CAMERA GEEKERY: CONTAX S2b BY ERIC CHARLES JONES
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
In the early 1990’s when both the CONTAX S2 and S2b were introduced, the spotlight was on automation. Nearly all the major camera manufacturers produced bodies solely dependent on electronics and batteries. The CONTAX S2b was a willful departure from this trend. It was a simplified manual camera that required batteries only to power the light meter. A camera targeted at the romantic, the purest, the photographer who was looking for a slow, thoughtful, and deliberate approach to their photography.
In the midst of the digital age, there still are photographers who seek a simplified approach. If you are one of those photographers and have an affinity for Zeiss glass, The CONTAX S2b may be worth your attention.
The CONTAX S2 debuted in 1992. It commemorated CONTAX’s 60th anniversary of CONTAX branded cameras. Its chrome colored titanium shell specifically paid homage to the 1949 Contax S. The S stood for Spiegelreflex, German for single lens reflex (SLR). The Contax S, for many, is one of the forefathers to modern SLR cameras. The S2 and S2b were both aimed at the discerning photographer who wanted an uncomplicated refined camera that traced its lineage to its German predecessor.
The CONTAX S2 was unique in that it only had a spot meter. This required the photographer to be mindful and deliberate in their approach. Light meter readings could vary greatly outside of the 5mm spot meter circle causing dramatically overexposed or underexposed areas on film negatives to inexperienced photographers.
The S2b was a direct response to photographers wanting a more versatile metering system. It made its appearance in 1994. It has a center weighted light meter. With the exception of the metering systems and colors, the two versions of the S2 are mechanically the same. The S2b sold for around $100 USD more than the S2. Today, due to its relative scarcity, the S2b can sell for twice as much as the S2. Both cameras were discontinued in 2000. Sadly, the CONTAX brand was retired by Kyocera in 2005.
Body: Dark gray titanium bottom, front and top casing
- Type: 35mm focal plane shutter SLR
- Lens Mount: Contax/Yashica
- Shutter: Mechanical, vertical travel, metal shutter
- Shutter Speed: Manual: 1 to 1/4000 sec, B, X 1/250 sec. Self-timer: Mechanical; 10 sec delay
- Shutter release: Mechanical w/cable release socket, release lock
- Exposure: Manual exposure w/ metering sensor: SPD cell
- Metering range: (ISO 100 f/1.4).
- S2b: Center-weighted average EV 2 to EV 20
- Film speed: ISO 12 to 6400
- Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level pentaprism finder w/ diopter adjustment and 8 optional diopter lenses
- Focusing Screen: Interchangeable, Viewfinder: 0.82x mag and 95% field of view
- Viewfinder display: LEDs for flash indicator, over/under exposure warning and shutter speeds
- Film transport: manual film advance and rewind
- Power: 2x 1.5V LR44 batteries with battery check
- Dimensions: 134.5 x 89 x 51 mm
- Weight: 565g without battery
Appearance and Functions
The S2b is a stately, classy, minimalist camera. It was marketed as a refined but rugged take anywhere companion. The bottom, top and front plates are made of dark gray titanium. The front body and rear cover are enclosed in soft leather. Many of the cameras now show signs of peeling leather, however replacement leather can easily be found online.
The camera feels competent in your hands, small, solid, well-engineered but light. The knobs and buttons are basic and spartan. Everything is where it needs to be. However, those with larger hands may find the controls a little cramped.
On the top right you find the shutter speed dial. It displays the bulb setting and shutter speeds. Shutter speeds range from 1 second to a very fast shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second. Flash sync speed tops off at a very respectable 1/250 of a second. The shutter release button has an integrated lock and cable release socket, the film advance lever also has a combined multiple exposure lever. Finally, there is a basic exposure counter.
On the right front, the lens release button, the 10 second self-timer that also doubles as a mirror lock up and the aperture preview button are situated.
On the opposite side, the film rewind crank is combined with the film speed dial. The ISO range is 12 to 6400. Below the film speed dial is the film speed release button.
The viewfinder displays 95% of the field of view with a 0.82x magnification. On my copy, the screen is bright and clear. The eyepiece allows me to use my glasses with no issues but there are 8 corrective lenses (diopters) available from +3 to -5. There are 4 focusing screens available: FU-3 (45-degree split image), FU-4 (horizontal split screen), FU-5 (matte), and FU-6 (grid). The horizontal split screen came standard.
Inside the viewfinder are basic LED indicators. On the right side of the viewfinder, is the overexposure indicator, the underexposure indicator, the shutter speed indicator and the electronic flash ready indicator. However, TTL flash synchronization functions are not available with the S2 and S2b.
The camera is utilitarian. It’s reassuring using a CONTAX camera from the Kyocera/Yashica era and not worrying about batteries to power its shutter. The batteries are only needed to operate the light meter (2x 1.5V LR44). If these batteries die then you can always go old school and use the sunny 16 rule to estimate daylight exposures.
The (TTL) light meter is center weighted and accurate. However, it would have been great if they could have engineered Into the S2b the option for both spot and center weighted metering.
To achieve a proper exposure, one looks through the viewfinder. Two shutter speeds are displayed, one your current shutter speed (blinking) and the other, the recommended speed from the camera’s light meter. One simply adjusts the aperture or the shutter speed to match the speed recommended by the camera for proper exposure.
The film advance lever is smooth and confident but not as refined as some other cameras, like the Nikon F3. It’s made of sturdy plastic but a metal lever would have better suited the feel and aesthetics of the camera.
The mirror slap when the shutter is released is noticeable but none more than any other mechanical SLR. So, this is something to keep in mind if you are looking for a discreet street shooter.
A camera body is only part of the foundation of producing quality images, the C/Y mount also means you have access to many of the outstanding manual lenses in the Carl Zeiss lens catalog, arguably some of the finest from that period.
Planar 85/1.4~ Lomography Fantôme 8
Distagon 28/2.8 ~ Kodak 400 UltraMax
Planar 50/1.7 Lomography~ Fantôme 8
Planar 50/1.7~ Kodak 200 Gold
Vario-Sonnar 35-70/3.4~ Kodak 400 UltaMax
Planar 50/1.7 Kodak 200 Gold
Distagon 28/2.8~Kodak 400 UltraMax
Planar 50/1.7~Kodak 400 UltraMax
Planar 50/1.7~Kodak T-Max 3200
If you already possess several Carl Zeiss lenses and are looking for a simple, yet sophisticated camera body then the CONTAX S2b is well worth your consideration. Currently, prices for a mint copy are hovering around $1000+ USD, but as in all things film, prices are increasing. If you must have that Zeiss glass then the decision becomes a little easier, the problem comes in finding one in top condition and justifying paying the price. There are a few less expensive options, the CONTAX S2 utilizing the spot meter or the less featured, wrapped in plastic, Yashica FX Super 2000.
The camera that you choose often is determined by where you are on your photographic journey. Personally, I have been scaling back and being more present in my photography. The S2b speaks to me on that level. The camera is as elemental as you can get. It’s back to basics approach may not be for everyone. However, if you know where you are on your journey, it may be the only camera that you will ever need.
Thank you again Eric for your detailed review.
You can see Eric’s Instagram here. His website is coming soon and hopefully more articles.