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Denton Taylor on the Aria -

Last week, I picked up a new Contax Aria. I also have an RX (although it's
in for service) and an RTSIII. Thursday morning and Saturday morning I shot
two rolls of chrome each in some of my favorite photo haunts; decaying
buildings in Gowanus, Brooklyn; the World Trade Center plaza; Chinatown;
and SoHo. I wanted to limit myself to a single lens, so Thursday I took the
35-70 3.4 (not the new one made for the Aria), and Saturday I took the 28-85.

I'm not sure I see the point of the new zoom. The existing 35-70 is already
quite small and light (for Zeiss!) and as such is an excellent match for
the Aria.

Before moving to Contax in the past year, my primary 35mm SLR was the
Olympus 4T. Oly became famous for building full-featured cameras that were
considerably smaller and lighter than their contemporaries. So I thought I
might make some quick comparisons.

The Aria is actually (at 16.2 oz.) about an ounce lighter than the 4t, even
with a built-in 3fps winder. Of course this light weight is achieved by use
of the dreaded polycarbonate, A.K.A. _plastic_. However, it is used
judiciously. It's really just the film chambers that are plastic. The lens
mount and mirror box are stainless steel, and the top cover is also metal.
The Pop Photo review says the bottom cover is plastic; if so, it's good
enough to fool me! With even the most expensive cameras using some
polycarbonates, this should not be an issue. It is doubtful that anyone
(besides Leica), will ever again build a classic metal camera like the 4t.
Dimensionally, compared to the 4t, the Aria is 1mm wider, 8.5mm higher, and
3.5mm thicker.

The Aria certainly does not have a cheap, plasticy feel; nor should it, for
$580! After one gets over the lightness, one realizes that it is very well
made. The body has the rubbery covering similar to other Contaxes. But the
Off/On/AE switch is not nearly as smooth as other Contaxes, even though it
looks the same. It has a ‘snap' instead of a ‘snick'. At first, I didn't
much care for the tiny switch that switches between
Matrix/Centerweight/Spot, but after some usage I discovered that it is
perfectly located and easily usable with the camera at eye level.

The Aria has all the modern features one would hope for, (except for AF, of
course) including DX-encoding; matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering
(no multi-spot, though); manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and
program control (SP and Program with MM lenses, but program mode is not
shiftable); and exposure compensation with ABC bracketing. The
bean-counters managed to axe one feature found on the 4t and other high-end
Contax bodies­built-in variable diopters. They also got rid of the rewind
switch and replaced it with one of those dimpled things you stick a pencil
in, although the manual cautions you against using a pencil and instead
provides you with a prong on the camera strap. But who uses a strap?

I was able to overcome most of my minor objections by use of the custom
programming features. The slickest choice is that one can opt to engage AE
lock by depressing the shutter button, instead of throwing the main switch
to AE Lock as in other Contax bodies. Therefore, when walking around, one
doesn't have to touch that ‘snappy' switch. One can leave the camera on all
the time, letting it shut itself off, and reactivating it simply by
touching the shutter release. Overriding matrix mode, (or using the Aria in
spot mode) becomes very smooth. Compose, with forefinger switch from matrix
to spot mode if required, move spot onto correct area of interest, depress
shutter release slightly, re-compose, and shoot.

One can also opt to have the camera rewind film automatically at end of
roll, which takes care of the crappy rewind switch (except where switching
in mid-roll). And one can choose to leave the film leader out, which I prefer.

I was especially glad to see the introduction of matrix metering. I have
heard several Contax users state they have no use for matrix mode. I
disagree, but for the traditionalists, does the Aria have a feature for
you. In matrix mode, a bar graph is displayed which gives the _difference_
between the matrix and the center-weighted reading!

