Contax: A tale of two beautiful but unused cameras
This is a story about a camera of which two examples are currently in my possession but with which I have never actually taken a photograph. Why? I'll get to that later.
The camera in question is a Contax G1. The Contax G1 was launched in 1994 by the Japanese company Kyocera who had rights to the Contax name. It was pre-digital. It was a very advanced, interchangeable lens film camera with a titanium body, automatic focussing and exposure control. A range of beautiful Zeiss lenses, made in Japan to Zeiss designs and generally recognised as being outstanding performers, complemented this wonderful beast. Indeed the Planar 45mm f2 was designated the second sharpest lens ever calibrated by a Swedish test site.
The G1 is a weighty camera for its size and it feels like the precision instrument it is. Apparently it was a very big sales success in its Japanese home market and it also enjoyed healthy sales elsewhere. In 1996 it was replaced by the G2 which had an improved focusing system as well as a few other tweaks.
Kyocera saw the G series cameras as competitors to the newly launched Leica M7 and certainly a good case could be made for saying that the G2 is actually superior to the M7. However, both the G series and the M7 were the victims of unfortunate timing as they were being sold as sales of digital cameras were about to take off. Kyocera made the G series camera until 2005 — well into the digital era. Sadly they no longer support the G series and repair parts are impossible to obtain —unless you cannibalise another camera.
Five years ago my son, Toby, was travelling on business in Switzerland and saw a G1 with the superb 45mm f2 Planar in the window of a small-town camera shop. Acting on an impulse he bought it and had a short dalliance with analogue photography before the demands of two small boys took up his spare time. He left the G1 in my possession. Meanwhile, not to be outdone by Toby, I had picked up a very well priced and immaculate G1 body and pristine 28mm and 90mm G series Zeiss lenses in Japan. Not only did I find the lenses but they came with the correct titanium lens hoods and Contax OE UV filters.
Many of the Contax Zeiss lenses have been purchased to use on the Sony a7 so they are now more difficult to find. On paper the Sony and the G series lenses are a great combination. The problem is that the Contax lenses are designed to focus automatically with the camera driving an internal screw drive to the lens. There is no way of focussing the lens manually or, of course, automatically on the Sony except with an adapter. I purchased two different brands of adapters to use the lenses on my unloved Sony a7. (see my Sony Macfilos story) They were not a success.The focusing action was not at all smooth on either of them. However to be fair I did mange to take some good photos with them — although working my way through the Sony's overly complex menus to set them up was painful.
I am told that a man in Japan converts the Contax G lenses to Leica M mounts with rangefinder coupling. I have no idea how much this costs. Tech Art make an intelligent adapter which electrically connects the lens to the camera body and which allows the lenses to autofocus on the Sony a7. I do not know how well this works but it is expensive. Unless it works well and quickly I cannot see why you would want to use it over manual focusing. Slow autofocus is very frustrating — I know, I use a Leica X1. I used to say that I could manually focus my rangefinder Leica M6 quicker than any autofocus system. I would not be making this claim today with the lightning fast focusing Leica Q around.
The problems with the G1 itself came when I got home from Japan. The G series camera use two CR2 lithium batteries which cost A$7 each. I installed the batteries in my camera and tested that it was all working although I did not have a film to put through it. I switched it off and left it. When I had purchased a film I went to switch it on and found that the batteries were flat. So I went and bought two more batteries and installed them and then, whilst I was working on my computer with the camera nearby, I noticed that the camera was making faint noises with the power switched off. The on/off switch was not switching off. I tried some contact cleaner but without success. With no way of repairing the camera I put it on the shelf in my camera cupboard. My Japanese acquisition was a dud.
I decided to try out Toby's camera. I bought two more batteries — which are not readily available — and loaded the film. I flattened the batteries again but this time not through a faulty switch but because I forgot to switch the camera off. This was an easy mistake to make as cameras nowadays switch to hibernation mode if you leave the power. But not the G series. Leave the power on and it uses up the power from the tiny batteries even if it is sitting in a cupboard.
At this stage I had not taken a single photo and had spent A$42 (£24) on batteries. I put the second G1 into the cupboard. I have seen that rechargeable CR2 batteries are now available — at a hefty price — but I have not yet seen a charger. And a rechargeable battery without a charger is as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike as we know when we have left our chargers at home or in a hotel socket.
A film, a film.....
I really would like to put a film through the G1. It is such a beautiful camera and the lenses are special. Regular readers of Macfilos will now that I recently divorced a Hasselblad after deciding that its bulk and running costs were just too much. On one hand I see the G1 as a very interesting camera but if the cost of film and processing was not enough with the G1 I have to factor in those battery costs. Maybe some other day....
As a postscript whilst looking for a G1 instruction manual on the internet I saw a comment on a blog that the G series cameras would have made nice digital cameras. The writer is probably right. A digital G2 with those lenses would be a very attractive camera but I doubt if there would have been a big enough market for it as it would have been competing head to head with Leica and there is only room for one premium niche brand in the market — or arguably two if you now include the Hasselblad XCD. In any case after the G series Kyocera went back to developing their core ceramics and copying machine businesses and they left cameras to others.
As I cannot show actual photos taken with the G1 here are some photos taken on the Sony a7 using the Zeiss Contax lenses with an adapter. If any Sony a7 using readers are interested in purchasing the 28mm and 90mm Zeiss Contax lenses drop me an email (open the Rolling Road link below and create a message).