From my first foray into modern film photography, I was confronted by the apparent supremacy of Leica and its M mount. But for some reason, the Leica bug has never seemed to bite me. To start, I have little interest in paying the prices that M bodies and lenses demand (and even less ability to do so). But also the ubiquity of Leica-appreciation makes the cameras somehow uninteresting to me. This is, for my tastes, where Contax arises as the foremost competitor to Leica.
Casual Photophile has always been a place where a few quiet voices issue unpopular takes that are evidence-based and hype-opposed. This leads to occasional opinions that might appear intentionally contrarian. You can see this in some of our tongue-in-cheek articles, such as when we listed our least favorite cameras and they ended up being traditional crowd favorites; Leica, the Mju II, and the AE-1, to name a few. Or the early-days article that heralded the Minolta CLE as the best M mount body, an at-the-time controversial opinion that has become more widely accepted, or at least begrudgingly tolerated. The point isn’t to stir up controversy. We just love unloved cameras, and finding value in something under-valued is one of life’s great pleasures.
All of this points us to today’s writing, and the opinion I’m proffering within – that the Contax G1 is the best 35mm luxury camera one can buy on today’s market. This opinion isn’t completely wild, the G1 is known to be a great camera. But it does get a little more controversial when I specify that I’m particularly targeting its younger brother, the Contax G2. This runs in direct opposition to what nearly everyone claims, that the G2 is the better of the two without question.
In his review of the G2 last year, Casual Photophile founder James called this interchangeable-lens autofocus rangefinder “a camera in a class of its own.” Some might be wont to suggest the Konica Hexar AF as a companion machine, but such a camera lacks the triangulation-focusing characteristic of a rangefinder. To find an autofocus rangefinder camera, one can look only to the Contax G series. In this way, the G1 and G2 are in their own domain.
Off the line, the G1 gains a step on the G2. It costs substantially less money to buy today. Where a G2 body will retail for around $600, the G1 can be found for about $200, or $250 for a green label version (more on this later). This means that it’s possible to buy the G1 and its most impressive lens for less money than most G2 bodies sell for (without a lens). That’s hard to ignore.
That lens I referenced isn’t a bargain-basement bit of glass, either. It is, without hyperbole, one of the best lenses ever made at a price point far lower than anything ending in –lux or –cron. This lens is, of course, the Carl Zeiss 45mm T* Planar, which James thoroughly reviewed here.
It is uncontroversial to say that the G-mount Planar 45mm is one of the best lenses ever made for 35mm photography. It is on par with any lens made by Leica in terms of build and image quality. The lens uses what Contax called a “spigot” mount, similar to Canon’s breech-lock FD mount. Thanks to the short 29mm flange-to-film distance (about a millimeter different than Leica’s M mount), Zeiss designers were able to construct a Planar without typical mirror-box restraints. This short flange focal distance is what makes rangefinder lens typically superior to their SLR counterparts.
I won’t spend time rehashing all of what James said in his review of the lens, but the fact of the matter is that in shooting with the 45mm, you’re shooting with one of the best lenses ever made, bar none. Even with that presupposition established, though, the G1 isn’t a sure bet. A lens means little if the camera or the shooting experience is terrible, and since we’re comparing the G1 with the G2, or a Leica, or even a Voigtlander rangefinder body, it had better be a pleasant shoot. Luckily for my argument, it is.
In This Case, The Before Photo is Better than the After
The G1’s body is in many ways superior when compared to the G2. To start, the G1 boasts a smaller, sleeker overall package. When comparing the total dimensionality, the G1 comes in at about 19mm smaller than its successor; the major difference being the 10mm difference in depth that makes the G1 a significantly thinner camera. It’s tempting to scoff at differences of minuscule millimeters on paper, but 10mm is a substantial difference in the hands. The G1 is simply a much smaller camera.
The G1 also weighs less by 3 ounces, again making it not just the tinier camera but also the nimbler camera. Why the extra size with the G2? Well, one point in favor of it is the added active focusing system that constituted an apparent “marked” improvement over the G1 (more on this later). Otherwise though, there are a handful of design decisions that went into the G2 that make it more compartmentalized and, frankly, less user friendly from my perspective.
