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This article explores a future-forward perspective on using this system (or not) for professional work, and what other alternatives are out there that offer a similar "look" to the legendary Contax 645 combo.
Up front, let's get this out: GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is real; amazing images have been created with less than amazing cameras. However, many professional photographers own very nice cameras and there's nothing wrong with noticing and embracing excellent optics and camera bodies.
With that said, I think the Contax 645 80mm combo possesses some of the most sought after characteristics within the realm of highly ergonomic medium format film photography.
So you know that reading this article is worth it, we'll cover:
- My experience with a Contax 645
- Future outlook on the Contax 645 system for professional work
- What's so great about the Contax 645 Zeiss 80mm f/2 combo
- What are other alternatives to the Contax 645
- A "Contax 645 vs Pentax 67" discussion from a wedding photographer's perspective
- I've also included some links to other great articles on the topic that I think provide a good/slightly different perspective and information
This article was mainly written for:
- Professional photographers looking to make the wisest, long-term decision in investing in their film camera kit workhorse
- Professional photographers (especially wedding photographers) considering the purchase of a Contax 645
- Photographers looking for alternatives to what the Contax 645 kit has to offer
- Photographers looking for further discussion on the characteristics of lenses such as the Zeiss 80mm f/2 and Pentax 105mm
What I WON'T be covering and/or focusing on at this time is:
- A full-fledged image comparison of various cameras/lenses
- Why? Because I don't think that the camera/lens that produces the best image necessarily makes it the best choice in the long-term for the working professional. Plus, there are plenty of image examples out there. One can get a pretty good feel of the quality of bokeh, sharpness, etc. from doing a quick Flickr search.
A Bit of Background
I had originally planned to take a bunch of photos from the same perspective comparing the Pentax 67 with the 105mm f/2.4 to the Contax 645 with the Zeiss 80mm f/2. In doing this, I figured that I could give a great example of the exact visual differences between the image quality of the two lenses. However, a couple experiences changed my mind.
My Prophetic Contax 645 Experience
My Contax 645 experience so far has been a bit jaded. Having seen the pop of the subject and super-pleasant, non-boring-yet-undistracting bokeh, I figured I'd give it a try. So, I sought out to find a kit.
After weeks of watching eBay, scouring Facebook groups, etc., I finally found a lens and body separately that were described as excellent and in fully working conditions. Once I received them, I found quite the opposite. The lens was full of fungus and the body's autofocus wasn't working at all.
Now, I'll say that some don't have as much trouble, but that's the thing: it's a mixed bag that will only get worse, bar a miracle. This leads me to my second reason why I decided to forgo getting a Contax 645 kit for the time being.
After talking for around an hour with one of the only people in the world actually do work/repairs on the Contax 645 system, I became aware of a few things:
- Contax 645s are breaking at an increasing rate
- There are only a certain number of them
- The number of available shutters to replace broken shutters is rapidly decreasing
- Although the Zeiss 80mm lens is arguably one of the best medium format lenses ever made, the Contax 645 is known to be skittish
- The price for Contax 645s will continue to go up as bodies are parted out for repairs; the cameras will become rarer and more expensive to the point that few people will probably hoard the majority of the bodies, further exacerbating the price
At this point I will reiterate that this article is not to bash the Contax 645--I, even now, would love to have a Contax 645 with Zeiss 80mm, but have been convinced that it is not a very wise long-term option for my business.
Why Buy a Contax 645 In the First Place?
So let's isolate why people want the Contax 645. We're really talking about image quality, which comes from the glass-- the Zeiss 80mm f/2.
The properties that stand out so well with this lens are:
- Amazingly smooth, yet delightfully pronounced bokeh
- Smooth transition from out of focus to in focus areas
- Good contrast
People use different words to describe the "pop" that a particular lens renders regarding the subject. Words like "plasticity, "roundness" micro-contrast, or "the 3D effect" have all been given various definitions, often with two people disagreeing on which word means which. Still, others say all the terms ultimately refer to the same thing. Regardless of the semantics, the pop-effect and what all actually creates it is hard to describe, though undeniable.
When we look at Zeiss glass, we see the pinnacle of this effect as far as popular modern film photography is concerned. The subject "pops", and it's not merely just because of the bokeh, or shallow depth of field. In fact, a lens can have shallower depth of field, and yet have less pop than one with a wider depth of field.
This effect is a combination of the medium format perspective, quality of bokeh, transition of in focus to out of focus areas, sharpness of focal point, and over-all micro-contrast.
Many describe the bokeh as "painterly". It's extremely pleasant in terms of buttery smoothness but isn't boring or flat as some lenses. It is also interesting bokeh, but not too choppy or distracting.
