The Contax TVSii is the 2nd of 3 zoom lens cameras in the Contax T range – the TVS came before, and the TVSiii followed. Though quite similar in appearance to the fixed focal length T2, at first glance it’s the T* Vario-Sonnar lens on the front of the TVSii that’s the most obviously different feature. In actual fact, the TVSii is a fair bit different to the T2 – there are a few shared features, but as you’ll read, I think they might be better implemented on the TVSii…
A note on the value of the T2
Before I get into this, I just want to reflect a little on the current used value of the Contax T2. In the few years since I reviewed the T2, their value has gone through the roof. Of course, the quality of these cameras is a factor in the huge price you’ll now pay, but it’s the celebrity endorsement that seems to have had the biggest impact. It’s my view that the current value of the Contax T2 far outstretches it’s quality as a camera. It has a great lens, good AF etc – all the things I mentioned in my review, but it still has its negative points too.
For a compact camera, it’s not particularly pocketable, is quite heavy, and the 0.7m close focus is a bit pants for a camera of its type. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the T2 is wrong for everyone – just that at the value it’s risen to, it’s going to have to be pretty damn perfect for your needs, and every single one of its negative points be something positive (or at very least not a negative) for your usage case for it to warrant the cash.
Apart from anything else, these cameras are a risky purchase too – they have a lot of irreplaceable electronics, and many of the mechanical parts are made of plastic. They’re not like your trusty Nikon F2 or Leica M3 that you could repair with – to quote Graeme off the Sunny 16 podcast on a recent ep – “a couple of 2 inch nails and a hammer”. They are comparatively fragile, and often unfixable meaning that your c.£8-900 (for a clean one) could quickly become a smart looking door stop (that’s another little dig about the weight, if you hadn’t twigged).
Punting for a TVSii
I wanted to mention this, because a good few months back – maybe even as much as a year – it all had me thinking about some of the other Contax cameras. I’ve bought, reviewed and sold the Contax T2 and T3. But I’d long decided that I wanted to try the original T, and at least one of the TVS range. The rising prices of the T2, and the general increase in value of compact 35mm cameras seemed to be having an impact on the value of these cameras too. As such, I thought I’d better put my money down before the money I needed to put down increased to the levels that I wasn’t happy to put it down. After reading about the small differences between the TVS and TVSii, and not being quite as certain about the styling and apparent functionality of the TVSiii, I thought I’d punt for the ii.
Unfortunately, pretty much the moment I touched the TVSii all of my woes about the size and weight of the T2 came back to me. I spent a lot of time with the T2, I really wanted to love it, but in the end the aforementioned issues became too great. This is reflected in the little post-script I added to the end of my review. I loved it, but I just didn’t use it much – this was back in the days I thought I was looking for the perfect camera, rather than just reviewing them, so it felt like more of a let down.
I only regret not keeping it until what’s-her-face off Instagram started waffling on about it on prime time American TV… still, I rest easy knowing that the person who bought it off me paid a good price, and not an over-inflated one. I digress… The Contax TVSii instantly reminded me of the size/weight of the T2 and I sorta lost interest in it. I put a roll through it, but we didn’t bond and I had that “maybe I should have bought the other camera” feeling – in this instance, the other camera was the TVSiii.
Sometime later (about a month or so ago) I spotted a TVSiii in my local camera shop. Mint, in black, it was a lovely thing to behold. But, the moment I picked it up, I realised the Contax TVSii was better suited to me. I bought the TVSiii anyway – it’s rare these things appear in the UK, never mind in my local camera shop, so it was a no-brainier.
I got home later and compared the two cameras – the first point of note was that they are about the same size and weight as each other – the iii is a little smaller, but really, there is nothing in it. This surprised me as I’d always assumed the earlier camera was a fair bit bigger. It was this that made me regret buying it, and had me wondering if the TVSiii would be better suited to me. Seeing that they were basically the same size and weight had me look again at the TVSii. I realised that all of my original ideas about what might make the TVSii better suited to me than the iii became quite apparent… so I decided to give it another run.
Shooting the Contax TVSii
I decided to take the Contax TVSii on holiday to Cornwall with me a few weeks ago. I shot it alongside my Plaubel Makina 67 – in fact those were the only two cameras I shot all holiday. I shot the Makina for colour landscape work, and used the Contax with both black & white and colour and treated it more as a snapshot camera. It turned out to be almost the perfect combination.
