The Contax 645 AF: A Very Longterm Review
The Contax 645 AF is a relatively small and lightweight medium format film camera dating from the late 1990s. It’s a camera that will largely appeal to analog photographers looking to benefit from the greater resolution of 120 film, while still retaining many of the advantages of a 35mm SLR in terms of speed and mobility.
Produced during the twilight of the film era, the Contax’s design is far removed from that of earlier medium format SLRs. Indeed, it comes with most of the features you would expect to see on a modern camera — albeit in a slightly less evolved form.
Alongside the Mamiya 7ii and the Pentax 67, the Contax 645 has gained a reputation as one of the best medium format cameras ever made. As a result, it now commands correspondingly high prices on the used market. And while the smaller negative size of 6×4.5 cm might appear to put the Contax at a disadvantage when compared with the aforementioned 6×7 models, I would argue that it comes with a range of features that more than make up for this minor shortcoming.
Yet despite the Contax 645 having become something of a cult camera, there’s little in the way of information available online from people with anything but the most superficial experience working with it, a situation I hope to redress in this review by covering the camera’s design, features, and handling from the point of view of a photographer who has used the camera professionally for almost two decades.
Although I’ve occasionally branched out into using other makes, models, and formats of cameras over the years, I’ve been using the Contax 645 since it was still a new product, and it remains my default camera today. Indeed, if I were ever forced to choose only one camera to work with, I’m in no doubt as to which it would be.
While I quickly came to rely upon the Contax 645 as central to my way of working, initially, I didn’t possess a Contax of my own. Instead, due to the frequency with which I traveled on assignment, I preferred to rent one at my destination each time I needed to shoot. This means that over the years, I’ve handled rather a lot of them.
However, when I belatedly learned that the Contax 645 had been discontinued, I realized that the time had come to purchase one of my own. Thankfully, I bought my 645 body and half a dozen Zeiss lenses at a time when they were still relatively cheap: i.e. in the brief window between the Contax 645’s discontinuation and its elevation to the status of cult medium format film camera that it enjoys today.
In short, I’ve been using the Contax 645 AF consistently for the best part of the last 20 years, and so I’m likely as qualified as anyone to comment on its features and handling. Here’s what I can tell you.
The Contax 645 will be of interest to any photographer who desires the image quality of 120 film, but without the compromises usually associated with medium format film cameras in terms of speed, weight, size, handling, and ease of use. In practice, this means that the Contax is well suited to shooting documentary, street photography, portraits, fashion, and even weddings. Indeed, I’m told that it’s in high demand from retro-obsessed wedding photographers that have radically inflated the price of this camera in the last 10 years or so.
For my own part, I mostly shoot spontaneous, unposed environmental portraits, often using strobes. You should probably keep this in mind as I share my experiences below.
While I’ve also shot numerous landscapes with the Contax over the years, it is by no means a landscape camera. Of course, this is partly because most landscape photographers will be looking for greater resolution than a 4.5 x 6 cm negative can provide. But it’s also simply because the Contax’s strong point is speed — rarely high on any landscape photographer’s list of criteria and certainly not worth paying an extra premium for if you won’t be making full use of it.
Although I’ve used literally dozens, if not hundreds, of these cameras — often ones that passed through the punishing hands of hardworking professionals on a daily basis — I’ve never seen a Contax 645 in poor condition. I should also point out that I am no gear geek and have a thoroughly unhealthy lack of respect for the tools of my trade; cameras are of value to me only in so much as they allow me to do my job, but the photo always comes first.
This means that even if the rain comes pouring down and we need to scale a cliff face in order to get the shot, then the Contax is getting dragged along for the ride, whatever the outcome. On top of which, my own Contax 645 has traveled umpteen times around the globe, rattling away in the overhead luggage bins on countless long-haul flights. Yet, despite all this careless treatment, my camera has never taken a scratch nor required servicing in the 12 or so years that I’ve owned it.
Both an AE prism and a waist-level finder were produced for the Contax 645. However, as I was in the market for a camera that recreated the shooting experience of a 35mm SLR, only with higher resolution, I have never tried the camera with the waist-level finder. What I can say is that the prism finder works wonderfully; the image through the finder is bright and clear and exposure and focus are easily set via an LED display within the viewfinder itself. The finder can be calibrated to the user’s eye via a small dial on the side of the eyepiece.
I’ll be honest that this is the one area of the camera in which I have relatively little experience, simply because the habit has always lead me to meter with my handheld Sekonic. However, on the few occasions that I’ve used the Contax’s spot or center-weighted TTL metering, I have never been met with any unpleasant surprises.
Firstly, let me just reiterate that this is a medium format film camera with autofocus. While the Contax 645 is not entirely unique in this respect, it has to be said that there’s not a great deal of competition out there on this front. Hence it’s undoubtedly one of the camera’s main selling points.
