Two years ago at a tram stop in Antwerp, I misstepped on the pavement’s edge and fell over. It was a bit embarrassing and it wasn’t helped by my own wife and daughter doubled up with laughter at my expense. “Why didn’t you put your hands out to break your fall?”, they asked. To them, it was the strange rolling fall of a short round man, a funny slow-motion accident.

It could have been because as I fell my instinct was to protect the camera hanging around my neck. The fall wasn’t that bad a couple of small cuts and a moment of humiliation but at least the camera was undamaged. Subconsciously I decided to risk injury to my elbows and knees rather than my CONTAX S2.

Contax S2
My Contax S2

For me, having a strong connection with a camera, understanding it so that it seamlessly becomes a part of your shooting is important. I think that only by knowing your camera intimately can you concentrate fully on its primary purpose, making photographs. And because I don’t have the capacity to know a multitude of different cameras nor do I want to, I do not have a big collection preferring to keep and use only what I need. That and I really don’t like the idea of cameras sitting on my shelves unused.

One camera I do know well is my over-protected CONTAX S2. I sought and bought this camera for many reasons but overwhelmingly what attracted me most was its pure simplicity. Released in 1992 to celebrate Contax’s 60th anniversary, the S2 was a pared-down, totally manual camera with limited features. In Contax’s own words “Simple is Best”. By selecting the mechanical over the electronic the S2 was an uncomplicated camera that turned its back on automation.

In the 1990s, the best 35mm SLRs were packed with electronics and sophisticated automation reaching a zenith of auto-everything. Most did not even have a winding lever. So Contax’s daring gamble to do away with all but the most essential of camera operations was indeed novel for its time. Instead, they made a fully manual camera with a shock protected mechanical metal shutter that could fire at up to 1/4000 second. Dust and weatherproofed, and using a traditional winding system, it was a reliable camera that was not dependent on batteries or electronics.

Contax S2 top down
Contax S2 top down

Contax continued with its simple is the best philosophy on the S2’s metering system. Fitted only with a spot meter that precisely targets and measures light in the central area of the viewfinder. Uninfluenced by illumination outside this critical area and with no other assistance from the camera it allows a photographer full creative control. Finally, the S2 was designed to use Carl Zeiss C/Y mount lenses, arguably one of the best ranges of photographic lenses ever designed.

I knew almost from the moment I got my S2 that it had the potential to be the right camera for me. A small, solidly built body that is designed with a nod to the classic SLR’s of the 70s. The chassis is dressed with a warm-silver coloured titanium shell and wrapped in a classic black Contax leather surround. The pentaprism hump is wide and low with the CONTAX name finely embossed in black across its breadth. Dials either side control the speed and ISO selection, both turn with a precise, positive movement. Next to the winding crank is the shutter button with cable release thread and engineered locking ring that completes the elegant top plate.

The viewfinder is bright and has an interchangeable focusing screen. My camera is fitted with the standard FU-4 screen, a horizontal split microprism design. There are at least three other alternative designs available. With only the shutter speeds running vertically on the right side the viewfinder, it is uncluttered and clear. The set speed flashes red while the spot meter reading remains illuminated. Point the camera at something mid-grey read the number and set the dial or something like that!

And that is what I like most about the S2, it’s a blameless camera. Blameless because you choose the only three important things when it comes to taking a photograph: ISO, aperture and speed. You direct the spot meter and you interpret its reading, that’s it. If there is a problem with the photo it’s your fault and nothing else. At first I thought this way of shooting would be a challenge but in fact, it is liberating. Free from options like metering and priority modes, exposure compensation, a viewfinder packed with flashing numbers and icons, with the S2 I am able to concentrate on taking photos.

Allowing a photographer to take photos is what this camera does best: simplicity.

Thanks for reading,

~ Tom


Contax S2 technical specifications

Camera nameContax S2
Camera type35mm Single Lens Reflex
ManufacturerKyocera Corporation (京セラ株式会社 Kyōsera Kabushiki-gaisha), Kyoto, Japan
Manufacture datesS2: 1992-2000
(S2b: 1994-2000)

Note: the S2b was identical to the S2 but used a center-weighted average meter, alternate external flash and different finish)
Format135 format film
Lens mountContax/Yashica MM mount
LensesRanging from 35mm fisheye to 1000mm mirror lens and zoom lenses. 20+ in total.
Viewfinder0.82x magnification and 95% field of view
LEDs flash indicator, over/under exposure warnings and shutter speeds
Fixed eye-level pentaprism + w/ diopter adjustment
ShutterMechanical focal plane, vertical travel, metal shutter
Electronically controlled
B, 1 sec - 4/000 sec
X-Sync 1/250 sec.
Self-timer: mechanical with 10 sec delay
Accessories8x optional diopter lenses
FU4: horizontal split-image micro prism (standard)
FU3: 45 deg split-image microprism
FU5: Matte screen
FU6: Grid mrkings
MeteringSPD cell spot meter
EV 4 - 20
ISO 12 - 6400
FlashFocal plane (1/250) and X-Sync PC connection
Power1x LR44 / SR44 (1.5v)
Weight565g (without battery)
Dimensions
(appx)
Body only:
134.5mm x 89mm x 51mm (W x H X D)

