User Collectible Camera: The remarkable Contax 645

Brilliant modular design and Zeiss optics make it a medium-format classic (And it takes digital backs!)

Is this exquisite, ingenious, and (alas) recently discontinued 6x4.5cm SLR a user collectible or a classic collectible? Answer: Without the shadow of a doubt, it is both. Its outstanding picture-taking performance is still unsurpassed by any medium-format camera in current production.

When it debuted back in '99, the Contax 645 was hailed as the first modular, medium-format, autofocus SLR, as a masterpiece of mechanical and electronic integration, and praised for its handsome design, excellent balance, superb full-information viewfinder, and ergonomic controls. Perhaps the greatest complement you can pay to this remarkable machine is that it's a camera that Zeiss-Ikon, originators of the venerable Contax marque, would have been proud of.

The best news for fans, users, and potential collectors of the Contax 645 and its system of lenses and accessories, is that a pristine Contax 645 outfit, complete with 80mm f/2 Zeiss Planar lens AE prism, and 120/220 film back is currently available at Adorama's used department for around $1,500, or roughly one-third of its original selling price!

Additionally, Contax and third parties such as PhaseOne, Mega-Vision, Leaf, and even Kodak have come out with high-resolution digital backs that can be attached to the Contax 645, bringing this user collectible right up to date.

When you consider that virtually all cameras and lenses bearing the legendary Zeiss and Contax names are prized by collectors and tend to retain their value better than other brands, the time to acquire a Contax 645 outfit is now, when supplies of cameras, lenses, backs, finders, etc. in excellent condition are still readily available at reasonable prices.

State-of-the-art specs

The Contax 645's specifications are impressive. Its pioneering modular autofocus design is based on a slim main body section with built-in grip, to which 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. Other key features include:

  • A wide-area autofocus system incorporating four horizontal and two vertical line sensors
  • An electronically controlled vertical metal-bladed focal-plane shutter with speeds of 32-1/4000 sec in AV mode, 8 sec to 1/4000 sec in TV and manual modes, and X sync at 1/90 sec (up to 1/125 sec with dedicated TLA-series flash units)
  • A built-in motor providing single, or continuous advance up to 1.6 frames-per-sec, plus auto first frame positioning and end-of-roll wind-on
  • Shutter- and aperture-priority AE plus metered manual with a choice of narrow-angle spot or center-weighted metering
  • A dedicated TTL autoflash system with slow speed and second-curtain sync that provides pre-flash metering
  • Exclusive vacuum film insert that theoretically increases film flatness with 220 film
  • A barcode reader for DX-coded roll film

In short, the Contax 645 was a high-tech marvel, and the first of the breed to combine all the elements of a professional medium-format autofocus system of photography.

Excellent ergonomics

Like many modern cameras, the Contax is clad in attractive polycarbonate that's easy to grasp securely, but it's 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.

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 fact that all these controls can be easily operated with your right hand makes shooting a breeze. While the Contax 645 is no lightweight at 4 pounds, 4.6 ounces complete with 80mm f/2 lens, prism finder, back, and batteries, it balances and contours to your hands so well that it feels much lighter.

Outstanding viewfinder

The Contax 645's viewfinder provides one of the brightest, most contrasty viewing images I've ever seen. The pale-green-illuminated LCD readouts below the viewing area are large, legible, and informative. They include a battery status indicator, 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.

With the prism finder in place, the viewfinder shows 87 percent of the picture area at a magnification of 0.76X with no parallax error--about as good as it gets with a pentaprism-equipped, medium-format SLR. If you need to see 100 percent of the recorded image, get the optional waist-level finder--one of a plethora of items in the camera's extensive accessory list.

By the way, the Contax's exceptional finder is a real plus when focusing manually. This is particularly important because the one area where the Contax 645 cannot match, say, the current Hasselblad H1 or H2 is in autofocusing ability. The Contax's AF system works quite well in bright light with contrasty subjects, but tends to be slow and occasionally indecisive in dim light and with low-contrast subjects. Manual focus is the cure in such situations and it works like a charm, especially since every one of the Zeiss lenses provides extremely smooth, well-damped manual focusing action.

An unparalleled choice of lenses

All the Carl Zeiss lenses in the Contax 645 optical line are T* coated, designed by Zeiss in Germany, and manufactured by Kyocera in Japan with on-site quality control by German Zeiss technicians. To quote one knowledgeable expert who's tested many medium-format systsms, ??here isn't a collection of lenses anywhere--from any manufacturer--that produces images of as uniformly high quality.??

Yes, Contax 645 lenses are expensive, and they are unlikely to drop in price, but the good news is they cost somewhat less than, say, Zeiss lenses for V-series Hasselblads. The stellar optical array includes Zeiss lenses from 35mm to 350mm, including the 35mm f/3.5, 45mm f/2.8, and 55mm f/3.5 Distagons, 80mm f/2 Planar, 120mm f/4 Apo-Makro Planar, 140mm f/2.8 and 210mm f/4 Sonnars, 45-90mm f/4.5 Vario-Sonnar, and the hard-to-find 350mm f/4 Tele-Apotessar. There's also a highly corrected 1.4X Mutar teleconverter. The fact that the Contax 645's normal lens is an 80mm f/2 is a plus for available-light shooting and pictorial effects, and all these lenses are prized for their outstanding bokeh (out-of-focus-image quality).

Overall excellence and investment potential

To state it concisely, the Contax 645 is a masterfully engineered, meticulously crafted machine that combines the virtues of a practical professional camera of the highest caliber with the panache of a classic collectible. With its brilliantly executed modular design, traditional user-friendly controls, reputation for reliability, and complete absence of extraneous bells and whistles, it will delight professionals, enthusiasts, and collectors alike. The fact that it can be easily adapted for digital capture by adding any one of a number of digital backs will keep it a contender for years to come. Finally, given the illustrious track record of Contax cameras with Zeiss lenses, the Contax 645 may well have the greatest upside potential of any medium-format camera out there!

© Adorama

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