Leica M System
These are each about actual size:
January 2009 Rangefinder vs. SLR cameras
Leica's rangefinder 35mm full-frame cameras have been around since 1913.
The current Leica M-series bayonet 35mm rangefinder cameras have been around since 1954. Leicas newest M-series cameras and lenses today are still completely compatible and interchangeable with those from 1954; nothing has been changed.
Contax went away in the 1950s. Zeiss retained rights to the Contax name. The Contax trade name was rented by Japanese ceramics giant Kyocera in the 1980s, after which they designed, manufactured and sold a series of advanced cameras and lenses. The Contax G System debuted in 1994.
Sadly, the more advanced Contax G System went away by about 2007, while Leica still sells its M system.
I own and use both. Here are the differences.
The Contax G System is better for fast, fun shooting. It's a blast. It also costs one-tenth as much as a Leica M system and has a far more accurate modern viewfinder system than the Leica's, which are largely unchanged since the 1950s.
The newest Leica M camera, the M7, is superior for careful manual focusing and work at night, since its meter and exposure system support much longer exposure times than the Contax G system. The long-exposure difference is much larger in practice than the simple specifications make it appear. The Leicas are clumsy compared to the modern Contax.
Size and Weight
Each system is very similar in size and weight.
The Contax system and each lens is usually a little lighter than its corresponding Leica component, but not enough to make much of a difference between systems compared to the handling and shooting issues.
Image Quality and Optics
Each system produces equally superb results.
The optics of each system are as close to perfect as I've ever used in 35mm. There are no better optics, and most SLR optics from Nikon and Canon are inferior.
Handling and Ergonomics
When you use both systems as I do, the differences between them become all too obvious when I grab one camera after shooting the other for a week.
The Contax just goes. It's easy to shoot with one hand. It autofocuses instantly and just shoots and advances so quickly and quietly to the next frame that you can just keep shooting without worrying about winding. It goes as fast as a pro digital SLR and faster than inexpensive SLRs like the Nikon D40. AF is as fast or faster than a Nikon D3.
Not only does the Contax shoot great with just one hand, it only takes one hand to flick the big Exposure Compensation dial or flip the big AEL lever. I use the AEL lever while looking through the finder; it's super easy. Film loads by itself in the Contax.
My only complaints about the Contax are that its AF system isn't always right with the 90mm lens: I usually have to try a few times to get the right focus with the 90mm lens wide-open.
On the other hand, when I pick up a Leica after shooting a Contax (or Nikon SLR), my first thoughts are "this is retarded," and by definition, it is. The Leica still handles the same way it did back in 1954. Film loading is a multi-step process that involves taking the camera apart!
Loading a Leica reminds me of the class I took at Panavision to learn how to load their movie cameras: you have to thread it through a slot and line up perforations with sprockets and poke film into little slots on reels. You don't do this as you're shooting; it's done offline, and likewise, everything stops when you effectively have to change a magazine on the Leica. I've missed photos because of the time it takes to load a Leica.
Once you get the Leica loaded, it still feels retarded just fumbling with the focus, its not-particularly vivid frame lines in the finder, and a finder which always seems to be the wrong size for the lens you're shooting. It's as if the finder was an afterthought, but in fact it's because the finder design comes from a time closer to the 1800s than to today.
If money matters, don't even consider Leica. The Contax G System costs a fraction as much, since you can buy a complete used three-lens Contax system and G2 body for less than one used Leica M body alone.
The Contax is built to typically good Oriental standards. It's precise and high-quality.
The Leica is German, and built as you'd expect. Leica is precise, as well as being built like a tank, even today.
In-hand, the Contax feels like a slightly swishier Nikon or Canon from metal years past. The Leica feels like nothing else.
The Leica wins on feel. If money doesn't matter, the Leica feels nicer if you're not actually shooting it. If you are shooting it, the far more advanced Contax works much more quickly and gets out of the way much better.
Each offers TTL light and flash metering, and manual and aperture-preferred auto exposure. Neither system offers Professional exposure mode (previously called "program") and neither system has any communication between lens and camera for aperture.
