It’s been 5 months and 20 rolls of film through two highly acclaimed compact film cameras – the Contax T2 and Fuji Klasse S. Through this process I’ve come to the point where I’m able to draw some conclusions and make notes to other potential users of these two cameras. This is not an “in depth” review about these cameras, more or less here I will just highlight what appeared important for me and what I found hardly possible to find out from online information or hard to tell without using those cameras for some time.
At the same time, I’ll provide you with quite a few of pictures. I tried to narrow them but I still wanted to show what look it is possible to get with these compacts in different situations and with different film.
To understand my ramblings about cameras, one should know a fact or two about me. So here you are. Photography is my hobby. It lets me see the world differently, to notice small miracles in dull environment, to detach from daily life, to recreate inner balance and to remain constantly positive. To sum up photography is a drug for me, and as I mostly shoot film – this drug costs money. Ha ha.
I started to shoot film five years ago when accidently picked up Pentax consumer grade SLR. I changed many cameras since then and settled on best models for me, but in general, I’m still Pentax SLR user with the MZ-3 as a favourite instrument.
Sometimes I shoot digital, but in most cases only when I have to because of: low light, need of big resolution and details or when I have to have immediate results.
Talking about genre, I’m not that settled in, but there are certain aspects noticeable in my photos: extensive use of 50mm lens, environment, details, nature, family and friends, reportage, shallow depth of field.
I wanted to have a film camera with me everywhere I go. An SLR is far too bulky to do that, even a small one. I can’t put it in my everyday laptop case, it’s impossible to fit it in bike t-shirt back pocket, it’s uncomfortable to take to events, the pub, etc. I think you get it. So I decided to find myself a compact camera for such occasions.
Before I went to look for a camera I made a list of main requirements or wishes. I knew that I will have to go to compromise, but still, this is what I wanted:
- Fixed lens that could rival SLR prime – I didn’t want to degrade in terms of image quality
- Approximate 50mm or as close to 50mm focal length – easiest way to compose fast without thinking, stay in preferred field of view
- Fast lens, minimum F2.8 – yep, I’m shallow depth of field junkie…
- Autofocus – compact camera is more about grabbing the moment, I wanted to be able to react fast
- Automatic film rewind – to enable one hand shooting and repeating frame
- Aperture priority – this is how I shoot
- Easily accessible manual exposure compensation control – aperture priority shooters will understand that need
- Good, reliable, sensible in darkness light meter
- Good viewfinder – firstly, I’m glass wearer, so high eye point is important for me, second – if viewfinder is bad, I simply won’t use camera
- Possibility to override controls, or as much manual control as possible (but only when I want to).
- Possibility to use up to 3200 ISO film – Ilford Delta 3200 is one of my favourite film
- Possibility to turn off flash and not to be forced to turn it off each time I turn camera on – this might sound strange, but believe me, this could be serious issue
Quite a long list, huh? That’s what I was thinking about, but still, there are cameras that match or at least are close to all those requirements. I didn’t know that at the moment, so I went for research about what model will correspond to my wishes.
Long, but interesting. One bit of advice – if you research the Fuji camera – also look at “Fuji Klasse W” reviews as well. This camera is identical to Klasse S, but for the fact that it has a 28mm lens. I’d say, that “W” version is more popular and there is more information on the Internet about it then about the “S” version.
Don’t forget to study the user manual in case you are serious about using all the potential of the camera. It might be more important that you think – more on that you’ll read in “Shooting envelope”.
I settled down on two possible versions after research: Contax T2 or Fuji Klasse S. Both cameras have program modes, aperture priority, manual control overrides, 38mm F2.8 lenses, autofocus, their viewfinders receive good remarks and both have a cult status.
Deciding between those two cameras was very and very hard. I read all I could find online, spent countless hours looking at photos made with them and finally settled on Fuji Klasse S. Main factors of the decision were – more compact body and more manual control.
At this stage things became hairy. One thing is to decide which camera I wanted, second – to find it… I started to look at film cameras online shops – nothing. Then, naturally I went to eBay – with one and only camera – clearly damaged and carrying a silly high price tag. OK, I thought, I want quite a rare camera, made in Japan, limited numbers… Naturally it’s time to apply for professional help and get things handled properly, so I contacted Mr. Bellamy Hunt aka Japan Camera Hunter. It wasn’t that big surprise when I received the following answer from him: “Ah, a camera that I do not usually source. I stopped sourcing them a long time ago due to the difficulty in finding them. When I do see them the prices are absurd.” – couldn’t agree more… I waited for some time, but nothing came up. Summer was coming to an end, days with good light started fading away, therefore I decided that’s it time for plan B and went to Contax T2 (not that bad for a plan B, uh? :)).
