Note: is in rebuild. Please accept my apologies for broken links, missing stuff, etcetera - more

Contributed mostly by Markus Hanke in Austria.


Q: In am in a used shop and I saw what seems to be a RTS in mint condition. How can I tell the difference between the RTS and the RTS II?

A: If the body in question has a manual self-timer on the front, it is the original RTS. The follower RTS II had an electronic self-timer with a LED. There is also a sync-terminal on the front of the RTS II. These are the only visible differences besides the small designation near the serial number on the camera back. The dimensions are the same, and the RTS II is only 20grams heavier.

In the viewfinder, the difference is more obvious: The original RTS featured a speed display with simple LED's (as in the Contax 137/139), the aperture was shown by a mechanical needle like in the Yashica FR-I. The RTS II had a similar design as the new one, red numerical LED's for time and aperture (the latter is a multi-segment display) and exposure compensation. Due to the manual film transport there was no frame counter in the finder. The RTS II-finder showed 97%, the RTS only 92%.

The shutter speeds were nearly the same, but the RTS II offered a mechanical 1/50 additionally, in case of battery failure.

The electromagnetic shutter release you refer to was introduced with the first RTS already (the first "first-on-market-development" of many to follow), the extraordinary speedy release (when compared to the mechanical releases at that time) was the reason for the RTS's name: Real Time System.

The two cameras have different shutters, the RTS I had the traditional cloth-type, the newer model featured a quartz-controlled shutter made of titanium foils, both had aperture-priority and manual modes (RTS: 1/2000-15sec[1/2000-4sec]; RTS II: 1/2000-16sec[1/2000-4sec]).

Other differences: The RTS II had an exposure-lock and TTL-flash-mode.

I fear it would not be easy to find system components for both of the cameras. The RTS I could make use of a winder (2 fps) or a large motor-drive (5 fps). For the RTS II there was a very beautiful winder with 3 fps and two additional releases (one on the handgrip and the other for vertical use), AFAIK it was possible to interchange the winders between the two RTS-bodies.

RTS III quality problems

Q: I often heard of troubles which the RTS III concerning its electronics. When I was in the shop the last time, a man entered. (Now follows an exact quotation) "He bought a new RTS III three weeks ago, and had already sent it back for repair: his batteries were finished after six films. He put in new batteries, and got himself an unwanted double exposure. The next film stopped rewinding at frame 34, and after that the camera was completely dead. I must say that my confidence in the legendary Contax quality is fading away at this time (not in the lenses, just in the bodies)."

A: I think it is a pity for the brand and tradition of Contax if there really are quality problems. But I am not so pessimistic as you are. If you take a look on the different newsgroups over the time you will read descriptions of problems with different cameras, often combined with a very disappointed comment of the unlucky owner concerning material quality (in the last time there were such postings about Olympus-SLR's in general, the Nikon FA, F4 and FE2, nearly all Canons and Minoltas etc.). But on the other hand there were much more positive comments about quality (especially concerning Olympus and Nikon - one friend of mine uses Olympus since twenty years without a problem). I think that in modern times, where cameras are more and more stuffed with electronics, the possibility of serious failures has increased dramatically (are we just lucky that the operating system of our SLR's is not made by Microsoft!!), and most "material quality defects" reported were in fact electronic quality defects.

I cannot recall having read anything bad about purely mechanical cameras like Contax S2, Nikon FM2, Yashica FX-3 or Olympus OM3. Maybe their sales numbers are not high enough to deliver a representative base for computations about reliability, but I think - recalling how often people debate about mechanical cameras on the net - that there simply are no failures, due to lack of electronics.

All in all I think that we hear of Contax-problems not more often than from other high-class products. Its the same problem with cars: All the world knows that Mercedes, BMW, Saab, Volvo etc. have a reputation to build extremely solid cars with perfect finish. Within minutes, I could list at least ten people who are really disappointed with the quality of their car produced by one of the quoted companies. But I'm sure there are many, many more who are very satisfied with them.

