Educational

My Personal Favorite Film System: Contax G System

If you read my last post you would know that I owned, used, fell for, and cherished the mighty and legendary Leica M3. I even added another lens to it and it was a bonafide Leica lens (found on KEH.com), the 90mm Elmar C. Sadly, I no longer own any of it. Was it because of the FED 2 I compared it to in that same post? Nope. Not at all. While I do still own the FED 2, it is a completely different animal and I kept it for the pure “bang for a buck” novelty of it all

For the Contax G system, I will leave others such as Ken Rockwell, Wikipedia, and Camerapedia and the like to fill you in on the history.

Which one: The G1 or G2?

Both in my case. Initially, I bought the G1 because it was good value compared to the G2 and just about any film camera spec wise. But the G1 was so good the G2 soon followed (both purchased from KEH.com). So good, it put other film cameras on a trailer regardless of format. So good, it suspended my virtual film camera shopping list until further notice.

For starters, three numbers and a name played a huge part in this decision. 28, 45, 90 and Zeiss. I picked up these three lenses and soon found that everything ever written about Zeiss lenses is true. Why not the highly regarded 35mm also? It sits between and too close to the 28mm and  45mm.  As for the 90mm, I will always purchase a portrait length prime if I can afford it. And at these prices for an AF Zeiss portrait lens, it was a no-brainer.

That is just for starters! Above these stellar lenses is a stellar feature set. What features? Glad you asked.

AF System

A film system with an actual usable, accurate focus and recompose friendly AF system. Some say the G1 is bad and slow and the G2 is good and fast, but in my experience, the G1 is good and fast. With minimal hunting under the darkest and least contrasty conditions, like many other AF systems even up until today, the G2 is better and faster focusing even in challenging situations.

MF System

Many have dinged the MF system, which is awkward admittedly, but it is usable for those rare occasions when you need to drive. Spin the wheel on the top of the G1 and more conveniently on the front right of the G2 to ‘inf’ and keep it moving. They both show a digital readout of the distance in the viewfinder and on the external LCD. There is also in viewfinder focus verification, however, if you are using that you should just use AF.

Lock AF Implementation

On the G1 you simply half press until you get focus and recompose. On the G2 there is a dedicated back button focus set up. Press the back button with your thumb to focus, recompose and take the shot with the shutter button.

Shooting Modes

The G1 has one-time focus with a button to set single, timer, multiple exposures, and continuous shooting (if you are in a rush to burn through a roll) and the G2 adds more options by employing two dials. Like the G1 there are single, multiple exposures, continuous (high and low speed), and timer shutter modes, but the G2 adds a second dial around the back focus button that lets you choose between single focus, continuous focus, and manual focus. So continuous focus on the continuous shooting is available. While not blazing fast it works.

These things feel like the Titanium tanks that they are. While Titanium is not a requirement for solid build, these are the most affordable cameras I know that are made of titanium. 

Put in film roll, pull the lead out to the mark, and close back to load film. The film advances automatically. Film speed read automatically and easily overridden manually if you wish. Winds film back when done with a roll. Some balk at such levels of automation, but performing these activities manually makes no better pictures.

Glass

Zeiss glass. Mentioned above and worth mentioning again. Sharp, great color rendering, and focus fall off. Even the nonsensical rangefinder zoom renders wonderful images.

Viewfinder Zoom Innovation

While other rangefinder systems require goggles or accessory finders to match wide and telefield of view lenses these have a native inbuilt viewfinder that zooms internally and automatically for 28mm through 90mm lenses. The G2 provides the added hat-trick of zooming the inbuilt viewfinder with the 35-70mm zoom ring. While the zoom is impressive the parallax correction in the viewfinder is amazing. While some other rangefinders I use helpfully provide a highlighted frame that will move with focus these go one step further. These cameras block the frame in black only to reveal the portion of the viewfinder to be captured based on focus. So you still have the whole viewfinder available while framing and then it closes down automatically with focus just before capturing the shot.

Exposure 

 I have now put several rolls through both of these cameras and I cannot recall having lost any shots to missed exposure so far.  The exposure lock is the best I have seen implemented. You turn the camera on by pushing a lever surrounding the shutter button forward to reveal a red dot. For exposure lock, you simply point the camera where you want the reading and nudge the same lever one detent notch further forward and exposure is locked until you nudge it back to the on position. Genius.

