I started out writing a 5 Frames article for this excellent website but my typing ran away a little and I ended up realising it had turned into a mini-review of my latest 35mm acquisition, the Contax RX. I thought that rather than crop the article down, I would publish the long version in its entirety.
The search for the perfect camera is one that everyone goes through. It’s a quest that can last many years and can also be without end, depending on how fussy you are. Frustrations can come in many forms, from the position of an ISO dial to the shape of a camera body. As well as the ergonomics of the camera, lenses also can give a feeling of the grass is greener. “I wonder how sharp that lens would be?” or, “If only I had another stop or a wider view”… on it goes.
I reckon most photographers, if not outright gear heads, are at least closet ones. After having a Nikon FE for some time and enjoying it, the next part of my quest turned to the Contax range and their Zeiss glass. I have drooled over these on occasion. Models of varying degrees of sophistication, from the basic Contax S2, to the behemoth that is the Contax RTS III. Fleetingly lifting them to my eye and imagining spending time looking through their dreamy viewfinders at my leisure. Only to be jarred back to reality when handing them back.
Eventually, I was in a position to get myself one and plumped for the Contax RX. A “prosumer” (yeuch) model.
A slight step down from the pro-level Contax RTS III in terms of features, but every bit of the same quality as far as performance, build, and in my opinion, ergonomics. The Contax RX has auto wind, spot metering and centre weighted metering. It has a strange but fairly effective focus and depth of field indicator, which was in answer to the camera industry moving towards autofocus around when Contax was still lagging behind due to the absence of Zeiss autofocus lenses.
It works in a similar way to using an indexed manual focus lens on a modern DSLR. The focus when achieved is shown in the viewfinder at the bottom by two LED blocks. As you approach focus it is displayed by small LED circles on each side of the focus blocks depending on whether you are in front or back focus. It takes a little getting used to but it is a help. It seems to take its cue from the centre split on my focus screen indicator, rather than the fresnel around the outside of centre. It’s an aid for me on occasions but I usually favour the fresnel for focus confirmation.
There is also a method of seeing the depth of field in relation to your focal point that is clever. It shows your focal depth by small LED dashes above your focus indicator, displaying more dashes as the focal depth/aperture increases in relation to your focus point. Useful on some occasions I imagine, but I am more of a depth of field by eye or lens markings type of shooter I think.
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I opted for a 50mm lens as my starting point, and picked up the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.7 flavour: weighty with a gorgeous damped focus. Film loading is simple on this camera. Just lay the film lead flat and up to the orange marker in the film chamber, then close the back and push the shutter button for a reassuring whirr and you’re ready to go.
I was aware of an often-discussed problem that some of these later Contax cameras can have where the mirror can slip. It is well documented, and there is an excellent article talking about how one owner resolved the problem written by Dom Ruikeh on Tom Sebastiano’s Inverno Dreaming website. Thankfully my unit seems to have avoided this issue but I will always have half an eye on it.
Wandering around framing with this camera is great. The viewfinder is bright and focus is pretty easy. I sometimes use the LED confirmation as a double check but I am fairly used to focusing using a fresnel. The operation is sharp and satisfying. A reassuring camera in the hand too, despite its weight, it is well balanced with the 50mm lens.
Operations on the Contax RX’s top plate are intuitive and nicely placed. The camera offers single or continuous film advance modes. The latter I shy away from; film prices prohibit this level of abandon for me. The lift-up collar on the mode dial prevents accidental engagement of this mode, thankfully. There is a self-timer option too, coming clearly marked and often welcome. The shutter button is nicely slightly shielded by the on button lever; the lever is one click to switch on and a second to the auto exposure lock. A feature I find really useful when using the spot metering mode.
Another feature that is a big bonus for me on this camera is the auto rewind (on film end) and its customisation options. It can be set to rewind a roll of film and leave the leader out. This enables you to swap films partway through. The only downside is the sacrifice of a frame, a price worth paying in my opinion in order to gain an extra level of flexibility. All you have to do is remember the frame you were on when removing the roll and make a note on the film canister ready for re-loading at a later date. I have already done this on a couple of occasions without a hitch. The hardest part is finding something that will write on a film canister…
Owning this Contax RX has given me more of a desire to shoot 35mm. There are of course more lightweight options for 35mm but I don’t mind the weight. The fact that it is so well built and reassuringly chunky makes it worth carrying around. I no longer need another 35mm film camera. I do wonder what a Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 would give me now, or perhaps the Zeiss Vario Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4… Hmmm…
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Beautiful shots. What film stock were you using with this RX?
Hi Austin, thanks very much for the comment. The colour shots are on Portra 160 and the mono are on Hp5
Noticed your final comment about future lens acquisitions–I used the Distagon 28mm f2.8 for several years. Speaking strictly as an amateur, I think that you would appreciate the quality and performance. Super sharp and build quality a notch above most of the Canon and Nikkor lenses I’ve used over the years. The 28mm focal length is great for landscape work.
Hi Kevin, ta for the comment. I actually bought a 35mm f2.8 Zeiss for the camera a little while after. I feel like adding to my lens options will be a slow process. The 35mm is a great focal length and I can see me getting a lot of use out of it. The 28mm is still definitely on my radar though.
I always marvel and chuckle at these Contax cameras with that gigantic top dial dedicated to exposure compensation. Seems like a big waste to me, especially since the RX gets spot metering capability too. Maybe I’m being too harsh on these Contax 35mm SLRs. I shot for a short time with a Contax 167mt and it just wasn’t a good fit for me. Plus, knowing that I could buy the much cheaper and more basic Yashica SLRs and use the same Zeiss glass makes the prospect of a Contax SLR quite a bit less attractive. To me this is like spending the extra money to buy an Acura when you could get essentially the same thing while spending less money on a Honda.
Ah that Zeiss glass….I bought my first Contax 139Q in 1984, got back into shooting film four years ago. Try the 2.8/25, the 3.3/28-85 is a little bulky but covers most needs beautifully, is almost always on one of my cameras. A lovely rabbit hole to lose yourself in!
The RX is indeed a fine camera with even more flash options than the RTSiii if you decide to go in that direction. It is smooth, very quiet and superbly built.
Bang-on beautiful images, bucko. I’ve been lusting for a Contax 139Q and a short list of Contax lenses. The RX just might get added to that list.
Thanks for that David. I think the Rx is maybe as far away from a basic manual Contax 35mm SLR like the 139Q (save for the RTSIII) but it is a gorgeous bit of kit if you are willing to take the plunge. I am really surprised at how much I am enjoying the auto wind and auto loading but don’t tell the purists 😉
The 139 is a nice camera. Apart from its shell it is identical to the Yashica FX-D which will be cheaper. Another way in to those fabulous Zeiss lenses is with other Yashica models, the FR and FR-2 particularly which share their innards with the RTS
Brilliant piece with glorious images to boot.
What an absolute beauty. Wish I bought one when I could.
I sold my RX to finance the move to digital in the mid-’00s and regretted it almost immediately. It’s built like a tank and absolutely beautiful. One thing readers should know is the RX has, perhaps, the most satisfying shutter sound of any auto-wind camera ever made. It makes you really, really want to find something that justifies hitting that shutter-release button. Lastly, I caved last week and bought another RX off ebay along with the stunning 85mm f/1.4. #reunited
Hi Alex, I agree with you wholeheartedly on the shutter noise. It can be addictive and consequently, expensive. Glad to hear you are reunited with an RX. I bet it is like riding a bike using it. Can’t hurt looking through an 85mm either. That is one big chunk of glass. Enjoy it!