Popular opinion on the Contax TVS says that its sluggish aperture and softer zoom lens make it a third-rate camera. The choir sings that the TVS is the compact Contax that you buy, only if you can’t afford the Contax T3 or T2 or T. There’s some truth to this, as is the case with most popular opinion, but a more nuanced and balanced voice might add enough useful commentary that people might realize just how good the Contax TVS is.
I’ll add that voice, partly because it’s my job. But also because I’ve spent the past few weeks shooting the TVS and I feel it’s been overlooked. I’ll even go so far as to make the bold claim that the Contax TVS is the one Contax compact that’s actually worth buying these days. Sure, it lacks certain capability compared with the others in its line, but the unique things that it offers over these other cameras do overbalance the few ways in which it comes up short.
What is the Contax TVS
In 1984, Kyocera released the Contax T, a titanium-bodied compact rangefinder camera aimed to satisfy the well-heeled photographer looking for a luxurious and incredibly compact 35mm film camera. This camera was exceptional, allowing creative control and packing a phenomenal Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38mm f/2.8 lens in an astoundingly small and well-built body. It even had a synthetic ruby for its shutter release button.
In 1991, Kyocera further refined the formula with the Contax T2. This second of the series continued the high level of build, retained the same high performance lens and respectable creative controls, but added automation in the form of available autofocus. It was a true point-and-shoot camera, eschewing the manual focus rangefinder of the original T.
In 1994, Kyocera released the Contax TVS, a variant of the T series that swapped the prime lens of its predecessors for a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 28-56mm f/3.5-6.5 zoom lens (the “VS” denotes that this is the Contax T with a “Vario-Sonnar” lens). Made of the same titanium as the earlier cameras, and fitted with all the latest technology, some shooters have described the Contax TVS as a zoomy version of the T2. This is coarsely true, but there are finer points that differentiate the TVS from every other model in the range.
The Contax TVS compared to the T, T2, and T3
As touched upon, the big gripe when comparing the TVS to the other Contax compacts is leveled against the relatively slow lens of the TVS. The other three cameras feature a maximum aperture of f/2.8. The TVS has a variable maximum aperture across its range of focal lengths, but at its fastest (at the wide-end of the range) it only reaches a maximum speed of f/3.5.
Sure, f/3.5 is slower than f/2.8, but is this really a problem? Let’s think about it. The difference between f/2.8 and f/3.5 in light-gathering potential is precisely 2/3rds of a stop. That’s really a very small difference and easily overcome. Simply by loading, for example, ISO 400 film instead of ISO 200, or ISO 800 in place of ISO 400, we more than completely mitigate the loss of light that we incur by shooting at f/3.5 versus f/2.8 (and then some).
But let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that the nearly insignificant loss of light we suffer on account of the slower aperture of the TVS actually will negatively impact our photo-making. It will only do so after the sun’s been down for an hour, or when shooting indoors in low-light, or in restaurants or parties, or dimly-lit clubs, or whatever it is that kids do with these cameras. But I argue that even in these proposed shooting environments, if the camera’s loaded with high speed film, Kodak P3200 or Ilford Delta 3200, or Cinestill 800t, or Kodak Portra 800, or Fuji Superia 1600, it’ll do just fine.
Complaining about the Contax TVS being slow because it can’t shoot crisp shots on Fuji 200 in a club at midnight is like giving a Chinese food restaurant a one-star Yelp review because you expected them to serve Cap’n Crunch. It’s not their fault.
But even if we don’t load fast film, f/3.5 is almost always a fast enough maximum aperture. I spent the hour after sunset shooting Kodak Ektachrome 100 through my TVS, and aside from a few shaky frames, shots on this extremely slow film were properly exposed and sharp when shot between f/3.5 and f/5.6. With a sensitive shutter release, comfortable grip, and no mirror-slap it’s an easy camera to shoot in low light.
I know there will be commenters that say something about subject isolation or some who may even drop the term “bokeh.” The Contax T series, even those cameras equipped with an f/2.8 maximum aperture, do not produce bokeh. And the subject isolation from any of these cameras will be indistinguishable from another when each is shot wide open. Furthermore, these are among the type of camera that’s typically shot at smaller apertures anyway, since they’re often used as snapshot machines, for travel or street photography, etc. With the T series, we get context, not bokeh, and the TVS is as good a context camera as the rest (possibly more so, for reasons I’ll discuss right now).
