The Contax T3
Lens Shutter Plus

Made on Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS film, this frame was exposed with minus 1/2 EV compensation; the ability to compensate exposure in increments (either in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps up to +/- 2 EV) is a boon to slide shooters. The frame not shown of the same subject made without compensation was slightly overexposed for my taste.
Photos © 2001, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved

Professional photographers need a snapshot camera, too. But they require one that delivers the sharpness they have come to expect in their working cameras and a quality look and feel. Happily, there is a small, and somewhat pricey class of cameras that meet these requirements, one that's grown a bit larger with the addition of the Contax T3. Housed in a titanium body, the T3 is a palm-sized unit with a built-in Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.8 lens. Although the strength of the built-in flash leaves something to be desired, especially when used with ISO 100 film, the camera delivers tack-sharp images that even the most demanding photographer will admire. The T3 has one major change in design over the T2--placement of the shutter between the lens. This eliminates any possibility of vignetting, the darkening of corners of the frame at narrow aperture settings.

One word describes the T3's layout and controls: simplicity. The controls on the T3 are downright Spartan, with nothing on the camera back save a window that shows you that film is loaded in the camera. As we'll see, however, this simplicity of design belies the many features and often-complex nature of the T3's system itself.

Atop the camera is the main switch that is linked with the aperture dial. The first indent is at P for Program exposure mode, a center-weighted SPD cell that reads in an impressive -1 EV to EV 18. Most point-and-shoot cameras start somewhere around EV 6, with EV 8 the norm. This means that the T3 can deliver a good reading even in the dimmest light. After the P setting on the dial you can choose the aperture in normal stops from the widest, f/2.8 to f/16. There's no way to judge depth of field, of course, but you at least get to match the setting with your intentions, if not with specific ranges. This then becomes an Aperture Priority mode.

Shutter Speed Indicators
Knowing you have enough light for your selected aperture when shooting handheld does, however, get a bit complicated. Shutter speeds are stepless in Program mode in a range of 16 sec to 1/1200 sec. In Aperture Priority mode the top of the shutter speed range is 1/500 sec. To check shutter speed you press down lightly on the shutter before making an exposure and the display comes up on the right-hand side of the viewfinder. There are four indicators there: a 500, 125, 30, and an LT. If the 500 blinks at you the film will be overexposed. If the 500 remains lit you're fine--shutter speed is between 1/1200 sec and 1/350 sec. If both the 500 and 125 light you're between 1/350 and 1/180 sec, and if the 125 is lit you're between 1/125 and 1/90 sec. If the 125 and 30 light you're between 1/90 and 1/45 sec, and if the 30 is lit you're between 1/45 and 1/20 sec. If the LT is lit, steady the camera on a tripod and if the LT is blinking prepare for a long exposure.

This frame of a backlit scene was made using no compensation or locked reading. The exposure system was right on, delivering great sharpness and edge definition, a characteristic of all frames made using the T3 and its Carl Zeiss lens.

As mentioned, the shutter speed is stepless, which means any speed within the ranges listed will be set, but you never know exactly what that speed might be. You definitely need a scorecard at first when working with this system, and it's a bit odd. But Contax wanted a way to let you know what the shutter speed range would be when working in Aperture Priority mode, and this is it. One good thing is that the balance and feel of this camera makes hand holding at slow shutter speeds a fairly effortless and ultimately rewarding experience.

The shutter release sits next to the exposure dial. When you press down on the button halfway you are taking a focus and exposure reading, then you squeeze gently to make the exposure. The feel and lack of sound on the release is one of the true pleasures of working with this camera. There is no loud whir and the camera emits a tiny click, necessary to let you know that exposure is made but so quiet that not even close subjects will notice.

Focusing System
When you depress the shutter button lightly you are setting the focus distance. If the light is dim the AF assist lamp sounds out a signal and helps set the distance. If the macro (flower) symbol appears you should compose using the parallax marks in the finder, and if the macro indicator blinks you should back off, as you are too close for the lens to achieve proper focus. If the flash symbol blinks the camera will charge and fire the flash, unless you have defeated the flash using the flash mode button. And finally, if the focus indicator blinks the camera cannot focus on the subject. Try a subject at a similar distance to set focus, as the shutter will not release if focus cannot be obtained. In short, the camera guides you through everything you need to get proper exposure, focus and framing.