On the G1, only the top plate of the camera is in play when it comes to controls. On the G2 this is far from the case, and when truly considered, this is very odd since the G2 was supposed to improve upon the G1. A great example of why it’s not wise to mess with perfection.
Let’s really dig into the differences in controls between the two cameras. I hope you like details.
First, on the left of the Original’s top plate you find two slim, oval buttons: one for ISO and one for drive mode selection. ISO is easily manually set or automatically set using DX coding. The drive button rotates through single-frame, continuous-frame, timer, and multiple exposures (offering as many exposures of a single frame as the photographer desires).
On the G2, the drive mode button is transformed into a drive mode dial blocked away from the ISO selection button (which is now a round button with a sort of shroud guard around it). We see in this one design choice that the G2 creates interruption where the G1 possessed fluidity.
On the right side of the Original’s top plate we find a hefty dial (the tallest on the plate and with the largest diameter) that controls shutter speed selection, auto shutter, and exposure compensation for when the shutter is set to auto (offering plus and minus two stops in one-thirds increments – same as the G2). Beneath this dial is a switch for ABC (Automatic Bracketing Control – when your camera shoots three exposures for a single frame – one “properly” exposed, one higher, and one lower).
Across the way from this dial is another dial that controls the autofocus selection and the manual focusing distances (this dial has a nicely beveled top). Both dials include a lock button at their centers for switching from the auto settings to the manual settings. Lastly, on this right side is the on/off switch that also includes one step further for AEL (auto exposure lock) and the shutter release button (which also acts as the focus lock when depressed halfway).
The G2 diverges from this setup by moving things around and dealing with the fallout of added features (namely continuous autofocus during single-frame shooting, an impossibility with the G1). In this later model, the taller dial is now the smaller-by-diameter dial and only controls exposure compensation. The shorter, but larger-by-diameter dial controls the shutter speed (both auto and manual settings) and is no longer beveled but rather just slightly sloped. (For a full explanation of, and debate over beveled versus sloped dials, @ me in the comments). The shutter release and on/off switch remain the same between the two models.
To where did the cherished manual-focus dial go? (Tongue-in-cheek, for what it’s worth, because I don’t know anyone that uses, let alone uses consistently, the manual focusing abilities of the Contax Gs). Well the focusing selector slipped down the backside of the camera and is now a dial that allows the photographer to select MF, AF, or CAF and includes a button that allows for focus lock when CAF is selected. The actual focusing dial has slipped down the frontside of the camera into a vertical pocket, but it has no markings on it to indicate focus distance. Instead, manual focusing must be done entirely in the viewfinder by aligning a marker with another marker- I repeat, there are no actual distance markings anywhere in the viewfinder or on the camera for manual focus.
Manual focusing with the G1 is actually surprisingly easier. First, one can just use zone focusing and turn the demarcated focus dial to the desired distance. For instance, if you know you’re shooting something far away, just manually focus to infinity. On the other hand, if you know you’ll be shooting a subject at two meters distance, just turn the dial to two meters and fire away. If you want the precision of turning the manual focus dial while watching the markers align in the viewfinder (indicating a match between measured distance and manual focus selection), you can do that too. Both are surprisingly easy.
In terms of why the G2 needs a focus lock button separate from the half-depress shutter release technique, the answer is nauseatingly complicated. With the G1, you can only “choose” AF or MF; you don’t get to choose continuous AF. However, if you select continuous-frame as your drive mode, the G1 AF becomes CAF. So when you’ve got AF selected and you’re shooting single-frame mode, the focus will lock once you depress the shutter release halfway. When you’re shooting continuous mode, conversely, the focus will not lock when you depress the shutter release halfway but will instead continuously autofocus as you alter the frame. In sum, the G1 has basically two AF options.
Formula G1a: single-frame mode, single autofocus and focus lock (with half-depression of the shutter release button)
Formula G1b: continuous-frame mode, continuous autofocus (with half-depression of the shutter release button), no focus lock
On the other hand, because the G2 introduces a selectable setting for CAF, there are more AF formulae.
