The Contax RTS II (Part III)

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

[Ed. note: This post has been amended to add a paragraph about the fate of Yashica and Contax cameras, just below the header “Some things are not meant to be.”]

RTS III mentioned in Part II of this three-parter that I audited a physics class in optics at the University of Maryland around the time the Contax RTS II came out. The professor was fantastic; I remembered his name for years and wish I still could. He had worked out his demonstrations to a fare-thee-well, and he was very personable and told stories to boot. The class was a fabulous illustrated introduction to the subject. I ate it up.

Waiting for class to start one day—this would have been in ’80 or ’81, before motorized film advance was incorporated into camera bodies—two students who were camera aficionados got to talking about their fancy motor drives, accessories that not everybody owned in those days. A friendly argument developed, and both boys (because of course they were being boys, even if they were technically men) unlimbered their cameras from their camera bags and attached the motor drives. One said “go!”, and the battle was on. At first it sounded like both shutters were firing in unison, but then the shutter sounds gradually got out of sync as one camera began pulling ahead of the other. They ran this competition several times, but the result was the same—one camera owner won and was exultant, and the other lost, and was dejected, and had to explain until class started why his motor drive was plenty fast enough and why it didn’t matter at all that the other guy’s had won.

And this is part of how cameras evolve: by fashion, by status, and however we boys are trained (by all our varied influences) to “compete” with each other via our purchased possessions. Yes, it’s all silly as hell, but we do it, and that can’t be denied. 

For a while, in the period we are talking about, the later ’70s to the middle ’80s, when I was in photography school and first teaching, the opposite held true for short, undefined periods as well, because pros resisted change. Pros resisted built-in metering, and then autoexposure—in both cases because they, and dedicated enthusiasts as well, had worked to understand what was happening with exposure, had learned how to use the tools as they existed, and saw not liberation but rather restriction in the advent of these various technical aids, which were for amateurs and neophytes. If not fools.

In 1982, at the time the RTS II was introduced on the market, it was, vaguely speaking, near the end of a period when a top autoexposure camera was expected to be either shutter priority or aperture priority—not both. The reason for that was that pros and advanced amateurs had already worked out their own ways of using match-needle cameras, and were in the habit of either choosing their shutter-speed first and then adjusting their aperture until the needle matched, or choosing their aperture first and then adjusting the shutter speed. They wanted their autoexposure, if they wanted autoexposure at all, to fit their already-established ways of working. With the most popular enthusiast camera of the era, Canon’s AE-1 (1976–84), there were actually different variant models with different kinds of autoexposure baked into each: the AE-1 itself was shutter-priority; the nearly identical AT-1, which was made for export and wasn’t even sold in Japan, was manual, with a meter but no autoexposure; the AV-1 was the same camera as the AE-1 but with aperture-priority autoexposure; and the AE-1 Program—which came out in 1981,  just before our RTS II—added to the AE-1 the Program mode of the revolutionary but high-priced A-1, which had come out in 1978. (Few things were more divisive among Photo-Dawgs than Program mode in those days!) There were a few other brands as well which for a brief (but, again, only vaguely defined) period of years were associated with one kind of autoexposure or another: Konica, for instance, was a shutter-priority company.

A similar situation existed with regard to metering patterns. The famous Pentax Spotmatic was so named because it was originally intended to have spot-metering capability. It never actually did—it turned out the technology was not quite ready for prime time, and Pentax went ahead without it, but kept the name. But spot metering had become a thing by the early ’80s, even though a lot of amateurs weren’t quite sure how to use it. It reached its apex in the Olympus OM-4 of 1983. Also appearing in 1983 was the revolutionary Nikon FA, which featured evaluative metering, which Nikon called “Matrix” metering. Again, this was resisted by initiates, at first, and detested by pros, who considered it to be not only amateur nonsense for photographers who couldn’t set their cameras, but also automation that took control away from them. If the camera was taking multiple exposure readings, processing them, and setting itself based on its secret mystical formulas, how the hell were you supposed to know what it was doing? The answer was, you didn’t.


This gets at an aspect of machines and devices I might call “commandability.” That’s when a device does what you tell it to rather than acting on its own to “help” without your input. I’ll give you one example, as if you can’t come up with many of your own. My iPhone has a switch on the side that used to turn it on and off. When I wanted it to be on, I turned it on. When I wanted it off, I turned it off. Simple, right? Straightforward. I got along well with this system; I grok the concept, and I am actually capable of pushing the switch. The switch served my wishes. It was at my command.

