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Review Contax T3


...small is beautiful....

In 2001 Contax launched the compact camera T3, the successor of the 10 year old T2. This new model is significant smaller then the T2, has more features and above all a totally new designed 35/2.8 Zeiss lens. Before I go into details about pro and cons of the T3, I have to make some general statements about these kind of compact cameras.

1. Benefits and Limitations of expensive Point and shoot cameras

On the internet, there a are a couple of “it worries me a lot…and for this price…”-comments with the T3 and other expensive so called “point and shoot” cameras. I would like to explain here my personal view about this attitude, just to make sure, that we are on the same planet.

I assume if you are considering buying a Contax T3 or Leica Minilux etc., you do not want to have the most fancy and bargain camera. First of all you want to have an excellent lens. Secondly you want to have a certain build quality and thirdly some nice feature, which make sense if you want to shoot very good pictures and you know something about photography.

So if you just want to have the best price/performance ratio for average day to day photos, Contax or Leica is not the right choice for. Bearing this in mind, you will find with the T3 a very good compromise between size, possible features without being to much loaded of it, an excellent lens and good/reasonable price.

There will be always people who wish additional capabilities, lens ranges etc. But as a manufacturer you can not satisfy everybody. There is no free lunch. Therefore a point and shoot will be always a kind of compromise.

Price and size are very important criteria for a product development. I like the T3 a lot, but obviously it can not have all the features and comfort of an SLR because of its size. So do not expect the viewfinder-size of an RTS III, big user dials (hopefully one for each function) with measurements of 105x63x30,5mm and weight of 230g. This is simply unrealistic!

The more feature you add to a camera, the harder it is to combine them and also to use them, so the more people complain. As with all cameras, the most important question is, whether you will use it. The camera can be as good as it gets, as long as you do not carry it with you, it is useless. This means wasting your money. The best SLR or Rangefinder is useless at home in the closet. With the T3 there is just no excuse anymore, not to have it always with you.

Reflecting the size, Contax did a great job with the T3 viewfinder, features, custom functions, user interface, lens quality, shutter speed, quietness, build quality, filters and accessories and last but not least elegant design.

Although the price seems in the first second not cheap (899 Euro), you pay it mostly for the quality of the lens. The body is more or less a gift on top of it. Compare the prices: a Zeiss G 35/2.0 costs you 669 Euro and the Zeiss MF-SLR 35/2.8, which is a design from the 70s costs 549 Euro. The cheapest Contax body like an Aria or NX costs additional 899 Euro. Of course these are also more capable, but still you have to pay that money just to make one picture with a 35mm Zeiss lens. Since I made test shots with all 3 mentioned lenses and the lens of the T3 is the clear winner, I would call the T3 a bargain (on a Contax/Zeiss and Leitz level).

2. Lens Quality/Picture quality

There are some tests out there, which conclude, that the new Sonnar 35/2.8 on the T3 is the best lens on a point and shoot currently available. Both journals, “Pop Photo” and the German “FotoMagazin” promoted the T3 as their new reference model which means that it must be better then the point and shoots they tested before (i.e. Contax T2, Leica Minilux, Minolta TC-1, Ricoh Gr-1, Nikon 35 etc.).

But nevertheless, you should be always careful with tests of Photo magazines. Therefore I did my own testing with lenses I used over a longer period of time. I did test-shots with a Leica Minilux Zoom, Contax TVS III, Contax G2 with the 35/2.0 Planar and a Contax Aria with the 35/2.8 Sonnar. I did all shots handheld, Fuji Velvia, different apertures etc. on my preferred “testwall” in Frankfurt, which is a graffiti school wall with a lot of different colours and different structures in the material. Of course I did also normal shootings, but this wall gives me always the possibility to have consistent test-parameters.

To make a long story short. The Lens of the T3 is outstanding. It is better then the two point and shoot zooms from Leica and Contax, which is normal. But the big surprise was, that it is also better then the G 35/2.0 and the MF 35/2.8 ! I was really impressed with these results.

