Advanced Compact (AF) Guest Reviews Rangefinders (Changeable Lens)

A Contax G2 and the Gobi Desert – Guest post by Nicholas Koh

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A month ago I found myself in the Gobi Desert shooting a week-long ultra marathon event – a friend of mine who’s participating needed a cameraman along for the trip as her sponsors needed some footage and stills of her undertaking the gruelling course. I’m normally hired to shoot interiors and portraitures, so this was a marked deviation to what I’m used to shooting, both in the subject-matter and the environment I’ll be working in.

I’ve always loved documentary-styled photography and this was a great way to jump right into it. Been shooting with film for a couple of years now but always in conjunction with digital. B/W film has always been my emulsion of choice, due to its flexibility and how simple it is to develop.

Unable to check in, I wandered around the streets at 4am and found a Mongolian eatery serving an early breakfast.

Highway Butcher – on our way to Camp 1.

From M6 to T2

I’ve been asked if there’re any special considerations when you’re using both film and digital formats for an assignment. Yes there are – lots in fact. Colour-consistency is a major consideration, which is why I very rarely shoot commercial projects with film. In this particular marathon however, I brought along my Contax G2 with the 28/2.8 and 45/2 lenses to capture personal photos and leave the main workload to my other digital cameras.

I sold off my Leica M6 to fund the purchase of the G2. Why did I switch from the M6, widely considered one of the best film cameras money could buy, to the G2? Three things mainly:

  • Cost
  • Focusing system
  • Speed

Cost

The first point is a no brainer. A black Contax G2 with 3 (very beautiful) lenses cost just a few hundred more than what my M6 body could fetch in the local market. Admittedly, I lucked out on this deal. I figured if I didn’t like the new system, I could always turn back for little to no loss anyway. The way I see it, I’m not sacrificing quality by switching systems. Compare the prices of a champagne G2 + 45/2 lens with the nearest equivalent, an M7 + 50mm/2 Planar and the difference is pretty stark. I’d be very surprised if anyone can tell the difference in the resulting print made from these two setups.

Focusing system/VF

This one is a little bit of a trade-off. The viewfinder is tiny, bordering on point-and-shoot territory but it also has something called a ‘zoom-finder’ which means that the image you see in the VF is representative of the focal length. I found this a great help for framing and composition. The AF system works like a charm and once you’ve gotten used to the duration of the sound that the focus motor makes, you can ensure that the AF is locked onto your subject and not infinity/MFD.

Manual focus aficionados who rely on muscle-memory and pre-focus their lenses can get faster results, but it’s a skill that takes a some time to master. Zone-focusing with the G2 is somewhat fiddly (but still possible!) than the M – when I’m shooting with the 28mm, I’ll stick it to f5.6 or f8, set manual focus to 2m and push my film to 1600. Those settings let me to capture anything from 2 paces to infinity with reasonable sharpness.

Speed

I wanted an autofocusing, AE-capable, interchangeable lens, film rangefinder. Basically the handling convenience of a compact camera, with high quality lenses. Sure there were many film SLRs that could do this but their sizes put me off. I wanted a camera that I could take together with my digital cameras, so it needed to be compact. The G1/G2 systems were the only ones that met all these criteria.

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All in all, it’s the quality of a Leica (in terms of body AND lenses) with the convenience of a point-and-shoot.

Moving with 5 horsepower.

Rebel without a cause.

Man and Friend.

Handling and Performance

Shooting with the G2 is a rapid-fire affair. I bring it up to my eye, hit the back-button-focus and trip the shutter. Compared to the M6, I don’t have to…

– fiddle with my shutter speed in accordance with the meter

– adjusting my aperture if I’m topped out at 1/1000th and it’s still overexposed

– wind the film advance

I mainly shoot in Aperture-priority on digital and to have the same mode on the Contax is handy. The 1/6000th top speed lets me shoot as wide-open as I wanted – especially helpful during my Gobi trip since I shoot in very bright conditions and can suddenly find myself in very dark environments (within the tents for example).

