If you’ve ever talked photography and cameras with me, you would know that I have a huge soft spot for all things Contax, specifically their 35mm SLR lineup, cameras and lenses included. Affordable, well-built, and high-performing. The Contax S2 is no exception.
The Contax S2 is a very interesting camera that either seems to be a hit or miss among photographers.The S2 was released in 1992 as a 60th Anniversary camera by Contax to celebrate their line of 35mm SLRs, and it quickly became a cult camera among shooters who love the simplicity of fully manual cameras. Although it is beautifully built and designed, it takes a back seat to the Contax T and G point and shoot lines nowadays that have been hyped to death (with the exception of the original T which is an absolute hidden gem).
Similar to the Contax T and G line, the Contax Yashica SLR line was known to feature some of the most elegant, high-tech electronic cameras of the time with the likes of the Contax RTS series, RX, and Aria ranking among some of the finest (in my opinion). The Contax S2 was a rare departure from the modern designs that preceded it. The camera was fully mechanical, with the only electronics being needed to power the internal light meter.
The meter is a 5mm spot meter that is located in the focusing plane of the S2 and a more rounded center-weighted meter can be found in the brother of the S2, the S2b. Aside from the difference in meters, the S2 features a silver body whilst the S2b features a darker onyx colored body.
Lastly, the S2b goes for around $600-700 on the used market and the S2 goes for nearly half of that at $300-400 (even less if you’re patient) . Both cameras, however, mount the beautiful and affordable lines of Carl Zeiss lenses which is a reason in and of itself to purchase the camera.
Why the Contax S2?
Having fallen in love with using Contax lenses on my Sony a7 series, I previously delved into the 35mm lineup with a Contax 139Q as my first analog camera. While this camera along with my favorite lens of all-time, the Zeiss Distagon 28mm f2.8, produced beautiful images, I wanted more control. This ultimately led me to put it in storage and later gift it to a friend as their first 35mm camera.
With the Contax S2, I was seeking a more robust and reliable camera with no frills to use my Contax lenses on. Since I didn’t get along with a 28 and 50 pair on my Leica M6, I was hoping that the S2 could cover that range at an affordable price seeing as I already owned and extensively used a Contax Zeiss 28mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.4 pair on my Sony a7 series over the past 4 years or so. At the time of purchase, my M6 was my go to camera and I was hoping to find a camera that was very similar in function to use my Contax lenses on.
- Material: Titanium top and bottom plates, leatherette body grip
- Shutter: Mechanical, vertical plane shutter with a max speed of 1/4000 sec
- Meter: 5mm spot meter, EV 4 to 20, powered by 2 common LR44 batteries
- ISO range: 12 to 6400
- 0.82x magnification viewfinder with 95% coverage
- Weight: 565g (my Leica m6 is 585g for comparison)
First Impressions & Build Quality
The first time I picked up the camera it gave me a reassuring feeling that it could endure anything. The titanium build was solid, yet light. The Contax S2 feels really nice in the hands. The camera has a smooth design to it, avoiding rigid edges and controls. This makes the S2 a very aesthetically pleasing camera. The weight seems evenly distributed and balances really well with the 28mm and 50mm lenses.
In regards to size, the camera is actually quite small and very similar in size to the Leica M6. It is actually slightly lighter and smaller but the lenses are SLR lenses so the M6 setup ends up being much narrower in reality than the S2. If you want to have a compact setup with the Contax S2, the pancake Carl Zeiss 45mm f2.8 Tessar lens is tiny and would rival a rangefinder setup in size. Overall, my first impressions were good. My feeling is that it isn’t built to the standards of a Leica, but it is solid and I trust it. But most importantly, it comes with a reasonable price tag. This ultimately led me to take it into situations that I wouldn’t with a more expensive camera.
The film advance is very smooth, the smoothest of any SLR I’ve used to date. Everything seems to be in the right place on the Contax S2. ISO dial is on the rewind crank and very easy to adjust in practice and stays locked in place nicely while shooting to prevent accidental changes in ISO.
