I’ve waited long enough to speak. We’ve broken up, it’s over. The romance was hot and quick. A flash in the pan. It’s time to do a review on the Contax G2. If I could anthropomorphize the G2, it’s an unapologetically awkward, runway-gorgeous genius. The Contax
excels conquers in every way that matters, and falls criminally short in a few ways that are easy to overlook if you’re in the right mindset.
After the untimely death of my beloved GA645 I spent some time fooling around with point and shoots, some old box cameras and the like. When it was time to get to work again I decided on a Contax. The G2 kit came from a chap on RFF, the last true ivory tower of internet-forum rangefinder-camera snobbery. It cost around $1100 Canadian for the body, 28mm Biogon, 45mm Planar and 90mm Sonnar, hoods, bags and all that stuff. I rounded out the kit with a mint TLA200 from Japan. Champagne instead of the black due to a 40% price difference. For the same camera. Who cares? Lots of people pay extra for a black setup and then tape over the high-contrast nameplate and logos. Not this kid. I sorta like that it looks like your grandma’s Bell & Howell. Wanna go shoot?
Starting with the body, the Contax is a winner. It’s titanium sheathed, solid and all-business. Very little on this camera is superfluous, and all the switch-gear has a perfect amount of feedback in operation. Built-in motor drive, AF and a small LCD on the top panel round out the features list. The lenses attach with a satisfying clunk. There is no wiggle in the lens mount, feeling more like a well-made pump-action shotgun than any camera I’ve used before or since. The G is a camera that’s a joy to own and handle before you even add film. All automated actions performed by the G are quick, precise and are accompanied by the most pleasant motor noises possible. The focus and advance motors sound like superbly damped dental drills.
The dark side of this machine happens to be the viewfinder. It’s lovely, contrasty, changes magnification with lenses, just the right amount of information presented to the user. If only it was 50% larger though, right? Of course would compromise the rest of the design and feel of the camera as well. I understand that sacrifices must be made and that good design is always on a high wire. Truly, if you’ve shot anything less than professional level bodies with 100% coverage finders, you’ll be happy as a clam with the finder in the G2.
When I first used it, I admit to being crestfallen. My coveted object was fundamentally crippled in a way that was unforgivable. Then, as I adapted to the camera’s other quirks and got it set up the way I was familiar with using on the Canon 1-series bodies (CF4, baby!) the finder suddenly became what it was designed to be: a framing apparatus.
When you consider that this camera does not need your input beyond composition, the finder makes absolute sense. The finder is there to make sure you have the camera pointed in the right direction, and gives you a reticle to let you know
exactly sort of where it will be placing the razor sharp plane of focus from the Zeiss lenses. There’s no DOF preview to worry about, no critical focus patch to wring hands over. So what’s the big deal?
Many reviews compare the G to any one of the Leicas you can buy on the used market. I’m not sure thats a fair comparison. Aside from the finder and motorized operation, the G2 is every bit as well built and (in my opinion) better to use. If the Leica didn’t need that big tasty rangefinder to ensure focus, wouldn’t it just be taking up space? The lenses are what matterand these lenses are as good as any produced for 135 format. Ever, by any maker.
But Matthew, I’ve read about how terrible the autofocus is. The internet tells me the camera is probably unusable and that I’m a filthy cretin for considering it in the first place. They just never know where the camera is focusing! Help!
Don’t be a dork. Learn how the AF system works and exploit it. The AF is snappy, accurate and hunts very little. It’s got a single AF spot, how hard is this for people to understand? It’s the same gripe you read over and over about the brilliant Fuji GA645 and its kin. Just because you don’t care enough to learn how a camera without 256 AF zones works, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to slow down for you to catch up.
Centre focus, recompose, relocate. Victory!
Carl Zeiss G mount 28mm F/2.8 Biogon
The Biogon is easily the most clinical and sharpest 28mm I’ve ever used. Any format, any brand. Distortion is minimal, the photos are clean, clear and so very sharp. Usually stored on the camera, so good.
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Carl Zeiss G mount 45mm F/2.0 Planar
It’s the perfect normal lens. Again, super clinical, perfect colour rendition, zero distortion and no flare. Weirdly, I used this lens the least of the three. People rattle on about 3D rendering and colours that pop, but most of the prints from the Planar felt like you could dip your fingers into them. It made images that looked real.
Carl Zeiss G mount 90mm F/2.8 Sonnar
This dark-horse was probably my favourite lens in the trio, contrary to most of the loud opinions on the internet. The focal length is very usable, the AF was quick and accurate, and the portraits from the Sonnar are gorgeous.
Transition from focus to blur is perfect, and the lens is just sharp enough wide open to flatter your subject. Of course like the rest of the Zeiss lenses in this series, even moving down half a stop from wide open gives you an optical scalpel. This 90 deserves all the praise heaped on any other Zeiss Sonnar formula lens available.
I’ve been using words like Clinical and Scalpel in this review, and I think that’s a fair assessment. These lenses are more like scientific tools than soft, artists’ playthings. Like any other precision instrument, this system rewards preparation, efficient use and accuracy. It’s not for the touchy-feely plastic-flare camera crowd. It just doesn’t exist in that world. It’s stereotypically bushido.
Flash integration is perfect. The TLA200 is simple, quick to recycle and the only time I blew flash balance was when I metered incorrectly. Sure, you need to use CR lithium batteries for both the camera and flash. But at least they’re all the same size, cheap and available at any corner store. Worst case scenario, you rob the flash if the camera dies and push the rest of the film.
So I’ve extolled the virtues of the Contax G2. It is a very good casual camera, quick and packing a lot of heat in a tight package. But it doesn’t look the part, has a limited range of lenses available and was laughably expensive when new. So it would be easy to write this off as a well-to-do amateur’s plaything, right?
I was able to use the Contax to cover a wedding ceremony. It was the last job I accepted before hanging it up as a pro. The Contax offered one of the smoothest, most discrete and relaxed experiences I’ve had in a decade of shooting weddings, both digital and film.
One body with a 28 Biogon (or the 35mm F2.0 Planar) and another with the 90 Sonnar would be well-nigh unbeatable for wedding work. I’m ashamed I wasn’t using a G for all the years I worshipped blindly at the altar of Canon EF. Contax G was the one that got away.
The patient monster lurking under the bed of every Contax owner though, is electronics. Contax is no longer a solvent company, and these machines (though superbly made) are extremely complex. There will come a day when each and every Contax G will simply refuse to complete its mandate, leaving a heartbroken owner in its wake. This is partly why I chose to break up with the system prematurely, also the siren song of 120 wafting from the fridge.
I’ve also successfully resisted the lusty call of the G’s cousin, the Hexar RF and the modern, excellent Zeiss Ikon and ZM lenses. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, I’ve played the long game and invested my time and modest budget into medium format and mechanical cameras.
Excellent review with the appropriate sentiments for this camera. Although what a shame the G system had 2 tries only to evolve and think what could have been. The body needed to catch up to those impeccable lenses, but it all gave way to you know what. I still have mine, black with the trinity lenses. Just threw in a roll of Portra 400. It’s a zen experience to use. It really drives one’s priorities in the hunt. Anyway, I’m keeping mine.
Very nice article. The portrait from the 90 Sonnar tells the story. I had one on a somewhat smaller G1 camera, and that lens was almost enough to keep the Contax system. Truly one of the best portrait lenses in 35mm photography. But the camera was occasionally slow to find focus, which made street shooting a hit or miss affair. The viewfinder wasn’t that accurate either, and sometimes you ended up with a little less than you figured on.