The increased throughput of the G2 is simultaneously a boon as well as a bane. In terms of shooting an event, it gets me from shot to shot with a minimum of fuss. However, I blast though my film at a much faster pace because of this!

Now I know the M6 was built to last, well so is the G2. The Gobi was incredibly dusty, hot and at certain regions, cold and wet. My G2 never stopped shooting. Actually, I never expected it to fail – film cameras in general are incredibly incredibly hardy. My A6000 and A7R2 stopped shooting on occasion due to extremely high (50+c/120+f) ambient temperatures, so thankfully I had the G2 as my backup. The lenses were non-internal focusing, but despite that, dust never got into the optical assembly.

The automatic loading, frame advance and rewind system is pretty good. It’s helpful in the dusty and challenging conditions in the Gobi as it minimises the time that I expose the innards to the elements. I do miss the extra frame or two that I could squeeze out from manual loading cameras though.

I’ve yet to travel extensively with the G2, but its has proved to hold up in punishing conditions and I have no qualms about adding it was a walkabout camera when I travel.

Without further ado, I’ll like to share some photos I took with the G2 over the week in the desert, together with some photos from street, fashion and documentary assignments.

– Nick (IG: @nicographicc , http://nicographi.cc)

Twilight at Camp 1. The metering on this camera is center-weighted, with a convenient AE-Lock toggle sitting around the shutter. As you can see, I did a AE/AL lock on the face and the G2 nailed the exposure perfectly.

We crossed some military outposts and these guys were happy to have their photos taken (even though they might not look like they did).

Yes, the G2’s metering performs exceptionally well in challenging situations.

The focusing system on the G2 was quick and accurate 99% of the time.

Did a focus/recompose on the eye and was pleased with the outcome.

The G2 performed flawlessly during my trip in the harsh Gobi desert.

Other shots I’ve taken with the G2

The G2 has a built-in multiple exposure mode.

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You can get zone-focusing to work on the G2 as well!

Another zone-focused shot. Again, the G2 nails the exposure.

Zone-focused, AE with -2EV on the compensation dial to speed up shutter speeds.

The 28/2.8 lens is perfect for travel.

The AF locked onto the dog’s eye rather than catching the grill in front of it.

The 45/2 Planar. Beautiful.

Another frame from the 45/2 Planar.

Backlit subjects? No problem! The meter works perfectly.


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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Colin
    August 20, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    Darn.
    Just as I convince myself that I don’t need another camera. Just as I’ve convinced myself I don’t need a G1 or G2 even though I really like Zeiss glass ( hence the Contax II RF and RTS II and a Sonnar 1.5 in LTM and let’s not mention the Rolleiflex/Rolleicords …)

    This!

    Nice work Nicholas. I particularly like the ‘Twilight at camp’ and ‘Man and friend ‘ shots.

    Colin

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 9:52 am

      Thank you Colin! Sorry to send a small bout of G.A.S. your way. Haha 🙂

      Just looking over eBay and you can see the great value inherent in the G-lenses. Sure, it’s got a funky focusing screw that makes it a little more difficult to adapt on mirrorless bodies, and the aperture ring only goes full-stops, but you’re getting the same Zeiss glass that’s in ZM/ZF mounts at a fraction of the price! I’m ordering a G-to-E mount adapter (not the fancy autofocus one though) and I’m really excited to see how it performs on a modern sensor!

      The Sonnar 1.5 is a thing of beauty 😀 I have one as well and I’ll never sell it!

  • Reply
    ian
    August 21, 2016 at 1:47 am

    Beautiful photos and review. Definitely help me in making up my mind about the G system as well, thanks Nic. Just a question, what films were used, specially the first frames?

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 9:56 am

      Merci Ian! 🙂 Looking through my negs, the first few frames were on Ilford HP5+. In fact, I’ve only used HP5+ and PAN 400 (both Ilfords) during the trip by some stroke of coincidence. They dry really flat if you’re looking to develop and scan at home!

