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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.

For thosewho don't want the TL:DR version/that want the answers quick:

  • Contax 645s are great, but they can be very skiddish
  • I like Pentax 67 with 105mm, and highly favor the Pentax 67 w/ Cinelux lenses
  • Contax 645 is expensive up front
  • Pentax 67 is cheaper up front, but you'll pay for only having 10 frames
  • There's a lot more to this article and you may be cheating yourself if you only read this part

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
  • Other film alternatives to the Contax 645
  • Digital alternatives to Contax 645/Medium format film cameras
  • 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

 Pentax 67 w/ ISCO Ultra MC 110 f2

Pentax 67 w/ ISCO Ultra MC 110 f2

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 Contax 645 Experience (So Far)

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:

  1. Contax 645s are breaking at an increasing rate
  2. There are only a certain number of them
  3. The number of available shutters to replace broken shutters is rapidly decreasing
  4. Although the Zeiss 80mm lens is arguably one of the best medium format lenses ever made, the Contax 645 is known to be skittish
  5. 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.  

Now, to balance that, I will also mention that Bill at ProCamera in Virginia has told me that they have 6-10 years worth of parts for the Contax 645. He does not at the time of the writing of this article believe that the Contax 645 is a system that will go out of style anytime soon. 

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
  • Fast f/2 aperture for medium format

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 w/ Zeiss 80mm f/2

Pros:

  • Amazing image quality
  • Autofocus 

Cons:

  • Various reports on 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 is rumored to 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 quite possible not a foreseeable long-term solution beyond the next 10 years, for most shooters. 
  • Film flatness problems

Pentax 67 w/ 105mm f/2.4

Pros:

  • Amazing image quality
  • Comparable or perhaps slightly shallower depth of field compared to 80mm f/2 on Contax 645
  • 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/insert
  • A little difficult to load quickly
  • No autofocus
  • Not quite as low light capable at f/2.4 compared to 80mm f/2
  • Ergonomics not quite as advanced as other options
  • 10 exposures (w/ 120) vs 16 on 645

*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.

To check out Pentax 67 prices and average cost to getting into the system, view Pentax 67s on Ebay by clicking here.

 Image taken with Pentax 67 and 105mm f/2.4

Image taken with Pentax 67 and 105mm f/2.4

 Image taken with Pentax 67

Image taken with Pentax 67

Pentax 67 w/ Hassleblad 110mm f/2

Pros:  

  • More shallow depth of field than the Zeiss 80mm f/2. 

Cons: 

  • Quite a feat to find a 110mm f/2, 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. 

To check on prices and availability of theHasselblad 110mm f/2, click here to view it on Ebay.

Pentax 67 w/  various projection lenses

Pros: 

  • By mounting various projection lenses such as the Super Cinephors, Super Snaplites, Cineluxes, and other lenses, various focal lengths and larger than 2.4 apertures can be achieved. I have experimented with a 178mm f/1.9 lens, a Schneider Cinelux Ultra MC 120 f/2, and an ISCO Ultra MC 110mm f/2 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.
  • Also, they may have a very limited focal range, say up to 15 meters or less. 

Note: In my current opinion, the best solid exceptions to these flaws are going to be modded Cinelux lenses. I am currently experimenting with modding a f/2 Cinelux that can focus to infinity, and which has an aperture. I will probably update this article as I experience those results. 

ISCO Ultra MC 110mm f/2 on Pentax 67

 An image photographed using a Bausch & Lomb Super  Cinephor 178mm f/1.9 on a Pentax 67. 

An image photographed using a Bausch & Lomb Super  Cinephor 178mm f/1.9 on a Pentax 67. 

Hasselblad H2 (or newer) w/ 100mm f2.2

Pros:

  • Still serviced
  • Similar look to 80mm f/2
  • Often reported as better autofocus than Contax
  • If bought used, one can spend about the same or less than current Contax 645 market prices
  • More durable/reliable
  • 100mm is arguably a better portrait focal length than the Zeiss 80mm on 645 

Cons:

  • f/2.2 not quite as low light capable as the Zeiss 80mm f/2
  • Somewhat expensive
  • 100mm 2.2 can sometimes be difficult to find
  • Bokeh is not as pronounced as 80mm f/2
  • I have owned two copies of the 100mm f/2.2 and neither has been impressively sharp @ f/2.2. 
 Hasselblad H2 w/ 100mm 2.2

Hasselblad H2 w/ 100mm 2.2

 H2 with HC 100mm f/2.2 @ 2.2

H2 with HC 100mm f/2.2 @ 2.2

To check on prices and availability ofH2 bodies, prisms, click here. To check on the appropriate film backs/inserts for H2 cameras,view the Hasselblad HM 16-32 film backs on Ebay. To check on the 100mm f/2.2, click here for ebay or here to view it on Amazon.

