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Contax G: A Brief Overview

Introduction

The Contax G hybrid rangefinder system is truly unique in the analog world. No other camera can claim the same level of quality, versatility, and technology. Kyocera spared no expense when building this camera, and it delivers an uncompromising experience and unparalleled image quality in 35mm.

Let’s let Nico and Nuno go over the system. Keep reading for more info!

History

In 1994, Contax and Yashica were hurting. Yashica’s line of autofocus SLRs came out too late and flopped in comparison to Minolta and Canon’s attempts, and Contax’s hesitance to enter the autofocus world left them far behind their competition. 

For example, 1996’s Contax AX attempted to move the film plane to achieve focus instead of the lens. It did not succeed. It took until 2001 for Contax’s first real autofocus system to debut, and even if they turned this N system into the first full-frame digital camera, it was too little, too late.

Contax and Yashica’s parent company, Kyocera, didn’t like the downward trend their camera companies were on. Both were being outcompeted in their respective markets. Yashica was no longer the cheapest reliable option and Contax no longer embraced bleeding-edge technology. They needed a shake-up.

This shake-up came in the form of the Contax G system. Instead of continuing to compete with SLRs that became more and more advanced by the day, Contax would target a market that had hardly changed much since the 1950s; rangefinders.

Compared to cameras like the Leica M7 or even the Konica Hexar RF, the G system is like a space camera. The G1 released to critical acclaim in 1994 at a price of $2,210, the equivalent of around 3300 Euro in 2021.

The main difference between the G1 and its competitors was autofocus. No other camera claimed to be an autofocus rangefinder. Critics were quick to point out that the G1 is not a “true” rangefinder since it lacks the classic rangefinder patch and ghost image. 

While this is true, the G1 uses a passive autofocus system that triangulates focus distances in exactly the same way as a rangefinder. It’s a similar system to the first autofocus camera ever, the Konica C35 AF, albeit much more complicated and effective in the Contax.

In this system, two separate windows measure the subject’s distance, then use geometry to calculate and rotate the lens to the appropriate distance.

Two years later, Contax revised the camera and created the G2. This camera added an active autofocus system to supplement the passive one, as well as faster shutter speeds and other quality of life improvements.

The G2 also added support for extra lenses, although Contax modified many G1s to accept these lenses as well.

These two cameras remained on sale to a niche market until 2005, when Kyocera halted the production of all Contax and Yashica cameras.

Bodies

Contax G1

  • Dimensions: 133×76.5x35mm
  • Weight: 450g
  • Battery: 2x CR2
  • Body: Champagne-colored titanium, rubberized grip on right side.

Contax released the G1 in 1994 alongside four lenses; the 45mm f2 Planar, 28mm f2.8 Biogon, 90mm f2.8 Sonnar, and the 16mm f8 Hologon.

The G1’s viewfinder zooms itself to match the lens. With the 45mm lens, you get 90% viewfinder coverage. The viewfinder is a 0.59x magnification by default, centered around the widest normal lens for the system, the 28mm Biogon. The viewfinder also automatically corrects for parallax by moving the viewfinder window around.

This system is incredibly complex when compared with more traditional rangefinders, and also comes with  the disadvantage of not being able to see outside of the frame. Being able to see outside of the frame is a big advantage of rangefinders, especially for street photography.

The G1 has a manual focus dial mounted on the top right of the body, and also gives readouts in the viewfinder of the focus distance. An LCD on top of the camera mirrors this readout.

The TLA140 was the G1’s dedicated flash. It works smartly with the computer brain of the G1 to provide excellent fill flash and balanced automatic exposures.

In the years that followed, Contax sold other lenses for the G system. These lenses will not work normally with a G1 unless Contax had modified the body. These bodies are nowadays identifiable from the “green label” moniker. 

Contax G2

  • Dimensions: 139x80x45 mm
  • Weight: 560g
  • Battery: 2x CR2
  • Body: Champagne or black-colored titanium, rubberized grip on right side.

The G2 was exactly the refresh the G system needed. Contax took feedback and test results from the original G1 to improve the formula in almost every way, leaving a camera that dramatically outperforms its predecessor and many of its competitors.

The main differences are in autofocus, compatibility, and shutter speeds.

The autofocus improved, both in speed and competency. By adding an active system using infrared beams, the camera focuses much more quickly at first. The camera can then use the passive, rangefinder-esque system to achieve critical focus. This hybrid system leads the G2 to more correct focuses in all situations.

The G2 also added a continuous focus mode that adjusted the focus as the photographer moved the camera around the scene.

Along with the G2, Contax released two new lenses, the 21mm f2.8 Biogon and the 35mm f2 Planar. Later, a 35-70mm f3.5-5.6 Vario-Sonnar zoom lens came to the lineup. These lenses were not compatible with the G1, requiring a modified G1 to work properly.

The 35-70mm lens in particular is the first true zoom lens available for a rangefinder style camera. This lens will not work on the G1, even if its a green label model.

The G1 had a max shutter speed of 1/2000th. The G2 improves this, moving to 1/4000th. Additionally, the electronic brain of the G2 is able to fire the shutter at 1/6000th when the camera is in aperture priority mode, allowing for more narrow depth of field when the photographer needs it. 