It’s fair to say that I did on occasion still feel a little put out by the size and weight of the Contax TVSii. It was fine in my baggy shorts pockets, but doesn’t really fit in my trouser pocket without looking ridiculous. Fortunately for it, I was given a little bit of perspective having the Makina as my other camera. The Makina is small for a MF camera, but that’s a bit like saying a Mini is small for a car – it’s true, but that doesn’t mean you can fit it in your pocket. The Contax TVSii is definitely big for a compact camera, but in all honesty it didn’t bother me as much as I remember being bothered by the T2. Perhaps that would come in time, or maybe my priorities have changed a little…?
In use, the Contax TVSii feels very nice indeed. It is bulky, but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable in the hand – I remember feeling exactly the same about the T2. There’s no issues with fingers interacting with the lens in a way that they get into your image – and that’s despite me feeling like they were on occasions.
Possibly one of the nicer features of the Contax TVSii is it’s near silent operation. Unlike most zoom lens compact cameras, switching it on and zooming it makes little or no sound. This is due to the fact that the on/off switch and zoom are manual and mechanical rather than motorised. To switch the camera on, you rotate the dial around the front of the lens. This moves the lens to its 28mm wide angle position. From there you can zoom the lens to its 56mm position by rotating the dial further. Rotating it in the opposite direction fully retracts the lens and switches the camera off.
The only noises the camera makes are through focusing and the electronic film advance. But even then, both are very quiet. The film advance is actually one of the most quiet I’ve experienced – it has a low tone, yet is still quite fast – another feature shared with the T2
Focusing makes a slight noise, but it’s hardly noticeable. Contax also included the option to have the focusing either happen at half press or after full press. The former is slightly less discrete as it makes the sound before you take the photo. The latter is designed to be more discrete, though does introduce a slight shutter lag. I have mine set to the latter, and don’t find the slight lag an issue the majority of the time.
Viewfinder black out
One issue I did repeatedly find is viewfinder blackout. Your eye has to be pretty central to the viewfinder for it not to go dark. In this regard the T2 definitely bests the TVSii, but then it doesn’t have a zooming viewfinder, so it’s not hard to understand why it would be better. And to be fair, the T2 does have one of the best compact camera viewfinders.
Useful information in the finder
That being said, the information shown in the viewfinder of the TVSii is much more useful. The T2 just shows approximate speeds, and doesn’t show slow speeds below 1/30th. As I talk about in my T2 review, I found this a little disconcerting. With the Contax TVSii, knowing the exact speed I was shooting at gave me loads more confidence just to hand hold the camera – I actually got a couple of ok results at fairly slow speeds
Another feature the Contax TVSii shares with the T2 is the implementation of manual focus. The only difference is that the manual focus dial on the TVSii is dedicated to the purpose and doesn’t double up as an on/off switch. I must be honest and say I’ve not used it much, but just like the T2 it brings the advantage of being able to separate focus and exposure from the function of half press. Of course, with the lens being 28mm at the wide end, there is a depth of field advantage for those who might choose to shoot it for street photography or snapshots.
Unfortunately, like the T2 it doesn’t actually set the focus of the lens when you control the dial, so it doesn’t do away with focus-derived shutter lag like snap focus on a GR1, for eg. The dial is also very easy to turn so could be knocked between shots.
Like most if not all of the premium compact cameras from the era, the Contax TVSii allows the aperture to be manually set. Again, an advantage for snap-shooters and street photographers who shoot a lot at f/8.
All is not quite as it seems though – if you set the camera to f/3.5, it won’t always shoot at f/3.5. If the meter reads a setting out of range of f/3.5 and the highest shutter speed (1/500 in aperture priority), it will default back to program mode and select a smaller aperture. This might sound like an issue until you understand how the program mode works – a mode that I’ve hardly left, despite the aperture priority option.
The main reason I’ve not found a need to shoot it outside of program mode is that it favours a wider aperture over a slower shutter speed all the way up to 1/250th. What this effectively means is that if you prefer wider aperture shooting, leave it in program, whereas if you prefer stopped down shooting, switching it to aperture priority and stopping down is the way to go. This to me seems like a very intelligent implementation of aperture priority on a compact camera.