Execution

Most film systems have lens and body designs that vary a bit, and some a lot, each of these lenses and cameras have the same design theme. Even the lens caps are the same across all three primes I have. I love details like that. The only variation is the color schemes. While the black option is intriguing I actually prefer the gold color scheme. (Plus black variants of cameras and lenses are rarer and bring a premium of $200 or so.)

They are gold! Seriously, these are some good-looking cameras. It has nothing to do with capturing an image, which is why this is listed last, but it does not hurt either. While they cost a fraction of some other more storied systems they feel premium in hand and look the part as well.

Unfortunately, there are a few downsides. There are always downsides! Here we go:

  • No batteries. No camera. Solution? I carry extra batteries.
  • Might break and be done. After much research, I have not heard anything about this system being fragile. But if one did break, I would buy another without hesitation if I could not get it fixed.
  • Six bladed aperture, so bokeh balls will be less round. Meh. Small price to pay in my opinion. Plus whenever possible I shoot these wide open.

To G1 or to G2

Why both? In my opinion, they are different enough, but if you must choose one and are undecided here are my thoughts:

G1 Pluses:

  • Not much smaller and lighter, but enough to notice in your jacket pocket or bag. The difference between the two separates simply sturdy from melee weapon in a pinch.
  • Not as precious. I tend to use this one for day to day activities since it is much cheaper to replace.
  • AF is acceptable and not near as bad as some would let on. Slower yes, and the 90mm trips it up a bit, but not immensely so.
  • Quite a bit less expensive.

G2 Pluses:

  • AF is better.
  • The manual focus wheel is better implemented, but I almost never use MF.
  • Continuous focus on the continuous shooting is nice to have, but I never use it.
  • Works with the 35-70mm zoom where the G1 does not.

Tips

  • Buy a flash. I recommend the smaller of the two. It is cheaper, adds enough light for fill in my experience, puts the flash further away from the lens (which I would think would reduce the chance of redeye). The larger flash is fine. I understand it adds the perk of sharing batteries with the cameras should you need to cannibalize the flash’s batteries.
  • When shopping for the G1, try and find a green label model. This made no difference for the primes I have, but green label means it has been modified to work with more lenses (21 mm and 35 mm lenses for instance). G1s and the 35-70mm zoom are not compatible green label or not. But while shopping for mine, I do not remember coming across a non-green label G1.
  • Lenses wider than 28mm (21mm and the eye wateringly expensive fixed aperture 16mm) require a separate viewfinder to frame properly. These do not make use of the viewfinder perks mentioned above, so I chose not to get them. Plus the 16mm costs more than the two bodies and three lenses combined by itself.

Another mention regarding the lenses; I can’t express to you how fully impressed I am with the sharpness of these lenses. So sharp in fact that I coughed up the extra outlay for a Techart AF adapter for my Sony digital system and just wow. A post for another day, but it gave me close to the digital Contax I have wanted since I received the G1. It even captures the focal length in the EXIF data and sets the image stabilization focal length. It also has Bluetooth for smartphone linked firmware updates. They sell a Leica variant as well for those interested. As an example during my first G lens on A7Rii test run I shot the picture below at night, from the booth at a football game (my daughter films the halftime show for the marching band director) using AF to focus on the nearest sideline below.

Contax G Zeiss 45mm f/2.0 on Sony A7Rii

This is a decades-old film lens rendering this level of detail on one of the best, high MP sensors available today with AF. And looking quite spiffy on the camera while at it. Suffice it to say that these lenses do just fine using film.

I am not trying to get anyone to switch film systems. There are plenty of fantastic film systems and I still own a few of them. But if you are looking for a no-nonsense, consistent, high value, quality output film camera system you could do a lot worse than to try the Contax G System. Here is a link to an ongoing G1 And G2 album.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. I had a G2 with three lenses and the little flash they made for the camera. I loved it. I finally sold it when I moved to digital and realized that I was no longer shooting film and I wanted it to go to someone who would use it.

  2. ahh; the G2! Love mine still! Awesome tech for its time and the Zeiss lenses are excellent! FWIW, the 21mm kit and the Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm is why I keep mine. The 21mm is one of Zeiss’s best designs and is razor sharp! Adding the small Contax flash is also an excellent suggestion! Hundreds of keepers from my kit! Thanks for the article!

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