But you have also to be aware, that the differences of all the mentioned lenses are not that big. Of course you can see them if you do test-shots always under the same circumstances, but this is not how you normally take pictures. So please bear in mind, that all these lenses are excellent (we are talking here about Leitz und Zeiss levels). But you can see differences on slides with a loupe or with projection and careful inspection.

I would say that Zeiss put basically the latest improvements and knowledge in lens-design into the T3. But because it is a fixed lens and not a zoom, it is also easier to manage this then with the TVS III for ex&le.

The pictures are very sharp, very contrasty, showing also fine details, colour balance is excellent, no flare etc.

Another big surprise is the lack of vignetting. This was achieved with a new designed shutter which guarantees also the higher speed from 1/500 to 1/1200.

There are some advantages with the special construction of the shutter regarding vignetting. I will go more into detail about that in a couple of days I hope. You can Use shutter speed up to 1/500 in Av, and til 1/1200 in P mode. Also more on this later.

3. Size and quality

The T3 is tiny, same appearance as an APS camera. This is for me one of the biggest benefits, because you really can take it everywhere with you without being bothered of the size or weight. Even my girlfriend does not mind to put it in her handbag, because it is so small and light.

But you have to pay attention to handhold it in the right way. Because the T3 is so light (230g), I would recommend faster shutter speeds to ensure that your picture is taken shake free. In this respect I prefer the TVS III. Because of the weight, it gives at least the feeling, you could shoot easier shake-free with 1/60sec. But this is subjective.

The construction is solid and elegant, not to many buttons to press. The material seems to me not purely Titan. It is more a Titan-surface. But I am not sure about this. Overall appearance is for me modest and elegant. Also the Contax name on the front is not to aggressive on the silver version. This is just me, but I do not like to make advertisement for someone else without being paid for it. If you do a lot of street photography, you will also prefer not no be recognized by red dots etc. (at least if you want to keep your camera).

4. Viewfinder

If you wear glasses like me, the viewfinder is not the easiest one to look through. Of course you get used to it, but still you have to turn your head slightly if you want to see everything. Without glasses, there is no problem at all. Because of the tiny size of the T3 I can forgive this, because the benefits of this smaller size outperforms by far the negative points.

The viewfinder is very light, contrasty and ahs no visible distortion. No problems with flare.

You can see the ballpark of the shutterspeeds (500, 125, 30 and LT) and the times in between are stated with parallel lighting of two speeds i.e. 125 and 30 for the 1/60. You can also see flash ready, AF locked, exposure correction warning, Makro (AF distance between 0,35cm and 1m showed with a red tulip) AF Sensor and bright lines for framing.

The bright lines should be just an indication, since the viewfinder lines are showing just 85% of the final picture. It is therefore not important, whether you can see them against bright sunlight etc, as mentioned on other threads about the T3. there will be more on the picture mostly on the right side of the horizontal viewfinder and on the top. So bear this in mind while framing.

5. Autofocus

The T3 can be used with autofocus and also for focusing manually. You can do it manually by pressing the mode button 4 times and then turning the +- wheel for the appropriate distance.

You can do it also with autofocus via AFL Lock buttom or by pressing the shutter half-way down. With autofocus it seems to me that the Contax T3 has 2 different focussing areas (see also manual page 24 bottom and 32 in the upper right corner). When you use AFL lock button to focus, the focusing area is exactly within the 2 brackets (1 oval) which you see in the viewfinder (page 32). This is like a spot-AF.

If you focus the usual way by pressing the shutter halfway down, the focusing area will be bigger, somewhat like 4-5 ovals wide on a horizontal line (page 24). And it seems to be more on the right side, then on the left side of the 2 brackets in the viewfinder. I have to check that with Contax in Hamburg.

Depending on the subject, this causes sometimes wrong focussing results, because the sensor is to big. Unfortunately, you can not program the custom function in a way that you have always the spot AF area also by the usual way of focusing (using the shutter release).

It is also difficult to test this without really shooting one film, because the LCD distance reader on top of the camera just shows the following steps and no numbers in between:0.4, 0.5, 0.6, 0.7, 0.8, 0.9, 1m, 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 2m, 3, 5, 10 and InF. With short distances it is not as difficult as with distances over 1m. Because of the DOF of a wide-angle like the Sonnar 35mm, you probably will not see any misfocusing.