I used my 167MT for ten years, and I had it sent for repair only once. The camera had the same problem as my CD-Player: The small plastic buttons tended to stick and were more and more "unpushable" because I used them so rarely, so it was necessary to lubricate them. And I had another problem which is a result of a true design flaw: The RTS's battery compartment/base plate is locked by a large "screw" you have to turn for a half rotation in order to lock or open it. The 137MA had the same system. But the 167 and the ST with their micro-batteries have a small screw you have to tighten by means of a coin or something similar. After a time this screw can get loose and the base plate will fall off. I lost the plate of my 167 in that way, and I couldn't find it because I realized my loss only when I was home again (the spare plate was - untypical for Contax - not expensive). And only some days ago I lost the base plate of my ST in the same way, but it was in the town and I heard it when it fell to the floor. But this have been my only problems I ever had with my (until now) four Contax cameras.

This is also true for battery capacity, be it AA (mignon), AAA (micro) cells or lithium (currently I am using a spare lithium battery in my RTS, it was left behind when my Yashica T3-Super P/S went into the eternal hunting grounds). In the ST I have the second set since I bought it in 1994, in the RTS the batteries I bought it with only brought some three films, but I bought the camera used and the batteries have been the original ones which are packed with the body for function-checking purposes only. Since then I am using the lithium cell, having used some 25+ films.

So maybe you think of me being too enthusiastic about my cameras, and you might be right. I am not a professional photographer, my cameras are not strained to the maximum limit, but since my Yashica FR-I locked its electronics after having served for six years in 1986, I never had any other "casualty" with my SLR's. And therefore I won't change a winning team until being convinced from the contrary.

ST and RX

Q: What is your opinion concerning the Contax RX? How does it compare to the ST?

A: I don't own the RX myself, but I tried one for several days. I have the ST which I bought before the RX came out. If you compare those two models, each camera has something the other hasn't, so it's up to the customer to decide which one would satisfy the wishes more.

  • The RX has the focus/DOF-indicator. When I used it I found out that it is more or less useless in everyday photography, because it is very slow. In the time the indicator needs to react, the object you want to photograph (if it is living) moves already out of focus. On the other hand I do a lot of reproduction and scale model photography, and there the indicator of focus and Depth-of-field is much more exact than any split-field or micro-prism could be. The same would be valid for macro work, so if you do things like that (and tripod work generally), you would be very happy with the RX. If you prefer street scenes, travel, action, portrait etc., the RX's focus indicator might not be reason enough to spend the money.
  • The RX has custom functions. You can choose the working mode of the AE-lock, the automatic bracketing function and the option to let the film-leader stay out of the cartridge after rewinding. Additionally, the RX has a double-exposure function. It always disturbed me that a so-called "semi-professional" camera like the Contax ST doesn't offer these possibilities.
  • The RX is quieter. This might be a subjective point, because the technical data says that the ST is a very quiet camera measured in dB(A). But in fact the level of noise is not so relevant when it comes to the individual sound of the noise. The ST's winder has a whining sound which I find annoying, much more apparent than the 167MT or even the 137MA. The RX's winder sounds smoother.

But on the other hand there are some points for the ST, too:

  • The ST has a faster shutter. The 1/6000 over 1/4000 is not so important as the 1/200 flash sync over 1/125.
  • The ST has the unique ceramic film pressure plate which promises a better flatness and is less likely to be scratched or damaged by dust.
  • The materials used in the ST are at some points better than those of the RX, but the overall material quality of the RX still is far ahead of 90% of the current camera market.
  • The ST makes use of standard AAA batteries you can buy all around the world, the RX needs a more expensive and lithium cell which might not be obtainable everywhere.

In Europe the price of the RX and the ST is the same, but I heard that the RX is cheaper in the States, so if I considered all, I might buy the RX.


Q: You are the first person I found who owns both an ST and a RTSIII. I am considering the purchase of one or the other, and would love to know how you think they compare. Any and all information will be much appreciated.

A: Contax itself claims the ST being positioned between the professional RTS III and the amateur 167MT (at its appearance time, the RX and AX didn't exist). So the ST should be the camera for professionals besides the RTS and for ambitious amateurs.

But there are some things missing in the ST which I think should not in a professional camera: There is no mirror-lockup, no double-exposure possibility and no possibility to leave the film leader out after rewinding.