Formula G2a: single-frame mode, single autofocus and focus lock (with half-depression of the shutter release button)
Formula G2b: single-frame mode, continuous autofocus (with half-depression of the shutter release button), option of focus lock with focus lock button pressed
Formula G2c: continuous-frame mode, single autofocus and focus lock (with half-depression of the shutter release button), successive exposures locked at original focus
Formula G2d: continuous-frame mode, continuous autofocus (with half-depression of the shutter release button), option of focus lock with focus lock button pressed
In my mind, nothing is gained over the original G1 functionality. It makes little sense to use CAF with single-frame mode (Formula G2b) because you only need to focus once per frame. It also makes little sense to use single autofocus with continuous-frame mode (Formula G2c) because then you’ll just be ripping through frames without refocusing. It makes even less sense to lock CAF when shooting continuous-frame mode (Formula G2d) because then you’re back to essentially shooting with a single focus.
All you really need is a locking SAF for single-frame mode (Formulae G1a/G2a) and a non-locking CAF for continuous-frame mode (Formulae G1b/G2d), which is exactly what the G1 delivers. That way when you take a single shot, the camera autofocuses for that single frame. And when you want to rapidly take many shots, the camera will refocus as you shoot.
All of this unpacking constitutes a hell of a lot of words simply to say that the G2 unnecessarily complicates things in the name of user control, but that user control is unnecessary. There’s a point at which the addition of more and more user controls reaches a point where the diminishing returns are so small that they’re actually harmful. This may be strongly evidenced by just how confusing the last section of this review was.
At this point, we’ve established that the G1 costs less than the G2, uses the same fabled Planar, and is smaller, lighter, and more streamlined in terms of controls. Where to next? In my mind, I still want to explicate the stand-alone beauty of this machine. And then there’s confirmation or debunking of the myth of its autofocus incapability (a commonly touted argument against the camera). Further still is the actual shooting experience, which conveniently ties in with the former two matters.
Sparkly Titanium – What more could you want?
In the interest of total disclosure, much of the proceeding fawning that I’ve lavished upon the G1 is fawning that’s equally applicable to the G2. Many of the following accolades are shared between the two machines, but I’ll also show that the G1 stands apart even from its very similar descendant.
The G1 is built on an aluminum chassis, making it light but durable at the outset, but the real beauty of the camera comes in its titanium finish body. When compact and SLR cameras were trending increasingly to thick, sturdy plastic, Kyocera took things a different direction producing all-metal bodies for their T and G series cameras. The titanium is a beautiful champagne gold that effortlessly and subtly captures the metal’s best quality – its pearlescence. In fact, titanium oxide is used in paints and other products to imbue them with the subtle sparkle unique to titanium.
In bright light, the camera literally glistens.
The Contax G1 features etchings or laser-etchings for all markings that are on the main body of the camera. Where “DRIVE” and “ISO” are just slightly engraved into the metal, the larger “CONTAX G1” (in its proprietary styling) is deeper. There are visible, minuscule screws (they must be about 1mm in diameter) on the camera’s top plate. The electronic shutter is of the metal-bladed focal-plane type. Every element of the camera oozes attention to detail and quality.
The dials are truly pinnacles of pleasurable use. The clicks of the shutter speed/exposure compensation dial are firm without being rough. The sides of the dials feature a nice, coarse, straight knurl (those last two descriptors are official Knurl™ terms), but in this case the knurl is split in the middle horizontally across the dial. In this way, the dials actually feature two separate knurls stacked on top of one another and separated by a thin groove. The dials also rest on a very, very slight pedestal on the surface of the top plate. These tiny details would be described by some people as insignificant, but they’re not. Even if the differences they make in real-world use are statistically immeasurable, they exist. They help my finger find its way to the dial faster or easier, or make turning the dials that much more pleasant. At the very least, they’re nice to look at.
A common trope among the Casual Photophile writers is that we enjoy talking about things like knurls and metal finishes and engravings more than we like talking about camera specs. Well, it’s a trope for a reason. We’re real nerds for this stuff, and when it comes to the things that detail and design nerds find to be exciting, the Contax G1 gets everything right.
The lenses made for the G mount feature the same design choices made in the camera body. The lenses typically feature multiple rings on their exteriors, though only two serve a legitimate purpose and only one has movement. The aperture ring has full-height, straight, coarse knurling around the ring save for where the aperture markings are. The ring just prior to the aperture ring features the same knurling for about 38mm segments opposite one another. This allows for a firm grip when mounting the lens.
