Review: The Contax T3

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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.

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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).

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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.

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A lot of lawn to mow.

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.

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Urban abstract

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.

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Chairs are like cows and might give you headaches

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.

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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.

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Nadiah and the latte

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.)

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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).

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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.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Hydrant and bicycle

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Mind the gap

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Camouflaged construction – in the full size scan, the individual leaves on trees are very visible and distinct.

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Hiding Rudolph after Christmas

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Impractical fashion


  1. Any comments on the Minolta TC1

  2. I sold mine because of the shutter lag, even pre-focused. I also recall that the LCD wasn’t backlit. It was slower than the olympus stylus epic(mju2) . In fact, I just did a shutter lag ranking between the contax tvs3, minolta tc-1, leica cm, ricoh gr1, yashica t4, and stylus epic and found the minolta tc-1 to be the fastest, with the ricoh gr1 2nd. I should next compare the tc-1 with the hexar AF and contax T– should be close.

  3. I just love your processing workflow.

    • Thanks! Best of both worlds – film capture for tonality, DIY development and then digital file handling with scans via a D800E and macro lens after that.

  4. I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this blog. I really hope to view the same high-grade content from you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my very own site now 😉

  5. Hi Ming, I hope you’re still answering comments about the T3. I’ve had one since 2006 and love it to bits, particularly due to the unique way it renders, with smooth bokeh and lots of microcontrast pop. Do you think that the Sony RX1, with its Zeiss Sonnar lens, renders in a similar way? I’ve no doubt that it would produce technically better images, but would the ‘look’ be similar? I’ve wanted a digital version of the T3 for years, but only now does it seems like something this close has appeared. Thanks for any ideas.

  6. I would highly recommend Contax T2 or T3 for anyone who grew up with digital cameras and is interested in film photography. One of the best P&S that Walfgang Tillmans has taken so many million dollars masterpieces with.

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Contax T (original):
    I have one too, smallest 135 film camera I have found.
    I found the viewfinder with rangefinder quite good enough.
    But I missed manual control, when exposure compensation was needed I used to cheat the camera by setting the wrong ISO number.
    It came with a nice soft pouch that could hold either the camera or the camera plus it’s screwed on flash unit.
    – – –
    This pouch plus a stiff plate (to protect the screen) is just right for my new Fujifilm XF-1.

  8. Its good to see that your film camera posts garner quite a few public responses, Ming. Perhaps articles such as this will encourage young people who currently shoot digital to give film a try, thus keeping it alive. Back when I shot digital, I would covet the leica MP, but now that I own one, I haven’t regretted switching at all

    • I hope so. But it is a lot more work with less controllable results than digital, or that’s perhaps it’s the lack of instant gratification…personally I, enjoy the change of pace.

      • Please continue your excellent film posts, Ming. I get the impression you have enjoyed revisiting film, and hope you continue to do so. I also hope your articles get more young people into film. If I may make a suggestion, how about a brief article on developing, scanning, enlarging, etc?
        When I was a film newbie these were daunting subjects for which there was little information

        • Thanks Andy. I’m still relatively new in the developing and scanning process – still trying to figure in what my own workflow is. Once I’ve nailed that to my satisfaction, then I’ll post something comprehensive…until then, I’m still low down the learning curve.

          • Why don’t you make your own prints in a darkroom – or use a Imacon negative scanner? Hoe does your workflow look like? Using a Nikon D800E as a scanner??? WTF? 🙂 Hope to see some more reviews of film cameras. Thanks.

            • I suggest you look through the ‘Film Diaries’ archives.

              I don’t use a darkroom because of lack of space. I don’t use a negative scanner because the quality and speed are greatly inferior to a D800E, including an Imacon (I’ve tried several times). Digital printing from a digital master file gives me consistency and speed.

