The Contax 645 film camera has been called the “crown jewel” of medium format cameras by Kirk Mastin; a “Bond girl—they’re so beautiful and so exquisite, but you know they’re high maintenance” by D’Arcy Benincosa; and “the Porsche among medium format cameras: It’s sexy, but it’s not designed to be incredibly tough” by Jeff and Michelle.
I’ve always thought of it as my Princess and the Pea camera: she is very delicate, bruises easily, and must be handled with great care, and if she is, she is a true and beautiful princess.
The Contax 645 was the second medium format camera I ever owned. I bought my first Contax 645 ten years ago, just a few years after they became the camera of choice for wedding and portrait photographers. I think I got my entire kit including a battery grip for what a body alone is going for today—about $3000.
And I hated it! I know! Sacrilege!
I was on the verge of selling it when I took it to the Film Is Not Dead workshop in the fall of 2013. I figured that if Jonathan Canlas, one of the biggest ambassadors of the Contax 645 couldn’t make me love it, then it was going on the chopping block.
Ironically at the time, Jon was moving away from the Contax, but I learned enough at that workshop to give my Contax a second chance. That was also when I learned that taking the time to really master my gear was more than worth the effort.
Since then, I have probably shot my largest body of work with one of my two Contax 645 cameras; it’s only rival being my Rolleiflex 2.8f.
The Contax 645 was introduced by Kyocera on February 20, 1999, in the waning days of film’s dominance of the photography world, and it was discontinued in 2005.
Ironically, it was only a few short years after its discontinuation that its popularity really surged thanks to photographers like Jose Villa, Elizabeth Messina, Erich McVey, and Jonathan Canlas.
It was marketed as the first modular, medium format, autofocus SLR, and its autofocus feature was its biggest draw. It’s a medium format camera that shoots like a 35mm camera. It’s very intuitive to use and somewhat ergonomic.
And since the Contax 645 was created on the eve of the digital era, digital backs can be obtained for the Contax 645, but they are eye-wateringly expensive!
The Light & Airy Look of the Contax 645
You will find a Contax 645 most often in the hands of wedding and portrait photographers. I would say that in the last 12-15 years, the Contax is responsible for the “light and airy” style of the majority of wedding photographers.
Even if they don’t use a Contax 645, most of them seek to imitate the style that this camera produces.
And soon, imitation will be the only option available because that famous look was created using the Contax 645 and Fuji 400H film, both of which will be harder and harder to get as the years go by.
The Contax 645 is a modular camera system. That means that it is comprised of various interchangeable parts that configure the camera.
The Contax is made up of a body, a film back which contains a film insert, a prism or waist level viewfinder, focus screen, and lenses. Photographers can choose what parts they prefer or need in various combinations.
Besides being able to configure the camera your way, you can also easily replace components if they die or are not able to be repaired.
The most common combination for the Contax is the body, the camera back, an MFB-1A 120/220 film insert, and the legendary Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.0 lens.
The Contax can shoot 120 or 220 film, and its negative is 6cm x 4.4cm. A roll of 120 film will yield 16 frames, and if you can get your hands on some 220 film, you will get 32 frames per roll.
Options for Lenses, Focusing Screens, Film Inserts, and Batteries
I have the 45mm and 140mm lenses, and I highly recommend the battery grip for extended battery use and portrait orientation shooting.
You can also get a modified focus screen by Bill Maxwell for a brighter viewfinder and increased ease of focusing. I recommend one of these as well.
Contax also made a 220 only vacuum film insert in an attempt to solve the problem of film flatness (which I will talk about later). These inserts are basically obsolete now since 220 film is no longer manufactured and getting harder to find. There are ways to convert one of these 220 inserts to shoot 120 film.
The Contax 645 requires lots of power to operate, and it takes a fairly obscure and expensive battery: a 2CR5.
And this camera devours batteries. One battery will last 15 to maybe 17 rolls of film if you don’t use the autofocus feature.
Not everyone loves the added heft that the optional MP-1 battery grip adds to the already bulky Contax 645, but I have one for both of my cameras. It takes regular AA batteries, and they last three times as long.
Film Back vs. Film Insert
If you plan to make the Contax 645 your primary camera as a wedding or portrait photographer, I would highly recommend acquiring as many 120 film inserts as you can. These inserts can shoot 120 or 220 film with the flip of a switch.
I often see photographers confuse film backs with film inserts. The film back is the camera component that houses the film insert and can be removed from the back of the camera body.
It’s not a bad idea to have more than one camera back if, for example, you want to swap the backs midroll say color film for black and white.
Having multiple film inserts makes shooting and reloading film fast and easy if you preload your film inserts before your session or wedding. I have over 10 film inserts. They come in their own handy little case, so your preloaded film is protected until you are ready to pop it into your camera back.