  • Reply
    Marty Cutrone
    August 21, 2016 at 3:05 am

    Thank you for sharing. Love the variety of images and film types you showed. The Band Ws are powerful and sow great variety. Lessons for all us amateurs! Beautiful work

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 9:57 am

      You’re most welcome Marty! It’s my first time contributing a review and it was a learning process for me! Glad that you found it an interesting read and enjoyed the photos. 🙂

  • Reply
    Christos
    August 21, 2016 at 3:07 am

    The Canon EOS 300X plus the 2.8/40 EF pancake lens would be a decent alternative for a fraction of the price, including a very similar total size and weight with all the practical advantages of a modern AF SLR (Multiple selectable AF points, three metering modes, DOF preview, 1/4000 top speed, no parallax error, exposure lock / compensation, etc) I would add a good manual 28mm lens via cheap adapter (the 2.8/28 OM Zuiko or the 3.5/28 SMC Takumar spring to mind) that can be used in AV mode set to hyperlocal to minimize / eliminate focusing time. Not as classy a combo as the Contax, but you would get to keep the Leica (Total cost around 200-240 euros max.) ☺

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 10:00 am

      I wouldn’t argue that the Canon setup would provide an equivalent set of FOVs at a fraction Christos! I already own a film SLR (OM-4t.. hmm maybe that’ll be my next review!) and I wanted to replace a rangefinder (M6) with another RF (the G2). The Leica was nice but, at risk of getting burnt at the stake, I was getting a little lazy with all the manual work involved. Ha! 🙂

      • Reply
        Christos Theofilogiannakos
        August 24, 2016 at 9:41 am

        Oh dear! I always thought that autofocus cameras make you lazy, not the other way round! Anyway, it is my understanding that the Contax is an autofocus camera, not a rangefinder. Am I missing something here?

        • Reply
          Nicholas Koh
          August 25, 2016 at 9:12 am

          Whoops – what I meant was “I was getting *tired* of all the manual work involved”. My bad!

          As for the AF: The Contax does autofocus by way of a rangefinder mechanism (trigonometry) – as opposed to the through-the-lens phase-detectiom focusing system in SLRs and Mirrorless cameras. Maybe the term automatic-rangefinder would make more sense! I hope that helps clear things up a little? 🙂

    • Reply
      Blinx
      August 23, 2016 at 8:47 am

      A man after my own heart. The Canon 3000n and 40mm pancake is one of my standard walkaround setups. I’ve had three compact film cameras give out over this summer holiday alone, most recently a Canon Sureshot 7 that locked up three rolls into a holiday. Even entry level SLRs seem to be more robustly constructed than compacts of the same period, and not much heavier or larger.

      The G2 is a lovely camera, and I often feel like the forum curmudgeon on these occasions, but I can’t see myself sinking the asking price into a technologically complex camera of unknown spares support no matter how nice the lenses. On the other hand some street photographers swear by the G2, so I may be unnecessarily pessimistic.

  • Reply
    Mattias D
    August 21, 2016 at 7:04 am

    Great pictures and highly convincing;) A bit confused about the reliability though. What has kept me from buying one is that it often says that Contax are great when they work, but if electronics break down they can’t be repaired. Has this changed or is it a myth?

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 10:06 am

      Hello Mattias! You’re right, and this goes the same for any electronic film-era cameras – should the circuits fail, it’s most likely a pricey trip to a repair shop. Since Kyocera/Contax doesn’t support nor release any more spare parts for the G system, the service engineer would have to purchase a spare camera on eBay and cannibalise it for parts. Such is the risk we take. 😀

      Mine has proven reliable so far, but I know it’s a ticking timebomb with these electronic cameras. I find that most often it is solder joints that break, dirt that shorts out some leads, or a blown capacitor. These are trivial to repair if you have the right tools to crack the case open and locate the fault. But if it’s something more “customised” like the motor unit for AF, or the rangefinder sensors, then it will be expensive.

  • Reply
    Saptarshi Guha
    August 21, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Gorgeous photos.

