Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

The Contax T – My Final Word in Pocket Cameras – by Hern Tan

Contax T

For far too long, I’ve been looking in the wrong place for my ideal resident for my pants pocket. I’ve gone through a Nikon 28Ti, Contax T2, and more recently a Rollei 35SE and the famed Ricoh GR1. They were either too thick to comfortably fit into my pocket, had unreliable autofocus, or were so noisy that they would turn heads when I was going about my shooting.

Enter the Contax T. Three words: Silent, pocketable, rangefinder. All of the things I want, and almost none of the things I don’t. Almost as if someone decided to upgrade the Olympus XA into its final form. Let me elaborate in the bite-sized sections below.

The Size

The Contax T is about the size of a pack of playing cards, although admittedly it is much more densely built. It certainly is thinner than the T2, and about on par with the T3, but taller than the both of them due to the need to fit a rangefinder mechanism into the camera. This leaves it looking somewhat like a square, with equal amounts of space on both sides of the camera for you to grip. All this means that it will go into a trouser pocket without looking like you may have a thing for every person you see walking down the street, although you will feel it pulling your pants down slightly due to its weight.

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The Handling

The Contax T has a very nice rubberized grip which doesn’t seem to show any signs of turning sticky in mine. It wraps nicely around the right side of the camera, covering the front and the back with a contour that just fits into the palm. Heck, it even has an integrated thumb-grip/film advance!

The shutter button is, by Contax tradition, yet another synthetic gem. Synthetic ruby, to be precise. It is large and round and mushy, with no definite half-press, so you might have to practice with gauging just how much pressure is enough to get the meter working without firing the shutter before you load a roll into it.

Shooting with the camera on the street is a pleasure, as the shutter is practically silent when you release it, and there is no film wind motor to generate any sort of noise. Sometimes, in a busy environment, you may not even hear the shutter yourself!

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Setting ISO

The T has a manual ISO selector on the top of the camera, with a button on the back to release the lock. The film rewind knob also acts as the knob to select the ISO of the film in 1/3 stops, going from 25 all the way up to a maximum of 1000. This is a bit of a pet peeve I have with this camera, as I can’t use my favourite night and indoor film, HP5 at EI 1600, and I do lose 2/3 of a stop when limited to low light.
Contax also decided to omit any exposure compensation dials with the T, save the little button for +1.5 ev for backlit situations.

The Viewfinder

First off, I would like to say that Contax really nailed it for a compact. Bright frame lines that rarely fade even in strong sunlight, a contrasty diamond shaped rangefinder patch, and a good layout of shutter speed indicators. The shutter speed readout should be familiar to T2 users, as it is the same 3 speeds from 1/30s, 1/125s and 1/500s, with LEDs in between. The electronic shutter is stepless, and will choose the exact shutter speed that is suitable for the metered scene, but keep in mind that when the LED below 1/30s is lit, it can mean anything from 1/30s to 8s.

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Focusing

The Contax T has that iconic flap doubling as a lens cap and the mechanism that pulls out the lens for shooting. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of my fingers when I first tried to turn the focus ring on the lens. The workaround, and apparently the prescribed method for using the focus ring on the lens, is to have your fingers go under and around the flap. After that, it is all per rangefinder focusing… Who needs autofocus?

The Contax T Lens

It’s a classic, 5 element, 4 group Sonnar. Sharpness is of course a quality of this lens. However, it is neither razor-like nor harsh. This quality, combined with a relatively high contrast gives images a certain organic look. Bokeh is suitably creamy up close, but it will not be very evident as the lens is limited to a minimum focusing distance of 1 meter.

The Downright Annoying – Film Loading

You would think that a bottom loading camera would be somewhat of a bother. Oh no, the Contax T just has to make things just that bit more finicky. Those of you who have owned a Rollei 35 should be familiar with the folding film pressure plate. If you don’t pull the film taut over the pressure plate, you are going to get a lot of frame overlap issues. Even if you do things by the book, you are still bound to end up with uneven frame spacing, which may or may not be an issue depending on the scanner you or your lab use.