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12 COMMENTS

  1. After using a company owned Nikkormat 35mm in my first fulltime job, when I decided to purchase my own camera I went with a Canon TX 35mm. Pretty much fully manual with a viewfinder light meter. Total of 2 lenses…a 50mm and, much later, a 100mm Macro. Enjoyed using that camera until the day it was stolen. Much, much different than my current Sony 6500 however.

  2. Love this article, and EMULSIVE for providing a place to allow film to live and thrive. Tom Sebastiano, Ii look forward to seeing more of your work! I too, can understand using a simple camera that lets the photographer do the thinking. This is why I moved back to film, and to using a view camera almost exclusively. Again, thank you for a great article!

  3. I love the looks of the S2, but not the all manual nature – I’m very much an aperture priority sort of guy. Every time I see an S2 or S2b really just makes me want to get another RTS II and get it custom re-finished in chrome/silver…

  4. Just to clarify the last bit of the Jezzafox comment he means AE (auto exposure) lenses not AF (auto focus) work perfectly… but I imagine you all know that…

  5. The Contax S2 is a marvellous camera. I have been Contax so many years. I am still with my Contax T which makes me light when I do not want to carry too heavy.
    I have widely used Contax when I was younger, after my first camera, an Olympus OM 1 N, which was great in term of shape and build. But fast, I have dreamt about the Contax, and saved money until I can get my first one. A 139 Q with a Zeiss Planar 50/1’7. Whoa, it has changed my life and my pleasure. I have own so many Contax. This one is one of the best.
    But !
    But !
    Time after time, I have moved to Leica, and Nikon, the only one I keep is the Contax T, for which I am always afraid it will break. And, if Contax provided wonderful cameras (finders, meters, design, functions, …) and the best lenses (because Zeiss are ever the best of the best), unfortunately they are not reliable, because the brand does not exist anymore …
    Now, I am using daily Nikon and Leica for films cameras (also other brand for fun), and for digital which bores me !
    If you find a brand new one unboxing or a high mint model, care it like a baby and go on with Zeiss Contax lenses, you will have the cream for the cream. The S2 is one of the best of the line. But, in term of results, other great brand are not so far if we look with neutrality and objectivity. Zeiss lenses add this 3D pop effect which was too much for me with the G2.

  6. this camera was made by Kyocera under license by Zeiss group. the brand name “contax” is still belonged to Zeiss.
    Pentax is another story, the brand name Pentax wsa sold by Carl Zeiss Jena, GDR before Unification of Germany .

  7. If “Protect the camera!” is the first thing that comes to mind as one falls, then that is mark of a true photog! Congrats on the save and great work with the S2!

  8. Thank you for the review. You did the right thing to protect it.

    Contax cameras were definitely not made by Pentax but by Kyocera, or at least to their spec. I think some were built in the Cosina factory.

    While it’s a lovely camera and uses the best lenses, the one thing which slightly lets it down is the rather noisy shutter / mirror.

    Just a couple of small things to add to your spec sheet, the lens mount is C/Y. The MM refers to lenses which were made so they could be used on cameras with shutters speed priority. The AF lenses work perfectly on the S2 too. The shutter is not electronically controlled, it’s an all mechanical camera

  9. Are you sure the camera was manufactured by Asahi (Pentax)? I thought the Japanese Contax models were all made by Yashica/Kyocera.

  10. The S2 is a camera for purists; a connoisseur’s instrument. You wield it well. Nice work. You’ve got a nice website with great images.
    I never was a fan of spot metering; essentially one of the reasons I sold my M7. I work with a Gossen Luna-Pro and a meterless camera. That works for me.
    I completely agree with the ‘blameless camera’ mindset. My work rests entirely with me. If it fails or succeeds is not dependent upon the camera.

  11. I had to laugh, not at your fall, but at my identical instinct – years ago I went rolling down a (very) small hill, cradled my Canon AE-1 in my arms, and let the bruises land where they may. I popped up and told my friend, “The camera’s okay!” Ha! Great post about the simplicity of the Contax, and I too like to know if the photo is bad, it’s only my fault! Cheers!

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