More so than any 35mm af/ae compact camera I have yet used, the Contax T2 feels the part in the hand. My very first impression of handling the camera was definitely a positive one! It actually feels bigger than it is, I was convinced it was bigger than my Fuji Klasse W, but if anything it might even be a touch smaller. I think it’s just the weight that makes it feel like a lot of camera. The “T” seemingly stands for Titanium, and frankly the thing feels like it has been whittled out of a solid block of the stuff! I had read comments online relating to its size and weight that had put me off, but whilst it is on the large side, it is still very much a compact camera…
Contax T2 handling
The positive handling experience was unfortunately soon shattered when I took the first photo and felt the lens move against my middle finger. Funnily enough, the other camera I had this with was it’s cousin, the other Zeiss armed Yashica T5. They are not the only cameras out there with the lens so close to the right hand grip, but the way they have been designed does mean that without initial conscious effort fingers may interact with that lens.
Thankfully I seem to have got over my fat-handed behaviour and now appear to be able to handle the camera better. By the time I had shot the second roll I was seeing a significant decrease lens/finger interactions. I suppose like with anything it just takes a little getting used to… But when coming from shooting so regularly the Ricoh GR1 which, ergonomically speaking, is probably king of the compacts, the Contax T2 does feel a little clumsily designed in this regard.
There seems to have been this supposition in compact camera designers of this era that it was ok to create cameras that require a sort of pincer grip of the edge of the camera, this doesn’t wash with me! I prefer a camera that fits into the right hand, and whilst it is possible to hold the Contax T2 this way, it is obvious from the shape of the rubber grips that it wasn’t intended.
One way or another, I do prefer the handling of the Ricoh GR1 and think its a shame that when designing the Contax T2 they couldn’t have found a way to mount the lens slightly closer to the other side of the body. But look, this rant has been building up inside me for a while, don’t let it put you off the Contax T2, there are plenty of other guilty cameras and once you get accustomed to it, or if you don’t mind clasping the edge of a camera, it’s fine!
It is also worth pointing out that my frustration with the position of the lens was entirely outweighed almost instantly by the rest of the user experience! The rest of the camera feels like it was designed with considerable thought to what a photographer shooting with a compact like this might actually want or need, and this to my mind carries through to the way it functions too!
The Contax T2 viewfinder
One of the first things you notice when using the Contax T2 is the viewfinder. It’s bright and clear and doesn’t seem to suffer in the same way as many do with flare or blackout. The frame lines are maybe slightly prone to disappearing on a bright background but that is to my eye one of the only flaws of the VF. The feature that really sets the view through the finder apart though is the live metering information! When the camera is switched on, the metering is on, and is constantly updated. It does go to sleep after a little while but a half dab of the shutter release reactivates it.
I’m not entirely sure if the shutter fires to the exact speed displayed in the finder, I know some cameras like this are capable of shutter speeds in between what we consider standard speeds, but one way or another it does show you a very good, if not exact indication of the speed that it is going to use. Of course there is little space in a finder of a camera like this so the information is relayed in a space saving way.
There are only actually three speeds shown in the Contax T2 viewfinder, 1/30th, 1/125th and 1/500th. Limiting you might assume, but when 1/60th is to be used, both 1/30th and 1/125th are lit. The same method is used to indicate the selection of 1/250th between 1/125th and 1/500th. The 1/500th also blinks when it is going to overexpose.
Additionally to this the is an “LT” light, I don’t know what this stands for but I go with “Long Time” please feel free to correct me if that is wrong (it does sound a little silly). The “LT” light tells you a shutter speed lower than 1/30th is going to be used and a blinking “LT” tells you (according to the manual) a shutter speed less than 1 second will be used.
The main short coming with this system is the inability to indicate a 1/15th speed. Once in a while I do risk a 1/15th shot, but I suppose under equal circumstances I would probably risk it with the “LT’ light lit anyway! I think, in short, I would probably have preferred a separate “bulb” setting rather than have the camera default to it when it is out of range of the meter (if that is what it does?)
The shutter button
Another pleasant surprise when you click the Contax T2’s shutter button is the brief and quiet sound it makes. I wasn’t sure I had loaded the film correctly the first time I used it, it just didn’t make a sound long enough to wind the film on. My worries were Ill founded, it was winding on fine, it just winds on quickly and nice and quietly.
