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Contax G2 - We take a look at the classic Contax G2 camera.
The Contax G2 is one of just two cameras that formed the basis of the G System, which also comprises lenses and accessories. Christopher Webb takes a look at this classic camera.
The original G1 was launched in the early 1990s to a mixed reception. Some feeling it did not quite deserve to be put on the pedestal they wanted to put it on, others feeling it betrayed the manual and mechanical purity of the rangefinder photography tradition. It was supplemented and then replaced by the improved G2 which can be considered as the definitive G-System camera, and which is now available second-hand (or “previously loved” as they say in the classic car business) at very reasonable prices which means the G1 is not really worth considering.
At first glance the Gs appear to be very similar to a multitude of rangefinder cameras that date back to the 1930s, and continue to this day with the Voigtlanders/Rolleis/Cosinas, the Zeiss Ikon and the Leica MP and M7. In concept and purpose this is exactly what the Contaxes are, but what makes them different (and beyond the pail to some people!) is that they use the sort of state-of-the-art technology such as autofocus, DX coding, motorised film advance/rewind and light metering previously found in contemporary SLRs. In fact, they used this technology very well and it still compares favourably with the latest advances, even after a decade or more.
The cap slides over the lens hood which can therefore be left on permanently.
The G2 body
There was also a black version, sold in a kit with 28mm, 45mm and 90mm lenses and flash, also in black and all supplied in an aluminium case. In theory I would prefer the black to the titanium, but it seems to be a kind of chemical blacking with an unattractive oily look, and which chips or wears easily round the edges looking very shabby.
The top plate. Left to right: the ISO button used in conjunction with the focusing wheel to override DX speeds; the motor drive mode dial; LCD screen displaying DX or manual ISO speed; AF or manual focus distance, multiple exposure indicator; and battery low warning; film plane index; flash shoe; exposure compensation dial with auto-bracket lever underneath; on/off/AEL switch and shutter release button; film counter; and shutter speed dial.
The front of the camera. On the left is the manual focusing wheel with the self-timer LED just above it to the right. The windows across the top are: IR focusing receiver with external meter above it (used only with the 16mm lens); the two passive AF windows; viewfinder; and IR transmitter.
The back of the camera showing the viewfinder with dioptre adjustment wheel, focus mode dial (single AF, continuous AF and manual) with the AF lock button in the centre. The back has a small window to display the details printed on the film canister.
|The G2 has a full complement of DX contacts for setting film speeds between 25 and 5000, a spring-loaded clip to hold the canister firmly in place, and sprung rollers on the take-up spool and camera back to guide and hold the film onto the spool. To load a film just drop it into the camera, pull the lead over to the right and close the back.|
Metering and exposure
You have a choice of aperture-priority auto or metered manual exposure. On the right of the top-plate is the shutter-speed dial, for setting speeds of 4secs to 1/4000sec and B, plus A (aperture priority auto, 16secs to 1/6000sec) and X (1/200sec), these last two being locked by the button on top of the dial.
Just to the left of the shutter speed dial is the exposure compensation dial, going from +2 to –2 in thirds of a stop, with a + or – sign indicator in the viewfinder. Underneath and concentric with this is the auto-bracketing lever, which can be set to half or one stop each way. If you set this, the camera will take the first shot at the metered exposure, the second at half or one stop over, and the third at half or one stop under, with a flashing + or – sign in the viewfinder to remind you of what is happening.
If you choose Auto, the shutter speed will be displayed in the viewfinder, or an upward or downward arrow if it is too bright or too dark for your selected aperture. If you use manual exposure, your selected shutter speed will be displayed as well as upward or downward arrows to indicate over or under exposure, or both when exposure is set as metered.
Metering is centre-weighted (they do not publish the weighting but it is seems to be the usual 60/40) and is very reliable. I have shot quite a lot of Fujichrome colour slide film on the G2, almost exclusively on Auto with no exposure compensation (I think of the G2 as my lazy camera) and of course not all are perfect but the camera can handle some difficult lighting with more accuracy than I feel I have the right to expect.
More recently I have been using mostly XP2, which I think suits the camera well.
The CZ lenses give subtle and realistic colours, with significantly lower saturation than most lenses. Fuji Sensia 100.
Ilford XP2 Super at 400, 45mm lens. The exploded view is of an unresized and unsharpened section of a 2400dpi scan.