H2 w/ 110mm f/2 + V to H Series Adapter

Pros:

  • Great portrait setup
  • Great for low-light
  • Shallow depth of field
  • Rendering very similar to 80mm f/2

Cons:

  • Manual focus only
  • Somewhat expensive

To check out pricing and more info on this adapter to mount V series lenses to H series bodies, check it out on Amazon and Ebay

 

Mamiya AFD with 80mm 2.8

Pros:

  • Autofocus
  • Very affordable compared to the Contax combo.

Cons:

  • Not as low-light 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/inserts must be changed after roll is finished. (I personally don't mind this "shortcoming"
  • I think this combo can tend to look a little "sterile". It's not bad at all; it just doesn't have "the look" for me.
  • My experience with Pentax 645 bodies has been mixed. I have owned both all three version of the Pentax 645, and have had bad experiences with the two earlier ones. Now, this may have been from a defective insert. But strangely, I have spoken to quite a few that have reported the same issues. Other problems such as film flatness issues and/or the mirror not resting all the way down can also result in focusing issues. 
 Pentax 645 with FA 75mm 2.8

Pentax 645 with FA 75mm 2.8

Pentax 645 w/ 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 potential film flatness issues as Pentax 645 w/ 75mm FA
 Image shot using Pentax 645 Medium Format Camera w/ adapter Pentax 105mm f/2.4

Image shot using Pentax 645 Medium Format Camera w/ adapter Pentax 105mm f/2.4

Pentax 645 with Bokeh Factory Zeiss 80mm f/2

Pros:

  • Zeiss look
  • Mechanical reliability of Pentax 645

Cons:

  • My experience with Pentax 645 bodies has been mixed. I have owned both all three version of the Pentax 645, and have had bad experiences with the two earlier ones. Now, this may have been from a defective insert. But strangely, I have spoken to quite a few that have reported the same issues. 
  • Other cons can include the following: expensive, cannot change aperture from f/2, no autofocus, wait time/availability.

Pentax 645nii w/ projection lenses

Pros:

  • Cinelux lenses 105mm and up can be modded pretty effectively, from reports that I've heard. These lenses are f/2, which is fantastic. A 100mm Cine Xenon lens on my 645nii is my current project. I think this is a fantastic option. A 100mm f/2 is about a 62mm f/1.25 when compared with a 35mm/full-frame perspective. I think this makes for a great all-around portrait/details combo.  There also exists several other lenses I'm working to test. Some of these have as low as f/1.6 minimum aperture. 
  • Bright focusing screen for good manual focus control

Cons: 

  • Lenses are difficult to find. They take time to mod. Manual focus only. 
 Pentax 645 with Schneider Cine Xenon 100mm f/2

Pentax 645 with Schneider Cine Xenon 100mm f/2

Pentax 645 w/ Summicron 90mm f/2

Pros: 

  • I have not used this combo, but am aware that it produces pretty desirable results. I don't like the rendering as much as I do that of the Cinelux lenses, though. That's just me!
  • A huge benefit is its ability to focus close (I've heard 60mm when modded by The Bokeh Factory) to infinity.
  • Also, it can retain the changeable aperture, so you can shoot at f/2 and more!\

Cons: 

  • No autofocus. 

Mamiya 645 w/ other options listed above with Pentax 645

Pros: 

  • I haven't used the Mamiya 645. With that said, I've heard that the Mamiya allows lenses to be modded to allow for further focusing distances, easier. That's a nice thing if you want a lens to focus further. 

Cons: 

  • I've heard the focusing screen is darker and does not allow for as easy focusing.

Digital Options/Alternatives to Contax 645 and/or Medium Format Film

Perhaps you've thought about getting the look of the 80mm f/2, but would like to consider digital options. Since "the look" of the medium format perspective is unique and interesting, here are a few options that provide some of that "look".

Keep in mind that film 645s shoot a negative that is 56 x 42mm. Many digital backs or "digital medium format" 645s are a different crop than film 645s.

The largest sensor size at the time of this writing for digital 645 is 53.9 x 40.4mm for a "CCD" sensor and 53.4 x 40.1mm for a "CMOS" sensor. Though slightly smaller than "true" 645, these are very close to their film counterparts.

Phase One XF or DF+ w/ IQ260 w/ Contax 80mm f/2, Cinelux, etc.

