You can’t say that 2021 started under the best auspices, but hopefully we’ll see the end of COVID related restrictions and will be able to return to a more normal life soon.
What do I have on my bucket list?
I’m still hesitant because of the time commitment it would require, but I may start processing film myself – having film processed by good labs is getting seriously expense – but if developing conventional Black and White film is relatively easy and does not require much in terms of equipment and time, scanning requires good hardware and is extremely time consuming. I may give it a try, though.
I still believe that Nikon cameras from the late-seventies/early eighties offer the best compromise between reliability, optical quality and usability, but I can’t help trying my luck with cameras from other brands – I’m still looking for a really good lens for my recently acquired Pentax Super-Program (I decided I like it after all), and for a good camera to pair with the great Contax Vario-Sonnar I bought last year: the Contax ST is so big it scares people, and the Yashica FX3 is simply too unreliable. I may finally buy a Contax Aria – if I can find one costing less than a mortgage payment.
Last but not least, I’m keeping an eye on the new Nikon mirrorless system (the Z6 in particular) – it would be a great way to use my favorite full frame lenses on a digital camera. Of course, I would have to sell a few of my cameras to pay for it, but the value of film cameras has risen dramatically recently, so it should not be too difficult to fund.
I’m glad 2020 is over – and that, with vaccine starting to be available (not everywhere – Georgia is a laggard) – 2021 brings some hope of a return to normalcy.
I did not take many pictures last year, I did not travel much and tested my recently acquired cameras primarily in Atlanta neighborhoods – Piedmont Park – often – and Sweet Auburn – frequently.
It did not prevent the traffic on this site to explode – with 36,000 visitors and 52,000 pages viewed over the year – thank you.
As in previous years, the Angenieux 28-70 f/2.8 zoom and its Tokina cousins were at the top of the list, followed by the Fujica 35mm reflex cameras and a newcomer to the top 5, the Nikon N90. Readers are predominantly coming from English speaking countries (USA, UK, Canada, Australia), followed by the non-English speaking countries of Western Europe.
I finally had a couple of 35mm cartridges processed (and by the way, film processing is getting seriously expensive in those post COVID days) and I’m preparing a series of posts on some of your favorite subjects – the Tokina 28-70 zoom and the Pentax Super-Program, of course, while exploring new territories with a surprisingly good Canon QL17.
Thank you for following this blog, and sharing comments – now that the worst seems over, Happy Rest of the Year…
A prestigious sub-brand of the famous Carl Zeiss company, Contax had stopped manufacturing its own cameras when it licensed the use of its brand name to Yashica in 1975.
Along the seventies and the eighties, Yashica developed two lines of Contax SLRs: a line of pro-models (the RTS followed by RTS II), and a line of more consumer oriented products (137, 139, 159, 167) for well heeled enthusiasts who did not want to pay for and carry around a large, heavy and very expensive pro camera. Without reaching the production volumes of Canon or Pentax, the Contax cameras of this era still sold in respectable numbers (200,000 units for the Contax 139, for instance).
The cameras were technically on par with the competition and benefited from a very attractive design, but their real differentiator was their access to a line of interchangeable lenses carrying the Carl Zeiss brand.
With the advent of autofocus systems (Minolta opened the fire in 1985 with the Maxxum, soon to be followed by all other major Japanese camera makers), manual focus cameras found themselves rapidly relegated to two niches: cheap entry level / learners cameras on the one hand, and high end products for traditionalist photographers who preferred a conventional user interface and a full metal construction, on the other hand.
Contax, having declined to adopt autofocus, did not have products for the heart of the market anymore, and had no interest in selling entry-level models. They focused on the high-end of the market, trying to create cameras for each of the many small niches composing the “traditional, manual focus cameras” market.
Aside of the Contax ST already reviewed in those pages, what was Contax selling in the nineties?
RTS III – the “pro” camera of the Contax family – with more or less the same specs as the ST, but with a unique flash metering system, a faster motor, more “pro” features such as mirror lock-up and a unique vacuum back to keep the film flat during the exposure, but also more heft and much more weight,
S2 and S2b – semi-auto only, with spot meter only (S2) or average (S2b) metering only – two very spartan cameras at the polar opposite of the RTS III – for a totally different – and minimalist – experience,
RX – the successor of the ST, launched 2 years after. Most people posting in forums tend to prefer the RX to the ST, because of its focus assist and a lower weight. But it needs Lithium batteries (lighter than the AAA batteries of the ST, they are expensive and difficult to find nowadays) and its lower weight is due to a more liberal use of plastics in its construction, which is not to everybody’s taste. It was succeeded by the RX II, almost identical cosmetically but deprived of the focus assist system.
AX – its absolutely unique autofocus system (where the photographer sets the (manual focus) lens to the infinite, and the whole film chamber of the camera moves forward or backwards to adjust the focus) makes for a very large SLR (it looks more like a medium format camera, actually) – a curiosity.
Aria – the last of the Contax manual focus line – launched in 1998, with a set of specs similar to the ST’s, but in a smaller body, and with matrix metering. Some people like it for its reduced weight and size, other photographers hate that it’s built (at least in part) of painted polycarbonate (plastic). I still have to test one, but that’s the only one I would consider as a substitute to the ST.
In addition to its line of 35mm SLRs, Contax also launched an autofocus, modular medium format camera, the 645 in 1999, a well received line of autofocus rangefinder cameras (G1, G2), and many “premium” compact cameras – which are highly sought after today.
The last years
Contax finally launched their first autofocus 35mm SLR, the Contax N1, in 2000, but it came far too late to make an impact on a market already moving to digital. To add insult to injury, the autofocus lens mount was not compatible with the C/Y mount of Yashica’s and Contax manual focus cameras, or with Yashica’s own autofocus lens mount – in fact, it had more in common with Contax’s own medium format camera system, and was technically very close to the mount designed by Canon for its EOS cameras.
The digital version of that camera, launched in 2002, was the first attempt by a major vendor at selling a full-frame 24x36mm dSLR, but the sensor they were using was simply not good enough and the camera made a flop.
Kyocera (the Japanese ceramics giant that had bought Yashica in 1983) – finally pulled the plug on all its photographic activities in 2005, and the Contax brand has not been used since. At the time it left the photography market, Contax was still selling 35mm film SLRs (the Aria, the RX II and the RTS III, and the autofocus N1 and NX), a medium format film camera system (the 645), a line of expensive compact point and shoot cameras (film and digital) and its full frame 35mm digital SLR, the N Digital.
More about it:
The Web site of Contax-UK (frozen in 2005) – surprisingly it’s still up, 15 years after Contax withdrew from the photo equipment market:
Today I received the scans of two series of pictures I had taken in the Atlanta area at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (which explains that the parks and the streets look empty).
Over the last couple of months, I’ve used alternatively my most recent acquisitions, a Contax ST with its very (very) large Contax-Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 lens, and a Pentax P3 with its very (very) small Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 zoom.