Each system has you set the aperture manually on the lens, and meters stopped-down for extremely consistent exposure regardless of lens or filters.
Leica is still largely thumb-wind, manual film loading, manual rewind and manual focus. Batteries last a long time, and older models use no batteries at all.
The Contax is completely electronic, with auto focus and automatic film loading, winding and rewinding. It burns through a pair of CR2 batteries every dozen or two rolls.
As rangefinder (non-SLR viewfinder) cameras, neither is very good for close-ups. The Contax is better, since 1.) its finders compensate for reduced field of view at close distance, and 2.) the Contax focuses to 0.5m for normal and wide lenses, while the Leica system only focuses to 0.7m for the same lenses.
The LEICA requires a lot of attention, while the Contax takes care of the grunt work so you can concentrate on making better pictures.
Specifically, the G2 takes care of all this by itself, while the LEICA makes all this manual drudgery:
Automatic drop-in film loading
Automatic DX film speed setting
Automatic fast and quiet film advance
Automatic, fast power rewind
All you do is shoot the Contax, while you spend a lot of time fiddling with a LEICA. Heck, LEICAs have to be taken apart into two or three pieces just to change the film!
Which Would I Choose?
If money mattered, I wouldn't bother with the Leica system, since the results and optics of the Contax G system are identical.
I bought the Leica system when I realized it cost a fraction of the Nikon D3X body I almost bought. I got a complete lifetime Leica system for only half of what I almost threw away on a D3X.
Since I own both, I grab the Contax if I want a fun, easy-to-use compact camera system that gives superb results.
I grab the Leica if I'm doing more serious work, because the Leica system allows more precise (but slower) manual focusing, and better performance for time exposures with the M7.
The Leica gives me 39 frames per roll, but I only get 37 with the Contax' electronic advance.
The Contax' AF system is fairly fidgety when trying to use the 90mm lens wide-open, while the Leica gives consistent results.
There are no depth-of-field scales on the Contax, so for landscape shots where I need to calculate the sharpest aperture, the Leica wins easily. So would any old manual-focus Nikon SLR. It's a royal pain trying to calculate depth-of-field in my head using only the Contax' digital distance displays!
The finder system of the Contax is much better when using most lenses. The Contax finder is always accurate, while the primitive Leica finders often give inaccurate framing at different distances with different lenses.
Throughout this comparison you'll see that the Contax G system completely eclipses the Leica M system in almost every possible way, but that I still prefer to use the Leica system for careful work. This is because the one area in which the Contax G system falls behind the Leica M system is critical: focusing
It's slower and more difficult to get good focus with the Contax AF system for the 90mm lens than it is to focus manually with Leica, and since the Contax lacks distance and depth-of-field scales, it's far easier and faster to shoot careful landscapes with the Leica.
Size and Weight
The Contax G and Leica M bodies are about the same size and weight.
The size of the bodies are the same.
The Contax G bodies probably weigh a little less than most current M bodies, depending on which two you compare. The Leica M7 is among the heaviest Ms.
The Contax lenses are usually lighter and often smaller than the Leica lenses.
The optics are equally superb. This makes the Zeiss-for-Contax lenses a bargain, since they usually sell used for about one-tenth the price of used Leica lenses.
Either the Japanese Zeiss-for-Contax lenses or Leica's German M lenses are almost perfect. Either is superior to the SLR lenses from Canon or Nikon if you're really paying attention.
You won't see this difference most of the time, but if you're looking at 3,600 DPI scans at 100%, it's easy to see. The Zeiss and Leica lenses just won't go soft in the corners or at full aperture, while most SLR lenses do.
The Zeiss and Leica lenses usually have zero distortion, unlike SLR lenses.
You can obsess for hours comparing MTF charts and distortion plots as I have (click the Technical Data links for each lens at Leica's list of current lenses, or the technical data sheets under Contax G at Zeiss's list of older lenses), and you'll see Leica and the Japanese Zeiss lenses do the same thing. Often the Zeiss-for-Contax lenses have better distortion specifications than the similar Leica lenses which sell for ten to twenty times as much, while at least as sharp!
