable) version of the Contax point-and-shoots will likely enjoy the TVS series, as well as those looking for a high-quality point-and-shoot to complement their existing SLR/Rangefinder system.
Oh, and lest I be called out in the comments, I should mention that there’s an APS film compatible Contax T, called the Contax TIX. It’s comparatively inexpensive at around $200, but APS film is notoriously horrible. Just avoid it.
Well there you have it, a practical guide to a not-so-practical set of cameras. Which one is your favorite? Know of any cameras that can give the T-series a run for their money? Got a Contax T you’re planning to send my way, as a gift? Let me know in the comments.