First observation – almost all pictures are usable – correctly exposed, with the subject in focus. No major flaw with any of the cameras or zooms.
Second observation: I knew that this Contax ST had an issue with the transmission of the value of the aperture selected on the lens to the body, and I set it with a permanent correction of +1.3 EV to counterbalance it. It’s probably too much – I’ll reduce the correction to +0.5 EV in the future. I experienced difficulties with the film rewind on the P3 (I had to open the film door in a dark room and push maybe 6 inches of film back into the cartridge) but only one frame was lost in the process. I suspect the issue to be related to the film receiving spool. Both cameras are approximately 30 years old, they can be temperamental.
Third observation: both cameras have all the features I need (aperture priority auto mode, semi-auto mode, exposure memorization) and a good viewfinder (the Contax’s is fantastic, the Pentax’s is very good considering the original target audience of the camera). Both are really pleasant to use. The Contax is definitely a big and heavy camera, and the lens is even larger and more ponderous. When you use the Contax combo, you get noticed, and you make some people nervous (carry it in a bag, and don’t shoot with it in an area where people tend to be very concerned for their privacy – that would be asking for trouble). The Pentax set, on the other hand, is compact and light, and does not draw attention. But there is a trade off to compactness: image quality.
Which bring us to our fourth observation. My intent was not to perform a scientific comparison between the Zeiss and the Pentax zooms. I shot the pictures on different days at different locations, but since it was in the same type of urban settings, and with the same type of film (Kodak Ektar 100), we can somehow compare the pictures and draw some conclusions. Sorry Pentax fans, the difference is extremely visible. I may have bought a bad copy of the lens, the front element may be dirty (I did my best to clean it, though), but in any case there’s a world of difference between pictures shot with the Vario-Sonnar and the SMC-Pentax-A zoom, in particular when it comes to contrast and sharpness. Thirty years ago, I was using a Pentax KA 35-70 zoom on my Pentax MX (I don’t remember if it was the same f/3.5-4.5 version of the lens, or the constant F/4 model) and I was pleased with the results, so not all Pentax zooms are bad, and I’ll shoot with another Pentax lens as soon as I can.
After I imported the scans in Lightroom, I made adjustments to the exposure and the highlights (the sky was over exposed by both cameras), and I tried to increase (massively) the contrast on the images taken with the Pentax lens, but Lightroom sliders can only do so much if the original picture is too soft. See for yourself.
A word of caution: you won’t see much of a difference if you look at the pictures on a good smartphone – the screen is small and smartphones are very good at enhancing images – but it’s more visible on a tablet, and pretty obvious on the monitor of a full size personal computer. Also, remember that WordPress displays the images of this blog at a relatively low resolution (width: 1024 points) – to really visualize the difference in image quality, click on the images and you will see them full size(they were scanned at 3130 x 2075 points).
With 3 million units sold between 1985 and 1997, the Pentax P30 (known as the P3 in the “rest of the world”) is the last mass market manual focus SLR to come from a major manufacturer (*). Originally designed as a simple entry level tool for amateurs, it was rapidly upgraded to support more auto-exposure modes, and became the go-to camera for a generation of learners and enthusiasts, who wanted to grow their skills but were not ready to purchase an expensive and overly complex auto-focus camera.
In this blog entry, I’ll use indifferently the names P3 and P30 – even if in theory the American models were P3s, Pentax also sold P30s in the US.
In parallel, Pentax was still selling another manual focus SLR, the K1000, whose technical roots went as far back as 1964 (the first Spotmatic camera), and the production of both cameras was stopped in 1997 to make room for a much more modern model, the ZX-M.
Contrarily to many previous entry level SLRs from Canon, Fujica or Nikon which were excessively simplified, even the first version of the P30 was a well specified model, at the same time easy to use for casual photography (it had a reliable Program Mode and a good viewfinder), and capable enough for the enthusiast or the motivated learner (it could also be operated in semi-auto mode, and had easy to use exposure lock and depth of field preview commands). It was also pleasantly designed, and better built than many cheap entry level SLRs from lesser brands.
The original P30 had two big weaknesses:
even if it did its best to hide the film rewind crank and the shutter lever, it was still a non-motorized camera, when some of its direct competitors (other entry level cameras operating primarily in Program mode like Canon’s T50) were relieving the photographer from the chore of loading and unloading the film. Even though the film loading process was greatly simplified (you align the end of the film with a red marker and the camera takes care of the rest), you still have to rewind the exposed film (press the rewind button, pull the rewind crank, and turn and turn until all the film is safely back into the cartridge). I assume it was a trade-off (non motorized cameras are smaller, lighter, quieter and cheaper, and they don’t need expensive and short lived lithium batteries) but cameras with motorized film loading and rewind are much easier to use for a true amateur.
It only worked in the Program mode with the (by then) relatively new Pentax KA lenses (manual focus with electrical contacts to control the aperture), and Pentax users upgrading from a K1000, KM, KX, MX, ME, MG, MV who had bought Pentax K lenses a few years earlier were condemned to the Manuel (semi-auto) exposure mode.
The first weakness was inherent to the base design of the camera and not much could be done – but that second weakness was easier to fix: in 1988 Pentax added an aperture priority auto-exposure mode to the P30n. The camera would remain virtually unchanged from thereon, except for the color of the body and the orientation of the split screen telemeter when it became the P30t in 1990.
A few months ago, I bought a P30 (a first generation model, still made in Japan) for the lens that came with it (on auction sites, it’s often cheaper to buy a lens with a camera attached to it, than the lens alone). I needed the lens for a Pentax Super-Program I had just bought. But I ended liking this P3 more than the Super-Program, and those cameras are so cheap that I rapidly purchased a P30n and a P30t – the aperture priority automatic exposure versions of the camera. In retrospect, that was a bad idea. But more about this later…
The P30 is a bit larger than the Super-Program, which leaves enough room for a conventional shutter speed dial, it is also easier to load with film, and it’s one of the first SLRs to have adopted DX coding. There is no exposure compensation dial, (just a very useful exposure lock button, which I tend to prefer), the shutter is a bit slower (1/1000 sec only), and the viewfinder is not as informative (only the shutter speed is indicated, there is no way to know the aperture selected by the camera in program mode) – but the column of bright LEDs at the left of the viewfinder is easier to read than the two small and dark LCD displays at the bottom of the Super-Program’s focusing screen .
Where was it made?
The P30 proudly shows it’s made by Asahi Pentax in Japan. The P30n shows it’s manufactured by Asahi Pentax Co in an undisclosed country (some copies have an “assembled in China” sticker, so there’s no real doubt about its provenance), while the P30t is simply “assembled in China, under license and supervision of Asahi Pentax” – which means that manufacturing had been outsourced to a local Chinese partner.
