First, a starting note. Reviewing film cameras both takes a little longer and always somehow feels a little less complete than doing the same for digital; I suspect it’s because there really are quite a lot of unknowns in the equation which you can’t determine whether are due to the camera or some other portion of the process. Still, there are definitely characteristics that shine through regardless – part of this is perhaps down to the equality of media across all cameras – an F6 has the same sensor as a Mju II, which in turn has the same sensor as a 1930s Leica I. Differences are down to glass, assuming that processing is carried out consistently. When evaluating images in the analog domain, it’s already difficult enough to form an opinion based on a small websize jpeg; this is why it’s important to go along with the words of the reviewer as they’ve (hopefully) seen large, uncompressed files on a calibrated monitor – what you’re seeing is merely for illustration and perhaps to break up the enormous blocks of text. The same goes for film: a web scan isn’t going to have anywhere near the same amount of information as the original negative; even printing introduces an additional variable into the mix which might lead a review to conclude erroneously.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the camera up on the block today: the Contax T3. Contax is a Japanese brand, later bought over by Kyocera-Yashica, and now defunct (the owners of the brand no longer have any facility for the production of cameras). The T cameras (with the exception of the T4/T5) were a series of premium compacts featuring some manual controls, all-metal construction, and Carl Zeiss T* lenses (including the T4, and subsequent Yashica cameras). The T3 was the pinnacle of the range from a design standpoint; it was one of then smallest 35mm compacts at the time, bodied in smooth titanium – either natural finish or black – and featured a Zeiss 2.8/35 Sonnar. Just to prove they spared no expense, the shutter button and viewfinder/ AF windows on the front of the camera were all made from synthetic sapphire. This was definitely not a cheap camera when new (and still isn’t exactly cheap today, either).
All the effort does come across the moment you pick it up, though – they got the tactility bit very, very right. Controls feel tight and positive, and even the mode buttons have a decent amount of travel to them and provide positive clicks. There really aren’t that many controls on this thing at all: the top has a small LCD for mode display and frame counter; there’s a flash mode and mode mode button, a tiny control dial, an AF-lock button, and the combined aperture/ power/ program mode wheel, which locks in the off and P positions by means of a central button. It’s a bit fiddly to power on with one hand, but at least it won’t accidentally extend the lens in your bag or pocket (Ricoh GR1V, I’m looking at you). Oh, and there’s the aforementioned sapphire shutter button, of course.
It is a boxy design, but fits in the hand reasonably well, and the titanium finish isn’t that slippery (though I’d recommend the use of a wrist lanyard to prevent expensive accidents). Like all cameras of this genre, it has a viewfinder. Whilst a lot better than the pathetic excuse for viewfinders tacked on as an afterthought (if at all) to some digital cameras these days, it’s still not going to measure up to a proper SLR or medium format camera. I’d say subjectively, it’s about the same size as an entry level APS-C finder, or similar to the Fuji X10. That said, the view is bright, clear and brilliantly contrasty, plus color neutral – much better than the finder of my GR1V, though the GR1V provides better eye relief and frame line visibility. For eyeglass wearers, there isn’t as much eye relief as I’d like, plus the frame lines can be difficult to see in bright light; they’re just not contrasty or bright enough. The GR1V wins in this regard.
There’s information in the finder, too – it’s not just a dead tunnel. On the right side are indicative shutter speeds (if you get 500, then it’s 1/500s; if you get 500 and 125, then it’s 1/250s or something in that ballpark, etc.). There’s a focus distance readout on the top panel too, just to make sure you’ve focused on what you want – important seeing as there’s no way of confirming focus through the viewfinder seeing as it’s a non-TTL finder. Focusing is actually surprisingly fast considering the lens has to move through a decent distance (it is a real 35mm focal length that focuses down to 0.4m on real full frame, after all); the camera uses phase detection sensors. Subjectively – I’d say it’s probably on par with the faster modern compact digitals. You definitely don’t get the impression the camera is keeping you waiting, but you might land up working slower than normal because you’re not 100% sure if it nailed focus – and this matters if you’re shooting wide open, since depth of field won’t always cover errors especially at shorter subject distances. More importantly though, AF was accurate.
