Push me, pull you: The Contax RTS III and Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4

Written by and published on
Filed under , , ,

Following my CONTAX S2 review last year, I got thinking why I liked using my S2 so much more than my RTS II. After all, the RTS II had some great features with its centre weighted meter and aperture priority mode, it was a more relaxed camera than the all-manual S2.

And yet, I did not use it nearly as much.


The more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to my perceived differences between the RTS II and S2. Yes, of course, at their core was a completely distinct design philosophy, top-line fully-featured film SLR vs stripped-down fully-manual film SLR. But in practice, the decade or more between their creation brought them closer together so that an all singing all dancing camera from the early 80s began to feel quite similar to a purist camera of the mid-90s.

I began to think that if I was going to own and use two 35mm cameras they should be more distinctive, more different from one another. And so I sold my RTS II and started looking for a good condition RTS III.

Contax’s Real Time System line of cameras was born in 1974 with the original RTS. CONTAX wanted it to stand out from the mid 70s crowd so they employed Porsche Industrial Design to create the elegant body and the slick ergonomics of the new camera. This together with a complete selection of Carl Zeiss lenses made it an instant success and a future classic.

The RTS II was released in 1982. It was more evolution than revolution, looking very similar to its predecessors satin black and leather Porsche concept but with a host of additional modern features like quartz timing and an electromagnetically controlled titanium shutter.

1990’s RTS III was to be the last Real Time System camera from CONTAX. It was a clear departure from both its predecessors, being altogether larger and heavier. Once again, right up to date for the time, it had all the features of any professional camera and some of its own, chief amongst them was the RTV vacuum system, more about that later.

The RTS III also used for the first time, a built-in motor drive, something CONTAX had featured on other models since the 137MD in 1980. Spot-Pre-flash TTL, an integrated diopter, 100% viewfinder, auto bracketing, multi-metering modes, priority modes and a data back that would imprint date and time between frames: it was and still is a very impressive camera for a 30-year old design.


As is often the case with purchasing aftermarket film cameras today, there were many RTS III examples for sale on the other side of the world in Japan but with taxes and import duties, the cost of these cameras was in my view not worth the risk. I decided that something closer to home would be better. Fortunately, after only a few days, I found a suitable one available in the UK and snapped it up.

There is always a risk when buying unseen on an auction site, but with care and common sense good deals are available and the reality is that with rare cameras this is often the only way to find them.

Although the RTS III is a lot bigger than both its predecessors it still retains their familiar look and feel. The original ergonomics have not been compromised, the positions of the controls and dials are in the same places and they all retain the quality precise feel that you would expect from a CONTAX camera.

At over a kilogram without a lens, this robust camera with its integrated grip is surprisingly well balanced and comfortable to handle. Simple is not a word I would use to describe the RTS III, for a start its got a vacuum ceramic back. A what?

Kyocera the Japanese corporation who made CONTAX cameras are amongst other things specialists in ceramics. So they gave it an ultra-smooth ceramic film back that sucks the film flat against itself for super-film-plane-sharpness every time a photo is taken. I’m not convinced it makes much difference but who cares, it’s cool and I like it.

Gone is the manual winder of the RTS II (and me forgetting to wind on!), replaced by an integrated motor drive that is capable of 5 frames per second. Now, I could foolishly squander an entire roll of film in less than 8 seconds in a glorious hail of 1/8000 click-clack shutter fire. There is no need to only use a centre weighted meter, flick a switch and a true 3mm spot meter is also available.

Mirror up? No problem, I can even close the eyepiece with a red-spotted internal curtain to stop stray light getting in that way. It’s got +1 EV or +0.5 EV bracketed exposure, a vertical titanium shutter, built-in dioptric adjustment and a 100% viewfinder with interchangeable focusing screens. Aperture and shutter speed is displayed via an attractive light blue and white LED that works perfectly until you use it on a sunny day when you can’t see anything!

Then there is my favourite feature, being able to change films mid-shoot. I shoot both colour and black & white and with my medium format system, the ability to change film backs on a shoot is something I particularly value. Okay, so it’s not quite the same thing but the RTS III automatically winds the film back into the can leaving the film leader sticking out. In this way, it is possible to wind a semi-shot roll back and by taking note of the unfinished rolls last exposed frame number swapping films is practical and possible. A semi-shot roll of film can be reinserted and with the lens cap on, shutter set to maximum speed, aperture set ƒ22 and for extra security, close the eyepiece curtain, you can simply shoot back to the previously noted frame number +1 and that’s it a mid-shoot film change. Brilliant.


Talking of lenses, something I did not mention when I wrote about my CONTAX S2 last year, and because I decided to get a lens specifically for the RTS III it’s worth a mention here. I have three Zeiss lenses already, a Distagon 28mm ƒ/2.8 wide-angle, a Planar 50mm ƒ/1.4 standard and a Planar 85mm ƒ/1.4 for portraits. That’s pretty much all my photographic bases covered. The thing is, I don’t really like changing lenses that much during a shoot and I wanted a lens that I could leave on the RTS III most of the time, a kind of catch-all flexible lens. Yes, a zoom! I know, I know it’s heresy going from prime lenses to a lazy zoom. But if you don’t try you will never know.

I decided on a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm ƒ/3.4. Released in 1985 this beautiful Carl Zeiss lens features the usual all-metal body and has a build quality that you would expect from any Zeiss lens. Overall, it is a surprisingly small and sleek design, smaller and weighing even less than a Planar 85mm ƒ/1.4. With its elegant satin black surfaces and tiny pyramid rubber grips, it has a nicely dampened focusing twist and positive aperture ring.

Zooming is performed via a push-pull action. The lens is set to 70mm when collapsed (pulled toward the body) and 35mm when extended (pushed all the way out). This action is a first for me, and I like it, the lens gives enough resistance to stop it accidentally moving when focusing. At the extreme 35mm end with a definite twist, the lens slips into macro focus range — again another first for me — and a world of new creative possibilities getting very close to my subject for the first time.

What are the pictures like? I’m happy, the lens appears as sharp as any of the primes I own. It’s a pleasure to use and its versatility makes it a perfect all-rounder, as good shooting landscapes as portraits, I see it as an excellent travel lens. I love using it at 35mm, a focal distance that seems perfect for the urban landscapes that I like so much. It’s not as fast as my other prime lenses but I try to shoot as much as I can between ƒ/5.6 and ƒ/8 so it’s fast enough and anyway, that’s where this lens sings.

I’m not going to write about bokeh, vignetting, flair or any other technical stuff, there’s plenty of information elsewhere on the web about this and that’s because in common with nearly all C/Y (Contax/Yashica) mount Zeiss lenses this lens is quite sought after by DSLR users. Digital photographers who fit their cameras with adaptor rings seemingly adore these lenses and so I guess the quality of classic glass is timeless.

The Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm is that elusive zoom that is optically as good as a bag full of primes and if I were starting a Zeiss collection, after a Planar 50mm this will be the next lens on my list.

Considering the constraints of my existing Zeiss lenses I wanted a second 35mm SLR that offered a distinct and different photographic experience from my all manual stripped-down S2, something I felt that the RTS II did not. With the RTS III that is exactly what I now have, and a bit like the parent of two siblings each with their own attributes and character they are to me, both exceptional.

~ Tom


Contax RTS III technical specifications

ManufacturerKyocera Corporation
Camera nameContax RTS III
Manufacture dates1990 - 2005
Camera typeSingle Lens Reflex
Film format35mm film
Image format24x36mm
Lens mountC/Y mount (45.5mm flange focal distance)
LensesRanging from 16mm to 300mm, 36 first party prime/zoom Carl Zeiss lenses in total.
ShutterFocal plane, electronic quartz-controlled, vertical-travel, metal focal-plane shutter.
AV & P modes: 32 secs. to 1/8000 sec.
TV and M modes: 4 secs. to 1/8000 sec.
Electromagnetic release with exclusive cable switch socket
ViewfinderFixed pentaprism high eye point with ~100% coverage (x0.74 magnification)
Built in, +1 to -3 diopter correction
Default fresnel matte screen with centered split image/microprism spot
Viewfinder displayFocusing indicator, shutter speed, exposure warning, aperture, exposure compensation, metering Indicator, back focusing scale indicator, exposure counter, self-timer remaining time, flash ready light
Body LCD
Film loaded/camera empty.
Battery status.
Exposure modesAperture-Priority AE (AV)
Shutter-speed-Priority AE (TV)
Program AE (P)
Manual Exposure (M)
Drive modesSingle-frame
Continuous CL (approx. 2 frames per second)
Continuous CH (approx. 10 frames per second)
Self-timer (2 or 10 seconds)
Multiple exposure
Additional functionsMirror lockup (dedicated lever)
Exposure compensation: +/-2EV in 1/3 stop increments
Date imprintData back as standard with imprint between frames as follows:

Year/month/day
Month/day/year
Day/month/year
Day/hour/minute
No imprint

Requires a 3V lithium battery (CR2025)
MeteringCentral weighted average metering (CW) and spot metering:

EV 0 - 21 for full-aperture, center-weighted average metering
EV 3 - 21 for spot metering

DX coded ISO from 25 - 5000
Manually set ISO from 6 - 6400
FlashDirect X-contact (Coupled with TLA flash)
1/200 Sec. and Slower
Power1x2CR5 (6V) or
6x 1.5V AA
Weight1.150Kg (body only, no battery)
Dimensions
(appx)
Body only:
156 x 121 x 66 (W x H x D in mm)
AccessoriesFocusing screens:
FW-1 (horizontal split-image/microprism)
FW-2 (microprism dot/collar combination screen)
FW-3 (matte screen)
FW-4 (sectioned matte screen)
FW-5 (cross-scale screen)

Eyepiece/cup:
Eye-Cup F (8x diopters)
Right Angle Finder N
Eyepiece magnifier

Power/Data:
Contax Data Back D-8
Contax Power Pack P-8

Shutter:
Cable Switch S

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm ƒ/3.4 technical specifications

ManufacturerCarl Zeiss AG
NameCarl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 35-70mm f/3.4
TypeZoom
MountContax/Yashica (C/Y)
45.5mm flange focal distance
Focal length35-70mm (35.7-69.0 mm)
Max. aperturef/3.4
Min. aperturef/22
Aperture rangeSelectable in full-stop increments: 3.4 - 5.6 - 8 - 11 - 16 - 22 (f/4 not marked but selectable)
Aperture blades8
Optical design10 elements in 10 groups
CoatingCarl Zeiss T*
Floating elementsNo
Closest focus70cm (normal range)
25cm (set the focal length to 35mm and use the macro range)
Zoom methodPush/pull: Set to 70mm by default, "push" the focusing ring forward to zoom out to 35mm
Zoom incrementsMarked: 70 - 60 - 50 - 40 - 35
IR focus markNo
Filter type/mountScrew-in (67mm, 0.75mm pitch)
Clip-on (70mm diameter)
Lens DoF preview switchNo
Electrical contactsNo
Length80.5mm when focal length set to 70mm
Weight~475g

Share your knowledge, story or project

At the heart of EMULSIVE is the concept of helping promote the transfer of knowledge across the film photography community. You can support this goal by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.

If you like what you're reading you can also help this personal passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and giving as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.


Previous

5 Frames… Of Fujifilm Velvia 50 developed using C-41 and BW chemistry (EI 50 / 120 format / Rolleiflex 2.8D) by Mustakim Irsan

Lomography launches new not-so-slow-slow 35mm B&W film: Babylon Kino ISO 13

Next

2 thoughts on “Push me, pull you: The Contax RTS III and Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4”

  1. Fully agree, the RTS III is a great camera. Just as a word of caution for those looking for one: Most RTS III on the market today have a dead finder display as well as problems with the metering. I own 3 (no joke) and none of them is fully working… Contax used some components in the electronics with limited lifetime of approx. 10 years and that‘s why sadly enough all these great cameras are dying eventually!

    Reply
  2. Great review! The chatter on these great cameras is curiously limited. It was in many ways superior to the contemporary R8 with a built-in motor drive. Lenses are the equal of Leica R; just different.

    Really unfortunate that the exquisite Contax RTS series and Leica R8/9 are no longer serviceable.

    Reply

Join the discussion