Contax 645 Review

Last Updated - June 26th, 2022

Is the Contax 645 still worth it in 2022? Absolutely.

 

First published 12th February 2022.

Inspired by the fine-art film look, I purchased a secondhand Contax 645 from London based fashion photographer, Vanessa Jackman, in August 2021. She had cared well for this Contax, going to the extent of having it serviced in the USA by ProCamera in Charlottesville. So far I have had no issues with this camera – thank you Vanessa for taking such great care.

I have since picked up a second body in early 2022, just in case the first one breaks. If you’re UK based and need a reliable one for a wedding, please drop me a line, as I’d be happy to rent this one.

I was eager to pick up a film camera, as I had not shot on film since studying at Falmouth University, where a Mamiya 7 was my weapon of choice. Though the negatives are not as large as 6x7cm, 6×4.5cm still produces a high-resolution negative with detail to spare, and you get a few extra shots per roll – 16 for 645 vs 10 for 6×7. 

All photos in this review taken on this camera were used with the Contax Zeiss 80mm f/2 Planar, and Fuji Pro 400H film. All scans were done by exposure film lab Hereford – definitely check them out.

Viewfinder

Having shot the Contax 645 alongside my Sony mirrorless bodies at Weddings during 2021, I have actually appreciated (and somewhat missed) looking through an optical viewfinder. Though modern EVF’s are improving with every generation, there is something to be said for the simplicity of looking through a giant glass prism. 

There are no zebras, histograms, level displays, or technical jargon of any sort to distract you away from your subject. I’m aware these can all be turned off on new cameras; the Contax forces you to keep it simple, it’s just your subject and the focus circle in frame.

Along the bottom of the viewfinder is a counter of how many shots into a roll have advanced, the metering mode the camera is set to, the lens aperture, the shutter speed and an exposure level indicator, rated 3 stops negative and positive. Above the EV indicator is a letter corresponding to the selection of your mode switch, such as M for Manual. A battery warning mark will appear to the left if you need to replace the battery.

A diopter is on the right of the outer shell. I have mine set at 0, but adjust to your sight and glasses.

Brightness is around the same as what I was used to on my previous 5D Mark III with f/2.8 lenses, albeit shooting with an f/2 lens now. Seems fine, though probably seeing this through rose tinted glasses so to speak. I see no reason to upgrade to a different screen, though I’ve heard great things about Maxwell screens. I can see fine through this one. If the finder is too dark, it’ll be too dark to autofocus anyway. That’s my logic.

Autofocus

 

Keeping it simple, there’s a single cross type AF point in the center of the frame that also contains the spot meter. It’s slow by modern standards. I’ve tested it on the 80mm f/2, which has some pretty hefty glass elements to move around, and the 140mm 2.8 and 45mm 2.8 where it performs around the same. When it does acquire focus, it is very accurate, and I was surprised how many of my film scans were actually hitting critical focus, even at f/2.8. By f/4.0, this become very accurate as there is more depth of field. I do still struggle with f/2 on the 80mm as the DoF is just so thin.

I have exclusively used the M focus function, where you can push the back button, similar to an ‘AF-ON’ button, but pull for manual focus at any time. Seems to work great. I will attempt continuous autofocus in future and update this review with my findings.

You can trust the autofocus to get the job done accurately for any stationary or slow moving posed shot. I would not rely on for anything faster than a slow walk, so running kids or energetic dancefloors would not be a good match, and it is probably best to solely manually focus.

Body & Design

 

Coming in at around 2kg fully loaded with lens, battery, film and strap, the Contax 645 is no lightweight, but balances very well in two hands. The weight feels evenly distributed throughout the body and lens. I feel the weight also stops jittery movements in my often shaky arms. I’d handhold this down to 1/60th with confidence.

A large, ergonomic grip is a joy to hold. I have medium sized hands for a guy, with fairly large fingers. There is room to spare, and I could hold this a lot longer than the Gen 3 Sony body’s like the A7iii. I find it a little comfier than my A7IV. It is very similar to holding the original Fuji GFX 50S.

