While many cameras have gone from unknown to idolized as a result of the film renaissance, the Contax T2 stands shoulders above the competition. In terms of the sheer hype it has received in the past decade, no film camera can match it. And the effect that hype has had on the prized titanium point-and-shoot’s price has been equally unmatched.
The Contax T2 entered the mainstream cultural stratosphere in 2017 when supermodel Kendall Jenner used the camera to snap photos of Jimmy Fallon live on primetime television. This moment announced to the world of 2017 that film was officially back in style. More than that, it announced that the Contax T2 must be the coolest film camera of them all. Millennials have coveted the Contax T series ever since. No wonder I ended up buying one.
But the real question is whether or not the camera lives up to the hype, and more importantly, the astronomical price that it now commands.
I used the Contax T2 extensively during 2018, taking it to Lake Como and documenting England’s unforgettable World Cup run, which happened to coincide with a vintage summer in terms of weather.
From the first moment that I held the Contax T2, it was clear that it’s not the average point-and-shoot. Clad in titanium, cold to the touch, and featuring well-damped controls, the camera instantly inspires confidence. Even its battery cover is a milled disc of solid metal (the T2 uses one CR123 battery). Very few point-and-shoots are made of metal, with titanium even rarer. Plastic is ubiquitous in this film camera segment, which may help to explain why the Contax T2 has stood out from the competition since its introduction in 1990. I had to work hard to resist the temptation to snap random photos for no reason other than to hear the beautiful mechanisms of the shutter and automatic film advance spring to action.
The camera’s superior build quality may be the first thing we notice about the T2, but it’s the array of manual controls that arguably set it apart from most of its peers. Its manual aperture control, manual flash engagement (no more awkward exchanges with strangers as a result of a candid botched by unintended flash), and exposure compensation are all features that certain Contax T2 users will eventually take for granted. The T2 adds to this concise feature set a manual focus capability.
While these manual controls are nice to have, they are by no means perfect. I rarely used the manual focus beyond setting the camera to infinity for landscapes, and it was too fiddly to use for fast action. With a rather long close-focusing distance of 70 cm (20 inches), focusing on up-close subjects is also a challenge. The snappy autofocus of the camera means that a sub-standard manual focus mode isn’t a dealbreaker.
The aperture control is flawed as well, since the f/2.8 setting actually activates program mode, meaning that you cannot intentionally shoot the camera wide open when the camera’s metering system decides light conditions are too bright for f/2.8. The aperture ring, located around the tiny retractable lens barrel, is a bit small and offers no protruding grip. This makes aperture adjustment a minor challenge. Lastly, the exposure compensation dial is a recessed crater that requires the shooter to jam their finger into the crater and twist. While this keeps the entirely flat top-plate free of protrusions (good for portability), it makes using exposure compensation an unpleasant haptic experience.
The viewfinder is somewhat informative. It shows the camera’s set mode (program or aperture-priority, flash mode, focus lock, etc.), and the shutter speed at which the camera will fire. This last data set is limited to just a few shutter speeds displayed in LED. Speeds under 1/30th of a second are shown by an “L.T.” displayed in LEDs. A flashing “L.T.” indicates that the light is so low that the camera’s enabled bulb mode.
The big flaw in the VF is in its diminutive size. This is a typical point-and-shot viewfinder – a tiny window that blacks out whenever our eyeball isn’t pressed directly and aligned perfectly. It’s not a bad viewfinder, for a point-and-shoot, but it’s also nothing that sets the Contax T2 apart from any other point-and-shoot.
All of the creative freedom that these manual controls allow would be moot if the resulting images weren’t worth their salt. Luckily, the Contax T2 possesses a pretty incredible lens.
The Carl Zeiss Sonnar 38mm F/2.8 with T* coating of the Contax T2 is a five-element optic that provides outstanding color rendition and clarity. The lens delivers medium contrast negatives with only a hint of vignetting and no major aberrations to speak of. This results in organic images bursting with character – the sort of image that had caused me to fall in love with film photography in the first place.
Bokeh is subjective, but the T2 produces out-of-focus elements that could be described as “just barely out-of-focus” at the best of times, though it’s not an unpleasant effect when focusing up-close.
The Contax T2’s Sonnar lens is right there with the best SLR and Leica M lenses available, which goes some way toward explaining the massive prices that the Contax now commands. During my holiday in Lake Como I also shot my beloved Leica M4. Equipped with a Zeiss ZM 35mm 2.8, it performed beautifully. This is no surprise. What was surprising was just how closely the Contax matched the image quality from this much larger Leica kit. Knowing that your little travel camera provides both portability and photographic punch is hugely confidence inspiring, and may help to embolden shy photographers into pursuing photos outside their comfort zone (street, I’m thinking).
Although it had a size advantage over the Leica M with which I was also traveling, the Contax T2 is by no means a tiny camera. It’s small, for sure, but not tiny. While it may be ideal for sauntering around the Italian peninsula, the camera tends to bulge out of most jean pockets, making it suboptimal for everyday carry. Though some argue that the image quality and manual features of the T2 justify its larger size, I find this argument problematic. I have since acquired the comparatively microscopic Contax T, which is a much more manageable size for a pocket camera that also retains the amazing Zeiss lens, and improves on the manual controls of the T2 (it’s a true rangefinder with manual focus, aperture controls).
To me, a point-and-shoot should be a do-everything sort of camera for those in-between moments such as a walk in the park, where a Leica M would be overkill. If your point-and-shoot is large enough to make you weigh up taking a larger camera, or consider leaving it at home altogether, then it has failed in its primary objective. Before I sold it, I ended up leaving the T2 at home on numerous occasions due to its size.
Because my Contax T2 stayed at home more often than not, the camera inevitably competed with larger machines like the Leica, at which point the subject of price and value became impossible to ignore.
Unlike mechanical film cameras which are readily available today for a fraction of the price, the Contax T2 relies on aging electronics to function. This means that while it matches the price tag of a Leica M, the Contax T2 certainly doesn’t share that camera’s reparability. One large drop onto concrete or two splashes of water could leave turn the owner from a photographer into the owner of the world’s most expensive paperweight. In this regard, a Leica can be considered a safer investment as it can at least be repaired, should the worst happen. Film cameras should be enjoyed, not babied. Unfortunately, the cost of the Contax means that the former is not possible without the latter.
I don’t mean to bash the Contax T2. I shot dozens of rolls with it during my trip to Italy and throughout the sweltering summer of 2018, and it made great images. The Sonnar lens is simply superlative, nearly unmatched in the point-and-shoot world. However, when I got the opportunity to trade it for the much smaller Contax T, I jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back since.
Although the Contax T2 has unrivaled pedigree, the value proposition just doesn’t bear out. For me, it’s not small enough to take everywhere comfortably, not cheap enough to be disposable in the event of a breakdown, and while it has an amazing lens, this doesn’t outbalance its functional limitations and too high price. The Contax T2 is a great camera, victimized by hype.
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