The Contax TVS III: A Review (and Comparison)


How it All Started:

By the summer of 2002, I had amassed an impressive Mamiya 645AF system complete with a couple of bodies, three 120/220 backs, four lenses, and a wide variety of accessories. I was in photographic nirvana. Despite my satisfaction with my medium format system, I became increasingly aware of certain limitations. These limitations centered on the size, weight, and consequent relative lack of portability.

Now, let me begin by saying that I'm the kind of person that takes photography very seriously. Indeed, I see nothing wrong with toting my entire Mamiya system around in a 30+ pound LowePro Photo Trecker up and down the Appalachian Trail. Indeed, there have been times where I have elected to not bring such needless items as food and water so that I could bring an extra lens that I may need. The quality is worth the backache, I'd tell myself. Despite this prejudice, there are certain situations where 30+ pounds of photographic gear may seem unnecessary if not excessive. For example, on occasion it is my habit to take my family to Washington, D.C. to partake of the National Zoo, Smithsonian, and various National monuments. After wandering around in 90+-degree heat and 90+% humidity (for which Washington is infamous during the summer) with a set of children, a stroller, a diaper bag, etc... it does not take long for 30+ pounds of camera equipment to seem heavy and unnecessary. For these reasons and others, I decided that the purchase of a smaller, more portable camera might be in order.

Decisions, Decisions

I initially considered the Fuji GA645Zi, which I had owned previously. In fact, the GA645Zi is a wonderful camera and I had used it as a kind of back up body to my Mamiya system. Eventually, I decided it was better to have a proper Mamiya body as a back up. Also, I realized that the GA645Zi, despite being relatively compact, was really not all that portable. Suffice to say that it’s not the kind of camera you can put into your pants pocket and forget about.

Sunset from Humpback Rock - Sunset in the Blue Ridge #2
Mamiya 645AF with Mamiya 45/2.8. Singh-ray 3-stop graduated ND filter, Kodak E100VS.

I also considered the purchase of a compact 4- or 5-megapixel digital camera. My reasons for eventually deciding not to purchase a digital camera are too lengthy to describe in detail, but suffice to say that I had a hard time purchasing a camera that would not produce an image as good as a well-scanned 35mm slide/negative. Combine that with the fact that just about any “digital point and shoot” will be essentially worthless in 18 to 24 months, and the advantages of digital seemed minuscule. In a recent review of the new Nikon 5700, Michael Reichmann explains many of the shortcomings of the current state of the art in compact digital cameras.

Given my desire to have a camera I could put into my pocket, I quickly decided against any current 35mm SLR as well as a 35mm rangefinder such as the Contax G series or Leica M series.

I Enter the Point and Shoot World

All of these considerations eventually led me into the popular world of 35mm point & shoot. A strong believer in the value of fixed focal length lens over zoom, I initially desired a fixed focal length camera such as the Contax T3 or a Ricoh GR1. Unfortunately, no one seems to make a P&S camera with a fixed-focal length lens in the “normal” range (I find a “normal” 50mm lens to be the most useful all around optic in a camera system). Indeed, the closest thing to a normal lens currently available is the Leica Minilux, but its 40/2.8 lens is still relatively wide.

Given my desire to have a camera that would still allow some degree of manual control over exposure as well as a lens that would still have a relatively large aperture at all zoom focal lengths, I narrowed my search down to either the Contax TVS III or the Leica Minilux Zoom (at right). Advantages of the Leica include a built-in hot shoe for a shoe mount flash and a slightly longer (70mm vs. 60mm) lens. Advantages of the Contax include a slightly wider (30mm vs. 35mm) lens and a faster maximum shutter speed (1/1000 vs. 1/250). After reading many, many reviews of each camera system and handling both cameras, I decided that neither camera possessed a clear advantage over the other. I eventually decided on the Contax given the fact that the Leica was about 100g (33%) heavier and I was interested in true “pants-pocket” portability.

In the Box

I purchased my TVS III from Delta International in the summer of 2002. Included in the package were the camera, a soft leather case, a neck strap, and hand strap, one CR123A 3-Volt Lithium Battery, and a 7-year extended warranty.

Univeristy of Virginia #2

User Interface

The TVS III is a wonderfully light, well-designed camera. Despite only weighing around 320 grams (about 11 oz. for the metric impaired), the titanium-covered body has a remarkably solid feel. Indeed, as Frank Van Riper points out in his review of the TVS III the camera has the feel of an expensive car: think of closing a door on a high-end Mercedes and then on an economy Ford. Indeed, after handing the TVS III, a friend's point and shoot Canon feels like child's toy, despite being of similar size and weight.

The viewfinder displays some 88% of the image *plus* information on subject's focus distance, the shutter speed, a flash indicator, and an exposure compensation indicator. It is unusual to find a P&S camera that provides the user with this much information in the viewfinder. The viewfinder even offers diopter adjustment!

There is a dedicated dial on the top of the camera for internal exposure compensation. The camera includes a built in data-back (not unique in the point and shoot arena) where one can choose to imprint such information as the date and time onto each photograph. There are dedicated buttons for flash selection as well as a self-timer on the back of the camera.

The camera allows for six customs functions, allowing the user control over a variety of camera functions. I've found the most useful to be CF1 and CF4. Activation of CF1 tells the camera to leave the film leader out of the cassette upon rewind--almost a must for anyone developing their own film. (This also allows the possibility of "re-using" a partially exposed roll after a mid-roll rewind). CF4 tells the camera to remember the last position of the lens and the exposure setting just before the camera is turned off. Turn the camera back on again and the lens slips back to its previous setting.