Of course, autofocus from the 1990s is never going to compete with today’s ultra-fast hybrid-mode, zillion-point autofocus systems. So no, the Contax 645 won’t win any awards for focus speed. On top of that, I often experience some focus-searching when using the camera in low light. But if after numerous detours, I still come back to this camera as the model I’m most comfortable working with today, it’s because overall, it does the job I need it to do very well.
In short, the Contax 645’s autofocus is plenty good enough for me. And depending on the kind of images you shoot, it may well be good enough for you too. But if you’re converting over from a top-of-the-range Nikon DSLR or other modern professional cameras, don’t expect similar performance from this 20-year-old veteran.
For those who prefer their focus action to be all manual, this is of course entirely possible with the Contax, and AF can easily be overridden by the press of a button. Not that I’ve ever bothered to use this feature, though, as AF always works well enough for me.
As with focus, when compared with modern burst shooting rates of 15+ fps, there’s really no competition here. But then again, with 120 films costing what it does these days, that’s probably just as well; even creaking along at 1.6 fps, the drive on this thing is way faster than I could ever afford to shoot film. Also bear in mind that even some of the Contax’s most serious competitors, such as the Mamiya 7ii or Pentax 67, don’t have a motor drive at all, but merely a laborious old manual film advance lever.
Another benefit of the motor drive is that once film has been loaded into the carrier and inserted into the film back, the camera takes over, quickly winding the film on to the first frame. Likewise, when finishing a roll, the film doesn’t need to be wound on to the end of the spool but automatically advances by itself. This permits very speedy film changes — literally just a few seconds if the next roll is ready to go.
The backs on this camera are great: super fast and easy to load and quick to release from the body. However, if you are a rapid shooter, by far, the best way to deal with film loading on the Contax 645 is to work with two backs and an assistant who can load the second one while you shoot. Rather than removing the entire back from the camera each time, just flip it open, take out the exposed roll, snap in the ready-loaded fresh one, and away you go again.
Unless the dark slide is in place, neither the shutter fire nor the back can be removed from the camera. Unlike with some other 120 cameras, there is a handy slot for storing the dark slide when the camera is in use considerably reducing the chances of losing it.
For photographers who work exclusively with daylight, the maximum speed at which a camera can synchronize flash and film shutter (and not result in images with black banding across them) is obviously of no concern. But for those shooting a significant portion of their work with strobes, it’s a total deal-breaker.
That was the case for me. Several other manufacturers also produced cameras in this format at around the same time, but of these, only Hasselblad’s offering could outdo the Contax’s 1/125 max flash sync speed. While 1/125 is not super fast by modern standards, it’s quick enough to avoid most motion-blur when balancing strobes with daylight. With lower sync speeds of 1/90 or 1/60, the same cannot be said for most competitor 645 film models. This alone clinches the deal as far as I’m concerned.
Other than the Hasselblad H series, the Contax 645 is as close as you can get to a modern shooting experience with a medium format film camera. Sure, everything is a little bit slower than with today’s cameras, but nothing essential is missing. And unlike many of the Contax 645’s contemporaries, there’s no fussing around with manual focus, old-style double-action film-advance cranks, nor external metering (unless you want to, of course). This was one of the very last medium format film cameras ever made, and all modern features and functions are fully present and operational.
The handgrip is comfortable to hold, and the on/off switch, autofocus, and most other controls are easy to adjust with just one hand while gripping the camera. This makes it very well suited for use with a speedlight in the other hand or when hanging off a lamp-post, fence, or whatever else you may have to climb up in search of a better vantage point. Now, try that with a Mamiya RZ!
While I’ve been intrigued by everything from Fuji’s 6×8 format cameras to the Pentax 67 and Mamiya 7ii and even tried shooting a 4×5 Graflex handheld for a couple of years, at the end of the day, there’s no other medium film camera that just “disappears” in your hands in the same way as the Contax 645, by which I mean that operation is so pleasurable and hassle-free that you forget the camera is there and just get on with shooting. Beyond image quality, that’s all I really ask of any camera.
Zeiss lenses. Old-school Zeiss, to boot.
With that said, it’s probably not necessary that I elaborate. But I’m going to do so all the same; in my experience, the Contax 645’s optical performance is every bit as sharp and attractive as with 6×6 or 6×7 cameras. Placed in an enlarger or properly scanned, you’ll have no trouble printing from these negatives at museum-sized dimensions.
Meanwhile, although “bokeh” and other geeky internet obsessions are not something I’ve ever paid the slightest bit of attention to, photos produced using this camera and its lenses look fantastic. No busy backgrounds, no out-of-focus weirdness — just good images. A Contax 645 and the 80mm f/2 lens is all any portrait photographer could ever really need.
On top of this, several other very useful focal lengths of the lens were produced for the Contax. And while they don’t exactly come cheap, they’ll set you back a lot less than glass for the Hasselblad H system, which is arguably the Contax 645’s closest competitor (see below).