P30, P30n, P30t – the differences
On the outside, not much. There’s more metal in the P30 – the film door, the bottom plate, which are replaced with good quality plastic molded components on the P30n and P30t. There may have been variations during the long production run of the P30n/t, bu they all share the same plastic bottom plate with its new and improved battery compartment door.
Technically, the major difference is that the P30n and P30t have an extra position on the shutter speed dial: a big green “A” for aperture – the cameras offer Aperture Priority Auto-exposure – with any Pentax K lens: the photographer selects the aperture, and the camera picks the right shutter speed, which is indicated by a LED on a scale at the left of the viewfinder. The other modes (Programmed auto-exposure and semi-auto) are still available.
It’s a light camera designed for amateurs – it’s not a tank guaranteed for 250,000 exposures. But, normally, a well preserved copy gently used by amateurs should be expected to work. It’s not exactly the case here.
I had no problem initially with the P30, but the P30n and the P30t I bought afterwards have the same issue: a single action on the winding lever is not enough to cock the shutter: the P30n generally requires two very slow actions (which means every other frame is wasted), and the P30t only cocks the shutter after multiple and extremely slow actions on the winding lever, when it does at all.
it makes the cameras unusable in the real life.
it’s not uncommon for the P30 – there are multiple messages in Pentax forums about this issue
I removed the bottom plate of both cameras, and could very distinctly see the culprit – a lever in the shutter mechanism that doesn’t engage completely (too much friction in the assembly or a spring too weak to pull the lever to the “cocked” position). Two suggestions on the forums: lubricate the assembly with silicon, or cock the shutter a few hundreds times to loosen the assembly – I’ve tried the hundred times method (as well as my tried and tested “hair dryer” method) with no success so far. And buying $20.00 worth of specialized lubricant to fix a $10.00 camera looks pretty much like throwing good money after bad.
The P30 that I considered immune to the quirks of the P30n/t has also started misbehaving – it did not let me rewind the film to the end, I had to wait for my return home to open the film door of the camera in a dark room, and push the last 10 inches of film in the cartridge manually. And my dark room being what it is, I probably lost 15 shots in the process, if not more.
Three cameras, three issues, all related to the shutter cocking and film advance and rewind mechanisms – that’s too much for bad luck – there is something intrinsically flawed with this line of cameras – they don’t age gracefully and can’t be relied upon.
There is little love for the P30 – postage often costs more than the camera itself – and I’m talking standard domestic US Postal Service rates here. The reliability issues mentioned above probably play their part here.
As a conclusion
Two non functioning cameras out of three, and a third that misbehaved while I was trying to rewind the film – that’s a major disappointment – I’ve never experienced such a thing with any camera maker before, even with the Fujica AX series which have a pretty bad reputation.
When it works, it’s a very pleasant camera. But the risk that is does not is simply too high. My verdict: avoid.
(*) – After the P30 was retired from the market in 1997, a few manual focus SLRs kept on being released and manufactured by other major camera makers (the Nikon FM3a, the Contax Aria and the Leica R9 come to mind) but they were more expensive niche products made in small quantities (a total of 112,000 copies for the FM3a, and 8,000 for the R9, for instance); they did not address the “mass market”.
Out of the three P30s I recently purchased, only one was usable. It made the trip to Savannah in my photo equipment bag. But after it refused to fully rewind the roll of film I had just exposed, it also found itself out of commission, leaving me with no choice but to finish the week-end with the excellent (and so far, reliable) Fujifilm X-100t.
I know. It’s provocative. But don’t buy a Yashica FX-3 without ensuring first that you have a good hair dryer in one of your bathroom cabinets.
Google and a hair dryer to the rescue
When I received the FX-3, the camera seemed to work perfectly with no lens mounted, but as soon as a lens was in place, the reflex mirror was refusing to return into its normal position at the end of the shutter release cycle, making the camera unusable. But as soon as I was removing the lens, the mirror was returning back into its normal position.
Google is my best friend, and I rapidly learned that the Yashica FX-3s are renown for their sliding mirror problem. Over time, the mirror (which is glued to a part I’ll call the hinged mirror holder) tends to slide forward, and after some time (years? months? weeks?) it has moved so much that it hits the back of the lens, preventing the shutter release cycle from completing. The solution? Use a hair dryer to soften the glue, and gently push the mirror a few tens of a millimeter back, to the top of the mirror holder. I tried, and it worked. I can now use the camera – I just don’t know how long this fix will operate, and how often I’ll need to give the camera a hair do.
Yashica’s FX-3 series
The FX-3 Super 2000 is the final declination of a line of simple semi-automatic, manual focus cameras, released by Yashica between 1979 and 1986. Before the FX-3, Yashica had launched two FX models, but they don’t belong to the same technical family – the early FXs were largely derived from cameras sold before Yashica adopted the Contax/Yashica bayonet mount: the FX-1 from 1975 (an aperture priority automatic camera), and the semi-automatic FX-2 from 1976 still incorporate CdS cells for metering and require mercury oxide batteries. The FX-3, like the FX-3 Super and the FX-3 Super 2000 that followed, incorporates a silicon cell and is powered by a pair of ubiquitous SR 44 silver oxide batteries.
FX-3, FX-7, FX-3 Super, FX-7 Super and FX-3 Super 2000: the differences
The black bodied FX-3 and its chrome finished sibling, the FX-7, are semi-automatic SLRs, with a silicon cell meter activated by a dedicated push button at the back of the body – in the Yashica tradition. Their fastest shutter speed is 1/1000s, and their meter is coupled from 12 to 1600 ISO. Exposure information is communicated to the photographer by 3 LEDs in the viewfinder. And thanks to their Contax Yashica bayonet lens mount, they accept any Yashica lens from the ML, MC, YUS and DSB series, as well as Contax Carl-Zeiss lenses. Older screw mount Yashica lenses can probably be used, provided you can locate a 42mm Universal to C/Y mount adapter.
On the “Super” versions, the meter is activated by a light press on the shutter release button, and a (very) small vertical grip has been added on the front right side of the body.
The Super 2000 is only available in black, its shutter speed now peaks at 1/2000 sec, and the meter is coupled from 25 to 3200 ISO.
Considering that old lenses tend to be more luminous than the zooms we use today (manual focus 50mm f/1.4 lenses are very affordable) and that 400 ISO film is often easier to find than 100 ISO stock, having a faster shutter speed is an important plus – I picked the Super 2000 for that reason.
Is it another derivative of the Cosina CT-1?
Check Wikipedia and similar sources – you’ll see the FX-3 is generally presented as a Cosina-designed and manufactured camera.
Before they bought and relaunched the Voigtlander brand, Cosina was selling is own line of compact cameras and SLRs, but was primarily known as a sub-contractor of the big camera makers – at some point, Canon, Nikon and Olympus were all selling, under their own brands, cameras that were manufactured (and to a large extent) designed by Cosina.