Good to know that there’s still someone who can “heal” these cameras, at least oversea.. On this side of the Atlantic, few if any repair men even bother to open them anymore. Not sure if it’s worh shipping a camera back and forth insured over continents, hoping that the “repair clinic” finds the issue solvable AND has the spare part..
um, you can repair contax g and t series at Nippon photo clinic in ny…
Nice post you made about a real gem of a camera. Hopefully mine will run for a while as I‘m really fully satisfied with this camera. I fully agree with you that focusing is pretty easy, as in the early days of autofocus where all cameras had a single focus field and not zillions of it, it works exactly that way. Fingers crossed that my G2 has a long long life 😉
The G2 is very nearly the perfect camera. I enjoyed the use of one for some years and it and its lenses were a delight. I had only one issue with it: batteries! On a bitterly cold day in Berlin the batteries failed to rewind the film for me. I should have been carrying spares of course, but tragically I was without them. I got to a photo dealer who provide batteries and the remark ” ah you have a superb camera but you really wanted a Leica didn’t you?”. Of course he was right and some years later the beautiful Contax was sold and I fell back into the Leica fold. Good though the Contax viewfinder is there is something unbeatable about the Leica M3 finder! I have added to the M3 a Zeiss 50mm lens, probably as a nod to the G2 I once owned!
Nice article. And how not to agree.. The G is just one of the many marvelous cameras (both system and compact cameras alike, f.eks. Ricoh GR1, Hexar AF, Nikon 35Ti, Contax T2/T3..) that IMO is foolish to buy nowadays: One the one hand the existing samples of these cameras have their days counted, AND it’s virtually impossible to repair them. One the other hand theycommand more and more premium prices, as if the fact they still work fine today meant that they’re a safe investment. Sorry, it isn’t. They will also soon die, and the question is whether you want to pay big bucks for that to happen in your hands.. Been there, done that. Now I only buy mechanical & reparable gear.
Same here, the ribbon cable in the lens broke sealing its faith.
So sad about Contax. My wonderful TVS point and shoot with zoom lens gave me fabulous pictures, but then it went haywire and that was that.
Thanks for this astute review of the G2. I agree. I have the Contax G2 and love it. Except that I’m more of a medium format shooter. The 21mm lens is also great. And even the 35-70 zoom lens is fantastic – as sharp as the primes (I know it is hard to believe but it is true).
In 2008 I’d say I married up. That’s when I was gifted with 2 Contax G2 bodies a 90, 45, 35, 28, and last but not least the 21! Oh, and the flash(never used). The person who gifted this beauty to me had recently moved to a Phase one P 35 digital back for his Hasselblad and he was not going back to film. He told me it would be on permanent loan and I have used my opportunity to enjoy being seen with this beauty. I know the ultimate outcome because one of the bodies has become disabled but I will enjoy this arranged marriage till death do us part!
I have never shot a single flash image with this camera as it seems meant for available light. I’m a lover of backlighting and this camera rarely if ever disappoints. I shoot Portra 160 almost exclusively and the shutter allows me to hand hold below a 60th when required with useable results more than 60% of the time. The list of capabilities of this camera, leaving the film leader out on rewind, manual override of auto film speed set, back button focus lock, exposure lock and easy manual focus set-up are only a few of this cameras extra capabilities.
Addressing the focus of this camera. It’s one weakness has been upclose critical focus situations but as the years have passed I’ve taught myself how to overcome this with now pleasing results and I’m from the focus is king crowd. Yes, it will be a sad day when I have to start dating again but until that time I will enjoy every minute we get to spend together.
On a final note, the sample images don’t even begin to show the sharpness of the 90 and 45. They always amaze me when I make a print and they are a perfect match for printing at 720(widely unknown feature) on an epson pro printer. If you love detail, beautiful dynamic range and color rendition then look no further.
What can I say? I’m totally smitten and madly in love.
Thank you for that entertaining and practical review! Condolences as well, on the tragic demise of your GA 645. A few ‘G’ lenses that you missed out on; the 16 Hologon, 21 Biogon and 35-70 Vario-Sonnar. You could be forgiven for the 16 and its challenging idiosyncrasies but the 21 is purportedly as top-notch as the larger Contax/Zeiss SLR versions.
For a RF-like camera, the Contax G and its 16-90mm range of glass was pretty comprehensive; Leica only extends that to 135mm, a lens that’s damned-near-impossible to focus on a .72 RF.
Maybe it’s Hasselblad time for you and your cache of 120 film?