  9. Roar Arne Velle says:

    The Contax brand is even more complicated. Use Wikipedia ( and learn.:-) Zeiss Ikon invented the modern 35mm SLR with high end Contarex, intemediate Contaflex. I have not owned any of theese. But a 1928 Ica, 9×12 (changed to an enlarger (homebuild) and after my fathers dead, donated to a high school), a 6×9 Ikonta and a Contessa LK, rangefinder 35mm of much lower grade then the Contax’s. They also invented the Planar and the Tessar back in 1907 and 1905, if I remember right. I think it was the ingenier Rudolf who used some years calculating the constructions. He later calculated the Meyer macro plasmat used in the worlds first SLR 6×6, the Bentzin from about 1936 (which I also own after my father who used it for children photography from 36 to 74). Hasselblad worked in his factory and used his knowledge to construct the first Hasselblad. It is realy a lot of interesting history in photography!
    I enjoy to look in the Zeiss Ikon Photo Hauptkatalog from 1937 and prewar photographic yearbooks. Astonishing quality in there, – not much better today, – maybe only for moving objects.

  10. Ming, just some small corrections:

    – you can set the flash default mode by keeping the flash button pressed and the icon starts blinking
    – you can also set a lot of custom functions like the exposure compensation related stuff in a hidden menu while the camera is off.. take a look at the camera manual 😉

  11. After noy using my old Contax T for along time, I’ve decided to put a roll of HP5 through it to see how it performs. I just like them”retro” idea of using some film for a change. I am totally convinced that if somebody bought the rights to manufacture this series of cameras again under licence, that they would sell very well indeed. These is a resurgence of people wanting to use film and growth in the Lomography way of thinking. There are plenty of people that are happy to make do with a 35mm f2/2.8 in a compact, and who will pay good money to do so, the Leica X2, Sony RX1 being good examples, well I am absolutely sure that if a top flight manufacturer reintroduced a 35mm film equivalent, than it would sell . These Contax T2 and 3’s seem to sell very well on eBay, and a new film version would fly out. If someone is capable of dong this, I think there will be a massive market , and if it is produced to these previous standards then even up to £1000 it will create back orders for sure

    • I think a 35mm film compact engineered with some modern tech – LCD VF overlay, multi-point AF, smaller size perhaps – would do pretty well as a high end niche product. Then again, perhaps not; Leica sells very few MPs and M7s, Nikon discontinued the F6, the Zeiss Ikon is dead, and we’re pretty much left with Lomos. I might be missing something though…

      • I’m sure there would be a market for this and the idea of a modern viewfinder is great. It needs to be the size of the T3 though, to be unique. An upgraded improved Minox with aperture priority but much better engineered of improved materials rather than plastic . If someone simply remade the T3 it would generate a waiting list

  12. Ming, did you ever shoot the RX1 with EVF? I have been enjoying mine since Dec. and really like the small size and the super quiet shutter for street/social settings zhooting. The IQ from the zeiss lens and Sony sensor rivals my D800E except for thedifference in resolution. It is great in low light and the MF with focus peaking and magnification works well. I know if it had a 28mm lens instead of 35 you would like it more.

    • Nope, the price is seriously prohibitive for what it is – at least in this country, more than a new Leica 35/2 ASPH…sensor should be good, it’s the same as the D600 I believe.

  13. I don’t understand why high end modern digital compacts can’t be like this.

    I have a minilux, which is about a million times nicer to use than my X100, and having handled, but not shot with, a lot of the other high end compacts form the late nineties (back when I worked in a camera shop) the minilux wasn’t even ergonomically the best of them.

    • Neither do I – none of them come close, with the exception perhaps of the Ricoh GRD series which is almost identical in build to the GR1 series. And it’s not as though they’re any cheaper in real terms…

  14. A note on Contax: Contax is not a Japanese brand and never has been. Contax is one of the two traditional Zeiss camera brands, the other being Zeiss Ikon. The classic Contax and Contarex cameras were all German designed & built. The brand is wholely owned by Carl Zeiss AG.

    The modern Contax cameras, starting with the RTS in the mid-70’s were the result of a collaboration between Zeiss and Yashica, which occurred after Zeiss’s relationship with Pentax fell apart (the RTS was originally intended to be a K mount camera). Kyocera got involved after its acquisition of Yashica in the 1980’s.

    Contax is currently not an active brand because it was tied up by licensing agreements between Kyocera and Zeiss when Zeiss launched the Zeiss Ikon RF camera in partnership with Cosina. Those legal agreements forced Zeiss to resurrect their other brand which had been dormant since the 1960’s.