Well, at some point, my iPhone updated its operating system (on its own), and one of the numerous changes it adopted is that the iPhone and I no longer shared our old understanding vis-a-vis the on-off switch. The infernal thing now feels it should turn itself on and off. I pick up the iPhone, meaning to turn it on, but, instead, I turn it off—because it, attempting to anticipate my intentions, has turned itself on before I press the button. Then I try to do whatever I wanted to do with it, I discover it is off, curse floridly, and press the on-off button a second time, which turns it on. I never know whether the goddamned thing is off or on. Riding around in my top pocket it sometimes thinks I’m picking it up, and I look down to discover that it is on. The number of times when I want it to be in the opposite state of the state it’s in have gone from zero to too many—”too many” being defined as one or more.

This nutty propensity has gotten completely out of hand in the modern world. Dumb machines are forever doing what they think you might want them to do—as if they could know. My sad fate is that I like being the one in command. That’s my pleasure, and that’s my preference. Every time any modern gizmo takes that away from me, I become just that much less happy*.

Don’t get me started on self-driving cars and driving aids.

Gee-whiz gimcrackery, by Jack

Anyway, during that time period, the period when autoexposure and fancy metering patterns were coming along, it was initially assumed that professional cameras—the best cameras—would be conservative about adopting those newfangled helper technologies and aids for the uninitiated. For the very sound reason that seasoned and experienced photographers already knew what they were doing and didn’t need the camera itself to help. So the Nikon F3, easily the leading pro 35mm camera, had only aperture-priority autoexposure, and offered only traditional centerweighted metering.

The RTS II followed suit.

But of course, those tiresome boys with their toys were still lurking in the background, ready to open their fat wallets, and they liked all the new tech. So the later ’80s saw a proliferation of do-it-for-you new tech that’s still with us today, changes that by the early ’90s included “plastic” (i.e., polycarbonate**) cameras that were highly electronic and did all kinds of things to “help,” including focusing for us, which was also resisted at first by those who had never known that they had any trouble at all focusing.

So my argument here is this: the pro cameras of the early ’80s—the Nikon F3, Pentax LX, Canon New F-1, Leica R4, and Contax RTS II—were all supposed to be cutting edge when they were introduced because they all introduced electronics and incorporated carefully selected mixes of the latest features, and reviews of all those ancient cameras even today still tout all those then-new features—but actually that is not their significance at all any more. Actually their significance now is that they were the last flowering of a period in which simplicity was valued, the photographer’s knowledge and judgement rather than technical helper aids were supposed to be in control, and the technical features were supposed to stay out of the way and not do anything to confuse the camera operator.  

I guess I have to walk back my comment from Friday about the RTS II’s viewfinder being perfect. After using it for a bit I was reminded that the eye relief is a little too short—not for nothing did the F3’s “High-Eyepoint” finder, which offered a smaller magnification but greater than eye relief, become a popular selling point. But the RTS II is still a camera that embodies those values that held sway in that brief golden hour when everything that was best about the “MMM” era (a term I coined, by the way, meaning “manual, metal, mechanical” in any order) was still being refined, but electronics were also being added sparingly and judiciously to help where they made sense, albeit not a way that was intrusive or confusing.

The situation changed quickly, and we’re still in it, although I am firmly of the conviction that the “boys with their toys” have painted the ILC (interchangeable-lens camera) industry into a pretty dark corner. Cameras are just too damned complicated for newcomers to ever have a hope of understanding or mastering them—or even of detecting the basic concepts that are now well buried beneath many thick layers of obfuscation. But that would be a digression. Things changed radically by 1990, driven not by what was best but by fashion, feature-competition (more modes! More complicated metering! Higher top shutter speeds and sync speeds! Accessories for every conceivable purpose! Weird lenses in the system that everybody said they wanted but nobody bought! Wheeee!), and status.

Mike’s verdict

And what of the RTS II? I promised you my unvarnished opinion. Gotta say I’ve always come away thinking it’s a bit of a near miss, despite its awesomeness and beauty. The fault can probably be put at the feet of Porsche Design. Despite the supreme logic of its control layout, which is very shrewdly judged, I don’t really find it that comfortable to hold and use. The beautiful zero-clutter finder requires you to jam your eye a bit too close in to see everything comfortably at once, that lovely meter-switch-plus-AE-lock collar is just too close to the right-hand end of the camera body to fall to hand naturally, and all that fastidiously engineered and carefully manufactured premium metal makes the little brick weigh too much for its size—about 4 1/2 ounces more than a Pentax LX, which itself, to be truly perfect, would be a tad lighter. I also have a vintage LX here, and the Pentax, with its handgrip, simply feels better. More comfortable and more natural.

