Contax T (front)
Advanced Compact Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

CONTAX T – The 1st One – A Compact, Manually-Focused Rangefinder – By ‘grain_frame’

October 10, 2022

The Contax T is a compact rangefinder introduced in 1984. It was the first in what would become a line of premium point-and-shoot cameras, a segment pioneered by Contax. It was also the first Contax camera developed since acquisition of the brand by industrial giant Kyocera (formerly Kyoto Ceramic Company), and they aimed to make a splash.

Design

For the Contax T’s titanium-clad body, painted black or silver, Kyocera enlisted the aid of Porsche Design, the same firm behind the first Contax SLR (the RTS) a decade prior. Like all Contax cameras, its defining feature was utilization of a Carl Zeiss lens, in this case a classic Sonnar design with a focal length of 38mm and maximum aperture of f/2.8. The finishing touch, showcasing Kyocera’s expertise in materials, was a synthetic ruby shutter release (which I guess is how a ceramics company shows off).

In the hand, the Contax T exudes quality, with a reassuring heft belying its diminutive dimensions (about the size of a pack of cigarettes). The design emphasizes compactness and portability, with a drawbridge-like panel that folds up and provides protection for the collapsible lens, as well as the front rangefinder and viewfinder windows. Both the film rewind crank on the top plate and the film advance lever in the back are recessed, sitting flush with the body and allowing for easy slippage into and out of pockets with minimum chance of catching. It’s a nice touch.

Lens Stowed

Operation:

Meter & Focus

Functionally, the Contax T offers aperture priority auto exposure, with metering by an SPD cell mounted on the front of the lens. There is a ring for manual focusing, and one for selection of aperture (f/2.8-22).  Shutter speeds are camera selected and stepless from 8-1/500 seconds. There are no filter threads on the very small, collapsible lens.

Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38mm f/2.8

Top Plate

On the top plate, there is a “backlight compensation button” which provides +1.5 stops of exposure compensation when pressed, but there is no more granular level of control offered. There is also a self-timer button, if you’re into that sort of thing. There is a small LED frame counter next to the shutter release. ISO is user selected from a range of 25-1000.

Contax T Top Plate Detail

Viewfinder

In the Contax T viewfinder, there are bright frame-lines for composing, as well as a diamond-shaped rangefinder patch which provides for coincident image focusing. On the right side there is a 4-LED exposure display which seems over-simplified at first, but which is actually quite elegant, in my opinion. The display shows only three shutter speeds: 500, 125, and 30 (from top to bottom). If a red LED blinks above 500 (the camera’s maximum shutter speed, remember), that indicates overexposure. A blinking light between 500 and 125 indicates correct exposure. A blinking light between 125 and 30 also indicates correct exposure, and also lets you know that you are below the maximum flash sync speed of 125. Finally, a flashing light under 30 indicates a selected shutter speed anywhere between 8-1/30 seconds, and warns you of possible camera shake and/or underexposure. It sounds terribly confusing, but really you just need to try to keep one of the two middle LEDs lit as much as possible.

Flash

Speaking of flash, the Contax T is paired with a dedicated unit, the T14 AUTO. This screws on to the side of the camera by thumb wheel, has its own power button, and a flash ready lamp on top. You also get a ready indicator in the viewfinder by way of blinking of the red exposure LED – just remember to keep your shutter speed below 125, or the flash won’t fire.

Contax T with T14 AUTO Electronic Flash

Batteries

The Contax T takes two button batteries (LR/SR44) .  The flash takes two AA batteries.

A More Personal History

I bought my first Contax T in 2009. By then, I was about 5 years deep into an obsession with the brand that had started with the purchase and restoration of a 139Q, and had taken me all the way through to the last Contax manual focus SLR, the excellent Aria. The T was a bit of a novelty for me, more of a collector’s check-in-the-box than anything else, if I’m honest. I hadn’t yet warmed up to the rangefinder ethos and saw the T as more of a beautiful (if quirky) object than a serious camera. It fell into disuse and was sold, along with the rest of my beloved film cameras, sometime after.

Perhaps in an effort to right past wrongs and undo old mistakes, I picked up another Contax T this year. This particular copy was a super minty example that I watched on eBay for about 6 months, until the seller lowered his price to a threshold that I could no longer resist.  Now, as then, my reaction upon unboxing the camera was the same – I couldn’t believe how small it was, yet stunningly well-built and frankly, gorgeous to behold.

