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Mar 21, 2021

Contax TVS - The Ultimate 35mm point & shoot?

More than capable

Not many point & shoot cameras in the nineties released for prices above the $1000 mark... but, the Contax Tvs was one of them. A premium compact 35mm film camera with a solid body, zoom lens, some very useful features, and great image output. This is the only point-and shoot camera I didn't purchase at a charity shop or weekend market out of many a plastic-bodied bargain finds I've had over the years. It demanded (at the time of buying) an average cost of $500-600 AUD or roughly $400USD on eBay. Considering that most my op-shop finds cost between $3-10, that's a big investment; so, let's jump into the whys.

With a typical Contax "premium" design aesthetic, the main advantages of this point & shoot camera over most others is that it offers practical advantages such as; 

  • Manual selection of Aperture (aperture priority shooting)
  • Manual focus using the override dial
  • Exposure Compensation (especially good for intentional over/underexposure of film for push-processing, etc)
  • 28-56mm zoom lens (28mm on the wide end is quite uncommon in this type of camera)
  • Flash can be set to "force off" by default when the camera is powered on (as opposed to being in "auto")
  • Parallax correction shows a mask automatically in the viewfinder
  • A few other functionality points that I'll touch on later

With all this in mind, it becomes clear that this camera is most useful to the enthusiast photographer who will take advantage of some or all of the listed features and overrides. To be honest from the get-go, I wouldn't say it's worth the current market price if you're just going to leave everything in Auto and use it as a casual record keeper in your pocket or carry-bag. 

The main reasons I purchased it are to use as a highly capable single-carry camera to take along when I only want something compact, or, to use as a secondary camera with perhaps a different film stock to my main-carry when out photographing street and documentary style work. I'll go over my usage of it in both these manners in the following sections.

Happy Snaps

Contax TVS sample
Sarah at Sunset. Kodak Portra 800

The great thing about this camera is that when it's the only one I have with me at any given moment, I'm unlikely to be disappointed. The images render quite nicely from the Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens. The frame edges can get a bit fuzzy at the 28mm end of the lens (as with the above shot) but it still performs better than any other zoom-type point & shoot camera I've had. It renders images in an even more pleasing manner than most prime-lens point & shoot cameras I've tried too, for that matter. This a testament to the quality of the lens, which seems to perform especially well when stopped down and zoomed in a little; such as f/5.6-8 at perhaps 35mm focal length. 

Contax TVS, Kodak Tri-X 400

The above shot was taken at around 40mm (from memory) with the flash turned on and using Kodak Tri-X 400 film. The detail is again very respectable, and the exposure system has done a great job. As a pocket-camera the TVS is great to take to social events and outings while still having offering manual control when you want it. 

As can bee seen again with the above two images, the wider end of the lens can especially result in a little but of softness and vignetting. The lens in general is also prone to a little glare when shooting into the sun. Despite this, the results are still more than usable, and if you happen to pick one up with the optional lens hood this should help a little in terms of combating stray light. The self-timer is also handy, and, I like the fact that it is a physical switch allowing for quick and easy use of the timer when needed for something like the group photo above.

The wider end of the lens, showing a little corner softness and vignetting, but still rendering very nicely.

Covert Documentarian 

As with my previously-mentioned intention for choosing this camera, it can make a great little documentary and street-shooter given a few distinct advantages that you can employ out on the street. One of which, is the ability to pre-set the focus manually, as well as the aperture. This effectively works like zone-focusing if you are used to doing so with something like a rangefinder camera. In practice, I might extend the lens to between 28-35mm, set the aperture to F8 manually (the camera will determine the shutter speed) and set the focus dial to roughly 2 metres. This example would give an effective focus range of roughly 1.5-3 metres, meaning I can very quickly raise the camera to my eye to compose a shot and not have to worry about the autofocus lagging or setting the focus to the wrong part of the frame. 

