The Contax G1 Takes on the World

2800 1575 Drew Chambers

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?

Find one on eBay

Find one at our own F Stop Cameras

Follow Casual Photophile on Facebook and Instagram

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers is a former high school teacher and current master's student at Harvard University. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts with his wife and their perfect dog. Outside of teaching, reading, and writing, Drew spends most of his time listening to indie rock. He is happy when photographing.

All stories by:Drew Chambers
  • Cheyenne Morrison April 24, 2019 at 8:01 am

    The G-mount Planar 45mm f/2 had the 2nd highest rated lens on the Photodo MTF charts from the 1980s. Erwin Putts has a really in depth article about how and why Zeiss arrived at the design for the lens … The techniques developed by Zeiss were also used in the Contax Yashica range, but none of the C/Y lenses came anywhere near as close as the G-mount Planar. The C/Y 50mm f/1.4 comes a very close second though.

  • This review smacks of the sort of Leica-fawning the writer complains about. “The camera focuses well, provided you’re shooting with (maybe) the only lens you should be using.”

    So not only do you think you should be telling others what lens they should be using, but this damn camera can’t even focus the 90mm lens, and which you are happy to overlook as a serious flaw. What good is that? Whatever one may argue against Leica, and any other correctly aligned rangefinder, they can at least accurately focus every lens made for them. I can now understand why the AF performance of the G1 has been panned.

    I’m surprised you didn’t report that the camera only fires at 1/125sec but that’s OK, because your personal style of photography doesn’t require you to use any other speed and it fits the aperture you use most often.

    Sadly, in a half hidden dig at Leica, you’ve simply allowed yourself to be carried away by your under-performing G1.

    • Hi, Terry; thanks for your thoughts! Sure any manual focus RF can accurately focus any lens. If a photographer is after manual focus, by all means, go with a different camera (such as a Leica!), but if someone is after a high-performing AF camera in a compact body that relies on triangulation (rather than point-and-shoot systems that sometimes rely on lesser-focusing systems without significant manual control in other areas), then the G1 is a great choice.

      I’m pretty up front about the fact that this isn’t about calling Leica underperforming, but rather suggesting that there exists a camera with one of the best lenses of all time that can be had for far less. It’s simply a cost-benefit argument. And actually, I don’t have a problem with acknowledging Leica as impeccable–the brand obviously is. My point was that I’m not as enamored of Leica as I am of Contax, so yes, this article should smack of some Contax fawning.

      Fair enough about the 90mm–a downside I openly acknowledge, but simply am not bothered by. Again, there’s no underhandedness going on; the G1 is best (essentially perfect) with the 45mm and not reliable enough with the 90mm.

      Haven’t heard anything about only firing at 1/125th. Manually it can be set at any stop from bulb to 1/1-1/2000th, and when shooting on auto shutter, the camera chooses an appropriate shutter speed factoring in aperture and ISO. For photographers that want slower than a second, there is bulb, but you’re right that for photographers shooting very long exposures, it’s not convenient. Completely fair and definitely something that wasn’t at the front of my mind when reviewing it.

      Again, sorry if this ruffled feathers! I am happy to be transparent about how taken I am with this camera and I’m thankful for venues like CP for writers to openly express their love for particular cameras in prose. Maybe someone should write about how taken they are with Leica!

      • Hi, Drew. It now looks like your G1 needed re-calibration, and the focusing issue with the 90mm is not an inherent fault of the system. Looks like I went a little overboard in my criticism. The “only firing at 1/125sec” was a tongue in cheek comment in that based on your dismissing the AF fault with the 90mm, you’d have probably still given the G1 a thumbs up (because you like the lens). :D)

        • I use the G1 with the only lens I have for it- The infamous 90mm. 🙂 Difficult, but it can be done. I shoot 95% digital. But when I do shoot film, I want to go at a snail’s pace. For me, this is the entire point of shooting film. Even at that, if I shoot a roll of 36, between 3-6 will have blown focus. I put up with this, since I have gotten some of my favorite photos with that lens and the G1. I still agree it is a flaw. But perhaps a flaw I like, if that makes any sense. Since it forces me to slow down even further than I normally would. I can easily spend 5-10 minutes composing a single shot, and making sure the AF is spot on.

