The first digital camera that I ever bought for myself was a Minolta DiMage X that I purchased from the dusty cadaver who ran the local camera shop after (barely) graduating high school in 2002. It was winter, the dead of, to be precise, and after buying my first pair of snowshoes the week before I desired a camera with which to shoot my travels. I spent the next three months in silent solitude snowshoeing all over Massachusetts with a two megapixel point-and-shoot, making photos of leafless black trees and icy streams and flash-frozen snowflakes in mid-flurry, getting over the girl who’d dumped me over her college Christmas break because, in her hindsight-informed accurate approximation, I wasn’t going anywhere.
To my surprise, I got over the breakup pretty quickly. The camera and the snowshoes helped. There’s nothing better for realizing what’s really important than squinting through a viewfinder in sub-zero temperatures, standing alone in a snowy wood in total silence.
Two decades later I still regard these few months as being amongst the most important of my life. This period of time calibrated me. It cleared away most of the fog that seemed to surround me during my teenage years, years where I’d drifted with my eyes mostly pointed down at my feet. I became acutely aware that I had control over most of the things in my life, and more important, that I had control over my reactions to the things that I couldn’t control. Those snowshoes and that simple little camera helped me realize that I should keep my eyes up, and that I could in fact choose my own path.
None of this has any bearing on the Contax TVS Digital that I’ve been shooting for the past couple of months, except that the same distinctive focus confirmation beep and the same GameBoy-quality fake shutter release sound effects that the Minolta DiMage X made back then also come piping through the Contax TVS Digital’s weird little speaker whenever I take a photo with it today. The first time I shot it and heard these noises, I laughed. Whenever I’ve used the Contax since, it’s immediately put my mind back into the frame adopted while traipsing through the woods alone, caring about very little except eking out a decent photo with what is by any measure a limited and limiting camera. This frame of mind, contrary to what we might immediately assume, is one of freedom and joy. And for that I (sort of) love the (rather bad by today’s standards) Contax TVS Digital.
What is the Contax TVS Digital
Unveiled at Photokina in 2002, the Contax TVS Digital is the last of the Contax T series cameras and the only one to feature a digital imaging sensor (the rest were 35mm or APS film cameras). It’s a compact, titanium clad point-and-shoot camera that adheres in both form and function to the Contax T series film cameras that preceded it. It’s a small, expensive, capable camera (or at least, it was capable at one time).
The TVS Digital makes images through a (35mm equivalent) 35-105mm F/2.8-4.6 Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* coated zoom lens mounted in front of a 5.2 Megapixel CCD image sensor. This lens and sensor combine with what was once quite advanced image processing software (derived or directly transferred from the Kyocera Finecam series) to create JPEG images with a maximum size of 2560 x 1920 pixels (smaller sizes are also available, and user selectable). The camera is not capable of shooting RAW images.
The TVS Digital comes loaded with everything we’d expect from a digital camera made in 2002. Automatic everything is provided, including auto white balance, auto ISO, auto focus, auto exposure, auto exposure bracketing, and automatic flash. But it also packs a surprisingly robust suite of user selectable parameters. Shooters are able to manually adjust every one of the automatic functions previously listed. This makes the Contax TVS Digital one of the most capable creative machines of the early digital point-and-shoot era. It’s no joke.
Other things to note – there’s a movie mode that no one should ever use; there’s a 1.6″ TFT LCD screen on the back for composing shots and reviewing images; it uses SD Cards for data storage (maximum size 2GB – anything larger will not work); and it’s powered by a lithium ion rechargeable battery pack. Yeah, pretty ordinary stuff.
Controls and Ergonomics
There’s no doubt that when the Contax TVS Digital was released almost twenty years ago that it would have been a very attractive and very capable camera. It would have been among the very best point-and-shoots on the market, especially appealing to photographers who were looking for a small secondary camera that offered more effective user controls than would be typically found in the segment and who had money to burn (the camera cost $899 for the champagne version or $999 for the black version in the year 2002).