The placement of key dials and access to the shutter button beneath my forefinger and back focus button under my thumb feels perfectly placed. I wish modern cameras were this comfy. There’s something to be said for a substantial grip.

The body contains every conceivable dial, button and switch you’d ever need. The shutter speed dial ranges from 8 seconds to 1/4000th, which is very fast compared to other medium format cameras. This is fortunate as you may need 1/4000 when using the 80mm f/2 wide open in midday sun when using a 400 speed film. 

On the exposure mode index dial, you can choose between Bulb, X, Manual, TV and AV. X is something to do with flashes from the 90’s, apparently – I haven’t used it, mine just stays in M.

Adjacent to the left of this dial is your exposure compensation dial. This is handy for AV or TV modes, though you could just rate your film higher or lower using the dial on the 120/220 back. I don’t see the use in this so have kept it at 0.

The 120/220 film back itself is where you set the ISO. I rate my Fuji 400H film at 100, so have this dial set to 100 all the time. There’s also a switch for multiple exposures, and removing the back. You can swap this back with a digital one, though I’ll be leaving mine on.

A dark slide is included, which can be stored at the back of the camera, or in its main slot in order to remove the 120/220 back. Honestly, there’s no need to ever remove the back. Instead, you can remove the insert and have an assistant swap in a new roll of film if you have a spare film insert, or reload it yourself, which takes about 30 seconds.

The design of the insert makes a satisfying click when properly placed inside the back, and has spring levered gears to ensure film doesn’t roll backwards. Ensure yours stays firm and doesn’t rewind if purchasing a secondhand unit in person. 

My favourite part of the body design is the strap attachment. The solid lugs have a 180° tilt which blocks the strap from getting tangled and wrapping around the front of the camera. This is excellent and well considered design. The included strap is actually really comfy and what I’m using. 

There’s not much else to say about the body of the camera. It all feels solid and better made than modern cameras. There’s some flash sync ports to the side and the cover for the battery. Made of a metal plate, the tripod mount to the base looks well built; I haven’t used it.

Battery

This is one of the downsides to the camera. You will need to use the obscure 2CR5 battery, which run about £6 currently on Amazon. Here is an affiliate link to the most affordable one I could find:

They do not last long, about 12-15 rolls in and you’ll need a new battery (British weather, aye). Alternatively, use an external battery grip. This allows you to use rechargeable AA batteries and not feel environmentally guilty in having to use disposable batteries. Aside from the AA battery benefit and keeping its residual value, I don’t see the point in the battery grip due to the added bulk, so haven’t purchased one. 

Bring a spare 2CR5 with you on every shoot. There is little predictability of when it will die. There are rechargeable 2CR5’s, but I have heard mixed reviews. My friend Alan has used a ‘2-Power Brand’ battery for the past year without issues, but forums online suggest that some rechargeable batteries deliver an incorrect voltage. More research needed! 

I had one die on me on the last image in a roll during a cold hike up a mountain. It was about -3°C at summit, which the battery did not like at all. Not a camera to bring on a ski trip.

Contax 645 Review: Lens Choice

I have the fantastic Zeiss Distagon 45mm f/2.8, Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2 and Zeiss Sonnar 140mm f/2.8 lenses. I have much more experience with the 80mm, which most people buy this camera system for.

With a 35mm equivalent of a 50mm f/1.2, this lens is a bokeh lovers dream. Chromatic aberration is well controlled, with small fringes. They’re magenta/purple along high contrast edges. At f/2, the lens is softer and hazier, with more chromatic aberration and vignetting. This dramatically improves at f2.8, which I like to use where possible, corners look much better, haze is gone and CA is minimal.

The resolution of the 80mm f/2 is very high, resolving fine detail. This lens performs very strongly at f/4 and f/5.6. I see no gain at f/8 or f/11, with diffraction setting in at f/16 and f/22. I’ve only used these very high apertures ones attempting to take a photo of a sunrise over a mountain; so my usage is limited at f/16.

I am currently testing the 80mm on digital. Many photographers adapt this lens to Fuji GFX cameras that have 50mp and 100mp sensors, requiring lenses with a high resolving power. It appears that the Contax Zeiss 80mm f/2 Planar is up to this task, though I will be sure to update this review with more of my findings.

