My first disclaimer: the film photography that I do, is the film photography that I do, and may well not be the film photography that you do. Probably isn’t.
I’m an expat Brit project manager, based in Switzerland. Occasionally my work leads to short business trips to one of the various financial centres of Europe. If you overlook the glamour, the power, and the money (there isn’t much of any of ‘em) there is a perk for the aspiring street photographer: I’m often laid up for a few nights in some city centre hotel, with little to do after work other than to find a restaurant where I can have a meal, beer or two, and an uninterrupted read of a month old copy of New Scientist magazine. So I do all that, but I often try to take a few street snaps on the way to the restaurant, and almost always take a few night-time street snaps on the way back to the hotel; because I find myself feeling bolder at the prospect of photographing perfect strangers on the street after a damn good meal.
I wonder why.
Insert a Contaxt T2
Anyways, my Leica M6 is a bit too heavy and valuable to be shoved into a corner of my briefcase, so after some research on Hamish’s website, amongst others, I thought I’d give the Contax T2 a try. And what a camera it is. The autofocus is snappy, the view finder is big and bright, the automatic film advance is quiet enough, it’s an Aperture Priority camera (as God intended it to be), and the aperture ring’s on the lens (where God intended it to be) does what it’s told (with a few caveats, more anon), and the +2/-2 exposure comp, erm, mostly compensates for the lack of a proper shutter speed dial. The camera is compact enough for briefcase duty, just about slips into a pocket of my business suit, and it looks great. Really, really great. So there.
In daylight use, I started off using it on fully automatic and maybe twiddling a bit with the aperture and exposure comp… and after a few months I found myself limiting the camera to F/8 (and be there) and that’s been that ever since. Auto everything else. Happy camper.
Night shooting woes
It was night use that had me stumped. ‘Cos what *should* have been the perfect night time street point ‘n’ shoot, isn’t… because of a combination of two design decisions made by the Contax people sometime back in the 1990s.
One, it’s an Aperture Priority camera, so in lower light the best you can hope for is some ridiculous shutter speed that makes handheld street shots impossible. Ok, so what about pushing the film a couple of stops? Yep, there’re two stops of exposure comp travel but even with ISO 400 film you still end up with a shutter speed of less than 1/15th of a second or worse. So that leads me to the second poor design decision: there’s no override to the DX coding. So I can’t push the film more than 2 stops.
So that was that.
I experimented with scratching the ISO 400 DX coatings into an ISO 800 or ISO 1600 pattern, but frankly after a few tries (Ilford XP2 doesn’t push nicely; the blacks look like a snowstorm on a dark night) I found I just couldn’t be bothered. Bloody DX coding. Sod it.
So one night I tried a few handheld night shots anyway, and set the aperture to F/2.8 to see what Program Mode could do… and boom, the flash went off because (hic) some idiot had turned the aperture way past F/2.8 and all the way to the flash setting. A quick look at the pickie above and you’ll see how that can easily happen even when sober. Now if there’s one thing that yer street photographer doesn’t want to do on a dark and rainy night in London, it’s to take a shot using flash. Of course it’d take a flash the size of a floodlight to light up a street, so there’s no obvious utility in it. But to be honest I was more worried about some hairy bloke with tattoos taking umbrage and shoving the T2 far up where the sun don’t shine.
So I turned it back to the normal F/2.8, and emptied the roll to see what I’d get when the film was developed…
The handheld Program Mode “F/2.8s” were, erm, very shaky. Unusable. But that one flash shot was really sharp enough to be used.
This moment triggered a realisation; on flash the T2 won’t use a slow shutter speed. In low light it, with the flash switched on, it will shoot all night long at 1/30th and F/2.8. I need the camera to work in flash mode without the flash. I can shoot at F/2.8 and 1/30th and the latitude of ISO 400 film, God bless it, can take care of the rest.
A bit ‘o tape
All excited at this discovery, I tested it with a taped over flash, and Boom! The flash flashed right through the tape. It’s that bright. Ok, so treble the tape, and Boom! Still coming through. So I used weapons-grade aluminium duct tape… and no boom, the flash stopped coming through the tape… but instead poured out through the window next to the flash window; the bloody flash internally leaks all over the place. Damn. So I duct taped over that window too… and that put paid to most of it. A bit of light leak from around various dials and other crannies, but nothing that’d draw attention on the street.
But that next door window serves two purposes: it’s mainly for the autofocus; but it also lights up the frame-lines in the view-finder. Clever that. So I’d suppressed the flash, but I’d also lost two of the key virtues of the T2. Ah well, the price of progress. For a couple of months I scaled focused, and soon found that F/8 and scale focus is a hell of a lot easier than F/any thing else and auto focus. So I lived without it. But living with those missing frame-lines was another matter. Many, many framing problems.