But 2002 was a long time ago. Today, the Contax TVS Digital costs significantly less. It’s also a charming, slow, quirky, and terribly lovable machine for those of us who fondly recall wanting and being unable to afford expensive things around the turn of the century. With delightfully decadent touches, such as a sapphire glass viewfinder and gem-quality sapphire shutter release button, a champagne titanium body, and brandishing that legendary Carl Zeiss lens, it was a truly covetous item. It’s still a gorgeous looking camera today. The titanium appeal hasn’t worn away – the champagne treatment with the bisecting black plastic looks the business. The retractable lens with its Carl Zeiss branding and T* still promises sharpness and clarity and complete mitigation of optical aberrations. The engraved Contax name in strong, simple lettering still elicits reverential exhalations (oohs and aahs). Yes, this camera looks good.
Held in the hand, it fits well enough. It’s about as small as the Contax T3, larger than the original Contax T and smaller than the Contax T2. It weighs almost 300 grams, which is about the same as the T2, and about 70 grams more than the T3. Users won’t really notice any of this. It feels like a camera, and shooters will be too busy with all those damn buttons to pay much attention to a few dozen grams here or there.
The top of the camera is simple – there’s a control dial to switch between Program, Aperture-Priority, playback, video, and setup modes. There’s a focus lock mode (marked AFL) and the shutter release button. These all do what should be expected – AFL locks the focus at whatever distance the photographer desires, and the shutter release button takes a picture. There’s also an informative LCD display, which shows all sorts of data (memory card space remaining, flash modes, focus modes, exposure modes and more).
The back of the camera contains a whole hell of a lot of controls. There’s the button to cycle flash modes, focus and shooting modes including macro and manual focus, a display selector, white balance control, white balance bracketing control, ISO control, C. and D. Menus (which are customizable), zoom to tele and wide angle controls, a directional pad and select button, a card slot latch, a diopter for the viewfinder, and the all-important power button. Those of us who’ve used a digital camera will quickly learn our way around the machine. Those who haven’t will likely never read this sentence.
User Experience and Image Samples
Shooting the Contax TVS Digital, beyond the nostalgia, is a fun, frustrating, sometimes limiting, but ultimately enjoyable experience. The key takeaway after a couple of months of intermittent shooting, is that the Contax TVS Digital is a camera that should be terrible, but is surprisingly good and extremely fun to use. It’s a camera that consistently makes images that are somehow better than they have any right being. Images that, after we’ve put them through a bit (or a lot) of processing in Lightroom, can actually be quite gorgeous. I won’t wax poetic and say that the images I’ve made with the TVS Digital possess a quality that’s almost film-like (though I really want to), but there really is “something” to these shots. The Contax TVS Digital makes an idea of an image, rather than detailed photographs, and I like that. Or maybe it’s nostalgia.
It acts and feels like so many other early-2000s digital compacts. Powering on the machine is a glacial process accompanied by a sing-song chime, like the doorbell of a fairy’s home. The lens extracts from the body with ponderous ease. Press the shutter button halfway and wait for the camera to eventually lock focus, an event happily announced by a tinny chirp from the invisible speaker. Press the shutter all the way and enjoy the electronically-generated shutter release sound. The sounds can be shut off via the menus, but in 2019 I want to hear these sounds. I love them.
Peeking through the optical viewfinder is like peeking through a keyhole in the front door of that same fairy’s house. It’s tiny and nearly featureless, however an unusually high eye point makes it a comfortable view for users who wear glasses. Zooming in or out results in the viewfinder doing the same, which is nice, even if the area displayed is never above 85% of the actual image area. There’s a focus area frame line and some LEDs that must surely mean something when they illuminate or don’t. Do we really care? Just keep mashing that sapphire shutter release until something happens.
