It’s no surprise to see wedding photographers praise the Contax 645 system as their preferred camera. This will be a somewhat brief review of the Contax 645 medium format film camera for the purposes of wedding, portrait, and studio photography.
We’ve owned quite a few Contax’s over the last 6 years and have shot well over a few thousand rolls through them. From the frigid cold, to humid environments, we’ve tested this camera through nearly every imaginable condition and this gives us a unique perspective on how they perform.
If you’re a budding wedding photographer, chances are a large portion of your favorite film images were taken on a Contax 645 & Zeiss 80mm F/2. There seem to be a plethora of wedding photographers who choose this medium. Buy why? We’ll explore that below.
I won’t go through every spec of the camera- click this link if you’re looking for the full specs.
Firstly this camera is no longer manufactured and hasn’t been for roughly 20 years. This means parts are scarce and you want to avoid breaking anything at all costs. However, the Contax system is able to mitigate this slightly by it’s modular design. The prism, backs, battery packs, and screens are all incredibly easy to dissemble, clean or replace. While parts are getting more expensive by the minute, they are still widely available as of 2021 from ebay and second hand sellers.
The case for Contax
The reason this camera is so amazing is nearly entirely due to the Zeiss 80mm F/2. The rendering is absolutely incredible and gives a very distinct look. I almost view the Contax as the vehicle to the Zeiss 80mm. It’s like magic to shoot with. It’s also one of the few medium format film cameras with autofocus. While it’s not as fast as a Hasselblad H2, the combo of autofocus and the Zeiss make it a compelling choice for portrait photographers.
The Contax 645 is one of the few medium format film cameras with autofocus. Of the Contax’s we’ve used, about 75% of them have autofocus that works decently. We’ve only had one body every autofocus quickly and reliably. So while they do feature autofocus, it’s very normal for autofocus to get you 80% of the way there and have to manually focus the rest of the way. It’s a nice perk, but I wouldn’t recommend buying one simply for the autofocus.
The built in light meter is excellent. While we nearly always use a handheld meter, there are some photographers who rely entirely on the built-in light meter and I can see why! It includes both a spot meter setting as well as a TTL setting. Both work exactly as designed and I find they’ve been 100% accurate. If you’re getting this camera, don’t feel like you have to buy a separate light meter right away.
Like nearly all cameras, the contax has a single shot, continuous shot, 2 second timer and 10 second timer as well as bulb mode. All the modes function well. The 10 second timer has come in handy with shots like the one below!
One of the nicer aspects of the Contax is the ability to swap out backs/prisms very easily. Because the camera is discontinued these parts can be difficult to source but it’s much easier to replace a back than an entire camera. The interchangeable backs also allow you to switch between film stocks mid-roll without ruining any exposures.
The Contax has a flash sync speed of 1/125. This works great for studio portraiture and while it can’t compare to modern digital cameras, it’s fast enough for any portraiture in a studio setting.
Problem Areas of the Contax 645 System
In our personal experience, the Contax 645 system has proven to be reliable in a variety of conditions. We’ve shot in cold rain, snow and freezing temperatures, muggy Hawaii and Florida and everything else imaginable. There have been issues but none that haven’t been quickly remedied with a battery swap or a quick swipe of the electronic contacts at various places on the camera.
However, after being in the industry for a while and knowing a ton of Contax shooters, this system does not have the same reliability as it’s digital and modern counterparts. If you’re relying on the Contax for 100% of your shots we would recommend at least one backup of each portion of the camera just in case you need to switch to a new body/lens/etc. during a shoot.
This thing eats batteries for breakfast. While they do make a vertical grip that takes AA batteries, we never liked the way it felt in hand. The cr5 batteries it takes can be pricey and may only last ~20 rolls in cold conditions.
And that’s really it for negatives. We really love the Contax system and while Bobby’s favorite format is 4×5, the Contax 645 is both of our favorites! We’ve shot thousands of rolls through various Contax’s and they’ve been reliable workhorses for years.
If you have the opportunity and budget to buy a Contax, we would highly recommend it!