Contax 645 Zeiss 80mm f/2 vs Pentax 67 105mm f/2.4 and Other Popular Choices
Let's recap the pros and cons of the Contax 645 combo compared to other medium format options:
Contax 645 with Zeiss 80mm f/2
Pros: amazing image quality, autofocus
Cons: not so great autofocus, lack of reliability/finicky (randomly not working in certain conditions, lack of parts/serviceability, longevity, price, lack of supply/availability. Also, in terms of practicality, this system will be finished in 10-15 years, according to my conversation with one of the few people in the world that performs repairs on Contax 645. "We're already rebuilding shutters; there's just not enough bodies around to keep junking bodies."
This system is not a long term solution for most shooters.
Pentax 67 with 105mm f/2.4
Pros: amazing image quality, comparable or perhaps slightly shallower depth of field, 6x7 negatives provide for a very interesting perspective and high resolution, cheap, very pleasant bokeh, excellent "pop" that rivals the Zeiss 80mm f/2
Cons: heavy, no film back, a little difficult to load quickly, no autofocus, not quite as low light capable at 2.4, ergonomics by quite as advanced as other options, loud shutter slap
*Note: After having a lot of practice with a 67, I would argue that someone who uses one all the time can change film almost as quickly if not more quickly than someone reloading their Contax.
w/ Hassleblad 110mm f/2
Pros: Arguably one of the best portrait lenses ever made. Nuff said. Shallower depth of field that the Zeiss 80mm f/2.
Cons: Quite a feat to find one, afford one, and then to mount it on a Pentax 67 while achieving focus to infinity. No autofocus and all the other weaknesses of a Pentax 67 kit.
w/ various projection lenses
Pros: By mounting various projection lenses such as the Super Cinephors, Super Snaplites, Super Cineluxes, and Xenon lenses, various focal lengths and largest apertures can be achieved. I have experiemented with a 178mm f/1.9 lens and have achieved some pretty interesting results. You can read more about how to do this on my post How to Mount Projector Lens to Pentax 67.
Cons: Generally speaking, these are always going to be fixed aperture lenses that you will have to mount with specific hardware. A lot of these older lenses do not have great coating and may flare quite a bit. These large aperture lenses are typically quite heavy.
Hasselblad H2 (or newer) with 100 f2.2
Pros: still serviced, can use a newly manufactured body with a film back, similar look to Zeiss 80mm f2, better autofocus than Contax, bought used, one can spend about the same or less than current contax 645 market prices, more durable/reliable, shall depth of field, 100mm is arguably a better portrait focal length than the Zeiss 80mm.
Cons: f2.2 not quite as low light capable as the Zeiss 80mm f2. Potentially a con is the quality of bokeh created by the leaf shutter which is located in the lens, and not the camera body. Some report that it is much more like "gaussian blur". However, I wont comment personally on this.
Mamiya AFD with 80mm 2.8
Pros: autofocus, very afforable compared to the Contax combo.
Cons: not as lowlight capable at 2.8, depth of field not as shallow as other options.
Mamiya 645 with 80mm 1.9
Pros: similar depth of field, cheaper, more reliable, more reliable.
Cons: arguably not as pleasant bokeh (often described as "weak" or "busy"), no autofocus.
Contax 645 vs Pentax 645
Pentax 645 Nii with 75mm FA
Pros: cheaper, more reliable, plenty of parts, better autofocus, good image quality.
Cons: Not quite the level of plasticity/microcontrast we see in the Zeiss 80mm f2, not quite as capable in low light at 2.8, less shallow depth of field, no interchangeable film backs. In my experience, my hit/miss ratio while using the Pentax 645 was just horrible, even when using a magnifier. After speaking with a professional repairman, I was informed that the design of film advance on the Pentax 645 is less than optimal for retaining film flatness. Because the film roll is seated behind the face of the film insert, it often causes disruptions to the film flatness. The film being seated in front of the advance face fits the natural curve of the film and retains better film flatness.
Pentax 645 with 105mm (via adapter)
Pros: Images with the 105mm look great. Using this on the Pentax 645 allows images to take on the amazing character of that lens.
Cons: No autofocus, images don't look as good as the Pentax 67 or the Contax/Zeiss 80mm combo. Somewhat heavy. Same film flatness issues as Pentax 645 w/ 75mm FA
Pentax 645 with Bokeh Factory chopped Zeiss 80mm f2
Pros: Zeiss look, mechanical reliability of Pentax 645.
Cons: my experience with Pentax 645 bodies has been mixed. Others may differ, but I found that my missed focus shots at large apertures were just too high to consider reliable. I would imagine this is the case with the Zeiss, as with the 105mm adapted, although I'm open to other perspectives. Also expensive, cannot change aperture from f2, no autofocus, wait time, availability.
