Classic Camera Review: The Contax G2

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When the Contax G1 was introduced, in 1994, I was immediately smitten. Leicas were out of my price range and, despite the accuracy of Leica’s viewing and focusing, the thought of composing through a viewfinder and not seeing exactly what the lens was seeing made me queasy, especially when out on assignment.

The G1 was different. It was a rangefinder camera, but it offered the choice of manual focusing or autofocus. You also had the choice of Auto, Aperture priority, or Manual exposure control, and TTL flash. The G1’s viewfinder automatically set frame lines to match the focal length of the lens and adjust for parallax, and it shot single-frame or continuous at up to 2 frames per second. It wasn’t a reflex camera, but the camera “spoke” to me.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2018

Street scene captured with Contax G2, 21mm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon T*

Compared to a Leica, loading film in a G-series camera was a cakewalk—you simply opened the film door, dropped in the film, closed the door, and it automatically advanced to the first frame. Auto-indexing set the film ISO and, when you reached the end of the roll, it automatically rewound the film back into the canister. Shutter-speeds ranged from 1/2000 to 16 seconds (or 1 second in Manual mode) with a top flash sync speed of 1/100-second.

The Contax G1 sported a Champagne-tinged, retro-styled titanium body with just the right blend of analog and LCD readouts. As for glass, the G1 was accompanied by a quartet of (Cosina-made) Zeiss autofocus lenses designed specifically for the Contax G system—a 28mm f/2.8 Biogon T*, a 45mm f/2 Planar T*, a 90mm f/2.8 Planar T*, and a 16mm Hologon T*. The camera’s viewing system automatically adjusted viewing angles for 28mm, 35mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses. When using the 16mm Hologon you framed your shot using the included, shoe-mounted 16mm optical viewfinder. If you want to learn more about the G1, make sure to read fellow writer Bjorn Petersen’s review.

Street scenes, 21mm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon T* (left) and 16mm f/8 Zeiss Hologon T* (right)

Enter the Contax G2

The problem was that, despite image quality that was equal to Leica (or better, per some) in terms of autofocus response and overall performance, the camera left something to be desired. Two years later, Contax introduced the G2, which all but resolved most G1-related issues.

The Contax G2 was 7mm longer and 2mm taller than the G1 and had a more pronounced grip. Motivated by G1 owner feedback, some of the controls were rearranged or re-engineered to make the camera feel better in the hand, while improving performance.

Notable improvements were also made to the camera’s AF system (it was faster and more accurate), and the metering system (the camera’s center-weighted TTL metering was reconfigured). The camera could now shoot up to 4 fps continuous shooting at a faster top shutter speed (1/6000-second), and a faster top flash sync speed (1/200-second).

Compared to a Leica, loading film was a cake walk—you simply opened the film door, dropped in the film, closed the door, and it automatically advanced to the first frame. And when you reached the end of the roll, it automatically rewound the film back into the canister.

Three additional lenses were also introduced along with the G2: a 21mm f/2.8 Biogon T*, a 35mm f/2 Planar T*, and a 35-70mm f/3.5-5.6 Vario-Sonnar T* zoom.

Street scenes, 90mm f/2.8 Zeiss Sonnar T*

The 21mm Biogon coupled to the camera for focusing but, for accurate framing, you used the included optical viewfinder, which slips onto the camera’s hot shoe. The 16mm Hologon also comes with a dedicated optical viewfinder, but it’s uncoupled, which means you must guesstimate your distance. The good news is that the focus range of the lens is 12" to 3', so if you set your lens to a smidge past 3' everything from about 18" to forever comes into focus.

Buoyed by the success of the G2, Contax released a special limited-edition black enamel G2 set that included matching 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses, shades, and a TTL flash. The black edition kits were followed by a limited number of black titanium G2 camera bodies, along with black editions of the 21mm f/2.8 Biogon T* with matching black optical viewfinder, and 35mm f/2 Planar T*.

The black G2 camera and 21mm and 90mm lenses used to illustrate this review are from the later of these limited-edition runs.

Street scene, 16mm f/8 Zeiss Hologon

The Contax G2 in Use

Shooting with the Contax G2 is an enjoyable experience. The size and weight of the system makes it ideal for travel or simply wandering about the neighborhood. Switching between fully automatic to fully manual, or perhaps shooting in manual exposure and autofocus or vice versa is a matter of adjusting one or two settings.

Compared to modern cameras, the G2 is a modest performer. Even though the G2’s active IR / passive AF system was a vast improvement over the original G1’s passive-only AF system, a single focus point located dead-center of the frame made it difficult to focus on subjects located off-center of the frame, which was typical of AF systems in the mid-1990s.

Street scene, 21mm f/2.8 Biogon T*

My workaround to this problem is to set the camera to manual focus and use my right thumb to lock focus on my subject using the secondary AF button located on the back of the camera, quickly recompose, and trip the shutter. When shooting with wide-angle lenses, I most often stop the lens down to f/8-11 and set the lens to its optimal hyperfocal distance, which brings everything from two-or-so feet to infinity into focus.

The lenses used to illustrate this classic camera review include two wide-angle lenses and a short telephoto—the 16mm f/8 Hologon T*, 21mm f/2.8 Biogon T*, and 90mm f/2.8 Sonnar T*.

Contax G2 with 21mm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon T*

Considering the styling, camera technologies, and lens quality of the Contax G2 camera system, it remains remarkably affordable compared to a comparable Leica camera/lens system and, quite frankly, I’d put Contax G photos up against comparable photographs taken with Leicas any day—the system is that good.

Do you have any experience shooting with a Contax G2? I’d love to see your opinions in the Comments section here.

4 Comments

The G2 was my most fav camera ever. It beat out my Canon and Nikon. Had great lenses, fit my hands, and helped me make some great images.

I still have some regret about selling it back to B&H so I could buy digital, but with but my fav film gone, I’ve moved on.

This review helps me remember why I loved it.

I loved my G's; I had four bodies.  The Cosina made Zeiss glass was stellar; had all lenses except for the zoom.  Wonderful travel and street camera.  I could pack all the lenses and a flash in a belly pack.  It's two weaknesses were the short lived batteries and no 135mm.  I would be first on line to buy a digital Contax G.  The digital M Leica's are out of my price range and still are not equal to the Contax G viewfinder system; the Fuji x-Pro isn't in the same class as the Contax.  

I started with G1 years ago. I ended up selling because I took it to my trip to Mexico without testing and I later realized that its focusing mechanism was faulty. So I ended up with two rolls of unfocused shots from vacation. It was such a disappoinment. But I didn't give up. Some years later I bought a G2 from Japan but its focusing motor died after a week. Thankfully I was able to send it back and get a refund. I didn't give up on it and I gave another chance to the system and bought another G2 4 years ago. This time I tested the focusing throughly before using and it was spot on. And now I have been using my g2 more than my leica m6 even though it caused me less headaches. I have wonderful shots with g2 and I use 45mm and 28mm lenses.

I am an old Zeiss fan ... beginning from cameras and lenses I read myself into the history of this truly remarkable company ... Lenses and the development of lenses for the sake of mankind ( don´t forget the development and finetuning of microscopes in the 19th century ) has always been their focus ... I am prowd to posses three lenses from the Contax-Yashica Line : a 35mm f1.4 Distagon, a 50mm f1.4 Planar and a 85mm f1.4 Planar ... which I find to be fascinating lenses ... at affordable prices ... 

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