A Contax G1 camera

Contax G1 – Much more in-focus than out-of-focus – By Chantel Wakefield

“I loved owning one for two weeks until every photo came back out of focus.” This was a comment from a popular YouTuber under another popular YouTuber’s review of the Contax G1 35mm Rangefinder Camera. I won’t name names, but if you think about the first few film photography YouTubers that come to mind, he’s probably on that list.

For those unfamiliar with Contax G series, the G1 is a premium interchangeable lens camera made of aluminum and titanium. It was once described by TIME as “a thoroughly modern version of the classic Leica, proof that retro is the wave of the future.” Designed to be used with Carl Zeiss G-mount lenses, it cost over $2,000 when it was originally released in 1994. These days, a G1 camera body runs anywhere between $350-$500 on average, depending on the condition.

A goat behind a gate with a sign that says stroller parking

A pregnant elephant lifting her trunk in the air

Before purchasing this camera, I looked at lots of reviews. I read countless articles about the specs and features. I watched video after video analyzing the different lenses natively available, pairing it with different film stocks, and commenting on how the camera handles on-the-go. I also looked at images samples across Instagram, Flickr, Lomography, and Reddit.

A sticker that reads party hard with a slice of pizza on a pole in the street

It didn’t take long to realize the images this camera could produce were stellar. Of all the articles, videos, comments and social media chatter I observed, not one person complained about the image quality. Carl Zeiss lenses are highly regarded, and all the photographs I looked at were beautiful. Even if they weren’t well-composed or the subject matter wasn’t interesting, I couldn’t ignore the actual character of the images.

Still, despite the stunning photos and the impressive aesthetics, there was one dissenting opinion that popped up time and time again: the inaccuracy and unreliability of the autofocus. Lots of reviewers – and aforementioned video commenters – complained about it. Many articles claimed it was a reason to pay the premium for the G2 instead, since it supposedly has better, smoother, and more accurate autofocusing capabilities.

Millennium Bank building in the background behind blinds

However, some photographers insisted the G1 autofocus was unfairly criticized. Drew at Casual Photophile says “maybe they’re the problem,” referring to users who’ve had issues, and “if you are conscientious about noting the focus as you compose and focus lock with the shutter release, you will not experience focus problems using the 45mm lens.”

A user on Reddit said “the only shots I have missed focus on were my fault, not the camera’s.” Kyle McDougall said the system “worked great” with “zero out-of-focus shots.” He noted the autofocus was noisy and slow but didn’t have any issues.

I could work with noisy and slow. I wanted the camera for some personal projects and to capture those simple, everyday moments that can feel like a blur when life gets (and stays) busy. The G2 camera body is larger than the G1, and I needed something as small and light as possible that didn’t sacrifice quality or completely break the bank.

And so, I bought my Contax G1 locally from a trusted camera shop around Christmas time.

Contax G1 camera with a Christmas tree in the background

It was – and still is – in excellent condition, and it came with an extended 1-year warranty as a holiday bonus. I purchased the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 45mm F2 lens the next day from a Japanese seller on e-bay. It arrived a few days later, and I loaded a roll of Portra 400 for an afternoon stroll. These were some of my first few shots with the camera.

fall foliage in a small neighborhood

a river and the surrounding scenery

underneath a bridge

zucchini fries and dipping sauce

Like most autofocus cameras, the system works by half pressing the shutter button. There’s an indicator in the viewfinder that lights up and marks the distance locked in by the lens. Since I’m familiar with zone focusing on the Olympus Trip 35, the meter mark is a great way for me to confirm if my subject is in focus.

If I’m trying to snap something super up close but the indicator mark is set to 5-meters, I know I need to release the shutter button and try again before giving it a full press. It’s true that the 45mm lens rarely gives me any issues, but I’ve also purchased the Biogon T* 28mm F2.8 and get similar, consistent results.

The more light, the less the camera hunts. For indoor shooting, an external flash makes capturing my kids and furchild extremely easy. At this point, I’ve shot over 10 rolls of film on the Contax G1, and I can count my out-of-focus shots one hand.

A man wearing an atlanta braves hat leaning down

A woman making ice cream

A 60% off sign in a boutique

A treetop zipline course under clear, sunny skies

A small plant near a coffeeshop window

A cup of sleepyhead coffee co coffee

Today’s photographers are mostly used to the laser-sharp, lightning-fast autofocus features offered by modern digital cameras. The Contax G1 offers a reliable autofocus that still requires you to slow down and consider each shot before fully pressing the shutter button.