Tri-X 400 at box speed, using "manual" focus on the TVS

Alternatively you could do something like use a fast film, or even "Push" a stock like HP5 to 800 or 1600 by setting -1 or -2 stops on the exposure compensation dial (this is retained on the camera until you change it back, even if powered on and off). This would allow you to perhaps use F11/16, expanding your focus "zone" and letting you better trust that the automatic shutter speed selection will still be high enough to keep blur at-bay in most scenarios. The camera also shows the chosen shutter speed in the viewfinder display, allowing you to get a sense of the exposure setting combinations you're working with in a given lighting situation. 

I do like the fact that the 28mm focal length is available, which can lend itself to creating interesting compositions and getting in close to fill the frame, if you like to do so. The manual focus selection dial lets you set the distance, and the camera will still give you a confirmation indicator in the viewfinder to show if it agrees with you (this is based on the centre-point of the viewfinder, and can be a good way of practicing your ability to judge distance by eye, if you have the inclination to do so while perhaps bored at home?)

Pretty Pictures in a Puny Package

As an alternative to the much more expensive siblings such as the Contax T2, the Tvs makes a great option if you just want a high-quality compact with great output and performance. The shutter is quiet, the viewfinder is very decent, the camera feels nice in the hand, and, most importantly; it creates nice resulting images. For something that you can fit in your pocket while still being able to have some manual control, it's a win-win.

I found a Hoya UV filter to use on my Tvs, in place of a lens-cap

Even though I have rather large hands, I find the Tvs easy enough to handle. This is because it's larger than most point and shoot cameras of it's generation, which for myself is a plus... but, if you want something truly light and diminutive, there are smaller options out there. 

Respectable ergonomics for a Point & Shoot camera

I have used the camera for nature and landscape style photos, as well as simple everyday moments. It has always been a pleasure to use, and never feels like much of a compromise if you don't bring a "big and serious" camera. My personal preference is for manual toggles and switches, so I enjoy aspects of the TVs such as the physical zoom, aperture selection ring, focus selection dial, and exposure compensation dial. 

Winchester sunbaking
Kodak Tri-X 400. I added +0.7 stops of exposure compensation here to account for the back-light
Fuji C200, December 2020

The Kryptonite, and Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, it's pretty obvious that I think this a good camera. However, the elephant in the room is a common weakness to many Contax cameras and 20+ year-old electronic cameras in general; the electronics' susceptibility to failure. I haven't had any issues with mine, but I purchased it with the knowledge that these cameras are sometimes vulnerable to sudden failure. This is usually due to the flex-ribbon cable inside the lens, which can apparently wear out over time and is either very difficult or uneconomical to repair. 

With that out of the way however, I have heard of people buying used copies and shooting 30, 50, or more rolls without issue. I haven't owned mine for that long, but hope to get plenty more use out of it. I did purchase it with the knowledge that this may be an inevitability, however, and would advise you to do the same if you're in the market. Some advice I'd heard is to get one with a later serial number, as the issue may have been addressed in the later manufactured units. My copy is of a late serial number compared to other listings I'd seen, but only time will tell for sure!

The price is also a big question for most buyers. A few years ago they were overlooked and easily went for half the price I paid for mine. My honest opinion is that the price I paid for mine is a little high considering the aforementioned gamble with electronic failure. If not for that though, it's not too bad considering the currently rising prices of film cameras meaning that I would be able to resell it for all my money back (or, perhaps a profit down the track). Additionally, the real value is ultimately governed by what you think is worth it for your money, and how much use and enjoyment you'll get out your purchase. Loss, damage, or failure is always a risk with any second-hand camera, and I still suppose the Tvs is good "value" considering both their original price-tag, and the amount of features they offer for those who'll take advantage. 

I'll leave you with a link to a live-stream where I touched on my first impressions of the Tvs back in January, as well as a final gallery of images I've made so far with the TVS, and of the camera itself.