But for me personally these things are not important: I very rarely use the mirror-lockup (also because the ST's and the RTS's mirror are very good damped and therefore the vibrations really are not bad), I never change partially exposed film and since there exists Photoshop nothing can convince me of making double-exposures already on the film.

What is "professional" with the ST certainly is the material quality, which suggests extreme sturdiness. I like the data-back very much (its digits on the film are larger and therefore more readable than those made by the RTS's data-back).

Here are my personal "likes" and "don't likes" of the ST:

What I do like:

  • I said it already, the material quality is extremely fine. I like the ceramic film pressure plate, because on my old 137MA I really recognized the plate wearing a bit off. But on the other hand I presume it would not have been that expensive to have it changed. I like the large dials, which was wonderful compared to the tiny buttons on my 167MT. And I like the viewfinder, it is bright and quite easy to view. The lighting of the buttons from behind is very nice, but for me its rather a gimmick. I never used it in "real life". The shutter is fast (1/6000sec., although I never needed speeds like that), what I use more often is the 1/200 flash sync.
  • The ST isn't really a compact SLR, but after working a while with the RTS III, the ST seems to disappear in the hands, what concerns the optical appearance , the ST definitely is the more discreet camera.

What I don't like:

  • There only are very few things which I would prefer having changed: I don't like the sound of the winder. Officially it is quieter than that of the 167MT, absolutely measured in dB(A), but in my opinion, noise is consisting not only of loudness, but also of the frequency of the sound. And the ST's winder definitely has a whining sound which I think is annoying. The 167MT sounds much smoother, even my old 137MA was more comfortable to hear.
  • And I don't like the fact that the exposure compensation is shown as "+/-" only in the viewfinder, instead of a differing "+" for over- and a "-" for underexposure. So I never know if I compensate over or under when the camera is on my eye.

Now some words, merely additions to other posts, concerning the RTS III:

It was discussed several times on the net if the vacuum unit of the RTS's back really is of some use or not. There was also a thread about a so-called "design-flaw" of the Nikon F4, when the first two pictures of a series are not sharp. There definitely is a design flaw, but not in the Nikon. The problem is posed by the design of the film cartridge. Tests made by Zeiss twelve years before the RTS III came out showed that most films tend to be bent when coming through the slit in the film cartridge. If the film stays in this position for a longer time, this bending becomes perpetual, and therefore the film cannot be flat when transported into the shutter frame. The curve made by the film surface can make pictures un-sharp in spite of having focussed perfectly in the viewfinder.

If you ask if this is only a theoretical consideration or if a facility to force the film into a plain surface really has some practical effect, I have to answer: it depends. Take my own case: Very rarely I shoot a film totally through on one day. Mostly the camera is lying around with the film in it through several days or weeks. One of my favorite lenses is the 1.4/85mm which I like to use wide open whenever possible. When taking pictures with the ST I sometimes discovered that sometimes the second and third picture of a day seem not to be as sharp as I want. And those pictures were always made with the 85mm lens. I am aware of the very tight depth of field of such a lens at an aperture of, say 2.0 or 2.8, so I always thought inaccuracy in focussing or slight movement during the release of the shutter being the reason for the lack of sharpness. I bought a new viewfinder screen with special micro-prisms for fast lenses, but it didn't help until I bought the RTS where I never noticed such an effect.

But I recall having the sharpness problem maybe not more often than six to eight times, so the vacuum unit of the RTS III only pays in such special instances: Pictures with wide opened lenses after the film staying in the camera for several days. Conclusion: Nice to have the vacuum unit, but not the only reason to spend the money on the RTS.

Much more important and in fact indispensable for me is the built-in pre-flash spot metering. Since I got that, the calculation of exposure when I use several small slave flashes doesn't exist any more. Now only the new Leica R8 has got that feature.

Also a very nice thing is the vertical shutter release, but I would like it even more if it also had the possibility to lock the metered value.