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32 thoughts on “Contax G1 – Much more in-focus than out-of-focus – By Chantel Wakefield”

  1. I’ve had a G1 for a few years now – I don’t have the legendary 45, but do have the Biogon and the 90mm Sonnar.
    It is a lovely camera – the zooming viewfinder is great and it feels good in the hand – but I must confess I’ve had some issues.
    One revolves around the shutter. I found I was getting a number of blank shots where the shutter did not seem to be firing – It would seem that there is an issue regarding the shutter sticking (due to the magnets?) – I’ve found that setting the camera onto continuous and exercising the shutter prior to loading a film seems to cut down wasted frames.
    ..and then I had a problem for a while with the camera not aquiring focus and refusing to release the shutter when set to autofocus – however, I think this was down to settings as after I fiddled with the various settings available, the camera started to do focusing properly again. Just wish I’d documented my fiddling a little better.
    Back when I got my G1 they were a reasonable price, I can’t remember exactly but I think I paid well under £100. The G2 had an active element to the autofocus and a manual focus wheel positioned as in the Contaxes of old, so are a bit more desirable. The G1 salves my desire for a modern analogue rangefinder very well (and the lenses are something else).

    1. the 45 is honestly such a dream, but i’ve been grabbing the 28 more and more lately – it doesn’t get enough credit IMO. stunning IQ.

      £100 sounds like such a steal compared to today’s market! at that price, i’d buy two bodies, just to have one as a backup. no issues with the shutter sticking or blank frames on mine so far, thankfully.

  2. Autofocus and auto exposure were the beginning of photography’s slide into mediocrity. The slide was confirmed by digital, which separated exposure from any thinking on the photographers’ part.

    1. That’s a regrettably negative view. Good photography is as good as it’s ever been, and never was about the technical minutiae. In fact, being free to devote more mental energy to important things like composition, subject and lighting is a huge benefit to automation. Let the machine do what machines are good at (boring, precise, numerical adjustments) and let the human do what humans are good at (creativity)

      Automation doesn’t make good photographers worse, it just enables more average-to-poor photographers. That, imo, is a good thing, because many of those thus enabled will go on to become good-to-great.

    2. I look at it in the opposite direction. Autofocus and auto exposure did not dumb down photography. The dumb and the mediocre took up photography and were thrilled that they could click a button and get something, such as 10^5 snaps of their latest weekend in Paris. You had plenty of these clowns even back in the film days.

  3. Yeah, the internet where everybody’s an expert of considerable standing…..

    I’ve owned G1 and G2 systems and rate them as delightful in the hand and completely useable especially if you take the time to understand how to get the best out of them: it certainly sounds like you did. The only reason I don’t shoot them now is that I prefer the more active ergonomics of manual camera systems: I might regard you as a disrupter hahah

    You didn’t mention the “green label” issue or the bleeding lcd issue both of which have been preoccupiers for the internet.

    1. ah, yes – I should’ve clarified my copy is one of the original silver label bodies. lots of internet people harp on the fact that the green label is superior (and maybe it is?), but i’m fine with the OG lens lineup. 28 & 45 are the only focal lengths i really need for what i’m shooting.

      also, the LCD is clean as a whistle. from what i understand, the bleed issue can happen on G1s and G2s alike.

      1. The Silver / Green Label thing… The only difference seems to be a lookup table for lens data, allowing use of the 21 & 35.

        It’s not something I would do, personally, but there is a method for re-programming silver label G1’s into green label spec out there on the Internet.

      2. My understaning is that the green label just enables use of the zoom (which you dont see much). Green label was an add-on for many cameras – I wouldn’t worry if it wasn’t there…

        1. Nope. The 35-70 cannot be used with the G1 at all.

          As I noted above the 35 & 21 require the green label. This was particularly important to me as I wanted a compact UWA camera i.e. to use the 21.

  4. I’m actually minded that – in some circumstances – the G1 is better than the G2. The G1 has a nicely marked dial on top for zone/dead reckoning focus just by glancing down at the camera. That’s missing on the G2, instead it references the classic Contax rangefinders with a no-feedback electronic dial on the front of the body. Regardless, Spot focus and recompose is fine for wide lenses on film.

    And I’m happy that the internet’s collective wisdom that the G1 is a steaming pile of poo made it possible to get the camera and couple of rather lovely Zeiss lenses for a surprisingly small price.