This, I would call it stiffness, does not translate well in the shutter speed dial. The shutter speed dial has a nice tactile grip for rotating speeds, but the dial is just too dang stiff for my liking. This could have just been on my camera, but it was the only gripe that I had with the camera in terms of handling. Other than the rather tight shutter speed dial, handling of the S2 is near perfect and the camera has a tendency to fade away in use.
Gorgeous. The Contax S2 viewfinder is extremely clear and has a 95% field of view so visibility is outstanding. The viewfinder displays shutter speeds on the right side of the frame, and that is it. The set speed flashes quite obnoxiously while the spot meter reading is solid. It does not display the set aperture which I actually found rather annoying, just as I did in my Leica M6. But it does show the shutter speeds so it has that advantage over the M6. Overall, I have conflicting feelings about the viewfinder. While I appreciate the lack of displays, I do feel that aperture and shutter speeds should be the bare minimum to include in a metered camera’s viewfinder. If I want a blank viewfinder, I’d rather do so with a meter-less camera.
Contax S2 Meter
The Contax S2 meter is extremely accurate and is quite hard to trick due to the very narrow spot meter. If a bad exposure is made with this camera it is more likely due to user error than a poor reading from the spot meter. The meter has a tendency to over expose half a stop or so (at least mine does) which is a pleasing fault as it is somewhat of a safety blanket due to over exposing film being much more salvageable than underexposed film.
Contax S2 Shutter
Loud. The Contax S2 shutter is loud. Very very loud. And it has a slight ring to it after an exposure is taken. I tried to dampen it and actually consulted some friends who work as camera repair techs and they said there is little that could be done to soften the after-shutter ring. If being discrete is your goal, the S2 is not for you. If you shoot landscapes or portraiture, the S2 is much more suited for that as opposed to street photography. A plus side of the shutter, well shutter speeds I guess, is that it has a top speed of 1/4000 of a second and it operates fully mechanically. This is a pretty awesome feature to have in my opinion. It allowed me to be able to shoot wide open during the day with no need for an ND filter. I imagine that the combination of the S2 with the 50mm f1.4 planar would be ideal for a portrait photographer for this exact reason.
Focusing the Contax S2
The focusing is nice and easy due to the clarity of the viewfinder and the Contax S2 has an interchangeable focusing screen design with the choice of either 45 degree split image prism, a grid, or a matte focusing screen. Choose your favorite style and you’re golden.
This is one of the weak points of the camera. As I stated above, the shutter is very loud and thus the camera shake can affect taking photos on a tripod. In most SLR cameras this would not be a problem since you can just engage the mirror lock-up after composing and that completely solves the problem. With the S2’s back to basics design, they decided to omit the mirror lock-up button. I personally think that this is a very useful tool and should be considered mandatory for any SLR. If you shoot nightscapes or use longer shutter speeds for landscape work, please consider if you need a mirror lock-up or not because the Contax S2 certainly doesn’t have it.
Double exposures can be done via the lever on under the film advance. Although I didn’t use this function too often, it was nice to have. I have a hard time seeing how this is more essential than a mirror lock-up though.
Strength of the lenses
This is the real selling point of the Contax/Yashica SLR line. The Contax Zeiss lenses for the C/Y mount remain among the best lenses I have ever used on any system, both film and digital. After shooting similar Leica lenses from the same era on my Leica M alongside my Contax S2, it was very apparent that the Contax lenses outperform their Leica equivalents in both edge to edge performance and color (that statement should get some people’s blood boiling).
These lenses render very cinematically and walk the tightrope between impressive sharpness and creamy tones like a champ. Although I have not used the entire lens lineup, the ones that I used still remain as some of my all-time favorites on any system (28mm f2.8, 50mm f1.4, and 35-70 f3.5). Of note, the 45mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.7 are good lenses and quite small but their build quality is inferior to the rest of the lineup which is why I don’t consider them the top of the line lenses of the system.
Where does the Contax S2 fit in my camera setup?