Lenses

All the lenses in the G system are Carl Zeiss designs with the famed T* coatings. Due to the system’s short flange distance of 29mm, lenses are compact and able to be exceptionally sharp. Some consider the G system lenses the sharpest Zeiss lenses ever produced.

The short flange distance also allowed for an adapter to use Contax/Yashica lenses, although much of the automatic functioning of the camera relies on the lenses being autofocus. 

The G lenses can also be adapted to modern systems, as they have the resolving power to take beautiful images even on large, high-powered sensors. Modern adapters exist with built-in focusing helicals, allowing for manual focus use of the G lenses.

Let’s go over the lenses!

16mm f8 Hologon

  • Five elements in three groups.
  • Fixed aperture of f8.
  • Minimum focus: 0.3m
  • Weight: 120g
  • Aperture blades: 0

This lens is famous for being the only manual focus lens for Contax G, and is also a popular lens to convert to Leica M mount. It’s ultra-wide angle and fixed aperture of f8 make focusing almost unnecessary, so autofocus or rangefinder coupling is largely unnecessary.

This lens is one of the most compact and distortion-free ultra-wide angles ever produced.

21mm f2.8 Biogon

  • Nine elements in seven groups
  • Variable aperture from f2.8 to f22.
  • Minimum focus: 0.5m
  • Weight: 200g
  • Aperture blades: 7

Exceptionally sharp lens that offers much of the wide benefits of the 16mm, but with autofocus, TTL metering for flash, and three extra stops of light transmission. The Biogon is sharp from corner to corner, with no distortion.

This lens will only work on G2 cameras or “green label” modified G1 cameras, and requires an external viewfinder for accurate framing.

28mm f2.8 Biogon

  • Seven elements in five groups.
  • Variable aperture from f2.8 to f22.
  • Minimum focus: 0.5m
  • Weight: 150g
  • Aperture Blades: Six

Again, known to be sharp from corner to corner even at f2.8, although this Biogon is known for some light vignetting at f2.8. It’s one of the more common lenses available for the system, and may be the first that someone picks up alongside their body. The 28mm was one of the three original lenses.

35mm f2 Planar

  • Seven elements in five groups.
  • Variable aperture from f2 to f16.
  • Minimum focus: 0.5m
  • Weight: 160g
  • Aperture Blades: 7

This fast normal lens is perhaps the only G lens with any signs of distortion, but is still incredibly sharp from corner to corner. Especially in the center, this Planar is an excellent take-everywhere lens.

This lens will only work on G2 cameras or “green label” modified G1 cameras.

45mm f2 Planar

  • Six elements in four groups.
  • Variable aperture from f2 to f16.
  • Minimum focus: 0.5m
  • Weight: 190g
  • Aperture Blades: 6

This is the standard lens that came with the G1, and one of the most common lenses available for the system. The good news is that it’s great. Very sharp, with great rendition throughout. 45mm is also a great general focus length for everyday shooting.

The lens only has six aperture blades, though, so out of focus highlights take the form of hexagons. It gives the lens character!

90mm f2.8 Sonnar

  • Five elements in four groups.
  • Variable aperture from f2.8 to f22.
  • Minimum focus: 1m
  • Weight: 240g
  • Aperture Blades: 8

This lens is another common option for the G system, and is probably the cheapest lens second-hand. It has developed a bad reputation for inaccurate focusing, but this has more to do with the G1 system and people not understanding how the focusing works than the lens actually performing poorly. 

Under proper conditions, this 90mm Sonnar is one of the sharpest short telephotos ever made.

35-70mm f3.5-5.6 Vario-Sonnar

  • 13 elements in eight groups.
  • Variable aperture, at 35mm from f3.5 to f22 and at 70mm f5.6-22.
  • Minimum focus: 1m
  • Weight: 290g
  • Aperture Blades: 7

This is the only zoom lens ever sold for a rangefinder camera. There are the Konica and Leica multi-focal-length lenses, but this is a true zoom, usable anywhere from 35mm to 70mm. It’s one of the least common lenses for the system, and generally isn’t worth investing in as a shooter since the other lenses are all excellent, fast, and sharp.

This lens will only work on G2 cameras. Even “green label” G1 cameras lack the required electrical contacts to communicate with the 35-70mm lens.

Conclusions

The Contax G system is an interesting case, and makes a great halo camera for many of us. It has beautiful industrial design, with a brushed titanium look that makes the camera feel rugged and refined. 

Packed inside it, though, are some of the most complex and advanced technology available at the time. The auto-zooming and auto-correcting viewfinder, a hybrid autofocus system, advanced motors and electronic shutters, and some of the most accurate flash metering ever seen in 35mm make the G1 a technological achievement. The G2 is even better.

Unfortunately, the G series suffers from that same reputation as many other electronic cameras: poor reliability. It can’t be ignored that the G series were released almost 30 years before this article was written, and electronics have come a long way in that time. 

I talked more about this issue in our summary of compact cameras, but eventually all electronic cameras will fail. It’s more a matter of when than if, why, or how. When they fail, though, it’ll be more or less impossible to fix them. 

So I understand the hesitance to invest a lot of money into a G camera that will eventually stop working no matter how well it’s treated. That being said, there is no camera like a Contax G. No other camera offers exactly that combination of handling, build quality, and exceptional image.

It may be a bit frightening conceptually, but for those wanting uncompromising image quality, look no further than the Contax G system.

Filmi, Technical/Educational