Something different from the ST is the changing of the metering type. In the ST the spot and average metering are near the shutter release. This combination has the effect that each time you switch on the camera you automatically are in center-weighted mode. If you want to lock an exposure value, you first have to switch to spot metering, so the AE-lock is fixed to the spot meter (which I personally think as logical). On the RTS there is a separate switch for the metering mode, so you can combine the AE-lock with either the center-weighted or the spot meter. After being used to method one for nearly ten years after I bought my 167MT, I had to change my way of working with the RTS. Now also the RX and the AX all feature method two.

The only thing I don't like with the RTS III is the viewfinder display: In my opinion its layout is the worst since my 137MA. The bluish digits might add a hi-tech-appeal to the camera, but in bright sunshine they are nearly impossible to read. I think the best viewfinder display is offered by the 167 with its two LCD-fields concentrated on only one side of the viewfinder.

To sum up I have to say that the RTS III definitely is the camera which offers more possibilities. You have to pay that with nearly twice the price of the ST and a lot of weight, especially if you use the six AA-batteries (so if you aren't after the high frequency of 5fps, better equip the camera with a lithium cell). While carrying in your hands, the size and the weight are not bad, but when it is in the bag hanging on your shoulder, you feel every gram (I should add that Zeiss lenses are not known for being lightweights, too!). I wouldn't have bought the RTS III additional to my ST and 167 if it wasn't a special occasion, but now that I have it, I won't let it go again.

The ST still is a workhorse I use frequently, mostly with wide-angles, because I prefer the RTS's weight as a counterbalance to the telephotos.

S2 and FX-3 Super:

Q: I wanted another body so that I could shoot color and B & W; I just ordered the Yashica FX-3. It's cheap, and I guess that's the problem I have with it. It's 100% plastic, and lightweight plastic at that. I've also become used to the quiet operation of the 167MT and was quite surprised how much the mirror on the Yashica vibrates the body (however with self timer the mirror flips up). Question: Do you think pragmatically speaking that the Yashica will do just as well as one of the other Contax Bodies. Basically, I don't need any fancy frills. Thus, I'm totally satisfied with the basic manual body, it's just that I'm wondering if my pictures will turn out as good with this totally plastic body.

A: I am convinced that the Yashica will do all the jobs you want it to do - except hammering nails into the walls, maybe. For that better take your FM-2.

You know that the offer of all-manual, mechanical SLR's is very small, and normally these cameras are very expensive, being a wonder-piece of craftsmanship this only is normal. Only the Yashica and the Pentax K-1000 are quite cheap, because they are produced since many years now, and because the quality of the materials used in them is not so high than in other bodies.

The FX-3 is an offspring of the Yashica FR-series, presented together with the FX-D Quartz. Contrary to the Pentax, it was a bit upgraded over the years, mainly by adding a faster shutter with a higher flash sync. But on the other hand it seems to me that the overall material quality was also reduced when compared to the original FX-3, mainly to keep the price low.

When I compared the Contax S2 to the Yashica, I first thought that the Contax is nothing better than an upgraded FX-3, this being supported by the fact that the design and location of the dials is contrary to the now twenty years old Contax tradition (shutter speed dial left). But it is a new camera, indeed. It is larger, heavier and has a far larger penta-prism which results in a much brighter viewfinder. Everything which is plastic in the Yashica is metal in the Contax (the rewinding spool, for instance). But for one S2, you can buy up to seven FX-3s! And concerning two people I know who are using FX-3s since several years, the camera is very reliable and rugged. BTW, the FX-3 is not 100% plastic, only the outer hull is, whereas it has a metal core. Maybe a FM-2 and a S2 are more rugged and reliable, but for their price you can buy a lot of Yashicas.

The mirror of the S2 also causes some vibration, decidedly more than that of the 167MT, but this maybe cannot be prevented in a mechanical SLR.

Zeiss Lenses

Q: What Zeiss Lenses (not zoom) can you recommend (have experience with) for general photography (within 28 - 200 mm range)?

A: I own the following Zeiss lenses: 2.8/21mm, 1.4/35mm, 2.8/45mm, 1.4/85mm, 2.8/180mm and Mutar II 2xconverter.