On film, I've compared them directly and almost have gone blind trying to see any difference. Even under my Nikon Alphaphot laboratory microscope, I can't pronounce one better or worse than the other. What's easy to see claimed on MTF charts isn't visible in real photos caught on film.
For optical excellence, either the Zeiss-for-Contax or Leica lenses are the best I've used in 35mm. Nothing is better, and everything else I've tried is usually worse in some conditions.
You only have seven lenses from which to chose for the Contax. Luckily, they're exactly the lenses you need and nothing more.
You have a ridiculous choice of lenses for Leica, which easily can hang you up wondering instead of shooting. Leica also works with all the lenses made since 1954, and with a $60 screw-mount adapter, all the lenses made for decades before that.
Leica makes and has made quite a few extra-fast f/1.4, f/1.2, f/1 and f/0.95 lenses, none of which exist for the Contax.
The longest lens for the Contax is 90mm, and 135mm in Leica. (Leica made longer lenses to be used with a goofy reflex adapter with their rangefinder cameras, but they are so big and foolish that I will ignore them.) Since the Leica finder is sucky for 135mm and Contax' finder for the 90mm is superb, I'll call this a tie.
The shortest in-brand lens for each system is 16mm.
The Contax 16mm f/8 is optically perfect, however its fixed aperture and lack of TTL metering or the ability to use filters makes it largely useless outside of a lab.
Leica's 16-21mm f/4 zoom (a.k.a. 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar) is optically inferior due to far more distortion, but it can use filters, has a diaphragm and uses the Leica's TTL meters, so it's far more useful for actual photography.
Each system is all about super-high performance, small and reasonably fast fixed lenses.
Neither system is big on zooms.
Contax made only one slow 35-70mm zoom for the G system. Leica has only made two zooms for their rangefinder system in Leica's 90 year history, only one of which is made today.
Contax' 35-70mm zoom was very slow (f5.6 at 70mm), so it never sold well.
Since Contax' viewfinder zooms, you always got perfect framing at every zoom setting.
Leica used to make a 28-50mm f/4 zoom (a.k.a. 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar) for the M rangefinder system, and today makes only a 16-21mm f/4 zoom (a.k.a. 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar).
Instead of admitting that its primitive fixed finders eliminate one of the biggest advantages of zooms (the ability to use intermediate focal lengths), Leica got sneaky and turned this serious system flaw into a marketing hook.
Leica avoids calling its zooms zooms, and instead only lets you click them to to one setting in the middle of the zoom range, as well as at each end. These three settings correspond to the few fixed frame lines available in the Leica M system.
Since Leica has to restrict you to only three zoom settings that correspond to Leica's few fixed finder settings, Leica chose to market their zooms as "Tri-Elmar," and pretends that they are some sort of miraculous triple-focal-length fixed lens.
With the Contax zoom, the finder automatically and instantly zooms with a direct mechanical coupling to the lens. It just works.
With the old 28-50mm Leica M zoom, the finder changed itself to the three settings as you zoomed, but with today's 16-21mm M zoom you have to click-over an external finder to match the zoom setting. If you forget, you'll get entirely random framing and metering areas!
The Contax G System shoots much faster than the Leica M system.
The Contax just goes, while the Leica system always requires more fiddling.
The Contax, with its instantaneous AF system and fast power film loading, winding and rewinding makes it a blast to burn through film with great results.
Want exposure bracketing? The Contax makes it simple and automatic with a dedicated switch, while your only option on Leica is to do it manually.
The lens release button is on the wrong side of the Leica, but the correct side of the Contax.
I can't shoot the M7 with one-hand. It demands your left hand for focusing, while I can shoot the Contax G from one hand.
The Leica is slightly quieter, since it is wound by thumb, even long after a shot is made , however the Leica requires more on-face fiddling for manual focus.
The Contax is more discreet because it requires far less fiddling. Bring it to your face, it autofocuses, shoots and advances the film instantly.
With Leica, you bring it to your face, twiddle with focus, shoot, and then have to make more motions to get the film wound by hand. This can attract attention. I've had people say "wow, we haven't seen that in a long time," referring to winding film by hand.