A quick note on the flash
I’ve not used the flash even once, mostly because I have the camera set to flash-off as default when the camera turns on – that and I don’t like direct flash off compact cameras. If you do, the Contax TVSii can be set to any of its flash modes as default by pressing and holding the flash button until the mode blinks. Choose the flash setting you want as default, then leave it blinking for a few seconds until it stops. From then on, that will be the default.
Exposure compensation / lack of manual ISO
The final feature I want to point out is the exposure compensation dial. One of the features this camera lacks is the ability to manually set the iso – it’s all DX set. This issue is partially overcome by the -/+ 5ev of exposure compensation. With this extent of exposure compensation you have all of the normal advantages this control brings, but with all the boutique films around at the moment – since it defaults to ei100 on films without a DX code – you can also effectively manually set your exposure index between 3 and 3200.
Given the rest of the comparisons to the T2, I suppose the million dollar question regarding the Contax TVSii is going to be around the quality of the lens. Well, I’ll get straight to the point by saying that it’s not as sharp as the T2. By comparison, it lacks in both contrast and resolution. But, I suppose that’s to be expected. I was a little disappointed to start with, but given a bit more time, I’ve gotten over it. It is, in many respects, a great zoom lens – the trick is just not to expect quite what you’ll get out of the T2 lens and well, set your expectations at zoom lens, and you’ll no doubt find yourself much more satisfied!
In real terms, I found it to be more than adequate for my family, snaps where having the 0.5m close focus and the 28-56mm zoom gave me lots more options than the Contaxt T2 would have done. But actually, my favourite shots were taken with Ilford HP5+ – I got a few really nice landscape snaps with it.
I also didn’t fall foul of any major/noticeable optical deficiencies. I’m sure under close inspection, or given some rigorous testing one might notice something, but for real life zoom-lens snap-photography, the gist I’m going for here is that it’s unlikely to let you down.
Final thoughts compared to the T2
When I started this review, I didn’t intend it to be quite as much based on comparisons with the Contax T2, it just sort of came out that way. I think some of this – perhaps somewhat obviously – comes from my distaste at the value of the T2 on the second hand market. In my opinion, the T2 is worth – in real terms – about £300-£350. I know something’s value is determined by what people are willing to pay, but all other things being equal, that’s what I’d value it at.
I mention this, really to highlight the point that I would say the Contax TVSii is also worth about that amount. In many respects, it’s a better camera than the T2. The information in the viewfinder and the silent on/off mechanism are both highlight features over and above what the T2 offers.
Where it falls short compared to the T2 is in the viewfinder size and lens optics. The T2 viewfinder is massive, and whilst the Contax TVSii lens is close to as good overall, it doesn’t quite have the contrast bite that the T2 has. That being said, it’s a more versatile lens, and in my opinion is more useful for a wider range of the sort of photography I enjoy with a point & shoot camera. Hopefully, therefore, you can see my logic in terms of valuing the Contax TVSii equally to the T2. Of course what this means is that on the used market today, the TVSii represents a fairly good purchase, especially compared to the T2 – which to come full circle on my point – is why I think I ended up making so many comparisons.
Skip to the end
In its own right, I think the Contax TVSii is an excellent camera. The combination of features is one of the best I’m aware of on a AF/AE 35mm compact camera. The aforementioned on/off and manual zoom for its silent functioning and the quality of information in the viewfinder alone give it many brownie points in my books. But also, the implementation of program and aperture priority AE works very well. Unfortunately, it’s not spotless – the viewfinder blackout bugs me, and actually had I not been using it alongside a Plaubel Makina 67, I think I might have found the size and weight an issue too. The latter is of course very subjective, and quite evidently, relative.
Ultimately, I think the advantage I now have compared to when I used to review these sort of cameras is that I’m now more aware of the reality that I’m not actually looking for a perfect camera for me, I just buy them, shoot them, write about them, and then 9 times out of 10 I move them on knowing I’ll find something else interesting to play with another day. This allows me to be a lot more objective than I used to be. That being said, for now at least, I think the Contax TVSii might be one of those 1 in 10 keepers.
A few more shots here
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