Contax 139 Quartz Review (8 of 11)

I recently found myself the reluctant owner of a Contax 139 Quartz 35mm SLR, a camera about which I knew little and for which I cared even less. After all, if this rebranded, electronic Yashica were anything worthwhile I’d have heard about it from my friends at the camera shop, or spied one scrolling by in my Instagram feed. Yes, surely if the 139Q mattered I’d have known about it.

Still, it was being sold with a fairly legendary Zeiss lens attached, so I bought the whole kit and awaited its arrival. Getting hands on this beautiful glass would be a big win for anyone, no matter what substandard camera so lecherously clung to it.

Luckily, this uncharacteristic bout of arrogant self-assurance was not much more than a 24-hour bug. When the camera arrived and I pulled it from its packaging my pompous windbaggery was justifiably and firmly checked.

I held the Contax, flicked its controls, squeezed off a few shutter releases, and decided my next action should be to insert into my gaping opinion hole the proverbial sock.

Just over a month later the Contax has become a constant companion. While it’s not a perfect camera, it’s surely one of the best I’ve ever shot. With objectivity (and humility) happily renewed, here’s the great, the good, and the bad about Contax’s electric wonder.

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I hinted that this camera is what pedantic photo geeks would describe as being “not really a Contax.” Why would they say this? Because they’re annoying, for sure, but also because it’s technically true.

But before we get too far here, we should clear up some history and set the record for readers who may not be up to speed on their Contax. Here, then, is our (outrageously) condensed Contax timeline.

Many eons ago, when Dinosaurs stalked minor mammals through the ferny underbrush and Contax was a new company, Leica was the most lauded camera maker in the world. Their rangefinder system was top shelf stuff. Dresden-based optics maker Zeiss wanted a piece of the pie, so they created a camera to best Leica’s model in every way. This machine was to be known as the Contax, and it was in many ways superior to Leica’s rangefinder.

Less than a decade later, someone in Europe started a little war. This turned into a larger war, and then a really big, globe-sized war. Things were pretty ugly for a while, and eventually the guy that started the war died. As a result of their nation’s loss, many German companies were forced to surrender patents, dissolve entirely, or split into smaller companies. This included Zeiss.

Some other things happened in Europe that made everyone suspicious of everyone else. People built a wall between two Zeiss plants, and Zeiss split into multiple diminished entities. Economic and political pressures from home and abroad further stressed the camera maker on both sides of the wall, with the Zeiss on the western side concluding that a partnership was needed if the company was to survive these pressures, and the increasing dominance of Japanese camera makers.

Unable to work with the jerks on the eastern side of the wall because some people across the Atlantic Ocean didn’t like that idea, they partnered with a Japanese optics company called Yashica, who were well-respected in the field of lens-making. This partnership quickly bore fruit; a camera born from a top secret project. Internal documents referenced the charmingly quaint nomenclature “Top Secret Project 130.” So sneaky, it hurts. As a result, 1975 saw release of the now-legendary Contax RTS SLR camera.

Following the success of the professional-level RTS, Yashica and Zeiss were eager to introduce a camera more suited to the burgeoning advanced amateur photographer market. Smaller, lighter, and yet nearly as capable as the RTS that preceded it, 1979’s Contax 139 Quartz would be a camera that many photographers found to be nearly perfect.

All later Contax cameras would be developed by Yashica, which was later bought by Kyocera, which stopped camera production in 2005 and subsequently sold the Yashica brand to a Hong Kong-based marketing group whose portfolio of businesses includes commercial distributors of fancy cars and beer.

So you see, the Contax 139Q is really a Yashica. Simple stuff, really.

But Yashica made really great cameras, as it turns out. So none of that matters, right? Right! So let’s not worry about the last five-hundred words and instead get to the good stuff. What’s the Contax 139 Quartz all about, how does it handle, and where does it stumble?

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Aesthetically, the 139Q is a thing of absolute beauty. It’s streamlined in a way that many cameras with a comparable feature set are not. There are no bulbous grips protruding, no new-fangled ergonomics, and no superfluous stylistic flourishes. Controls are spread intelligently over the entirety of the frame, and many are combined with one another in order that they remain usable without overcrowding any one area of the body.

In many ways, it’s a camera that looks both modern and classic at the same time. This is most exemplified in its perfectly vertical lens mount surround, which carries upward in an unbroken plane directly to the pentaprism housing above. There is a frugality of style here that is uncommonly and deceptively simple. The 139Q presents a pure and succinct design, and while not everyone will appreciate, I certainly do. This camera is, to my eye, perfect.

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Specifications of the 139Q are impressive in any light. This camera is an electronic wonder, with some rather incredible technology tightly wadded into a tiny package. Indeed, as we look at the spec sheet we start to realize that this is a camera that seems to draw on the strengths of countless cameras before it, and one that combines many often exclusive features into one inclusive machine.