The Internal Meter and Features of the Contax 645
The Contax 645 has a fairly accurate internal TTL meter that can meter the entire frame or spot meter in the center of the frame.
I don’t use the camera’s meter because I always use a handheld light meter, but if you do use the internal meter, I would suggest using the exposure compensation dial on the top of the camera and set it to at least +1 to get the traditional Contax look.
Its other desirable features include a multiple exposure button, a 2 and 10 second timer delay, a viewfinder window shade for long exposures or timer delay shots, exposure compensation dial, a top shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second, a flash sync speed of 1/90th of a second, back button focus, aperture and shutter priority modes, TTL metering, single and continuous shooting modes, manual and autofocusing modes, and it prints your exposure data on the negative.
The Autofocus System
Autofocus on the Contax has its benefits and drawbacks.
Autofocus was not common on medium format cameras, and when the 645 was introduced, this was a big bonus. However, those of us in the 21st century are used to snappy, sharp, fast autofocus, and this the Contax does not have.
Plus, its single focus point is right in the middle of the frame. Focusing and recomposing with the razor thin depth of field that f/2 in a medium focus camera gives you can make for a frustrating focusing experience.
That isn’t to say that it can’t be done. I know several photographers who have mastered this skill. If this is your cup of tea, you will like that the Contax 645 has a back button focus feature.
The Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2 Lens
The primary thing about the Contax 645 that makes it such a covetable camera is the 80mm f/2 lens. This lens creates buttery bokeh and gives images a “painterly” effect.
If it weren’t for this lens, I doubt anyone would put up with the finicky Contax body. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
This lens creates absolutely exquisite images when shot at wide apertures, but once you stop down past f/5.6, the image quality is less stellar.
It’s a single purpose lens: portraiture. You won’t find may landscape photographers using a Contax 645.
As a way to get around the temperamental Contax body, a The Bokeh Factory in Poland started modifying the 80mm lens to be mounted onto a Pentax 645N body, but it would forever be stuck at f/2.
For most people who swear by the Contax shot wide open at f/2, this was a bargain they were willing to make in order to use that lens on a more reliable body.
Shooting the Contax 645 and the 80mm f/2 lens wide open creates that gorgeous bokeh along with a razor-thin depth of field.
If you’re used to shooting 35mm film, think f/.95 or f/1.2. If your focus isn’t spot on, no one will care about the buttery bokeh because there will be nothing or nothing important in sharp focus to contrast with it.
So how do you get your images sharp with such a tiny depth of field?
Practice without film. Practice with film. Practice! Do NOT rely on autofocus! You can use autofocus to get you within the ballpark, but you will definitely need to tweak focus manually.
2. Start with Something Stationary
Start shooting something stationary or very patient. Your three-year-old and even your 18-year-old is probably not it. But if you are practicing on a person, let them know that you are taking your time focusing. It can be pretty disconcerting to have someone silently pointing a camera in your face, so let your subject know that you are a slow focuser and that you are not just staring at them through the lens.
3. Focus on the Eyes
Focus on the eyes, more specifically, the eye closest to the camera. When you’re shooting medium format film at f/2, depending on how close you are to your subject, the depth of field is so shallow that the only thing in focus may be the eye closest to the camera.
4. Increase Distance Between the Subject and Background
To maximize the bokeh this lens creates, put more than five feet between your subject and the background.
5. Get Close to Your Subject
The closer you are, the easier it will be to see what is in focus in your viewfinder. The smaller the subject in the viewfinder, the harder it is to nail focus.
6. Put Distance Between You and the Subject
Put some distance between you and the subject and put your subject in the middle of the frame. This will increase your chances of getting them in focus, but it will also reduce the buttery bokeh background look.
7. Put Multiple Subjects on the Same Focal Plane
If you’re shooting more than one person at f/2, you’re very brave! But to increase your chances of getting both subjects in focus, make sure that their eyes are lined up and on the same focus plane. I usually put them side by side, eye to eye and shoot them head on.
8. Avoid Focusing and Recomposing
Avoid focus and recompose unless you have a really steady hand. Focusing and then moving at such a shallow depth of field increases the risk of shifting focus. A better option would be to focus and then move your camera and/or body until what you want to be in focus appears sharp in your viewfinder. Having a Maxwell bright screen will help with this.
9. Use a Tripod
Try using a tripod to minimize movement.
10. Work Your Way Up to f/2
Work your way up to f/2. Start with f/4, which I believe creates beautiful images nearly as well as wider apertures. When you’ve mastered focusing at that aperture, move up to f/2.8 and then f/2.
Using the Contax 645 In the Studio
I also love using my Contax 645 in the studio with natural light and with strobes.
