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-   -   Revisiting the Contax RTS I (http://www.rangefinderforum.com/forums/showthread.php?t=168595)

Takkun 05-25-2019 18:38

Revisiting the Contax RTS I
I saw a few recent threads here on the old Yashica/Kyocera Contax series bodies, and thought I'd post about mine, a first-generation RTS, that I dug out recently. It's a lovely camera, but needs some work, and was an unexpected return to SLRs for me. Were I to 'collect' cameras, my personal interest are the advanced electronic cameras from the late 70s/early 80s just before the plastic, AF, and built-in winder era, but this isn't one to turn down.

This camera was my father's, and he unexpectedly gifted it to me recently along with a few other items of his. As the family photographer I've received a lot of unwanted junk over the years that are more burden than useful (a flood-damaged FTb, several Nikkor lenses with the CPU contacts broken off, etc), but this meant a lot purely as a personal connection; something I don't need but would find enjoyment in.

45th and 9th, TMY in Xtol 1+1

So the story goes, my father, a medical researcher at the time, bought this camera in the late 1970s specifically to mount to a microscope and other medical optics. He still sings the praises of that budget Olympus scope. Not sure why he didn't go with an OM body to match. He later bought a few lenses to use as a regular carry-around camera.
I personally had used it a few times for family snapshots as a young teen and was in awe over the craftsmanship and weight compared to my battered Nikkormat. Now it's mine.

Farmers Market, Fomapan 100 in Perceptol

The kit:
The appeal for this camera for scientific/medical work, like many of the flagship SLRs of the time, was automation and versatility: Aperture-priority auto, winders and a host of remote release options, and interchangeable focus screens.
While the latter were lost to time, the package included the RTS Winder and AA battery holder, as well as the nifty IR release, the receiver of which slides into the accessory shoe and connects via PC cord. just what one would need when shooting remotely. By today's standards, they're a bit unwieldily. 6 AA batteries fit in the winder, in a swing-out compartment that has a habit of flipping open when jarred. The little searchlight-looking IR receiver doesn't like to stay put in the shoe.

South Seattle Industrial Park, TMY in Xtol 1+1

The lenses included were few: a Yashica 50/2 and a Soligor 35-70 kit zoom with a seized focus ring. But the jewel was the Planar 50/1.7. Looking at a contemporary catalog, this was the happy-middle standard prime, slotted between the Tessar 45/2.8 pancake and the supreme Planar 50/1.4. It's small and light yet feels solid; I can't really discern the construction material. I'd guess a very well-finished aluminum. Surprisingly light compared to the ZM Planar I have, and draws slightly differently.

Unfortunately the camera hasn't quite survived in peak condition. Alarmingly, the leatherette seems to have been tacked back on with epoxy or superglue at some point. The rewind crank is missing its tip. The condenser lens beneath the prism is loose and rattles about, but doesn't affect the finder optically. However, a bit of ribbon, perhaps a gasket for the condenser, has slipped into the image path and intrudes into the bottom of the frame. Lastly, the frame advance feels gritty, which I doubt was the case decades ago.

Farmers Market, Fomapan 100 in Perceptol

Design and ergonomics:
Like all of the Japanese Contax bodies, the RTS is a handsome Porsche-designed body and a stark departure from its predecessors and contemporaries. All black with the slightest hint of chrome at exposure compensation lever. Very few trim pieces, and absent the abuse of compound curves that would dominate in the 80s and 90s. It would look right at home in Leica's current lineup.

Toronado Cafe, TMY in Xtol 1+1

The controls, compared to contemporary cameras of the era, are strangely idiosyncratic. What appears to be a shutter speed dial ringed by a diamond-pattern grip is, in actuality, the combined ISO and exposure compensation dial. More curiously, the compensation is not marked in +/- EV steps, but multiples of exposure— X2, X1, X1/2, X1/4. At the other end, beneath the rewind crank is the shutter speed dial. I can't think of any other camera laid out as such, other than subsequent Contax bodies.

I believe this camera is one of the first, if not the first, to feature an electronic shutter release, which actuates an electromagnet that subsequently trips the shutter mechanically. The release has an extremely short travel and firm stop, and releasing the shutter feels instantaneous and authoritative, as they say. The term "Real-Time system" is a bit of computer-age marketing fluff, but proves true when one feels how fast it reacts.

Metering is a bit of a pain. Rather than the half-press that later became standard, there is a momentary switch on the front panel that activates the metering display. It disappears when released, so on is effectively shooting blindly when not holding it down. Frustratingly, there is no exposure lock, but that appears to be only occasionally seen on other make's bodies. The meter itself appears to be in ballpark range, a bog-standard 70s counterweighted pattern.

