I love medium format cameras but sometimes I feel a bit lazy: I just want to shoot a camera that is quick and convenient to use. That is when I reach for my trusty Pentax 645NII. It is a medium format film camera, but at the smallest end of what’s officially medium format. The Pentax 645NII is a handy camera, but sometimes its 6×4.5cm images don’t seem to have quite as much ‘medium format magic’ as larger negatives such as 6×6 and 6×7 do.

During one of the 2020 COVID lockdowns, I decided to pit the Pentax 645NII against its rather more glamorous: the Contax 645. Both produce ‘small end’ medium format 6×4.5cm frames but I wanted to know if the Contax produces more magic than the Pentax.

Here’s how it played out.


The Contax 645?

You have probably heard about the Contax 645. If ever the term ‘hype’ could be applied to a camera, the Contax 645 is that camera. Yes, even more so than its smaller cousins, the Contax T2 and its sibling the Contax T3, which I wrote about here EMULSIVE a while back in a huge compact 35mm camera mega test. The Contax 645 is famous, and just like famous people, most people have never seen one in real life. If you are not familiar with the Contax 645, look up the price of it on eBay and frighten yourself.

You’re back? Good.

Interestingly, the Contax 645 was not hugely expensive when new – it was about the same price as the Pentax 645NII, which came in at around US$2,400, or US$3,500 in 2021 money.

However, after it ceased production at the end of 2005, two main events caused the Contax 645 to rise in value:

First, a digital swansong

Around the time Kyocera (owners of the Contax brand) announced the Contax camera business would be closed down by the end of 2005, demand for the Contax 645 rose among pro photographers due to its ability to take digital backs.

There were at least seven digital backs available for the Contax 645, which I believe was more than for any other film camera at that time. The Pentax 645NII could not take digital backs, since it did not have a removable film back.

Second, The Jose Villa Effect

Almost a decade later came ‘The Villa Effect’, which caused the value of the Contax 645 to rise even more rapidly than before. It was remarkable in that it was caused by one person: Jose Villa.

Photographer Jose Villa caused a sensation among wedding photographers with his dreamy, romantic images. Jose’s recipe for achieving his signature look was simple but precise: a Contax 645 camera with 80mm lens set at f2, using Fujifilm Pro 400H film over-exposed by one stop. That combination of extremely shallow depth of field and high-key tonality became the standard for wedding photos that continues to this day.

It seems as though half the wedding photographers on the planet bought a Contax 645 based on Jose Villa’s recommendation. Demand exceeded the limited supply of Contax 645s, so prices rocketed.

By the way, Jose Villa wrote a book called Fine Art Wedding Photography that I recommend even if you are not into wedding photography – Jose’s techniques for creating dreamy images could equally be applied to fashion photography, portrait photography and other genres. Unfortunately, as I was writing this review, Fujifilm announced that it was discontinuing Fujifilm Pro 400H film. As an alternative, a wedding photographer tells me that Kodak Portra 800 will produce a slightly similar look if over-exposed (but apparently Portra 160 and 400 will not).

The Pentax 645 series had been produced in greater numbers than the Contax 645. When both the Contax 645 and Pentax 645NII were in production – and priced the same – more photographers chose to spend their money on the Pentax. I am not sure why. Perhaps Pentax was simply the better-known brand. Perhaps the higher cost of Contax’s Zeiss lenses put off buyers (a Contax 645 with kit lens cost the same as a Pentax 645NII with kit lens, but if you wanted to add more lenses, the Contax system became more expensive).


Comparing Pentax and Carl Zeiss lenses

These days, most of the lenses in the Contax 645 range are surprisingly reasonably priced – approximately the same prices as the Pentax 645NII lenses. However, the price of the Contax’s Carl Zeiss Planar T* 80mm f/2.8 lens –- the one Jose Villa uses -– has become astronomical. Back in the day, the 80mm lens was not considered the ‘must have’ lens of the range. Nowadays, _everyone_ who has a Contax 645 body feels they must have the famous 80mm lens.