The Images

I’ll cut the idle chatter now, and get down to the real meat of the review – what the little camera can really produce. Once again, all monochrome stuff. Sorry, color lovers!

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Contax T vs. The T2

Also owning a T2 alongside the Contax T for a period of time, I chose to let the T2 go, and replaced it with yet another of the original goodness, with the standard excuse of it being a backup.

The decision was rather long-drawn, mostly due to the convenience of autofocus that the T2 offered. The automatic flash is also brilliant, simply turn it on and it just goes with no fuss, giving you a well-exposed picture even in pitch darkness.

Despite this, the Contax T2 is definitely too large to fit in the side pockets of my jeans, and goes in with much difficulty into the pockets of my bermudas. With the Contax T, admittedly due to the lack of an inbuilt flash, there is about a roll of film’s worth of space saved, and this does make a difference when you are actually trying to move about in your pants.

The manual focus on the T2 also tended to be hit-and-miss, with no real way to know if the reading the electronic rangefinder is spitting out is accurate. And then there is the issue with focusing through glass windows (something that affects all IR autofocus systems, I’ll concede), that I do demand of my commute cameras simply due to the large amount of time spent looking out the window of the bus for a shot on the way home.

Looking into the future, there is also less that can go wrong electronically with the Contax T than the T2. The film wind motor and the autofocus motors come to mind, especially since I have come across quite a few T2s (and T3s) suffering from wonky autofocus one way or another. The T is not immune to electronic rot, with cameras occasionally dying from a faulty autoexposure or electronically timed shutter, but it does give a certain peace of mind.

As for the T3? With the current secondhand prices, I could pick up two and a half Contax Ts for a decent T3. It was a no-brainer for me.

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Conclusion

Good camera. Small. Nice lens. Manual focusing. Rangefinder. What more could one want for daylight shooting?

Catch me over at https://www.instagram.com/hernium_hern/
I now post more stuff, though it turns out to be mainly my uncurated flow of work. No gear porn there, I’m afraid!

 

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    June 16, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Excellent review Hern. You’ve outlined the weaknesses as well as the substantial strengths of this camera. My preference is still the Rollei 35SE in spite of its lack of a rangefinder and being ultra fiddly. However you’ve made a very strong case for the Contax T

  • Reply
    Altezza
    June 16, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Great article! May i ask if the rangefinder focusing is like that of leica m cameras, or the Canon ql17’s?

    • Reply
      Hern Tan
      June 16, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      If you’ve ever had the chance of using a Nikon or Contax rangefinder, it’s somewhat like that in that it uses a fuzzy diamond-shaped patch rather than a well-defined rectangle. Good copies are bright enough to rival Leicas though!

    • Reply
      AJ
      June 17, 2018 at 2:20 am

      FWIW – Rangefinder and other details here

      https://kenrockwell.com/contax/t.htm

  • Reply
    Jeremy St. Pierre
    June 16, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Accurate review. I’ve had a silver one since new. Been to repair person once for D and C. Auto exposure “hangs up” once in a while resulting in wasted frame but seems okay after that. Not an M quality rangefinder by any means but perfectly functional. I fear one day electronics will fail. Sad day for sure. Nice review!

    • Reply
      Penn
      June 30, 2018 at 5:10 pm

      Also have a T with occasional over exposure problem on every roll. Have you had success getting this fixed? What repair providers have the chops and spare parts to fix the exposure electronics for this orphan camera?

  • Reply
    Joe
    June 16, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    I totally agree with this review. It’s such an amazing, compact camera. Loading it is awful though. If the film isn’t taught while loading the leader, it can sometimes break the teeth of the film.

  • Reply
    James
    June 17, 2018 at 10:51 pm

    Grateful for the warts and all review of a (none too cheap) camera I’d decided I wanted but may now have to cross off the list!

  • Reply
    Michael Kay
    June 18, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    Sorry to make a negative point, but the image quality of these images is nothing better than almost any P&S camera would produce is it? The photos are not very sharp at all. My Chinon 35EE cost me £7 and produces sharper images than this.

