Currently I’m thinning down my camera collection, and it’s smaller than it’s been in a couple of years.
I experience an ongoing internal tussle between the photographer who wishes to evolve and to do so feels he needs a very small, focused kit, and the camera collector that loves trying new (old) cameras at the rate of one or two a week.
If the photographer won out, and had just one SLR and one compact, this is what he would choose. This, if you will, is the minimalist dream.
Contax 139 Quartz with Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens
Discovering Contax as a brand was a revelation, and the first one I had was a 139 Quartz.
It’s quite simply my favourite SLR I’ve ever used.
The compact size, super smooth controls and spacious bright viewfinder put it in a different class to cameras I’ve previous tried.
I then bought another 139 as a back up, which had very tatty leather, and recovered it. This is the one pictured above. It feels like new.
Also soon after came a 159MM and a 167MT, and just this week I’ve purchased a 137MA. I also have a Yashica FX-D, a sibling of the 139 (Yashica and Contax combined forces under Kyocera to create both), which is simply the best SLR I’ve used that doesn’t say CONTAX on the front.
The Carl Zeiss Flektogon I managed to acquire in a job lot of stuff, and was lucky to find one in excellent condition.
The aperture blades were a bit lazy though, and I just got it back from being serviced (the first time I’ve ever had a lens CLA’d!) and it also feels like new.
Whilst I’m most comfortable and experienced with 50/55mm lens on SLRs, the 35mm Flektogon instantly just felt right. I love its close focus (<0.2m) and it’s unbelievably sharp.
It feels the best made Zeiss I’ve had too, as in the past they’ve not been as smooth to use as something like a Takumar or Minolta MC Rokkor. This Flek is now in touching distance of those mentioned.
The colours are lovely too – the above and below photographs were shot with humble and very cheap AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200.
The keen eyed will have noted that the Contax 139 Quartz is Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount, and the Flektogon is an M42 mount lens.
My arrival at the Contax bodies originally came mostly through looking for the best body available to shoot M42 lenses with, as after trying Pentax K, Minolta SR, Canon FD, Olympus OM and Konica AR lenses, I had already decided that M42 offered the most interesting and capable lenses at the most affordable prices.
Two M42 bodies remain in my collection – an Asahi Spotmatic F and a Fujica ST701. I shoot Sunny 11 with both of them, and they’re equally excellent.
But most of the time I’m more lazy, and wanted an aperture priority body, one that is lighter and more compact than the M42 bodies above.
The Contax 139 with a very simple M42 > C/Y adapter is an excellent option, and the adapter only cost around £12.
This set up also gave me an opportunity to use wonderful Carl Zeiss lenses, without paying the heady prices the C/Y Zeiss models seem to fetch.
I could have also chosen the Contax 159MM as my sole camera for this theoretical experiment, as it’s possibly even better than the 139, though somehow the latter has a greater charm for me. Maybe because it was my first.
Even the Yashica FX-D would serve me very well and cost less than half what the Contax bodies did.
Lens wise, the Takumar 55mm f/1.8 is gorgeous, still smoother to use than the Flektogon, and capable of wonderful photographs. But right now the Flektogon is my favourite.
On the AF compact front, I recently finally “got” the Olympus Mju-1, after a few false starts. From that revelation, I discovered the same lens was used in a couple of other models, the LT-1, and AF-1 Mini, and bought examples of both.
The Mju-1 is an amazing compact and quite probably the purest AF point and shoot I’ve ever used.
Very small and streamlined, super simple to slide open and shoot, and once you find what it likes, the humble 35mm f/3.5 3 element lens is capable of quite superb results.
Oh and it focus closer than any other 35mm lens I’ve experienced in a compact – 0.35m.
The LT-1 though, might be even better.
Essentially it’s the same lens, AF system and innards as the Mju-1, but in a slightly different shaped body, and dressed in leather.
The round, pebble like shape is very tactile and comfortable to hold, and the leather certainly adds to the quality feel and assured handling.
The leather flap that covers the lens, looks like it might get in the way and be a case of style over function.
But actually, typically for Olympus, it’s superbly designed.
The flap has a magnetic button to fix it closed, which is strong enough both to locate itself securely when its vaguely near, as well as to keep it safely covered when in your bag or pocket. Yet it can easily be flipped up with your thumb when you want to use it.
Whereas with the Mju-1, the camera is powered up by just opening the sliding cover, the LT-1 has a separate switch by the lens. Again, like the flap, at first you might think this is awkward and makes it slower to use.
But cleverly (again!), Olympus have designed to LT-1 so this switch is exactly where your fingers expect it to be.
Even more cleverly, even when the camera is switched on and the lens has popped out a couple of mm, because the glass itself is safely recessed, it’s still easy to close the flap securely.
Which means when out and about on a photowalk, I leave the camera switched on, then just flip the flap open with my thumb when I’m ready to use it, compose and shoot.
It’s just as quick and pure in its “point and shootness” as the Mju-1.
The Mju-1 is revered (rightly) for its excellent egonomics (whereas in my opinion its successor the Mju II handles like a bar of wet soap), but the LT-1 is even better.
The combination of the curved pebble shape, the leather body, the raised thumb rest at the rear of the camera, and the size and position of the shutter button, make holding it pretty much as perfect as I’ve ever experienced in a compact camera.
As you can gather, I love both the cameras I’ve featured here, they are as close to the ideal SLR and compact I have yet found.
It is very tempting to just stick with these two and sell off everything else I have to just invest in film and processing for the coming months and years.
Whether that happens, or the ever curious and insatiate camera collector within me continuous to wield significant influence, only time will tell. I’ll keep you posted…
If you had to choose just one, what would your favourite SLR, lens and AF compact be?
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