This 35mm film SLR offers essentially everything any photographer could ask for. The short list? We’ve got dual exposure modes (aperture priority auto-exposure plus meter-assisted full manual modes), an incredibly advanced shutter, through-the-lens wide-open metering, exposure compensation dial, auto-exposure lock, TTL flash capability, depth-of-field preview button, a massive selection of superlative lenses, and countless incidental features.

When the camera was first released, the centerpiece of its technical achievements was certainly the much-lauded “quartz crystal heart.” This crystal, paired with the camera’s electronic shutter, was quite loudly predicted to revolutionize photography in the same way that quartz had revolutionized modern timekeeping.

Rather than relying on gears and springs the way other mechanical cameras of its day did, the 139Q uses electricity and a quartz crystal. The uniform high-frequency pulses of quartz help to control all time-related functions within the camera to an incredible accuracy.

But what did this mean for the camera’s contemporary photographers? And what does it mean today?

Well, it’s tough to say, but I suspect it meant little back then and means even less today. The implementation of such a method of time-keeping for shutter-speeds is worthy of applause, in that it shows a level of thought existed within the design team that’s truly commendable. But practically speaking, even in 1975 there existed a good number of electronically-controlled shutters inside many cameras that operated very well. The heavy promotion of the camera’s quartz system seems, then, to be more of a marketing attempt toward differentiating the Contax from its competitors’ systems (which is natural, and perfectly acceptable).

There are certainly people out there who will love the idea of their camera containing a quartz crystal, and these folk are likely to be eager to talk about it to anyone who will listen. That’s also fine! Whatever makes your heart sing. But for those of us who aren’t so easily wooed by technical factoids, the only takeaway is that the shutter works well.

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Capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 second in manual mode, and with continuously variable speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 11 seconds in automatic mode, the shutter can handle nearly any exposure situation. Bulb mode is also included, and the flash sync speed is 1/100th of a second. Naturally, we photo geeks always want more and better, so an improved top end speed of, say, 1/2000th of a second and a faster flash sync speed would have been nice. But in frankness, the available speeds will handle all but the most demanding applications.

The construction of the shutter is exceptional. The vertical-travel, metal-bladed mechanism is bearing-mounted, and this fact is immediately felt when we advance the film. Operation of the film advance lever is smooth, and quiet, and the shutter release button actuates with a feather-light touch. This is made possible through the use of an incredibly advanced electromagnetic shutter release button (the same used in the RTS). The result is a satisfying and subtle mechanical action every time the shutter is advanced and released.

The next most important aspect of the camera must certainly be its metering system. Through-the-lens, wide-open aperture metering is implemented via a silicon photo diode cell that uses a center-weighted metering pattern. The system works extremely well, even in complicated lighting situations. Shooting in aperture-priority mode yields consistently superb exposures. An AE lock button and an exposure compensation dial capable of +/-2 EV help the shooter immediately adjust for tricky lighting.

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Ergonomically the camera has very few failings, though there are some uncommon controls that may cause issue for some shooters. For the most part, buttons, knobs, switches, and levers are all positioned intelligently in locations that photo geeks will expect. The shutter release button is very comfortable, being large and recessed in the center of the combined ASA adjuster and exposure compensation dial. The self-timer activation switch is where one would expect it to be, on the front of the camera, and just above this is a very well-placed and intelligently contoured button that combines AE exposure preview, meter activation, and AE lock. On the same side of the camera and below these two mentioned controls we find the depth-of-field preview selector.

It’s interesting that so many controls would be positioned where one’s right hand would fall, and this feels completely natural to seasoned shooters. It’s strange, then, that we would find the shutter speed selector where we do. In most cases, this selector is near or surrounding the shutter release button. This is a natural fit. On the Contax, however, it is positioned on the left hand side of the top plate. This is strange, as when shooting in manual mode we’re forced to use the same hand to alternately focus and change shutter speeds. It feels odd, though not criminally so, and when shooting in aperture-priority mode (in which this knob remains locked in the “Auto” setting) it becomes a non-issue.

Similarly unusual is the fact that the shutter release button forgoes the typical half-press used by nearly every camera to activate the metering system and corresponding viewfinder display. Typically we would press the shutter release halfway and expect the LEDs inside the viewfinder to illuminate, showing us what our scene’s light reading would be. Here, we have to use the AE preview button mentioned earlier. Again, this isn’t a deal-breaking design choice, it’s just something different to get used to.

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As for secondary and tertiary controls, things are a mixed bag. While the most commonly-used controls are very well-implemented, some of the less often used ones are finicky. Specifically irksome is the exposure compensation dial lock, which is slightly annoying for two reasons. The first is that I detest dial locks. They get in the way, slow down the process, and assume in the photographer a certain level of incognizance that most photo geeks never display.

The second annoyance perpetrated by this little lever is a result of it also acting as the camera’s multiple exposure lever. By nudging this lever upwards (the same motion used to set exposure compensation) and advancing the film lever at the same time, the film take-up spool is disengaged while the shutter is cocked. This makes double exposures very easy, but also makes accidental double exposures quite common, as to push the locking lever upward to adjust exposure compensation one has to nudge the film advance lever out of the way, which can often disengage the take up spool.