  5. Just purchased a mint G1 with the 45mm from a seller in Japan. I couldn’t be more excited to try it out! Your article making me even more so. This will be my first ever film camera. Currently just been using a A7RII w. ZEISS Loxia. Great article!

    1. it’s gonna make a great first film camera, so long as you enjoy the rangefinder-style shooting. it’s not for everyone, but having a camera as sharp as the G1 makes it all the more enjoyable for me.

  6. Chantel, I worked for a Scottish photographer back in my early film days(1982) and he had a saying, “An expert is any old spert away from home” or now online. My experience is with the G2 so this isn’t an apples to apples comment. Having shot with the G2 since 2008 as my main camera I do have an opinion. The 45 and 90 are incredible lenses. I have done numerous cityscape panoramic shots where stitching is required in post to complete. The ones shot with the 90 are so detailed I believe they could fool many people into thinking they were medium format. I have shot panos with the Noblex Pro 6 150U so I do have some working comparison.

    The back button focus on the G2 is great as well as the exposure lock. In response to a previous commenter I don’t see this camera as a dumbing down of photography at all. I love back lighted type images and this camera excels with the exposure compensation dial and exposure lock. It does display the chosen focus distance in the top display and I have learned how to greatly improve my shots that require critical focus. The camera also allows me to set the film rewind to leave a leader and this allows me to switch film types if I need to. It has the ability for manual focus and a cable release which get put to use when I’m doing dusk to dark skyline shots. I’m an older shooter so the auto focus is helpful and I’ve used the continuos high speed frame advance in critical action shots (releasing of doves into the air at my dear Uncles funeral).

    I still love my Canon F1-n for its overall flexibility and speed finder and interchangeable focusing screens but the G2 has been a joy to use and helped me shoot some fast moving life moments with my daughter. A hearty thumbs up from this user. I think it looks beautiful too!

    I hope you get many happy years of use from this camera.

  7. For the prices the G1 currently sells for, it’s an absolute steal. The build quality and finish is peerless and quite a surprise coming from anything built for the film market during the rise of digital. I’m a fan BUT I wear glasses. For me, the big design flaw is the extremely tiny viewfinder which makes framing very difficult. I guess others wil have different experiences. As such I don’t use mine anywhere near as much as it needs or deserves. You’re right though perseverance yields the stellar results this class act was designed to deliver.

  8. I owned a G2 with the 45mm f/2 Planar and the wide angle f/2.8 Biogon. Focusing, while slow and noisy was never a problem. The character of the Zeiss lenses was absolutely stunning. When I moved from the analog G2 to the Leica M8, I didn’t hesitate buying the M mount Planar and Biogon. I’ve now gone through the M9, and the M240 and continued to use my M mount Zeiss lenses.
    Since then, I moved on to the Leica CL and Leica SL as well. I still keep the M mount Zeiss lenses which still outperform any Leica lens I have.
    So I can continue to use my M mount lenses, I bought a nice condition used Ricoh GXR camera with an APSC sensor with M mount for my Zeiss Planer and Biogon and the images are remarkably sharp and contrasty for an old digital camera.
    As for the G1, I also had one of those and found it more pleasurable to use due to its smaller size. If any one is contemplating buying one, be sure to get the G1 with the green label. The early cameras had some sort of mechanicasl problem and the green label means that it was either modified by Contax or is a later production model. The green label is pasted inside where the 35mm fim cartridge goes. BTW, I started shooing film again and for that purpose, I use a very nice CLA’d Leica M5. M5, you say? Yes, it is larger than the tradition Leica M body. It is not as pretty, but the price point is better and it has features that no other analog Leica M has and is really a very nice camera contrary to the negative hype.

  9. I bought a G2 with the 45mm almost exactly ten years ago. I think, if the G1 is lighter, I might prefer it, as the G2 is a bit heavy to carry all day. But it’s a lovely camera and a very lovely lens. The autofocus is a non-problem in my experience, although the whole camera is a bit noisy. I have the 28mm but it’s too wide for me really. In, I think, 2017 I dropped the camera which landed on the 45mm lens and broke something in the AF mechanism in the lens. I bought a lens but, amazingly, Caneratiks in Edinburgh mended the old one, so now I have two!

    On 28th June, 2014, I took what I think will almost certainly be the best picture I will ever make using it.

  10. I’m not going to say anything, except, shhhhh… this is a hidden gem of a camera. Don’t let too many people know! Along with the G2, it has been responsible for my journey to the Zeiss side, which has also been quite an expensive diversion so far.