But the main thing is that it somehow worked. Time and again I got 36 handheld night exposures which were at least viable… before the composition police came along and I chucked most of them away because no matter of equipment can compensate for pointing the camera in the wrong direction.
Time passed, and then I got back a bunch of films I’d taken during a daylight snow storm (another of my things) and shot after shot was so badly framed that no amount of cropping could rescue them. I seriously thought about buying a second T2, one for night and the other for daylight, but then had another thought.
Now for the *second* disclaimer. Please don’t try this at home, nor in the office, nor in the peaceful security of your shed. I did this because (a) I could always buy a second T2 if I ballsed it up and (b) I’m a prat and (c) I found out the hard way at the age of 10, when I was a younger prat, what it means to shove a bare thumb against a fully charged capacitor.
It bloody well hurts, that’s what.
So, I took the battery out of the T2, then unscrewed the top panel (three screws, easy enough) and then had a look see at what’s underneath. Ooerr, complicated. Aarrgghhhhh, and there’s the nasty capacitor waiting for me next to exposure comp dial. Avoid avoid avoid. But the flash unit was properly uncovered. So I cut a piece of duct tape, squashed it on “just so”, and used my finger nails to really get it on and around flash window. Then, after a bit of messing about positioning and repositioning the shutter button (the hardest part of the operation), I had the top panel back on. Down to the cellar, lights off, and a test flash (click, pop, weeeee) to see what I could see, which was nothing.
And it really does work. I have a F/2.8 and 1/30th of a second, night-time street T2 *with* auto-focus, and *with* frame-lines. And no nasty flash to scare the wildlife.
The next part’s a bit of digression, so those uninterested in anti-halation layers can look away now.
A few months later I started playing with the currently trendy Cinestill 800T colour film, which has two virtues: it’s tungsten balanced, which is really what colour night time street photography needs, *and* it’s DX coded at ISO 800, so the T2 can makes something of it. So I gave it a go, and yes, it does give nice colours, especially at night.
But the film has one big drawback/feature, depending on your half empty/half full life philosophy. In order to repurpose this professional Kodak cine film for casual camera use, the “rem-jet” carbon layer on the back of the film wot allows it to whizz through a cine camera at speed has to be removed otherwise the carbon dissolves into the C41 chemicals during processing, buggering up both the lab’s chemicals *and* the developing machines. But that carbon layer serves two purposes: it slickens up the film for the cine camera *and* it acts as the anti-halation layer, which Wikipedia tells me means the layer of film that stops the light from the exposure coming straight through the film, hitting the film pressure plate where it reflects back into the film, and every else after that. Halation is bad, hence the anti-halation layer. In practice this results in annoying/pleasing halos around bright lights… such as street lights, car headlamps, and the brighter neon lights. Basically, what yer likely to encounter when shooting night-time street photography in any city on the planet.
Within reason, I’m fortunately in the feature/pleasing camp, although some halation halos are a bit too outrageous to be useable.
But one photo had me foxed… there was a band of red down the entire left side of a frame that looked like rectangular halo, but without any obvious source of bright light that I could recall. I put it down to “just one of those things” until I found a vaguely damning article on Cinestill 800T written by someone in the drawback/annoying camp; the back of many film cameras, including the T2, has a small window which allows you a limited view of the film canister inside. Useful, if you’ve forgotten which film you loaded days or weeks before, but not the best when you’ve got a repurposed film without an anti-halation layer.
So I taped over the soddin’ window.
That’s nearly 2000 words to describe two bits of tape. On a film camera. In the digital age.
Don’t sit next to me on a long-haul aeroplane trip.
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32 thoughts on “Hacking the Contax T2 for low light street shooting – by Ric Capucho”
I love this!
For the uninitiated, the reason this camera is so ideal for this mod is the fact that its autofocus is “Active”. This means it works off a infrared beam and therefore doesn’t rely on a point of contrast in the subject matter to focus like passive AF cameras do. This is the same reason the Olympus AF10 makes such a good choice for similar usage.
Ric, be brave! Cover the light meter sensor on the lens with some black sugru! It will effectively permanently lock the camera at 1/30th and f/2.8. With 3200iso film thats 3ev! Take some of the HP5+ push it 3 stops and you’ll be rocking!
Then I’d also need an extra T2 for daylight use. And my wife will throttle me if I buy yet another camera. Which I just did, so shh.
But if it looked the same, she’d never know…
I admire your courage, and I like the photos. I think the colours came out really nice in the last one. I would have liked to see some more…
really enjoyed the article, humorous and well written! and the pithy reply, good Hamish speak and a simple, rock solid, no quibbles, permanent fix
hi guys, so a few month ago i found out something about the t2 i could not read anywhere about it…. it’s actually possible to force the t2 to choose f2.8. the trick is to put the aperture dial half way between 2.8 and 4… you can test it by metering a light setting which can be metered fine with f4 but overexposure with f2.8 (blinking 500) .. so for example f4 will be 125.then, between 2.8 and f4 will be blinking 500 and 2.8 will be 125 again meaning he chooses f4 for automatic aperture… worked for me.
