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Friday, 27 December 2019


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Oh for a mirrorless camera with the Contax aesthetic that would let me mount my contax-g lenses.

What?! No mention to the superb RTS III, the "epitome 35mm SLR ever", according to someone in Phototechmag?

I had a Contax 139; designed by Porche but not to be used. The leather covering soon wore, from my nose pressing against it!

You have coined the term 'bokeh'? Can you please elaborate?

[Nobody coined it, it's a Japanese word meaning "fuzzy" and sometimes referring to blur, originally Romanized "bo-ke."

The three original articles about bokeh were published in the March/April 1997 issue of Photo Techniques magazine, which I edited at the time. Carl Weese was the one who introduced me to the idea. Oren Grad, who speaks Japanese, clarified the terminology. The articles were written by John Kennerdell, Oren, and Harold Merklinger. Harold's article is online at The Luminous Landscape. Oren and John still write on occasion for The Online Photographer.

The only reason I added the "h" to the end of the Japanese word in the magazine was that English speakers persistently mispronounced "boke," which at one time (but no longer!) was the more common romanization of the Japanese katakana characters. It's properly pronounced in two syllables, "bo" as in "bone" and "ke" as in "Kenneth" with equal stress on each syllable. "Bokeh" simply renders that a little more accurately. At least adding the "h" stopped all the "toke" and "bloke" jokes.

The word or spelling have nothing to do with the word "bouquet," from the French, and is not even pronounced the same (bo-keh versus boo-KAY). --Mike]

Happy memories of using the Contax G1 for a few years in the late 1990s. Not a perfect camera by any means: the AF was a little bit erratic and the manual override clumsy and not always effective. But the build quality was pure Rolls Royce, and there was a design integrity to the whole system that made it a real camera. I had it with the 45mm and the 90mm. In fairness the camera didn't make much sense with the tele. But the 45mm was a joy to use with the rangerfinder-style viewfinder, and it made an effective and elegant pairing with the G1 body: a real photography tool. When my home got burgled, the burglers found nothing of value except the G1, and that was the end of my Contax period.

I ran through a string of Contax bodies in those days; wore out a couple, and traded a couple because, well because. The RTS was never my fave, although I did like (but didn’t own) the RTS II and III. My favorite of them all was the 137MA. Simple aperture priority, easy to access shutter speed dial on the top left for manual operation, 3FPS built in, and a beautiful sound when you fired it. Nice size and balance, too. At the end of my Contax days, I had an RX, also a bit of an oddity, in that it featured focus assist. It used manual focus lenses and had a focus sensor built into the back of the mirror, with a “bow tie” display in the viewfinder that indicated which direction to turn the focusing ring, and a circle in the middle when you hit the right focus.

Mike, you somehow overlooked the Contax G cameras, which were autofocus rangefinders. The G lenses were Zeiss creations, although I don't know who manufactured them. The G2 was/is one of my all-time favorite cameras. Kyocera killed it off along with the rest of the brand. They could have created a digital version, as did Leica with the M series, but their interest was not really in photography.

Didn’t Zeiss get out of the camera business on the same day Time Life announced that Life Magazine was ceasing weekly publication?

The Yashica made Contax is just as crazy over the top as the German cameras. I seem to recall that several of them had shutter release buttons made out of rubies or sapphires and the Real Time Vacuum System, which keeps the film flat by vacuuming the film to a ceramic pressure plate from behind was pretty cool. I could just never figure out why anybody who was that interested in precision would be monkeying around with 35mm film.

I actually always got a kick out of the approach used in the Argus C3 and other inexpensive cameras where they would deliberately curve the film plane to match the curvature of field of the lenses.


I'm sorry to say that I never had a Contax SLR. While you were consumed with impure thoughts about Contax, I was equally consumed by Olympus, but it worked well for me, as the lenses were superb and the bodies were made for my tiny teenaged girlish hands, and were, against common wisdom in no way unreliable.

But later I was looking for an effective travel outfit, as I was able to devote time to international travel. I was taken by what I read about the contax G cameras. I got the three lens outfit, 28-40-90mm "Zeiss" lenses. The lenses were superb, better even that the Zeiss lenses on my Hasselblad I used when freelancing. In that time the common wisdom was that Zeiss lenses had what we would now call bad bokeh, but then I felt, as I do now that some who felt that way were way way too consumed with concern for the out of focus parts of the image, whereas I was more concerned with the subject. But I will say that I have never seen better lenses. There was what was either underground unverified information, or just plain old fake news, that as a condition of the license to use Zeiss name and design, a requirement that a QC engineer from the Zeiss factory would be on-site at all times. Little did I know the G's had, like the pretty girl I meet at a bar or in line at the supermarket, for me what was a fatal flaw.

