Classic Cameras: the Contax G1


It's hard to call a camera “unique” and really mean it. With a camera like the Contax G1, however, it does sport a truly unique feature set and design that separates it from all other 35mm rangefinders, as well as all other 35mm cameras, in general. Developed in 1994, the G1 was positioned as a competitor to the Leica M6—a legend in its own right—but it was competing on pretty unfair and very different terms. You see, the G1 is an autofocusing rangefinder—a claim that is only matched by one other camera in history: its successor, the G2. This distinction makes the Contax G1 stand out in the realm of purely manual focus, purely manual operation rangefinders, such as the Leicas and Bessas many are familiar with, but it also positions it as an interesting alternative to SLRs and fixed-lens compacts.

Looking at the tech briefly, the Contax G1 is a fully electronic and, for all intents and purposes, automatic 35mm film camera. It has the capability to be used with manual settings, for both focus and exposure, but both of these mechanisms are based on electronics rather than mechanical components. This linkage benefits the exposure system most, with the seamless ability to work with aperture-priority or manual modes, but is not particularly kind to the focus. In fact, the focusing mechanism is likely the key suspect as to why this camera is not at the top of everyone’s list. As previously mentioned, the G1 is, technically, a rangefinder, but the operation of its focusing system is quite unique compared to all other rangefinder cameras, which are 100% manual focus. Rather than using a lens-supported cam system in conjunction with a pair of windows to manually acquire focus, the G1 utilizes the pair of windows in a phase-difference setup (akin to the way DSLRs utilize numerous on-sensor points to quickly acquire focus). Compared to most current phase-detection cameras of today, however, this obscure triangulation method renders the G1 quite a slow focuser in most instances, which mixes with incredibly aggravating instances where the camera seems to simply not want to focus on anything at all.

So, why would anyone want to put up with a camera like this? Well, I took to Manhattan’s Chinatown for a couple of early evenings to become reacquainted with this camera and rediscover what drew me into picking it up several years ago. My history with the Contax G1 started more than 10 years after the original G1 release, and it was the first 35mm interchangeable-lens camera I ever purchased. I grew up using a hand-me-down Canon AE-1 prior to moving primarily into medium and large format, and picked up a few Olympus Styluses and XAs along the way, but the Contax G1 was the first “serious” 35mm camera to catch my eye. I love its quirks, I love the way it handles and, of course, I love the famed Zeiss Planar 45mm f/2 lens that I’ve never felt compelled to take off the camera.

To me, the G1 is the perfect kind of more-casual-than-a-Leica street photography camera. It is designed for the photographer or anyone, in fact, who is there to take in the experience and would like to make some photographs along the way. Its luxurious titanium exterior, build quality, and sheer optical quality are fit for even the most discerning eyes. For a relaxing walk around one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, it is the perfect tool—inconspicuous, lightweight, and flexible. Exposure metering is always spot-on, using the rangefinder-conventional “meter, then recompose” technique, which is aided by an AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) selection around the shutter button to lock down your settings if working in mixed lighting. And to bring up the focus again, sure, it isn’t the fastest, and the manual focus control, which uses a top dial to pre-select focusing distances without any visual confirmation, is quite awkward. With a bit of patience and cognizance of using a single central AF point, it is usable in decent lighting conditions, and grows on you the more you work with it.

Continuing with the automated and electronic assets, some other unique benefits offered by the G1: electronic film advance, which somehow always seems to squeak out 37 or 38 frames per 36-exposure roll; electronic film rewinding, which is always faster than I could rewind manually; DX cartridge recognition, my least favorite of the automated assets since I rarely rate a film at box speed; and a polarizing feature where the viewfinder is cropped when focusing at closer distances to better simulate the field of view in relation to parallax. All of these are relatively minor features, but they’re helpful little quirks that give the G1 its character, especially in relation to other rangefinders.

When photographing in Chinatown at sunset, I was drawn to the broad range of colors and textures, as well as ebb and flow of the streets in this corner of Manhattan. I set out to make quiet street photographs, which pair a contemplative aesthetic, such as the way one might work in the landscape, with hectic design elements that point to the frenetic pace surrounding me. Bright colors and minute details were given as much presence as pulled-back and bird’s-eye views of the neighborhood, with the variety of subjects all making up the unique atmosphere of this New York City enclave. I began photographing an hour or two before sunrise, and during this period the Contax could keep up with my every move. The direct sunlight helped with the focusing performance and also provided the strong light quality that highlights the small nuances of the neighborhood. As the sun would go down, shooting became much more deliberate due to the slower performance, as well as the need to simply work at slower shutter speeds.

Reflecting back on revisiting my Contax G1 during a couple of afternoons of shooting, I can still see why I wanted this camera so much. Arguably, its greatest assets are the lenses, or in my case, the lens. The 45mm f/2 that is typically sold with most bodies is pretty much all I could ever want from a lens, which is why I have never sought out another lens for this camera. The focal length is perfect, it’s incredibly sharp, yet it delivers a nice smoothness with out-of-focus elements, and it resists flare well. The ability to work with this lens in its native mount, versus adapting it to a mirrorless camera, is well worth the troubles of certain idiosyncrasies of the G1 body itself. Even with certain disappointments in the performance, where it excels—such as handling, exposure accuracy, and general ease of use—make up for the finicky focus, in my mind. I chose to photograph Chinatown because it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York City that I, unfortunately, do not visit very often; I chose to photograph it with the Contax G1 since it, too, is one of my favorite cameras that I do not use very often. Combining the two brought me back to the basics of just wanting to take photos again, and brought out a unique sense of enjoyment that has been sorely missing from my other recent photographic endeavors.




Hallo Bjorn, awesome shots!

Did you had a bad time with AF? I get a lot of out of focus shots when shooting at low light (not night).

Cheers from Brazil

Hey Leo, thanks for the compliments. I wouldn't say I had a bad time with the AF, but it certainly could be faster. Especially compared to any contemporary camera, the G1's AF is real slow. I haven't had too much of an issue with out of focus images, but I think the key is to be very patient with the camera and let it hit focus; move your focus point slightly if it's not picking anything up; or try out the manual focus if the AF is really struggling.

Hey Bjorn! What film did you use for the pictures in the article? Those colors look stunning! best, L

Hey Laurenz, thanks for the nice words. All of these were taken with Kodak Portra 800 and Portra 400; the low-light and interior ones with 800 and the brighter scenes with 400. I shoot Portra 800 at EI 500 and Portra 400 at EI 320, so a bit of overexposure, and then develop as normal. Thanks again!

The G1 system was a brilliant and frustrating camera for me.  Though capable of lovely photos, it helped me realize that I was not a rangefinder-style photographer.  I eventually sold the entire system to finance several Minolta XD-11's and a wide range of great Rokkor lenses.

I couldn't agree with you more. I purchased a G1 after getting my M3 knocked out of my hand by an overhead fan. Don't ask.

I had planed to also get the 35mm lens but after a couple of rolls of Tri-X I decided the 45mm was the perfect lens for me.

When Kodak announced the discontinuation of Kodachrome I purchased 8 rolls and decided to use the G1 with these rolls. I even did street photography instead of some landscape or other field of photography. It turned out to be just dandy. I shot for four days in downtown L.A. and couldn't be happier with the results.

I might add that this was only my second auto-facus camera (Canon EOS650) and all I can say is that it is a lot faster them a manual Nikon F. :)

Now I take it out every couple of months for a day of shooting. I really like the feel of the camera in the hands.