For a nice head-shoulder picture it should be o.k., assuming you stop down to 5.6. But for longer distances or wider aperture you easily miss the right point, especially if it is in between 2 other subjects, which might be more the foreground.

Obviously Contax wanted to avoid the typical focusing problems of 2 head shots, focusing exactly in between the 2 people.

The AF in general is different to the older T2 or the Leica Minilux. The T3 is using a passive AF, The T2 and the Minilux are using active AF. Both systems have their pro and cons and there is not one system superior to the other.

I found a very good desription from Joachim Hein of the different AF systems on the internet in the photo.net discussion forum. I put it here, assuming that I am not violating any laws, because I could not have explained it better:

The T2 uses an active IR system. There are two AF windows. Behind one of them there is an IR emiter, which puts an radiating IR dot on your subject, invisible to the human eye. Behind the second AF window is a small AF receiver, which measures the angle under which it finds this dot. Obviously your object has to have a decent IR reflectivity for the system to work. If the system doesn't measure any IR reflection it sets infinity. In my experience (Yashica T4, which employs a similar system), the system works very well when I point the AF area in the finder on the cheak of a person I like to be in focus. Dark woolen jumpers do not work, the reflectivity is too small and the camera focuses at infinity, way behind the subject. As should be obvious such a system can focus on a plain white wall with no structure, it actually really likes that. Distances beyond five meter but not far enough to be at infinity can be problematic here. Within the outlined caveats, this system works very well in complete darkness.
The T3 uses a completely different system. It has a passive AF system, which evaluates the contrast for the subject. Again there are two windows, but this time both are receivers. Both receivers look for contrast in your subject and determine the distance form the different angles a certain feature of your subject appears. It needs subject contrast.

Such a system is most happy with a vertical line or edge running through the AF mark in the finder. I own a Contax G1 which employs a similar system (but more precise because of the faster and longer lenses available for the G1). When using a two step approach to picture taking, a) choosing a vertical line in the main subject and looking the focus on it then b) re-framing and taking the picture, I have very little problems with the camera signalling "can't find focus". For my picture taking this works quickly and swift. Such a system can't work if it is too dark.

If it is dark or the contrast low, the camera projects a pattern on the subject. This pattern is clearly visible to the human eye (at least to mine). This helps the camera to focus up to 4m or so. Due to the projected pattern, in dim light the camera can focus on a plain wall, which it can't in bright conditions. The passive system is smaller than the active system of the T2. The passive system has no problem in dealing with distances which are far, but not far enough for an infinity setting. In opposition to the active AF of the T2 the passive AF can detect when there is a problem, the "can't find the focus" flashing you complain about.
So each system has its particular strength and weaknesses. Knowing those will help you achieving better results. It largely depends on your subject matter which system is preferable.
I hope this is regarded helpful.

-- Joachim Hein, March 28, 2002” end of the quotation.

6. User Interface and custom functions

There is always an inherent limitation if you have a very small camera body as it is the case with the T3 regarding the user interface. In my opinion the compromises are well done and I do not miss any comfort. There are some comments on the net from users of the T2 which are missing some of the T2-handlings on the T3. But this is a normal reaction.

You have 2 (small) buttons on the top for flash settings and the selection of different modes. I find the usage very intuitive and self-explaining. With the mode button, you change the settings, which normally stay over a longer period of time in the same position or you do not need that function so often i.e. self-timer, LT, AF/MF and exposure correction.

Since some people like to use the exposure correction more often, even the metering of the T3 is very accurate, this function is on the first place of the mode-levels. I personally would prefer an extra wheel à la TVS III for this, but I could not tell you where to put it on the camera without making it uncomfortable to use.

The handling is easy and fast You just have to push the mode button ‘til you are at the settings you want to change (maximum 4 pushes) and then you turn the +- wheel on the top to change your desired setting..