    • Thanks for the detailed info – I knew it was complicated, but not this complicated!

      • digipixelpop says:

        It’s even more complicated than that!
        Contax is a German brand created by Zeiss Ikon who then licensed it out to Yashica in 1973 (with whom they created a technical and manufacturing partnership) to create a line of electronically controlled SLR cameras. Yashica was then in 1983 bought by Kyocera, who continued the arrangement until 2005 when they stopped producing cameras altogether (and sold the rights to Kyocera branded cameras to a company in Hong Kong). The licensing agreement officially expired in 2010, so the brand could be licensed to a new company, but unfortunately Carl Zeiss AG (which I think was renamed to just “Zeiss”) no longer owns that brand (or Zeiss Ikon), as they lost it in a merger years ago, so they would probably have to relicense it from the current owners (I forget who) before they could then license it to another company like Cosina. It’s a shame as many people still have warm, fuzzy feelings towards the Contax brand (myself included).

        • In summary…it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another Contax, sadly. 😦

          • digipixelpop says:

            Yes, unfortunately 😦
            A digital Contax G2 would be my dream camera.

            • IslandTractor says:

              I have held on to my Contax G2 and four lenses (21,35,45,90) for a decade plus waiting for a digital body to use those lenses. It is very sad that Contax fell by the wayside and that the lovely G lenses can never benefit from a modern digital autofocus body. After realizing my wait was in vain, I finally bought into the Fuji X system just so I could use adapters to mount the Zeiss lenses. Without autofocus they are no longer very useful for routine use or walking around but at least I can shoot with them again.

          • Hi Ming, I’m just tapping into this thread via an article about Saul Leiter. I am an “amateur” photographer & poet
            who has had a truly beloved T3 for almost a decade. I do not really know how to use any other camera, and always
            had the aforementioned experience of creating extremely painterly photographs with a texture and clarity that I can’t
            imagine finding anywhere else. I’m sure, as well, that the simplicity and lack of confusing functions is what bonded
            me to it also. I have no interest in digital. For the last 2 years my camera has been ailing; I’ve sent it out a couple
            of times, (did not know about Kyocera though) but the battery keeps draining fast, and the shutter will intermittently
            get stuck. I do not use it much now, and really miss it. My dad suggested I get a Leica M3 on ebay, but I am wondering
            if that would be an appropriate substitute. I guess the choice is between sending it out to Kyocera and crossing my
            fingers, or really trying to segue to another camera… one, ideally, that’s appropriate for a low-tech poet! Much thanks…
            any advice appreciated. Francesca

            • Try a Hasselblad V, or contact Bellamy Hunt at Japan Camera Hunter – I believe he knows people who can still repair T3s, or find you another one…

              • Why can’t I find a single interchangeable-lens rangefinder with a built in flash?? By the time one sticks on a flash, one may as well use an SLR for size weight etc. Daylight fill flash for me is a must.

        • @digipixelpop
          You don’t know how right you are…if i’d be a billionaire, i’d resurrect the CONTAX brand from the dead, and create a DSLR line into the spirit of their 70’s to 90’s SLRs…it’s such a shame a brand like Contax is no more, the same goes for Yashica. I do love my ML lenses,
          even more the C/Y zeiss lenses. I really hope that *someday* the brand is reborn, like a phoenix from the ashes…

          I often read Mings blog here, wish i could afford the rare, black T3…but sadly, not.

  15. Thanks for this awesome review, Ming! If you enjoyed the T3 and especially the lens on it, may I suggest you also try the first of the series, the original T? It features the same 38mm f/2.8 Sonnar T* lens as the T2 p&s, but it is an ultra-compact rangefinder with shutter priority and manual aperture and focus. Definitely quirky, but delivers stunning pictures and so small that I regularly take it anywhere. And highly enjoyable.

    • Sounds interesting – and by the looks of it, seems pretty similar to the Minox 35GT series?

    • Steve Jones says:

      Ah….The T2. In the days when I backpacked it went all over asia and to the top of Kinabalu with me. Takes beautiful pictures and even handles beach scenes with almost white reflective sand perfectly with a bit of EV adjustment.. Marvelous camera. It’s right here on my desk now as I’m reading this. Now I come to think of it, it’s amazing it still performs perfectly after all these years. I doubt any digital products will give such long and faithful service. Any of the Contax T’s are worth having.