It’s the 28mm wide-end of that Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens. Thanks to this incredible lens, the Contax TVS offers the widest field-of-view of any of the Contax compacts. Compared with the 38mm lens of the Contax T and T2, the TVS lens is substantially wider. Even compared with the 35mm lens of the T3 there’s a noticeable difference. And sure, we could argue that simply taking five steps backward will get the same frame with the main-line T series cameras, but we could also argue that the TVS has something no other T series machine can match. For shooters looking for a 28mm Contax compact, there’s really only one choice, and that’s the TVS.
It’s true that this lens isn’t as sharp as the ones found in the T2 or T3, since some image quality is lost as the formula becomes more complex. But I’ve been shooting the TVS concurrently with the T2 for about three weeks, and the difference is so negligible as to reach the realm of pedantry. No one (in the real world) will be able to tell a TVS shot against a T2 shot based on sharpness.
It’s got a built-in flash, which the original Contax T does not. It’s got a decent AF system, which again is something lacking in the original T (that camera is manual focus only). It’s capable of exposure compensation to an astounding +/- 5 full stops (the T2 can only do +/- 2). It’s got manual dials for aperture, focus lock and exposure compensation, a combination of controls that’s not found on the overly-menu-focused T3. It’s got a panorama mode, which is a total gimmick, but a gimmick that can’t be found on any other T.
Oh, and it’s got that Vario-Sonnar, which is capable of zooming from a 28mm wide-angle to a 56mm focal length with hardly any discernible loss of image quality compared to the other T series machines. That’s pretty great.
Lastly, and so important that it’s the entire reason I think the Contax TVS is the only Contax T series camera worth buying today, is that it costs so little compared to the others in its lineup.
In the past few years, prices for the Contax T2 and T3 have surged on a wave of celebrity endorsement. Famous and (society tells me) beautiful people have been seen on television, at the Oscars, and on Instagram flashing the camera with their Contax T2s and T3s. Because of these popular influencers, prices have climbed to previously unthinkable (and unadvisable) heights. But while the T2 and T3 cost between $1,000 and $2,000 respectively (for perfect units from a reputable shop), the original Contax TVS sits at a price point closer to $250.
That’s an incredible price, considering it arguably (as I’ve argued) offers more than these other cameras. Even the second improved version of the TVS, the Contax TVS II, doesn’t match its brethren in price, selling typically for around $500. And the third version, though more expensive, tops out around $700 (this version is substantially different and, in my opinion, less of a unique offering due to its lens and menu system).
The non-Contax competition
But all of this doesn’t mean that the Contax TVS is the obvious choice for someone who’s simply looking for a compact point-and-shoot camera. Even for shooters looking for a compact camera with a 28mm lens (something a bit rare in the segment), it’s not the obvious choice. For shooters seeking wide point-and-shoots, there’s the Ricoh GR series, a series of cameras that have legendary 28mm f/2.8 lenses. But these usually cost more than the TVS. There’s the Fuji Natura Black, which features an even wider 24mm lens with an impossibly fast maximum aperture of f/1.9. But this camera is pretty rare and costs about three times the price of the Contax TVS.
For shooters who want a zoom-lensed compact, there are plenty of options that are decidedly less luxurious, but make equally excellent photos. These cameras get no respect – the Olympus Stylus zoom machines (especially the Wide Deluxe versions) offer similar specs at a lower price. The Minolta Freedom range offers some models with wider lenses, and these cameras are typically found for under $100.
As shown, there are options, but there’s no escaping the fact that for shooters who specifically want a Contax compact camera and who also want a 28mm lens, the TVS is the one camera to own.
Performance and real-world shooting
I’ve made a pretty strong case for the Contax TVS, and I stand by all that I’ve said. It’s a more balanced camera than the other Contax T machines, and a fantastic camera for the money. But it has enough flaws that the next few paragraphs will contain sprinklings of both praise, and criticism.
The Contax TVS is weighty and dense, characteristics of all of the Contax cameras of its era. Its titanium body panels fit tightly, its battery cover is metal, and its film door clicks heavily into place. The winding motors and shutter produce sounds that inspire confidence in its electromechanical innards, and a textured rubberized coating in critical locations creates confident handholds.
