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Contax 645 AF / Digital


Contax 645 with Kodak DCS Pro Back 645
MP-1 Battery Grip and 80mm f/2 Planar Lens

A Medium Format Camera as Digital Platform

The first 30 minutes with a new camera are for me the most telling. Things which later become familiar and routine are fresh and sometimes confusing. But it's during this initial familiarization period that one discovers what works and what doesn't, and one develops a sense of how well the camera will suit ones needs. In the case of the Contax 645 I knew right away that I had found a tool with which I would be comfortable and productive.

This is a review of the Contax 645. But not a traditional review. The camera has been on the market for some 4 years and is now well establish among both pros and serious amateurs alike. But the world of film is fading fast, so why review a film camera? The answer is because though medium format film has been eclipsed of late by high-end 35mm digital, there are several medium format digital backs of 16-22 Megapixels coming to market that are reasserting medium format's superiority. I decided that the Contax 645 would be the platform that I would use to investigate these exciting new developments.


Toronto Harbour Sunrise — July, 2003
Contax 645 with 80mm f/2 Planar and Kodak DCS Pro Back @ ISO 100

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Medium Format Redux

I have been using my digital Canon 1Ds almost exclusively for the past 10 months (since November 2002). So why would I buy another medium format film camera? After all, I am the guy that said that the 1Ds was as good as medium format scanned film, and who consequently sold his Pentax 67 and Pentax 645 systems in later 2002.

Yup, that's me. And no, there's nothing wrong with the 1Ds. Some 9,000 frames later I still find it a joy to use, and have produced some extremely fine exhibition-grade images with it. And yes, it's still in my experience able to produce the equal of scanned medium format film. But there's a lot going on in the world of medium format digital backs. The same considerations that have historically permitted medium format to be able to produce higher quality images than 35mm are coming into play again. For the same pixel dimension a 4.5 X 6 cm imaging area will always trump a 2.4 X 3.6 cm imaging area. All that needs to happen is for the portability of MF digital systems to become less problematic and for prices to become more affordable. Inevitable.

I had sold my Pentax 67 and 645 systems when I switched to the Canon 1Ds because they didn't offer a migration path to digital. Neither can take interchangeable backs, and therefore aren't adaptable to digital. I knew though that eventually I would return to medium format, and in the second half of 2003 decided that it was time to explore some of the new medium format digital back offerings. As I was doing so I discovered that none of the traditional photography magazines nor any of the photography web sites covered medium format digital in any depth, so clearly there was an unmet need. I decided to fill it. Therefore I began a series of reviews of most of the available medium format digital backs available. My overview survey of the field can be found here and links to the digital back reviews are found at the bottom of that page as they become available.

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Which One to Buy?

So, which medium format system would it be? 645 is where the action is; where the latest technology is being developed and brought to market. It will also likely be some time until we have full coverage digital imaging sensors for 6X6cm and 6X7cm. You think full-frame 35mm is big and expensive? Medium format sensors are currently monstrous by comparison. We are just at the point now where sensors are reaching 645 format size, with monstrous prices to match (>< $30,000). Also, 645 cameras are smaller and lighter than 6X6 and certainly more field-use-friendly than 6X7. 645 it would be, But which one?

I had owned and used a Mamiya 645 system briefly in the early '90s and enjoyed it. I found Mamiya lenses to be first rate. I had also tested the Contax 645 when it first came out, and had been impressed, though I'd never shot with one extensively. When the Hasselblad H1 was announced in New York in late October, 2002 I was at the press launch event and spent a day shooting with one and talking with the factory engineers. So, I had some previous exposure to all three systems.

Here's the decision matrix that I put together, looking at price as a major determinant. The prices are those that were available in July, 2003 from online vendor Harry's Pro Shop. Brian, the company's owner, is a friend and a gentleman. His prices on most products are typically competitive with anywhere in the world, (especially so on Mamiya) and his service is first-rate. In any event, the prices below are converted to U.S. dollars from those shown on the site in Canadian dollars, and have been rounded to the nearest ten dollars. (You'll have to check for current prices both there and elsewhere).

