For many photographers, the perfect film camera is the all-mechanical, compact, single lens reflex, and within this very specific class of camera there are some which have become legendary. The Olympus OM1, the Leica R6, the Nikon FM3a. These cameras are usually discussed in equal parts awed whisper and histrionic hyperventilation. And they deserve it. They’re great cameras. To this pantheon we may add another – the Contax S2.
The Contax S2 is a nearly perfect expression of the form. It has a titanium skin. It has a superb mechanical shutter. It’s fully manual with convenient light meter assistance. It works without batteries. And it’s able to mount a suite of excellent Carl Zeiss lenses (or alternatively affordable versions from Yashica).
I spent a couple of weeks shooting the Contax S2 earlier in the summer. By the end of my time with it I was convinced that the S2 belongs in the same conversations with those other, much better-known all-mechanical all-manual masterpieces. Though it’s not the sort of camera that I would personally want, I recognize it as the equal of the best mechanical manual SLRs that I’ve used and reviewed.
Specifications of the Contax S2
- Camera Type : 35mm Film, Single Lens Reflex
- Lens Mount : Contax/Yashica Mount
- Shutter : Manual mechanical focal plane shutter, vertically traveling, metal
- Shutter Speeds : 1/4000th second to 1 second; Bulb mode for long exposures
- Exposure Modes : Manual with light meter assistance
- Light Meter : Spot meter EV4 to EV20 (ISO 100 f/1.4) via Silicon photo diode cell
- Film Speed Range : ISO 12 to 6400
- Viewfinder : Fixed eye-level pentaprism, 0.82x magnification and 95% image area (with 50mm lens); Interchangeable focusing screens
- Viewfinder Information : LEDs for light meter reading, flash indicator, over- and under-exposure warning and shutter speed display
- Focusing : Manual focus only
- Film Transport : Manual film advance and rewind, automatic film frame counter
- Power Supply : 2x 1.5v LR44 battery
- Dimensions / Weight : 134 x 89 x 50mm / 560 grams
- Other Features : Self timer; Shutter release cable socket; Shutter release lock; VF diopter adjustment
What is the Contax S2
For those who detest spec sheets and would rather have the essence of the camera presented in a few easily digestible paragraphs, allow me.
The Contax S2 was designed to be a refined 35mm film SLR camera, presented in a premium package. It was manufactured by Kyocera in Japan (Kyocera had acquired Yashica in 1983, another Japanese camera company that had been licensing the Contax name from Zeiss since 1973). First sold in 1992, it offered photographers of its day a no-frills (yet high quality) all-mechanical, all-manual camera on which to mount Zeiss’ world-renowned manual focus lenses.
The S2 was a basic camera. A big, bright viewfinder, an obvious control layout, a robust and durable body with titanium top and bottom plates, and nothing unnecessary to the creation of exposed frames of film, it was a true photographers’ tool.
Its most interesting feature was its light meter, which was unusual in that it was a spot meter. Spot meters take their light readings from one specific point within the image area. This allows for very accurate metering (of a very specific area of the image), and in an experienced photographer’s hands, the spot meter is a precision tool. In an amateur’s hands, however, the spot meter can pose a problem.
In photos in which there are very dark and very light areas, say when shooting a subject with the sun positioned behind them, a spot meter might expose for the shadows on the subject and create a photo that is totally over-whelmed by the backlit sun and background. Or, the opposite might happen. If the spot meter registers the extreme light in the background, it might cause drastic under-exposure of the subject in the foreground.
The center-weighted meters or averaging meters that most camera manufacturers preferred to put into their cameras are more user-friendly and, on the whole, will make more accurate shots for the average photographer. This is because they take a broader sample of the light in a larger portion of the image area and average the reading so that most highlights and shadows will be properly exposed.
Many other 35mm SLRs offered spot meters as well, but most of them include the spot meter as a secondary system to complement their primary metering mode. Cameras like the Leica R6.2 and models within Olympus’ OM line do this beautifully. The Contax S2, on the other hand, offered a spot meter and nothing else.