The Contax T2 is still a relatively easy find, but quite expensive. On the other hand, speaking about price – you get what you pay for. At the moment of my search ffordes e-shop had NEW Contax T2’s “60th anniversary” edition on stock and they even had a bit lower sales price on them. I hesitated some time about that gold finish, but the choice was new, golden, reasonably priced T2, or more expensive, used T2 from eBay with some risk involved. As you could imagine decision was fast, reliable and very bling one…
I got my Contax, and started shooting it, loved shooting it actually, but the option from Fuji was still on my mind. I monitored market, keeping my eyes open and in one photography forum I stumbled on a comment that a forum member had an almost unused Klasse S and wasn’t shooting with it. I asked him if he would sell it, agreed on price and went for it. I hadn’t idea to keep both Fuji and Contax cameras, I was going to keep one that fits me better; you’ll see how it ends.
Design, feel, ergonomics
First – my Contax T2 is bloody golden, but you might be luckier and get it in grey or even black. Second – it’s very solid, it seems that it is milled from one piece of titanium and that’s a good thing. It’s hefty, it weights 295g without battery. The combination of solidity and weight gives the feeling of quality; you are sure that you hold a serious tool, and not a toy.
In term of ergonomics, its form is quite rectangular with a bit of grip on back and front side of camera. I wouldn’t call T2 very comfortable compact camera because it has several flaws/problems. For a start, I constantly hit the side of lens barrel with my middle finger. In fact lens barrel is so close to the camera’s grip that my middle finder is leaning, or almost leaning on the lens barrel.
The grip and shutter button position is also not optimal. For me it’s the biggest issue with ergonomics of this compact. If I hold the camera in a comfortable and stable way, I can’t push the shutter button. In order to be able to push the shutter button, I have to hold the camera too high or too low compared to optimal position.
The T2 is also too heavy. My first impression of heft and weight of the camera was very welcome and positive. But when I use it for half day or all day my wrist and fingers are starting to feel tense. The weight issue and unnatural holding position, possible contact with lens barrel all have a bad influence on the ergonomics of this camera. The compound effect results in more camera shake and less sharpness in low light / slow shutter speed shots.
I also have a problem that will bother only glass wearers like me. There is a small screw on the camera body, at the same height as viewfinder approximately 2 cm right from it. It’s not flush with the camera, its protruding and with the viewfinder lacking a protruding frame this small screw is constantly scratching my glasses. Annoying issue.
By comparison, the Fuji is a bit smaller camera. It’s not that thick, a bit lighter (265g w/o battery), grip side is rounded, the lens barrel is more centred, so there is more place to hold it and the shutter button is bigger and placed in the right place. As such, the Fuji is an easier camera to live with all day, it’s more comfortable to hold in hand and operate. In other words, from point of ergonomics Klasse S is more like a camera, while T2 is more like brick. On the other hand, whilst the Klasse S solid, well-made quality tool, you don’t get that good feeling that it’s made from one piece of metal.
Both cameras have dials on top right corner, just under the thumb, both of those dials perform as the on/of switch for the camera, bu thet dial control similarities end here. The first position of the dial on the Contax, switches on the camera and puts it into autofocus mode. From there, the other purpose of the dial is manual focus control.
Fuji’s top control thumb dial switches on the camera and puts it into automatic exposure control mode (program), turn dial further and you are in aperture priority dialling in the desired aperture.
Both cameras top control dials are convenient and controls are logical.
Contax aperture is controlled in traditional way – on retracting lens barrel. From here you can also access and dial in two available flash modes – standard flash, or red-eye reduction / pre-flash mode. The aperture ring is very small and it’s not that comfortable to use it, but I suppose it is a compact camera, and not an SLR.
The exposure compensation control dial on T2 is located on top of the camera, the dial is recessed into the camera and as such you have to stick your finger into a grooved concave and rotate it. The control is convenient and well implemented.
Fuji picked more traditional solution of exposure compensation control. The dial is big, protruded, and placed on the front of the camera close to lens. It’s very natural for the left hand to locate dial. Personally I prefer Fuji control, because it’s possible to know how compensation is set, without looking.
The last control on Contax is timer switch on the top plate. Fuji, has two remaining controls, an autofocus lock button, and a mode dial with an integrated button. With the mode dial it is possible: set flash modes, bracket AE, manual focus, use bulb mode (or manual slow shutter speed), set self timer, adjust film sensitivity, turn on or of NP mode. This control is not very convenient or intuitive to use, but still, that’s a lot of possibilities!
