Contax T2 – Searching for value amongst the hype

Although many cameras have gone from unknown to idolised as a result of the film renaissance, the Contax T2 stands shoulders above the competition in terms of the sheer hype it has received in the past decade, and the effect that hype has had on the prized titanium point-and-shoot’s price.

While the Yashica T4, a poorer cousin of the Contax, gained plaudits amongst photographers in the hands of Terry Richardson, the Contax T2 entered the cultural stratosphere when supermodel Kendall Jenner used the camera to snap photos of Jimmy Kimmel live on primetime TV. This moment announced to the world that film was not only cool, but that the Contax T2 was the coolest film camera of them all. Millennials have coveted the Contax T series ever since. No wonder I ended up buying one.

But you knew all of this already. The real question is, does the camera live up to the hype, and more importantly, the astronomic price that it now commands?

I used the camera extensively during 2018, taking it to Lake Como and documenting England’s unforgettable World Cup run, which happened to coincide with a vintage summer in terms of weather.

From the moment that you hold the Contax, you know that it’s not your average point-and-shoot. Clad in titanium that is cold to the touch and featuring tactile, well-damped controls, the camera instantly inspires confidence. I had to work hard to resist the temptation to snap random objects just for the sake of hearing the beautiful machine in action. Very few point-and-shoots are made of metal, with titanium even rarer. Plastic is ubiquitous in this film camera segment, which may help to explain why the Contax T2 has stood out from the competition since its introduction in 1990.

The superior build quality of the Contax may be the first thing you notice about the camera, but the array of manual controls are arguably what sets it apart from 95% of its peers. Very few point-and-shoots have an automatic flash-off setting, let alone the aforementioned exposure compensation adjustment that Contax users will eventually take for granted. The T2 takes the manual controls concept a step further, with focus as well as manual aperture settings. It’ll even allow you to disable the flash – no more awkward exchanges with strangers as a result of a candid botched by unintended flash!

Whilst these controls are nice to have, they are by no means perfect. I rarely used the manual focus beyond setting the camera to infinity for landscapes, and it was definitely too fiddly to use for fast action. In terms of the aperture, the 2.8 setting actually activates programme mode, meaning that you cannot intentionally shoot the camera wide open. With a close focusing distance of 70cm, bokeh is subtle at the best of times, though not unpleasant when you do see it. The snappy autofocus of the camera means that this is not a dealbreaker however.

All of the creative freedom that these manual controls allow would be mute if the resulting images weren’t worth their salt. Luckily, the Contax T2 possesses a 5-element Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens that provides outstanding colour rendition and clarity. The lens delivers medium contrast negatives with only a hint of vignetting and no major aberrations to speak of. This results in organic images bursting with character – the sort I’d fallen in love with film photography for in the first place.

In terms of image quality, the Contax T2’s Sonnar lens is right up there with the best SLR and Leica M lenses available, which goes some way to explaining the massive prices that these camera now fetch. During my holiday in Lake Como I also had my beloved Leica M4 with me, equipped with a Zeiss ZM 35mm 2.8. The Contax left no image quality on the table compared to this setup. Knowing that your little travel camera provides both portability and photographic punch is hugely confidence inspiring, and may help to embolden shier photographers.

Although it had a size advantage over a Leica M, the Contax T2 is by no means a small camera. Whilst it may be ideal for sauntering around the Italian peninsula, the camera tends to bulge out of most jean pockets, making it suboptimal at best for everyday usage. I have since acquired the microscopic Contax T, which is a much more manageable size for a pocket camera.  

Although some would argue that the image quality and manual features justify the larger size, I find this argument problematic.

To me, a point-and-shoot should be a do-everything sort of camera for those in between moments such as a walk in the park, where a Leica M would be overkill. If your point-and-shoot is large enough to make you weigh up taking a larger camera, or consider leaving it at home altogether, then it has failed in its primary objective. Before I sold it, I ended up leaving the T2 at home on numerous occasions due to the size issue.

Because the T2 stays at home more often than not, the camera inevitably competes with larger machines like the Leica, at which point the subject of price and value rears its head. Unlike mechanical film cameras which are readily available today for a fraction of the price, the Contax T2 relies on ageing electronics to survive.

This means that although it has a price tag worthy of a Leica M, the Contax certainly doesn’t share that cameras reparability. One large drop onto concrete or two splashes of water splash of water could leave you with one of the world’s most expensive paperweights. In this regard a Leica can be considered a safer investment, as you can at least get it up and running again should the worst happen. Film cameras should be enjoyed, not babied. Unfortunately the cost of the Contax means that the former is not possible without the latter.

I don’t mean to bash the Contax T2. I shot dozens of frames with it during the my trip to Italy and during the sweltering summer of 2018. The Sonnar lens is simply superlative. However, when I got the opportunity to trade it for a mint black Contax T, I jumped at the chance, and haven’t looked back since.

Although the Contax T2 has unrivalled pedigree, it’s value has become its own worst enemy.

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