The fact is that Cosina was very good at deriving unique designs from a common base – the Cosina CT-1 semi-auto SLR is generally seen as the common basis for cameras as different as the Canon T-60, the Nikon FM10, the Olympus OM-2000, and Cosina’s own line of rangefinder products (the Voigtlander Bessa R series).
As far as Yashica is concerned, it is not absolutely certain that the cameras of the FX-3 series were made or designed by Cosina, and if they were, I doubt that were CT-1 derivatives: as we’ve seen, some of the quirks of the FX3 (the sliding mirror syndrome) seem to be unique to Yashica – I’ve never read of a Nikon FM-10 or an Olympus OM-2000 misbehaving in such a way.
Contax Carl-Zeiss lenses share the same C/Y bayonet as Yashica’s own lenses, and they’re without a doubt the best lenses you can mount on the FX-3. They tend to be on the expensive side, though. Yashica ML (multi-coated) lenses generally have a good reputation – which reflects in their price on the second hand market. The Yashica DSB and YUS series were designed for “price conscious amateur” – a polite way to say they should be avoided if possible.
Lastly, the C/Y mount of the FX-3 is totally different from the Yashica AF lens mount (a screw drive autofocus mount similar to Minolta’s) and from the Contax N lens mount of the early 2000s (an all electric autofocus mount very similar to Canon’s EF).
Shooting with the FX-3 Super 2000
The first thing you notice about the Super 2000 is its cheap construction – the lens mount and the back of the camera are made of metal, but all the other components that photographers will touch are made of plastic. As a result, the camera is light, but it does not feel reassuringly solid. The commands (wind lever, rewind crank, shutter release button) are obviously not mounted on ball or bronze bearings – you can feel the friction between the parts inside the camera.
The viewfinder is rather dim, with a short eye relief (roughly similar to the Nikon FM/FE series, which means not that great). I was disappointed not to find a depth of field preview lever, or a shutter release lock: the camera can’t be turned off.
All in all, it feels like a cheap (really cheap) camera, not quite as bad as the horrible Fuji AX Multi or STX-2, but still miles away from equivalent models from Canon (AT-1) or Nikon (FM, FM2), or from automatic SLRs designed for amateurs like the Pentax P30. Compared to other cameras attributed to Cosina, the FX-3 does not look as nice as the Olympus OM-2000 but the quality of the mechanics of the OM-2000 had not impressed me either. Interestingly, the FX-3’s reflex mirror does not seem to generate the same strong vibrations as the OM-2000’s at long shutter speeds – it’s probably usable hand-held down to 1/30s – a feat that the OM-2000 is incapable of.
Contax or FX-3 Super 2000?
The FX-3 Super 2000 is a very simple entry level camera, made out of plastic, and designed to a very low manufacturing cost point. It’s very light – that’s its saving grace – and that could somehow justify carrying an FX-3 in a photo-equipment bag next to a Contax SLR, as a backup. But buyers of Contax cameras or lenses were people of means, who had spent a serious amount of money for the privilege of mounting high quality lenses on a well thought and beautifully designed camera – it’s difficult to imagine them happy with a FX-3.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of this camera, and it’s definitely not one of my keepers. To my taste, it’s too plasticky, technically too limited, and this sliding mirror issue is simply unacceptable. Even for a backup camera.
Place a FX-3 next to a Canon AT-1 or a Nikon FM, and you’ll immediately see and feel the difference. Place it next to a Contax camera, and you can’t believe they were designed and manufactured under the control of the same corporation.
Does it make sense to buy a FX-3?
As a backup camera? Maybe – compared to a high end Contax camera (RTS I, II or III, ST, RX, AX), the FX-3 Super 2000 is much smaller, lighter, and although it’s not as elaborate or pleasant to use (by a wide margin), it does the job when you still want to shoot with Zeiss glass, but can’t carry a very large and very heavy rig.
As a primary camera? Sorry, I don’t think so. Zeiss lenses have an undisputed appeal, but they’re expensive, and even Yashica ML lenses are not exactly cheap. So, if I started from scratch and wanted a good quality set to shoot film for not too much money, I would probably pick another system (Canon FD, Nikon F, Pentax K) with a wider and cheaper supply of great camera bodies and lenses. And if the lure of Zeiss lenses was too strong, and I was to spend serious money on lenses of the Contax/Yashica family, I would also spend a little more on the body, and pick Contax 139 Quartz, or a late Contax model such as the S2, the S2b or the Aria – they’re compact and hopefully devoid of too many technical issues.
A semi auto camera from the mid-eighties, with a fast shutter and a lens mount accepting lenses known for their high quality, the FX-3 Super 2000 is not going to be cheap: its price is influenced by the current Contax-mania, and by the preference of film photographers for simple semi-automatic, manual focus cameras.
It’s obviously not in the same category (build quality, performance) as “high-end” semi-auto cameras such as the Contax S2, the Leica R6.2, the Nikon FM2, or the Olympus OM-3, but it often sells for more than Cosina CT-1 derivatives like the Olympus OM-2000 or the Canon T-60: a patient and lucky photographer can probably find a working FX-3 Super 2000 for less than $50.00, but I’ve seen ugly copies proposed for more than $100.00, with the nice ones approaching $200.00.
After the Super-Program, Pentax released a few other manual focus single lens reflex (SLRs), but targeting the beginners, learners or photographers who want to keep it cheap and simple: the P30 (P3 in the US) and very late in the game, the MZ-X (ZX-M in the US). But the Super-Program will remain known as the last manual focus Pentax camera aiming squarely at the “expert” or “enthusiast” photographer market.
Launched in 1983, it was followed one year later by the Program-Plus, a marginally simplified version deprived of shutter priority mode, of TTL/OTF Flash and equipped with a cheaper shutter (1/1000 sec instead of 1/2000).
As was customary for Pentax at the time, the camera was sold under a different model name in Asia (Super-A), in Europe (Super-A “European Camera of the Year”), and in North America (Super-Program). The North American models had a silver body, while in the rest of the world the camera was sold in a nicer all black version.
The Super-Program came to life as Pentax’s competitors were accelerating the introduction of innovations in an attempt to re-animate a depressed SLR market. That year, Canon and Konica introduced SLRs with automatic film loading and motorized film advance (a real simplification for the occasional photographer), Nikon launched the FA with Matrix Metering (a major innovation), and almost everybody released an experimental auto-focus camera.
In this context, the Super-Program was a very conventional camera – its only “innovation” being the addition of a very small LCD display showing the selected shutter speed at the right of the top plate, almost under the winding lever. It was a well designed and pleasant to use camera (we’ll come to it), but not different on paper from many other multi-automatic cameras launched a few years before (Minolta XD-7, Canon A-1, Fujica AX-5, to name a few).
The Super-Program was apparently built around the chassis of the ME (same dimensions, same motor drive options, same absence of a shutter speed knob) and as a result was among the smallest and lightest 35mm SLRs ever made in the pre-polycarbonate era (it competed with the Olympus OM series and the Nikon EM/FG for that distinction).