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Contax 139Q • Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 • Ilford HP5 Plus • Double Exposure

Aside from these mentioned peculiarities, the Contax is a joy to use. It’s astoundingly small; at 135 x 85.5 x 50 mm, it’s two millimeters smaller than Olympus’ OM1, a camera which built its reputation on compactness. It’s also ten grams lighter than that machine, a fact that’s simply incredible.

In contrast to this diminutive frame, the camera is exceedingly robust. Made of an advanced, machined aluminum chassis, it’s an amazingly strong machine. There’s absolutely no flex, squeaks, or rattles, and the whole thing just screams quality.

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A few reliability issues do plague the camera. The most obvious is the tendency for the camera’s leatherette covering to deteriorate. This soft-touch material just doesn’t display the durability found in other cameras, the result being that many 139Qs require replacement of the covering. Luckily, this is an incredibly easy fix. Choosing leather or synthetic leather replacement from a vendor, such as Aki-Asahi, allows us to not only replace the worn out stuff, but even customize the camera for a cost of less than $30.00. One of my examples was reskinned in blue leather, and it’s simply stunning.

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Other more serious issues can sometimes come up, such as the complicated electromagnetic shutter release failing. This is caused by dirty or corroded contacts, often the product of long periods of disuse. Cameras suffering from this can be easily fixed if one has the bravery to try, or sent to one of a number of reasonably-priced service techs.

The viewfinder is among the more informative examples from the era. It is a large, fixed prism finder with a horizontal split-image and micro-prism focusing screen showing 95% of the actual picture area at .86X magnification. This combination makes for a bright VF that facilitates effortless focusing.

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Information comes via both analog displays and LEDs. An aperture readout window appears in the upper portion of the viewfinder, showing the selected lens aperture. A big, bright LED array on the right of the frame indicates exposure settings in both automatic and manual modes. Flash indicators, over- and under-exposure warning lights, AE lock indicator, and a low battery warning light round out the list of available information.

The comprehensive inclusion of all pertinent details within the viewfinder helps the photographer focus on the task at hand. There’s never a need to pull ones eye away from the scene. This is something sorely lacking in numerous cameras of the era, and something I appreciate greatly in the Contax.

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And of course, when we talk about a Zeiss camera system we can’t ignore the lenses. The Contax SLR system offers some of the best optics in the world. This camera naturally utilized the earlier RTS’s C/Y lens mount, meaning all Contax and Yashica mount lenses will natively mount to this machine. This includes a truly world-class and full-fledged range of Zeiss T-star lenses.

For those not in the know, T-star lenses are Zeiss’ top shelf offering. We won’t get into the marketing speeches or pretend we know the importance of “ultra-flat transmission of light,” or say that we’ve bothered to waste our time staring at MTF inspection charts. But we will tell you that the eye test shows nearly unbeatable image quality and an almost complete mitigation of optical aberrations.

Couple the simply stunning image quality with the fact that Zeiss’ lenses just feel amazing and what we’re looking at is a camera system with zero optical compromises.

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Interestingly, Zeiss launched alongside the 139Q a new Tessar type 45mm F/2.8 pancake lens that’s noteworthy for it’s impeccable build and incredible compactness. The 139Q coupled with this 45mm lens creates one of the tiniest and most capable SLR and lens combinations I’ve ever used, and one I’ll likely use forever. It’s that good.

Beyond this standard focal length, we’ve got the ability to fit everything from a 15mm ultra-wide Distagon to the ridiculously tele 1000mm Mirotar. Macro lenses, macro extension tubes, portrait lenses, and a Vario zoom with a fixed maximum aperture complement the more typical lenses, and create an ecosystem that’s criminally overlooked by shooters today. This is especially true when one considers that all of these amazing lenses can be adapted to today’s mirror-less and digital cameras via a twenty-dollar adapter.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the fact that Yashica’s respected ML lenses offer exceptional performance at a fractional cost.

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The 139Q is capable of using dedicated and capable flashes in the form of the TLA20 and TLA 30 units, nearly every accessory made for the RTS, and its own range of unique accessories. These include the 139 Power Winder which offers burst shooting and a portrait orientation shutter release button, and the 139 Data Back.

Yes, the 139Q is a fully equipped system camera, lacking in nothing. It’s the kind of camera that will handle anything thrown at it. Straight out of the box it’s ready to go, and as one’s needs and abilities increase, so too can the capabilities of the 139.

These cameras are inexpensive at the moment, but don’t expect them to remain so. As we’ve seen with numerous other lesser-known makes and models, forgotten quality eventually comes to be rediscovered. As more and more people realize the existence of amazing film cameras that aren’t named Leica and Rollei, the prices of these cameras will climb. If you like what you’ve heard about the Contax 139 Quartz, go buy two; one for today and one for the future. That’s what I did.

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