Experiments in Film Part II - The Contax 645

If you read Experiments in Film Part I, you know that I’ve been trying out medium format film photography, after shooting with a Canon 5D (first the Mark II and now the Mark III) for the past couple years. I described in that post that I first purchased the Fujifilm GF670, which I returned for various reasons. Instead, I opted to purchase a Contax 645, a medium format SLR. The Contax brand was developed by Zeiss Ikon, which entered into a co-development partnership with Yashica in the 1960s. In 1983, Yashica was acquired by Kyocera, which continued to develop the Contax brand. The Contax 645 was manufactured from 1999 through 2005. It’s pretty easy to find used models for sale on eBay.

I hadn’t heard of the Contax 645 until I read the book, Film Is Not Dead, by Jonathan Canlas (which I highly recommend). Canlas calls the Contax 645 the “cadillac of medium format cameras,” and it’s his primary camera for shooting weddings. Canlas’s photos taken with this camera are beautiful. Intrigued, I started doing a little research on the Contax 645. As I often do when researching a camera, I turned to Flickr, searching for photos tagged with “Contax 645” to try to get a sense of the image quality. I also read a number of pretty favorable reviews, such as this one and this one. In general, reviewers and commentators reported that the Zeiss lenses for this camera are outstanding, but the autofocus is slow.

Pricewise, a mint condition Contax 645 kit (body, film back, prism, and 80mm lens) sells for about $2,800 on eBay. I spent several weeks tracking eBay sales with the hope of getting a deal, and though I ultimately spent more than I anticipated, I do think I got a good deal. I ended up spending $3,900 for a mint condition Contax 645 body, strap, prism, film back, 80mm lens, 35mm lens, 140mm lens, lens hood, and custom Pelican case. I had resigned myself to spending the $2,800 on the Contax 645 kit, and to get the two additional lenses plus the case for $1,000 struck me as a bargain, given that separately the 35mm lens can sell for as much as $1,500 and the 140mm can sell for as much as $800. For whatever reason, no one bid on the auction of this set, and I contacted the seller after the auction ended and negotiated. That the seller was a professional photographer who seemed concerned about the future welfare of this camera made me feel more comfortable that the camera had been cared for. Bottom line is there are decent deals to be had for the vigilant buyer, but expect to spend a fair amount of money. That said, a brand new Mamiya 645-AFD III body retails for $3,990 and that’s without a film back or any lenses. I recouped a little bit of money by selling the large metal Contax lens hood and replacing it with one of these cheap retractable rubber hoods, which also offer some protection for the lens. I can use this rubber hood with all of the Contax lenses, as they are all sized for a 72mm hood/filter.

When the camera first arrived, I spent some time learning how to use its various features. The Contax 645 is a modular system, and it takes a little time to learn how to attach the back and prism to the body. The manual for the Contax 645 is available here. There’s also a helpful tutorial here on how to load the film. As a long time digital SLR shooter, these things were not immediately intuitive to me.

As you can see from the photo above, the Contax 645 is a pretty bulky system, and while it’s light enough to carry around for the day, it’s noticeably larger and heavier than my Canon 5D Mark III. So much so, that I find people staring at it. Instead of using the bright blue Contax strap that came with the camera, I purchased a nondescript black strap made by OP/TECH, which works with the lugs on the Contax 645.

The weekend the camera arrived, there was an arts festival going on in Brooklyn, where I live, where hundreds of artists opened their studios to the public. I thought this would be a great opportunity to try out my new camera. Indeed, I was able to photograph a number of artists in their studios — what I had hoped would be some nice environmental portraits. I took these shots just as I would with my digital SLR — using the aperture priority setting and using EV compensation to adjust the exposure. When I got my first couple rolls of film back from the developer, I found the photos to be somewhat soft and dark — not exactly what I was going for.

At this point, I decided to reread some of the sections of Film Is Not Dead with special attention to the sections on exposure. Canlas does not rely on the Contax 645’s in-camera metering system. Instead, he uses a handheld light meter to obtain the correct exposure. I had never used a light meter before, but I purchased a used Sekonic L-508, the model recommended by Canlas.

To try out using the Contax with the light meter, I asked my friends James and Barbara, who recently got engaged, to subject themselves to a photoshoot with me. During the shoot, I shot in manual mode, following Canlas’s instructions exactly on how to use the light meter to set the proper exposure. Below is a sample of the shots from the photoshoot.

James & Barbara

James & Barbara

James & Barbara

James & Barbara

I’m pretty pleased with how these photos turned out, especially given my rocky start. The first two were taken using Kodak Portra 160 film and the last two were taken using Fujicolor Pro 400H. I will do a post on film types eventually, but at this point I will just say that I recommend using color film for beginners, as it has a wider latitude than black and white film. I wish I had known this when I first started shooting film, as it might have prevented some of my early disappointments.

The photos above are linked to my Flickr account, where you can click to see them at different sizes to check their sharpness. At the sizes above, they look very nice, I think, but zoomed in, it’s evident that they could be sharper. I shot these wide open with my aperture set to f/2 (which is what Canlas does), but I think next time I will stop down a bit. One nice feature of the Contax 645 is that it imprints the aperture and shutter speed on the side of each negative. I scanned the negatives myself (I will do a post in the future on scanning). While not to everyone’s taste, I like showing a bit of the negative in the scan.

I used the autofocus for most of these shots. However, as reported, the Contax’s autofocusing system is slow and loud, and it doesn’t always hit the mark. When the Contax was unable to focus, I used the autofocus override button to focus manually, but this can be a challenge depending on how far away the subject is. Again, I think using a smaller aperture will help.