Simplicity of layout and controls are hallmarks of the T3. On the upper right of the camera body sit the shutter release, the exposure compensation, AFL (AutoFocus Lock) and the control dial where you choose P (for Program) or select apertures (image, right). The LCD panel on the left side of the camera body displays the mode and flash mode selection, as well as the frame number. Flash and optional modes are selected via pushbuttons, as shown below.

Focus lock can be obtained by using the focus lock button atop the camera. To work with focus lock you hold down the AFL button for about 2 sec, and then release to take the picture. Like all such cameras the focus detection is centered, so focus lock comes in handy when you want to compose with your principal subject off to the side of the frame.

Speaking of locks, although not described too clearly in the instruction book, AEL (AutoExposure Lock) can be activated by partial pressure on the shutter release button. You have to keep this depressed slightly to hold the exposure lock. This comes in handy for reading highlights or shadows for slide and negative film, respectively. The meter is quite center-weighted as well, so AEL is a necessity when shooting slide film in high-contrast lighting conditions.

You can also set focus manually. You might want to do this to prevent the shutter from blocking, shooting when the AF system can't obtain focus, or when you're doing quick candids in Aperture Priority mode and can guesstimate the depth of field (a chart's provided in the instruction book for quick reference). With the 35mm focal length at f/16 and the focus set at 3 meters you've pretty much got a fixed focus lens that will deliver a depth of field for any subject from about 6 ft to infinity. You set focus via the mode button and rotate the dial until the required distance shows up in the finder. The camera will hold this focus until it is turned off or, using a custom setting, will retain it even when turned off. Yes, the distance is marked in meters, so get your metric mind in shape before attempting this.

Flash Matters
There are the usual flash modes one finds in point-and-shoot cameras, including Fill Flash and Night Sync mode. The modes are accessed via the Flash mode button atop the camera. There's also something Contax calls Backlight Automatic, which means that the flash will fire in Auto, Redeye, and Night Portrait modes when it detects strong backlight. The system also detects when the subject is out of flash range, and will give you a rapid blinking of the flash symbol in the viewfinder when the flash won't do the job. Unfortu-nately, the flash in the camera is quite weak and it relies on a very wide aperture for any meaningful coverage when using ISO 100 film. For that reason, Contax recommends using P mode rather than Aperture Priority mode when using flash.

For example, at f/2.8 the flash can cover up to about 7 ft when using ISO 100 film. At narrower apertures the flash seems almost useless. At f/8, with ISO 100 film, the coverage is less than 3 ft! Using ISO 400 film gives a slightly better range, but at f/8 you're still looking at less than 6 ft. Our advice? The same as that from Contax--stick to P mode and be prepared to have a very shallow depth of field when flash is required. Better yet, invest in the Contax TLA200 flash unit for TTL exposure control. This triples the flash coverage power--at f/8 you can get a more acceptable 7-8 ft coverage, and on Program (f/2.8) you can get out to about 25 ft. Without this accessory flash this is a decidedly available light camera.

This exposure was made in very bright light of a highly reflective subject. Exposure was locked after moving in to take a reading off the center portion of the scene, and then I backed off to make the exposure. This is another way to guarantee good exposure using slide film with this camera.

Exposure Information
Program exposure mode tends to favor a wide aperture setting. Up to EV 10 the program sticks with f/2.8, and then, as light brightens, it climbs upward through the narrower apertures. EV 10 at ISO 100 is equivalent to f/5.6 at 1/30 sec. To reduce the possibility of camera shake the T3 Program chooses f/2.8 at 1/125 sec. At EV 15--f/16 at 1/125 sec ("sunny 16")--the T3 chooses f/8 at 1/500 sec. Again, you can override this by switching to Aperture Priority mode to get good old f/16 at 1/125 sec.