For the camera to support the Program Auto-Exposure mode (and, for the Super-Program, the Shutter priority mode), it had to be fitted with one of the new Pentax-A lenses (the ones with electrical contacts). The camera was still compatible with the older K lenses, but only in aperture priority and semi-auto exposure modes.
Weight, Size and ergonomics Derived from the successful Pentax ME series, the Super-A is a very compact and very light camera. There is probably more plastic used in its construction than in the first models of the ME series (the prism housing is clearly made out of polycarbonate), but the chassis is still made of metal and the camera feels pleasantly dense. As with cameras of the Pentax ME generation, there is no shutter speed dial on the Super-A, just two up and down buttons. On the ME Super, the only way to know what shutter speed had been selected (either by the auto exposure system or by the photographer in manual mode) was to look through the viewfinder. On the Super-A, the selected shutter speed is also shown on a very small LCD display next to the film wind lever, which is convenient (the Program-Plus is deprived of this small LCD), and makes the lack of a proper shutter speed knob more acceptable. Film loading is still a manual process, but Pentax has tried to make it as easy and reliable as possible, with multiple safeguards – for instance, the camera will not operate and will simply display 1000 on the shutter speed display until the film has been advanced to the first frame.
The camera falls in the hands nicely, with a small removable grip and a thumb rest on the right side of the body, and an easy to access depth of field preview lever. That being said, people with large hands would be better off with a larger camera: you really need small fingers and long nails to unlock and move the main mode selector from Lock to Auto or Manual, and the two push buttons that control the shutter speed are also tiny.
Viewfinder Derived from the M series, the Super-Program inherited some of their qualities – the viewfinder is large, wide, with a reasonably long eye-point (you can still see the whole frame if you wear glasses). The focusing screen is fine and luminous, with a split image telemeter surrounded by a ring of micro-prisms. The shutter speed and aperture information is displayed at the bottom of the viewfinder, on a grey LCD. The LCD is backlit – a window at the top of the prism collects the ambient light, and a push button on the left side of the lens mount flange turns on a rather faint light – so that the displays can be seen in when there is not enough ambient light. Honestly, this setup is far less legible than the green displays we’re used to if we shoot with dSLRs, or than the red LEDs used by the Canon A-1. But the camera only needs two small SR44 batteries (as opposed to the larger 6 volt battery of the A-1 or the large lithium batteries of modern cameras).
Metering system The Super-Program is very conventional: a center weighted average metering system, that’s all. No spot metering, no matrix metering (not invented yet…), and no DX coding (not invented yet). The camera obviously was designed for knowledgeable amateurs and enthusiasts, but surprisingly there is no exposure memory lock push button.
Battery: The Super-Program does not work – at all – without batteries. But it seems to manage them very carefully, and lets the photographer know in advance when the batteries will need to be changed. It simply needs a pair of the very easy to find Silver Oxide 1.5v batteries (SR44) that you can buy in any pharmacy or drugstore in the US.
Compatibility: Designed for the new KA mount (with electrical contacts to control the aperture), the Super-Program also works with any Pentax K compatible lens (SMC-Pentax, Pentax-M) as well as with the auto-focus FA lenses that followed. Considering the very long production run of the K mount family (available under one form or another since 1976), the wide adoption of the Pentax K bayonet mount amongst second tier camera makers, and the relative broad diffusion of Pentax branded lenses, finding a lens that fits the Super-Program is not an issue.Most of the accessories (winder, in particular) are shared with the previous ME generation.Pentax only released two manual focus cameras with TTL/OTF flash metering (Through The Lens, On The Film), the high end, modular LX and the Super A. Of course, specific flash units are needed to take advantage of the TTL mode, but at least the LX and the Super-A are using the same line of TTL flash guns. Other Pentax (or third party) flash units can be used, but won’t support TTL (*)
Reliability Electronic cameras from the mid-seventies-mid eighties have a bad reputation when it comes to reliability or battery management, in general. In certain cases, it’s totally justified (Fujica AX-3, AX-5, OM-2sp, Canon T90). I’ve not heard or read about any recurring horror story about the Super-A. That being said, if you shun electronics and want to use a relatively recent mechanical camera, there are not many alternatives in the Pentax family: the K1000 is about the only option – it was manufactured until 1997, and it’s possible to find fairly recent copies.
Scarcity and price – the Super-Program, and its little brother the Program-Plus were widely distributed (a total of 2 million cameras sold), and enough of them were treated with respect that good copies are easy to find on eBay, ShopGoodwill.com, and with resellers of second hand equipment. So, they’re not scarce, but not cheap either. The Super-Program is one of those cameras whose value is going up at the moment: it meets the criteria of a new-classic: it’s a manual focus, full featured and at the same time easy to use camera that will satisfy beginners and enthusiasts. You can find nice copies between $50.00 and $100.00 – and if you like your cameras all black, you’ll have to buy a Super-A from European or Japanese sellers, at roughly the same prices.
As a conclusion
It’s a nice little camera – for people who, in 1983, wanted “everything” – a relatively fast shutter (1/2000 sec), three automatic and a manual exposure mode, a good viewfinder with depth of field preview, exposure compensation, TTL Flash, and the ability to mount a winder.
It can draw from a very large range of Pentax K compatible lenses, and is still very affordable.
Doing “everything” in a non-motorized camera of such a small form factor leads to pretty cramped top plate, and difficult to operate controls for people with large hands or short nails.
Those who need “everything” and don’t mind shooting with a bigger/heavier camera can pick the Canon A-1, or the T90. The Nikon FA is also an option – although it shares some of its limitations with the Super-Program (no exposure memory lock, small and dark LCDs in the viewfinder). Those who love the small form factor and can live with a slower shutter and fewer auto exposure modes can pick the Olympus OM-2. (**)
In the Pentax family of cameras, the P3 of 1985 is an alternative to consider – a bit larger, it’s easier to use (with a large shutter speed knob and a large on-off switch, and easier to read information in the viewfinder). Sold as an entry level camera, it only has a 1/1000s shutter, can not be motorized, does not support TTL flash, and only offers a semi-auto mode in addition to the default Program mode. Its successors, the P3n and the P3t, add an Aperture priority mode. All have a good viewfinder and the very useful (for me) exposure lock function. They’re cheaper and even easier to find than the Super-Program, have everything a film photographer may need today, and are good cameras to discover film photography.
(*) flash – I’m not sure that flash control is an issue now – considering 1/ the high fail rate when shooting with flash with old cameras and old flash units, 2/ how easy it is NOT to need a flash on a modern digital camera (you simply set the ISO at 12,000), and 3/ how quick it is to check the quality of the lighting if you shoot with a flash mounted on a digital camera, you would have to be more of a purist than I am to shoot with a flash on a film camera.
