Contax 139 Quartz

Introduction

The Contax 139 Quartz, fitted with the Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 lens.
The Contax 139 Quartz, fitted with the Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 lens.

The Contax 139 Quartz is an electronically controlled SLR which was released in 1979. It uses a quartz timing mechanism (like most electronic wristwatches and clocks) for the shutter, giving very accurate shutter timing. Lenses use the Contax/Yashica bayonet mount, and are supplied by Carl Zeiss; they have a well-deserved reputation for excellence.

I bought mine last year, mostly to acquire the lens (the body was rather tatty). However, after handling it, I decided to perform a cosmetic restoration (see here) and put it into use. This serves as another film option (as if I needed it), and a good platform on which to acquire some Zeiss lenses.

Quirks

Unlike the majority of cameras with a shutter speed dial, the shutter speed dial of the Contax is located on the top left of the body, surrounding the rewind crank. This actually makes a lot of sense in practice: since you don’t use your left hand to operate any other shooting controls, you’re less likely to knock it. The small white window in the front of the prism (above the lens) illuminates the shutter speed and aperture readouts in the viewfinder. The aperture readout on my example lags a little, but seems to be freeing up with use.

Two members of my collection bask in the late afternoon sun. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.
Two members of my collection bask in the late afternoon sun. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.

The exposure compensation dial, rather than reading out in exposure values (the industry norm), reads out in exposure factors. So, rather than having ±2-3 EV, you have 1/4, 1/2, X1, X2 and X4. Personally, I find this more logical, as it tells you exactly what you’re doing to the light (increasing or decreasing by a factor of two with every step). This dial surrounds the shutter release, which is electromagnetic (most competitors were still using mechanical releases at the time it was launched), giving it a light and crisp action, with no backlash from the mechanism.

Puss contemplates the adjacent bay tree. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.
Puss contemplates the adjacent bay tree. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.

The body cladding that Contax fitted was a smooth leatherette, rather than the grainy leatherette often seen on cameras. Contrary to the implied effects of the smooth surface, it’s decently grippy, and much nicer to hold than the grainier surfaces of its contemporaries. Another tactile difference to its contemporaries is the amount of plastic in the lens body, at a time when most were largely metal. The plastic is of a very high quality, though, and more functional than metal: it’s more thermostable, holding the lens elements in alignment better at extremes of temperature.

Oak leaves in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.
Oak leaves in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.

In Use

The camera is marginally lighter than the Olympus OM-2n, but the body itself is slightly larger. This results in a well balanced package, which handles nicely, and is not a burden to carry (size- or weight-wise). While the viewfinder is slightly smaller than that of the Olympus OM-2n, it is still much larger than average, and better than a number I have seen fitted to smaller DSLRs in the past few years. Both cameras are noticeably smaller and lighter than the Nikkormat FTn, which also has a marginally smaller viewfinder than either the Contax or the Olympus.

Puss pretending she isn't photogenic. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.
Puss pretending she isn’t photogenic. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.

Even though it weighs less, and is larger, the Contax has a more refined shutter and mirror sound than the Olympus: it operates with a gentle, slurred clack, as opposed to a sharp, occasionally ringing sound. Conversely, the Olympus focus ring moves more smoothly than that of the Zeiss lens on the Contax. The Nikkormat falls between the two, with a staccato shutter and mirror (complete with whirring from the mechanical timing gear) and light and smooth focus ring. These things are minor, and could be down to sample variation, or simply differences in the vision of each company’s design and engineering teams.

Conclusion

The Contax 139 Quartz is a compact, high quality SLR which opens its owner up to a world of sublime Carl Zeiss lenses, without the need for an adapter. If you’re looking for an old SLR to use, I can strongly recommend this. However, be aware that, thanks to the legendary Carl Zeiss moniker and associated quality, lenses are typically more expensive than those of some rivals, which may make building a comprehensive kit cost-prohibitive in some cases.

A small bridge by an oak tree at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.
A small bridge by an oak tree at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.7 on Kodak BW400CN.
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