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August 12, 2013 - Dave Hecei
The other day I found an old brochure for the Contax G2 35mm film camera. If you’ve never seen the G2, especially in black, then take a minute and look it up in Google. The name Contax goes way back to the beginning of 35mm photography. Leitz may have started it all with the venerable Leica, but Zeiss came up with the Contax I, II, and other innovations that some agree was an improvement to that first Leica. You may or may not have guessed, but the theme here is rangefinder cameras.
Whether you are still into film or are happily shooting digital, there are rangefinder, or at least rangefinder-like, models available in both camps. If you want to shoot film, there are plenty of new and used rangefinders to choose from, some at an amazing bargain. If you like, or need, digital images, there are models out there that are true rangefinders, while others will remind you of a rangefinder
My First 35mm
Even though I haven’t used one for years, I have a soft spot for the rangefinder. My very first 35mm was the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. The GSN was a fixed lens semi-automatic rangefinder. At the time, the GSN was being sold locally under $100 (well, it was actually $99.95). The GSN model had a nickel/chrome finish but the model I wanted to buy was the GTN. This model was identical except it was all black. Of course, this finish was more expensive so I opted for the chrome model along with a bunch of accessories, battery, and several rolls of film.
I shot a lot of Kodak Tri-X through that old GSN. The lens was permanently attached so I was fortunate it was actually pretty decent – the Yashinon DX 45mm f/1.7. This lens was pretty fast at f/1.7, had great color reproduction, and had decent sharpness. I eventually replaced the GSN with an SLR, but still loved the simplicity of a rangefinder. The GSN, and even GTN, can be found on Ebay for under $100. Expect to pay extra for the GTN. I think it might be somewhat rare. If you do want to get one of these Yashica models you need to be aware that it used a mercury battery, which are no longer made in the states. So if you want to actually use it, you’ll have to come up with some sort of battery substitute since it doesn’t work without one. I’ve seen these on Ebay or Amazon.
And now we get back to the camera I used to dream about – the G2. Coincidentally, the Contax G2 was actually a Yashica. Back in the mid-70s, Yashica bought the rights to make Zeiss lenses and use the Contax name. At first, Yashica made traditional manual focus SLR models beginning with the Contax RTS. This was a professional level SLR that started out with only a handful of lenses. While there were only a few to choose from at the start, these modern Zeiss lenses were some of the best available for any 35mm SLR.
It’s one thing to look at photos of the Contax G2, it’s another thing to actually pick one up and start using it. The G2 in black is drop-dead gorgeous. While it might look like a point and shoot camera, the G2, and the original G1, had an interchangeable lens mount. This camera is not your traditional rangefinder. Technically, it does have a rangefinder inside, but it is used by the autofocus system. Yes, the G series cameras were autofocus.
The viewfinder in the G2 is an optical type but doesn’t have the same field of view that one expects from a rangefinder. In a traditional rangefinder, you can actually see much more than the 100% of what will appear on film. Looking through the viewfinder you will see bright frame lines to indicate the actual image area. You should also be able to see beyond the image area. This allows the shooter to see if someone, or something, is about to enter the image area.
The G2 doesn’t really work this way. There is actually an LCD frame that moves inside the viewfinder of the G2. As you focus closer, you should notice this frame actually moves slightly to the right and down. This is to compensate for something called ‘parallax error’. Since this is not an SLR you are not looking through the taking lens. The viewfinder is slightly offset from the lens so as you focus on subjects closer to the camera this will throw off the framing. This LCD frame in the G2 also changes in size as you change to a wide or telephoto lens. While the self-adjusting LCD frame in the G2 viewfinder is cool, and more advanced, it doesn’t give you the extra field of view that a traditional rangefinder has.
As cool as the Contax G2 is, it’s still a film camera. If you enjoy shooting film and waiting to get it developed (and then maybe scanning negatives or slides into a computer), then the G2 can be had at bargain prices. The same cannot be said for the G lenses though. It really is a shame that Yashica/Kyocera couldn’t make a go of it. At least long enough to get into the digital age. I think there could have been some amazing Contax digital cameras. Just hold the G2 and it’s obvious it was designed and constructed like a fine timepiece.
So if you’re a diehard rangefinder junky, there are some digital models out there that might fill your need. Of course the granddaddy of rangefinder companies is Leica. Leica successfully transitioned from film only to film and digital models. They made the Leica M, M-E, M8, and M9 as digital rangefinders, while the M7, a 35mm film model, is still being sold. The only problem is that as good as Leica is, they don’t come cheap. Paying over $6000 for just a camera body (no lens) is only for the rich or working professional.
There are some alternatives for the digital shooter. These include some mirrorless and retro-like models. Fuji, Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus. Probably the most rangefinder like, and one of the more sought after models, is the Fuji X-Pro1. A few years ago, Fuji made a lot of heads turn when they released the X100. It was a retro-styled fixed lens digital camera with an APS-C sized sensor. This is the same size as found in most DSLR cameras. While not a true rangefinder, it had all the looks along with more traditional manual dials and switches.
Move ahead a few years and Fuji has released more retro-styled models in the ‘X’-line. The best of the bunch, in my opinion, is the X-Pro1. This took the X100 to a new level by improving many features and added interchangeable lenses. It’s easy to compare the X-Pro1 to say the Leica M. The Fuji has a smaller sensor and only a few lenses to choose from. The Fuji is much easier on your bank account. The X-Pro1 with standard lens is under $1500. The Leica M with 50mm f/2.5 is around $8200.
Another digital model that I love is the Sony NEX-7. This is a bit less of a traditional rangefinder camera and more a mirrorless digital camera. It does have a few things that give it the feel of shooting a rangefinder and not a point-and-shoot or DSLR type camera. On the top there are two great control wheels. These can be set to control different functions. The NEX-7 also has a nice viewfinder opposed to framing you photos using the LCD panel on the back. This viewfinder is not an optical-type but is in fact electronic. It uses a very high resolution OLED display that is very bright, colorful, and sharp.
The NEX-7 has an APS-C sized sensor so images are on par with most DLSRs with the same sized sensor. Lenses are interchangeable and there are plenty of them to choose from. Add on the Sony Alpha adapter and you can use lenses from Sony’s DSLR line. This includes some of the best lenses out there since Sony now makes Zeiss lenses. The NEX-7 with kit lens is priced around $1250.
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