Contax 645 Kit Complete:
(Body, 80mm lens, MFB-1 Back, MFB-1A Insert,
AE prism)

$3,050
Hasselblad H1 Kit
(Body, 80mm lens, 120/220 Mag, Motor Grip, Viewfinder HV90x)
$ 6,100
Mamiya 645 AFD KIT Complete
(AFD Body, 80mm lens, Prism, Motor, Mag)

$2,770
35mm 3.5 T* Distagon (IF) AF
$1,670
35mm f3.5
$2,900
35mm 3.5 AF
$980
210mm 4 T* Sonnar (IF)
$1,550
210mm
TBA
210mm 4.5 ULD IF AF
$1,100
Total
$6,270
$9,000 before including a 210mm lens
$4,850

What this exercise showed me was that of the three possible contenders, Hasselblad disqualified itself for two reasons. One was price. The body kit alone (body, 80mm lens and meter prism) was double the price of either of the other two available choices. And, the third lens that I wanted, the 210mm, isn't even shipping yet — nearly a year after introduction of the system. While my test of the H1 a year before had shown it to be a very fine camera, this price differential is simply unacceptable, regardless of what small advantages some of its more advanced digital interface features have to offer.

The Mamiya was appealing, especially with its price advantage. But the Contax was the winner, and is what I ended up purchasing. It has great operational features, superb build quality, and a range of terrific Zeiss lenses. Though I know it to be a solid workhorse, the Mamiya by comparison feels a bit plasticy, and doesn't have a removable prism, something that I figured might one day be found wanting. The only downside to the Contax 645 was its reputation for being heavy on battery consumption. Not a big issue — especially with the optional MP-1 battery grip. Oh yah, did I mentioned those terrific Zeiss lenses?


Trees and Bog, Muskoka — August, 2003
Contax 645 with 210mm f/4 Sonnar and Kodak DCS Pro Back @ ISO 100

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First Impressions

My initial attitude toward the Contax 645 may well be coloured by the fact that in the '80s I owned a Contax RTS III 35mm system. The 645 is from the same mold. The unique and somewhat idiosyncratic Contax approach to user interface is almost identical between these cameras. So is the all-of-a-piece build quality.

Though it has almost every high-tech feature that one could want this is no plastic built-to-a-price wonder. It exudes quality. There are no LCD panels and no modal buttons. Knobs and switches are solid and have definite detents and click stops. Even the eyepiece diopter adjustment has click stops!

Lenses have real click-stopped aperture rings and there is also a traditional shutter speed dial. But, if the camera is set to Aperture Priority (AV) mode the shutter speeds are set automatically, regardless of the setting on the dial, and similarly when in Shutter Priority mode (TV) the aperture set is also set automatically. Wonder or wonders, there are real live depth-of-field scales on each lens. Being Zeiss glass, even though they are autofocus they have full manual focus capability, overriding autofocus if you will with no buttons to press for override, and the feel is silky smooth. No other line of autofocus lenses I've ever seen has this traditional feel.

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The Devil is in The Details

Not that a single one of these items contributes to image quality, but they sure do tell you something about the design philosophy that went into the Contax and they are a tactile pleasure to use.

— The neck strap lugs have a locking mechanism, and also have a position stop so that the strap won't turn through 180 degrees. These prevents the strap from accidentally coming loose or from becoming twisted.

— Lens hoods are metal. They also are designed so that if the lens is placed on a flat surface lens hood face down the lens won't tip or wobble the way many hoods do because of their cut-outs.

— Though the camera has a socket for an electronic cable release it also has one for a traditional cable release. This is used to hold the shutter open in B mode, allowing exposures of unlimited length without battery drain. Unusual for a camera with an electronic shutter.

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It's Mechanical. No, it's Electronic

I've been in the game for a long time. When I began my career TTL metering was had just been invented. Most camera still had manual pre-set aperture rings and instant return mirrors were a rarity. The LCD hadn't been invented yet and autofocus was science fiction.