Roosevelt Way, TMY in Xtol 1+1

The viewfinder display is akin to the AE Minoltas of the same era. A pair of feelers operate a scale displaying selected aperture along the top of the frame; I believe this was later dropped in favor of a direct readout window. Another pointer along the right indicates set shutter speed, while LEDs relay the metered speed. Again, these are not continuously illuminated.

There's really little else going on with the body; it's a fairly typical AE camera of its time. One nice little touch is a clutch in the rewind crank, so it does not rotate when film is wound.

In operation:
As I mentioned, I took this out for a weekend and ran a roll each of Delta 400 and Fomapan 100 through it. Unfortunately I didn't discover the bit of fabric dangling in the mirror box until later. My wanderings took me to Seattle's University District Street Fair and a misty, mucky evening wandering the SoDo industrial district, and finishing up a roll at the farmers market.

7th Ave S., SoDo; TMY in Xtol 1+1

For the better part of the last 7 or so years, I've been shooting with RFs more or less exclusively, and it was a challenge to get used to both this camera's quirks as well as operating an SLR again. My eyesight isn't what it used to be, and determining focus was a challenge. The focusing screen is bright and the micro prism spot highly visible, a welcome change from most DSLR screens, although it did wash out in certain lighting. I quickly got accustomed to checking DOF frequently with the preview button, something I've sorely missed.

I quite like the finder display. As I mentioned, it shows selected shutter/aperture, or at least it did once I got the minimum aperture feeler unstuck, and can be easily operated without looking away from the finder. Again, I hold contention with the metering LEDs not being persistent, and essentially held down the metering button any time it was against my eye.

Office under demolition, Roosevelt district; TMY in Xtol 1+1

In practice, the controls did take a bit of getting used to, with the exposure compensation and shutter swapped. I initially bemoaned the lack of exposure lock, but got into a bit of a dance with my right hand, holding down the exposure check button with my middle finger and rotating the exposure compensation dial with my index and thumb. Not ideal, but it works. Like the old Leica M8, the finder only indicates that exposure compensation is applied, but not in what direction, showing a strange circle-on-a-stick symbol.

The shutter feels very crisp, unlike any other I've used before, almost like a hair trigger with zero take-up—if you've fired a competition pistol, it's not too far off. No place to screw in a soft release, but no need to. With a cloth curtains, the shutter action itself is quiet, but the mirror slap is predictably loud with a fair bit of kickback.

Farmers Market, Fomapan 100 in Perceptol

As a whole, the body feels very solid yet refined, as the cliched expression goes, but befitting a classic German marque and Leica peer. I can imagine it may have been limiting at the time of release, but in a basic semi-auto body, there's little desire for more metering modes, different finders, and the like.

The lens:
Wow, as always, Zeiss doesn't disappoint. It doesn't quite have the same pop or crispness as the M-mount equivalent, but it's no slouch. The lens is light but solid and well-machined, with light focus action and a comparatively long throw. Thankfully the focus/aperture rings turn in the same direction as Leica, so no confusion there.

Farmers Market, Fomapan in Perceptol

Optically, it's sharp across the frame, at least within the limits of my film and scanner, and with a sizable amount of contrast. MTF charts could tell you more, but the raw scans look good to my eye. Bokeh is smooth wide open but busier in middle apertures. Still a powerhouse of a do-everything standard lens, with a very 'neutral' look. I'd love to give it a go in comparison to the Yashica lens. It's interesting that I find us RF'ers care a lot more about how a lens draws than most photographers, who are more of a 'well, it's sharp and it fits on my camera' attitude. Perhaps the choices offered to us allow us to be so picky.

Farmers Market, Fomapan 100 in Perceptol

Ultimately I found that 50 is really not my ideal one-lens-kit lens, however; I'm more of a 35 guy shooting wider scenes and closer images. Still, its a nice lens to have. Walking about with only a 50mm really forced me to re-evaluate how I was shooting things, and look at the built environment more closely.

Concluding thoughts:
I've got to say, there's a reason I went whole hog switching from SLRs to RFs. Much of what I photograph in the urban environment requires a lot of guesswork—shooting from the hip, estimating framing, focus and exposure, and an SLR doesn't keep quite up with how I've become accustomed to shooting. A WYSIWYG finder with DOF preview is nice but not at the expense of lightness and quietness, at least to me.

My SO being a good sport at the street fair. TMY in Xtol 1+1.

