Leica Vs Contax – Rangefinder Wars

Leica Vs Contax

Leica Contax
Juergen Teller with his Contax G2

Leica vs Contax? First off, let me confess that I do have a Contax G camera,….however, I have owned both the cameras, and I’ve never been a fetish camera owner. I also have never cared about using a Windows vs Mac. They are both the same to me. So, don’t write me, and tell me your camera is king, and my opinion sucks. It’s just my observations.

Leica lenses are great, but are Leica’s lenses the finest in the world of 35mm? Well, that’s very subjective. I will say, they do have a magical quality, and yes, that quality blows away your Tokina/Sigma/etc., zoom But, I could claim the same for the Contax Zeiss lenses. I could even prove that each G lens beats its Leica counterpart by a large margin. Lots of MTF graphs (which I do not consider that significant, but are the only science based method to measure a lens), prove that the Zeiss lenses beat, or equal, the Leitz ones. (check Photodo website) Most Leica lenses are copies of expired patents by Rudolph and Bertele for Zeiss. Truth be told, even Leica makes mediocre lenses, like the Tri-Elmar zoom. But all manufacturers have their stars and their failures. It’s optical science. This is not a cut down of Zeiss or Leitz. It’s just to prevent people, especially fanboys, from getting all starry eyed. Is a Leica a great, (maybe the greatest), camera of all time? Well, it’s up there. But a lot depends on your objectives. Neither a Leica M nor a Contax G is for everyone. Somebody was arguing with me that the great Salgado uses a Leica. Why he didn’t use Cartier-Bresson as an example, I don’t know. And he was right. But 99% of his work is with a Leica R, (SLR), not an M. He freely talks about it.

The point being, rangefinder cameras are not for everyone. Not the Contax nor the Leica.

The M system was designed in the 50’s, when it was the only serious choice for any serious photographer in that film format. The G system was designed in the 90’s, in the very middle of the SLR reign. Hence, autofocus and electronics ruled. An RF camera is not the proper tool for shooting macro, long tele or tilt & shift lenses, nor are they the tool for tight DOF. That’s why Zeiss doesn’t produce any fast lens for the G system, but produces very fast prime lenses for their SLRs. Guys, I’m not trying to talk you out of rangefinder cameras,…just explaining the limitations.

One camera is a manual focus only cam, and one is an AF and manual focus.The manual focus issue first. The G’s manual focus is something you must practice and get used to, as you have to with the Leica RF under varying conditions. The greatest mistake one could make consists in trying to use the focus system of the Gs as if it were a mechanical RF or an autofocus SLR. These are both very common mistakes, and you will be disappointed by this camera if you do so. The myth that the Sonnar 90 requires much skill to achieve consistent autofocus is simply not so. I’ve taken tons of shots with it, and never had a focus problem, in any condition. But, I spent a few days in truly understanding the way the camera works.

 

Vintage Contax
Vintage Manual Contax   Image © Alexander Andrews

 

One takes batteries, one does not. As with all non purely mechanical cameras, it’s no big deal to me. Do you know that lithium batteries last for years and lose a barely measurable amount of energy? Are a few spare batteries so huge a weight/encumbrance in someone’s bag? This is why I’ve always discounted the purely mechanical crowd. It has never been an issue. But be aware; all autofocus cameras have batteries!

The simple truth: Leica M and Contax G cameras are different beasts. They both provide superlative image quality, and have their own unique drawbacks with each other and SLRs, Therefore, it’s like comparing apples to monkeys. Those who claim “X” camera is the best in the world, only prove their arrogance.

 

Leica vs Contax
Contax G1

 

The G has a classic center-weighted averaging metering pattern. It’s the same type of metering used in such classics as the Nikon FM2 and FE2 and continues to be a well-used option on most of the newest and most modern DSLR bodies! No, it’s not spot-metering but can be effectively used to lock AE in and re-compose without problem. Some people prefer their old handheld Pentax Spotmeter, (or whatever), but I’ve never found the Contax inaccurate in any way.

The titanium-bodied G-series cameras do not use the traditional Leica M-mount seen on many rangefinder cameras, but instead the Contax G-mount, an electronic autofocus mount. Critics were quick to accuse the camera of not being a “true” (mechanical) rangefinder, since it used autofocus and electronically linked mechanisms. But the AF mechanism in the G-series does indeed use a twin-window system much like that of the older mechanical rangefinders,…only in electronic form!

The lenses of the Leica are without question some of the best ever made. And that includes both optics and build. But go look at the MTF charts on photodo of the Contax Zeiss lenses. Compare them to a 300% more expensive Leitz. I’ll leave you an example. The Contax G 35/2.0 is rated on photodo at 4.1, and costs $350-400 used. The Leica M 35/1.4 aspherical is 3.8 and costs $2,000+ used. The Leica M 35/2.0 is 4.1 and costs $1,200 used. Yes, MTF is not the be all and end all of comparisons, but it’s objective. MTF grades are not everything and many happen to like the personality of one brand over the other. But how much are you willing to pay for some personality?

 

Leica M5
Classic Leica

 

Manual focus vs Autofocus? Well, I’ll chalk that one up to personal preference. While you can manual focus the Contax, I would be the first to admit it takes practice and finesse. I tend to just use autofocus, which is fast and accurate, but I do have a friend that uses the manual focus dial all the time, (he shoots extremely low light subjects), and insists it’s a piece of cake. I’ll take his word for it.

The Leica M and Contax G1/G2 comparisons are of little use as they’re really different cameras, and Contax was never trying to compete with Leica, despite the internet drivel you hear. The G1/G2 has tons of useful features, and, if it’s the features you want, then get one,… or get a Nikon or Canon. For some people, they would take a 1954 M3 and vintage Leitz 50 mm lens over any feature laden camera, and insist the Leica is much more satisfying to own and use, despite cost. I will say, the Leica can still be serviced by a qualified technician. Contax? Maybe in Japan. Kyocera of course discontinued making cameras. More money in industrial machinery, I guess.

 

Vintage Leica

 

These are both great cameras. And like the decision to go digital or not, use an SLR or RF, stay 35mm or go Medium Format,….it really comes down to a personal decision. What will it take to achieve your creative vision? If I were to buy a film one today, I’d go for the Leica M6 or Contax G2. But, hey,…everyone has an opinion. And I still love my G1. 🙂

 

 

 

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