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?