The AF was a a small center spot, That I wouldn't have minded, if they had provided a way of knowing where that spot was. No box, no tiny corner marks, no nothing outside your imagination. So, as you might imagine, the AF was, while accurate in finding focus, it was AF as done by a blind man. You never knew what would be in focus until the film was processed. That said, a tip of the hat to Cosina, who presumably made the camera and lenses for a remarkably well made system, but raspberries to the designers, who were apparently not in any way familiar with cameras before they started the project. The G1 had a whole basket of fatal flaws, all that were erased by experience when the G2 was introduced.

But those lenses! There is a good reason that there is a (very small) cottage industry in converting the lenses to MF and Leica mounts.

But like you I too have miss out on some cameras that I would liked to own and use by the vagaries of employment. I would like to have owned a Mamiya 6, and the Bronica RF, both 120 film rangefinder cameras. And while right now I could swing it, if one comes around I'll not be able to get a digital version of one of my favorite film cameras, the (Fuji) Hasselblad xPan.

Oh boy, my beloved S2! I still shoot B&W film with it :) This camera is perfect, reliable and very easy to master. Spot metering makes everything easy to meter - I just check my hand's inside and get +1 EV. And when I don't want anything to spoil view around focusing screen I just remove batteries.
Well, other contaxes break over time, that one keeps shooting :)
BTW I've wrote once a post about real-life shooting with different contaxes, here it is: http://foto.ujerzego.pl/2017/03/14/lustrzanki-contax-pod-palcem-uzytkownika/ It's in Polish, but Google translate it well.

Another vote for the RTSIII. I think one tester from Pop Photo (or was it that other magazine)said of it.."if it was a car, it would be a Bentley". The only issue was the funky blue text in the VF - that became unreadable in daylight.

I also had a Contax Aria - did you forget that one?

Contax N was one of the first cameras I got to review and when I drove away from wherever I picked it up from, I realized the camera + zeiss lens cost about 10x as much as my car. It was a great lesson in reminding myself to think of it as a tool, rather than something that might break, get stolen or otherwise get me in trouble. That mindset served me well when I dented one of my own cameras on the very first day. Or cracked a lens, or flooded a camera or...

The image quality on that Contax wasn't very impressive even in terms of standards of the day. It just wasn't a very memorable combo beyond the cost.

Wonderful history lesson. Thank you.

The Contax S2b has beautiful massing -- perfect, actually. Its Fuji "twin" has such ugly massing. The prism is fake, stacked on, entirely un-inflected by the rest of the body.

I don't understand the admiration here for things Fuji. Their cameras are ugly, ruined copies of others' beautiful designs. And, viewed from this Merrill Foveon devotee, that x-tran sensor is 4x worse than the Bayer sensor: waxy skin; fatally acutance-compromised.

Just wondering, was the Contax I rushed into the market in 1932 to compete with Leitz ("miniature camera") which was launched in 1925 and obviously enjoying a good run of the consumer business by then?

[Yes, that's my understanding. Consider this quote from the Wikipedia article "Zeiss Corporate History":

"The most important Zeiss lens by [Paul] Rudolph was the Tessar, first sold in 1902 in its Series IIb f/6.3 form. It can be said as a combination of the front half of the Unar with the rear half of the Protar. This proved to be a most valuable and flexible design, with tremendous development potential. Its maximum aperture was increased to f/4.7 in 1917, and reached f/2.7 in 1930. It is probable that every lens manufacturer has produced lenses of the Tessar configurations.

"Rudolph left Zeiss after World War I, but many other competent designers such as Merté, Wandersleb, etc. kept the firm at the leading edge of photographic lens innovations. One of the most significant designer was the ex-Ernemann man Dr Ludwig Bertele, famed for his Ernostar high-speed lens.

"With the advent of the Contax by Zeiss-Ikon, the first serious challenge to the Leica in the field of professional 35 mm cameras, both Zeiss-Ikon and Carl Zeiss decided to beat the Leica in every possible way. Bertele's Sonnar series of lenses designed for the Contax were the match in every respect for the Leica for at least two decades. Other lenses for the Contax included the Biotar, Biogon, Orthometar, and various Tessars and Triotars."

Contax rangefinder serial numbers had a single letter prefix from the factory. Because of its complexity and the fact that it was an early design, the Contax I was often sent back to the factory for overhaul where it received a second letter to identify it as having been serviced. My camera was originally "V", for 1933, but is marked "AV" after having been serviced. 87 years later it works off & on today.

My memory is that Contax and Leica competed with one another in the same way Nikon and Canon compete today.
Also, I had at first, like Gaspar, saw the Fuji relationship. Great minds, I guess!

Even Ansel loved using Contax, as you have (well, E. Weston has) pictured before...


The AX used Zeiss manual-focus lenses, but autofocused by moving the entire film plane back and forth!
I very nearly got into Contax in 1977 or so, when I decided against it in favour of Olympus. Dodged that bullet!

But the brilliant (but ahead of its time) notion of moving the film plane could be very useful in today's world of exquisite sensor-position control, no? It seems it might be a natural way for Olympus, arguably the best at this game, to pursue.

