by Philip Greenspun
The Contax 645 is an autofocus 645-format single-lens reflex camera with
interchangeable lenses, viewfinders, and film backs. This review is
based on using a borrowed camera for one afternoon.
Too much UI
Face, Alan Cooper reminds programmers "No matter how cool your
interface, it would be better if there were less of it." If only the
engineers at Kyocera had heeded Cooper's advice when designing the
Contax 645. This camera has user interface everywhere. The strap lugs
have controls to lock and unlock; you have to read the manual to figure
out how to attach and detach the strap! The Rollei 6008 has A marks on the
aperture and shutter speed dials. If you want aperture-priority
autoexposure, set the shutter speed to "A". If you want
shutter-priority autoexposure, set the aperture to "A". If you want
program autoexposure (camera picks both), set both dials to "A". On the
Contax, the exposure mode is set with a separate dial. In order to turn
this dial, you need to push a release button, which isn't labeled.
Despite the provision of two buttons more than the Rollei and imposing the
requirement that the photographer read the users' manual before changing
modes, the Contax actually is less powerful--it lacks program autoexposure.
Sometimes the user interface is so complex that even the guys who wrote
the manual couldn't figure it out. There are two little buttons next to
each other. On the camera back. One opens the back so that you can
reload with fresh film. The other will release the back from the camera
for a mid-roll film change. The instruction manual erroneously advises
the photographer to use both buttons when changing the film back, which
would result in the film being ruined unless the roll had been
completely exposed. In reality, you only need to use one button but you
must also push that button in. The instruction manual does not cover
this and it took me about 15 minutes to figure it out. In any case,
changing film backs is a painful process involving dark slide
management. The windowshade system in the Rollei 6000-series cameras is much
more intuitive and convenient.
Film loading per se is non-obvious and again requires reading the
manual. A complex little assembly comes out of the film back and must
be tinkered with. On the other hand, if you've preloaded a bunch of
inserts, they pull out and drop in very fast.
Not enough UI
Sometimes the Contax doesn't have enough user interface. Like
other electronic Japanese rollfilm cameras, the Contax can autodetect
the film speed from a bar code on Fuji 120/220 film. Very slick.
However, there is no way to verify the ISO information that the camera
has read from the bar code. With a Canon EOS camera, the camera
displays the ISO chosen as the film is loading and pressing a button
labeled "ISO" will redisplay this value. A little bit more reassuring.
The Contax has the world's nicest date back. It records outside of the
image area and logs exposure data, exposure mode used, date/time, lens
focal length, and whether 120 or 220 film was in the film back.
This is the world's first medium-format camera with autofocus motors in
the lenses rather than in the body. These are ultrasonic motors and
therefore you'd expect the whole package to be fast and silent like the
Canon EOS system. The reality is noisy and slow autofocus, rather like
first-generation Nikon AF.
After walking around Toronto for an hour or so, the Contax and 80/2 lens
felt like a huge stone around my neck. Also, the camera was an
unwelcome attention-getter; at a shopping mall I was stopped by a
security guard and informed of the "no video" policy. The Mamiya 7 is much less heavy and conspicuous
despite taking images that are 2X as large. The 80/2 lens is four times
the size and weight of the Mamiya's 80mm lens. This makes some sense
when one reflects that it is two f-stops faster than the Mamiya 7's
80/4. But upon further reflection, one realizes that the Mamiya lens
must cover a negative that is nearly twice as large (6x7 instead of
The lithium battery died without warning. The low battery symbol
appeared when the camera only had enough power to take one or two more
exposures. Other users of the Contax 645 have reported voracious
battery consumption, e.g., four rolls of 220 film per 2CR5 lithium
battery. My main complaint is the suddenness of battery death. With
all the other electronic cameras that I've used, the low battery warning
came when one still had enough power to expose four or five
rolls of film.
A wedding photographer would want to make sure to use the accessory
vertical grip loaded with fresh lithium AA batteries and keep a finger
ready to switch from the main battery to the AAs in the grip.
If the Contax 645 will become your primary camera system, you'll surely
get accustomed to the user interface. The range of lenses, film backs,
digital backs, and macro equipment is sufficiently comprehensive that
you might never need another camera. The only glaring exception is the
lack of a perspective correction lens. So if you're willing to endure
the weight, bulk, and cost of this camera system, you'll reap the
reward of images 3X larger than what you'd get from a 35mm system.
If on the other hand your primary camera system is a standard Canon or
Nikon SLR and you want a medium format system to use occasionally, I
don't recommend the Contax 645. It is inelegant, complex, and heavy.
You can get similar image quality from a Fuji 645 rangefinder that
is one-quarter the weight, one-quarter the cost, and for which you'll
not have to keep going back to consult the owner's manual. You can get
dramatically better image quality from a Mamiya 7, which is lighter and
simpler to use.
The camera is perhaps best for wedding photographers who can't let go of
medium format image quality but also want the quick handling, fast
lenses, and autofocus of 35mm SLRs.