Still, it's a lovely camera to use, and a great platform for the relatively affordable Yashica-mount Zeiss glass, much more so than the G series or 645s, and no doubt the original Contax RFs. I've said to other photographers that, barring digital needs, were I to start over again, I'd have skipped Nikon and build up a kit from a 'dead' system like Olympus. After revisiting this camera, I'd definitely substitute Contax. I'll be searching for an appropriate technician to repair this body, but even though its out of my budget, I'm already trolling the usual outlets for accompanying lenses, and perhaps another, newer body. Despite the quirks, the old japanese Contaxes are easy to fall in love with.

Larry Cloetta 05-25-2019 19:27

Nice write up, thanks. Nippon Photo Clinic in NYC can handle most Contax repairs these days, and do them reliably, though it will likely cost more than another RTS body on eBay would, though sentimental value probably makes that moot.

As far as lenses go, for the more common focal lengths like 50, 35, and 28, it is really more cost effective to just get the Zeiss glass instead of the Yashica lenses, in my experience, as the price differential isn’t that significant in the long run, and the Zeiss lenses are notably better in those focal lengths.
The Yashica ML 21/3.5 and the Yashica ML 15/2.8, on the other hand are very good lenses and those might be good options if those focal lengths are of interest.

Have fun with your RTS, and it’s nice that it’s still in the family.

Takkun 05-26-2019 00:04

Thanks for reading through, and the recommendation for repair is much appreciated. I’ll give them a message after the long weekend. You’re right, rarely is repair the most economical option, but I like to keep things working rather than trashing them.

It’s a little jarring to see the prices of C/Y Zeus’s lenses compared to their Rollei and Hassy counterparts, but I suppose those are still viable systems in the digital world. I’m keeping an eye out for them (as well as lusting over an RX just ever so slightly). If the 50/1.7 as the “budget” model is any indication, I’m sure they’re exceptional.

Larry Cloetta 05-26-2019 05:01


There is a lot of information on the relative merits of Contax lenses scattered on the web, but this thread over at Fred Miranda is a reasonable place to start, as it will lead to other sources.


As far as “lusting after an RX” is concerned, I’d suggest possibly lusting after an ST as an alternative in something similar, but slightly different. More of the web chatter is about the RX, probably due to its unique “focusing aid”, and I have owned a couple over the years, but the feature is a little slow responding in actual use. The viewfinder in the RX is bright, as it is in most of the Contaxes, but the ST’s is noticeably brighter, and the ST has the same ceramic pressure plate as the RTSIII, missing in the RX. I personally found the ST bodies to be nicer to use than the RX bodies, and they usually go for less if you can find one. Everyone’s needs are different though, but just something to consider.

ColSebastianMoran 05-26-2019 06:47

Repair - A few years ago, I had Mark Hama CLA an RTS for me.

Comment: I also have one RTS body with weird electronic problem. Exposes properly at f/5.6, but exposure errors get worse and worse further you go from f/5.6. Evaluated as not repairable. Any RTS fans, PM me if you would like to have this body, postage only (from New England).

PRJ 05-26-2019 08:03

I'll ditto the ST comment. The ST is a full on professional camera meant to be the little sibling of the RTS III. The RX is a nice camera, but the viewfinder isn't as bright. Looking through the ST is a treat.

I'll also ditto the "just get Zeiss" on the lens front. The Yashica ML lenses are pretty dang good too, so if you find one cheap... Not the same as Zeiss though so don't pay full pop for the Yashica lenses. The Planar 1.7 is basically the same as the 1.4. Don't feel the need to try to get a 1.4.

If you want a cheap second body, the 139Q is hard to beat for the price. It is small even with the winder on it. The winder also has a vertical release if you shoot a lot of verticals. If you can find a Yashica FR1 it will take the motor wind you already have for the RTS. I have a FR1 that is totally hammered and it still works. Skip the other Yashica bodies though. They are cheap.

retinax 05-26-2019 09:05

Hate to be that guy, but these photos look pretty flare-y. Not what I'd expect of this lens. The second one has obvious flare near the bright sky area and most of the others seem to have veiling flare. Are you sure the lens is clean of any haze?

Takkun 05-26-2019 09:42

Lens looks clean (almost like new) and finder image looks okay, but I see what you mean on the farmers market photos. I’m guessing that was caused by two outside factors—it was pouring on and off that afternoon, and I likely wasn’t wiping off the filter adequately between shots, and 2—Fomapan is known for its lack of antihalation and “bloom” effect.
I don’t see the same on the TMax shots, especially the first headshot taken directly into the sun’s direction.

On the subject of lenses though, good to know the 50/1.4 isn’t appreciably different than the 1.7 other than the transmission. While contributing to an earlier thread on faster lenses, I was surprised to learn that the current crop of 1.8s and 1.4s from other makes are significantly different formulae.

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