The Contax T2 – Focusing & Exposure
The Contax T2’s focusing options were a real surprise for me! I must have looked at photos of this camera a hundred times before I decided to buy one, pictures and imagination don’t do justice to how useable that little wheel on top of the camera is! Firstly, it’s the on/off switch, one click and the metal hatch on the front of the camera swiftly disappears, the lens pops out of the camera and it’s ready to shoot in AF mode! A further click and the focus is fixed to infinity, one more and it is in manual focus.
There is probably just over a centimetre of un-clicked travel from the 5 meter to the 0.7 meter setting. I had read online that it isn’t the easiest of manual focus controls to use, but I actually find it very intuitive. The viewfinder displays a digital rangefinder made of a green circle to indicate focus and two red arrows either side that literally tell you which way to move your thumb on the wheel to gain focus. The green light of focus can appear and disappear quite quickly but once you get used to it, you get a feel for it! Not to mention the fact that due to the max aperture being f/2.8 unless you are particularly close to the subject you have reasonable room for error anyway!
The Contax T2 isn’t the only AF compact with manual focus modes, but from the ones I have experienced none are as effective! I certainly wasn’t convinced I would use it at all, but as soon as you start using the camera with the knowledge of what advantages it can bring, it starts coming in handy quite often.
A good example of this was when I wanted to take a photo of my daughter on a swing, had I been using the Ricoh I may have put the camera in “snap” mode, with the Klasse W I might have been pushed to faff about in the menu for an appropriate manual focus distance. With the Contax T2 I set it to manual at the 0.7 meters, moved into a position where the little green light flicked on as she came near me and snapped.
Importantly, there is no faffing to get to this setting, no menu system to navigate, just a few clicks of the wheel and you are there. This simple operation also lends its self perfectly to street or candid shooting. The aperture of the lens can be set manually… I was actually surprised to see that when adjusting the aperture with the wheel around the lens that it is mechanically set. Something about that is reassuring, I’m not sure why, but I like it!
Anyway, due to this manually set aperture, and due to the fact that it doesn’t change when the camera is turned off, the Contax T2 can very quickly be switched on, put into manual focus and focused to a point that will give acceptably broad depth of field for a very quick snap. Ie, set the aperture to f8, switch the camera on, set the focus to 5m and you will have everything from around 2.5m to infinity in focus.
It takes no time at all to get to grips with doing this without even looking at the camera, you simply click through to manual focus then nudge it back to where the wheel stops at 5m. This is possibly a little hard to imagine without giving it a go, but take my word for it, its very easy. It would be wrong to say that other manufactures haven’t found solutions to this, this sort of quick shooting is available on the GR1 with the (still available on their modern digital counterparts) “snap” mode. There is just something a little more satisfying and “real” in knowing what distance you have manually focussed to. The camera working like this will certainly win it points if you are coming from shooting an RF.
Separating focus from exposure
The other great advantage of the manual focus mode on the Contax T2 is the ability to separate the point of focus from the area it meters from. I mentioned earlier that the camera meters “live”, this is incredibly useful in assessing a scene quickly for best exposure! The meter is centre weighted, so you can gather a rough idea of best exposure of a difficult scene by pointing the centre spot at various elements within the desired frame.
I do this with the GR1 too, but each area requires a half press for a reading. With the Contax T2 you can quickly scan the scene and decide what would be the most appropriate speed to use. Due to the live reading you also quickly become familiar with the size of the area the camera meters from! Half pressing will lock the chosen shutter speed but in AF it also of course locks the point of focus. With the camera set to manual focus, you can manually focus on the subject, point the camera at the area in the scene that selects the desired shutter speed, half press to lock exposure, reframe and shoot! You would be surprised just how quick you can get at this with the Contax T2 with very little practice!
+/-2 ev exposure compensation is also on hand for those situations where the above is a little over the top. The dial is initially fiddly, but I’ve found a forefinger on it and a thumb on the bottom of the camera is the best way to swivel the dial! The little window showing the compensation value is a little small, but you can’t forget it is set as there is a red indication light in the finder!