Both viewfinders are big, bright and beautiful for a compact camera. Contax vf is bit brighter and bigger compared to Klasse S. Fuji viewfinder is better for those, who wear glasses, because of bit lower magnification, a bit higher eye relief and presence of protruding frame around the eyepiece. Contax vf screen is centred, Fuji’s offset to left, it means that you don’t have to press your nose to back of the camera – another agronomical benefit for Klasse S.
Both ameras display focus confirmation, shutter speed, there are frame lines and additional frame lines for parallax compensation, when framing close up shot. White frame lines in Contax and black in Fuji. I like the shutter speed display implementation in Fuji better, because it comes in large numbers as in old electronic clock and because you can see actual shutter speed when it’s below 1/30 (in Contax, you just know that it is lover then 1/30, but you don’t know exact speed).
One more thing worth mentioning is a philosophical difference of viewfinders. If you shoot Contax, you can see outside of picture frame, like in a rangefinder, when you shoot Fuji, the viewfinder frame is the picture frame, like in SLR. I came from SLR world, so for me more natural way of composing is Fuji.
Meters in both cameras are good and reliable. I hadn’t any troubles with metering; it was always spot on, even in quite difficult situations. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to screw up the shot, you still have to think and use exposure compensation or EV lock (half press of shutter button – which has a better feel on the Fuji) to adjust for the scene. But, implementation of metering seems to be better in T2, as: a) it’s live – you move camera and see how shutter speed changes, while Fuji meters only when the shutter button is half-pressed. b) The Contax meter is more sensitive in low light, it can meter from 3 EV (ISO100), while Klasse from 4 EV.
Its common opinion on the internet, that the Contax T2 has faster autofocus than the Fuji Klasse S. After using those two cameras extensively I can say for sure, that I don’t know. 🙂 And I don’t know how to measure it. My opinion is that AF could same speed, but Contax feels quicker and it’s not because of autofocus, but because of shutter lag, or time it takes to meter scene. What I can say for sure, that T2 is a more responsive camera in terms of meter / focus / shoot – Fuji thinks for a moment after you hit shutter button and Contax focuses and fires instantly. Even T2 is clearly better here, Klasse S is still perfectly usable, at least for me.
The interesting thing is that these compacts have different focusing systems. The Contax has active infrared beam focusing, the Fuji has a passive contrast detection system. I read that contrast detection could be more accurate, but slower then active infrared, but I didn’t notice any troubles with speed or accuracy of focus. It’s perfectly fine on both machines. Here is one important practical factor – Contax is more stealth camera (“bling stealth” in my case :)), because the focus in this camera doesn’t use an assist light, while Fuji uses it constantly.
It’s also worth mentioning the Contax implementation of manual focusing. The thumb dial has a position for AF, a position for infinity and manual focus selection. There are two arrows in VF that shows the direction of focusing. It’s accurate, convenient and totally usable. Fuji has manual focus possibility, but its accessible by control dial in menu and in my opinion usable only in case camera is on a tripod and you have to set it precisely. But on the other hand, Fuji IS that kind of camera that you could want to mount it on tripod and take patience requiring shots.
Big plus of Klasse S is close focus ability; it focuses down to 40 cm while T2 minimal focus distance is 70cm. This is big difference especially for me, as I love to get close and shoot details.
Both lenses are 38mm, quite fast F2.8, both could be closed down to F16, both could resolve fine details, are sharp even with wide open aperture, both multicoated with good contrast and decent flare resistance.
Both perfectly capable and could create beautifully pictures.
Will take an opportunity to mention few myths:
Yes – its 100% true that those lenses are in pair with good primes.
No – Fujinon lens is not worse than Contax one, pictures are not flat, they are alive, colorful, sharp, with good contrast and overall this lens is fcuking awesome in every way. 🙂
Back to the practical differences. Pictures from Contax are more on warm side, while Fuji ones more on cool side. This reminds me a bit difference between Kodak Portra 400 and Fuji PRO400h films; if you shoot both, you will understand this subtle difference.
Another important aspect for me was bokeh / shallow depth of field photography. Fuji’s ability to focus close gives a dramatic difference in separation. You can almost melt the background and in the case of the Klasse S, it melts in a pleasant to the eye way. Bokeh is quite soft, creamy and highlights are not harsh. The Contax is also capable of foreground/background separation, but the longer minimal focus takes away part of this ability and melt is harsher, with rude pronounced highlights. In fact highlights from T2 lens reminds me a bit Pentax 43mm 1.9 Limited lens bookeh highlights.