Ilford XP2 Super at 400, 45mm lens. Point and click with style.
The G2 here decided to focus on the grass, so take care with foreground details. Subtle colours again, not to everyone’s taste. Fuji Sensia 100.
The G2 in its element. Ilford XP2 Super at 400, 45mm lens.
The film’s versatility and the camera’s useful but not excessive automation are sufficiently liberating to let you concentrate on looking for subjects to photograph, but without making you think you are just out taking snapshots.
Autofocus and manual focus
The G2 has an autofocus system described as “combination reinforced external passive/active baseline type”. Basically this means it has two autofocus systems, one a bit like a manual-focus rangefinder but with a computer to calculate the distance, and one like those used in compact cameras which emit a beam and measure how long it takes to bounce back. It therefore has no less than four autofocus windows – one each end of the passive focusing baseline, an IR emitter and an IR receiver. There is a small dial on the back to set focus mode; single, continuous or manual.
Each of the AF systems has its drawback and limitations, but fortunately where one falls down the other takes over, and the G2 almost always snaps instantly to a perfect focus. Blank walls, dim light and all the other AF pitfalls hold no perils for the G2. Parallax is an issue with cameras with separate viewfinders, especially with close subjects, but the G2’s viewfinder automatically adjusts according to the focusing distance.
However, the camera is not psychic and cannot be expected to know if you don’t want it to focus on the main or central part of the image, and unlike an SLR, of course, you cannot see what it has focused on. So if you do want to focus on something other than the obvious main subject, check the distance scale in the viewfinder and if the camera has focused on the wrong element of the frame then just move the camera to focus where you want and half-depress the shutter release button while you recompose and shoot (or use the focus lock if you are in continuous focus mode). One of the first photographs I took was of some distant trees and farm buildings through some long grasses in the foreground. When I got the slides back I found the camera had focused on the grasses and the distant objects were out of focus! I was a bit miffed at first, but later came to like the effect.
Some rangefinder cameras, such as Contax’s own I / II / III and the Nikon S series were focused with a small wheel on the body, operated with the index finger and mechanically connected to the lens. The G2 mimics this system but of course the wheel operates the autofocus motor, while displaying the actual distance and that calculated by the AF system on a scale in the viewfinder. I have never used manual focusing in earnest; as I mentioned the AF is so good I have never needed to, and you can always use focus lock if your ideas about what should be in focus are different from the camera’s. Still, it is nice to know you have the option.
Not much to say about the film wind/rewind except that it is smooth and quiet. The dial on the left of the top plate is used to set the drive mode to single, continuous low, continuous high, multiple exposure or timer, and it is possible to set the camera to leave the end of the film out when rewinding, which is useful if you process your own films.
I doubt if the ergonomically-perfect camera has yet been made, and it is difficult to assess this quality anyway because you tend to get used to and therefore not notice any little inconveniences in handling. However, I do think the ergonomics of the G2 are outstanding.
My favourite feature in this respect is the auto-exposure lock which just requires a slight push anti-clockwise with the right index finger. Every other camera I have used requires you to press and hold down a button with an abnormally short, long or twisted finger, none of which I or almost the whole of the rest of the human race have.
Another unusual feature is that the shutter speed dial, exposure compensation dial and auto-bracketing dial can all be operated with your right thumb without taking your eye from the viewfinder, and all have just the right amount of resistance to allow this, not too much to make them awkward, but not too little so that they can be moved accidentally. The manual focus dial is also easy and smooth to use, but as I mentioned above probably superfluous! Even having the aperture ring some way from the body somehow feels more convenient than having it right next to it.
My only niggles in terms of ergonomics are concerned with the lenses.
Firstly, removing and mounting lenses is a bit tricky, and if you have more than one lens and need to change them regularly or quickly, it is worth practising. When I bought my camera, I nearly dropped the demonstration lens on the floor of the shop because I hadn’t fitted it properly. Could have been embarrassing.
My second lens niggle is with the aperture ring – conveniently positioned it may be, but it doesn’t feel quite right for a camera system of this quality. It isn’t quite big enough, it isn’t quite smooth enough and the click-stops aren’t quite positive enough. There are a lot of “quites” there, but they do add up to something which I find, err, quite annoying.
