A cold Amsterdam weekend with the Contax 139Q

Amsterdam is a city not quite like any other. Bubbling and quirky, Amsterdam seems to have it all if you’re willing to pay the price. The beautiful old buildings and meandering waterways that weave through the city like thread certainly help. As does a reputation as being the hedonistic capital of the Netherlands, which brings an edge to proceedings and a spring to the step.

It is almost as if Amsterdam has a split personality. It is a place where mind-altering substances and prostitution are as readily available as Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s – maybe more readily available come to think of it. What is and isn’t acceptable in this place where seemingly anything goes, becomes a mystery. As the light goes down boundaries are blurred, and temptation seems to tug at you from every direction.

I was following my old friend Simon who in turn was following a group of colleagues for a football tournament. I was not remotely interested in playing football and neither was Simon – so we amused ourselves by wondering through the city and just seeing what caught our eye.

I have been interested in putting a bit more effort into black & white photography recently, so I brought along three different films with the intention of seeing which one suited my style the most.

You’ll have no doubt heard of Kodak Tri-X 400 and Kodak T-Max 400 already. Both films are extremely well known and loved by their respective users. I was not particularly blown away by the T-Max negatives, which although sharp and grain-free did not seem to have much character to them.

Character is something that the third film had in abundance. The much less well known Fomapan Creative 200 was the photographic surprise of the trip. Despite being produced since the early 1920s in the Czech Republic Fomapan is not a brand which enjoys the same heft as the likes of Kodak and Ilford.

This lack of recognition does nothing to disguise the fact that Creative 200 is an excellent film in my opinion. It produced deep and satisfying blacks which enhanced the moodiness of some of photos compared to T-Max. Whether you buy in online or in a store, you will also find Fomapan is slightly cheaper than a lot of the more well known films on the market. Certainly worth trying a box or two.

I used an old Contax 139 Quartz for the trip. Produced as a budget option for the now defunct Contax cameras produced by Kyocera in Japan, the 139 Q did not leave a big impression on me.

The camera has a distinctly plasticky feel to it, which does not inspire any real sense of confidence that it would last in tough conditions. I have only briefly handled an Olympus OM-1, which was a direct rival of the Contax in terms of size, weight and cost. The rugged metal shell of the Olympus exudes toughness, and the fondness many users of this system still have for their Olympus is a testament to this.

The 139 Q had no such reputation unfortunately. Early cameras were said to have a issues with the shutter failing to release – hardly encouraging for a camera which marketed itself as having a revolutionary Quartz-timed shutter.

An ad for the 1979 Contax 139 Quartz – presumably someone at the factory ended up with some egg on their face after consumers realised the much advertised quartz shutter was causing their precious new camera problems…

I never experienced any of these problems with the shutter myself, though the problem, as well as the fact that the ever-reliable Olympus OM-1 was the same price probably sealed the fate of the Contax.

Worse than this however, were some operating quirks which meant I never really got on with the camera.

The shutter had a hair trigger, and worse still, was totally separate from the lightmeter, which is operated from the front of the camera. Film has a decent amount of exposure latitude but, but not being able to know exactly what exposure the camera will take in Aperture priority mode was not exactly comforting.

Another issue is the viewfinder. Though adequately large, each of the shutter speeds and overlayed into the viewing area itself, meaning that numbers can become lost against the scene. These two combined issues with the lightmeter and viewfinder made shooting with the 139 Q seem a bit like a lucky dip.

As you can see from the photos below however the odds must not be too bad, as I did manage to get a few shots that I was happy with during the weekend.

This brings me neatly to the positives of the 139 Q. One of the key advantages of the 139 Q is that it is one of the cheapest ways of gaining access to the acclaimed Carl Zeiss glass that was produced for the C/Y mount. The 139 Q was one of the first in a long line of Contax and Yashica SLR cameras which utilised a wide selection of prime lenses – as wide as 15mm on the wide and and all the way to 1000mm via a special mirror lens – that came to me known as some of the very best available for film cameras.

For the trip I only had access to the Planar 50mm f1,7 (I did have a very poor experience trying to import a Sonnar 85mm f2,8 from Japan – a precautionary tale for another day believe me), but this turned out to be an excellent companion for the trip.

Despite the problems with the viewfinder and annoyance of the lightmeter, the photos that did turn out right are absolutely fantastic. Sharp, with good bokeh and excellent microcontrast, I have no doubt that when combined with a better Contax body these lenses could really do the business.

As I look back on these photos, I sigh at the missed opportunities. Much of what makes Amsterdam so intriguing goes unseen, and it goes without question that some of the most quirky parts of the city cannot be photographed at all.

In this regard the Contax 139 is the same. Its quirks and idiosyncrasies mean it was simply not possible to take more photos.

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