Shall give it a go.
Great article, hilarious.
Fabulous article Ric. Interesting and hilarious. Bloody great work. Perhaps cutting the red cable to the flash would have saved one bit of tape.
Other than that, I’d suggest getting a Rollei 35se and going manual.
Rollei 35SE article will follow as soon as I get around to it…
Fantastic, Ric. I’m looking forward to your next article. By the way, I’d be happy to sit next to you on a long flight — so long as you don’t mind my stories of failing to rebuild an OM2.
Yer just saying that to make me feel less nerdish.
I’m simultaneously impressed with you endeavour yet perplexed by the necessity to go to such ends.
You said that on f2.8 your shutter speeds were too slow (under 1/15th). Using the 2 stops of compensation surely would be enough wouldn’t it? I’ve never shot in the street needing higher than 1600 film.
Second option, buy DX labels or print your own; you really don’t have to scratch away at the cassettes. Thirdly, why not just use Delta3200 in the first place? I think DX brings up 1000ASA
All this hassle could be avoided of course if you switched to a Ricoh GR1v or similar with controllable ISO or a manual camera like Olympus 35RC/RD/SP, but you know that 😉
As always, an entertaining article, thank you
All are fair questions, and I’ll see what I can do one at a time:
At F/2.8 the T2 goes into Program Mode, so what you get (at night) is *not* F/2.8 – something like F/4 comes up *and* the shutter speed increases to 1/15th which is too long for my shakey hands. Hence me describing it as “F/2.8”. I should take the time to look at the funny exposure sheet that yer find in the manual, but they always give me cross eyes.
The exp comp can indeed be dialed to -2, which helps a bit, but I’ve already lost at least a stop when the bloody T2 reduced the aperture. I did try, but that single extra stop is all the difference between murky darkness and something the film latitude can do something with. I made a bit of progress when I started exposure locking on a street lamp or lit shop window before whizzing back to the subject or scene… but that *really* made me feel a bit daft.
The DX sensors inside the T2 need conductive metal, so making DX labels myself requires the DIY skills of a mature adult. And as I’ve stated previously, I’m a prat. I did buy some ISO 800 DX labels, and have tried them exactly nonce; but the tomfoolery with taping over the flash slightly preceded their arrival, and I honestly believe I’m now in a better place with my bit o’ tape.
Thought about Delta 3200 but even I can only deal with so much grain. The intermediate grain of Delta 400/HP5+ is much more to my taste; enough to be “film” but not *too* much. Tastes differ, so if heavier grain’s yer thing then I’d recommend you go that route.
Lastly, I considered a bevy of cameras whilst toying with the idea of a T2. And indeed in daylight the automation is effortless and peerless, excepting (one hears) the T3. What drew me the most is the 38mm focal length, which is within that 35mm to 50mm range that I feel most comfortable in. I’m not sure what was in the water of 1990s camera designers, but DX override didn’t seem to be high up their list of priorities. I can understand the lack of manual settings ‘cos it saves the designers an extra knob or two, and reduces the operational complexity, but the DX override (and that weird F/2.8 Program Mode) is IMHO the nighttime achilles heel of the T2. Hence the effort.
Oh, and I’m not fearful of a manual camera ‘cos I have a Leice M6, Rollei 35SE *and* a Rollei 2.8F, (and a Rollei 35S on its way), all of which admittedly have internal meters, but meters that I more often than not ignore. If they had voices they’d shout unkind words at me.
Cheers for your feedback.
Thanks for your reply, Ric. I think my Nikon 35Ti has pretty much the same limitations regarding ASA settings as your Contax. As I said before, the GR1Vs is my low-light choice when I want AF.
I don’t know if you’ve tried full-stand development in Rodinal/RO9 but it solves a lot of the problems of underexposure particularly when your roll is a mixed bag of densities, if not metaphors.
Does Stand dev not result in increased grain though?
I don’t want to sound like a broken record – but HP5, especially in ddx is great when pushed
I’m sure you’re right, Hamish. I have to admit I am so smitten with 120 film these days that I haven’t ever stand-developed a 35mm roll and I don’t even notice grain on 120, but I did buy 10 rolls of HP5 today (in 120) for the coming week in south Cambodia. However, it’s so sunny I’ll be downrating it to 200 and using a yellow filter on my Rolleicord. Sorry to anyone in a shivering part of the world right now!
I haven’t tried DDX, will give it spin one day
Hi Ric, what’s interesting about these active AF cameras (mju-ii is another example) is that they preferentially use f/2.8 up to about 1/125th. At those lower shutter speeds you would have been at 2.8, almost definitely… The light was just too low.
