Today we’re looking at two film cameras. We have the Pentax 645nII and Contax 645: two of the last medium format film bodies ever produced and the two most popular cameras for wedding shooters who still make films.
There are many reasons for that. While they don’t have fancy eye autofocus or anything like that, they both have pretty good autofocus systems, very fast motor drives, and all the basic bells and whistles you could get with a movie camera in the early 2000s.
You also have a meter inside. So if you want to use a meter that you can pick up quickly, the meter can actually be relied on, especially when shooting negative film with a lot of latitude.
There is a price difference between these two. The Contax is much more expensive at around $ 3,000, while the Pentax is available for around $ 1,000. However, the Contax has a Swiss Planar T Zeiss lens that is incredibly sharp, and you also have a detachable back on the Contax.
Pentax doesn’t have a removable back, which means you’ll have to shoot through your entire roll of film before you can switch. That’s a huge bonus for the Contax.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the Pentax’s lens only drops to f / 2.8 while the Contax’s lens drops to af / 2. A lot of people think that’s a big deal. You like the idea of shooting at 1: 2, especially the medium format. So I’m interested in taking some portraits and comparing the two to see what difference it makes.
Apart from the aperture, the Pentax lens doesn’t feel as good as the Contax either and is reflected in the image quality. Speaking of …
Image quality comparison
If you compare the images from these two cameras straight away, you can see that the Pentax contains a little more warmth. Unfortunately, this image is a bit fuzzy on the Pentax, but you can see this warmth there. And a little more contrast to the Contax Zeiss lens.
Of course, you scan these things after the film is processed, so anyone who makes the decisions about these scans can push them around a lot. It’s like in Lightroom or Camera Raw. I’d guess you could have these things matched pretty closely if you wanted, but with no extra work, the Contax has bolder, bolder color, tones of black, and contrast than the Pentax.
Here we have our recording of the Capitol Records building. It’s out of focus again on the Pentax.
We were some distance away here, and at that distance with the background so far away, the way the two lenses get blurred feels very similar. They are both set to f / 2.8 and feel very similar, although there is a difference in the character of the bokeh.
If you look at the bokeh on the Pentax to the right, it is more elongated, while the bokeh on the Contax is more rounded.
When we were out, the Contax was a bit slower on the autofocus, even in bright sunlight. When we got back inside and tried to point both cameras on things inside, the Pentax was really moving forward. Both cameras would chase, but the Pentax could actually find a subject and snap into place with pretty much any image. The Contax has never stopped hunting and because it cannot focus automatically, it cannot take a picture.
I would say that autofocus with the Contax is unusable in poor lighting conditions. The Pentax seems to be much better to use in low light, and the viewfinder is brighter on the Pentax. Therefore, the usability in low light conditions is better with the Pentax. That’s quite an advantage …
But back to the comparison of images.
In this picture you can really see the difference between 1: 2.8 for the Pentax and 1: 2.0 for the Contax – it falls out of focus much faster and makes a much nicer background with nice bokeh. I also like the way the lines around the trees dissolve.
However, it’s not all due to the bezel as you can see in the image below:
These are both recorded at f / 2.8 with the same distance between subject and background and the same distance between subject and camera. For some reason, the Contax falls out of focus faster, so that the subject really jumps out of the picture.
In contrast, this is probably the picture they look most similar in, although with the Contax you will definitely see a little more detail in their skin. You get those beautiful lines on your face and just a little bit more definition. The Pentax gives you a much softer look – it almost feels like you’ve softened her face in the mail.
And here is our last picture. Unfortunately, the Pentax wasn’t fully focused here (again) – it’s not focused on your right eye, it’s focused on your left eye.
But again, you see a bit more warmth with the Pentax through the leaves and more drop and contrast from the Contax with the Zeiss lens. It’s a very pretty picture really, especially of the Contax with the way it gets out of focus.
If I were a wedding photographer and did this seriously, I would definitely get a contax. Yes, even if the autofocus is unusable in poor lighting conditions, I would only focus the Contax manually. The picture quality is worth it.
I think the Contax is simply beautiful. The pictures look very pretty.
That’s not to say the Pentax is a bad option. With a price of 1/3 and better AF, I think the Pentax is a great option, especially if you are new to the field. If you’re trying to get into film and into the world of medium format, the Pentax is super cheap and one of the newest medium format film cameras you can buy. I’ve seen them as low as $ 650 or $ 700 for the body.
The truth is, you can’t go wrong with these two cameras, it just depends on what you need. What do you want to spend it on? If image quality is critical, you should spend the extra money on the Contax. When ease of use is more important and budget is limited, the Pentax is a great option.
About the author: Jay P. Morgan is a commercial photographer with over two decades of industry experience. He teaches photography through his company The Slanted Lens, which runs a popular YouTube channel. This review was also published here.