The 140mm f/2.8 is just as good, as it behaves like an 85mm f/1.6 ‘35mm equivalent’, with beautiful painterly bokeh. It’s 110mm on the GFX. I will update this review when I use it more frequently. I am currently testing out the 45mm f/2.8, so far so good. The 28mm equivalent feels really wide on 645. It’s 35mm on the GFX.

I’ve also heard the Apo Makro 120mm f/4 is a serious contender for best medium format macro lens. The lack of chromatic aberration and beautiful 3D rendering with solid micro contrast makes this a must have for the macro film photographers. People are adapting these to Fuji GFX bodies they’re so good. I’d really like one of these.

Lenses range from 35mm (20mm equivalent) up to 350mm (200mm), so you can get pretty much any popular focal length. There’s a 1.4x teleconverter also available.

I plan to pick up more lenses in future and review them.

Contax 645 Review: Conclusion

The Contax 645 represents the golden age of medium format film cameras. A well-built workhorse of its time, there is something magical about receiving your scans back from the lab that were taken on this camera.

I realise that this is just a tool that helps you get there, but the Contax 645 feels the most modern way of shooting 120 film. I can’t think of any camera of this class with better ergonomics, as wide of a lens choice, and timeless design appeal.

Forming the ‘Contax 645 Professional Outfit’ package, including body, prism, 80mm f/2 and 120/220 back, the system retailed at $7000+ (Around £4000) new in 1999, which would be $10000/£8000 in today’s market. There were rumoured to be some promotional student discounts for up to 50% off. You can pick up a Professional Outfit for $4000/£3500 used as of June 2022. 

Expect prices to remain steady and potentially increase back to original value as they become more scarce from more cameras breaking. Some of the 80mm f/2 lenses are also being converted to other mounts, further dwindling supply. With Fuji stopping production of Pro 400H it’s yet to be seen if popularity of the Contax 645 will wane, as professional photographers may not enjoy ‘licking’ the backing tape of Portra 400. At the time of writing, Fujifilm Pro 400H 120 is still in circulation in the UK for around £10 per roll, with expiry dates in Jan 2024.

Though used priced are expensive, you could also see this as investment, as prices are only expected to climb. The availability of film stocks and lab variety has had a renaissance in recent years, so you’ll be supporting the wider photography industry and film’s survival, with plenty of choices to pick from. Kodak has brought Gold 200 back in 120, which is a great sign.

If for some horrible reason 120 film does disappear, the interchange back on this camera means you can still use a digital back, and the lenses have many adapters for use on Canon EF, Fuji G and Sony E mounts. Think of longevity here. Seldom will you find autofocus capable Zeiss medium format lenses that are capable of fantastic resolution and colour rendering that can be used across both film and digital backs and cameras. I recently tried out a Phase One IQ180 on a Contax 645 and the results were very interesting. If you own Contax 645 glass, I still believe a Fuji GFX and adapted lens would be the best solution instead of a dated CCD however. But then CCD’s have their own fanbase entirely. I digress!

In summary, no, this camera will not replace your mirrorless setup, especially not for wedding photography. If Mirrorless cameras are Tesla, this camera is reminiscent of the old Land Rover Defender. It is built like a tank, by people who appreciated timeless design, but lacks mod-cons and speed. It is reliable and dependable, but often needs refuelling in both film and batteries. When things go wrong, it can get expensive, and parts are becoming scarce. 

Here is a photo of a Defender taken on this camera, for simile’s sake.

The images this camera (and lens) creates are nothing short of beautiful, and is the only 645 system capable of such shallow depth of field, other than the Mamiya 645’s 80mm f/1.9. To find this image quality in a relatively compact, ergonomic and well designed camera body is quite a feat. 

Definitely pick one up. If you don’t like it you can sell it on instantly. If you do keep it, it’ll become a cherished and nostalgic reminder that there is still a place for film. Go out and make some beautiful images with it whilst you still can.

Images Developed & Scanned by Exposure Film Lab on Frontier.

Gallery

All images taken on 400H + 80mm f/2

Cefn Tilla Court wedding photographer.
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