(**) I’ve never used Minolta’s manual focus SLRs and can’t really comment on them – but there are good cameras in Minolta’s line-up obviously.
Sorry, no picture taken with the Super-Program this time (I don’t travel much because of Covid – and the opportunities for interesting shots are pretty limited in my backyard…)
The three pictures below were taken with another member of the Pentax family, the *ist DS, twelve years ago, in Georgetown.
Not really. Even if the Praktica B100 (and its lenses) may have been manufactured – at least in part – at locations where Zeiss used to assemble Contax cameras before WWII.
After having spent my hard earned cash on a Contax ST and its impressive Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 28-85 lens (both manufactured in Japan by Kyocera in the early nineties), I was curious to see what a camera proudly wearing (on the Eastern Block markets) the “Carl-Zeiss Jena” logo was really capable of. I found a very nice/very clean Praktica B100 on the site of Goodwill, and bought it for price of a few lattes at Starbucks.
So, back to Contax, Zeiss, Pentacon and Praktica….
But the truth is that apart from their geographical origin, those Prakticas had very little in common with pre-war Contax cameras, or with the Contax S sold just after the end of WWII – Praktica cameras owed more to designs created originally by another firm from Dresden, K.W (Kamera-Werkstätten Guthe & Thorsch), than to Carl Zeiss’ blueprints.
Although they did not have the right to use the Zeiss and Contax names on the export markets of the West, the East-Germans still tried to associate their line of 35mm SLRs with those prestigious brands: the Praktica cameras sold in the Eastern block wore Carl Zeiss-Jena logos at visible places (as did some of the lenses they were exporting to Western Europe).
The story of Zeiss is as complex and dramatic as Germany’s.
Founded in Jena, and located primarily in the Dresden area, the original Zeiss company suffered from massive aerial bombing during WWII, and from political circumstances in the aftermath of the war. First occupied by the US armed forces, but ultimately located in the Soviet occupation zone, it saw most of its leadership relocated to its Stuttgart offices by the Americans, while the Russians were literally disassembling what was left of its plants and moving them crate by crate to Kiev (Ukraine) as war reparations.
Lengthy legal disputes with the newly formed West German Carl Zeiss AG led the East German Zeiss entity to lose the use of its own name and brands on the Western markets. Under communist management, the East German Zeiss was progressively diluted into a huge state owned conglomerate named Pentacon, which found itself – at least in the West – relegated to the market of simple and affordable SLRs. Sold under the brand “Praktica”, they were more elaborate than the very rustic Russian Zenit, but increasingly behind the Japanese competition.
In 1979, Praktica finally launched a modern automatic SLR with a bayonet mount, the B200, whose derivatives would be manufactured and sold well after the fall of the Berlin wall.
When the communist regime finally fell and West Germany absorbed its East German counterpart, some divisions of the East German optical industry were reunited with Carl Zeiss AG, but not the Praktica line of business – it had been deemed non-competitive in a capitalist market economy. Production continued on a much smaller scale under the control of another German company, Schneider, until the film SLR activity was ultimately terminated in the early 2000s.
The Praktica B line
At least in the West, Praktica was primarily known for a line a semi-automatic SLRs using the Universal 42mm lens mount (such as the Cavalier shown above), but by the mid seventies, even in the entry-level/learners camera market, the screw mount was becoming a handicap.
The B200 was the first model of a totally new line of cameras and lenses, and was followed by simplified and cheaper models such as this B100 manufactured in East Germany in 1981 or 1982. The lens (a 50mm f/1.8) was sold as a “Pentacon Prakticar” in the West, while models destined to markets of the Eastern block were labeled “Carl-Zeiss Jena”. Interestingly, my B100 makes no mention of its East German origin, or of the “Zeiss” brand. Not on the body, not on the lens.
What is it like?
With a new battery (a 6 volt 28A cell that you can find in every pharmacy or drugstore), the camera sprang to life immediately. Honestly, I did not expect it (considering previous experiences with Shopgoodwill, and the reputation for questionable reliability of the electronic components designed in the eighties, in particular on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain). The camera and the lens look solid and are well finished – the camera is still mostly made of metal, while the lens is made of a nice plastic (with a lens mount machined from a metal alloy).
On paper, the B100 is competing in the same category as the Nikon EM or the Canon AL-1 – namely a simplified Aperture Priority automatic exposure and manual focus camera, providing no direct control of the shutter speed to the photographer (no semi-auto or manual exposure modes). The shutter speed selected by the automatic exposure system is indicated by a needle in the viewfinder, but there is no auto exposure lock or even a simple exposure compensation mechanism (like the +2EV push button of many of those simplified Japanese cameras) – the photographer has to use exposure compensation dial (which equates to playing with the film sensitivity). There is no depth of field preview either.
The viewfinder is very decent – large enough, with a fine and relatively luminous focusing screen. Focusing aids include a split image telemeter, surrounded by a ring of microprisms. No reason to complain.
The bayonet lens mount is proprietary. Prime lenses were made in East Germany (a 28mm, a 35mm, a couple of 50mm lenses, a 80mm and a 135mm), and two zoom lenses were sourced from Japan (probably from Sigma): a sliding aperture 35-70, and a sliding aperture 70-210mm. As usual with brands targeting price conscious buyers, wide angle and tele lenses did not sell in large quantities. They tend to be difficult to find nowadays and are comparatively expensive.
How much…buying a Practice B series now…
I still have to shoot a few rolls of film with the camera, but upon a cursory inspection it looks fine (reasonably accurate exposure, light seals in good condition). It’s not the camera I would bring for a trip to the end of the world: it does not offer enough control over the exposure, and I remember that back in the eighties, the B series’ reputation was abysmal when it came to reliability. But the truth is that its perceived quality is much higher than some entry level cameras from the same era (Fuji AX Multi or STX-2 for instance). All in all a pleasant surprise.
The Praktica B series were manufactured from 1979 to 1990, before being superseded by the BX series – which were sold until 2001. The BX were still manual focus cameras (of course) but their internals had been updated, and the industrial design refreshed with more curves and bulges, and much more polycarbonate. The BX cameras were sold in much smaller quantities than the B series (200,000 units before the German re-unification, and 33,000 in the 10 following years, as opposed to 1.1 million over 11 years for the B series).
This relative scarcity could explain why some late BX series (in particular those with green colored bodies) are so expensive: they are sometimes proposed for more than $1,000 on auction sites. On the other hand, early B series (like the B100 or the B200) can still be found for less than $25.00, which is in line with the price of other amateur/entry-level SLRs from the same vintage.
If you’re really interested in one of those “almost a Contax” cameras, you don’t need to spend much – unless you’re willing to pay to the roof for the privilege of shooting film with the only “made in [re-unified, non-communist] Germany” single lens reflex which is not a Leica R.