          • 10 minutes for a single shot to make sure the focus is correct? Doesn’t really seem like a good implementation of AF.
            With that much time, may I suggest using a tape measure?


          • Benson, I suspect that a “miss” rate of up to 6 frames out of 36 would be totally unacceptable to most. But is the miss rate something you were able to identify why? If so, I would have thought that your hit rate would have improved quite quickly. Or is it really a question that the AF implementation for the 90mm lens really is an issue, and results can’t be guaranteed?

  • I used to have both a G1 and G2. The AF system is both its USP and its worst bugbear. Firstly neither camera was accurate enough as supplied with the 90mm or the G2 with the 35-70 zoom also. I took them to a repairer who collimated their AF systems precisely and they were both far better after that. The biggest problem is if you don’t have strong verticals in landscape or horizontals in portrait orientation, then the single AF detector can just refuse to pick up a focus, You then may have to focus in the opposite orientation, lock the focus and reframe, at which point your fingers say “I don’t bend that way” and fire the shutter off at 45º. The 21, 28 and 45 lenses are every bit as good as anything I have from Leica. The 35 Planar is a touch odd. It has a very abrupt cut off from in focus to out of focus which can lead to excessive “pop” and also has strange bokeh. I was given my 35 Planar free by Contax UK, so I could not really complain. Does not the G2 show the focus distance on the top LCD window?

    Compared with the M7 I use now, the best thing about the G cameras is their built in motor drive, compared with the heavy accessory Motor M, which also tends to break the M7’s very spindly drive shaft. As this also locates the intermediate timing gear, this then jams the whole camera.


    • Excellent insights, Wilson. I think collimating is the key if someone has both a reputable servicer and the cash to do it. I personally don’t know the best servicer to use, but my guess is that Nippon Photoclinic in Manhattan or Sendean in England may be able to do so.

      In fact, both the G1 and G2 show the measured focus distance on the LCD, though I find the viewfinder distance spectrum to be reliably easy to use.

      The internal motor drive is definitely another aspect that makes the camera built for the modern age.

      • Kelvin at Protech Camera repairs in Uckfield, East Sussex, UK did mine. He is a lovely guy to work with and if something is beyond his knowledge/skill set, he will tell you and not just charge blindly ahead. He has just done a rush job on the seals on my Leica R4, before I went down to France (now about half way down).

    • Thanks for the heads up about the motor drive on the M7 Wilson. I did not know that and will take it off mine. Is this with all motordrive compatible M cameras? Is my M-A or M4-2 safe with it?


      • Huss, I suspect the Motor drive problem affects the M-A and M-P as well, since their drive trains are identical to the M7. Oddly the earlier cameras seem to be more robust. I also have an M4-P with the far more violent M4-2 winder on it and had no problems. The motor on this is powerful enough to actually distort the casing as it runs and the whole kit writhes in your hands as it winds. Leica have modified the tiny shaft which takes all the torque of the motor and as they did not know which shaft was in my broken M7, they sent both spare parts. Having finally received the part, after many months and fitted it, we have now come across another problem in that the shutter timing is off with 1/1000 running at 1/500. The shutter is fine, slit width etc, so it must be getting an incorrect signal from the ROM chip which actuates the electromagnets that time the shutter. Of course the only people who have a rig to re-program the chip, are Leica in Wetzlar.

  • Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I can’t help but notice the large amount of Contax articles written in the last few months. Do the folks at Casual Photophile have a particular affection for Contax?

    • I saw another comment like this on Instagram so I’ll respond here quickly. We haven’t been talking about Contax a lot for any reason. It just works out this way sometimes. I happened to have a TVS come through the shop a few weeks ago, so I figured I might as well write about it. One of our new writers wanted to talk about his Contax as his first piece, so we gave him the go-ahead. Drew’s been shooting his G1 for months now and has been working on this review just as long.

      As the editor here I do try to keep the content as balanced as possible. I’m guessing it’s been a bit too Contax-heavy the past month or two, so we’ll pull back on that a bit. Cheyenne has a post about the Contax Aria 70 Years edition ready for publishing, but maybe we’ll wait on that.

      Anyway, as always, do tell us what we’re getting right and what we can do better and we’ll continue improving. This site exists for you people, and your comments help us make it better. Thanks.

    • To answer your question about whether or not we love Contax – I’m guilty. I truly love the brand’s SLRs and rangefinders from both the original era and the Kyocera era (I’m less a fan of the point-and-shoots).