Either camera can be preset for manual focus and exposure, while the Contax winds itself discreetly.
At the end of the roll, the contax rewinds itself in a few seconds, while you have to call attention to yourself cranking the rewind knob on Leica.
Don't even get me started on film loading. The Contax loads itself by dropping in the film and closing the back, while you have to take the Leica apart and fiddle with a bunch of parts. You'll draw a crowd trying to load a Leica, and while your guard is down with your back to everyone, you just might get murdered.
Caps and Filters
I shoot the Contax system with a few 46mm and 55mm filters. Since I often like to use two or more filters at the same time, I use a 55mm -> 67mm step-up ring for use on the Zeiss-for-Contax 21mm lens.
A real treat with the Contax G System is if you buy all the extra-cost hoods and fancy optional billet-metal caps. If you do, the same A57mm slip-on cap fits every Zeiss-for-Contax lens, meaning every one of the seven lenses ever made from 16mm through 90mm now takes the same front cap!
This is a huge boon when shooting, because the same front cap fits every lens as you change them and put them away.
Leica has been around forever. If you're careful, you can pick up a set of lenses that use the same filter size. I use a 28mm f/2.8 ASPH from 2009, 50mm f/2 from 1970 and a 90mm f/2.8 Tele from 1987. They all take 39mm filters, and so does the Cosina 21mm f/4.
If you're careful with Leica, you may also be able to get a set of lenses which take 46mm filters.
Leica isn't as smart about caps. If you use lenses without hoods and the same sized filters, you're OK. If you use hoods, forget it: each Leica hood requires a different goofy cap.
The ability to swap lenses, which also means caps and filters, is crucial. The Contax system makes this simpler in the field.
Each system uses different rear caps for the wide lenses, which poke out further. If you use the deeper caps for all lenses, this won't be a problem. Leica's current rear cap (14 269) fits all their lenses.
I prefer the Leica's precise manual focus to the Contax' inconsistent, but fast, autofocus. The Contax can focus as close as 0.5m for normal and wide lenses, while the Leica's close focus is never better than 0.7m.
The Contax is autofocus. The G1 has an awful AF system, and the G2 has a less bad AF system. Each is fast, but not always accurate. The Contax G2 also can focus in complete darkness out to about 10 feet (3m).
The Contax has a manual focus feature that doesn't work. It's horribly inaccurate. The best way to do manual focus on the Contax is to use the AF-lock feature, or to set a distance using the digital scale. The manual-focus indicator bar works horribly, which means that it seems OK while you're shooting, but the results are often not in focus.
The Leica uses a traditional superimposed-image rangefinder for manual focus. It is more precise and more consistent than the flaky Contax AF system.
The Leica lenses have distance and depth of field scales, while the Contax lenses have nothing! The only distance indicator on Contax is a digital display of distance on the camera body. With Contax, you have to do any depth-of-field calculations in your head, making the Contax much less convenient for landscape photos.
Contax' autofocus system is almost instantaneous, while Leica's manual rangefinders take more time.
Sadly, the AF system of the Contax G2 is barely good enough for the 90mm f/2.8, and the AF system of the G1 is worse.
Because of Contax' inconsistent AF system, for careful shooting at large apertures with the 90mm lens I have to fiddle around and try several times to get the AF locked-in correctly with the Contax G2.
The Contax reads distance differently by about 5% every time it measures distance, so for the 90mm lens I try a few times until I get the distance which seems to pop up the most often.
I don't even want to think how bad the G1 might be.
For careful work with 90mm lenses, I can shoot faster manually with the Leica, since I only have to set it once.
Leica's manual-focus distance scales are perfect for careful depth-of-field calculations, while the Contax system has no focus scale: just a numerical LCD display. You've got to be really good at math with the Contax G System to measure the near and far distances, and calculate the optimum midpoint distance in your head to set manually into the Contax AF system.
With Leica you always know you're in focus, but with Contax, I'm always wondering. Contax has a digital distance readout in the finder, but it's never as reassuring as the manual system of the Leica.
Each system attempts to correct for parallax versus distance, but that's where the similarities end.
For use across the entire lens line, the Contax G system has a far superior finder system.