Flash

Like any point and shoot camera, the flash on the TVS III is pretty much worthless if the subject is more than ten feet away. That being said, I've been generally pleased with flash so long as one is aware of its limitations. There are four flash modes: auto flash, fill flash, flash off, Auto with redeye reduction, and night portrait (slow-sync).

The red eye reduction works by firing the flash once to constrict the subject's iris, and then firing again with the shutter about a half-second later. I've found this to occasionally be a problem as the "pre-flash" often forces my son to close his eyes and/or look away from the camera; however, as all point and shoot camera employ similar programs to reduce red eye this problem is not likely unique to the TVS III. Obviously, red-eye can be easily removed with the photo editing software of your choice.

One thing that really drives me crazy about the flash, is that it always reverts to "auto-flash" whenever the camera is turned off. If you are wandering around outside for several hours and plan to use the flash for fill, it can be a bit of a pain to continually be changing the flash mode each time the camera is activated.

Contax makes a Flash Adapter SA-1 that allows for the use of a shoe-mount flash with the TVS III. This would no doubt prove useful to extend the flash range of the camera as well as *eliminating* red-eye.

Exposure and Control

The TVS III functions normally in "Program Mode" where aperture and shutter speed are selected by the camera's internal exposure program. Using two very small buttons on the front of the camera, it is possible to force the camera to function in aperture-priority mode. Using this mode, the camera calculates the correct shutter speed for the aperture you have selected. In general, this method works quite well although it would be nice if the aperture (like the shutter speed) was also displayed in the viewfinder. When adjusting the aperture, one must turn the camera over to view a small LED on the front of the camera, next to lens. In retrospect, I suppose that this is no more complicated than using an older SLR where aperture is selected on lens barrel. Nevertheless, I do hate to take my eye away from the viewfinder.

Winter in Wyoming #1

The Lens

The TVS III is equipped with a Carl-Zeiss T* Vario-Sonnar 30-60/f3.7-6.7. In a word, the lens is sweet. It produces sharp, contrasty images at all focal lengths. I believe it stands up to just about any professional SLR zoom. Light fall-off, even at f/22 is minimal. Some reviewers have complained of a slight barrel distortion at the 30mm end. I have not noted this in any of my photographs.

It is important to realize that the zoom does not technically offer a continuous range between 30mm and 60mm. There are five focal length options: 30mm, 37.5mm, 45mm, 52.5mm, and 60mm. (This is similar to Fuji's GA645Zi, as described above). The zoom is electrically operated by two buttons on top of the camera ('T' for tele and 'W' for wide). There are some who would complain about this lack of total control; however, as someone normally used to fixed-focal length Mamiya lenses, this mini-zoom with five focal length "stops" is perfect.

Do I find the range (only 30-60mm) limiting? Not at all. As noted above, I'd have gladly settled for a fixed 50/3.5 normal lens and thus any additional range I see as a bonus. Also, a longer zoom would certainly have meant some sacrifice in telephoto aperture (i.e. 38-105/3.5-10.5)--and that would be a major loss.

Really, my only complaint about the lens is the fact that it will not accept a filter. I don't normally employ a lot of filters in my photography (especially that which I would plan to do with a point and shoot camera), but it would be nice to, at the very least, protect the lens. I understand the TVS I and II provided for a 30.5 mm filter, I'm not sure why this was left off the TVSI III.

I conducted an informal test on the sharpness of the lens. The photograph of the newspaper spread below was taken with Fuji NPH and scanned at a non-interpolated 4800 dpi with my Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro. I took the photograph with the camera securely mounted to my Bogen 3021 tripod and used the self-timer to avoid any possibility of camera shake. I used the 52.5mm lens setting. To avoid any confounding variables, the image was not sharpened.

Just to give you an idea of big a magnification this is, these sections below represent approximately a 1 by 1.5 inch section of a 14 by 18 inch 300 dpi Lightjet print.

Center Magnification:

f/3.7

f/8
Edge Magnification:

f/3.7

f/8

The performance of the Contax lens is superb, even wide open at f/3.7! I performed the same test at the wide 37.5mm setting and obtained similar results.

A Fun Comparison

Just for grins, I decided to compare the photograph of the above newspaper spread taken with the TVS III to a similar photograph made with my Mamiya 645AF and 80mm lens. Like the TVS III, the Mamiya was firmly mounted to my Bogen 3021 tripod and I utilized mirror lock-up and a cable release to avoid camera shake.

The Mamiya images were scanned at 3200 dpi using my Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro as above. Now, I'm sure that some readers are already crying "foul." How can I possibly compare medium format scanned at 3200 dpi to 35mm scanned at 4800 dpi (50% more dpi)? Well, the answer is that I always scan 35mm at 4800 dpi and medium format at 3200 dpi: In reality, this is the maximum resolution possible for each format using the Scan Multi Pro. Sure, I could drum scan the medium format images to 4800 dpi (or more) and blow the Contax out of the water, but it is not habit to do that, especially with the casual images I plan to take using the Contax. So, in "my reality" this is a fair comparison.

Center Magnification (both cameras at f/8):

TVS III

Mamiya 645AF
Edge Magnification (both cameras at f/8):

TVS III

Mamiya 645AF
Clearly (no pun intended), the Mamiya is sharper than the Contax (as would be expected) but I think the little TVS III puts on a good show.

Conclusion

The Contax TVS III is a first rate 35mm point and shoot camera with a lens that I believe would challenge many professional SLR zooms. It allows a reasonable degree of control for a point and shoot camera, is extremely well made and, delivers all the point and shoot flexibily I required. A wonderful tool with which to capture light!

I will post updates and images as they beceome available.

Questions?

E-mail me.

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