      One of my favorite cameras I’ve ever had the pleasure of covering –

      • I for one really am glad you’re featuring all the history of the lesser known German pioneers (Contax, Voigtlander, Zeiss Jena) etc. to balance out the Leica fandom. Since Contax is ‘dead’ while being held in Kyocera’s possession, the fandom is the only thing keeping the brand worthy of a revival, if the camera industry survives the mobile / computational photography onslaught in the years to come.

    • I feel the opposite. The internet seems to me to be full of sites extolling Leica, and in comparison hardly one is dedicated to Contax, or even goes to the trouble to review them. The amount of exposure Leica gets compared to Contax is out of all proportion to the significance of the Zeiss rangefinders from the Contax II and III of the 1930’s to the IIa and IIIa continuing the line up to 1960/61. So to see Contax cameras, both old and modern, reviewed here is most welcome.

      If you want to get an idea of just how important the Contax II and III were viewed when they were released in 1936, take a look here. and all this was 18 years before the hallowed M3! Yes, Leica didn’t even play catch up until the M3, but with this body they really stole a march on every other rangefinder camera. It is an excellent camera, but even so there was an after-market business in converting Zeiss Contax lenses for it. Now one has to ask why? Put simply, they were superior.

      • Well said. But if we talk too much about how good our Contaxes are, (I have 3 139Qs and a 169MT along with a small but growing collection of lenses) the prices will go up….best to keep quiet I think!

  • Thank you for sharing your friendly words about the G1 (and the G-Line).

    Using the G1 and G2 since some time with the three lenses (28/45/90), I cannot confirm focussing issues. Even the 90mm lens works. What I see is, that using the single center AF field is not that difficult to use if you have used single center AF fields with other cameras (like the Yashica T5). You simply need to know how and where to place the AF field.

    To me the ‘most’ annoying issue is the small viewfinder window on the G1 … but also here, you can get used to it as long as you know how to look through (i.e. how to place your eye on it).

  • “the Contax G1 is the best 35mm luxury camera one can buy on today’s market. ”

    Of course what you meant to say was the Porsche designed, titanium clad Rollei QZ35W and T kameras. Leica quality lens (I’ve compared directly to my 28 Asph), full auto and manual controls including shutter speeds from 16 secs to 1/8000… the cute G1 only goes to 1/2000 on manual?

    Surprised you haven’t tested one yet…

  • I have a collection of about two dozen different classic cameras that I use regularly and blog about, one of which is the Contax RX SLR, which I love shooting. I have always been tempted by the G1 or G2, but there are numerous posts here and there online about the lack of available service should one fail. And apparently the electronics do fail in these cameras. My RX and 50/1.7 Planar costs under $500 and as far as I know, there is nowhere to get it fixed should this lovely camera fail. How dependable are these cameras and are their techs out there who can fix them or have access to parts? There are numerous places to get a Leica repaired and even Pentax Spotmatics and Nikon FE2s. Does someone work on Contax or when your G1 or G2 fails, do you just go looking for another body.

    • Hey there! I would say first off that the cases of the G1 or G2 failing outright are fewer than might be stated around the Internet. Second, there are still servicers that will repair electronic Contax cameras. For instance: Nippon Photoclinic (NY, USA), Protech Repair (UK), Sendean Cameras (UK), Tritech Service (DE), JCH/Bellamy Hunt (JP), and I’m sure there may be others that I’m unaware of.

      Don’t be too scared to pick one up! Plus, it might actually be cheaper to just buy another G1 body if your first G1 fails you.

  • My understanding is the G1 & G2 are getting a bit difficult to service now, but on the other hand my favourite, the 139Q, is still quite easy to get repaired…..

  • Excellent lenses and build quality, fatally flawed focussing system. A shame!

    • Fatally flawed how? As I mentioned, I essentially never miss focus on my 45 and many find success with the 28, which I admittedly haven’t tried!

  • Yoël Perlberger May 3, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Hello, do you have any idea where I could find the G1 pamphlet about hints for focusing the lens? Maybe an online version? Thanks!