For nuancing exposure control there's an exposure compensation setting in +/-2 EV, programmable in 1/2 or 1/3 EV increments. We recommend testing this with your favorite film to see how you can manipulate tonal values and color saturation. This is a wonderful addition that will be most appreciated by those with the instincts and experience to make the right setting decisions. There's also a two-time self-timer, one at 10 sec for getting yourself into the shot and one at 2 sec, recommended for camera steadiness when shooting long-time exposures. The 2-sec timer is a fine substitute for lack of a cable release socket. You can also set your own long-time exposures ranging from 1 to 180 sec. You can use this with or without a flash fire. This mode does not provide automatic exposure control, so you're on your own. But if you're shooting negative film, or are willing to bracket to get the exposure right, the 2-sec delay sure comes in handy.

Field Test
How did the Contax T3 deliver in the field? First off, it is so lightweight and compact that I hardly knew it was there. Operation and feel are as smooth as silk. And once I got used to the various signals and blinks I knew just what I was getting into when I pressed the shutter release.

Although this is a point-and-shoot camera with a Program mode, I couldn't help but work with the camera in Aperture Priority mode. This is a luxury with a camera this compact and gave me a feeling of control over at least some aspect of the scene. The lack of specific shutter speed readouts did not get in the way and I got quite used to the range readouts the Contax T3 provides. If I did want to stop action it was easy enough to switch to a wider aperture; in addition, a check of the Program mode chart in the instruction book shows that the system always favors a fast shutter speed over a narrower aperture.

For low-light exposures it's a good idea to brace the camera to eliminate shake. But the T3 allows you to make steady shots at shutter speeds unthinkable with a handheld 35mm SLR. Although the camera does not read out specific shutter speeds, my guess is that this frame was made at about 1/15 sec. This is a great available light camera.

This is a camera made for working in available light. Every image I made in dim light was rock steady. The lens, as expected, delivered tack-sharp images with excellent color rendition. As mentioned, the flash is anemic. I tried the flash a few times in night scenes and the coverage was very short, as the specs imply. The only way that the built-in flash would provide meaningful coverage is with fast films, at least ISO 400 and perhaps even ISO 800. Those who like to work with slower speed films might well consider the optional flash add-on.

My exposures were very, very good with negative film. When I switched to slide I found the best results were obtained by strict adherence to using AEL and/or compensating with minus EV, by 1/2 or 1 EV step. Granted, I shot all of the tests in bright Florida light, but this slight tendency to overexpose is a boon for negative shooters and somewhat problematic for slide film shooters. In open shade the camera did great with slide film; here, you would compensate for effect and not critical exposure control. I highly recommend testing with your favorite films and compensating accordingly. Many people will use this camera with negative film, such as pros looking for a quality weekend snapshot and family camera. Those who shoot only slides might want to keep the EV compensation set at some minus mark, especially for images in bright light.

In all, the Contax T3 is a delight to use. Those seeking tack-sharpness in a highly portable camera need look no further. It's an excellent traveling companion that makes candid work a breeze. The fixed 35mm lens is just right for many shooting situations and is right up there with quality Carl Zeiss T* expectations. And the look and feel evokes the feeling you get when you have a fine instrument in your hands.

For more information, contact Contax at (800) 526-0266; fax: (732) 560-9221;

Technical Specifications
Camera Type: 35mm lens/shutter AF with built-in flash
Lens: Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.8
Focusing Range: 1 ft to infinity
Focusing: Passive AF with AF assist light and Focus Lock function
Auto Exposure Range: -1 EV to EV 18 (ISO 100)
Shutter Speed Range: On P setting, 16 sec to 1/1200 sec; at f/2.8, 1/500 sec; at LT setting, 1 sec to 180 sec
Exposure Compensation: +/- 2 EV in 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps
Flash: Built-in; range, in P mode with ISO 100 film, about 7 ft (same as at f/2.8 when aperture is manually set). At f/8 range drops to less than 3 ft.
Custom Functions: Film status after rewind (in or out of cassette); lens focusing position, exposure compensation hold times, exposure compensation step (1/2 or 1/3 EV), AFL button function, focus lock hold time, manual focus hold time.
Weight: 8.1 oz (without battery)
Size: 4.1x2.4x1.2"
Price: List: $1099; Street: about $699