By stating “shooting envelope” I mean the cameras ability to be used in different light conditions or to be more precise in different light strength conditions. This aspect was the most significant difference in these two compacts, and the biggest reason why Contax T2 was priority no 2.
On paper, the Contax has F2.8 –F16 lens and max 1/500s shutter speed. In reality, you can get 1/500s shutter speed only in program mode, and only on F16 aperture. Maximum shutter speed in program mode on F2.8 aperture is 1/200s and that is too slow for daylight wide open shooting… And if you try to do it in P mode, the camera will pick another aperture shutter speed combination instead, with a more closed down diaphragm. Other max shutter speeds on different apertures combinations are: F4-1/200s, F5.6–1/300s, F8-1/350s, F11-1/400s.
Ok, you might think, that’s technical limitations and compromises of a compact. Then you switch from program to aperture priority mode. And suddenly max shutter speed on F16 aperture becomes 1/90s, and other combinations are F4-1/200s, F5.6–1/150s, F8-1/125s, F11-1/90s. Why on earth is that? It seems to me that if the camera is capable of maintaining certain exposure combinations in P mode, it should be able to maintain the same combinations in AP mode, but no. I do believe that there’s very good technical reason for that, but from a users perspective, it’s a bit annoying. And then you want to use F2.8 in AP mode. But you cant. Because there is no such thing as AP F2.8, it’s the P mode instead.
Yes, you can relay on the magnificent ability of a negative to be overexposed by a crazy amount. But the thing is that you stay with strange feeling – looks like you have a camera with F2.8 – F16 lens and max shutter of 1/500s, but you don’t… Looks like you have aperture priority control, but you don’t… Maybe yes, you do, but the AP mode is crippled, erratic and full of strange limitations. It’s not that you can’t shoot and get beautiful results – you can, but it may annoy you that the limitations are real.
The Fuji on the other hand is simpler in this regard. While it does have limitations in program mode (F2.8-1/10s, F4-1/125s, F5.6–1/250s, F8-1/500s, F11-1/500s, F16-1/1000s), in aperture priority mode things are quite straightforward (F2.8-1/500s, F4-1/550s, F5.6–1/600s, F8-1/700s, F11-1/800s, F16-1/1000s). It means you can use 1/500s on wide open aperture and in case you are in bright light you can use 1/1000s with F16 and you can do it in a controlled manner, it will be your creative decision to do so. So the Fuji is much more flexible, you have more control, and therefore its shooting envelope is wider.
As a benefit to the Contax it’s worth mentioning that in program mode in low light situations it keeps lens opened on F2.8 as long as maximum shutter speed allows, while Fuji is trying to close the aperture to F4. Closing aperture means picking slower shutter speed and that potentially could mean blurred pictures because of camera shake and / of subject movement.
Summary and fate of two cameras
I’m very happy that I had (and still have) opportunity to use both cameras the same time, to switch them, to use them together. Its quite easy to analyse and state that one camera suits me better in one respect, and other suits me better in other respects, but its very difficult to say which camera is better overall.
While Fuji Klasse S is more convenient, with viewfinder made easier to live for glass wearers, substantially better close focus possibility and more control, it’s less responsive and it behaves worse in auto mode in low light.
The Contax on the other hand is more responsive, better in auto mode in low light and has a better quality feel. (And bling, don’t forget that gold bling. :))
Time lets you understand things better, and in this case, I understood that those cameras have a different philosophy and different appliance.
I think that Contax T2 is high-end point and shoot camera and Fuji Klasse S is a compact precision instrument for photography. Therefore cameras don’t compete, they complement each other. In case I’m going for an event, to the pub or another place with low light and no possibility to fiddle with camera controls, I grab Contax T2 loaded with Ilford Delta 3200. In case I have to be on light with no SLR (say biking, hiking w/o backpack, canoeing etc.), but still feel that I’ll have some time to make sure that I take pictures and set camera properly, I’ll take Fuji Klasse S loaded with Kodak Portra 400.
Bottom line – Contax T2 and Klasse S are amazing cameras. They are different, but one is not better than the other. They are tailored to be different tools, for different appliances. If you are picking between those two, think where and how you going use them, and you’ll come to the right choice.
As for me – I’m keeping them both.
Thanks for reading,
More pictures and my other work here: www.beautifulgrain.com
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