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 3:36 pm

      Thank you Saptarshi! 🙂

  • Reply
    Tom Brayne
    August 21, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I had a champagne G1 w/ 28, 45 and 90 back in the day. Loved the camera, hated the AF focus ability. Got stung once on a job with an out of focus sequence and never trusted it again – though when it focused, the negs were a thing of beauty. Always understood the G2 was far more accurate and reliable in focus. You’re using for the exact same reasons I did – small, Aperture Priority functions, killer set of lenses. I believe there’s a highly regarded 21mm available. Now I’m back at what I consider the same place albeit digitally with a Fuji system. Good luck w/ the Contax – I admit a few pangs of desire. Great set of images. Cheers!

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 10:12 am

      Gracias Tom! I’ve always lusted after the G-series when I first sighted them lined up on a shelf in a used camera store. I did a bit of research and read about the “unreliable” AF and kinda put the idea of owning one on the back-burner for a while. I have pretty bad eyesight so in my own experience, manual focusing on a Leica didn’t give me a whole lot of accurate results either! Haha. So after a year or two, I went back to try and understand the issues of the AF in the Contaxes and realised it’s something that I could learn to adapt to. I would say after shooting for a while on the G2, I managed to have an instinctive feel for the buzzing sound that the AF motor makes. Too long of a buzz and it is focused to MFD, too short and it’s clocked in at Infinity. I find that *IF* the camera misses focus, it usually does so by either focusing at Infinity or at MFD (rarely in-between), so that’s how I check myself.

      Btw, you’re the second person to bring up the 21mm… I looked it up on eBay and it’s HALF the price of an equivalent ZM model. As a wide-angle shooter, it makes it so tempting to buy now….

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 10:14 am

      Also, how is the Fuji system treating you Tom? I’m looking to switch from my Sony A7Rii to the X-Pro2 – but I’m pretty heavily invested in Sony glass at this point, and I cannot justify the financial hit I’ll take for switching as yet. But any opinions on how Fuji handles would be great! I know they make great glass, ergonomics is on point and so is the software. Do you have any grouses with regards to the X system that you’d like to share and perhaps ameliorate my GAS for a bit? Haha.

  • Reply
    Erik
    August 21, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Nice review to read. It’s great to know that the system holds up in the Gobi dessert, which I’m sure can be quite intense. I’m currently shooting with the G1 + 45mm, and recently just purchased the 28mm, for an upcoming trip to the Rockies. Only shot half a roll so far, but excited to see the results. As you mentioned, I love the size and functionality of the G system. As someone who swears by the Contax T2 as a daily shooter, I’d compare the G1/2 as the upgrade to that. Basically it’s a fancy point and shoot with great lenses, and all the manual controls you could ask for.

    Erik – http://www.sometimeperhaps.tumblr.com

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 3:35 pm

      Hi Erik! Yes, this G2 of mine went through super high temps and even a sandstorm but it kept delivering! Tough little bugger it was. 🙂 I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun in the Rockies (wow!) with the G1 and 45/28 combo. If you haven’t already, take some time to get used to the sounds that the AF motors make and you’ll never fear those out-of-focused snaps that some reviewers pin on the G-series. You’re totally right – the G’s are like souped up T2s with interchangable lenses. In fact, the compact T2s were what introduced me to Contaxes in the first place!

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    August 21, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Nicholas, I too love the G2. For me it is the best 35mm camera ever, especially for travelling. It’s only weakness is the lack of true manual focus which can be a problem in low light especially if shooting with the 90mm lens. The lenses are stunning, the 45 & 28 are my favourites but the 35 makes a great one lens solution and I particularly like the 21 as a special purpose lens. I agree with you about build quality too, though it is lighter than a Leica M it is just as solid but uses titanium and other light but solid materials. One of its other unsung features is the diopter (dioptre?) eyepiece correction. It’s great to dial it in to correct less than perfect eyesight.