The result is that the 80mm lens has become one of the most expensive film-era lenses you can buy. My advice? Consider alternatives. The other lenses in the Contax Zeiss range are just as good. The Carl Zeiss T* Sonnar 140mm f/2.8 lens is remarkably affordable, and produces the same look, the same soft bokeh, the same shallow depth of field – just at a focal length that is equivalent to a classic 85mm portrait lens. If you prefer a wider field of view, the 45mm is excellent and affordable.

My only criticism of the Contax’s Zeiss lenses is that they all seem absurdly heavy. Apparently, their barrels are stainless steel. The Zeiss lenses make the camera front-heavy. I really disliked that at first, but I am starting to get used to it. The technique is to cradle the camera with your left hand, so that you are holding the lens as much as the body.

The Pentax body and Contax body weigh exactly the same: 1.40kg. But once you add a lens, the Contax system is significantly heavier. Fully loaded, the Contax is a 1.94kg heavyweight, while the Pentax is a 1.66kg middleweight.

The Pentax lenses are also all excellent, and relatively affordable. The standard Pentax SMC FA 75mm f/2.8 lens is great; wonderfully compact and lightweight. This small lens makes the Pentax 645NII a shorter, lighter system than the Contax with 80mm lens mounted.

Overall, the range of lenses available for the Pentax is somewhat wider than for the Contax. For example, if you want a leaf shutter lens, so you can sync flash at 1/500, only the Pentax system offers it.

That said, many effective focal lengths are covered by both systems. The Pentax system, like the Contax system, offers a 45mm lens and a 35mm lens. The Pentax’s excellent 150mm lens is very similar to the Contax’s 140mm lens, etc.


What about that medium format film magic?

The key question in my mind is this: do the Pentax lenses achieve as much of that ‘medium format film magic’ as the Contax’s Carl Zeiss lenses? I have not yet been able to take many fashion shots and portraits with the Contax, due to coronavirus lockdown. However, I have taken plenty of test shots – mostly too boring to show here! – some of which I’d like to share.

I processed the black and white films in Fotospeed FD10 developer, and the colour films in Rollei Digibase C-41 chemicals using a Cinestill TCS-1000 sous vide heater.

At most apertures, I would say the two cameras perform identically. I cannot tell which camera took which photo. I have to check the border to identify them (they each have a distinctive frame shape). Both cameras produce fantastically sharp results, with pleasantly soft out-of-focus areas. They are so similar I wonder whether Pentax copied Zeiss’s lens designs.

However, the Pentax range cannot offer f/2. The Contax 80mm lens at f/2 offers a fraction more ‘medium format magic’ than the Pentax can. In fact, I would say the Contax achieves the most three-dimensional looking images of any 645 system I have seen. Larger formats can do even better, of course, such as the amazing Pentax 67. But in the handy 645 size, the Contax is king.

Let’s keep this in perspective: the difference between f/2 and f/2.8 is obviously only slight. Also, in general use, most photos we take will not be at f/2. If you want to decide for yourself whether the Zeiss f/2 look is important to you, I suggest you check out Contax 645 and Pentax 645 groups on Flickr. That enables you to view hundreds of photos and decide whether the ability to shoot at f/2 is important to you.


Medium format Automation

I am impressed by the autofocus capabilities of both cameras. Some people complain that they are slow compared to the latest digital cameras. Well, I feel those people have incredibly unrealistic expectations. Of course these cameras cannot match modern cameras – they were released over two decades ago before the iPhone, Android, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram! They were almost unique – autofocusing medium format cameras. The holy grail for some photographers.

In fact, I am delighted that they autofocus as well as they do. Tests by a photography magazine in 1999 measured that the Contax takes 0.67 seconds to autofocus in bright light, and 1.0 second in dim light. Is that slow? I guess the latest cameras can do it in half the time. For me, even if the Contax takes a second to autofocus, that is still faster and easier than my hand focusing.

The Contax autofocuses well, and the Pentax autofocuses _very_ well. They are both good, but the Pentax is a bit faster and more confident. To be fair, in bright light the Pentax is only fractionally faster than the Contax. However, as conditions become dimmer, the Pentax advantage increases, until you reach a point where the Pentax will focus while the Contax simply hunts.

The Pentax was released two years after the Contax, so perhaps the Pentax design team’s brief was to beat the Contax. I’m not knocking the autofocus of the Contax, it’s good. It’s just that the Pentax is even better.


