As many of you know...I have been a strong proponent of Contax Glass on REDUSER for a while now. I get asked lots of questions. So I figured I would write up a little CONTAX SURVIVAL GUIDE that tries to answer them all at once...
Hope this helps...
Note - I've been writing and editing this for over 3 months. So please be kind. If you disagree with something, be classy, and I'll try and update this guide if I feel I have, in fact, made an error. This is a living document, meant to be updated. This is also why it's on it's own thread.
Also bear in mind I've written this on countless different nights after my night shifts (at 2am), or when I had some down time, and clearly on some sittings I was in a foul mood as some sections are riddled with curse words, which I think is hilarious, and for now, I've left them in...intact...as a momento to how long this took me to write.
Without further adieu...I present to you...
The Contax Zeiss Survival Guide:
1) WHY SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT CONTAX GLASS?
Contax Zeiss should be on your radar for a couple of reasons.
A) They are FULL FRAME and will cover Dragon, and it would seam, even VISTA VISION WEAPON.
B) They share very similar designs as the ZF/ZE/CP2 lenses, but for ½ or ⅓ the price
C) They have the older Zeiss T* coating that we also find on Hasselblads, Super Speeds and Standards...and as such have a more organic rendering on digital than ZF/ZE/CP2s. This is my personal opinion.
D) They are very easy to adapt to EOS mount.
E) They are very easy to cinemod. In fact, they MOD better than ZF/ZE’s believe it or not. Because they focus the right way (ZF’s do not, they are Nikon-oriented and focus backwards) and have an aperture ring (ZE’s don’t have one, as they are EOS-designed and have a digital iris controlled by the camera). Like ZF/ZE’s, they have fantastic barrel rotations (often 180 degrees or more).
2) THE HISTORY OF CONTAX
Lets go back to the 70’s. Zeiss was making Hasselblad lenses for Medium Format. Super Speeds and Standards for cinema. And needed a new line of lenses for 35mm still photography. In 1974, Contax was born.
Actually, I should say RE-BORN. Because “Contax” is actually one of the most storied names in photography. It’s history criss-crosses wars, politics, and conjures up the never-ending battles between Leica and Zeiss.
Originally launched in 1932 to compete with - you guessed it, Leica - Contax was created by Zeiss subsidiary Zeiss Ikon. An instant hit, it became synonymous with innovation. After WW2, Zeiss was split asunder in TWO. Western Zeiss was migrated to Stuttgart under the watchful eye of American troops. And Eastern Zess remained behind in the ruins of the city of Jena, trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The two rivals would go to war over the name “Zeiss” until the end of the Cold War (it was the longest court case in the history of East Germany).
Zeiss Ikon was also split apart into Eastern and Western divisions, but these two subsidiaries kept working together...and Contax cameras and lenses continued to be made on both sides of the wall. By the 1960’s, competition from the Japanese led to the eventual shuttering of both subsidiaries - even as the larger Zeiss’s stayed in business.
Under enormous pressure from the West, Eastern Zeiss eventually relinquished the naming rights to “CONTAX” to Western Zeiss. Eastern Zeiss instead consolidated all their smaller name brands into PENTACON.
So Contax = Western Zeiss. I say that because I’ve encountered many people who get confused and think Contax is weird Japanese junk. It’s not. It’s awesome Western Zeiss glass. Wake the fuck up.
Contax lenses became Zeiss’s flagship 35mm stills lenses. They were a massive hit when they launched in ‘75, and were fabricated until 2005 (when they were promptly tweaked and re-badged as ZF/ZE’s in 2006). Clearly Leica freaked the fuck out when these were released, because the next year Leica released their “R” line in 1976. For the next 20 years, Contax and Leica R would slug it out once again for optical supremacy. If you look at their “lines”, you’ll notice lots of similarities. Both have a 35-70 zoom, etc.
