The Contax RX: My search for the perfect camera
I started out writing a 5 Frames article for this excellent website but my typing ran away a little and I ended up realising it had turned into a mini-review of my latest 35mm acquisition, the Contax RX. I thought that rather than crop the article down, I would publish the long version in its entirety.
The search for the perfect camera is one that everyone goes through. It’s a quest that can last many years and can also be without end, depending on how fussy you are. Frustrations can come in many forms, from the position of an ISO dial to the shape of a camera body. As well as the ergonomics of the camera, lenses also can give a feeling of the grass is greener. “I wonder how sharp that lens would be?” or, “If only I had another stop or a wider view”… on it goes.
I reckon most photographers, if not outright gear heads, are at least closet ones. After having a Nikon FE for some time and enjoying it, the next part of my quest turned to the Contax range and their Zeiss glass. I have drooled over these on occasion. Models of varying degrees of sophistication, from the basic Contax S2, to the behemoth that is the Contax RTS III. Fleetingly lifting them to my eye and imagining spending time looking through their dreamy viewfinders at my leisure. Only to be jarred back to reality when handing them back.
Eventually, I was in a position to get myself one and plumped for the Contax RX. A “prosumer” (yeuch) model.
A slight step down from the pro-level Contax RTS III in terms of features, but every bit of the same quality as far as performance, build, and in my opinion, ergonomics. The Contax RX has auto wind, spot metering and centre weighted metering. It has a strange but fairly effective focus and depth of field indicator, which was in answer to the camera industry moving towards autofocus around when Contax was still lagging behind due to the absence of Zeiss autofocus lenses.
It works in a similar way to using an indexed manual focus lens on a modern DSLR. The focus when achieved is shown in the viewfinder at the bottom by two LED blocks. As you approach focus it is displayed by small LED circles on each side of the focus blocks depending on whether you are in front or back focus. It takes a little getting used to but it is a help. It seems to take its cue from the centre split on my focus screen indicator, rather than the fresnel around the outside of centre. It’s an aid for me on occasions but I usually favour the fresnel for focus confirmation.
There is also a method of seeing the depth of field in relation to your focal point that is clever. It shows your focal depth by small LED dashes above your focus indicator, displaying more dashes as the focal depth/aperture increases in relation to your focus point. Useful on some occasions I imagine, but I am more of a depth of field by eye or lens markings type of shooter I think.
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I opted for a 50mm lens as my starting point, and picked up the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.7 flavour: weighty with a gorgeous damped focus. Film loading is simple on this camera. Just lay the film lead flat and up to the orange marker in the film chamber, then close the back and push the shutter button for a reassuring whirr and you’re ready to go.
I was aware of an often-discussed problem that some of these later Contax cameras can have where the mirror can slip. It is well documented, and there is an excellent article talking about how one owner resolved the problem written by Dom Ruikeh on Tom Sebastiano’s Inverno Dreaming website. Thankfully my unit seems to have avoided this issue but I will always have half an eye on it.
Wandering around framing with this camera is great. The viewfinder is bright and focus is pretty easy. I sometimes use the LED confirmation as a double check but I am fairly used to focusing using a fresnel. The operation is sharp and satisfying. A reassuring camera in the hand too, despite its weight, it is well balanced with the 50mm lens.
Operations on the Contax RX’s top plate are intuitive and nicely placed. The camera offers single or continuous film advance modes. The latter I shy away from; film prices prohibit this level of abandon for me. The lift-up collar on the mode dial prevents accidental engagement of this mode, thankfully. There is a self-timer option too, coming clearly marked and often welcome. The shutter button is nicely slightly shielded by the on button lever; the lever is one click to switch on and a second to the auto exposure lock. A feature I find really useful when using the spot metering mode.
Another feature that is a big bonus for me on this camera is the auto rewind (on film end) and its customisation options. It can be set to rewind a roll of film and leave the leader out. This enables you to swap films partway through. The only downside is the sacrifice of a frame, a price worth paying in my opinion in order to gain an extra level of flexibility. All you have to do is remember the frame you were on when removing the roll and make a note on the film canister ready for re-loading at a later date. I have already done this on a couple of occasions without a hitch. The hardest part is finding something that will write on a film canister…
Owning this Contax RX has given me more of a desire to shoot 35mm. There are of course more lightweight options for 35mm but I don’t mind the weight. The fact that it is so well built and reassuringly chunky makes it worth carrying around. I no longer need another 35mm film camera. I do wonder what a Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 would give me now, or perhaps the Zeiss Vario Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4… Hmmm…
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