The world’s best autofocus medium format film camera?

I have one other autofocus medium format film camera, one that is outside the scope of this review: the Rolleiflex 6008AF.

Compared to these two, the Rolleiflex’s autofocus is a distant third. The lens barrel trundles around at a glacial pace, making a sound like a Soviet tractor. I don’t mind: it gets there in the end. But these two 645 cameras are nimble speed demons in comparison to the Rolleiflex.

The only other autofocus medium format film camera brand I know of is Mamiya, with its 645AF and 645AFD. I have never tried them, but their autofocus is reputed to be very similar to the Contax. There is also the precursor to Pentax 645NII to consider, the Pentax 645N. That is also very comparable to the Contax – in other words, a little slower than the Pentax 645NII. For the sake of completeness, I had better mention two other obscure options: the Hasselblad H1 (in theory film backs were made for this digital camera, but they seem impossible to find, so I don’t think the H1 counts) and the Rolleiflex Hy6 (the successor to the Rolleiflex 6008AF, only a few were made). Neither of these were reputed to be able to match the Pentax. So I think it is probably fair to say that the Pentax 645NII has the best autofocus of any medium format film camera in history.

Not strictly limited to autofocus, the video below runs through a quick side-by-side of the Contact 645 and Pentax 645NII. In the video, I run through cycling the shutter (with sounds, a you might expect), various aspects of both cameras, autofocus and more of their “naked” operations:

The Contax has focusing motors in the lenses, whereas the Pentax has its focusing motor in the body only. The lenses of both cameras can become slower with age as the lubricants gum up. If a collector sells you a mint lens that has been sitting unused for most of its life, you will often find it is slow to autofocus. Simply warm it up and exercise it: that usually fixes the issue.

Both Contax and Pentax lenses can be used perfectly well as manual focus lenses. Both cameras show focus confirmation in the viewfinder. The Contax 645 has an additional feature that makes manual focus a pleasure: a rear focus button. When in manual focus mode, a press of the focus button on the back of the camera body activates autofocus – something from the Contax AX and other 35mm autofocus film SLRs of the time. You have the best of both worlds.


Loading film Compared

The two cameras use film inserts that are virtually identical. They are quite easy to load. The Pentax 645NII has no removable film back, so you simply push the film insert into the camera. The back of the insert forms the back of the camera. The Contax has a door on the rear of the film back, so it should be just as easy to insert the film insert into the Contax as it is with the Pentax. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The Contax film insert seems to click into place perfectly well, but it’s a lie. You need to push firmly on both sides to ensure both sides are clicked in. Much film has been wasted by Contax shooters who thought they had clicked it in properly, but did not know the secret of the double push. If your shots are in focus on one side, but a little out of focus on the other side, that is why.

A lot of people say that the removable film back of the Contax is a big advantage, but is it really? Removable backs are the sort of thing you think you need when you are sitting on your sofa researching cameras. However, when you are actually out there shooting, how often do you change film mid-roll? Virtually never. It’s easier to simply finish the film. If you really, really need to change from one film to another mid-roll, the Pentax cannot do it. The Contax is better for you. However, be warned that the Contax’s film back is not the easiest to change quickly. There is something a bit awkward about the latches. The reason, I believe, is that the Contax film back has rows of little gold-plated contacts that need to match up. To ensure the contacts align properly, the latches are rather finicky.


A question of reliability

Let’s talk more about the little gold contacts on the Contax. The Contax holds the world record for the number of gold contacts on a film camera. It is absolutely bristling with the little blighters! Let’s count them: nine on the film back. Nine on the rear of the body. Six in the battery compartment. Six on the battery compartment lid. Twelve on the top of the body. Twelve in the prism. Nine on the front of the body. Nine in the lens. That is a whopping 72 contacts!

Why am I boring you by counting contacts? These contacts are critical to the reliability of the Contax 645. If even one of them fails to conduct electricity for a fraction of a second, the camera switches off. Yes, you read that right.

Now, this was not a problem when the camera was new. My low-usage Contax 645 has never had a problem. But well-used examples have a habit of switching off. Owners of worn Contax 645s are experts at removing and replacing parts until the camera decides to work again.