In short, the TVS feels like an exceptionally high quality camera. Until we look through the viewfinder, which is small and finicky, since any change to the angle of approach will create optical display issues that black out the edges of the frame. Only by repositioning the eyeball are we able to get back to centered and see the whole frame. It’s also less informative than I’d like. When operating outside of Program mode, there’s no indication in the viewfinder to show which aperture we’ve selected, and there’s no numerical indication of our relative focal length, which would be helpful since this directly influences how fast our aperture can be.
The film frame counter and flash mode display sit on the top of the camera in the form of LCD screens. These aren’t illuminated, which makes information gathering at night a total nightmare. In low light it’s nearly impossible to see whether or not we’re using exposure compensation, or which flash mode we’re using, or how many frames we’ve shot without looking through the viewfinder (exposure comp and flash mode are displayed here, but only incompletely).
The manual focus mode is acceptable, but I dislike using it. Essentially we spin a focus-scale-marked thumbwheel and set it to the distance to our subject. Then a half-press of the shutter release button will display a dot if we’ve set the correct distance, or a left or right arrow to show we need to adjust focus until the dot illuminates. It feels a bit clumsy in the same way that the Contax G series cameras’ manual focus systems feel clumsy, but it works. Since, for me, it is a slower method, I just use the AF.
Autofocus is fast and effective. While not as quick as later Contax T series cameras and certainly leisurely compared with modern AF, the Contax TVS achieves focus quickly and accurately in most situations. There’s an Infrared Focus Assist for shooting in low light, and this works well, too. Simply set the subject in the middle of the frame, then half-press the shutter and watch for the focus status lights (a dot illuminates to show focus has been successfully achieved, while an arrow flashes if the subject is too close). In the event that the camera can’t achieve focus, two arrows will flash (this happens very rarely).
The metering system shares its lock methodology with the autofocus system. A half-press of the shutter release button activates the center-weighted metering system and locks exposure, after which we’re able release the shutter or to recompose and shoot as desired. This system is accurate to a nearly perfect success rate.
Shutter release is near-silent and, more importantly, so is film advance. Some automated point-and-shoots have criminally loud film advance motors. This one, like the G series, is perfect for subtle shooting.
Manual aperture control is engaged by spinning a stiffly clickable ring at the base of the zoom lens. By rotating away from the Program mark, we deactivate Program mode and activate the aperture-priority mode. Now we’re free to select whatever aperture we like in single-stop increments. Just beyond this aperture dial is the manual zoom control. I love this tabbed ring, which doubles as an On/Off switch, and swings through a concise range to zoom or widen the Vario-Sonnar in a single, smooth sweep.
When flash is required, an indicator blinks in the viewfinder. The flash works well, and is balanced and controlled. With options for fill-flash, red-eye-reduction, and the ability to turn the flash off completely, the TVS can do its thing in any light (or lack thereof). The aesthetics of on-camera flash photography can be polarizing – some people love the look and some hate it. With the Contax TVS, I’ve found ways to make it work for me.
Image quality from the Vario-Sonnar is excellent in nearly all cases, but flawed in certain specific instances. There’s pretty heavy vignetting when shot with the aperture wide open. This light falloff is especially heavy when shot at the wide end of the zoom range. This rectifies itself if we shoot at apertures from f/5.6 and smaller, or when we’re zoomed in even a little bit (which may come from the maximum aperture closing as we travel the zoom range). There’s also very minor distortion on the far edges of the frame, only prevalent at the wide end of the range. This likely won’t be noticed by anyone in the real world.
Beyond these few minor qualms, this camera creates excellent images. Shots are sharp and punchy, full of that amazing Zeiss micro contrast on which the German optics brand has built its reputation since before any of us were born. The T* coating does its typically exceptional work and mitigates flares and ghosts and chromatic aberration.
For what it offers, the Contax TVS is the best Contax compact camera available right now. Its combination of image quality, performance, and versatility at least matches its fellow T series cameras. What truly tips the scales, however, is its surprisingly low price. Getting this much Contax for this little money is hard to beat, and until prices for the T2 and T3 fall, the Contax TVS is the only Contax compact that’s currently worth the price.