Perhaps acknowledging the learning curve demanded by their chosen metering system, just two years after the S2 debuted Contax released an updated model, the Contax S2b. The S2b replaced the S2’s spot meter with the more familiar center-weighted meter. This is the version that I’d buy, were I making the decision between the two cameras (though it costs about $300 more than the original). The S2b was sold concurrently with the S2 until the year 2000, when both models were discontinued.
The Contax S2 is a deceptive camera. It’s fancy, with its titanium skin and its refined controls and its professional persona, but it’s also one of the most basic film cameras available today. Like a Minolta SRT or a Pentax K1000, it offers nothing more than is necessary to shoot a photo. It is the quintessential “light tight box” and very little more. Admittedly, this is an over-simplification – the Contax’s shutter, topping out at 1/4000th of a second, is more advanced than most basic cameras, and its light meter (as mentioned) is highly specialized.
But the camera’s overall simplicity means that people who know what they’re doing with a camera will pick up the S2 and instantly know what to do. We look at the manually adjustable ISO dial and understand that we need to set our ISO, and that we can also easily shoot with makeshift exposure compensation or shoot under- or over-exposed to push/pull process in development. We see the shutter speed dial, with its color coded denotation at 1/250th of a second, and understand that that’s our flash sync speed. We look through the viewfinder and see the split-image focusing patch with micro-prism surround and instantly know how to focus. We see the light meter readout LEDs and dial our exposures to suit. And we see the depth-of-field preview plunger and, uh, know that we’ll never touch it.
I used the Contax S2 during two day trips earlier in the summer. The first trip was a scenic drive to Maine’s rocky coast, the second a summer day in Boston’s North End. In both instances I loaded the camera with Rollei Retro 80s, a fine grained, low sensitivity panchromatic black and white film.
Slow films tend to be trickier to use than mid-speed films, and low ISO films tend to require more precise exposure, so I figured that this film would be a good test of the camera’s spot metering system. And it was. In numerous instances I recognized that the meter was being a bit too precious, and adjusted my shutter speed accordingly. In most cases, I got it right. In other shots I made mistakes (or the meter did) and the photos were under- or over-exposed. In these instances I know that a more advanced camera would have done the job – something like a Minolta a7, or a Canon EOS in any model.
Still, the Contax S2 was fun to use. When I reviewed the Canon AE-1 way back in 2014 I called that camera “the quintessential ‘old camera'” and I say the same about the Contax S2. At least in ergonomics and style, it looks, feels, and behaves like an old camera. It fits well in the hands, balances nicely, and exudes that quality of old timey workmanship that we camera nerds love.
The metal body is cool to the touch, reminding us always that we’re holding something made out of titanium, the material with the highest strength-to-density ratio of any metallic element. The controls are finely finished, with deep knurling and large diameter knobs. The leather body covering is soft and supple, and while it’s a bit too cute for my taste (I prefer the more industrial and textured grip materials of other cameras), I can see some photographers loving the luxurious feel.
The lenses that I used during my time with the Contax S2 were two that I’ve previously used extensively; the Carl Zeiss 50mm F/1.4 Planar and the Carl Zeiss Tessar 45mm F/2.8 Pancake. Both of these lenses are amazing. They’re superbly built and create excellent and very characteristic images. The 50mm creates amazing bokeh. The 45mm combines with the camera to create a truly tiny 35mm SLR machine, perfect for travel and for day trips. But we won’t discuss the lenses further. Today’s article is about the camera, and since this camera is an interchangeable lens camera, the image quality that I got from these lenses is not very important for the purposes of today’s writing.
I will, at least, be sure to mention that any buyer who uses the S2 will be satisfied with the lenses that are available for the Contax/Yashica system cameras. Under the Zeiss umbrella we find prime lenses from 15mm to 1000mm focal lengths, and within the Yashica range (the more affordable lens lineup for this mount) we find a similar range of prime lenses, as well as a full suite of zoom lenses.