    • Reply
      Hern Tan
      June 21, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      That says more about the Chinon than it does the Contax, I’d think 🙂 My images here aren’t the best to demonstrate sharpness I’m afraid, half of these here were shot zone focusing, and I haven’t perfected that technique.

      That said, the real advantage the Contax has over a regular P&S is the manual rangefinder and the barebones operation, without having to fiddle around with buttons and binary menus on a LCD screen.

      • Reply
        Michael Kay
        June 21, 2018 at 11:21 pm

        Thanks for the reply but my £7 Chinon has a rangefinder too and no buttons or menus either. And certainly no LCD screens as they hadn’t been invented then. Unless a photograph is accurately focussed, then you aren’t getting the best out of your camera and there is no point buying an expensive one. A cheap camera correctly focussed will almost always out perform an expensive one that is not correctly focussed.

  • Reply
    Brett F
    June 18, 2018 at 10:11 pm

    I also had a Contax T2 from new, a few years back I sold that ( black ltd edition) I bought a black Contax T and enjoy it, it’s benefit is it’s whisper quiet use and the ability to zone focus alongside any more critical focusing with its clear rangefinder ( my copy had a dirty viewfinder, but with care I unscrewed the top plate and cleaned the finder) one word of warning the only flaw I had was the delicate plastic lock that keeps the back in place broke, with any old camera the plastic purely over time becomes brittle, in effect it drys out and can easily snap, my solution was to use a small penny shaped tripod thread knurled wheel, it’s unobtrusive and I believe gives a far greater tight fit between the two parts of the camera than before, this solution works a dream.

  • Reply
    Eric
    June 20, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    Nice review, but have forgotten the most important point about this camera : the 2 green dots !
    These 2 green dots :
    Aperture 8
    Distance 4
    Make everythings in focus when they match each other on aperture ring.
    So this camera becomes the smaller faster high level film camera ever made.
    You can see some photos taken with at :
    https://www.eyeem.com/u/saulaire
    Normally I use my Leica M3 or a Nikon 28 TI but the pleasure with the Contax T is the personal rendering of the Sonar Zeiss and his extreme portability. This is a must. For me better than a T2.
    The Zeiss lense is really sharp and smooth. A great lense very well made. And the 40 mm is and ideal lense. One of the best camera ever made, imagine a digital FX one !

    • Reply
      Hern Tan
      June 21, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      The green dots are certainly useful for the classic f/8 and be there, can’t believe I left that out!

      I think the closest you can get to a digital Contax T would be the Sony RX1R II, although it doesn’t come close in size at all…

    • Reply
      Joe
      June 25, 2018 at 1:45 am

      The closest thing to it is the Sony Rx1 series, which are absolutely wonderful!

  • Reply
    Wayne
    June 21, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    It makes me laugh. I own both a Rollie 35s and a Contax T. It is as if each is the perfect compliment to the other: what one lacks, the other has. Both being Sonnars, they will both stay.

    Nice review and photos.

    • Reply
      Hern Tan
      June 21, 2018 at 12:46 pm

      I never got along with my Rollei, what would you say is the advantage it has over the Contax? The non-dependence on batteries?

      • Reply
        Wayne
        June 24, 2018 at 1:17 pm

        I prefer the Rollei on bright days when it is possible to shoot at F8 -16. The zone focus aspect of the camera is not so problematic in such cases. Additionally, the Rolle: 1) meters to ISO 1600; 2) allows full manual control of exposure; 3) has a superior VF; 4) Does not rattle; 5) I prefer the rendering of the Rollei when shooting color.

        One other aspect of the “T” that, in my opinion, puts it ahead of the other Contax compacts is the possibility of ongoing use. Mine was in pretty crummy shape when I received it. The repair concern I contacted said they were able to CLA, and fix just about any problem the camera might have developed. Worked perfectly, on return. Very economical as far as CLA/repair, too.

      • Reply
        Wayne
        June 24, 2018 at 1:22 pm

        You can- have too- meter the Rollei without without bringing it to your eye. As you point out, the focus and control rings on the Contax T are more than just a bit fiddly. The focus ring is OK, but, for me, aperture adjustment is nearly impossible while I have it, the Contax, to my eye.

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