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.
NJS frame with carbon clinchers?
I sold these when they were new, and to put it kindly, reliability was not Contax/Yashica’s strong suit. Kyrocera’s electronics designs were poor across their entire product line. Seeing that they’ve been gone for over 16 years now, there are few if any repair parts. Now, spend your money as you like, but if it’s a 645 camera you want, you would be further ahead if you get a Mamiya 645 Pro or Pro TL. These are manual focus cameras, which is really the way to go if you are going to shoot medium format. AF in anything over 35mm is just too slow (due to the mass/weight) of the lenses. Mamiya’s lenses are first class and plentiful on the used market. One can build a very nice system for about half of what the Contax costs, and it will be more reliable overall. ^^
This is really interesting! Thank you Jim. I am going to look at, and consider, the Mamiya 645 Pro.
Jim, it’s good to hear your opinion about this camera in 2018. I had the Contax 645 with the 35mm, 45mm, 80mm, 120mm APO Makro, 140mm and the 210mm lens (yeah, gear acquisition madness!!!). All of them had superb optics! I haven’t seen a set of sharper lenses in any other system, and in context, I also had a Hassy 503CW with the 50mm FLE, 80mm and the 180mm lens (the modern versions). In comparison, they never could quite touch the Contax lenses in acuity, color or bokeh, even though they were pretty darn good in their own rights. I was very shocked when Kyocera threw the towel on this awesome camera and lenses.
Anyway, the entire system was stolen in 2010, and I have missed it every day since. Now, I am considering rebuilding a MF system with a Contax 645, with the exact lenses I had, all over again. However, reading your response brings me to my senses. The camera I had never gave me much trouble except once, when the backing paper got caught in the vacuum back and messed up the shutter curtain. It was a costly fix in Los Angeles in 2008. At this point, 17 years since its demise, that may not even be an option if the parts are not available. I really would like to know more about that. There is no Harry Fleenor for Contax 645 cameras. Anyway, it was good to read your pragmatic POV on it. I will just have to focus on a different camera system. But I will miss the data back and the 1/4000th shutter speed of a Contax 645 forever :-(
I’ve had my Contax for 4 years now and I’ve not had one problem (knock on wood). It also seems to be better with batteries than reputed, but I choose to focus manually and that may be saving me a bit of juice.
One thing this article didn’t mention but is a feature I Love is the shutter/aperture info it records onto the edge of your film. Oh, and it’s super smooth, very well damped shutter and mirror. I can almost shoot it at 35mm speeds.
I bought my 645 when they first came out. The only problem that I have is finding a digital back for it.
This is a really interesting blog post, and love that you shared a variety of images at different apertures and some of those beautiful street photographs.
As a full-time and professional wedding photographer, I am really keen to revert from digital to film, but must admit I have been nervous because I have heard much on the reliability of the Pentax 645. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful blog post and would love to see more on the Contax 645 and the competitors.
This was really helpful. Thanks for this tips!
Thanks for this! Would love to get my hands on a Contax 645 system but I need another system like I need a hole in my head… My only experience with 645 is with my Hasselblad H2 and Phase One system. The Phase system has some great lenses but autofocus is challenging and sadly they closed the system to film backs…
The Hasselblad H, on the other hand, was fairly cheap and can switch easily between film and digital. Love the viewfinder and results I get with this. With the CF adaptor I can use all my V lenses.
I’ve read that it has become very difficult to get any Contax camera serviced. This is too bad as they made great cameras across the range.
Unreliable. They gave me a lot of problems when I used them.
always take the lens off, photo the lens adapting system and the mounting system. This is what photogs want to see!
Thanks a lot for your great tips. Really usefull.
Glad it was useful!