Contax contacts aside, the Contax 645 is infamous for suffering from another reliability issue: shutter failures. Last year I spoke to a Contax repairer who said he was becoming alarmed at the number of Contax 645s that are arriving in his repair shop with failed shutters. He cannot get replacement shutters, and he hates having to tell his customers that their expensive cameras are now plastic and stainless steel bricks.

Why are Contax 645 shutters failing? This is how I look at it. The rated life of medium format film camera shutters is generally around 150,000 actuations or so. If a Contax 645 was owned by a professional studio photographer for the first decade of its life, it might have done 100,000 actuations. If it was then purchased by a wedding photographer and used for the next decade, it could have done another 100,000 actuations. So by the time you buy that well-worn example, it has performed sterling service for longer than it was designed to. The shutter fails because its time is up.

People complain that Contax 645s are unreliable, but I find they are highly reliable as long as they are not worn out. The trick is to buy one that looks only lightly used. Ideally, it is worth finding one that was manufactured nearer the end of the production run. Personally, I look for serial numbers higher than 10,000. The serial number is on the bottom of the body, surrounded by the silver metal baseplate. I have used three Contax 645 bodies, with serial numbers in the 12,000 range, the 15,000 range and the 17,000 range. All of them have been 100% reliable.

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Current affairs: It’s all about power

Another common complaint about the Contax 645 is that it chews through batteries at an alarming rate. It requires an unusual battery that you cannot buy in supermarkets (2CR5). Some people complain that a battery only lasts about 5 rolls. A Contax in reasonable condition should get around 10-15 rolls per battery. When a battery only lasts for 5 rolls, something is not right. Often the problem seems to be related to autofocus. Perhaps the lens motor is slightly gummed up.

There is an optional Contax AA battery holder which helps. This Contax 645 battery grip replaces the battery door and adds four AA batteries to the 2CR5. The batteries sit in an extra grip under the body, with an extra shutter button for portrait-orientation shooting. It even has an extra back focus button. A switch allows you to power the camera from the 2CR5 battery or the AA batteries. The battery grip adds weight and bulk, but it is excellent for portrait-format shooting.

The Pentax 645NII takes six AA batteries. They are in its chunky grip. The Pentax lasts far longer on a set of batteries than the Contax does, even when the Contax is fitted with the extra battery grip. In fact, Pentax claimed that one set of lithium AA batteries would last for a staggering 320 rolls of film! I can almost believe it: I find the Pentax batteries last for far too many rolls to count.

How can the Pentax be so much more energy-efficient than the Contax? I have no idea.


Ergonomics: Living with the cameras

The Contax is nice to hold. The right hand grip is just right. You need to cradle the body and lens with your left hand, because the camera is front-heavy, but apart from that, the ergonomics are great. The Pentax is equally good – as long as you have big hands. You see, the Pentax’s grip is quite fat.

I seem to be talking more about the Contax 645 than the Pentax 645NII. That is partly because the Pentax 645NII has fewer issues. In actuality, it is a highly reliable camera. It does not have a removable prism or film back, so there is less to go wrong. Everything about it seems perfectly reliable and hard to fault. I find it a relaxing camera to use because I don’t have to worry about it. That in itself has immense value to me.

In design terms, the Pentax 645NII is also very similar to the Contax 645. However, there are some differences worth covering.


For the Control Freaks

Gear Comparison - Top views of the Contax 645 and Pentax 645NII showing control dials
Gear Comparison – Top views of the Contax 645 and Pentax 645NII showing control dials

The Pentax has a small LCD screen, which shows some relevant information. The Contax 645 does not. This means the Pentax has more settings that can be changed. For example, you can set the exposure compensation to work in half EV steps or third EV steps. You can change the auto-bracketing sequence. You can set the film counter to count up or down.

I find that many medium format film cameras seem to occasionally lack film flatness for achieving maximum sharpness at f/2 or f/2.8. Perhaps it is an inherent design limitation of 120 film. Contax and Pentax were both aware of this, and they came up with totally different solutions. Contax developed a fancy vacuum suction film back. It worked well – as long as you were using 220 film. Contax made no such back for 120 film, simply because it would not work: 120 film has paper backing, so the vacuum would be sucking the paper, not the film. Contax’s solution is of no use to us today, since 220 film is no longer made.