I consistently get perfectly-framed results with the Contax G system, regardless of lens or focused distance. It's always easy to see my composition through the Contax G finders.
The Contax G system is smart enough to zoom the viewfinder for different focal lengths, so the finder is ideal for wide and tele lenses.
I much prefer the Contax finder.
The finder of the Contax G1 and G2 is slightly larger-than-life with the 90mm lens, and it's small enough so that I can see my composition without having to guess and move my eyes around with the 28mm lens.
The Leica's finder is a traditional fixed-magnification finder with superimposed frame lines. Rectangles of different sizes appear for different lenses inside a much larger viewing area. The rectangles move around a little bit to attempt to correct parallax, but they don't change size or shape to correct for different angles of view at different distances.
Leica finders data display, if any, is minimal. The data display of today's M7 is only 1970s-style LED numbers superimposed in the active image area.
The Contax finder has a big green LCD under the image with the usual collection of information seen in modern Oriental cameras.
The Contax finder is an image inside a black rectangle. The image zooms in and out inside the same-sized rectangle for all lenses. The sides of the rectangle move differently from one another to correct not just parallax, as does Leica, but also change size very cleverly to correct for focus distance (lenses extend and see slightly smaller angles of view at close distances).
Very long and short lenses are poor through the Leica finders, while the Contax' zoom finders are always optimum. Short lenses on the Leica require you to look all over to see the entire image, while tele lenses only occupy the very center of a huge finder.
Leica attempts to rectify this problem not by modernizing the finder, but by selling versions of the same camera with different fixed finder magnifications! Every Contax G1 and G2 finder zooms over a wider range (0.35x - 1.14x) than every magnification ever sold by Leica (0.58x - 0.97x).
Most Leica finders leave two sets of frame lines active all the time, leaving junk over your image as you try to compose. The Contax's image area has only a small AF dot and is otherwise clean.
The Contax finder is slightly brighter than the Leica finders, because the Leica finders have to be partially polarized (dimmed) to allow contrast between the image and the focusing spot and the frame lines
If all you shoot are 45mm or 50mm lenses, you might prefer the Leica because its magnification, depending on your choice of body, is usually greater than the Contax' 0.57x magnification with a 45mm lens.
For all wider and longer lenses, I prefer the Contax.
I love the Contax finder, especially because its finder isn't cluttered with extra junk frame lines and because the Contax corrects for different magnification by focused distance for more accurate framing.
Look carefully at the Contax G finder as a lens focuses from infinity to close-focus-distance, and you'll see the finder crop a little more tightly, exactly as does a lens as it extends when focused more closely. The Leica M finders have no ability to zoom for optimum results with different lenses, and worse, aren't smart enough to correct for the change in angles-of-view with focused distance. That's why Leica's users' manuals warn that you can have at least a 23% cropping error in your finder when shooting a 135mm lens at infinity!
Noise and Sync Speeds
The Leicas are quieter, but have sync speeds two stops slower than the Contax.
Each is quieter than a motorized SLR.
The Leica is thumb-wound, and its slow cloth shutters are very quiet. Your tradeoff for the slow, quiet shutters is a silly 1/50 flash sync speed.
The Contax has a more precise and slightly louder click to its metal focal plane shutter. Its faster shutter gives a two-stop sync speed advantage, with a 1/200 sync speed.
The Contax always winds its motor drive after every shot. It's fast, precise and not loud, but still louder than putting a Leica in your armpit to wind it with your thumb.
The Contax sounds great. It might not be as quiet., but its tight, precise sound is pleasant and reassuring. The Contax doesn't sound like a toy: it sounds cool.
The Leicas are much easier on batteries.
All of the Leica and Contax cameras use small batteries. They are all small enough to be carried in a pocket so that you'll always have a spare set with you.
The Contax runs through sets of two CR2 batteries about every 15-20 rolls.
Older Leica bodies and selenium meters through the 1960s used no batteries at all. Even the meters worked by generating their own power with a solar cell.
The MR-4 clip-on meter for the M1-M4 bodies and the M5 body starting in the 1970s all use PX625 cells, which last a year or more to power their meters. The LEICA M6 uses two S76 cells to power its meter.