If I were to strictly concentrate on the camera itself, this would be by far the shortest section of the review. As it is, though, the most notable problem with this camera is simply how good it is, which has, unfortunately, lead to it selling at totally outrageous prices. This in itself should make the prospective buyer think twice before committing to a system that no longer enjoys customer support.
Indeed, if something were to go wrong with my own Contax now, I’d be in real trouble; I have a lot of money invested in the glass but would struggle to replace the body at current prices. So, it’s with some alarm that I’ve recently learned that the Contax 645 doesn’t enjoy a great reputation for its electronic circuitry, not that I’ve personally had any problems on this front.
Indeed, aside from this lurking threat, the only issue I have ever encountered with the camera was when somebody on a job asked to take a look at the camera briefly; then gave it back to me totally seized-up and unresponsive. However, after 10 terrifying minutes of trying to figure what was “broken,” this in fact turned out to be a case of user error; evidently, while playing with the camera, the individual in question had knocked a button, sending the camera into the mirror-up position or something similar. “RTFM,” as they say. Other than this, though, after many years of punishing use, the camera has (touch wood) yet to let me down.
Finally, the Contax 645 is widely considered to be the best option for those seeking a medium format film camera that will also work well with a digital back. While that sounds more like it should be considered a pro than a con, the reason this falls into the annoyances section is that such backs are either extremely hard to come by with a Contax mount or eye-wateringly expensive, frequently both.
If you want to make use of this camera’s fantastic range of Zeiss lenses in the digital realm, I suggest that you instead stick with film and pay a pro lab to digitize it for you with a Hasselblad/Flextight scanner. The results are incredible. Sure, you don’t get the all-over sharpness of images shot on a modern digital MF camera, but that’s not why anyone shoots film today anyway, and if that’s your goal, there are easier routes.
For those who remain unconvinced by the Contax, but are still interested in the 6×4.5 cm film format, Hasselblad’s H-series 645 cameras are also a great option. Back in the day, I used them quite often on rental. But by the time I started to think about purchasing a 645 camera of my own, a Hasselblad was totally out of my price range.
Since the shift to digital, I’ve been surprised at how cheaply the Hasselblad H1 and its successors can now be bought, especially considering that the Contax has only risen in price during the same period. However, it turns out that there’s a catch; while H-series bodies now cost very little, they use the same lenses as the modern digital version of this camera. Meaning that although you can pick up a body for next to nothing, you will probably need to remortgage your house in order to acquire any glass for it.
Of all the 6×4.5 format cameras, the Mamiya 645 was undoubtedly the model most readily available from camera rental companies around the world. Consequently, I have also used this model quite extensively. However, while the Mamiya is a perfectly fine camera, I would go for the Hasselblad or Contax over it any day. In part, this is down to the Mamiya’s slower flash sync speed — making it ill-suited to my way of working — but it’s also just due to general performance and handling, which I personally find less agreeable. The Mamiya’s glass, too, is an issue.
Meanwhile, although I’ve used the larger format Bronica GS-1, I have no experience with Bronica’s 645 offerings. From what I’ve seen, though, I can’t imagine it coming close to the Contax in terms of either design, features, or build.
Realistically, if you’re looking for a 120 film camera that handles like a 35mm model and is thus well-suited to working in a fast documentary style, then other than the above mentioned Hasselblad the Contax’s main competitors are not even in the 645 categories but are more likely models such as the Mamiya 7ii, the Pentax 67, or the Bronica GS-1. While all of these cameras have their strong points, the Mamiya has slow glass, no autofocus, and in any case, not everyone likes rangefinders; meanwhile, both the Bronica and Pentax also lack AF and additionally suffer from frequent camera shake due to their enormous clunking shutters.
Sure, the Contax produces smaller negatives than all three, but having for years exhibited ultra-large prints made from scans of these very negatives, I can honestly say that this is not a problem. In fact, I notice little difference when compared with the results of 6×7, and if anything, when working with large format cameras I actually miss the grain of 645.
- Shooting 120 film with autofocus and a motor drive
- The film backs are quick and easy to load
- Great lenses
- Fast maximum flash sync speed
- Eye-level finder
- The price I paid for my camera
- It’s “only” 645 format: a 6×8 version would be “objectively” the best camera ever made if it weren’t for shutter quake
- The price I’d have to pay to replace my camera today
- I’m struggling to think of anything else here; it’s my favorite camera, after all
If the Contax 645 AF checks all the boxes for you as it did for me, there’s really no other camera out there quite like it. While film photography remains a tiny niche, my feeling is that if the Contax 645 didn’t already exist and someone were to launch something similar on Kickstarter today, the response would be overwhelming.
As it happens though, the Contax 645 does exist. And while far from photography’s best-kept secret nor much of a bargain when considered in purely economic terms, I believe that it’s worth every cent of even the inflated prices it currently sells for. If this review has already piqued your interest, then it’s highly likely that the Contax 645 is also the camera for you. Just leave me a spare body or two, okay?
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