While today I'm completely comfortable with totally electronic, modal, LCD-equiped, button-dominated cameras I also have appreciation for the way things used to be, and apparently so does Contax. Though the Contax 645 has every modern electronic convenience known, it also is in many ways a traditionalist's camera, and I greatly appreciate this. The lenses have real aperture rings, and fat knurled focusing rings even though there is autofocus and autoexposure. There is also a real honest-to-goodness shutter speed knob. And there isn't an LCD screen in sight. Am I repeating myself? Yes, because I find these attributes to be of great merit.

If you're new to photography, and want to see how high-end German and Japanese cameras and lenses were designed before polycarbonates and build-to-a-price cost cutting, have a look at a Contax 645. And, since there likely won't ever be another generation of top-end film-based cameras — ever — the Contax 645 may in fact be among the last of a vanishing breed.


Dragonfly — August, 2003
Contax 645 with 210mm f/4 Sonnar and Kodak DCS Pro Back @ ISO 100

100% Detail of reflection

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Autofocus

This is not the autofocus that you may have become familiar with from 35mm cameras. It's slow. In fact, it's really slow. But, who cares? The Contax's Zeiss lenses have metal barrels and silky-smooth focusing rings. And did I mention the real aperture rings and depth of field scales? OK. Autofocus is slow. But given the type of shooting typically done with an MF camera, I can live with it.

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It Comes Apart

The beauty of a medium format camera like the Contax 645 is that it is completely modular. The lenses are interchangeable (of course), and the film back can be removed and replaced with a digital back (or a unique film back with a vacuum effect to keep the film absolutely flat). But the viewfinder can also be removed and replaced with a waist-level finder. This is the strength of medium format — its modularity.

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MP-1 Battery Grip

Since its introduction the Contax 645 has been criticized for its heavy battery drain and use of expensive 2CR5 lithium batteries. The battery concern is valid, but there's a simple solution in the form of the MP-1 battery holder. This replaces the usual grip and allows regular AA batteries and a 2CR5 to be onboard at the same time. A small switch allows changing from one to the other. You can also use NiCad or NMiH rechargeable AA batteries as well as alkalines.

This is what I do (use NMiH rechargeables), since it reduces battery costs to essentially zero. If they run down while on location I can flip a switch and work with the 2CR5. And if needs be I can drop into almost any store in the world and buy regular disposable alkaline AAs. The MP-1 also provides a vertical shutter release, but when shooting with the Kodak DCS Pro back, which is square, this isn't of much use, though it is when shooting full-frame 645 film.

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Lenses

The Contax 645 has a comprehensive line of available lenses. Not as large as some lines, but covering all of the major required focal length. All are autofocus, with the exception of one, which I'll have more to say about a bit further on. As of late summer, 2003, the line consists of a 35mm f/3.5, 45mm f/2.8, 80mm f/2, 120mm f/4 Makro, 140mm f/2.8, 210mm f/4, 350mm f/4 and a 45mm-90mm 4.5 zoom. A 1.4 Mutar (extender) is also available.


Deserted Distillery — September, 2003
Contax 645 with 35mm f/3.5 Distagon
and Kodak DCS Pro Back 645 @ ISO100

If you compare this line up to that from other medium format systems you'll notice that several of the lenses are a half to a full stop faster than what one usually finds.

The lenses that I chose for my kit were the...

35mm f/3.5 Distagon

80mm f/2 Planar

120mm f/4 Apo-Makro Planar

210mm f/4 Sonnar

1.4X Mutar

The 350mm f/4 Tele-Apotessar is also tempting, but I'll stick with my Canon 1Ds system for really long-lens wildlife work.

It's probably not worth detailing the features of each of these Contax lenses, and frankly I'm still very much just getting to know their individual characteristics and idiosyncrasies. But as someone who has a passion for fine lenses I can say confidently that there isn't a collection of lenses anywhere, from any manufacturer, that produces images of as uniformly high quality as these. (Well, maybe the Schneider line for the Rollei 6008, though it isn't as comprehensive).