I'm not necessarily talking about complete focus control, but as part of an integrated focus system, where inexpensive lens motors could make gross corrections, and IBIS-movements could make rapid fine-tuning. The IBIS method could be used with manual focus lenses the same way — you "rough in" the focus manually, and the IBIS mechanism polishes it to perfection!

Don't apologize for feeling proud. I also cherish my own footnote to the history of photography, as insignificant as it may be.

In 2006 or so, I was tasked with finding a keynote speaker for a large conference about the environment in Alberta. We needed somebody with both a decent education, an articulate message, and general appeal. This was an academic conference, so everybody was a PhD student and up.

I proposed Edward Burtynsky. He was Canadian, had done a TED talk, enjoyed successful exposure within the museum circles, and his movie Manufactured Landscape was just out. He was engaged and engaging, and most importantly he was not a raging ideologue.

This meant that the day before, I enjoyed a full lunch hour with Burtynsky talking about everything from camera to the new iPhone and his recent photographs. The guy was a splendid talker, a delightful dinner guest, an accomplished artist, and I was star-struck.

When we got to the conference, the MC asked me for some talking points about Burtynsky, and then I remembered that we had in the audience William Rees. Who happened to be the professor who gave us the term "ecological footprint." Impeccable academic credentials, please meet artist.

So I told the MC, "well, if Rees gave us the ecological footprint, Burtynsky is the one who makes it visible." (Of course that could have applied to David Maisel, but let's not digress). That's also how I introduced them to each other (and snapped a pic or two, as I was also the resident communications guy. I still have the pictures).

Lo and behold, the two fellas hit it off. So much so, that a little bit after the conference, Burtynsky published Oil with Steidl.

With a postface by William Rees. Holy Mackerel! No, my name is not in the book, but I got a complimentary copy.

I know that somewhere deep within the cogs of history, the few levers I pushed here and there made things be a little bit different, and there's a Steidl book with my invisible fingerprints.

In the early 2000s I bought into the Contax system, buying the G1 and G2 with the 28, 35 and 90mm lenses. I love the look and feel of these cameras, the snick of the shutter.

I bought second hand in Singapore so didn't outlay too much. But I don't think I've ever had a really sharp image out of either of them. The autofocus is hopeless. You have to pay so much attention to what it's focusing on that creativity is spoilt.

Foolishly I thought I would get my money back if I ever tired of them. Well, maybe, but they are film cameras after all.

So this fits with your story Mike. Contax, great design, fabulous construction, but deeply flawed.

I do have two adapters to fit my Olympus EM1, manual focus by a little finger wheel, but I can't use the 28mm and the others become 70mm and 180mm, not very useful.

I regret my purchase of Contax.

We are not on the same wave length.

I got my Contax IIIa in 1956. My father got very good deal on it; a neighbour worked at a local camera store and they had a used "like new" one they could not get rid of. Unsaleable because its 50mm f/2.0 Sonnar had an air bubble on the front lens. Three millimetres long and one wide. Quite impressive to look at. It taught me a lot about facts and fiction.

My heart starts beating faster every time I see an old IIIa at flea markets.

[Why are we not on the same wavelength? I only said the I was troublesome, not the IIIa. For many years I retained my youthful affection for Contax—a Zeiss Contaflex B (with a fixed Tessar) was the first serious camera I used, and the Contax 139Q was the first serious camera I bought for myself. --Mike]

'Boke' is slang for vomit, in Northern Ireland slang at least


Re: the 159 problems - Most of the ‘dead’ ones are an easy fix. There is a common issue with a mirror box gear/flywheel which always gets gummed up. With this issue the finder info shows but the shutter won’t fire and the camera won’t wind on. It is, however, a relatively easy fix - get the gear/flywheel cleaned and the 159 should work for years to come.

The product photo of the S2b is marvelous.

Alas, Cosina are no longer making Voigtländer cameras. Just lenses.

I suppose we might see another run of them at some point in the future, if the film revival is sustained.

The comments reminded me of the Contax 645, which I think is something of a curiosity: launched into the pretty stable medium format market in the late 90s, with no previous track record for Contax in medium format SLRs. In hindsight this was obviously not the best business decision since mass market digital was only a few years away, but the interesting bit to me is that I can name at least two established pros that prefer to use the Contax 645 right now. Seems that 20 years after its introduction it has managed to find its own niche.

Until just a couple of years ago, the Kyocera Optec website still listed as one of its product lines the custom manufacture of SLR lenses on an OEM basis. It was rumored that Kyocera likely was the manufacturing source of new Zeiss lenses (Batis, etc.) even today, given its long history of having produced Zeiss glass for the Yashica/Contax mount. Incidentally, the Optec website once featured a photo of its headquarters, which looked suspiciously like a former Yashica factory. Perhaps the great Mark Hama can shed some light on all this? The retired former service manager for Yashica USA once built MAT 124s at the Japanese plant and still services Yashica and Contax cameras in Georgia (USA) today. He has a huge stock of factory parts and has completely rebuilt two Yashica FX-2 cameras to like-new condition for me.

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