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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Contax G2: 
The Ultimate Travel Camera?
by Jim McGee

Wouldn't it be great if you could have a camera the size of a point and shoot that had fast sharp interchangeable lenses, autofocus, fast shutter speeds, an accurate meter, and the ability to work in any mode from full auto to full manual? You could slip it in your pocket and it would be the ideal camera for travel and street shooting.

It's not a fantasy. The Contax G2 is that camera. This wonderful little interchangeable lens rangefinder does all that and more and you can buy it today - albeit at a pretty significant price.

Browse through a catalog and you might think the G2 is similar to a Leica M7. But that couldn't be further from the truth. 

There are similarities. They are both finely crafted 35mm range finders. They both have excellent optics and they both have prices that can take your breath away. 

But they are the product of two completely different design philosophies. So much so that after having shot with both I'd say they have almost nothing in common. Where cameras from Leica are like a time warp the Contax G2 is a thoroughly modern camera in every way.

The little Contax has a beautiful brushed Titanium body that makes no effort to look like something from the past. Pick it up with a 45mm lens attached and its two pounds of heft convey instantly that this is no point and shoot. A contoured plastic grip is molded around the right side of the camera front and rear to provide a good hold. The major controls are arrayed around that right side grip and all fall easily under your fingers. With a little familiarity there's no reason to pull your eye from the viewfinder to change settings.

Pop the back by pulling down and turning a release lever. Film loads as it does in any modern camera and is automatically advanced to the first frame and it will keep advancing the film at up to 4 frames per second as you shoot. There's no film crank here. 

The camera reads the DX code and sets the ISO automatically. There was even thought put into the camera strap. The small rings with leather covers are the only part of the camera that harkens back to the past. But Contax has thoughtfully included a small tool that makes it easy to slip the rings onto the nubs on the camera.

The specs are pretty impressive for such a small package. Take the shutter for example, there is nothing retro about it. The shutter is an electronic, multi-bladed, composite, vertical travel precision shutter offering stepless shutter speeds from 16 seconds to 1/6000th with a flash sync at 1/200th. There is even a rear sync flash mode (with Contax TLA 280 or TLA360 units). There's even a sync terminal for use with studio flash.

Look through the viewfinder and you notice it's bright and clear. For those who no longer have perfect vision a diopter control puts things to right. The range finder couples to the lens to compensate for parallax. Nowhere in the manual could I find a spec for the viewfinder coverage. Let's just say that a generous amount of image is captured outside what you see in the viewfinder. At least that was the case with the 45mm and 35-70mm lenses we had.

Autofocus on a rangefinder felt really odd the first time I used it, as I tend to associate rangefinders with all manual functions. But the autofocus on the G2 was quick and responsive even in low light. The only fault I'd find with it was that it was a touch louder than I'd expected - though not so loud that I would expect anyone to notice.

You have a choice of exposure modes including Aperture Priority (Auto), manual and Bulb. As is my habit I did the majority of my shooting in aperture priority. Over and under exposure is easily set to plus or minus two stops in one-third stop increments using the dial on the top deck. You can even turn on exposure bracketing in one-half or one full stop increments using the lever under the exposure compensation dial.

In the Field 
We shot slides exclusively through the G2 and we found that exposures under a wide range of conditions were spot on. Images through the Zeiss lenses were sharp and contrasty and the little TLA200 flash pleasantly surprised us with it's performance (see the review of the lenses and flash in this issue).

This is a great little street shooter. In terms of size it looks like an oversized point and shoot. Non-photographers don't even notice it. The camera with a flash and two lenses would easily fit in a fanny pack and they just about get lost in a camera bag. And that's the whole point.

Contax sent along the 45mm f2 and the 35-70mm f3.5-5.6 lenses. There are seven lenses available for the G2 ranging from a 16mm f8 to a 90mm f2.8. All are high quality compact lenses. Want to go to something longer than 90mm? You can get the GA-1 adapter that allows you to mount Contax SLR lenses to your G2 ($150 street price). But mounting or even carrying a big zoom would negate the best feature of the G2 which is its small size and weight.

The G2 was easy to use. The controls make sense and I never felt a need to go back to the manual. That's a good thing too as the manual is difficult to read. Each page contains the text in four languages. It would be much easier to navigate if it was broken into four sections by language.

There are some quirks to the G2 though. When focusing manually you have to rely on the rangefinder display in the viewfinder to tell you when the subject is in focus. Since this is primarily an autofocus camera there are no parallax lines to line up in the finder. Another quirk involved the 35-70mm zoom lens. The zoom ring is on the very front of the lens, requires a healthy twist, and moves in and out as the lens zooms. When shooting vertically with this lens you end up partially blocking the viewfinder with your hand as you zoom in and out. It was an annoyance, but I was gradually learning a different hand position to compensate.

Another quirk involved flash exposure. The G2 tends to overexpose subjects close to the camera by about a full stop. Subjects more than about three feet away are exposed correctly when using the TLA200.

But these are minor issues. All in all I have to say I enjoyed my time with the G2.

Make no mistake. This is not an inexpensive camera. Both the body and the lenses are expensive. But for someone who travels as much as I do I could see this camera as an ideal travel companion. Its size makes it an attractive option when compared to an SLR. It's perfect for street shooting or for taking along in the evening when you don't want to cart a camera bag out on the town. Its excellent lenses provide the kind of quality I expect from pro SLR lenses. All in all it's just about the perfect travel camera.

For just these reasons the G2 has found it's way into quite a few pro bags. Is it the right camera for you? Well that depends on your shooting style and budget. As I said, for me it represents just about the perfect travel camera.

Street price on the G2 is around $1,300 to $1,350 for the body. But it's currently available in kit form with the 45mm f2 lens and TLA-200 flash tested here for street prices of $1,400 to $1,450 which, if you're in the market for this camera, is quite a bargain.

Using Polarizers and ND Grads with a Rangefinder

I tend to think of rangefinders in terms of my travel photography. They're the camera I'll take out street shooting when I don't want to attract a lot of attention with a big pro SLR and they're the camera I reach for when I'm going out for dinner after a day's shooting. 

With a 35-70mm you can only get so close. This shot represents about 20% of the image it was cropped from. A polarizer was used to control the reflections in the water.

Their light weight and small size make them perfect for those times you don't want to carry a lot of gear. But what if you want a rangefinder as your primary camera? Or what if you're driving down the road and you see that perfect landscape? Should you pass it by because you can't use a polarizer or split neutral density filter? 

Absolutely not! A polarizer will work either on or off the lens. To see its effect just close one eye and rotate it in front of your open eye. When its providing the effect you want bring it down slowly from in front of your eye and note the location of the lettering on the edge of the filter. Now just hold your rangefinder with the filter in front of the lens in the same orientation and snap the image. That's how I got the image of the herons on this page.

Graduated neutral densities are a little tougher. Glance through the viewfinder and figure out where you want the filter effect to be and at what angle. Where does that fall relative to the image in the viewfinder? Now position the filter over the lens at roughly the position you just estimated. Remember the filter is graduated so the placement of the filter is not an exact science. With a little practice you'll get good at estimating where the filter should be relative to the front of the lens. You'll still miss one now and then - but its better than not taking the shot at all isn't it?


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