A motorized, multi-automatic, manual focus, metal built camera with a conventional user interface, the Contax ST had no real equivalent when it was launched in 1992. The Leica R7 and the Olympus OM-4ti were not motorized, and the rest of the cameras targeting the high-end of the market were auto-focus SLRs with a modal user interface.
In fact, there are very few other motorized, multi-automatic, manual focus 35mm SLRs I can think of – the most interesting of them being Canon’s T90.
In 1985, the arrival of the Minolta 7000 AF had caught the industry leaders by surprise: Minolta was the first to launch a brand new – and totally coherent – autofocus system.
At that time, Canon’s engineers were working on a top of the line manual focus camera with a revolutionary modal interface – the T90 – that was launched in 1986, and whose design and ergonomic study Canon would make to good use on their first successful autofocus SLRs, the new EOS 620 and 650, that they launched one year later.
Contax, on the other hand, did not even try its hand at an autofocus SLR until the AX of 1996 (which still used the Contax Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses), and did not launch a real 35mm autofocus camera system until Year 2000. The Contax ST of 1992 is therefore a very conventional manual focus camera.
The T90 and the ST have a lot in common – they’re positioned one step under the real professional cameras of their respective brand (the F1 and the RTS III) and boast similar characteristics: they’re large, manual focus, motorized SLRs, with a big high eye point viewfinder, with multiple auto-exposure modes and multiple metering patterns (variants of average and spot metering), LED displays in viewfinder, and they are powered by alkaline AA or AAA batteries.
Back then, and today, there are two main justifications for buying one of those cameras:
they are high quality instruments, with a very good viewfinder, great ergonomics, and lots of control options for the photographer who wants to remain totally in charge of focusing and exposure,
they are backed by a renown line of manual focus lenses.
There is one big drawback – of course: those systems are anchored in the past. Canon lost interest in the T90 and in the FD line of lenses as soon as the EOS hit the market, 33 years ago. The last new Contax manual focus 35mm SLR (the Aria) was released in 1998, and Kyocera has stopped providing any type of support a long time ago.
Whether you prefer the ST to the T90 comes down to lenses (the ones you own and the ones you would like to buy), ergonomic preferences, and your expectations regarding reliability.
Back then: how did the two cameras compare?
Cost and Availability: having been launched 6 years apart, the two cameras never really competed for space on the shelves of the retailers. The T90 was manufactured for less than a year, but remained on Canon’s catalog until the launch of the EOS-1, in 1990. It was a very expensive camera – in the same price range as the Olympus OM-4ti – only professional cameras such as the Nikon F4 and of course the Leica R series were more expensive. The Contax ST became available at the end of 1992. It also had a very high list price (in the same bracket as the Canon New-F1 or the EOS-1) but cameras were heavily discounted in those days and it’s difficult to know how much people were really paying (and whether Contax cameras were more discounted than Canon’s).
Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics – The T90 (nicknamed the “tank” in Japan) is not that heavy after all – at 800g, its weights is the same as the ST’s (without batteries) but the Canon uses AA cells which are heavier than the AAAs of the ST. Because of its smaller dimensions (height and depth), the ST looks denser and feels heavier. One of the best examples of “bio-design” the T90 falls naturally in the hands, with all the command easily accessible. It’s also the first example of totally modal interface (I press a key to call a menu, and I rotate the control wheel to select the setting which is shown on a large LCD display on the top plate). The ST offers a very conventional user interface, with one knob, one ring or one switch per command. Because the analog commands are designed to be smooth, the knobs are susceptible to changing position in the bag of the photographer, and the Contax’s commands are protected by a series of locks – it’s useful, but it slows the photographer down until the position of the locks is memorized by the muscles of the hands. More than 30 years later, the market has still not decided which UI it likes best – Canon, Nikon and Sony are committed to the modal interface, while Fujifilm is selling cameras whose command organization is very similar to the ST’s. Both cameras are motorized – but not as fast as the Nikon F4 or the EOS-1 (3 frames / sec for the Contax, 4 frames / sec for the Canon). And both are loud – you can’t shoot unnoticed indoors.
Viewfinder – They’re very comparable on paper – the T90’s viewfinder covers 94% of the actual picture area, with a magnification of 0.77 and an eye point of 19mm. The ST’s viewfinder, on the other hand, covers 95% of the actual picture, with a magnification of 0.8. The eye point is not documented but feels longer than the T90’s.
Practically, the viewfinder of the ST is cinematic, and next to it, the T90 looks narrower, as if affected by tunnel vision.
The viewfinder screens look equally luminous (which means not as luminous as what you would find on a Nikon camera of the same era). The micro prism ring on the T90 is made of coarser elements, and is easier to the eyes than the very fine prisms of the ST, which are very difficult to see, even with the dioptric correction of the viewfinder carefully adjusted.
Both provide information at the bottom and on right side of the viewfinder – the Contax is using only red LEDs, and the T90 a combination of LEDs and of LCDs. Both viewfinders are informative, easy to read, and don’t overload the photographer with useless information.
Shutter and metering system: The T90’s shutter was the absolute best of what was available in 1986 – with a flash X sync speed of 1/250s and a top speed of 1/4000. The Contax ST offers similar performances (it can go up to 1/6000sec, but that shutter speed is not user selectable – practically, 1/4000 is the limit). The Canon T90 is probably the most complex SLR ever designed when it comes to exposure control.
First, it offers no less than four metering patterns: central weighted average, selective (a sort of ultra large spot, for the nostalgics of the Canon FTb), Spot, and last but not least, Multispot. In addition, you can also adjust the exposure for the highlights or the shadows by pushing two small buttons to change the exposure value by increments of 0.5IL. Honestly, it’s a bit too much.
The Center Weighted Average metering (the one you use for casual or travel photography) gives more importance to the sky than I wish, but because you can’t lock the exposure with the camera set for center weighted average, you have to let the camera do what it wants, and it under-exposes a bit. The Multi-Spot is gimmicky, the “Highlight and Shadows” correction is extremely powerful but very difficult to use unless you’re fluent with the theory of exposure. Lastly, only the older FL lenses offer a real semi-auto exposure mode, but you have to operate stopped down.
Compared to the T90, the ST is a model of simplicity – if offers only two metering patterns (center weighted average and spot). Like the T90, you can only lock the exposure in spot, but at least you can work with a real semi-auto mode at full aperture.
None of those cameras offer “matrix metering” – they’re definitely “old-school” in that regard.
Reliability: “the tank” may have been solidly built, but when trying to innovate with the design the camera, Canon’s engineers went a bit too far, and introduced some weaknesses. With the benefit of hindsight, some of the design decisions look outright stupid (soldering lithium batteries to the circuit board or replacing springs with magnets in the shutter, for instance). The second issue in particular impacts reliability, and it’s the reason the value of the T90 on the second hand market is so low.