The Contax T2 Lens
So what about the photos it produces? Well, I’d invite people to judge for themselves from my snaps… But I think they are stunning! I am yet to discern any form of aberration, even when shooting into nasty light, I can’t find any evidence of distortion and out of focus areas are rendered pleasingly! The Contax T2’s 38mm f/2.8 Sonnar lives up to the hype in my opinion. I’m sure the finicky folk out there can probably see fault, but to my eye, it’s bang on!
Mostly good then? Well here are a couple of other issues. The aperture selection is a little awkward for anyone with fingers larger than that of a two yeah old child! The camera moves the lens to focus after you press the shutter which does cause some lag, lag which cannot be overcome by manually focusing the lens! If you are a real stickler for shutter lag it may bother you, for me it’s not a major issue, but when compared to the GR1 in snap mode it does feel a little sluggish. I would also prefer a lens that focused closer than 0.7m, but if you are an RF veteran you will be used to that limitation too.
f/2.8 only in program mode
There is one odd design feature that seems to be picked up on in other reviews I have read, so is probably worth mentioning. There is an inability to select f/2.8 without the Contax T2 also being set to program mode. What is less often mentioned though is the cameras willingness to use f/2.8 when set to program.
The GR1 and the Klasse W have to be pushed into using f/2.8, both will prefer a shutter speed of 1/30 before even considering opening up the aperture to its largest aperture! I have speculated as to why this might be the case elsewhere, but whatever those reasons, they don’t apply with the Contax T2! The T2 will prefer to use f/2.8 until a shutter speed of above 1/125 is required.
Along with the Contax T2’s inability to set f/2.8 outside of program mode, due to the flash being set by the aperture control, you can also only shoot flash (and red eye flash) in program. The manual states that the flash uses the “flashmatic” system ie setting the aperture depending on the subjects distance to control exposure when the flash is in use. in short, it’s not a particularly sophisticated flash. That said, I haven’t had any issues with it, exposures have been fine etc, just don’t expect any extra flash mode etc, it doesn’t have them.
No manual iso
Manual ISO selection is also missing from the feature set. This is definitely a shortcoming, but it can be overcome by recoding film canisters if you are really desperate.
Concluding thoughts on the Contax T2
I suppose I am probably used to using compact cameras now, used to working around their limitations and idiosyncrasies, and used to dealing with those little situations where you would normally employ some of the more “advanced” features of your average RF or SLR.
The Contax T2 seems to retain the feeling of simplicity that I enjoy so much in a compact camera yet provide a set of features that combine to make a camera that rarely gets in your way! It just feels like it is well thought out, when using it, despite its limitations, I don’t feel limited by it at all.
I like it so much in fact that I sold the tarnished silver one you see in this review, to buy a very pretty dark grey one from Bellamy of JCH. In short it is definitely a keeper. Like the GR1v (if I can ever find a fully functioning one) I can see me wanting to use this camera very regularly!
On the subject of the Ricoh GR1v, I suppose I should quickly touch on a comparison… I would say actually that (specifically) the GR1v and Contax T2 represent two halves of a whole for me. The Contax doesn’t have manual ISO setting, the GR1v does, the GR1v holds better in the hand, but the controls are nicer on the T2, the Contax feels uber solid and has a very good rep for reliability, the GR1v… not so much! And I do prefer a close focusing 28mm lens to a less close focusing 38mm. Basically, If you want my advice … BUY BOTH!
A couple more shots
Cheers for reading
A couple of useful/interesting links:
More articles about the Contax T2 on 35mmc can be found here
Contax T2 – The Killer Compact – JCH
Instruction Manual – Butkus
Contax T2 Review: 20 Years Too Late – I am Bidong
A little update
Since my point of view on this camera has changed somewhat since I wrote this post, I thought I might briefly update it.
Long term, I found myself not using the Contax T2. I loved it when I first got it, but increasingly found its weight an issue. After some deliberation I decided to sell it and move to the Contax T3. If you would like to read more about the T3, you can find my thoughts here.
A further update
Since publishing this article, the value of the Contax T2 has skyrocketed. I personally wouldn’t buy one for the price they now go for, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t. I would just suggest you read this article first.
Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience
There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:
Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.