Pentax came up with a surprisingly simple solution. Pentax found that the lack of film flatness was primarily caused by the curl in the film caused by the rollers. If the roller curl was between frames, rather than on frames, flatness was improved. Pentax simply gave the camera the option to shoot 15 frames per roll instead of 16. At 15 frames per roll, there is a larger gap between frames, and the curl happens to coincide with the gaps. This can be set as an option on the Pentax 645NII: if you want maximum sharpness, set it to 15 shots, and if you want maximum shots per roll, set it to 16 shots. Simple but highly effective.

By the way, the Pentax requires different film inserts for 120 and 220 film – so be careful you don’t accidentally buy a 220 insert. The Contax has one insert with a film plate that can be rotated to a 120 or 220 setting – so make sure it is set to 120.


The sound of silence

This may be a bit crazy, but the sound a camera makes is important to me. The Pentax sounds perfectly fine. Until you hear the Contax: then you realise how good a camera can sound. The Contax has the most beautiful, precise, expensive sound – check out the first minute of the video above, if you have not done so already.

I suspect Contax designers engineered the sound, whereas Pentax designers just let their camera sound however it ended up after it was put together. If you delight in a great-sounding camera, you will love the Contax. On the other hand, let’s get real here: a great sound does not make better photos.

Gear Comparison - Another view of the Contax 645 and Pentax 645NII cameras
Gear Comparison – Another view of the Contax 645 and Pentax 645NII cameras

The Pentax has a beautifully simple dial-based control system. The shutter speed dial and the aperture ring both have all the usual settings (such as f/5.6 or 1/500 sec), plus a green A (for Auto). If you put the shutter dial on say 125 and the aperture ring on say f/8, you have manual mode with the settings as shown. If you put the shutter dial on 125 and the aperture ring on A, you have shutter priority auto. If you put the shutter dial on A and the aperture ring on say f/8, you have aperture priority auto. So simple and logical!

The Contax is slightly less logical. You have a switch that can be set to B, X, M, Tv or Av. If you set it to M, the dials operate as expected. If you set it to Tv, you get shutter priority, and you set the shutter dial to the speed you want. But you have to remember to ignore the aperture ring, because whatever it is set to is irrelevant, since the camera is automatically setting the aperture. The same applies if you set the switch to Av, you have to ignore the shutter dial. The shutter dial has 16 shutter speeds on it, so there is only a 6.25% chance that it is telling the truth! I’m only joking, because in reality it is not a problem. It’s just that the Pentax demonstrates that a more elegant method is possible.


Auto…everything?

Sharp readers may have spotted something: if the Pentax has a green A on the aperture ring, and a green A on the shutter dial, what happens if both are set to A? The answer is that the Pentax goes into Programmed AE mode. In this mode the Pentax changes both aperture and shutter as it sees fit.

You might think that the photographer in this instance is effectively a monkey pointing the camera and pressing the shutter. To be sure, some purists hate program mode, but I find it really handy on those occasions when I just want to nail the shot as fast as possible. The Pentax’s program mode even offers program shift, where you can bias the program towards greater depth of field or greater shutter speed. Now, THAT is marvelous!

The Contax’s program mode is not quite so good. In fact, it is not good at all, because it does not exist.

When I first discovered that the Contax has no program mode whatsoever, I couldn’t believe it. Why would Contax leave off program mode? Its autofocus competitors all have it. Maybe Contax felt that leaving off program mode would make the camera seem more professional? You may agree. Perhaps you would never use program mode. But for me personally, the Contax’s lack of program mode is a bit of a fail.


Prisms and viewfinders

The quality of the viewfinder image is really important, because the viewfinder is vital for every single shot.

The Contax has a rather bulky prism that produces a medium-sized image of medium brightness. Some people complain it is a bit dim, but I don’t mind it. I’m quite fussy about viewfinder quality, and I like the Contax viewfinder.

The Pentax has a smaller prism. Somehow it does not look nearly as impressive as the Contax prism. However, the Pentax prism has a secret. It is like Doctor Who’s Tardis: bigger on the inside than the outside. That unassuming little Pentax prism miraculously manages to produce a slightly bigger, brighter image than the Contax prism does.

I don’t know how it does it.