The 1.6″ TFT LCD screen displays images made or a live view (100% accurate, compared with the viewfinder’s 85%) and it’s comprised of 85,000 dots. While 85,000 of anything is a lot of anything, when measuring dots on an LCD screen, it’s surprisingly few. With the naked eye and without even trying very hard, we can see individual pixels. Interestingly, I’m fine with this. I love this terrible LCD screen.
With white balance set to auto, I have been astounded at how incredibly accurate this little camera balances color temperature. Shots are natural, requiring almost no editing in post-processing applications, except where it’s desired to change a photo to taste.
The ISO range is meager, from 50 to 400 ISO. When I learned this by navigating the menus, I laughed. My laughter was grim, particularly because I had first decided to use the camera at night. I expected very little in the way of usable images. When using the flash modes, this was mostly the case. Shots were, in a word, terrible. When I turned off the flash, however, something magical happened. The camera made amazingly noise-free images.
Exposure modes consist of Program and Aperture-Priority. In the former mode, the camera does all the work of selecting an aperture and shutter speed based on light conditions. In my testing, Program mode works amazingly well given the camera’s limitations (dynamic range). In aperture-priority mode the user selects a desired aperture via the camera’s left and right directional buttons. The available variable maximum and minimum apertures are limited depending on the focal length being used at any given time, but the system works well enough. Shooting close-up portraits I was able to create some decent subject isolation from a distant background.
Autofocus works well. I wouldn’t characterize the AF system as accurate or fast, but it often focuses where I want and does so fast enough that my subject hasn’t escaped the frame by the time the shutter releases. At times, I miss the shot. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t really care. I would never use this camera in a situation where I need to make a photo, and I’d advise anyone else against doing so. It’s a sluggish machine.
The lens is quite good. Similar if not identical to the lens found in the Contax TVS film camera, it makes images that are sharp from edge to edge with very little vignetting and just a bit of distortion at certain focal lengths. The T* coating does an amazing job at eliminating chromatic aberration. There’s almost zero color-fringing, even in shots with extreme contrast.
The files the camera makes via its lens and sensor will be as good as any low-quality scan from a professional photo lab processing 35mm film. Look at files from the Contax TVS Digital on a phone screen, or on a blog, or on Instagram, and be impressed. They’re impressive. Go and get an 8 x 10 enlargement made from the same file and make sure to stand back ten feet before opening your eyes. The resolution just isn’t good enough for close-proximity views of a large-scale print. It’s just not.
And None of This Matters
I’ve intentionally breezed through the camera’s specifications and technical capability. Even the abbreviated paragraphs existing just above this one are, I feel, too technical. I don’t really care about this camera’s dynamic range or the lens’ resolving power. For me, it’s not that kind of camera. It may have been in the past, but it’s not anymore. I don’t care about any of that, and I don’t see why anyone should. Photo geeks who aren’t interested in the TVS Digital won’t be convinced by its technical capability. There’s no secret to tell. This is an aged, and because of its age, rather bad digital camera. Shooters who want a truly great digital camera should buy a five-year-old Fuji X100, which will only cost about $100 more than the Contax TVS Digital and provide immeasurably more and better everything. It’s no contest. Shooters who want a TVS Digital because it looks cool and makes retro looking digital images will get one, no matter what I write here. That’s fine too. It is in fact a cool camera.
And then there’s the inspired kid, who four years from now and at age seventeen, will never read this, but will find a TVS Digital in a thrift store for thirty dollars, shoot amazing shots with it and birth a whole new hobbyist clique of shooters shooting art on lo-fi, sub-five-megapixel digital cameras. This Contax would be a great camera for that.
Personally, I like the Contax TVS Digital. It took me back to a period of time that I really enjoyed. A time when shooting low-resolution digital point-and-shoot cameras was the most rewarding thing I’d ever done to that point in my life. It put me back in a frame of mind in which I work within the machine’s limitations to make the best shots I can make. And if they aren’t very good, who cares? A simpler time? Maybe. Or maybe there’s something to it.