  • I recently decided to return to 35mm film photography for the first time in 22 years.
    All of my previous camera’s were Yashica and then Contax’s.
    I opted for a Green label G1 body coupled to a Zeiss Biogon 28mm lens.
    Here are a few thoughts regarding my ‘new’ quarter of a century old Contax G1.
    The camera is at least 40 % heavier and 20% larger than my digital Lumix LX100. It’s also feels heavier than my old Contax137MA. This is good because I find it easier to hold a heavy camera steady..
    Firstly I downloaded the user manual. I wish owners would read how to operate a machine before they write scathing comments and You Tube reviews !
    Initially I tested the camera without film. Everything responded as it should.
    I then decided to run 24 test exposures quickly through the camera to ensure everything was OK.
    These images were taken in various combinations of light and aperture settings.
    23 out of the 25 negatives were focused and exposed correctly. 2 failures were ‘user error’.
    Viewfinder. Why so many complaints ? Mine is bright and clear. The focusing brackets are easy to see and the yellow highlighted focus distance and shutter speed info is very clear and doesn’t distract from composition. However one of my discarded negs was due to me thinking 5 meant 1/5th second but was really 5 seconds – You live and learn.
    The flash gun lit the room very evenly and predictably.
    It’s often said that the camera shutter sometimes ‘sticks’. However It only does this if it’s been unable to find focus ( usually because the lens cap is still on ). It is saving a wasted picture.

    Focusing. It is of course necessary to be sure that the focusing windows are 100% clean and most importantly that ‘ focusing tips ‘ have been digested and fully understood from the user manual.

    Removing a G series lens.
    Before pressing the release button and turning the lens anti clockwise it is necessary to set the aperture at any stop between F8 – F22. Less than F8 and it won’t release.
    I read this in a camera test report but the user manual doesn’t seem to mention it – but it is true.
    My shooting routine is firstly to select the required aperture on the lens.
    Then determine the desired exposure and lock it with the well positioned AE lock
    Then check that the focus distance shown in the yellow viewfinder LCD coincides with my own guesstimate. Lock focus, compose and shoot.
    I’m not convinced that this takes any longer than manually focusing an SLR.
    It is of course quite possible that the viewfinder and focusing might present some difficulty with the 90mm lens.
    Nobody buys a rangefinder style camera to take action pictures in poor light. Most of my own photographic needs are met with the G1.
    I find the G1 a beautifully engineered and well balanced camera attached to an exceptionally fine and very sharp lens.
    This early Popular Photographer G1 ‘rave’ test is worth reading. They didn’t find much to complain about and wondered why it was so cheap !
    It’s very comprehensive and more useful than the Contax official users manual. However it takes a lot of scrolling to find the correct out of sync pages.

    • Thanks for your clear testimony about the G1’s focusing accuracy, Richard! I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

  • Have had many G1 and G2 over the years, the truth is that they are great if the user spends time to learn how to use them and focus them properly.

    I too prefer the G1 to the heavier/larger G2.

    The primary issue IMHO is the viewfinder with its very narrow exit pupil. The G2 has an improved exit pupil (wider) so it’s easier to seamlessly pull the camera up to your eye and see what the camera is pointed at. The G1 takes a bit of practice to develop the ‘feel’ of precisely where the camera should be located in order to place the exit pupil exactly in front of the eye, without having to think about the process.

    If the eye is even slightly outside this narrow viewing angle, the viewfinder will be less than optimal.

    Practice with this photographic instrument like one would with a guitar or other musical instrument. Don’t try to have the camera bend to your whims of how it should operate; instead, learn what it wants.

  • It’s lovely to see someone so in love with the G1.However, as a G2 user with precious little experience with the G1, i don’t find the arguments compelling enough. If I decide to make a heads on with the G1, being a G2 user, I will find the same amount of flaws in favor of the G2. I do agree that the G1 is an excellent proposition at a very fair price. For the price of am Mju Ii we can have a proper camera with a magnificent lens.

    Just one precision, the dreadful manual focus mode of the G2 gives the distance indication in cm in the top LCD, you don’t have to look in the viewfinder. Cheers.

  • My wife’s contax g1 with 45mm and my leica m6 with cron 35/2 v4

    Love both the cameras, I was shocked with the build quality of the contax and the lens when saw them for the first time! That’s a real gem for the money, I afraid that this article is going to make the contax g1 far more expensive, lol 🙂

    And, btw, those who say that it’s a pice of cace focusing 90mm lens with any manual focus camera never tried shooting the luxury Mamiya 7 with 150mm lens (85 equivalent).

