Last fall I traveled to Europe and brought along my Grandfather’s Contax 167MT. I only had two large zoom lenses for it which I knew I wouldn’t want to carry around with me so just before I left, I picked up the Contax Tessar 45mm f/2.8 T*. This lens allowed me to carry the camera around in my pocket and it worked beautifully. All of the images in this article were shot with this combination (except the two Contax camera examples).
Before we look at some images, a little background about the camera and company is in order. In the early 1930’s Zeiss Ikon produced the first Contax rangefinder camera. The factories were located in Germany in Jena and Dresden but the war unfortunately saw the destruction of the Dresden camera works in 1945 and the occupation of the Jena Carl Zeiss factories. This forced the Carl Zeiss Foundation to relocate to the Stuttgart offices.
After the war, the Jena factories in the East were revived where they focused on developing an SLR and the West in Stuttgart focused on developing the Contax rangefinders. During these years many notable achievements occurred including the first 35mm SLR with a built in pentaprism, the Contax S, in 1949 by Carl Zeiss East. With the Contax S came the M42 screw mount which became an industry standard. In 1953 Carl Zeiss West introduced the Contaflex in 1953 which was the first SLR to incorporate a behind the lens light meter. Shortly after, in 1958, the first exposure metered coupled, focal plane shutter camera was announced: The Contarex (A.K.A. Cyclops or Bullseye due to it’s selenium metering cell in front of the pentaprism).
Due to competition from the Japanese market, Carl Zeiss and Yashica formed an alliance where they produced the electronic Contax RTS in 1974. An interesting fact about the RTS: the F. Alexander Porsche Group (yes, that Porsche) was also a partner. This was not the first or last time a car designer has helped design a camera though. In 1983 Kyocera took over Yashica but continued to release new products under the Yashica/Contax name including our very own Contax 167MT in 1986.
The Contax 167MT is a Multi-Mode SLR with an integrated 3fps motor drive. The shutter is electronic with speeds from 16s – 1/4000 and a flash sync speed of 1/125. The Multi-Mode means that it is compatible with C/Y mount MM lenses that the camera can set the aperture on which allows Shutter Priority and Program modes to be used. These lenses can be determined by their minimum aperture being coloured green. The camera can also switch between center-weighted and spot metering modes and includes an AE-L switch. The camera can read DX coded film cassettes but also has an override making it a great choice if you load your own film or like to push/pull film.
The 167MT has exposure compensation (+-2 stops in 1/3 stop increments) as well as auto-bracketing control which I believe was a first of it’s kind. As you can imagine, this auto-bracketing control couples great with the internal 3fps drive. All of these electronics are powered by 4 AAA batteries which lasted me my whole trip and still had plenty of juice left over. If you shoot roll after roll, day after day, Contax did release a battery grip that takes AA batteries to extend the working time of the 167MT. As we tell everyone who comes in the store though; please take the batteries out of the camera and grip if you are not going to be using it for some time. These batteries will leak and could destroy your camera!
The 45mm f/2.8 lens I brought with me is not a MM lens and so I was limited to aperture priority and manual modes. I wasn’t bothered by this as these are my preferred shooting modes anyway since I’m used to my Nikon F3. I found the lens to be easy to focus and pleasantly sharp. I did manage to stick my finger into one of the frames though since the lens is so small. One frame out of five rolls doesn’t exactly qualify as an issue for me. I really can’t recommend this lens enough; it fits perfectly into a jacket pocket, with f/2.8 is fast enough for cloudy days with 100 ISO film and can separate subject from background with ease, and of course is nice and sharp.
The 167MT is a joy to use with the ease of switching between center-weighted and spot metering. The AE-L was a blessing to have as well, it just made composing my shots so much easier in aperture priority. The AE-L is actually a switch on the top so you can just leave your exposure locked for as long as you like; something I haven’t seen myself on another camera. The viewfinder is big and bright and easy to focus with. The display in the finder is located at the top and while I like the information it shows and how clear it is, you need to have your eye in just the right spot to see it clearly. A bonus for shooting at night; the meter in the viewfinder actually lights up!
The Av mode works great and the exposures the camera gave me were accurate. I decided to override exposure a couple of times but this tended to over or under expose the image. I guess I need to learn to trust the camera a bit more! Manual mode can be a bit interesting to use because of the shutter control. There is no dial but instead a button/switch you slide back and forth to increase and decrease shutter speed. This may not be quite as fast as a traditional dial but works well after you get used to it. There is one thing about the camera that may scare some people away though and that is the sound. Because the camera is auto-winding, you can’t just take a photo and walk away; the camera makes it’s electronic winding sound immediately. It’s a lovely sound that grew on me but if you are looking for something discreet this is might not be the camera for you. There were definitely a few moments in quiet parts of the trip where I was extremely aware of all the people around me when taking a photo.
I leave you with one of my favourite shots of the trip: the entrance to Westminster Abbey. While this may not be the most amazing or interesting photograph I’ve ever taken, it turned out exactly as I envisioned it. The sun star through the trees, the Union Jack flapping in the wind, and the balance of highlights and shadows on slide film all came together just perfectly.