The M1-M6 bodies have mechanical shutters which work without batteries. The batteries only are used to measure the exposure, so if you're a good guesser, you can skip the meters and batteries altogether.
The M7 uses two 2L44 (DL1/3N) lithium cells, which ought to power the camera for about 50 rolls. The M7's shutter is electronic, although manual settings of 1/60 and 1/125 work without batteries.
I get 39 frames per roll on Leica M, and only 37 frames per roll on Contax G.
The Contax automatically loads itself and advances past the first few frames in less than a second after you close the back. That means the Contax just wasted frames 0 and 00. I get back one or two black wasted frames for every roll. This is typical for electronic auto-advance cameras.
The manual-load Leicas allow me to shoot 39 frames on every roll: frames 0 through 38. I love this! If I'm really cheap and load in the darkroom, I also can shoot frame 00 and get 40 good frames per roll.
Even the electronic Leicas don't default the shutter to 1/250 like many 1980s manual-wind cameras, so frames before frame 1 can be shot normally. The only downside to this is that in Auto, you have to be careful not to be advancing past frame 00 with the cap on, otherwise the shutter stays open for a 38 second time exposure.
The Contax has a lower-center-weighted meter. I find it perfect.
The Leicas only meter in a 12mm circle in the center, which is never marked in the Leica's flaky finders. I find this less useful, as it meters too small an area for most of my shooting.
Each reads auto exposures in half-stops.
Each has an excellent and consistent closed-loop TTL auto and manual exposure system. Each system gives constant exposures, regardless of lens, filtration, light level or aperture.
Sadly, each reads only digitally. Neither has a needle, which makes trying to figure out the proper exposure for a scene which reads 1/750 in the highlights and 1/60 in the shadows a bit of mental gymnastics.
Because each system measures through the lens and filter at the stopped-down aperture, neither system shares any of the inaccuracies inherent in the open-loop (non-correcting) systems of SLR and DSLR cameras.
Unlike DSLRs, I can make a series of exposures at different apertures with different lenses in Auto exposure with either the Leica M7 or the Contax G, and every frame matches exposure perfectly with every other. With modern SLRs or DSLRs, each frame will vary due to slight inaccuracies in lens diaphragm calibration, which are corrected automatically in the Contax and Leica M7.
In other words, my Nikons and Canons won't always give the same exposures with different lenses or different settings because they don't meter at the stopped-down aperture.
The Contax meters and exposures up to 16 seconds in auto mode, or up to only 4 seconds (G2) or 1 second (G1) in manual mode.
The Contax G1 and G2 each have the usual bulb setting, which requires an expensive dedicated electronic release unless you want to hold the shutter button for long exposures.
With the Contax, you have to clock your own long exposures.
The Leica M7 meters down to 32 seconds. The M7 makes auto exposures as long as 38 seconds in Auto mode, or 4 seconds in manual mode.
The Leica takes a standard $6 cable release.
The Leica clocks off bulb exposures with an LED display in the finder, which is visible from about a foot behind the camera. In Auto mode, the Leica counts down so you know how long it is until the exposure is complete.
The Leica is a pleasure to use for long exposures. All you need is a locking $6 cable release, and you can read the time in seconds from the finder display. It goes up to 999 seconds, which is 16 minutes. (The M7's display shuts off after 999 seconds, however it will expose forever. The Leica M7's batteries aren't used to hold open the shutter, only to close it at the end of the exposure.)
Of course mechanical Leicas (M1-M6) work the usual way in Bulb.
The Contax draws battery power while exposing. The Leica M7 only draws power to open the shutter and run the display for the first 16 minutes, then the M7 draws no power until the shutter closes.
Doing star trails? Any of the Leicas, even the electronic M7, are swell. The Contax isn't the best idea: a new set of CR2 batteries in a Contax G2 will only hold the shutter open for about 10 hours, total.
Leica, a real German camera, uses its own custom squared font. Periods are used for decimal points, as is done in the USA.
Contax, made in Japan, pretends it's German by using a DIN font, and using commas for decimal points, as is used in Germany.
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