Please note that I no longer own nor use this camera system and cannot answer questions as to current status of lenses, parts, etc.
My first medium format camera was a Mamiya 7 II, purchased in July 1999. It's a nice camera but limited in what it can do, being a rangefinder…no long lenses, imprecise framing, difficulty using certain filters, and no closeup capability. It does, however, make very nice 6x7 images, and the results that it gave me were so far superior to 35mm that I knew that medium format was for me. After using the Mamiya for six months, I began the search for a medium format SLR which would replace 35mm as an all-purpose camera.
I considered many brands and models: Pentax and Mamiya in particular, as well as Contax 645. I gave a lot of thought to Pentax 67, but in the end decided against it due to its sensitivity to shutter vibration. To make a long story somewhat shorter, I finally chose the Contax due to its features as well as its Zeiss lenses, in particular due to the reputation of its 120mm macro lens. In early 2003, I eventually sold the entire Contax system due to its lack of movement capability, and now do most of my work in 4x5 and 6x8 formats, although I do still like and recommend the Contax highly.
The Contax 645 is somewhat like a slightly overgrown 35mm model. It is extremely user-friendly, like most 645 format- but unlike many larger medium format cameras. It's fairly compact for a medium format SLR, although its Zeiss lenses, with their all-metal construction, are considerably heavier than some other brands. It boasts many advanced features, again being similar to a 35mm camera in that regard, yet offering much better image quality and convenient aspects of medium format such as prism and waistlevel finders and interchangeable backs. Ergonomic level is very high, the buttons and controls generally being "just right", and as a whole the camera is very intuitive to use.
Don't let anyone tell you that 645 isn't enough of a jump in size from 35mm to be worth consideration…the difference is spectacular, and my guess is that these naysayers haven't even tried it. The image size of 645 is nearly 2.7x larger than that of 35mm; that of 6x7 is only a further 60% larger. These same naysayers don't complain that 6x6 isn't much different from 35mm…remember that a 6x6 cropped from square is virtually identical in size to a frame of 645.
The body is well constructed of black composite material containing carbon fibre. It's lightweight but sturdy, and I typically carry it by the neckstrap with ease. It includes a built-in motor drive and normal top-of-the-camera dials, not a dreadful menu-based layout such as the original Pentax 645 had.
One of my favorite things about Contax bodies is the AE lock switch. It's integrated with the off/on lever; to lock exposure, simply flip the lever to "lock" and it will retain the same exposure settings until you release it, even for the entire roll. Another exceptional feature of the 645 is its built-in flash meter, similar to Contax's 35mm RTSIII…this is perfect for precisely-metered studio flash use such as my flower and macro work, and since it is TTL metered, no compensation for extension is necessary. Just spotmeter the desired area and flip the flash meter lever; it fires a preflash and displays compensation, if any, that is necessary to attain this exposure. Adjust the exposure compensation dial and all is well…no fussing with resetting flash power levels. This actually works with any flash; I very rarely use on-camera flash, so cannot offer an opinion in that regard. Exposure and lens data is imprinted along the edge of each frame, an extremely nice feature and difficult to do without once you've gotten used to it.
The body includes just about any feature one would want, such as multiple exposure capability, automatic bracketing, self-timer, continuous firing, mirror lockup and much more. Mirror lockup is unfortunately limited to a short interval to save battery life, necessitating continual relocking if one is waiting for wind to stop (my most frequent aggravation). Film backs include a well-designed insert, which is usable for either 120 or 220 film by simply rotating the pressure plate.
Metering is generally very accurate, except that it is oversensitive to bright red objects. After much testing, I determined that it underexposes by exactly a stop on such objects as red flowers and stop signs; I give it +1 stop exposure compensation and get perfect exposures, although I find it annoying that accurate metering across the entire spectrum didn't seem to be a Contax priority.
My other complaint is the 645's well-known appetite for batteries. I get around 5-6 rolls of 220 per 2CR5 battery, similar to many other users. Fortunately I was able to buy them on-line for much less than I was able to buy them locally.
While not an extensive lineup, the 645's lenses are extraordinary and are one of the main reasons to buy into the system. Focal lengths run from 35mm to 350mm, including a 45-90mm zoom, plus a 1.4x Mutar teleconverter. A 90-180mm zoom has been rumored for quite some time as well.. All primes have full DOF scales as you'd expect from superior lenses. The entire range can also be used with Contax's "N" series of 35mm autofocus bodies.