  11. Ive had both the g1 and G2. I preferred the G2. In fact, the G2 became my favorite.I loved using it and it gave spectacular results – particularly with the 21mm Biogon. Have all thr lenses except the 16mm. The autofocus issues people might have had with the cameras are the result os user error. They simply failed to fully understand how the autofocus & viewfinder worked. They expected it to work like a Canon or Nikon SLR – simply point & shoot (or manual focus like a Leica) – but it didn’t. Read the manual and figure it out first, and you be more than satisfied.

  12. No! This camera is rubbish. It can’t focus. There’s issues with the shutter. The G2 is significantly better and worth the money. Don’t waste your money on the G1, you’ll regret it. Just avoid the G1 and get the G2 instead.

    At least that’s what you should tell people on the internet. This keeps this hidden gem of a camera more affordable. If word gets around how good and capable it is for the price point people start taking notice and the price slips up. If you actually start writing articles like this mentioning that if you learn to use the camera you’ll get awesome results (like the photos you’ve taken in this article), then more people will want this little super star of a range finder. I think even at twice the price the G1 is an amazing camera and I’ve enjoyed every moment of using mine. 🙂

    1. A lot of forums and blogs are filled with how “bad” G1 is – makes buying a new one/parts so much more affordable 😀 I’ve had same one for over a decade now, mostly for wildlife photos. As author mentioned, if you take your time – you going to end up with a stellar photo!

  13. Thank you Chantal for this article, I enjoyed reading about your experience with this camera.
    I love the Contax G cameras, actually I love all Contax cameras. The 645 will blow your mind but that’s a different subject.
    My favourite is the G2 but oddly I find that the G1 is better to focus in low light/ low contrast situations. I’ve had difficulty at times getting a shot with the G2 which if it can’t find focus will not shoot, which is frustrating as even the manual focus relies on the camera’s ability to lock on.
    The lenses are all top notch. The 45 and 28 are my favourites though the 21 is just as good with that 90 degree angle of view.

  14. I own both the G1 and G2 with the 28, 45 and 90mm lenses. When the cameras function as they are designed, the results are stunning to the point where I feel it’s pointless to use my other cameras. But they are finicky–some lenses don’t seem to like certain camera bodies. Ironically, my 90mm is perfect on the supposedly less capable G1, but was never quite right on my G2 which is fine with the other two lenses. Nippon Photoclinic in NYC, once a Contax -authorized repair shop, can adjust this, they claim, but the cost is prohibitive.

    As for the tiny “zoom” viewfinders, they are a mechanical and optical marvels but they negate what is arguably a major advantage of rangefinder photography–the inclusion in the view finder of things just outside of or about to enter the frame. And, perhaps like all Contax G owners, I fantasize of a true manual focusing option.

  15. Pingback: Contax G1 - Much more in-focus than out-of-focus - By Chantel Wakefield - Stylusy

  16. Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne

    A long time G1 user here…

    Most current G1 buyers get the 90/2.8 Sonnar and then decide the camera is crap – when it’s really the lens that is bad.

    The 90 Sonnar is probably the worst lens in the Contax G arsenal – I’m lucky enough to own a good one, but I’ve had friends who unfortunately got bad ones, and thought the camera was to blame, and then poo-haa’d the G1 as being a lousy past-it camera when it was really a sub-standard lens that was at fault.

    For my needs, the 45 is the third best lens with this camera – the 28/2.8 Biogon is the supper Stella performer, th e 35/3.5 Planar is the second best, and the 45 comes across as the third, even tho’ it gets written up all over th ‘net as being the bee’s knees.

    The 90/2.8 is last and way, way down on the lens list, even below the 21/2.8, a lens I own and worked with extensively but have Neve quite made friends with it, even tho’ I reckon there isn’t anything wrong with it- I’ve just not bonded with that lens, full stop. I use a Nikon 20/2,8 D (FX) and a Fuji 14/2.8 (DX) and they do what I want them to – but the G 21 somehow falls short. Maybe it’s just me.

    I bought my first G1 in 1998, and Over the years I’ve used both the G1 and the G2 (and I happen to own four G1 bodies as well as five G lenses), and for me the G1 rates slightly above the G2, largely due to its lower price secondhand, but also as it basically does all I want a camera to do. The G2 has more bells and whistles, but as I see it, if you can’t do it with a G1, a G2 won’t save your hide…

    From Dann in Melbourne

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