Using Ilford Delta 100 film (all of the images in this review were shot on that medium), the T3’s lens produced wonderfully sharp and contrasty images, with excellent performance even to the edges. Stopping down to about f5.6 or so is required to get perfect cross-frame sharpness, but the amount of detail the camera is capable of resolving is very, very impressive – right up there with the best DSLR and M lenses I’ve used on film, and coming up against the grain-imposed limits. Even on B&W film, the lens seems to have the trademark Zeiss microcontrast and ‘pop’; transmission is also high as the negatives produced were dense and rich*. Bokeh, when there was some – it is a 35/2.8 after all – was smooth and non-objectionable, with nicely rounded out of focus highlights and almost no bright fringes – I suspect this is probably a non-aspherical lens design.
*Density is affected by development time, but I’ve settled on a consistent time and temperature for the two or three films I regularly use, which gives me some basis for comparison.
The camera also has a number of other handy features, some of which are quirky, some of which aren’t useful, and some of which are downright annoying. Let’s start with the latter: it doesn’t seem remember any of your settings when you cycle the power, defaulting to AF and flash off. It does remember exposure compensation, however. Using various combinations of the mode button and command dial, you can set manual focus by distance, long shutter speeds, and exposure compensation. It’s a bit fiddly, to be honest; the good news is that the camera never seems to rarely require exposure compensation in the first place – the meter is pretty good, and the large latitude of black and white negative film pretty much takes care of the rest. It’s worth nothing that as with all of these compact film cameras, there’s no continuous AF or drive modes (Sony RX100 with subject tracking and 10fps, anybody?). In any case, you probably wouldn’t want them; this isn’t really the kind of camera you’d shoot action with.
There were two cameras I had in mind when shooting the T3; firstly, the Ricoh GR1V, which I had in my pocket (and will be the subject of a future review) and the Sony RX1. The former, because back in the day the T3s, CMs, GR1Vs, 35Tis etc competed for the premium camera pocket slot; the latter, because it too has a 35mm Carl Zeiss lens, and is the only (somewhat) ‘compact’ full frame camera on the market today. Even if you paid top dollar for a T3, you’d still be enjoying a 60-70% discount on the price of an RX1; that’s enough for a LOT of film, perhaps 250-300 rolls including processing. It’s doubtful that most RX1 owners will shoot that much, and certainly won’t give as much care to each individual image. (Try as I might to carry over my film-shooting mentality to my digital work, I simply can’t; the moment I pick up anything with a screen, I’m trigger happy.)
The question I have is twofold: firstly, which will you enjoy using more, and secondly, does it matter? I have no doubt that the RX1 will win hands down on flexibility, image quality and consistency; anything with film in it is basically uncertain until you’ve developed it and scanned it, and even then there are so many things that could go wrong in the process. This frustration and element of randomness might be a good thing or a bad thing; I suppose it depends on whether the shot matters to you or not. Me, I’ll pick up something digital for any application that’s critical, and I’ll probably not use a compact on assignment unless there’s a very good reason to (though I have in the past, and might well do again in future).
The only conclusion I can come to is that for casual photography, these premium point and shoots are worth a look: not only do you get the optical (depth of field, etc) properties of full frame, but the entry cost is significantly lower; moreover, there’s almost zero depreciation. And – personally – best of all is the distillation of photographic control: you don’t have to worry about custom functions etc; it’s just aperture priority, exposure compensation, and a viewfinder. You focus on making the image, rather than having some of your attention diverted towards operating the camera. Interestingly, despite my intense personal dislike of the 35mm field of view, and the nearly-invisible frame lines that made it somewhat difficult to compose (or perhaps because of) I didn’t really notice it at all during the test period – perhaps this has something to do with it. Transparency is an interesting concept, but I don’t think this camera manages it – or any of the premium film compacts, for that matter. Still, I have to say that I very much enjoyed shooting with the T3 – now to sit and wait until some manufacturer realizes that they’d probably sell a boatload of digital versions at the right price, with the minimum of features…MT
A big thank you to Bellamy Hunt at Japan Camera Hunter for the loan of this camera for the review;
this actual unit is available for sale – get in touch with him for details.
Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved