Tutorial: Introduction to the Contax 645 Camera
A BEGINNER'S INTRODUCTION TO THE CONTAX 645 CAMERA
The Contax 645 film photography camera provides one of the most widely sought-after looks in the wedding lifestyle industries today. Championed by celebrated wedding photographers such as Jose Villa and Erich McVey, this camera produces stunning images that are rich and detailed, with a powerful subtle balance between sharpness and softness thanks to the remarkable Zeiss-designed lenses featured. Though now discontinued, it is still one of the most sought-after medium format cameras today and provides a look sought after by brides around the world.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Contax 645 camera was released in 1999. Notable for it's intuitive modular design, durability and outstanding Zeiss-designed optics, it was hailed as a milestone in medium-format photography upon release due to it's flexibility and it's assortment of operational features (autofocus precision, portability, etc). One of it's special features upon release was a film back equipped with vacuum system, which the manufacturers claimed increased sharpness by keeping the film perfectly flat against the focal plane. Contax was eventually purchased by Kyocera, a Japanese ceramics company, which announced in 2005 that it would no longer produce Contax cameras.
USE BY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS
The Contax 645 line was championed by wedding and lifestyle photographer Jose Villa, among others, in the late '00s. Using the Contax 645 camera system as a cornerstone of his process, he produced work that was fluid, intimate, and ethereal, establishing a new genre called fine art wedding photography. You can find many useful strategies and tips on shooting with the Contax 645 in his book, Fine Art Wedding Photography. Since that book was released, many amazing wedding photographers have also shared their knowledge on shooting with the Contax 645 system, including Erich McVey and Jen Huang.
COMMON LIFESTYLE TECHNIQUES
Shooting Wide Open
By shooting wide open (where the camera is set to it's widest possible aperture), one will get a lovely bokeh in the composition. Bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of your image. It largely depends on the quality of the lens, and the Contax 645, teamed with a Zeiss 80mm f/2 lens produces stunning results. These creamy backgrounds work especially well in portraiture, where we are drawn in to focus solely on the face of the subject. Shooting wide open gives us softer images when shot in open shade, giving an overall pleasing uniform flatness to the full composition.
Pulling The Film
You will find that many fine art wedding photographers choose to "pull" their film. This is when you set your camera to have a lower ISO rate than the film actually has, thereby "overexposing" the film. For instance, you would rate a Portra 400 film at 200 on the camera. Since color film has a great amount of latitude in terms of exposure, over-exposing can create more saturated images with tones that better fit our style. Also, it depends on what film you're using (ie Fuji or Kodak). For more on this subject, check out Richard Photo Lab's guide on Pushing and Pulling film.
Basically, there's two types of film scanners that most labs will use to scan your developed film. These are the Noritsu scanner and the Frontier 3000 scanner. The Frontier is slower, so there will be longer turn-around time. Many (I would say most) fine art wedding photographers using the Contax 645 prefer Frontier scans. Though the output of Frontier scans is entirely subjective, to my eye the images produced by a Frontier are fuller, slightly warmer, and slightly moodier compositions.
My personal lab of choice right now is Richard Photo Lab, based in Los Angeles, CA. I've experimented with other labs and have gotten the best results from RPL. No matter what lab you choose, you'll want to make sure to communicate to them your desired aesthetic as this affects how they process and scans your film. For instance, I prefer a slightly more saturated and moody image, with golden skin tones and cooler greens.
The subject of Contax 645 lenses is a little complex. Some in the photography community think that it is misleading to call the lenses Zeiss lenses, as they are not produced by Zeiss in Germany, but by Kyocera, predominantly a ceramics company, in Japan. However, Kyocera is well-known for quality within the photography community, as well. Speaking for myself, I find the lenses to be stunning and far better than any of the premium Canon lenses I've used.
WHERE TO BUY
If you're starting out and seeking a place where you can perhaps rent and try out a Contax 645 system, I would recommend checking out Contax Rental. The prices are reasonable, staff knowledgeable, and you can even rent-to-own, which is what I did. If you're like I was and spending hour after hour trying to make digital to look like film, I would say go for it and do the real thing. Film, both in process and product, has a magic that is truly unbeatable.