The Contax G1 is something of an oddity. A sort of rangefinder that's actually an autofocus; a sort of point and shoot that offers only aperture priority or manual; a sort of compact that's actually quite big and has interchangeable lenses. The G1 sits in a no-man's land between modernity and tradition. At the time it was made - the mid nineties - it was designed to rival the Leica M6, and it makes that camera look technologically backward by comparison. But with twenty years' hindsight, the G1 seems a little too modern to be interesting. It's not quite classic enough have the cachet the M6 still enjoys, but not modern enough (or, essentially, not digital enough) to have a real use today.
I can remember Gerry buying this camera - he got it new, which means it was probably an end of line deal . Although the G system lasted until 2005, the G2 came in around 1996 which would have made the outgoing G1 too cheap for Gerry to pass up. Contax was one of the brands Gerry seemed unable to resist - he bought several of their SLRs, as well as the T2 compact, and the Yashica branded T4 and T5 compacts. I think he liked the sharpness and, of course, the cachet of the excellent Zeiss lenses. And he wasn't alone in that - many of these cameras still command high prices due to the quality of the lenses. The standard lens for the G1, the 50mm f2 Tessar, is a case in point - in contemporary tests it outperformed the Leica Summicron and was apparently the second sharpest 35mm lens ever (I don't know what beat it, but apparently not a Leica).
The camera has a solid, quality feel to it. Every surface is clad in titanium, and the overall look is a sort of nineties update on the classic rangefinder layout. It's very pleasing to hold thanks to excellent weight balance and ergonomics. Like all the best designed cameras, it makes you feel like you could really crack the whole photography thing with this one. However, in actual use it doesn't quite turn out that way. Gerry was very fond of the phrase, "A bad workman blames his tools", but in this case I am going to blame the tool, at least in part...
First off, the lenses are brilliant. The 50mm, in particular, is beautifully sharp, and really gets the best out of the limited capabilities of 35mm. This is provided you manage to get anything in focus, which is a bit tricky with this camera as the autofocus is, frankly, bog-awful. It's incredibly slow, the single central focussing point is overly precise, it makes a racket, and is completely freaked out by sky. There's also what is obviously supposed to be a very sophisticated parallax correction system in the viewfinder which just makes a lot of noise and is more distracting than helpful. There's no continuous autofocus, and although there is a focus lock, you have to half press the shutter so delicately to avoid accidentally firing off a shot that I was scared to use it most of the time.
There is manual focus, which is in effect a kind of digital rangefinder. An LCD scale below the viewfinder tells you when the focus is correct. However, it uses the same system as the autofocus so is, unfortunately, equally frustrating. I'm sure I'd eventually get used to the Contax's foibles, but after shooting two rolls I was mainly just annoyed with it. I so wanted to love this camera, but just couldn't manage it. I would have been better just looking at it and never using it. It looks great.
That's probably enough complaining - I hadn't really intended to do a technical review, but it sort of took over. Probably time for some actual photos. Here are a few shots taken in Guestling Woods, just outside Hastings.
I also took it to Camber Sands. Here's a quick tip: don't try and change a lens on the beach at Camber. You'll be removing sand from the insides of your camera for ever. That aside, I managed a few passable photos. This one, of Erin chasing after Ziggy, was my favourite, and I'm not really sure why. I think perhaps it's because there's something a little strange about it - a bit off-kilter - so it's not entirely clear what's going on.
Overall this camera makes me a bit sad. I'm not that sure Gerry, having undoubtely paid good money for it, actually used it that much. I imagine he was put off by the same things that annoyed me. So, it's been underused in its lifetime and is pretty much defunct and unloved now. It seems like a grand idea that didn't quite come off. What's sad is that the G1 should be a great camera, and almost is, but it's let down by the technical ambition behind it. The lenses are now sought after as converters allow them to be mounted on modern digitals, but the camera itself is nothing like as popular as its less advanced contemporaries. In terms of long-term appeal, Contax should probably have just gone for a decent but simple Leica knock-off, but I like the fact that they at least tried to push things forward.