How important is the Pentax’s slightly superior viewfinder? I’m on the fence about this. The difference is only slight, and the Contax viewfinder is good. In fact, the more I use the Contax, the more I have started to notice that the Contax viewfinder has a subtly impressive quality about it. It’s hard to describe, but it looks very real and three dimensional. I think this quality must be due to the fact that the Contax is showing an f/2 image, whereas the Pentax is showing an f/2.8 image. The Pentax is brighter, but the Contax has a very ‘real’ look to it.

Also, the Contax has an advantage I have not mentioned yet: the option of a waist level finder. You can remove the Contax’s prism and replace it with a simple, compact waist level finder. It works well for situations when you want to look down into your camera. One slight disappointment is that the camera loses centre-weighted metering when you fit the waist level finder – you only have spot metering. Odd.

Speaking of metering, the Contax uses traditional centre-weighted metering (plus the option of spot metering). The Pentax uses more sophisticated multi-segment metering (plus options of centre-weighted metering and spot metering). In theory, the Pentax should expose awkward scenes more accurately. In reality, I find that the Contax’s centre-weighted metering seems to be just as good.


Shutters and camera bodies

The Contax shutter is a high-tech design marvel – the most advanced shutter ever fitted to a medium format film camera. The Contax’s titanium blades are incredibly thin. You must never push on them. Which is another reason why it is wise to leave the film back on the camera, and only change backs when you absolutely must.

Gear - The high tech Contax 645 shutter
Gear – The high tech Contax 645 shutter

The Contax’s delicate shutter achieves something truly remarkable: a top shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second. Only the Contax 645 and Mamiya 645 AF and later AFD series ever achieved that. In comparison, the Pentax can only achieve 1/1000. To be fair, 1/1000 is fine for most uses. Nevertheless, the Contax’s unmatched top speed of 1/4000 may be extremely useful to some photographers in some situations. For example, on a sunny day you may sometimes need to use 1/4000 if you want to shoot at f/2. If you need both those extremes – f/2 and 1/4000 – the Contax 645 is the only medium format film camera in the world that will do it.



Extra features

Both cameras have various advanced features that you may seldom use. They both offer auto-bracketing (where the camera can fire off three rapid shots at three different exposures).

They both have motor drive, although again I can’t imagine many of us would want to plough through film that fast. Both have mirror lock-up, double exposure and so on. Both have TTL (Through-The-Lens) automatic flash capability.

Both offer advanced flash features such as rear curtain sync, where the flash goes off at the end of the exposure to make the blur trail behind a fast-moving object. The advanced flash features require dedicated flash units (such as the Contax TLA360 and the Pentax AF360FGZ). Standard flash units can also be used in non-TTL mode. The flash sync speed on the Pentax is 1/60. The flash sync speed on the Contax is 1/90 (or 1/125 in some situations).

Both cameras also enable you to imprint exposure data on the side of the film. The Pentax allows you to turn that feature off if you prefer, but the Contax has it permanently enabled.

Let’s not forget that all these advanced electronic features have some downsides. For one thing, you lose the pleasure of using a vintage camera. These are 21st century cameras. They lack retro charm. Are they a little too close to modern DSLRs? Only you can decide how you feel about that. Another downside is that a century from now, I think people will still be taking pictures with mechanical cameras such as Rolleiflexes and Hasselblads. People will have fabricated parts to keep them working. However, I doubt anyone will still be taking pictures with a Pentax 645NII or Contax 645. The electronics will have failed by then, and there will be no way to keep them working.


Other options

For the sake of some lateral thinking, let’s consider how you could achieve Contax-style shallow depth of field portraits with other cameras. If you happen to own a Hasselblad 500 series with a standard Planar 80mm f/2.8 lens, you could simply use the smallest (8mm) macro extension ring (16mm for the 200/2000 series). That 8mm ring makes the close-focus range more suitable for portraits, and gives an extremely shallow depth of field very similar to the Contax at f/2.

Some Rolleiflex TLR cameras also have the Zeiss f/2.8 lens, so adding a +1 closeup filter to a Rollei would give similar results. The Pentax 67 with its 105mm f/2.4 lens also produces gorgeous shallow depth of field portraits. A 35mm SLR camera with an f/1.2 lens would also do the job quite well. So you have options if the Contax is not your thing.