The purchase of Zeiss lenses always is a question of finances. The very common focal lengths in a normal-aperture-version are not very expensive and extremely good. Only the wide-opened lenses or those in more extreme ranges cost very much. In my case the 21mm is one of my favorite lenses because of the quality and the possibility to use it for street scenes without being observed. Additionally, I use it for architecture, scale models etc. But it is expensive, far more expensive than the older 18mm super-wide-angle.

For general photography I would either recommend a selection of primes or one or two zooms. If you prefer the range from 28 to 200mm (which in my opinion is chosen very good for everyday photography) the two options would show as follows:

Version A:

2.8/28mm, 1.4/50mm, 2.8/135 and 2.8/180: ca. 1.970 grams of weight, ca. 3.400 US-D (prices of Germany).

Advantages: Large aperture, superior picture quality.

According to your preferences and/or financial possibilities you could alternate this basic proposal: Add a 2.5/25mm (which would be very fine for landscape and architecture) and a 2.8/35mm, skip the 28mm. If you want to take more macro pictures, skip the 50mm lens in favor of a 2.8/60mm C macro. If you think you need one wide-aperture small tele, skip the 135mm in favor of a 1.4/85mm (this could even replace the 50mm standard lens, as it does in my case), etc. etc. With the addition of a Mutar tele converter you could extend your range to a 5.6/360mm with very fine quality.

So look at this alternative: 2.8/25mm, 2.8/60mm C macro, 2.8/180mm, Mutar II: ca. 1765 grams, ca. 4.600 US-D. If a 5.6/270mm is enough for you on the tele side, then replace the 180 with the 135mm and you save 230 grams and 1080 US-D.

Version B:

3.3-4.0/28-85mm, 4.0/80-200mm: ca. 1.415 grams of weight, ca. 3.050 US-D (again German prices).

Advantages: Less cost, less weight, more flexibility.

Disadvantages: Smaller aperture, therefore you have to use either grainier high-speed film or the tripod more often; picture quality is inferior to that of the primes, but still very good when compared to other zooms on the market. The use of a tele converter would result in a huge loss of light and a definite loss in picture quality.

Q: Another question: What are your thoughts re: 28-70mm vario-sonnar vs. the primes: specifically the 28mm 2.8 and 35mm 2.8?

A: If you are hiking with your camera, it would not be the best idea to replace your 28 and 35mm with the 28-85mm (I presume you mean that one) zoom, for the zoom weighs 220 grams more than the both wide-angles together. Additionally it is very bulky (14 centimeters long fully extended), filters are expensive (82mm) and not cheap. You lose one stop.

What concerns the optical quality, the zoom should be quite good. Of course distortion is larger than with the primes, but on the other hand the vignettation generally is better. Sharpness and contrast, as measured and shown in the MTF-charts, of course is different from that of the primes, but not worse. But unfortunately I do not own this zoom, so I cannot tell you more, and referring to charts is nice, but only one side of the coin. The effective quality of the lens is showing on the pictures. If you are really interested in the lens, try to rent or borrow it from somewhere and take the shots you normally do, and then compare them to others you made with your primes. This is the best way to find out if the lens fits you.

ZEISS tele lenses

Q: I want to get a telephoto (which I'll rarely use). Question: What's the difference in "quality" between the prime (135mm and 180mm) vs. the 80-200mm f4? I think off the bat, I'll probably end up getting the zoom because of the cost vs. amount of times I'll actually use it. But, I was wondering about the lens quality.

A: The clue to your question is in your words of the rare opportunities to use the telephoto. Considering that I would choose the 4.0/80-200mm zoom over the primes. The advantages are 720 grams less weight and ca. 1000 US-D less of cost (based on German prices).

Optical quality: If I compare the charts published by Carl Zeiss I see that the 80-200 in 140mm performs similar to the 135mm prime in resolution and contrast (MTF-chart-based) when stopped down two stops, but is inferior to the prime in vignetting and distortion both fully open and stopped down.

In 200mm, compared to the 180mm prime the zoom performs similar when stopped down with worse vignetting fully open and similar distortion. Here it is apparent that the 2.8/180mm - though regularly updated - is basically an old design which needs some brushing-up.