This is always a tough question to answer. I have found myself in a weird position in that I enjoy the rangefinder and SLR system equally. As I write this review, I am looking at the two cameras I currently own, my Contax S2 and Leica M4, and am having a hard time deciding which I like more.
This brings up the big question, is the Contax S2 a good enough camera to dethrone my Leica M4? This is a tough comparison. However, if we take a trip back in time prior to replacing my M6 with an M4, this makes the comparison more interesting. Aside from one being an SLR and the other being a rangefinder, these two cameras more similar than they are different. Both the S2 and M6 are all manual cameras with an independent meter that were made with high quality materials and a close attention to detail. In addition to this, they both have an excellent selection of lenses available for them, and by excellent I mean some of the best lenses ever made to date.
The battle of the Contax S2 vs the Leica M6 went on inside of my bag for more than two years and in the end it really came down to personal preference in use. I prefer the handling of a Leica M and the size of the lenses. But the fact that the Contax S2 just about knocked off arguably one of the greatest cameras of all-time is an homage to the S2. The fact that this camera still only goes for $300 is mind-blowing and also understandable (ironic, huh?).
The Contax S2 is reliable, simple to use, and has a great lens lineup BUT the camera is still rather expensive for a basic 35mm SLR. This is what makes it fly under the radar. When people are in the market for a high quality film camera they have a tendency to drift towards the cult cameras. It is easy to fall under the assumption that what is most expensive is the best, but that simply just isn’t the case. Those that do end up making it far enough to look at the S2 have a hard time justifying the price due to the stiff competition coming from the Nikon FM, Pentax K1000, and many other back to basics 35mm SLRs.
You can either be confused or joyful about this fact. For those that have used an S2, they understand how wonderful and ahead of its time the camera is and for those who have not used an S2 don’t understand the extra price tag for a camera that does less for more. The best way to think about the S2 is that you are paying the extra money not only for a well-built, reliable camera but also as a key into the affordable Contax Zeiss lens lineup.
All photos were scanned on a Plustek 8200i AI.
Yashica Fx-3: Functionally very similar to the S2. Small, all manual with the exception of a meter and mounts C/Y lenses. Build quality will be inferior but price is also much lower. This could be a good back-up to an S2 or a good entry camera into the system to use the lenses.
Contax S2b: The same as the S2, with the exception of a darker paint and center-weighted meter. It demands a premium at just about double the price of the S2. For this money, I find it hard to recommend the S2b.
Contax 139Q/RTSii: Both aperture priority. I only add these to the list because I owned both at one point in time and loved both of them. If you want aperture priority and faster functioning, either of these is a great choice. The 139Q is as small or smaller than the S2 and the RTSii has some heft but is built like a tank. Shutter release on the RTSii is dampened extremely well and is buttery smooth, something I can’t say about the S2.
Nikon F2: All manual, built to the highest of standard and highly customizable. I would recommend this to someone who wants a camera that is all manual with a meter but wants a system with more affordable lenses.
Nikon FM: Same as the F2 but if size and weight is a concern, the FM is a good choice. I find the FM very comparable in use to the S2 with the exception of the FM having a center-weighted meter. This is one heck of a camera for the price.
Leica M6: Want a quality camera like the S2 but in a rangefinder form? Look at the M6, I already discussed a comparison so I won’t get into details. Be prepared to spend 5-6x more for an M6 than an S2.
Overall, the Contax S2 is an incredible camera. It does what it advertises (which isn’t much) but does so in a classy and reliable way. Is it rather loud and limited in what it can do? Most certainly, but if you’re buying one you know what you are getting into. If you want more automation, Contax has plenty of other valid options.
The S2 is beautiful but has its flaws and just like any camera review, it is best to weigh the pros and cons and decide in the end if the S2 is a good fit for you individually. I personally found near nirvana with it, but ultimately I found the Leica M system to be a better fit for me in the end. However, for those looking to get a Contax camera at a great price with some of the best (and most affordable) Zeiss lenses available, I wholeheartedly recommend the Contax S2.
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