The eBay Listing

Field Notes

But what’s the Contax T like to use?

In a word, fun – but there are of course caveats. The camera is really and truly pocketable – you could park this thing in the front pocket of your skinny jeans all day long – while simultaneously offering an impressive level of manual control. It stands to reason that the ergonomics would suffer somewhat as compared to a larger camera, and the truth is that the handling is idiosyncratic, to say the least.

For one thing, the drawbridge mechanism borders on being form over function – I mean, I understand that it protects the front of the lens and facilitates its retraction, important functions to be sure, but I feel like a sliding door would’ve been a better choice (indeed, the subsequent T2 and T3 opted for this approach). An advantage of the drawbridge is perhaps mechanical simplicity, especially since it is not motorized, but it does take an extra second or two to deploy, and feels kind of goofy just hanging off the front of the camera while in use. And then you have to sort of reach around it in order to get to the lens for focusing and aperture selection – and, by the way, the lens is tiny and fiddly, but the focusing ring is at least well-damped and the aperture ring is clicked at full stops.

But, you get used to it. For one thing, the lens is brilliantly marked for easy zone focusing. The engraving for f/8 is painted green, and there is a corresponding green dot on the focusing ring – so long as you line both of these up, you should have acceptably sharp focus from 1.7 meters to infinity – not bad for a camera with a minimum focusing distance of 1 meter. This effectively allows you to treat the Contax T as a fixed focus point-and-shoot camera most of the time, but with the ability to override manually for critical focus at any time. It works!

One other thing I love about the Contax T’s handling is the film advance lever. The way it is recessed into the body and sort of integrated into the rubber grip just feels phenomenal. It is grooved in a way that your thumb just slides right under it to release it from the body, and then will stand off until you click it back in. And the action is just buttery smooth. It’s seriously one of my all-time favorite advance levers. If you don’t geek out about film transport, you might not understand.

That Winder Though…

A gripe that I do have is that the Contax T is prone to rattling when film is loaded.  This is not due to the lens or any other internal part of the camera moving around, but rather the film cartridge is just not snug enough in the film chamber when the body cover is in place.  I honestly can’t recall if my first T did this or not, but I’ve seen the problem mentioned before on forum posts so I think it’s normal and not limited to this copy.  In any case, I think it will be easy enough to fix – probably just requiring a piece or two of strategically-placed foam tape – but it’s a little frustrating that it’s an issue at all, particularly in a camera where fit and finish was otherwise so well attended to.

Some other common niggles:

The flash housing is plastic, and feels cheap and flimsy compared to the titanium-bodied camera. Not entirely untrue, but I find the flash construction not really objectionable, and I appreciate the lighter weight I guess. When coupled to the camera, I don’t really notice the difference in materials. And, more importantly, who is really going to use a flash with this camera anyway?

The film loading process is barbaric. Again, a kernel of truth here, and your opinion will largely depend on your experience with different cameras and film loading in particular. Certainly a back-door loading camera is easier than the older bottom-loading design employed here. And the flippy pressure plate will mock you. But I’ve yet to have any sort of film-loading disaster (knock on wood).  Incidentally, the process of taking apart the camera really gives you a sense of the scale of the thing – it literally is just large enough to load a film cartridge.

Contax T Disassembled

Doesn’t Kendall Jenner use a Contax TNo, to my knowledge she shoots (shot?) a T2, which is why no one can afford one anymore. T3’s are similarly overpriced. Probably the only thing that keeps T pricing sub-stratospheric is the manual-only focus, which is ironic because a well-kept T will likely outlast the newer autofocus cameras.

Soft Case (Expands to Fit Flash)

The Photos

Because talking about a camera is worthless if we can’t see what it can do – please enjoy a few snaps taken with my Contax T.

“Violet 160J Saloon (A10)” | Kodak Gold 200

“Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas” | Kodak Tri-X 400

“South Steps” | Kodak Gold 200

“Century (G50)” | Kodak Gold 200

“Seawater Desalination Center” | Kodak Gold 200

“Stables” | Kodak Tri-X 400

Conclusion

In my humble opinion, the original Contax T is a best-in-class camera.  Like anything, its design and execution represent a compromise between competing interests, and should be understood in that context. With this camera, Contax managed to shoehorn a full complement of manual controls into an almost impossibly small body, and they did so with peerless style and sophistication.  The ergonomics, while admittedly sub-optimal at times, are simply a function of the compactness. Build quality and materials are first rate. This camera set the standard for what a premium compact camera could be, and remains an exemplar of the segment.

You can find another review of the Contax T on 35mmc here

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Work managed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND)

 

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Adrian Cullen
    October 10, 2022 at 10:43 am

    Thanks for this comprehensive review. I’ve had my copy about 3 years now and consider it my go to compact quality option. It can be viewed as an upmarket Olympus XA with a better lens, better controls and non hesitant shutter. The advantage as I see it of the flip down lens cover is that accidental opening is impossible. I occasionally use a vintage clip-on spring adjustable yellow green filter. It simply clamps over the front of the lens. The camera’s meter reads through it without difficulty. Not particularly elegant but it’s quick and works just fine.

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 10, 2022 at 12:03 pm

      I’ve heard the comparison to the Olympus XA before! I’m not personally familiar with that camera, but from what I know of it, it certainly could be a contender for one’s “carry everywhere” camera. I’m sure the plastic build is nowhere near the quality of the T’s beautiful titanium body (which truly is heirloom-quality, in my opinion), but it remains much more affordable and has a workhorse reputation.

  • Reply
    John Murch
    October 10, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    Nice review Adrian! I’ve always loved the design of this one but I’ve never managed to pick one up. A friend of mine bought two (they had to be black!), and I got to play with one. It was hard to give back!

  • Reply
    Brian
    October 10, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    I love the Contax T, had 2-3 of them, but had issues with body screws popping out of the frame which is plastic. If they had made these with a more sturdy frame material I would still have one.

    The lens, ergonomics, ISO range, and everything else about them I am a huge fan of.

    Maybe i need to find another copy, less abused.

    I also have an Olympus XA which although most of the body is plastic, I feel is ultimately a bit sturdier than the Contax T.

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 11, 2022 at 1:15 am

      Which screws do you mean: the ones on the top plate, of the ones around the lens (you have to take the body cover off to see these)? I’ve owned two copies, neither with this problem. Both were in good condition, the second (this current one) more so. The camera seems pretty rock solid and sturdy to me, although I’m sure it’s not impervious to abuse – the titanium is quite thin, and I think a good drop could ruin the precise, mechanical feel of the lens assembly deployment, for example – but it’s hard to imagine the screws just spontaneously backing out of the frame, just because it’s plastic.

  • Reply
    Eric Norris
    October 10, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    A very similar camera, although definitely not built to the same standard of quality, is the Minox 35 in its variety.

    It took me at least three tries to get a working version (finally found one at a camera swap), but now that I have one I love it. Yes, it’s zone focusing, but it’s similarly small and pocketable and produces great images. I later found the matching Minox flash unit, a dedicated flash almost as large as the camera itself!

    Thanks for the review of the Contax!

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 11, 2022 at 1:24 am

      I considered mentioning the Minox 35 when writing this review, as the design similarities are impossible not to notice. I couldn’t speak to the build quality of the Minox, having never handled one, but it doesn’t surprise me that the Contax might feel like a premium version. There are a few other similar cameras out there, some blatant Russian copies of the Minox, as well as the Voigtländer Vito C, etc. As far as I can tell, Minox pioneered the design, but I didn’t feel comfortable inferring that the Contax was a copy without knowing more about it.

  • Reply
    Helge
    October 10, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    The flap works as a shade.
    It’s even textured and black to work better as such. Turn the camera around in strong sun or with the side blocking sideways sun in portrait mode.

    The door is also a nice handle for stabilizing the front of the camera when holding it.

    And a kickstand for impromptu timed exposures (on non abrasive surfaces, like the cover of course).

    It also gives stability and protection to the lens.

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 11, 2022 at 1:26 am

      Good point! I had noticed the matte-black baffling on the inside of the flap, but hadn’t considered its function. I think the camera would be a bit challenging to use upside down, but at least one has the option.

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    October 10, 2022 at 10:40 pm

    I was always under the impression that the camera was zone-focus’s, not with a coupled rangefinder. Thanks for the clarification. Good pics!