Pentax 67 vs Contax 645
Out of all these, my current choice is the Pentax 67. Generally speaking, the larger 6x7 perspective is the most interesting, in my opinion. The 6x7 negatives are just glorious. Yes, it's heavy, and no it doesn't have autofocus, but that's ok. It produces the lovely portraits I want it to and nailing focus is easy with the large viewing screen.
The Pentax 67 has a look to it as unique as the Contax combo. I personally prefer the perspective of the 67 over the contax combo, although I still believe the Contax combo has slightly better plasticity/micro-contrast, which lends itself to amazing up close shots with super lovely bokeh. They're different looks with different strengths, and I honestly couldn't pick one over the other universally in terms of image quality.
The Pentax 67 is a camera with plenty of replacement parts and the price has yet to shoot as high as the Contax 645. In my mind, this is a huge reason why I want to continue becoming super familiar with the Pentax 67. My philosophy is that the camera I'm most familiar with is the camera that I essentially become one with--I'm more able to focus on composition, timing, and artistic expression.
So, since the Pentax 67 has so many wonderful aspects and since it seems like it will be very serviceable/replaceable in the case of failure, it's my current workhorse.
Contax 645 vs Pentax 67 For Wedding Photography
As a wedding photographer, I am sometimes met with amazement by others who would never consider the Pentax 67 for wedding photography. However, I find it a joy to use at weddings.
The largest concerns with using the Pentax 67 at weddings are:
- Difficulty with film loading
- Only 10 frames per roll
- Loudness of the shutter
- No autofocus
I think these are all valid concerns.
Weight: I do struggle with the weight of carrying my Pentax 67 all day. In my opinion, the biggest advantage of the Contax 645 over the Pentax 67 for weddings is that the Contax is a bit lighter. However, I typically will have an assistant hold it when I don't need to be shooting it. Plus, with all the money I've saved on not buying a Contax, I can afford a set of weights and a membership to the gym, enabling me to gain some extra muscle to tolerate the minor weight difference between the Contax and the Pentax.
Film loading: After much practice, I feel pretty confident with loading my Pentax 67 quickly. The biggest difficulty I had was getting the fresh roll's spool to lock into place. Once I learned that you could apply pressure to the locking metal knob on the bottom while rolling the roll backward, it's become a much easier process. Also, using all that money saved on not buying a Contax 645 kit means you can afford to hire an assistant to load your Pentax 67 for you!
Only 10 frames: I suppose digital-focused photographers might say to a 35mm user, "only 36 exposures?" or a 35mm user to a 645 user "only 16 frames?". I like to think that 10 frames lend itself to "quality over quantity" mentality.
Loudness of the shutter: I will admit--I've gotten some looks from guests during the wedding ceremony when this thing slaps. But honestly, I don't think it's that big of a deal. I actually find my Pentax 645 to be a more annoying of a shutter sound and advance.
No autofocus: After shooting the Pentax 67 for a while, autofocus became far less important to me. I can clearly see my focus and am becoming better and better at snapping the subject into focus. I don't know that I've ever had a higher in focus ratio with any other camera (including digital).
When compared to the Contax 645, despite these "cons" to using the Pentax 67, I still think the Pentax 67 is the best option for me. I'm aware that film loading can be much quicker with the interchangeable backs of the Contax, but it's not super convenient to carry around a lot of preloaded backs. I've seen many Contax shooters merely shoot and then load a roll directly into the back of the body. To me, this seems almost as time-consuming as loading a roll into the Pentax 67.
Future Possible Solutions to the Contax 645 Dilemna
It's quite possible that kickstarter projects or something similar are generated to provide solutions to the era of failing film cameras. But, other than that, there are a few options that might prove very realistic in the coming years.
Digital cameras image quality is becoming better and better. While I don't perceive anything replacing the look of film, a camera similar to the Fuji GFX matched with a Zeiss 80mm f/2 could be a good choice. I've seen examples of images with this combo, and thought it looks pleasant, it doesn't tickle my fancy as long as my Pentax 67 is kicking.
Fuji GFX w/ adapter Zeiss 80mm f/2
Pros: better autofocus than Contax 645 body and perhaps better than an H2 (although maybe not better than newer Hasselblad bodies), lighter weight.
Cons: digital only/no film back, expensive ($5k for the body, $1.8-3k for the lens, who knows how much for the adapter). I'm also not the biggest fan of the images I've see with this combo. To me, there appears to be some barrel distortion and vignetting.
Although an amazing kit, the Contax 645/ Zeiss 80mm combo is in a dangerous position as the bodies known for their skittishness become more rare and more hoarded. Several other options exists, although each has it's own drawbacks.
I choose to believe that, ultimately, amazing photographs can be made despite the lack or presence of certain gear. That said, the Pentax 67 is my current choice for professional work.
What are your thoughts? What other camera bodies would you include?
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