Racquet Reviews: The Contax T2

Cinestill 800T shot at 3200 (+2)  / Contax T2

 

The Contax T2 was released in 1990, though you’d be forgiven if you thought it was 15 years later. That’s when the Contax T2 (and T3) came out in a big way, perhaps more so than any other camera on the planet. The Contax T2’s rise to fame was a delayed one, with its spotlight moment not all that shy of the camera’s 21st birthday. And that gleaming moment, as great as anyone could have imagined, was the byproduct of a rather odd agitation involving product placement and web coverage (with one almost certainly the result of the other). From Aziz Ansari using a Contax during a Kendell Jenner skit on the Jimmy Fallon show, to Frank Ocean shooting the Met Gala on a T3, the rise of Contax’s T system over the past two years is unprecedented.

Product shots by Racquet Studio.

 

Released as a high-end compact camera, the T2 was quickly dubbed a ‘rich man’s travel camera’, a trending embellishment that matched the camera’s sleek aesthetic, its champagne silver finish, and the suave case it’s served in, complete with belt strap for anyone who’s happy looking like a full-blown show pony. At first glance, you’d assume it was cut from the same cloth as any modern day Panasonic or Sony digital point & shoots, but closer inspection yields unique findings that prove this camera is one-of-a-kind.

ILFORD HP5 (box speed) on the Contax T2.

 

I shot a lot of rolls on the T2; perhaps more than I have on any other P&S that’s been and gone. That says something, given we’re lucky enough to have access to the majority of Racquet Film’s cameras. I liked how simple it was, and for things like social gatherings, pointless wandering and family photos, it was a near-failsafe little weapon. Though in retrospect, having said goodbye to my titanium friend, I do realise that the situations in which the camera best performed – those in which it became a true champion – were the same situations that didn’t necessarily beg for a super expensive, high-end compact.

Cinestill 800T shot at 3200 (+2)  / Contax T2

 

The good regarding the T2 is obvious. The Carl Zeiss multi-coated Sonnar 38mm f2.8 lens is phenomenal. Pairing 5 elements in 4 groups, the lens is a retractable masterpiece with user-friendly controls that are so simple you’d be forgiven for assuming you’ve missed something. The overt simplicity applies to the entire camera, with just two dials atop the camera. The left dial is a +/-2 exposure compensation dial with 1/2 EV steps. I used this predominantly for pushing film within the camera’s 25-5000 ISO limits. The right dial was both the on-off button, and the toggle between fully automatic mode (autofocus and program AE) and manual focus mode, which was a simple, continuous focus ring used in conjunction with the aperture dial on the Zeiss lens. Speaking of which, the dial gives you two flash options: an anti-red eye preflash and your regular flash, with a recycle of 3.5 seconds and range set at 0.7-3m at 100 ISO. It then stops its way from f2.8 to f16.

ILFORD HP5 (box speed) on the Contax T2.

 

Without a hot shoe, the T2’s built-in flash is your only option, and one that I found slightly hard to master. My main nemesis was overexposure, and even on my last roll, a shot or two had escaped me via a familiar blown out highlight. Most of the time, the exposure compensation dial took care of this, but the dial was mostly used to push film one or two stops (the outer limits). The code reader – which can obviously be hacked – reverts to 100 ISO if you’re using film without a DX code. This obviously places some serious limitations on the user in certain situations.

Returning to the only other dial on the T2’s top plate, I shot almost everything in AF mode. In manual focus mode, the dial is buttery smooth. It combines with illuminated left-and-right indicators (red) and a circular button (green) that act as your compass toward correct focus. Many people shoot the T2 in MF mode only, though the dial was almost too smooth for me, and the AF was 90% reliable. It would lock rather quickly, I’d fully depress the shutter button and the camera would silently fire, followed by a rather loud automatic film advance. Annoying? No. Odd? Yeah. Firing the camera was silent, but using it wasn’t.

Fuji Natura 1600 shot at 3200 (+1)  on the Contax T2.

 

If you got everything right and played the perfect hand, the T2 would match you near every time. Its metering was brilliant – albeit some blown highlights – and the lens was insanely sharp, particularly given its size. Many gripes are heard regarding its ergonomics, though I found it a joy to hold and shoot with. My issue was its maximum shutter speed: 1/500th of a second. No amount of time would quell my frustration at the problems this brought forth. Of course, planning and well-thought-out composition could quell some problems, though a number like that means you’re going to walk away from shots because your camera simply wouldn’t allow them.

Fuji Natura 1600 shot at 3200 (+1)  on the Contax T2.

 

There’s no doubt the T2 is in a league of its own as far as design and craftsmanship are concerned, and if money is no issue, it’s a hard camera to pass over. Though its true prowess came in situations that didn’t require one of the finest point and shoot cameras on the planet. It’s this very reason we had a love-hate relationship, though our turbulent times are not what ended us, nor was it a contender. Truth be told, I’m yet to find a camera similar to the T2 sans its frustrating quirks.

To surmise, the calibre of the T2 makes it impossible to dislike. However, for the situations in which I shoot, the T2 was good when I needed it to be great, and great when it didn’t really matter.

Fuji Natura 1600 shot at 3200 (+1)  on the Contax T2.