Pros:

  • Large 53.7 x 40.4 sensor size
  • If you shoot a lot of film, switching to digital could save tons over the years. We calculated that, when shooting only 10 rolls per wedding at 30 weddings a year, we'd save about $7,500 per year on film, developing/scanning, shipping, etc. 
  • Since you're investing in valuable goods, you can sell your gear at some point and still recover cost. With film, you shoot it and there's no object that you can sell/use to recover your initial investment.

Cons: 

  • Expensive
  • Have heard images referred to as a bit "crunchy" compared to film

Phase One XF or H2 Body w/ IQ1 100mp Digital Back w/ Contax 80mm f/2, Cinelux, etc.

Pros: 

  • Large sensor size of 53.4 x 40.1 (which is about as big as you get at this time
  • 15 stops of dynamic range
  • If you shoot a lot of film, switching to digital could save tons over the years. We calculated that, when shooting only 10 rolls per wedding at 30 weddings a year, we'd save about $7,500 per year on film, developing/scanning, shipping, etc. 
  • Since you're investing in valuable goods, you can sell your gear at some point and still recover cost. With film, you shoot it and there's no object that you can sell/use to recover your initial investment.

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Difficult to find used
  • Have heard images referred to as a bit "crunchy" compared to film

Phase One XF + Leaf Credo 60 w/ Contax 80mm f/2, Cinelux, etc.

Pros: 

  • Large sensor size of 53.9 x 40.4
  • Handles light a lot like film, in my opinion.
  • If you shoot a lot of film, switching to digital could save tons over the years. We calculated that, when shooting only 10 rolls per wedding at 30 weddings a year, we'd save about $7,500 per year on film, developing/scanning, shipping, etc. 
  • Since you're investing in valuable goods, you can sell your gear at some point and still recover cost. With film, you shoot it and there's no object that you can sell/use to recover your initial investment.

Cons: 

  • Expensive up front cost.
  • If your workflow is heavily dependent on your lab providing you with scans that look exactly how you want them, switching to digital may cause unwanted editing stress.
  • I still love film : )

Fuji GFX w/ various lenses

 

Pros: 

  • Great in low-light/High ISO capabilities
  • Can accommodate many lenses
  • If you shoot a lot of film, switching to digital could save tons over the years. We calculated that, when shooting only 10 rolls per wedding at 30 weddings a year, we'd save about $7,500 per year on film, developing/scanning, shipping, etc. 
  • Since you're investing in valuable goods, you can sell your gear at some point and still recover cost. With film, you shoot it and there's no object that you can sell/use to recover your initial investment.
  • Can use Speedbooster to achieve more shallow depth of field

Cons: 

  • Not a true 645 (43.8 x 32.9mm sensor vs 56 x 42mm)
  • Expensive up front cost
  • Doesn't look quite as good as really well scanned Fuji 400H/Portra 400 (etc.) film, in my opinion.
  • If your workflow is heavily dependent on your lab providing you with scans that look exactly how you want them, switching to digital may cause unwanted editing stress.
  • Images can sometimes appear "crunchy" compared to film
  • If Speedbooster is used, distortion may occur

To check out this body and average cost to getting into the system, view the Fuji GFX 50S on Ebay and Amazon

Sony A7Riii w/ Zeiss 80mm f/2 + Speedbooster

Pros: 

  • Smaller body and weight
  • Can use Kipon Baveyes C645 Speedbooster adapter effectively
  • Has a look very close to Contax 645/80mm when using Speedbooster

Cons:

  • Speedbooster may effect image quality to some degree; minor distortion may occur in certain parts of the image including some effect to the bokeh which might be described as some loss to "buttery-smoothness" and added "jittery-ness"
  • If your workflow is heavily dependent on your lab providing you with scans that look exactly how you want them, switching to digital may cause unwanted editing stress.

 

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:

  • Weight
  • 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. While my math would say that having 16 frames should save a lot of money vs having 10, I also have found that my keepers with the 67 are much higher than with 645. So there's definitely some give and take. 

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 completely anytime soon, a camera similar to the Fuji GFX matched with various lenses could be a good choice. Also, I've seen very favorable results from Phase One XF with Lead Credo 60 digital back.

As technology progesses, these rather expensive systems/their technology should become more accessible. This may make it more financially feasible to find oneself shooting a digital camera that provides a perspective close to a true 645 negative. That, coupled with lenses such as the 80mm f/2 and Schneider Cinelux lenses will allow shooting an image that is very similar to what we love about being able to shoot on medium format film.

Conclusion

Although an amazing kit, the Contax 645/ Zeiss 80mm combo is in a potentially 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. There are a handful of really great options out there that present there own challenges and 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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