The Contax G2

Useful links about the Contax G2:

If you want to see MTF charts for the Contax lenses try PhotoDo
Here's the Official Contax home page.

This is about the Contax G2 as a camera for street photography.

First off -- street photography as a term is a bit of a misnomer. Since a lot of it doesn't take place on the street. My favorite subject for the last few years has been the NYC subway.

I've been using the G2 since it was introduced, about three years ago. Before that I used a Hexar, and for a year or so a Leica M3.

I never did that well with the Leica. I know that it has been the camera of choice for this type of work for fifty years. I like to work with fairly wide angle lenses, and be close to the subject, but I also don't want to stick the camera in someone's face, and only shoot looking through the viewfinder occasionaly. If I'm going to be carefully composing a shot, I'd rather work with the Nikon FM2. If I'm out in Central Park during a snow storm, I'd rather use the FM2. If I'm shooting at night, on a tripod, again, its the FM2. But if I'm in tight quarters -- in a place where I can't or won't raise the camera to my eye -- there is nothing like the G2.

The G2 is not a perfect street camera. It is a bit noisy. The viewfinder, compared to a Leica is squinty -- but for certain type of off the hip shooting, there is nothing like it. And the ambient noise level of New York City being what it is the click of the camera has never caused a problem.

Subway Shooting

Most of the work on this site that was done on the subway, was done with the G2. And I don't think I could have done it with any other camera. The first thing you need to shoot on the subway, is a fairly wide angle lens. The second thing that is helpful is autofocus. The third thing is autoexposure. And most importantly, an auto-winder. Most of this work was done with the 21mm and 28mm lenses. Both are excellent used wide-open.

The technique that I've used, most of the time, is to have the camera hanging around my neck (there's something new) and to have the wide strap of the camera bag positioned to hide the fact that my finger is on the shutter. I use 400 TMAX, and the camera is set to SAF (which means it needs to be locked on something before it will fire off). The lens is always wide open.

The secret is to get on a noisy train -- which in New York is not real difficult -- to always have the camera hanging around your neck -- to give people a chance to get used to the fact that the camera is around your neck before trying anything (usually two or three stops) -- hope that something interesting happens, and that you are in a good position to shoot, (most often, standing against the door which doesn't open is the best place) and only shoot when something distracting is going on.

The beauty of the camera is that you can easily fire off 4 or 5 shots of the same subject quickly -- in a second or two -- hoping that one of them will work out. The camera doesn't usually get too much attention. It doesn't look like an SLR and of course is nowhere as noisy.

I like to say that the G2 is the perfect camera for a blind man. You obviously need to be able to know what each lens is going to cover -- but after shooting from the hip for three years, this can be picked up easily. If you want to get fancy, you can easily hold the focus lock button on the back with your thumb without anyone noticing -- and fire off-centered shots. Some people say that you can do the same with the Leica -- by Zone Focusing for example -- but this is not going to work shooting wide open.

In terms of price -- there is no comparison with a Leica -- I think I once calculated that you could buy the whole G2 system, with two bodies (excluding the 16mm Hologon) for the price of a Leica and two or three lenses.

I believe that the type of photography that's possible with this camera is actually different than what is possible with the Leica. Overall composition is going to be more haphazard -- often filled with surprises. But you are also going to get shots that you couldn't get with the Leica. The Hexar RF may address some of these issues, but it is not autofocus.

Gripes:

- When the batteries go, they go fast, and there is no way of checking the batteries before the little 'cracked battery' symbol shows up. They also go really quickly if you end up using the Autofocus lock a lot. On the other hand, always carry an extra set of batteries and you'll be fine.

- I wish the 35mm was sharper wide open. It really needs to be closed down to f5.6 to get the resolution of the other lenses. And since the 35mm is a standard lens for a lot of street work, this is a problem. The 28mm on the other hand is excellent, and I use it as my normal walking around lens. The 45mm is even sharper. And of course the 90mm is often rated as one of the best around.

- The viewfinder is simply not as clear as a Leica. (On the other hand, since it is a zooming mechanism, it actually may be easier to use with the 90mm)

- I wish there was at least one F1.4 lens.

- They make a black body, but only with three black lenses. Black cameras attract less attention. It would be great if the other lenses were also available in black.

Pluses:

- Very reliable. I've used it in below zero weather with the extra battery holder without a problem. The camera has never jammed, misfired, or malfunctioned in any way.

- Very quick to load. (Compared to Leica). This really does make a big difference when you're working quickly.

- Lenses are top notch. According to the MTF charts, the 45mm and the 90mm are the best. But the 21mm is also excellent wide open.

- Very light. Great for travelling.

- Almost all the lenses use the same 46mm filter size.

- Fairly easy to 'zone' focus with .

- When autofocusing, you can look down at the LCD on top of the camera and see what it's focused on. (When shooting from the hip, this is really important. And one of the featues I use all the time. You can pre-set a manual distance, and quickly switch from manual focus to autofocus with your thumb, depending on the situation.

- The manual focus ring is 100% improved from the G1

- For me, anyway, the autofocus is faster and more accurate than I was ever able to achieve with a Leica.

Sometimes, I would think about switching back to a Leica. Why? I'm not sure. The mystique. The mechanical nature? The viewfinder? The faster lenses?

And then I would ask myself -- which camera has given be the most usable and unusual images -- and the answer was always the Contax G2.

* * *

10-21-01

I have recently switched to using the Leica M6 for most of my work. And after that - the saga continued to other equipment. If you'd like to read about how I ended up back with the Leica M3 - click here.

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