Third and final lens niggle is to do with the lens hoods, all of which protrude into the viewfinder. I assume this is a common, if not universal, problem with rangefinder cameras and one which is unavoidable.
The G System cameras use the unique G mount lenses (although there is an adaptor for using Contax SLR lenses if you don’t mind losing AF) which are branded Carl Zeiss T* but actually made in Japan. Seven were made in all: 16mm f/8, 21mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.8, the 35mm f/2, 45mm f/2, 90mm f/2.8, and 35-70mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom, and they all have wonderful names like Biogon, Hologon and Sonnar. The two widest lenses come with separate viewfinders which fit into the hot shoe, while the camera’s viewfinder automatically adjusts for the field of view of the rest. They are all of a consistent and uniform design and construction, and the three I have used (28, 45 and 90) all have comparable characteristics in terms of image quality. Reviews of some of these lenses can be found on photodo.
You can take it as read that any lens with Carl Zeiss on it is going to be at or near the top of the tree and they match up pretty well in terms of sharpness with my Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI-S, itself in the top handful of lenses made for 35mm cameras. The colours given by the CZ lenses, though, are noticeably more subdued and less saturated than those from any Nikkors I have used. It is interesting to note that saturation is not just a function of the film.
The G System is small but perfectly formed, and apart from the cameras and lenses themselves the main accessories are the TLA 200 flash, hoods for all lenses, and a small range of filters. My favourite accessory is the metal lens cap which slides neatly over the lens hood, which can therefore be left on permanently. Also available are a data back, ever-ready case, and external power pack and adaptor.
Usually at this point there would be a list of alternatives, but obviously with the G2 there aren’t any, at least not direct ones. It might be more meaningful to say what the G2 is an alternative to, rather than what is an alternative to the G2. Well firstly it could be an alternative to any other rangefinder – if you are seriously considering anything from a Voigtlander to a Leica but want more automation then the G2 could be the thing. And if you use a 35mm SLR but only perhaps a standard lens or a standard zoom, then again the G2 could suit you.
At the time of writing (July 2006) a few retailers still have one or two new G2s but they won’t be there much longer. However, there are a surprising number of used ones available, along with plenty of lenses and other accessories, often in mint or near mint condition. Most users seem to be people like me for whom the camera is a treasured possession to be handled with great care!
My G2 + 45mm lens cost 5p short of £1000 in 2001, but you can expect to pay a little more than half that for the same gear in the “Exc++” to “Mint-“ sort of categories from people such as Ffordes, Aperture or Nicholas Camera Company. Take a while to browse their sites to get a feel for what is available and at what prices. Also, there is usually a fair amount of G System equipment on eBay at significantly lower prices, but with significantly lower peace of mind of course.
The Contax brand name dates back to the 1930s when Zeiss-Ikon introduced a rangefinder camera which, after a few teething problems, became a worthy competitor to the Leica. Since then the name has had a chequered history, being used most recently on a range of high-end SLRs, compacts and the G System AF Rangefinders manufactured in Japan by Kyocera Yashica until that company pulled out of camera production in 2005. There are therefore no current Contax cameras but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the name resurfaces somewhere within the next few years.
Before looking at the G2 specifically, it is probably worthwhile looking in general at what rangefinder cameras can do and, perhaps equally importantly, what they cannot do.
Is a rangefinder camera for you?
The ancestors of the G-System cameras, such as the first Leicas and Contaxes, revolutionised photography by making it possible to take high-quality images with a small, hand-held camera, and rangefinders were mainstream until largely superseded by the much more versatile SLR.
The classic uses of such cameras are photojournalism, street photography, reportage and travel, ie. situations where you need a light, easy to use and unobtrusive camera. The G2 is versatile enough for all of these tasks and many more: I am sure many people who carry a big, heavy 35mm SLR and a bag full of accessories could survive just as well or better with a G2. Hopefully this article will help you decide if you are one of those people.
A rangefinder camera does not come anywhere near to being the almost universally general-purpose camera in the way an SLR does. It is not a specialist tool but you need to be aware of its restrictions.
The range of lenses is relatively small, in the case of the G-System going from 16mm to 90mm.
It'is not really practical to use filters such as grads or polarisers as the separate viewfinder means you do not see what the film sees.
Sports and wildlife photography is out, as are macro images and carefully-crafted landscapes, and there is not much point using one for studio work or anything that requires habitual use of a tripod.