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Revisiting the Contax RTS I
Old 05-25-2019   #1
Ian M.
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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.
Ian M., Seattle
Current bag contents: Just a Fuji GX680iii. Nothing else will fit.

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