3) DIFFERENCES/SIMILARITIES TO ZF/ZE
When the ZF/ZE’s first came out in 2006, they appear to have been direct re-badges of the Contax line (with small modifications to the designs). Over the years, Zeiss has added new, fantastic designs, this can not be overlooked. The 35 f2, 25f2, 50 f2 lenses are all completely new and completely superb. However, the optical quality of the Contax’s is certainly very close to ZF/ZE’s and many of the designs appear to have only subtly changed over the years, in particular the 21 2.8, 34 1.4, 50 1.4, and 85 1.4.
The one main difference I can see is...as stated above...I think the Contaxes cinemod slightly BETTER than ZF/ZE’s (because they ALL focus the right way, and ALL have an aperture ring), and also ALL they have that wonderful older T* coating that I believe looks better on digital than the newer T* coating (renders more organically). Contax have a bit less contrast, and flare more. Also ZF/ZE's tend to break down into purple splotches when they flare, which doesn't look ideal on video (whereas Contax will generally flare white, which can be more forgiving, and cinematic).
On almost all shoots we’ve done with Contax lenses, where we have used other glass, be it Leica R’s or Canon EOS, every time the DP has noticed that the waveform’s “jump”. Because the Contax lenses are noticeably more low-con than even Leica R’s their contemporaries, you will notice more latitude in your image.
Another major advantage to the Contax’s is the sheer SIZE of the lineup. There are DOZENS of lenses to choose from, that cover all focal lengths from 15mm to 500mm. Yup...they go as far 500mm. ZF/ZE’s only go as far as 135mm. Contax also made very impressive Zooms. Here’s the full line of glass.
15 3.5, 16 2.8 FISHEYE, 18 f4, 21 2.8, 25 2.8, 28 f2, 28 2.8, 35 1.4, 35 2.8, 45 2.8, 50 1.4, 50 1.7, 55 1.2, 60 2.8 Macro, 85 1.2, 85 1.4, 85 2.8, 100 f2, 100 2.8 Macro, 100 3.5, 135 f2, 135 2.8, 180 2.8, 200 f2, 200 3.5, 200 f4, 300 2.8, 300 f4, 500 5.6, 500 f8, 1000 f8
28-85 3.3-f4, 35-70 3.3, 35-135 3.3-4.5, 80-200 f4, 100-300 4.5-5.6, 40-80 f4, 70-210 3.3
4) DIFFERENCES/SIMILARITIES TO LEICA R’s
I don’t want to get into a German war over which is better, Leica R or Contax. But Leica R’s are certainly more expensive, so take that into consideration if you are on a budget.
Optically, I’ve read numerous reports that show BOTH lines are very sharp, but frequently the Contax equivalent is deemed a tad sharper (stopped down). Take or leave it. Both look awesome, and I think people are splitting hairs.
In terms of a “look”, we’ve shot with both and there is a clear difference to me. Leica R’s are much prettier. They have more saturated colors, deeper blacks. If that’s your deal, then you will love Leica R’s. They also look more modern and clean.
Contax is more low-con, and more organic, to my eye. I prefer it, cuz there’s an honesty there I appreciate.. Things can still look beautiful, but Zeiss’s philosophy is not to make things pretty, but to be true. So I respond to that more. Also the low-con coating does give you more latitude. We noticed this specifically on a shoot where we mixed Leica R’s and Contax’s, and the Contax’s def gave us about a stop extra in latitude. The Contax don’t look vintage to me, but they also don’t look modern. I know “organic” is a hackneyed term, but it fits. On digital, these things are a home run, like Standards and Super Speeds.
Note: My hunch on the latitude/low con deal is as follows. In the same way RED wants to give you as many “options” by letting us shoot RAW, my hunch is that Zeiss was doing the same back in the day with a low-con coating. By giving you that extra latitude in the blacks and highlights, they were letting photographers dial in how much “black” and “contrast” they wanted later in the dark room...when they were printing. I’m sure that approach had similar benefits with cinema lenses and Hasselblads. Again...this is just a hunch on my part, don’t shoot me...