One design element introduced by the G1 that the G2 promptly (and foolishly) squelched is the curves and angles featured on the back of the camera. In the G1, the film door features a straight edge on its top dimension, but a split edge on its bottom where the door becomes narrower (by way of a diagonal line) just after the right edge of the eyepiece. This symmetry is easily missed, but demonstrates the care put into the design. It also adds angularity to an otherwise sleek camera. The curve I mentioned comes in with the grip. The G1 and G2 feature a matte plastic grip that wraps from the back of the camera around to the front. I will talk more about how amazing this grip is when I get into the shooting experience, but the part that matters here is how the grip meets the metal.
On the G2, the grip simply ends on an angle with a straight line. This is also where the film door narrows, losing the symmetry with the eyepiece and making the door itself less visually dynamic. These lackluster designs were conveniently left out of James’ beautiful photos of the G2. Luckily, the G1 does not bear the same errors of the G2; (it’s almost as if the G2 messed this up and the G1 came along to fix it…). On the G1, the grip comes to a swoop joint with the metal door, producing a curvy yin-yang look. Again, the G1 takes the cake for arresting, intentional design.
I could go on about the camera’s features and feels. I love the oval film preview window. There’s a diopter on the eyepiece for those of that are vision impaired. The LCDs (while admittedly prone to some leakage) give exactly the information necessary and no more. The camera is a marvel of ‘90s engineering. When other manufacturers were producing eyesores (albeit, functionally excellent eyesores), Kyocera sought to produce modern cameras that retained a certain timelessness of design. They succeeded, because the G1 looks high-end, even twenty-five years later.
Maybe They’re the Problem?
It’s common for film aficionados to comment that the G1’s autofocus system is “sloppy” (thank you, Ken Rockwell), “serious trouble” (thank you, James Tocchio), “slow” (thank you, B&H), and inaccurate (thank you, thousands of forum experts). I will grant these detractors the fact that the G2 added an active AF system in addition to the G1’s passive AF system, which matter-of-factly assists with autofocusing. But is the G1’s autofocus system actually problematic? The answer is both yes and no, but the individual scenarios that make these easy answers true are as informative as the answers themselves.
To get the heartbreak out of the way quickly, the autofocus of the G1 can indeed be slow in certain cases, or more aptly, with certain lenses. The photos I shot with the 90mm Sonnar lens on the G1 were often out of focus, especially when shooting portraits, which is supposed to be the purpose for a 90mm Sonnar design. It’s possible I just wasn’t paying close enough attention to where the camera focused when I locked focus before shooting, but I am meticulous about checking this and never have problems with the 45mm lens. My take is that the camera simply had trouble at the narrower focal length. This may come as a blow to some, but given the supremacy of the 45mm lens, it did not dampen my spirits.
And this is why I can equally argue the G1 is actually not problematic when it comes to autofocusing. Out of many rolls of film shot on the G1 with the 45mm, I can count on one hand the times it missed the focus, and these were likely due to fast shooting on my part. The fact of the matter is that if you are conscientious about noting the focus as you compose and focus lock with the shutter release, you will not experience focus problems using the 45mm lens.
Training oneself to watch the distance in the viewfinder is really no work at all. Maybe you prefer shooting from the hip and intend to get crystal clear shots every time from an AF system. I would suggest – no, not the G2 – but digital cameras. Film photography is a considered process, even when using an autofocus camera. The time it takes for me to see the distance it determines, perhaps reset the focus once or twice, and shoot the photograph is really no time at all.
The ineffectiveness of the G1’s autofocus system is so grossly exaggerated that it has become something I often roll my eyes at when I see it espoused online. Don’t worry. The camera focuses well, provided you’re shooting with (maybe) the only lens you should be using.