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The Apo-Makro Planar

There are lenses, there are great lenses, and then there are legends. The Leica 135mm f/3.4 Apo-Telyt M and the Leica APO Macro Elmarit R 100mm f2.8 are two that I'm familiar with that are in a different league than even other lenses from that great lens maker. In the Zeiss line the 120mm f/4 Apo-Makro Planar is such a lens. I have heard from some ardent Contax owners that this lens was reason enough for them to buy a Contax 645.

I wouldn't go that far, but my early experience with this lens is that it offers resolution and micro-contrast at a level that I've rarely seen before. There is a dimensionality to images produced with this lens that I've rarely seen.


Grasshopper — August, 2003
Contax 645 with 120mm f/4 Apo-Makro Planar
and Kodak DCS Pro Back @ ISO 400

It is also the one non-autofocus lens in the Contax line-up. The reason for this is the complexity of its mechanical design, since there is a very long helical thread which allows the lens to focus from infinity down to 1:1 without the need for extension tubes. Viewfinder focus confirmation is of course available.

This is a real Apochromatic lens. Though many manufacturers bandy the term about for marketing effect, this is the real deal. There is no colour fringing whatsoever, and this likely contributes to the remarkable resolution. In fact, this lens design is similar to that for the Zeiss Planar S, a lens used in photolithography during the manufacture of microchips, where extreme resolution and contrast is the order of the day.

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The Digital Hybrid

We're at an interesting point in the digital photography revolution. We have camera makers like Canon and Nikon producing digital SLRs. We have consumer electronic companies, such as Sony and Panasonic, producing digicams of increasing sophistication. Medium format camera makers (with the upcoming exception of Fujifilm) have neither the market size nor the resources to build digital backs, and so this is being left to specialty manufacturers. For this reason, the medium format digital solution is a hybrid, able to work as a film and digital camera.

The Hasselblad H1 has a higher level of digital integration than earlier cameras, but is hindered by unrealistic pricing and slow lens introduction. Hopefully both will be addressed over time. That leaves the Mamiya 645 AFD and Contax 645. Both are excellent choices and will allow photographers to explore the frontier of medium digital digital photography for some years to come, because as new digital backs become available all of these cameras will be able to avail themselves of them, with the only limitation being the level of cooperation available from ones bank manager.

At the end of the day my medium format camera system choice ended up being the Contax, and after evaluating several medium format backs to mate with it my choice in that area turned out to be the Kodak DCS Proback 645, for reasons of price, portability and image quality. But I will also be using the Contax to test and report on future MF digital backs as they become available.

These are indeed exciting times.

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In The Field

In early October 2003 I used the Contax / Kodak DCS Pro Back combination on a major shooting trip for the first time. In my write-up titled The Canadian Rockies I feature images from that shoot as well as well as a detailed report on my field experience with this equipment.

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Concepts: Single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Photographic lens, Large format, Medium format, Hasselblad, Digital camera, Photography

Entities: New York, Contax 645, Canon, Pentax, Kodak, MF digital systems, Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Sony, Nikon, Panasonic, U.S., Harry's Pro Shop, Autofocus, LCD screen, Michael Reichmann, a friend, Knobs, Hasselblad H1, TV, Leica APO, SLRs

Tags: medium format, Contax, camera, digital, digital backs, medium format digital, medium format film, format digital backs, medium format camera, aperture rings, autofocus, contax 645 kit, 35mm, Zeiss lenses, terrific zeiss lenses, shutter speed, Pentax 645 systems, Kodak DCS, Mamiya, real aperture rings, Apo-Makro Planar, images, Contax RTS III, mamiya 645 afd, cm imaging area, lens hood, Contax lenses, idiosyncratic contax approach, full-frame 645 film, ardent contax owners, Contax line-up, film camera, format film camera, Medium format sensors, Canon 1Ds, camera makers, high-end 35mm digital, Hasselblad H1, available medium format, new medium format