For the flash exclusive there is the 2nd button, because you are using it more often (fill in flash, red eye reduction, flash off etc. Although both button are small, I do not have any problems in using them.

What I do not like is on the on/off switch the barrier between the P mode and the aperture selection. You have to press first the little silver button in the inner circle of the power switch and –while pressing it down- turning the wheel to the desired aperture. Of course this is not a big deal and I can do it with one hand, I would have preferred not to have this barrier. I am aware that this is risking the change of the P-mode by accident, but I would still prefer it.

You can also reduce the shutter time-lag with custom function CF2:2b. This causes the lens to extend fully to focusing position whenever the shutter is depressed halfway, thus reducing the time required to operate the shutter.

Exposure compensation can be programmed in 1/3 and ½ steps. For all details of the custom functions, please look at the download area. Selftimer 2 and 10 sec.

The lens cover does not look very convincing to me. It could be moved to easy by something hitting or scratching it.

7. Flash

The internal flash is a weak point with the T3. It has a LZ of 6, which is not very much. If you like to shoot with Provia 100F or Velvia, the meter-range is not always satisfying. 2m with 2.8 aperture and ISO 100 and 1m with 5.6 is often not enough. On the other hand a bigger internal flash would have made the body also bigger and needs more battery. Therefore I like the optional flash adapter SA-2, with which you can use the Contax TLA 200 in case I really need a good flash.

8. Accessories

This is also one of the big advantages of the T3. You have really sophisticated accessories. That starts with the flash adapter SA-2 (147 Euro). Once connected to the T3 it feels like one piece. The size is with the adapter approximately the same as the minilux zoom. So do not worry about that. The SA-2 works best with the TLA 200 (249 Euro). You can also connect other flashes on it, but you are loosing the automatic adjustments, which are just possible with the TLA 200 and the SA-2 together. So the results are getting worse. Results with TLA 200 are very good, no red eyes etc. and the LZ of 20 is better than any internal flash of a P&S. With Iso 100 and aperture of 2.8 you get 7m. With aperture 5.6 you get 3,5m. This is for me all I need. Everything is easy pocketable.

Additionally I would recommend the filter adaptor (46 Euro) for attaching 30,5mm filters on to the T3. You need to buy the original filter adapter, because there is no screw in possibility on the T3-lens. Contax offers 5 different filters (31 Euro each), metal hood (25 Euro) and the appropriate hood cover K-34 (25 Euro). It is great to have the possibility to attach filters and lens hood on the T3. This makes it a lot more suitable for serious shootings.

The Contax filters are expensive, but there are also other brands, which are seling 30,5mm filters (B&W, but they are not much cheaper), Helioplan etc. According to the manual do not use 2 filters or one filter and the lens hood at the same time because of vignetting. I heard different experience about that on the net, so I have to test that for myself.

Always check, whether the filters are multicoated.

Summary of most important points

Excellent image quality of the 35/2.8 lens. Better then G or MF-SLR 35mm
Very good build quality
Very good Viewfinder (except if you wear glasses)
Excellent Handling, Size and weight
Very good features and custom functions
Sophisticated Accessories i.e. filters, flash hood, flash adapter etc.
Autofocus not as obvious as it should be
Relatively weak internal flash for ISO 100 or ISO 50 films
Lens cover not convincing
Top shutter speed over 1/500-1/1200 just at aperture 8 or higher

Price/performance ratio "excellent" (899 Euro) - compared to other Contax models

There seems to be a short test in the new Amateur Photographer of the Contax T3 and its peers. It is a comparison between the T3, Leica Minilux, Minolta TC-1, Rollei AFM-35 and Ricoh GR21.

The test is not yet online and I have not received any copy yet. Maybe someone else is a subscriber and can us tell more. I heard the T3 won overall.