This would be a good moment to acknowledge the camera’s other deficiency, namely, that it cannot accept every lens made for the G mount. The range of G-mount lenses comprises a complete set – the 16mm Hologon, the 21mm Biogon, the 28mm Biogon, the 35mm Planar, the 45mm Planar, the 90mm Sonnar, and the 35-70 Vario-Sonnar. Of this batch of seven lenses, the original G1 could accept only four, the 16, 28, 45, and 90mm lenses. Later or modified versions of the G1, the so-called “green label” G1 indicated by a literal green sticker where the film canister is inserted, could also accept the mythical 16mm lens and the 35mm lens. Unfortunately, the G1 is incapable of using the Vario-Sonnar due to the fact that the lens requires seven electrical-contacts to the G1’s five.
Other than this slight downside (and if you acquire a green-label G1, you’re batting over .800 anyway), the shooting experience of the camera is second to no other autofocus camera. To demonstrate, let’s walk through the experience of shooting the G1 from start to finish.
The Shooting Experience
You wake up and remember that you’re meeting friends for a walk around your city’s fine arts museum. You decide you’re in a mood to shoot the restrained effervescence of Portra 160, so you pop open the G1’s film door with an easy twist of the switch on the left side of the camera.
You effortlessly insert the canister and pull the leader out to just slightly over the spool (marked nicely by an orange line). You close the back. The camera winds the film for you and nails it. But if you messed up, by putting the leader to far in or not far enough in, the camera would flash double zeroes at you in the frame counter to indicate, “Hey, you made it so that I can’t do my job.”
You think that it might be a bit darker than desired in the museum, so you change the rating from 160 to 320 with the hold and then single tap of the ISO button.
You make your way to the museum on your city’s public transit. Your friend’s newborn baby is sleeping and holding the giant-in-comparison index finger of your friend. You decide to it’s the perfect moment to allow the 45mm to demonstrate its half-a-meter minimum focusing distance. As you carry the camera up to your eye, you first think that the viewfinder is too small, but you remember reading in that 1994 feature of the G1 in Popular Photography that it’s a Keplerian viewfinder meaning it is small, yet still surprisingly bright.
As you half-depress the shutter release to focus on the intimate touch between your two friends, you’re surprised, as the viewfinder seems to zoom with the lens as the lens focuses. Just like that, the viewfinder, which was already showing the correct finder field for your 45mm Planar has now corrected for parallax error as well. It finds the focus easily since you deftly placed the center marker on the contrast of vertical lines at the juncture of the small hand wrapped around the single finger. You know to do this because you read the helpful G1 pamphlet entitled “Useful Hints on focusing the lens [sic].”
Once the camera finds the focus, you keep it locked and reframe the shot. You complete the full press and the photo’s taken. With the zip of the film advance, you’re ready to take another photo.
You realize that you accidentally smudged the focusing window of the camera, so you gently wipe off the smudge and make sure the window is clean and ready to focus unobstructed. You decide to take advantage of the multiple exposure feature, so with three clicks of the drive button, you’re set up to take your friend’s profile against a bright sky followed by your full frame of foliage. Compose, focus, shoot. Compose, focus, shoot. Instant karma.
You’re walking now and trying to keep up with the group. Thanks to the grip, which is somehow soft but not rubber, your thumb finds easy support on the back of the camera and your middle finger finds a prefect resting place on the front, while your index is poised to shoot. With one hand—you’re still holding the museum map in the other—you raise the camera to your eye, quickly focus on the backs of your laughing friends 15 feet away, and you shoot with one hand.
The camera never feels loose or at risk of being dropped. It’s steady in your hand as you shoot. There’s no slap of the mirror. And in the light draping in from the atrium glass, it found its focus distance in a matter of seconds. Not enough time to move out of focus. You know the shot will be sharp, contrasty, and tickled with the pungency of the T* coating color.
When you take your final shot (maybe it’s indicated as frame thirty-seven in the frame counter) and the camera immediately begins to rewind your film, leaving the leader out thanks to a setting you chose, you have full confidence that within that canister are thirty-seven photos commemorating your day. Maybe you got lazy once and that one shot of your friend with their face filling the frame will be out of focus because you accidentally composed with the center mark to close to the background.
But the rest will be exactly what you envisioned because you’re shooting with one of history’s best lenses on one of history’s coolest cameras and you’re a badass photographer that saved hundreds by preferring what those-in-the-know know is the better model anyway.
Want your own Contax G1?
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