If one is shooting in the wilderness, perhaps matrix mode is not much use,
but shooting mostly in the city as I do, speed is often of the essence, and
there may not be time to properly meter a scene. So, for the purposes of my
first experiences with the Aria, I decided to always use Program mode and
Matrix metering. All my exposures were perfect or very close, with two

The first was an image of an abandoned crane against a bright blue sky. I
decided to use the ABC bracketing feature, because I really could not
decide on a reading, even in spot mode. (Normally, I dislike bracketing,
because it seems wasteful and makes me feel that I don't know what I'm
doing, a silly hang-up, I know). The proper exposure was the one-stop-under

In the other instance, there were some flower pots in front of a black
glass building. In spite of my resolve to stick with matrix mode, I saw no
point in losing the shot, and I was positive that the matrix exposure the
camera had chosen was wrong. I took one shot in matrix mode, then took
another based on a spot reading of the flowers. The spot exposure was
correct, the matrix shot was way overexposed.

The viewfinder displays everything you would ever want to know, and then
some, in a green LCD panel on the right side. Unlike my RTSIII, the display
is quite visible even in the brightest light.

Maximum shutter speed is 1/4000, with synch at 1/125. The Aria does TTL
control with TLA flash units. The manual warns against using the Aria with
IR film, but doesn't give the reason. The manual also warns against using
the Aria with large-barreled lenses on a tripod without an accessory shoe.
The optional D9 databack will add film imprinting and interval exposures,
but is not yet shipping.

I love this camera. It goes from full manual operation to total automatic
control, with no bias in favor of either method of operation. In spite of
the better build quality, I really see no reason to keep my RX and RTSIII.
I will probably sell them in favor of another Aria and put the difference
into more glass or maybe a G2!



Denton Taylor
Photogallery at

David W. Griffin on the RTS III

Just spent my first weekend with the RTSIII. I think it was very positive despite finding out that my electronic RTS cable release wouldn't work on the RTSIII. I ended up using the 2 second self-timer as a substitute, and by and large it worked well. Subsequently picked up a self timer cord that does work. Funny that they'd use two different kinds of electronic cable releases for different models of their electronic cameras. Here are what I consider the bad and good points about using the RTSIII.

I found the display easy to read outdoors except for unusually bright conditions, and then just shielding my eyes and the eyepiece make it easy to read again. The new 2CR5 battery I put in fresh a few days before was signalling low in about 4 rolls, but then it has sat in my bag for maybe 2 years, so that may not be a fair test. We'll see how long a really new one will last.

The manual, while fairly complete is difficult to read due perhaps to the requirement to write it in all the different languages. There are areas which should have been covered more thoroughly and were sparse at best. There is also a lack of a good explanation of camera accessories in the manual and it's needed since Contax dealers are few and far between so you can't just go to a camera store and ask.

On the positive side, the ergonomics, as always with Contax cameras, was superb. Everything seems just where you'd want it to be. The depth of field preview when held down changes as you change the aperture (unlike my Minolta 600si). The spot metering was easy to use and the camera was full of those nice touches I liked with my RTS (like the the exposure compensation warning in the viewfinder).

The camera was easy to read on manual mode though I would have liked something like the flash meter scale I could use for ambient light. I have a scale like this for my 600si. The viewfinder was clear and bright and a pleasure to use, and of course it's 100% coverage.The mirror lockup worked well, though I confess I didn't use it a great deal. Still it's good to have it.

The exposure meter seemed to be correct, though I had a number of mis-exposure readings due to misuse of the spot meter and a bit of unfamiliarity with the controls. Still think I might need to bracket the important shots for a while.

I bought my used, and chose one with a very high serial number in hopes that any early problems will have been resolved before mine was made. Hopefully I have a long working relationship ahead of me with this camera.

Marcus Hanke on choosing a body

Contax itself claims the ST to be 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 highly ambitious amateurs. But there are some things missing in the ST which I think should not be missing in a professional camera: There is no mirror-lockup, no double-exposure possibility and no way 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 well damped and therefore the vibrations really are not bad), I never change partially exposed film and with Photoshop around nothing can convince me to making double-exposures on film.

What is "professional" with the ST is certainly 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 saw the plate wearing off a bit. 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 overview. 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 a 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 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 RST 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 tele's. I hope I didn't over-flood you with my opinion and that you could read out something useful from my essay.

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