      • Time to run some film through it perhaps?

      • Steve Jones says:

        Will do! seem to remember i never tried black and white film so that will be interesting.

        • Not sure what the lab situation is like in the UK at the moment; here there are very few labs that do B&W processing, and most are run out of somebody’s house. Hope it’s better than here! I’m finding that if you want to make film practical, you really have to do your own processing – and be prepared for some nasty surprises. I had a 20-brick of TMAX 400 go bad – the film was still fogged after fixing in a fresh batch of fixer for half an hour (normal time: two minutes); push developing by what must be the equivalent of six stops (normal time, 6min for a 1-stop push in DDX 1:9; concentration increased to 1:6 and developed for 20min, negatives were still extremely light to the point of being unusable). I guess I like the look, but I certainly don’t like the unpredictability.

  16. Nice Camera. This was on my short list for some time when they first came out…

    • No reason not to pick one up now 🙂

      • As to film pocket camera, what is your recommendation now? thanks, Ming.

        • Still the Ricoh GR1v.

        • I’m sure that the T3 is still about as good as it gets in terms of optical image quality and portability. I’m not aware of any other camera that beats it when all things are considered. The Nikon 35ti would be a contender, but I’m not sure how reliable the dials with the needles on would be, and in both instances there are almost certain,y no spare parts available . I believe there was an issues with the film take up,mechanism on the Contax that caused parts to break off so that would be relevant. I’ve had a Leica minilux that was very good although the 40mm focal length was just a bit too long, and it does make a difference at times, which is why I’d rather have the Contax T3 over the T2 which was that bit longer, and the problem that the T2’s had with the error reading on the LCD display . I have an original Contax T which I’m putting some black and white film through again, so if I catch the bug . I might try and find a mint T3 . I’m still convinced that there is a very large market for a high end manufacturer to produce an equivalent of the T3 in terms of size , quality and portability that uses 35mm film. There will be a resurgence in film as there has been in vinyl records over cd and mp3. People like the nostalgia and think more about their photographs, rather than take a lot and see if any are worth keeping .

          • My feeling is the lens on the T3 is better than the GR1v, but the GR1v has more visible finder info and slightly better ergonomics – plus there’s the whole 28mm vs 35mm discussion. As far as I know, GR1vs are still repairable by Ricoh HQ, but not Contaxes.

  17. Hi, thanks for the review. I guess in the intro the lens should be a sonnar 2.8/35 rather than 2/35

  18. Great review with outstanding pictures. The RX1 also came to my mind – it’s surprising how small and light-weight the Contax is in comparison. Especially the Sony’s lens seems to be huge, even considering it’s one stop faster.

    • Thanks Angsar. There are edge issues present with digital that require tele centric lenses, which isn’t the same case with film – the medium is flat. Also, the T3 has a collapsible lens, and slightly less focusing range – but yes, there is a disproportionate increase in the size of the Sony.

  19. Good thoughts Ming. Have regretted selling my Leica Minilux with 40mm f/2.4
    Came to the same conclusions as you: these Lux P&S film cameras offer tremendous value and excellent image quality. Only concern is serviceability here in the states. Leica no longer fixes the Minilux and Contax is long gone.

  20. Roger Wojahn says:

    I’ve owned this little camera since its inception. I used to travel a great deal and was shooting only film, so I picked up this camera to be my main travel camera. There was a look and feel to the images that has never been replicated with another film/format. I primarily shot Kodachrome 64 and there was an dense richness, almost a painting like quality to the images. I can’t remember now who it was, but a famous fashion photographer did an entire international fashion shoot with this little camera for a major couture brand. Like a Leica, There is a wonderful, quality connection to the camera and to the shooting experience. A real gem. Thanks for sharing, I’ll have to break it out, buy some film and get it going again!

    • Could you be thinking of Terry Richardson and the T4?

      • Roger Wojahn says:

        Very possibly. It’s been a decade at least. Although I thought it was for a very famous brand campaign like LV, And I thought it was the T3. But at my age, these things all run together I’m afraid. Really appreciate everything you do Ming.


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