Results

I would be remiss if I did not provide photos made with each of these cameras. The two sections provide nearly 30 examples in total, many different styles, including some NSFW nude photography, and many examples shot wide open.

Click/tap to view full screen.

Photographs made with the Contax 645

Photographs made with the Pentax 645NII


Final thoughts

To wrap up: when all is said and done, I think you can see why the Contax 645 is legendary. It has some features no other medium format camera has. Those unique features have been utilised by famous photographers to achieve iconic images. That look is the essence of what many people regard as ‘filmic’.

Perhaps the Contax is also legendary because it is woefully over-priced and possibly rather delicate. It is truly a professional’s camera.

The Contax may bask in the glow of celebrity status, but the Pentax is the winner in many ways. It has a slightly brighter viewfinder. It has slightly better autofocus. It has slightly more advanced features, such as program mode and matrix metering. It weighs less. It is more robust and reliable…

In fact, by most measures, the Pentax is the slightly superior camera. Plus, you could have three or four Pentaxes for the price of one Contax. If we only chose cameras based on logic, we would choose the Pentax virtually every time. Yet, it’s not always about logic, is it?

“Contax 645s are like Bond girls: they’re so beautiful and so exquisite, but you know they’re high maintenance.”

D’Arcy Benincosa, wedding photographer

The glamorous Contax 645 is curiously hard to resist …maybe I should have led with that quote. Thanks for reading!

~ Ray

Ps. Thanks to a couple of eagle-eyed readers, the article above has been updated to include a reference to the Mamiya AF and AFD series cameras’ 1/4000th second top shutter speed.

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About the author

Ray Rapkerg

I photograph people, including fashion photography, quirky portraits and art nudes. I feel photography is mainly about the images and the people in them, but secretly I am a bit of a gear-head as well!...

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14 Comments

 

  1. Wow, this was a fabulously in-depth breakdown of the two cameras – awesome. However, like a few other commenters, I have to raise my hand about the Mamiya 645. All of the pro versions of the system are essentially twins, capability-wise and feature-wise, with the Contax. The system just doesn’t have the ridiculous cachet of hype. I had a Mamiya 645 Pro system for years as a working pro and it always delivered outstanding results – for a fraction (even then) of the price of the Contax. The value of the Contax 645 is at least 50% hype IMO.
    Also, the reasons for switching between backs, mid-roll, would be: using a polaroid back for a test shot, switching between BW, color, and transparency. Those are things that happened all the time “back in the day”.

  2. “More photographers chose to spend their money on the Pentax. I am not sure why.”
    The Contax 645 was introduced in 1999. The Pentax 645nII was introduced in 2001, but the 645n in 1997, and the Pentax 645 in 1984. Contax came in late with a beautiful system but likely not good enough to convince 645 photographers to switch.
    Early Pentax 645 ads clearly showed them targeting 35mm photographers. Pentax could leverage a huge popularity among that crowd. Additionally, Pentax could also leverage a hughe reputation in Medium Format with the Pentax 6×7 introduced in 1969 and was smart enough to attract its 6×7 photographers by offering a 6×7 to 645 adapter.

    In 2021, the F/2 lens advantage is really marginal and down to the instances when AF is really needed, as many options exist to use 6×7 lenses on the Pentax 645nII, but also many projection lenses with f/2 aperture that can be adapted fairly easily to the Pentax mount.

  3. I would love it if someone did an article on the digital medium format cameras that can take film backs. There’s the Hasselblad H1 & H2, the Mamiya 645AFD, the Fujifilm GX645AF (same as Hasselblad H1). I think film backs are hard to get for them, but if anyone is shooting film with them, it would make a really interesting article. Who’s up for the challenge?

  4. Thanks for your comprehensive review. Owning a Pentax 645 (first model) I always wondered why I could only expose 15 (or 30) frames on one roll of film. I thought this first model was engineered with too much space between the frames by accident, but you explain that this is because of the way the film is transported through the back to avoid curvature of the film. That is a great thing to know. I use the 35mm a lot on the Pentax because the 40mm on my Hasselblad is even heavier but when I compare the two, my favourite is still the Hasselblad for it’s ergonomics.