Using the Sekonic L-508 with Canlas’s instructions totally nailed the exposure. And with the awesome Zeiss lenses and these film types, the skin tones and bokeh look great. I also found that these photos required only minimal post processing, most of which I did as part of the scanning process. Had I used my Canon 5D Mark III, the photos would have been sharper, but I don’t think they would have been as pleasing to look at. Moreover, I would have come home with 300 shots to review and edit. With shooting film, I have a higher proportion of “keepers” that require far less editing time.

In sum, planning and preparing for a more “formal” photoshoot was well worth the effort, and it’s something I’m going to continue to do. So … anyone want to meet for a portrait session?

Experiments in Film - Part I

If it seems a bit quiet around here, it’s because I’ve been changing up my workflow a bit — specifically, experimenting with medium format film photography. This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, for several reasons. First and foremost, I’ve been inspired by the superior quality of medium format film as compared to digital. Creamy skin tones, a more three-dimensional quality with superior gradations of color/tone, lovely grain, no blown out highlights — these are all of the things I’ve noticed and read about. I also like film’s tangible quality. With the release of the shutter, I’ve created an image on film — not just bits and bytes but an actual tangible thing that must be developed. Finally, film photography is so fundamental to all photography that I think it’s important to my development as a photographer to understand it. I hope that if I can achieve some mastery of film, it will improve my photography skills (whether shooting film or digital) by forcing me to take a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to every shot.

I’ve been shooting almost exclusively film for the past month, and I plan to continue to immerse myself in this medium for the next few months. Up until now, the content on this blog has been almost exclusively my photos. However, I’m going to share my experiences shooting medium format film in several posts over the next few months.

So, what’s it been like shooting only film for the past month? I’ll start by discussing my equipment. I spent a fair amount of time researching the various medium format camera options. I really wanted something that would be both affordable and workable with my style. I like to take my camera with me everywhere, so I sought to avoid (initially at least) the many large modular medium format cameras out there that include a body, a removable film back, a prism, and a lens. I just couldn’t see shoving one of those in my purse. This basically limited me to a medium format rangefinder. My top two contenders were the Mamiya 7 II and the Fujifilm GF670.

Both cameras have pros and cons. Both cameras can be purchased new. The Mamiya cost $3,700, while the GF670 cost only $1,660. I should note here that B & H offers some pretty generous discounts through its student program. You do NOT have to be a full-time student to qualify. I applied for and was approved for the “EDU Advantage” program on the basis of taking a one-weekend class at the International Center for Photography. With the student discount, the Mamiya cost $2,960 and the GF670 cost $1,580. Not a bad discount, especially for the Mamiya. While the discounts vary by product, it is well worth looking into joining the EDU Advantage program if you think you may qualify. (Note that B & H offers a nice student discount on Hasselblads.

The Mamiya is obviously significantly more expensive than the GF670, but it offers an interchangeable lens system — something the GF670 lacks. At this stage, I did not feel ready to commit to a new lens system without more experience shooting film, so the Mamiya’s interchangeable lens system was not a huge draw. I was, however, very impressed with the durability and portability of the GF670. It’s a folding camera, and when opened, its bellows are exposed and the lens pops out. It’s very cool and vintage looking, and you will get a reaction when people see it. When folded, the lens retracts inside the camera, which closes up to protect it. When folded, the GF670 is very small and discrete. I knew it would be easy to take with me everywhere. The build quality of the GF670 is also very impressive. On the other hand, some commentators described the Mamiya as “fussy.” The Mamiya shoots in 6x7 format, while the GF670 allows you to choose 6x7 or 6x6. Both cameras are mirrorless and use a leaf shutter, which means that they can be handheld at very slow shutter speeds. While leaning towards the GF670, I took my research to Flickr, where I searched the tags to find photos taken with the GF670 and the Mamiya, and I reviewed threads discussing these cameras.

Ultimately, I chose the GF670 because of its price, portability, the option to shoot 6x6 or 6x7, and because it gets almost universally positive reviews. While I very much enjoyed shooting with the GF670, in the end, I took advantage of B & H’s generous 30-day return policy. I really struggled with the rangefinder focusing system. I was disappointed that so many of my shots were not in focus. I found it very difficult to take quick, spur of the moment shots with this focusing system. Instead, it takes some time to set up the shot and line everything up. This doesn’t work for many of the street shots I like to take. While I wanted to slow down with film, I found that I was actually shooting less, because with the GF670, I found it difficult to take the types of photos I like to take. In addition, the GF670 (and I think all rangefinders) have a much larger minimum focusing distance that SLR cameras. I want to have the option to take close-ups, so I found this further limiting. I also did not love the ergonomics of the GF670. Both the focusing ring and the aperture settings are on the lens. I found the camera somewhat awkward to hold, focus, and adjust those settings. That said, the GF670 is a nice little camera, and if I could afford it, I would have gladly kept it as an extra camera to take with me when I don’t want to lug around something larger. Below are my two best shots with the GF670.



My experience with the GF670 made me realize that I’m an SLR kinda girl, which means that if I want to shoot medium format, I will have to invest in a large clunker. Enter the Contax 645, which I will discuss in my next post on my Experiments in Film. Also, for anyone thinking of trying film photography, I highly recommend the book Film Is Not Dead by Jonathan Canlas. It’s a pretty inspiring read, with camera reviews, discussion of film types, and practical instruction, not to mention gorgeous photos.