My setup included 35mm, 45mm, 80mm, 120mm, 210mm and 350mm focal lengths. Every one gives superb image quality; two deserve special mention. The 120mm macro is, quite simply, the best single lens I have ever used. Image quality is unbelievably good; nearly all of my flower portraits were made with this lens, and it serves as a superb general-purpose lens as well. If I were limited to one lens for this camera, the 120mm would surely be it. Like the others, the 350mm is superb quality, and fast (f/4) with close-focus capability…however, it is very bulky and heavy (8.5 pounds/3.8 kg), necessitating special arrangements for carrying (see below). I didn't have the 140mm, since I considered it too close to the 120mm macro to have both. There is also a 55mm available, which is a nice bridge between the 45mm and 80mm lenses.
Lenses are of the usual Zeiss build quality…heavy, all-metal construction, exuding high quality across the board. Thoughtfully, all have 72mm filter threads save the 35mm and 350mm, which take 95mm filters. Very nice metal hoods are available for each focal length, and are stored by reverse-mounting onto the lens.
My relegation of the lenses' autofocus capability to a brief note is due to the fact that I treated them as manual lenses at all times. I have no use for autofocus for anything besides birds (handled by Canon 1Ds), and quite honestly ignore the fact that they have anything besides manual abilities. To the credit of Zeiss, the manual operation is very smooth and positive-feeling, virtually as good as any non-autofocus lenses.
There are quite a few accessories available for the system; I will mention only those that I actually had and used. Besides the regular film backs, a Polaroid back is available; this is handy for checking tricky studio-lit exposures, but I don't use it in the field.
I normally used the prism finder; I also had the waistlevel version, which was of limited use but was nice for special purposes. I used it when shooting upward, for example to pick out details in tall trees…no need to acquire a stiff neck from stooping to awkward positions. Similarly, it's good for very low shots…an angle finder is not needed, nor is lying on the ground for flower macros a necessity. However, it is *extremely* cumbersome to use for verticals: the image is inverted and I found it far more difficult to use than a view camera with its inverted but much larger image. It's also incapable of spotmetering, so a handheld meter is useful in these instances. I used the grid screen at all times, as I do in all of my cameras. Regardless of which finder is in use, the image is bright and easy to focus.
Three different extension tubes are available, and are a nice addition to attain closer focus with the 210mm and 350mm lenses in particular. I also had the bellows for studio use; it's quite a piece of work and is a masterpiece of design. It's extremely well-constructed and fully meter-coupled, and is virtually a miniature view camera in that it allows tilt, shift, swing, and rise/fall in the macro range. Unfortunately there are no short-mount lenses available that could allow infinity focus; this feature (or dedicated tilt/shift lenses) would be a great asset for landscape use. As much as I loved my Contax 645, the lack of movement capability is the main reason that I switched to a Fuji GX680III.
My method of use in the field
I had no problem carrying the entire 645 system while hiking. I kept the camera itself, with one lens mounted, stored in a small Tamrac shoulder bag; it was carried via the neckstrap while hiking. The rest of the system, except the 350mm lens, goes into a Tamrac "superlight" shoulder bag…this included four lenses plus teleconverter, waistlevel finder, a complete set of filters for color and b&w use, film, and many small accessories. If I felt that I'd need the 350mm lens, it had to be handled separately due to its bulk and weight. It lived in a Lowepro Micro Trekker backpack, and I simply strapped this on for hiking. It was virtually weightless compared to a large pack such as a well-filled Pro Trekker, and didn't need to be removed during the hike unless I actually wanted to use the lens.
The final word on Contax 645...
Much as I enjoyed the Contax 645, I found that I no longer used it since obtaining the Fuji GX680III. After not using the Contax in over a year, I decided to part with it as of January 2003. This is not a reflection on the camera itself; my opinion of it remains unchanged. My needs call for a camera with movements, and the 680 (and 4x5) fit this need; the fact that its output is nearly twice as large as the 645 is also in its favor. I was sorry to part with the Contax, but I carefully considered various shooting situations and I wasn't able to come up with any that required me to keep it.
If you are presently shooting with this camera, please keep my drum scanning service in mind!