Camera Geekery: Contax 645
The Contax 645 requires no introduction. It is a medium format legend that many a photographer have gotten aroused at the thought of owning one. Thanks to several high profile photographers using the Contax 645 as their main camera even to this day, it has garnered a high amount of praise among the film shooter community. So when the opportunity arose to take one out for a spin for the weekend, I felt like a fat kid in a cake store. Are the tales of mythos actually true?
If you need a quick refresher, the Contax 645 is a 6×4.5cm medium format, autofocus film camera introduced by Kyocera under the Contax brand on February 20th, 1999 in Japan. It was an ambitious foray in the professional portrait and wedding world where medium format was king (at the time) and competed against the likes of the Pentax 645N and Mamiya 645 AF. When the camera system was unceremoniously discontinued in 2005, legendary status was cemented. Let’s take a closer peek.
- Type: 6 x 4.5cm format focal-plane shutter AF SLR
- Exposure-Control Modes: Aperture-priority auto exposure, shutter-speed-priority auto exposure, manual
- Lens Mount: Contax 645 bayonet
- Autofocus System: single autofocus (S) and continuous autofocus (C)
- Shutter: 32 sec. – 1/4000 sec. / Mechanical
- Metering: TTL spot metering (standard equipped.) Center-weighted average light metering (when prism finder is equipped)
- Film-speed Range: ISO 25 – 5000 on automatic and ISO 6 – 6400 on manual
- Mirror: mirrror-up
- Viewfinder: interchangeable TTL finder. 95% field of view
- Flash: TTl auto-flash AND pre-flash TTL automatic flash
- Film Advance: single or continuous (up to 1.6 fps)
- Power: One 2CR5 ^V-lithium battery
- Self Timer: electronic self-timer with 2 or 10 sec. delay
- Dimensions: 141 x 99 x 73 mm
- Weight: (WITHOUT battery:) 645g
- Focal Length: 80mm
- Aperture Maximum: f/2
- Aperture Minimum: f/22
- Camera Mount Type: Contax 645 AF
- Minimum Focus Distance: 70cm
- Elements/Groups: 6 elements in 5 groups
- Angle of View: 47°
- Autofocus: Yes
- Tripod Collar: No
- Filter Thread: 72mm
- Dimensions: 67mm x 81mm
- Weight: 480g
Appearance & Ergonomics
When it debuted back in ’99, the Contax 645 was hailed as the first modular, medium-format, autofocus SLR, a masterpiece of mechanical and electronic integration, and praised for its handsome design, excellent balance, superb full-information viewfinder, and ergonomic controls. All the controls are well laid out and intuitive, to me it’s one of those cameras you could just pick up and use without a manual.
The pioneering modular autofocus design is based on a slim main body section with built-in grip, where all major components, including AF lenses with built-in motors, 120/220 film and digital backs, and prism and waist-level finders attach, and interface electronically by means of gold-plated contacts.
The viewfinder on the Contax 645 is a joy to look out of and seems brighter and more contrasty than the Pentax and Mamiya equivalents I’ve played around with. The pale-green-illuminated LCD readouts below the viewing area provide large and legible vital information: battery status, frame number, meter-pattern icon, flash-OK and focus-OK signals, aperture and shutter speed numerals, and a manual-exposure scale that automatically appears whenever manual-exposure mode, pre-flash, or exposure compensation is used.
On the back of the grip is the clever focus-mode control with a button that lets you focus manually even if you’re in single or continuous AF mode.
The Contax 645 is clad in an attractive polycarbonate that’s grippy and built upon a rugged, durable hybrid chassis that’s mostly metal. Virtually all its major controls except for those on the lens and the drive-mode dial on the left-hand side are conveniently clustered atop the nicely contoured handgrip on the right. These include the large, easy-to-grasp shutter dial, the coaxial exposure-mode selector, the exposure-compensation dial, and the smooth-operating, angled shutter release.
Another thing I quite love about using the Contax 645 is the sound of the shutter. Of course it’s a highly subjective matter but to me it just sounds and feels nice in a professional and confidently satisfying way, not unlike a Nikon FM3a, albeit much louder.
The 80mm f2 Zeiss Planar is one of the fastest lenses available medium format. Only the manual focus Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 is faster.
The following are images shot through each aperture on Fujifilm Pro 160 S.
The Contax 645 is an incredibly capable image maker and lives up to its reputation. If your style is built around shooting wide-open apertures for creamy backgrounds, then you should consider the Contax 645. While the AF can not be considered blazing by today’s standard, I found it to be a totally usable system for anything short of sports and street. To this day, it is considered one of the premier systems in all of medium format photography. It is a camera that can take film or modern digital backs making it versatile enough for the old school film die-hard or the modern digital artist.
While I’ve heard and read about the nightmarish reliability issues, I had no such problems though I admit a weekend of use is quite a small sample size. Nevertheless, buying one from a reputable dealer should not be taken lightly.