    Great Article!.

  • Cool thanks, great write up. I’m so getting one of these!

  • This is my favourite ever 35mm film camera, and I have owned quite a few. If Kyocera brought out a digital body to go with these lenses, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

  • I remember going to the camera store (remember those?) around 1994 to check this camera out when it was introduced. I was generally favorably impressed but did not buy one because of the price and the fact that I could not justify buying into a rangefinder system when I was happy using my SLRs. Also, the camera was maybe just a little too much like a point and shoot camera with interchangeable lenses for my taste. It does bring back memories of the excitement back in the day when new cameras were introduced. The world has changed so much in so little time.

  • I own two G1 cameras. I got one camera with the trio (28-45-90). The lenses are superb. I later on purchased a second 45/2 that someone modified into a RF coupled M mount lens that I use with my M cameras. I also bought a Hologon 16/8 in G mount that DAG converted to M mount. It does not have any focusing needs, of course.

  • Alyssa Sullivan April 2, 2021 at 8:46 am

    I have the G1 and 45mm planar lens. I got 7 rolls of film developed and not one of them was focused properly! I had my aperture wide open and was shooting inside with portra 800 and in all of my shots the background was more in focus and my subject was blurred. Is this a camera lens that just shouldn’t go below f4? I was focusing in the spot I wanted and focus locking as the manual says and they still all turned out blurred. I also get a lot of camera shake as well, if anyone has any advice I would appreciate it!

  • Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne May 13, 2021 at 8:51 pm

    This is by far the best article on the G1 that I have ever read – I’ve had it bookmarked since I came across it in early 2020 and I return to it time again for inspiration as well as information.

    I own FOUR (yes, that’s right, four!) G1s, two I bought new when they first came out and I was younger and had the credit rating to afford them, and another two in the late ’00s when film camera prices went down the gurgler and wonderful gear like the G1s were available dirtly-cheaply. We hear so much bad-mouthing about the shonky focusing on some G lenses and the prone-to-fail electronics, but in my case my quartet has functioned as intended all the time I’ve had them. One (my #2 camera) stopped autowinding in 2005 or 2006 and my repair center in Melbourne advised it couldn’t be repaired (no spare parts were available at least in Australia), but I tinkered a bit with it and discovered I could get my films to rewind by pressing the small rewind button on the bottom plate with a toothpick. About a year later the problem magically fixed itself and #2 now rewinds automatically like its three brothers (or sisters if you prefer).

    For all our complaints (I have my share of them) we G1 users accept the fact that it is a quirky camera with its own personality and unique ways of going about doing what it does which in my case it (or they) have/have always done entirely to my satisfaction. The 28/2.8 Biogon lives on my #1 and the 45/2.0 Planar on my #2 (#s 3-4 are backups but get used every few months to keep them flexible and remind them they are still loved). I have a roll of TMax 100 in each and rereading this article reminds me I should go out soon to finish them and then mix up a batch of Thornton’s two bath developer at home to process those images as well as two rolls of 120 FP4 from my Rolleiflex T.

    Come to think of it there is also an unfinished roll in the Rollei and I must see to finishing that as well. But the article and this comment are not about Rolleis so I will say no more, altho’ I do find myself wondering, how many G1 owners also have fine German cameras like Rolleis, Leica and other Contax gear in their arsenals? After all, owning a G1 is about good picture-making but also about using and enjoying fine photo-making equipment.

  • You nailed it with this review. I bought my G1 new in 1995 (saved up for it with my first earnings) because I simply had to have this camera. Never regretted it since.
    The Planar is stunning, even better than the Planar 1.4/50 (which is also remarkable in its own right as noted by others).
    The other G-lenses are great as well though, the Biogons, and my experience with the Sonnar 90mm is much more positive. Provided ther’s just enough contrast for the AF system it delivers stunning images. And Zeiss painstakingly matched the optical caracteristics of the G lenses. Which I appreciated a lot when back in the day the G1 became my favorite system for diapositive photography.
    Greetings JS Van Dessel

Leave a Reply

Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers is a former high school teacher and current master's student at Harvard University. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts with his wife and their perfect dog. Outside of teaching, reading, and writing, Drew spends most of his time listening to indie rock. He is happy when photographing.

All stories by:Drew Chambers