The ST is not without flaws either – it seems that Contax cameras of that generation (the RTS III, ST and AX) need the aperture command lever to be re-calibrated every now and then, and the process requires access to a workshop manual and a Contax Planar F/1.4 lens. I could not find a copy of the manual workshop on the Internet so far, and having to buy a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens just to be able to calibrate a camera is not a very palatable perspective (the workaround is to play with exposure compensation dial). Apart from this non trivial issue, I’ve not found or read much (positive or negative) about the Contax ST’s reliability. As far as I know, the only real troubled child of the Contax-Yashica family is the 159MM.
Scarcity: both cameras were very expensive high end machines – which limited their sales volumes – but also ensured that most of their owners did not consider them disposable, and took good care of them.
Most of the interest for the Contax cameras seems to be concentrated in Japan – I could not find any in the US and finally bought my ST on eBay from a Japanese reseller (buying from Japan is generally a very pleasant experience – the cameras are in top condition and you get yours in less than a week through the Postal Service). It’s easier to buy a T90 from a domestic reseller, even if there are only a handful on sale at any given time. And because of the potential reliability issues, I would only buy a T90 from a seller with a very good reputation, who has really tested the camera, preferably with film.
Battery: Contrarily to many autofocus SLRs of the same vintage, the T90 and the ST don’t require expensive and difficult to find single use Lithium batteries. They simply need a few AAA or AA batteries.
Lens selection: The T90 was designed for Canon’s FD lines of lenses, but also works very well (in particular in semi-auto exposure mode) with older FL glass. Canon also sold for a while an adapter for 42mm screw mount lenses. If you add the lenses sold by third parties, the offer is limitless.
There are two issues with Canon FD lenses: the interesting ones (the luminous wide angle lenses in particular) were purchased en masse by users of Sony’s A7 series mirrorless cameras (who use them with an FD to Sony E adapter), which raised the price level on the second hand market. And since production ceased more or less with the launch of the EOS series in 1987, there are relatively few good zooms in the catalog (and in any case none of those f/2.8 constant aperture zooms preferred by the pro photographers).
Contax lenses have a great reputation – and Contax used to cover any need from the 15mm ultra-wide angle to the 600mm telephoto lens, with specialty items such as the 35mm shift lens or the medical lens also represented.
Outside of the 28, 35 or 50mm glass which sell for reasonable prices ($150.00 to $200.00), Contax branded lenses are much more expensive than Canon’s. But since Contax kept on releasing new Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses until 1998 (the last one was a compact zoom for the Aria), the lens designs are a bit more modern than with Canon, which could be good if you’re looking for a zoom.
How much? Not much. Probably because of its reliability issues, the Canon T90 is not in high demand and can be found for less than $100.00; the Contax ST is also relatively cheap (approx $150 if you buy it from a Japanese reseller). In the Contax family, the S2, the RX II and the Aria are more sought after, and sell for two to four times the price of the ST.
The Contax ST and the T90 have a lot in common on paper, but are very different cameras in day to day use:
ergonomics – Contax has a conventional user interface, the T90 is modal. Both are extremely pleasant to use and a photographer will enjoy working with each of them – it’s really a matter of taste.
exposure determination – in this specific area, the Contax is more limited, but easier to use, while the Canon is much more complex and sometimes gimmicky. Honestly, none of them is a perfect fit for me: ideally, I would simply like to use the central weighted average metering with an auto-exposure lock – an option none of them offers. A matrix metering option would also have even valuable – but no manual focus Canon camera ever offered it, and Contax fans had to wait for the last manual focus SLR of the brand, the Aria, to benefit from it.
Is one of those two the ultimate manual focus 35mm SLR?
Besides the ST and the T90, there are few cameras that can legitimately compete for the distinction: a few Leica R models, the Olympus OM-4ti, a few other Contax cameras, maybe.
The Contax ST is a high quality, carefully designed and nicely built manual focus SLR for photographers who prefer their cameras full featured, but also easy to use and unobtrusive. A very nice tool. But it lacks this ounce of folly and excessiveness that graces the T90.
The Canon T90 is far from perfect – even if its limitations in the exposure department are inherited to a large extend from the FD lens mount’s shortcomings – and it has its own reliability issues. But it was a revolutionary camera in its time: there’s no manual focus SLR like it, and there’s still something magic in the simplicity of its user interface.
Just before the lock-down was implemented in Georgia, I shot a roll of film with my newly acquired Contax ST, and it took a long time for the film to get processed and the scans to be made available on line (blame the postal service).
So, here we are…
The camera is pleasant to use in the field (large viewfinder, logical commands, convenient exposure memo lock (associated with Spot metering only). It’s heavy, and the Zeiss 28-85 f/3.3-4 Vario Sonnar zoom makes for a very bulky and ponderous combo (more than 1.6 kg/ 3.5 pounds with batteries and strap). You can’t carry it with the strap wrapped around the wrist for too long – you need a backpack for any photo expedition longer than 30 min.
The zoom is sharp, but it’s a one ring design (you rotate the ring to focus, and you pull or push it to zoom in and out), and of course, the front element tends to slide out under its own weight.
Some of the pictures are correctly exposed, but the majority seem over-exposed, by 0.75 EV up to 1.5 EV.
I had not noticed it when I received the camera, but the aperture information displayed in the viewfinder does not correspond to the values on the aperture ring of the lens: at full aperture, the aperture ring shows f/3.3, but the viewfinder LEDs show f/2.8; at F/8 (on the lens), the LEDs show f/4.5; at f/22, the LEDs show f/13. Roughly 1.5 EV off except at full aperture, where the two values are closer. I tried another lens (a Tamron 28mm f/2.5 with the Adaptall II ring) – same issue. When I googled it, I found out that it’s (probably) a rather common problem related to the calibration of the “aperture linkage lever” of the bayonet mount, on the camera’s side (*).
The Contax workshop manuals describe in detail the process to follow to re-calibrate the aperture linkage lever (some people call it the “feeler”) on the body’s lens mount. Unfortunately, the process is different with each model (you need to perform an obscure sequence of key presses to access the maintenance mode of the camera), I have not found a Contax ST workshop manual yet, and it apparently requires a rather expensive Contax Planar 50mm f/1.4 as a benchmark for the calibration.
Until I find a way to fix the issue, I’m simply going to use the exposure correction dial and hope of the best.
(*) I exchanged a few emails with Peter Robinson, who repairs and reconditions a few specific Contax models in the UK, and maintains the Contax139 blog (very nice guy, btw).
According to him, the aperture transmission from the lens to the body is “analog” on models like the RTS III or the RX, but encoded (I translate it by “digital”) on the 167. I suspect the ST, being a derivative of the RTS III, and the predecessor of the RX, also falls into the “analog” category. Peter posted a few workshop manuals on his Website, and the recalibration process is described in detail for each model of camera, unfortunately there are variations in the key presses from model to model, and without the workshop manual corresponding to the exact model you own, fixing the aperture transmission lever is an impossible task.