> [Yes, there is a group test of 35mm compacts in the current edition of Amateur Photography and the T3 is by some margin the > winner. I quote "One camera in this group coped with every situation. Exposures were consistent, focusing accurate and lens > sharpness excellent. This camera has coped outstandingly with flash outdoors and without flash indoors."]
I duplicated the posting in the Zeiss-lens-section of Joel Stern into the T3 thread because of its relevance for 2 different subjects at the same time:

By Joel Stern on Tuesday, May 21, 2002 - 3:56 am

I have a T3, until then I used, for many years a 35 as my main lens...first on a Canon Ftb with a 100 as my second lens, which saw much less use, later an EOS system with a 35-70 and a 70-210 zoom...felt this system was too bulky. I then purchased a G1 kit with a 35mm F2 and the 200 flash, soon to add the 90mm lens. I have not used this as much as I would have liked, but I have found my my photos to be quite nice.. what has really stolen my interest has been my T3. The lens is wonderful, it is a small and delightful camera..I take it everywhere and the quality of the pictures is just great. So far I have not felt that I am missing much with only this one lens..I have even considered selling the G1, but I will wait a bit...I may sell the 35mm on that or trade for a 45 as I don't think the 35f2 has anything over the T3. For me the 35 has always been about perfect as a general lens, landscapes, candids...I do little work that would necesitate a really long lens.

Joel Stern
I don't recall ever reading in-depth reviews on T2 in the past. Now that T3 is here and has received raving reviews (at least in lens/image quality,) I can't help wondering how much improvement in image quality does it have over T2. I think someone once described it as 'slight (improvement).' Does anyone have experiences with both cameras or have data in terms of resolution and contrast that may allow some subjective/objective comparison to be made ?
Hi Bill,

I was talking with Zeiss in Germany about that. I have never used the T2 myself, so I am relying on these conversations and on MTF charts which I have still to upload in the download section.

The lens of the T3 is clearly better then the one of T2. Contax T1 and T2 have actually the exact same lens, which is a design of 1990. The lens of the T3 was completely new designed and is clearly better than the T1/T2 and also better then the G35 and C/Y35.

Directly compared to the T2 an additional advantage is the construction of the shutter in between the lens. This is reducing vignetting which such a small lens to a minimum.

I am expecting within the next days a description of the exact function of this shutter from Contax Hamburg. I never really understood, how it really works. As soon as I have it, I will translate it and post it here. But this will take some time. Unfortunately I have still a normal job for my living


I just forgot to mention that there is a link in the link section to a thread in photo.net.

There is a T3 discussion and at the same time a comparison to the T2. The result is in short that the reviewer prefers some handling issues of his old T2 over the T3, but agrees on some improvements of the T3.

Bear in mind that if you are used to a certain handling of a camera, you always tend to see any kind of changes negative, even if it is objectively seen an improvement.

Just my 2 cents

About T2 and T3 comparison:

I am an old user of T2. My first camera dead soon (7 months) because of metering system problem. However, remaining impressed by color, consistence, saturation, "magic environment" and other obvious and unique qualities of the camera, I purchased (june 2000) another new T2. In spite of the insuperable results of a certain number of shoots, it's inexplicable that this camera (I experienced it on three exemplars) offers a high percent of out of focus photos, systematicaly, withouth fail and apparent reason, aprox. 40% in some rolls (I am not a novice and used and am using Reflex and medium format systems).

I am predisposed to purchase the new T3 if this extrain problem is really solved.

Hi Leopoldo,

the AF system of the T3 is totally different to the T2. The T3 is using a "passive AF", the T2 an "active AF". The difference between the two AF-system are desribed in the first review in this T3-thread.

I am using my T3 whenever I do not want to take my SLR with me, which is quiet often. I never had problems with wrong focussing results with the T3, BUT you have to know how/where the AF of the T3 is actually focussing. This is why I put so much effort in describing the difference between the normal AF and the Spot AF of the T3.

With the normal AF (just pressing the shutter-release halfway down)the focussing brackets, which you see in the viewfinder, are actually to small. In reality the AF sensor is bigger as described above. Just with Spot-AF the size of the AF-sensor is identical with the brackets in the viewfinder.

You have to get used to this with the T3. Apart of that, the T3 is an almost perfect camera...

Simon Lamb uploaded some pictures from the party at the palace made with the T3....

Homepage Simon Lamb

I do not know which film and scanner he was using, but it is looking pretty cool.