Strength as Weakness
The Contax S2 isn’t perfect. While its flaws are few and unlikely to chill the blood of photographers lusting for the S2, other would-be buyers might balk.
To start, it’s expensive. Over the past six month period, the average selling price for a used Contax S2 on eBay (at time of writing) was $447 (body only). Buyers looking for an unblemished example should expect to pay ten percent more. While this price isn’t unreasonable for a specialized and extremely fine film camera, some photographers would argue otherwise (and they’d have a strong argument).
Consider that the Contax S2, while desirable and fancy, is a fundamentally simple camera. By the specs, it doesn’t really offer much more than what a buyer would get for a $50 Minolta SRT. An Olympus OM1 body costs approximately $75.
Next, the light meter of the S2 could be a strike against it. The S2 has a spot meter, as opposed to the more forgiving center-weighted meters or average meters found in similar cameras. While a spot meter is desirable for some photographers, it’s more likely to shove a stick in the spokes of the average amateur photographer shooting film today. Even I, an extremely talented and nearly perfect photographer who never makes mistakes, was occasionally joked upon by the S2’s precise (stupid) meter.
And then there’s the lenses. While the Contax S2 can mount some truly amazing lenses, they don’t come cheap. The Zeiss range of Contax/Yashica Mount lenses often cost as much as the camera. Some speciality lenses for the S2 actually cost double what the camera does. While this is pretty typical in photography, and has been for decades, it’s less typical in the budget-friendly film camera space. We can opt for the less expensive Yashica lenses in C/Y Mount, but who wants to shoot a Contax and forego the luxurious Zeiss branding? That’s another conundrum that pales the glimmer of the S2 (just a bit).
Lastly, the Contax S2 is an all-mechanical all-manual camera. No aperture-priority, no shutter-priority, no auto mode, no auto-focus, no automatic film advance or rewind. It’s got nothing. And while much of this review has lauded the camera’s lack of frills as a benefit, it could easily be argued that it’s a liability. A fully-equipped SLR from the era of auto-everything costs $40 and will take as-good or better pictures (and here’s the important part) with a higher hit rate.
I’ve approached the Contax S2 through the prism of a photographer who likes manual cameras. I’ve suspended my personal preference to do so. I personally dislike shooting in manual mode. I find it to be pointless. I’d rather pick a camera that meters perfectly in aperture-priority mode, and then simply let the camera do the math of exposure while I concentrate on composition, depth-of-field, focus, and living the moment that I’m photographing. If you’re like me, you probably won’t prefer the $400 Contax S2 over a $100 Minolta X700.
I’ve sub-headed this section of the review intentionally – Strengths as Weakness. The Contax has weaknesses, as do all cameras. But each of these flaws could be countered if we simply adopt the opposite view, and neither perspective would be wrong.
It’s an expensive camera. A bad thing when we buy. But it’s an expensive camera. A good thing when we sell!
Its light meter is too specialized. Bad when we’re not paying attention. But the same meter allows precision in the right hands. Good!
The lenses are pricey. Bad, again, when we buy. But good when we sell, and even better when we can further adapt them to our digital camera!
It lacks advanced shooting modes and electronics. Bad. But it won’t die in the field or complicate the day’s shooting, or overrule our own artistic vision, and it’ll be infinitely repairable. See? All of that is good.
Inevitably, the strength and weakness of the Contax S2 will be judged by the individual photo geek. Choose your side.
The Contax S2 is a great camera. It deserves to be among the legendary cameras that are frequently discussed whenever and wherever people gush about all-mechanical, all-manual, no frills classic cameras like the FM3a and the Leica R6. Solid, reliable, and focused, it’s a camera for people who want to make photographs as much with their mind as with their eyes.
While I personally would prefer a more automated machine, as I’ve mentioned in many of my articles covering these sorts of bare-bones classic cameras, I can totally understand why the Contax S2 (and cameras like it) are the be-all, end-all for a whole subset of film photographers today.
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