  5. I also have a lovely Cockapoo, that happens to be black and tan in color. That Contax really did a nice job with those pet portraits.

  6. “By the way, the Pentax requires different film inserts for 120 and 220 film – so be careful you don’t accidentally buy a 220 insert.”

    If so, don’t be crazy ’bout it. The cheap 220 backs can be converted in 120 backs very easily with just a screw driver. There’ s some videos on this on youtube.

    1. Useful info! I did not know the Mamiya 645AFD could do 1/4000 sec, that’s amazing. I don’t know much about the Mamiya 645AFD, but I believe it was designed mainly for digital backs, so film backs are hard to get … is that right? I would be interested in seeing an article about it on Emulsive if anyone is shooting film with a Mamiya 645AFD.

  7. Simply Great review : perfect !
    Real users are best to review cameras !
    Love your review.
    The only Contax I keep now is the Contax T 😉 Small as a cigarettes box and with legendary Sonnar. Wonderful for travelk and street photo.
    Your review is one of the best I have seen with Sroyon reviews (I hope he is well in India, we think deeply about India : courage!).

  8. Wonderful review-comparison. Thank you for that.

    However, since this is an integral part of the comparison, I’d like to hint to a couple of alternatives when it comes to F2 lenses, since this pretty much is the selling point of the Contax for most (let’s be honest:)):

    First: I know this wasn’t a Mamiya review aswell, but having owned all three of these cameras, it’s worth mentioning, that Mamiya not only has the AF/D line which also maxes out at 1/4000s shutter speed, has interchangeable backs, the possibility of using digital backs etc. etc. but also features the 80mm F1.9 lens in its lineup. Now, it doesn’t have the same magic as the Zeiss, granted, but no customer will ever notice. In fact, there is a good lens comparison to be found where it’s hard to tell the difference (little color rendition difference and more contrast on the Zeiss, which isn’t always ideal fo protraits). Mamiya 645 AF/D + 80mm 1.9 will set you back at around 1/3 or 1/4 of the price of a Contax 645 + 80mm F2. And Mamiya has less of a shutter issue and more readily available cameras reaching to the AFDIII which is much younger than the Contax, hence should last you longer.

    Second: There is a plethora (!) of alternatives for fast lenses on the Pentax 645 in the “normal” field of view section:

    You can get a Zeiss 80mm converted to Pentax 645 mount (expensive, yes and only stuck at F2, yes, but it’s an option for quite a few who already use it).

    You can get a Noritar 80mm F2 converted for Pentax 645 which is the first fast F2 lens ever made for medium format and it covers even 6×6 format and retains full aperture control. (Really astounding lens, even bettter used on its original camera, the Norita 66)

    You can get a converted Leica Summicron 90mm F2 converted for Pentax with full aperture control, although a little vignetting at further distances.

    You can buy or make yourself an adapted projection lens (ISCO or Schneider Cinelux) with focal lengths starting from 90mm F2 up in 5mm increments (95mm, 100mm etc, all F2). They have no aperture control, but a gorgeous rendering (a little less busy than the Zeiss, but that’s up to each and everyone’s peferation)

    Considering that and the possible use of an ND filter to compensate for the slow max shutter speed of the Pentax 645N(II), you’re suddenly looking at a different camera usability. In fact, it will become as much of a good wedding/portrait camera as the Contax. Yes, those lenses are all manual focus and some can only be shot wide open. But then again, most Contax users do just that with their 80mm lens. So why bother having AF or aperture control (keeping in mind, that some of these conversions allow for retaining aperture control!)?

    If anyone needs further information, leave me a message here: https://www.instagram.com/saved_the_world_from_a_selfie/

    And again: Thank you for your thorough review. This is just to add to it. 🙂

  9. Thanks for the detailed and well written article accompanied by beautiful images.
    I used to have Contax 645 with a couple of lenses and I think we did not “match” for whatever reason. Even a digital back (CFV-39) did not help. The Pentax 645N (not NII), on the other hand, is still dear to me. Somehow, it just fits into my hands…

    “How can the Pentax be so much more energy-efficient than the Contax? I have no idea”.
    It may well be due to the presence of more (much more) electronics as well as the overweight Zeiss lenses (when using AF).