“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.
Before purchasing this camera, I naturally looked at lots of reviews. I read countless articles about the specs and features. I looked at 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.
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.
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.”
Kyle McDougall said the system “worked great” for him, with “zero out-of-focus shots.” He noted it was noisy and slow and didn’t have any issues, and a user on Reddit said “the only shots I have missed focus on were my fault, not the camera’s.”
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 wanted 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.
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 up a roll of Portra 400 for an afternoon stroll. These were some of my first few shots with the camera.
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.
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.