If you could spare one stop of light, I would recommend the 4.5-5.6/100-300mm zoom. It is a new construction with ultra-low-dispersion-glass, performs better than the 80-200 in any respect (MTF, vignetting, distortion, both fully opened and stopped down) and is even a little bit shorter! In Germany it costs ca. 850 US-D more than the 80-200.

I personally like the 2.8/180mm very much, my tele-pair consists of that and the 1.4/85mm. For me the wide aperture of those lenses is very important, and I use them frequently. Together with the Mutar II I have a 5.6/360mm tele with high performance so I don't need a longer tele.

Q: Does Zeiss still make the 200/3.5?...and (regardless) do you know anything about how good it is? The 200/2 is way too expensive for me ( $6000), not to mention pretty heavy.

A: No, unfortunately neither the 3.5/200 nor the compact 4/200 are produced by Zeiss any more. I have heard good comments about those two lenses but I never have used them. I agree that the Apo-Sonnar 2/200 is a monster, both in size and price, but what about the Sonnar 2.8/180? It seems to me to be a good alternative for the 3.5/200, only one centimeter longer and 60 grams heavier, and the price is not that high.

Q: On a similar topic, I've heard the Mutar II does not work with the 200/3.5. Do you know if this is true? Do you know if there are any other telephotos that the Mutar II doesn't work with ( =100mm)?

A: It is correct that the Mutar II can not be couples with the 3.5/200. The reason is that the Mutar II has a lens element which protrudes into the rear part of the lens, so there must be enough room left to accommodate this part. But by nearing the converter lenses to the rear elements of the telephoto you get better results. This lack of free space makes it impossible to use the Mutar II also with the Macro Planar 2.8/100 and with all zooms (included the 3.5/70-210 and the 4/80-200). The coupling with the 2/135 is mechanically possible, but not recommended by Zeiss because of possible loss of quality. I am using my 180 Sonnar together with the Mutar II and I'm very fond of the results.

Q: It's said Canon EF 80-200 f/2.8 outperforms 80-200 f/4 which is slightly better than 180 f/2.8 in this focal length. It's pretty odd, isn't it? Given the 5 star (*****) rating from Chasseur d'Image for Sonnar T* 180 f/2.8, it's hard to believe this. Any comments? Is T* 200 f/4.0 any good?

A: You are right, it sounds odd. In fact I are very content with the 180mm Sonnar's performance, but on the other hand it is also a fact that the latest re-engineering of that lens (besides changing the outer appearance) was about twenty years ago. So it seems possible theoretically that there exist new zoom constructions which perform better than the Sonnar, at least stopped down. I severely doubt that a zoom lens is better fully opened at 2.8, the only exception maybe being the new 2.8/70-180mm APO by Leitz which weighs about 2 kilograms and costs three times as much than the Zeiss 180mm.

What concerns the Vario-Sonnar 4.0/80-200mm you quote, I consulted the performance graphs published by Zeiss and they show (when compared at 200 vs. 180mm) that the zoom construction offers more contrast but not as much brilliance than the fixed focal length. Vignetting and distortion both are worse, but in my opinion the differences are not large enough to be recognized in a picture.

It must be taken into consideration that zoom lenses never have been the strength and specialty of Zeiss. I am sure that there are several zooms on the market (Canon's and Nikon's 2.8/80-200 included) which have a better overall performance than the Vario-Sonnar which itself is decidedly outperformed by the newer Zeiss 4.5-5.6/100-300mm zoom. If you compare the Sonnar 2.8/180 with a Canon zoom of the same aperture keep in mind also that the zoom is bulkier (Nikon and Canon both are roughly 20 centimeters long and weigh about 1.3 kilograms vs. 13 centimeters and 800 grams of the Zeiss Sonnar) and the fixed focal length being a better base for combination with a tele-converter. Together with a Mutar II the Sonnar at 5.6/360mm is nearly as good as the Tele-Tessar 4.0/300, but a stop slower.

What concerns the Tele-Tessar 4.0/200mm you asked me about: It is a very good lens, compact and optically roughly as good as the 2.8 Sonnar, but one stop slower. Additionally it has not implemented "floating elements" for better near-focus correction.

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