To add to the answer about why compared to other cameras. As mentioned in my comment above, a lot of what makes it a good good choice compared to other AF point and shoot cameras really does come down to the type of AF. Active autofocus is quick and effective even in low light.
Something like the Ricoh GR1 would struggle more to focus in lower light – and actually would be more susceptible to the programme mode issues mentioned. The other options mentioned wouldn’t have the autofocus… Which is of course a matter of taste, but still a relevant point.
Also, I said it before, but you really should try pushing HP5. The grain is way smaller than dirty delta even pushed to 3200.
Finally, if you did block the light meter and put hp5 in it. It would then shoot at your 2.8 and 1/30. The DX code problem would therefore be irrelevant. You could then just push the film 1, 2 or 3 stops to taste.
You’re right of course, but then I’d have a T2 that can only be used at night – a sort of one trick pony. So I’d need to block and unblock the light meter depending on the time of the day – or buy that second T2.
Seems easier to me to nudge the nighttime T2 to F/2.8 and 1/30 sec by taping off the flash that I never use anyway. I can still push the HP5+ a stop or two as needed, although film latitude already does most of the hard work. And anyway, where does someone who’s too lazy to scrape off DX coding find the energy to do the developing himself?
Enjoyed that. You could always buy a bigger breifcase and treat your Leica to a night out!
The M6 has a big enough ego as it is.
Great article, Ric! Really enjoyed reading it. As I was reading it, my initial thoughts drifted to Ilford Delta 3200, which I then saw you don’t like so much. My other idea came from a book by Daido Moriyama that I was reading over the weekend. Moriyama doesn’t worry too much about sharpness, so what the heck, a little camera shake at 1/15s is perfectly legitimate and even authentic, especially after a few drinks! Of course he also doesn’t mind lots of grain, like lford Delta 3200. Oh, and lots of contrast, sort of like, well….Ilford Delta 3200!
Yer not far from where I’ve been going with this. If you have a look on Flickr (I use my own name, easy enough to find) you’ll see a number of unsharp night shots. What I really like are blurry people moving against fairly clear backgrounds, so all this fuss is really about fixing the backgrounds to act as a stage for ghost-like shadow people.
My very first sentence warns that I have my own photographic style, and it’s certainly not for everyone. Plenty of people would simply use a digital camera, crank the ISO up into the thousands so the scene looks like full daylight, and then photoshop it back to some form of darkness in post.
Couldn’t be arsed meself. And anyway, nighttime film gives a look that’s a wonder to behold.
Great article. As someone who shoots most often with my T2, I’ve struggled with lowlight at times. Especially in the winter when it’s dark when I leave the office. Tend to shoot a lot of 800iso film in the winter months. This tip will definitely help out when needed. I’m somewhat thankful that when I bought my T2 the flash didn’t work. Seems to only fire every 5-6 shots when in Flash mode. With further testing, I can power on/off the camera and make have it reset, essentially being sure that it will never fire when I don’t want it too (and when I would want it to :/ )
Thanks Ric for this post.
You made me think of my Olympus XA as a night shooter too!
I always found the metering at night to be on the long exposure side… but now I know that with the flash setting (and without the flash) I can have a F4 and 1/30 or 1/15 with backlight compensation on.
Can’t wait to try 😉
Why not just set the exposure comp to -2, which equals to shoot 400 as 1600, and push the film when you develop it. Am I right?
You’re right, but even at -2 exp comp I end up trying to hand hold at “f/2.8” and 1/15 sec. I put f/2.8 in quotes because only god and the internal software of the T2 knows what aperture it truly selects as it’s actually in Program Mode. Me neither. What I need is a true f/2.8 and -3 exp comp which is exactly what the T2 doesn’t allow or have. My sticky tape mod hardwires it at f/2.8 and 1/30 sec come what may, which combined with film latitude does the trick – at least for me.
Thanks for looking. Ric
Or you can get a t3 which can shoot 2.8 on m/a molde if I remember correctly. But the lens on t3 is very different than t2. Many people prefer t2 over t3 for the scale focusing and operating. I am interested in these cameras as well for the size.
I haven’t had time to read the threads above but I was also shooting a while back by covering the flash and was warned that it causes the flash bulb to burn out and is really not very good for the camera, any camera or any flash. The light has to escape. Thanks for the article, really enjoyed reading it!
Sendean cameras in London has spare parts for these wonderful Contax cameras!
Don’t do this. I had this set up on my camera for 3 rolls, intermittently shooting with flash. After taking the set up off, my flash no longer works.
Trey – Thank you for that. My first reaction as a technical sort of guy was how the flash would stand up to all that energy with nowhere to go except back on itself in a really tiny space. I imagine the heat generated was tremendous and the flash tube not built for that.