    The G2 (&G1) have their critics, They often bang on about battery life but I’ve never had a problem with that. The batteries last a long time and I like it that the flash uses the same type.

    Your pictures are excellent. I think they show perfectly the versatility of this camera. Thanks for a real world review!

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 10:19 am

      I never had issues with the battery life either! The CR2s are quite easy to find still and they even make rechargable ones. Thank you for reading and posting a comment Jeremy! It’s my first ever review and I’m glad that you found it and the pictures to your liking 🙂

      Btw. the diopter correction is a god-send. I totally forgot to include that in my review! Sometimes it’s the tiniest things that make the biggest differences.

  • Reply
    rollbahn
    August 22, 2016 at 4:33 am

    Fantastic shots – would love to go to that area one day.

    I have a love/hate relationship with the G2, I have bought and sold a G2 three times in the past 3-4 years…even had a beautiful black set like yours. I love everything about them but the AF just leaves me feeling very worried about wether I have got the shot and I’ve missed some great images because of it. It seems to be very dependant on whether the camera has been CLA’d as I had one that was far better than the other two.

    In the end I prefer my Leica M4-2 and Summicron to get the focus each and every time despite it being harder to use with my glasses on, loading an unloading the film etc.I like the G series so much I still keep an old G1 in my cupboard to dry-shoot occasionally – I probably shouldn’t say that out loud but there you go 🙂

    • Reply
      Nicholas
      August 22, 2016 at 10:24 am

      Hi Rollbahn! I’m sorry to hear about the AF woes. I read many reviews about how the AF system ruined many “once-in-a-lifetime” shots and got cold feet as well. However I took a risk and here we are. Surprisingly, all the photos that the G2 produced for me in Gobi was spot on focused!

      Also, I have experienced that if and when the G2’s AF fails on you, it will either fail by focusing on Infinity or at Min. Focus distances. By learning to recognise the length of buzz that the AF motor makes (Long buzzing = likely it’s at MFD, Short buzzing = likely it’s at Infinity), I can spot that the AF is incorrect and dart my eyes down on the focusing scale in the OVF to double-check. Give it a shot on your G1 and maybe it will work for you!

  • Reply
    Jimmy
    August 29, 2016 at 1:20 am

    Very interesting to read, and the photos are GREAT!

  • Reply
    JOBY
    November 18, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    I have a G2 and I love it! I won’t need to buy another camera ’till it dies. It’s SO well made and, for me, the AF is fab. The 21mm lens is amazing…

  • Reply
    carlos albisu
    December 22, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    Beautiful article and photos Nicholas! Always nice to see somebody who shares the love for the Contax G. Myself have been shooting different film formats and I have been lately attracted to 135mm. It suits my shooting style, which is very casual, I always have with me my camera and ready to shoot. I was looking for a compact 135mm camera with a nice set of lenses and after considering a lot of different options I finally chose the Contax G1 and a 28 and 45 lens. After almost two years shooting with the Contax G1 I am really satisfied. The camera has a learning curve but once you get there not many surprises are left. The bottom line is that with this camera you can shoot in any situation, be it sports, landscape, portrait, street photography… and for a fraction of much renowned systems. I recently thought I had lost my camera somewhere and I was kind of really sad about it, I do not want to imagine what is to loss a several thousand system : ( I bought two Contax G1 bodies (just in case!), but so far they have proved to be very reliable, except when shooting in extrem cold conditions, then the shutter gets stuck.

  • Reply
    Erik
    January 3, 2017 at 6:05 am

    Glad to hear your G1’s have held up Carlos. I purchased a G2 + 28mm 2.8 combo 3 months ago and was thrilled with the image quality. The G2 was just so much fun to use and I was getting excited about all the potential opportunities. I took the camera with me to India and shot a mere two rolls before the shutter mechanism broke (a very common problem apparently). I don’t baby my gear by any means, but I was apprehensive about such an issue happening with the G2 and thus took extra good care of it. The camera is amazing, but I never want to experience a loss mid trip/adventure like that again and will likely invest in a different system. It’s a shame.

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