So would I recommend the RTS II for film shooters today? Yes and no. Those simple electronics are robust, but they’re at least 33 and possibly as much as 41 years old. Repair places are thin on the ground—I emailed several alleged Contax repairpeople, asking if they would exchange a phone conversation about the RTS II for a mention in this article, and didn’t hear a peep back from any of them. And the famous Contax/Yashica lenses, for some reason, whether made in Germany or made in Japan, are quite expensive, not to mention that some of them are on the rare side now and the selection is limited.

Oh, but one good thing—I forgot to mention it on Friday. The RTS II takes a battery that’s still common and easy to find, a 6-volt alkaline 4LR44 or equivalent. Always check to see what batteries are needed when buying an old camera! If you need diopters, some Canon diopters, which are easier to find, can be pressed into service, or so I hear.

But as a camera, considered in isolation, the bottom line is that the real joy of the RTS II, in retrospect, is not in the features it introduced, but in its simplicity and straightforwardness combined with high quality. It does only a few things, does them in a commendably commandable manner, and stays the hell out of the way while we’re engaged in whatever we’re engaged in. It wouldn’t dare put a blanket of symbols and blinkies over my view through the finder; in fact the starkly plain finder, which is so easy to focus through, is a beautiful revelation now. The RTS II doesn’t turn itself off or on (there’s a very stout dedicated switch for that, which never confuses off for on or on for off); it never focuses itself on the wrong thing, never tells me in the finder what aperture I have set unless I ask it to, doesn’t offer me modes or metering I don’t thoroughly understand, etc. And all that, in today’s world, is both rare and nice. Add a relatively petite Carl Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 Planar to this body (petite compared to the monstrous fast 50mms of today) and you’ll experience how manual focus works when it works best, and understand what cameras of that era really were and why they were special.

Verdict? It’s a nifty old thing. But, since I’ll never shoot film again, for me it’s “surplus to requirements” as my friend Nick puts it. It’s a nice option for those with the discrimination to appreciate its felicities, it elegance and its build quality (it’s certainly more deluxe than the Minolta-based Leica SLRs of the period). But it’s not ideal. I’ll do another post someday about the film cameras I’d recommend most strongly for people who want to shoot film in 2023.

Some things are not meant to be

In 1983, only one year after the RTS II came out, Yashica was bought out by Kyocera Corp., the former Kyoto Ceramic Company Limited, a Japanese multinational high-tech and electronics conglomerate. Within only a few years, Kyocera ended production of most of the higher-level Yashica TLRs and SLRs to concentrate on the Contax models. They made some wonderful cameras over the next two decades, including the G-series rangefinder-style compact models, the deluxe RX, the compact Aria, and the lovely and impressive 645. The original C/Y lenses were designed by Zeiss with manufacture shared between Zeiss and Tomioka, Yashica’s optical division, and as time went on Tomioka made more and more of the lenses, causing a bit of awkwardness because certain purchasers were chauvinistic about German-made lenses over Japanese-made ones.

There was also, unfortunately, a string of high-profile failures. Contax got into a fight with Zeiss when Zeiss refused to make autofocus lenses for the C/Y mount, which resulted in one of the more amazing one-off cameras ever made, the Contax AX, which used manual-focus lenses and actually moved the entire film plane in order to autofocus. It worked beautifully, although it was a big, thick, bulbous camera body. It could focus non-macro lenses into the macro range. Way too late, Kyocera did finally bring a couple of conventional AF SLRs to market, the N-series, but the new cameras used a completely new lensmount that was incompatible with all the older Zeiss-branded manual-focus lenses, which were pretty much the reason why people bought into the Contax marque in the first place. Rumor had it, too, that the 645 had been terrifically expensive to develop. The company finally bit off more than it could chew with the six-megapixel N Digital, which nevertheless gets the credit for being the first-ever full-frame digital SLR. It was announced in 2000, didn’t come to market until 2002 after a number of awkward delays, and had to be withdrawn within a year. The star-crossed N Digital imbroglio was apparently the last straw for Kyocera, which ceased production of cameras in 2005. CONTAX as a cameramaker had lasted 30 years.

My own RTS II, I’m sorry to say, was stolen shortly after I got it, from the art teachers’ faculty office at the high school where I taught photography. I shot a whole lot when I was student, but hardly at all once I started teaching. So I barely used it, really. Although my memory is vague on this point, I think the school’s insurance company eventually sent me a check for my loss, and I used the money toward an Exakta 66, which at the time was the cheapest medium-format camera you could buy new. And of course I still had my trusty old Contax 139Q.

In 1988 I joined a professional studio, where the other three photographers all shared equipment in 35mm (Nikon) and medium format, and the unspoken assumption was that I would participate in the sharing of gear too. Not only did I want to be able to borrow their stuff, but I wanted to own some things that would be useful to them, as well. I contributed a Zeiss 150mm to the Hasselblad inventory even though I didn’t own a (Read more…)