This is the camera that single-handedly reignited my enjoyment for film. Ironic, as many people love film for its analogue nature: the notion of shooting film implies a vacation from clunky electronic contraptions to streamlined mechanical marvels. The Contax G1 is certainly a breed from the former camp, as it's about as automated as film cameras got. Auto-exposure, auto-winding, and auto-focus, all at the fastest speed 1994 technology allowed for.
Yes, 1994. The beautiful all-titanium body has a truly timeless design: it could easily pass as a modern digital camera released just this year. It weighs a reassuringly hefty amount, but remains easy to use and tote around thanks to its compact size. To me, this was the main reason the G1 was so appealing. The ability to use a set of sublime Carl Zeiss lenses and carry it all in an already packed messenger bag was what caused me to take this camera almost everywhere I went for a while.
But oh yes, about the 1994 technology. From what I can infer, the G1 uses a pair of rangefinders to focus. Both windows are at a slight offset from each other, and the camera uses the resulting parallax to determine how far the subject is from the plane of focus. This distance is communicated to the lens through electronic contacts and a screw then drives the focusing cam to the desired distance. This means that you could theoretically cover the lens, and the camera would still be able to find focus.
There's a reason it was nicknamed the "rich person's vacation camera" back when it was released: the size, the build, and the fantastic lenses. This was once a luxury product, and it certainly looks and feels the part.
All of this happens just by pressing a button, and the process takes less than a second in good light. In low light or when there isn't enough contrast, a subtle focus assist light projects a crosshatch-like pattern similar to what modern speedlights use. The viewfinder is small and simple, displaying only a marker indicating where the camera will focus, the shutter speed, and the distance from the subject. It's completely separate from the lens, so the distance scale is the only way to determine what's in focus.
As we all know, technology advances exponentially; today's cutting-edge is next year's paperweight. Two years after the G1 was launched, its successor, the G2 was released. The two were quite similar, but the G2 was significantly faster. When I was looking to try the Contax G system, I only had two options: the G1 or the G2. While the G1 was a relative bargain at around $100, the G2 was averaging for a whopping $750 at the time. The G1 it was for me.
I managed to receive the camera from a wonderful eBay seller just before my trip to LA and threw a test roll in to make sure all was working properly. I was impressed at just how responsive it was, despite many calling it pokey in the shadow of its brother. The size and image quality combined with its encouragement of spontaneous shooting instantly made me fall in love with this little jewel of a camera.
I've been lucky enough to shoot with all three of the original lenses: a 28mm f/2.8, 45mm f/2, and a 90mm f/2.8. Although I was using them occasionally on digital prior to getting a G1, the lenses had entirely new lives once they were back where they were intended to be.
I assumed that the fabled 45mm lens would immediately be my favourite lens of the trio. Revered for its sharpness (some cite it as better than the Leica 50mm Summicron), it's the reason I've been so interested in the system as a whole.
To my surprise, the 28mm has basically lived on my G1. Despite its f/2.8 aperture and its poor performance on digital cameras due to a ray-angle issue (KJ Vogelius has an excellent explanation of the physics behind that if you're curious), its small size and versatility turned it into my favourite lens from the system. In fact, during my trip to LA, I only took the 28mm and 90mm with me, leaving the 45mm I once lusted after behind.
So what about this camera got me back into film? Yes, it's a "full frame" camera with interchangeable lenses in a diminutive package, but at the time I already had a Sony a7. Marginally larger, but infinitely more practical. It's a good question, and I've been wondering the same thing as I've been putting this together.
I think the essence of what makes this camera so special to me is twofold: its simplicity and its versatility. While I thought it would be similar in operation to a traditional rangefinder when I first started researching it, in reality it's basically a point and shoot in a titanium tuxedo with interchangeable lenses. There is little to no fuss to take a photo, simply point, focus, and shoot.
There are many manual controls at the tips of your fingers if need be, but I found that the only fiddling I did was with the aperture control and the AE lock. The camera was quite capable in getting the exposure right without manual intervention, it became something I grew to trust quite quickly.
No irritating menus to crawl through, no accidental button presses, no forgetting how to change the focus mode (this happened to me with my a7 several times), just point and shoot bliss. The shots in this set were only possible thanks to how quickly I could pull out my G1 and capture the moment.
Of course, if you're looking for a film camera that allows for this level of point and shoot simplicity, there are many better options. The Contax T-series; the Olympus Stylus; the Ricoh GR; the Konica Big Mini; the list of capable yet much smaller cameras goes on. The differentiating factor of the G1 is the ability to change lenses.
I don't believe there's any other system out there that lets you carry a body, wide angle lens, fast normal lens, and a telephoto lens in such a compact kit. Even traveling with a mirrorless kit, the lenses are comparatively large and heavy.
I've dabbled in taking a Nikon F3 when traveling, but the need to carry a much larger and heavier package combined with the need to focus manually made it much more cumbersome than I anticipated. I found myself often too lazy to take it out and shoot, while the G1 encouraged me to keep looking for excuses to use it.
As many of you know, film is unique in that you're unable to see the images you take until you finish the roll and get it developed. In the age of digital, we're used to the immediate gratification of reviewing an image as soon as we take it (a habit called "chimping", as the posture one makes to do so is slouched and well, chimp-like).
To capture images with the slight uncertainty of film in a day and age where patience is becoming obsolete requires a lot of trust in your camera, and I think that's the main thing that kept holding me back from film prior to the G1. I would never use a film camera alone, as I always worried that it would somehow fail and I'd end up with a series of black images where I expected precious memories. I grew too dependent on the instant reassurance spoon-fed to me by digital cameras.
If you've known me for a while, you also know that I have a terrible habit of switching personal cameras every couple of months. This is usually because I'm always looking to try new cameras and systems, and because I feel little to no connection to any of the digital cameras I've used in the past. The G1 has been different. Spending an entire year with this camera, learning its ins and outs, and learning to fully trust it enough to take it as my lone camera has done the previously impossible: it's burrowed its way into my cold heart for inanimate objects.
It's made things all the harder when the camera slowly showed signs of its age. 23 years after manufacture, and the shutter button appears to be losing its battle against age. I'll line up a shot, have it focussed, and the final half-press of the shutter will fail to trigger the distinct, crisp sound. It's like climbing a mountain with an old friend, and noticing that paths which were once easy for them now cause them to struggle.
This will be the first camera I use to its death, and the first camera I will have repaired if it's salvageable. Beyond sentimental value, I can't see any digital camera charming me the same way the Contax did.
On second thought, maybe a Leica.