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 11, 2022 at 1:35 am

      Nope, it’s a real, bona fide rangefinder! I think that is the really amazing thing about this camera, and one of the main things that elevates this camera against similarly-sized (but zone-focused) compact cameras, in addition to the premium materials, design, and build quality. Although in practice I find it’s easier to default to zone focus much of the time, I find it’s really valuable to have that rangefinder patch to fall back on when needed. I own a few zone-focused viewfinder cameras and while I enjoy them in some ways they don’t quite feel like 100% real cameras to me. But then, I learned to shoot on manual-focus SLRs, and watching an image pop into focus through the finder while I manipulate the focus ring has always been a big part of the haptic experience for me. Anyway, thanks for the compliment!

  • Reply
    Eric Rose
    October 11, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    I can’t believe the prices people are asking for these cameras! Years ago I had T and it fell apart. Then I got one of the AF models. The focus gears wore out. Sure the lens is nice but the overall quality is not there. Now I use Rollei T. Sure it’s a tank but it’s never let me down.

    Great article though!

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 13, 2022 at 4:16 am

      Well, price is subjective, but I agree that it’s kind of unbelievable how much some film cameras are selling for these days. But they are a finite, diminishing resource in a market where demand outstrips supply, so what can we say? In my case, I flatly refuse to pay the crazy asking prices for the AF T2 and T3 models, which I luckily find less interesting anyway. The original T is still somewhat reasonably priced – I bought my first one for under $400 in 2009, and I see copies selling for about that much still, although they tend to be somewhat cosmetically rough examples. This copy was about twice that, but is in nearly mint condition, and probably at the very top of the market – it was worth it to me, but I admit nostalgia was a factor (and regret at letting go of the first one!).

      You’re the second person to mention poor build quality, so maybe there’s something to that, but I have to say I don’t get it. I’ve never had any camera spontaneously “fall apart,” how does that even happen? I’ve owned quite a few cameras, and all of my Contaxes approach my Leicas in terms of build quality, although I do suspect that they’d be perhaps less forgiving of rough handling.

      An old TLR like the Rolleiflex T could probably survive being thrown against a wall, but it’s so different from the Contax T (despite sharing a name, oddly enough) that it’s practically a different thing entirely, no?

  • Reply
    Eric Rose
    October 13, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    The Rollei I was referring to is the 35mm one with a Tessar lens. I totally agree with your pricing analysis, supply and demand rules to market. Thanks for your reply.

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 14, 2022 at 4:06 am

      Oh, of course. I’ve never used any Rollei 35 models, but they definitely look like cool cameras! Certainly in a similar vein as the T, both being compact (some would say subcompact) and with (mostly) fully manual controls. I still give the edge to the Contax for easy portability, given the collapsible design, which will always be more pocketable than any camera with a protruding lens.

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 14, 2022 at 6:22 am

      I just realized that the lens on the Rollei 35 models does retract, but I think not completely flush with the body, correct? I guess a more notable advantage of the T though is the inclusion of a rangefinder, which in my opinion elevates it over a wide variety of similar viewfinder cameras of the era.

  • Reply
    Mike
    October 14, 2022 at 3:22 am

    Awesome review! I’ve owned about 6 Contax Ts just catch and releasing then after rehabbing them – finally have my two keepers, a black and a silver one. It’s my favorite camera in my stable, even over my Leica M3, Contax G1, and AE1 Program. The best camera is the one you have on you! It’s also great to eek out speedy shots with auto shutter speed!

    • Reply
      grain_frame
      October 14, 2022 at 3:58 am

      Thanks! I’ve been looking at a silver copy myself, even though it’s totally unnecessary. I generally prefer black cameras, but the silver T with red engraving (sort of matches the shutter release) is pretty sharp, and as far as I know is the only Contax to be released in that color scheme – unlike, say, the champagne-colored titanium, which we see on the rest of the T (and TVS) line, as well as the G1/G2 and S2.

  • Reply
    Rajat Srivastava
    October 14, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    This is the one camera I take on all my travels. It fits anywhere, in any pocket, bags or clothes. The lens on this is razer sharp, sharper than some of the Leicas I have used. On a day with half decent light the F8 setting is perfect for street photography. If there are 2 cameras in my armoury that I would NEVER sell , they are the M3 and the T. Thankfully still affordable as not well known….. until now I suppose:)

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