The Contax 645 has a flash synch speed of 1/125th of a second, so when shooting in manual mode, be sure your shutter speed does not exceed this.
If you put your camera in X mode, it always keeps the shutter speed at 1/90th of a second.
Weaknesses of the Contax 645
The workhorse medium format cameras of the late 20th century were primarily manual cameras (think Mamyia RZ67 or the Pentax 67), so this completely electronic beast with autofocus and a motor drive was top of the line technology. Unfortunately, that also is its Achilles heel.
The Contax 645 is notorious for deciding it’s had enough work for the day and will simply shut down. It also does not like hot, humid, or frigid cold weather. It prefers moderate temperatures and low humidity.
Some photographers claim the Contax is a beast and will work in any situation, but anecdotally and in my own experience, the Contax is a fair-weather camera.
The Contax 645’s delicate features are also extremely susceptible to dirt and dust. Keep your film inserts, film back, and camera body away from dirt, dust, and sand.
I never remove my film back and always replace the dark slide when changing film to protect the fragile shutter.
You’ll know if you get a piece of dirt or dust in your film insert because it will show up as a line or scratch across your negative/scan.
Besides its fussy body, the Contax has a couple of other drawbacks that you should be aware of, the biggest of which is its price.
Right now, when buying a Contax 645, a body, a back, and a prism averages about $3000, add an 80mm f/2 lens, and you could shell out between $5000-$6000.
There are several reasons for this high price tag. First of all, it’s a matter of supply and demand. The Contax 645 was only produced for about six years. There are a limited number of them available, and the more time that passes, the fewer of them will still be operable.
Also, the more of them that break and need repair, the more of them will be cannibalized for parts.
Second, they are an extremely popular, and I may even say, trendy camera. A significant number of wedding photographers who shoot film use and brand themselves as Contax shooters. Busy studios will always have at least two cameras in continuous use.
If this popularity continues for the next 15 years as it has for the last 15 years, eventually, the Contax 645 will be extinct.
Another big complaint of Contax 645 users is issues with film flatness.
Remember those film inserts we spoke about earlier? They wear out and must be serviced.
If you are getting scans back from the lab where one half of the frame is sharp but the other half of the frame, even if it is on the same focus plane, is not sharp, you may have a film flatness problem.
This happens when the spring in the insert wears out and needs to be replaced.
Alternatives to the Contax 645
If you aren’t ready to sell your kidney to buy a Contax 645, there are alternatives that are relatively less expensive.
I’ve said multiple times that the Contax is a persnickety thing, but I do have a few troubleshooting tips for you if you find your Contax won’t take a photo when you want it to.
1. Camera Won’t Fire
If the camera is on, the film is loaded, but the shutter won’t push, check to make sure the dark slide is removed from in front of the film back. As a safety mechanism, the camera will not fire if the dark slide is in place.
2. Red Dot in Viewfinder
If you go to look through the viewfinder and see a big red dot, push down the lever on the left side of the eye piece. That is the viewfinder window shade.
3. Sluggish Shutter
If your shutter is sounding sluggish, try putting in fresh batteries. If it is still sluggish, you may need a new shutter.
4. Stops Working in Inclement Weather
If you’re in inclement weather and the camera stops working, try removing each component starting with the prism and make sure the gold electric contacts are clean and dry.
Then try removing the lens. And last, try the camera back.
Don’t forget to put the dark slide back in before you do. The camera has a safety mechanism that will not allow you to remove the back without the dark slide in place.
5. Suddenly Lose Power
If you suddenly lose power and you know the battery wasn’t low, check the battery door and make sure it is closed tight.
6. Film Flatness
If you think you have a film flatness issue, check to make sure that when you are placing the film insert in the camera back that you are pushing it all the way in until you hear a loud click.
Make sure both buttons in the center are clicked into place.
If that is not the problem, check the silver wheel on the side of the insert. If it moves in both directions, you need to have your insert serviced.
7. Setting Change Unexpectedly
If your settings frequently seem to mysteriously change, tape them down with gaffer’s tape.
Frequently double check your aperture ring because it can be easily bumped. The same goes for your shutter speed dial and exposure compensation dial.
There is no better way to get to know a camera intimately than to use it regularly. And it took a lot of regular use to get used to the narrow depth of field, manual focusing, and loading those awkward film inserts.
For all its quirks, idiosyncrasies, and expense, the Contax 645 is one of the wonders of the film photography world. If you have never shot one, it might be worth renting or borrowing one just to see what all the hype is about.
I really believe that once you see the beautiful look of that 80mm lens, you too, will fall under its spell and want to find a way to own one.
Are you a Contax shooter? I’d love to hear about your experience with this spectacular camera!