Most likely to the surprise of many, the Contax T2 took the spot as the most expensive (and hyped) point and shoot camera you can get your hands on today, that is if you can pay for it. In the last few years, prices for this premium camera have gone to insane levels, thanks in part to the renewed interest in film photography. The other part we can certainly tie to curious celebrities picking up the camera.
A high-end, compact camera aimed at professional and luxury consumer markets, the Contax T2 was a coveted item then, and especially now. Camera collectors and younger film photographers alike have been on a mad scramble to get their hands on one — perhaps, until they find out how much damage it would cost their wallets.
My first and only experience with the Contax T2 was three years ago, when a friend showed and loaned his camera to me, which he got for about $50. Of course, I couldn’t believe his luck. I offered to buy it from him (he’s a digital shooter anyway and only got the T2 out of curiosity and the throwaway price), but said he would only give it up for $170 or higher. Silly me, I thought that was too much. Now, prices have soared up to ten times that amount. There’s no way I’d get one now at that insane price.
To help us trace the T2’s journey to becoming the most expensive point and shoot camera, we also asked Zeb Andrews of Blue Moon Camera and Machine, and street photographer Brent Eysler to share their insights and experiences with the camera (and its succeeding model).
Work got Andrews shooting with the T2 at some point in the last few years. “We have had a couple pass through the camera store I work for, Blue Moon Camera and Machine, over the years and naturally enough motivated both by curiosity and the need to test them, I have shot a couple rolls through these cameras but I don’t have a ton of personal experience with the T2 specifically. ”
Meanwhile, the Contax T3 has become a daily companion to Eysler, and one of those cameras he couldn’t see himself getting rid of, as tempting as the current market value may be. “Its size and performance are unmatched and it’s a camera that just makes you want to burn some film and go out and shoot.”
Introducing the Contax T2
For those who are hearing about this camera for the first time, the Contax T2 was introduced in 1990 as the second of the Contax T series premium compact film camera. Both Andrews and Eysler noted that it quickly became a cult classic for its 38mm f2.8 Zeiss Sonar lens, extremely solid build quality, and simple ergonomics.
“The Contax T2 was a very unique camera created at a time when most manufactures were producing some pretty plain Jane options for that segment. The titanium body is solid and tough, the dials are well positioned and click easily, and the minimal options are very easy to scroll through, but offer quite a lot of control and options for a camera of this type.” Eysler said. “Due to its success, Contax would also create a zoom version (the TVS) and eventually the even more compact T3 in 2001.”
“Anytime you get a camera in that has a Zeiss lens you are going to notice,” Andrews added. “It is even more noticeable when it is a compact camera where you don’t expect to see a Zeiss lens.”
They also tell us that the most common and the least expensive was the champagne silver variant, but two black versions (one in titanium black finish, and the other in limited edition jet black), two gold versions (one being a 50th anniversary edition), and a platinum version were also made.
“If you don’t think the original silver version is expensive enough, just try tracking down one of these other versions,” Andrews aptly said. Ebay is a good place to start.
Terry Richardson and the Yashica T4
Another premium compact camera that most likely had an effect on the popularity of the T2 is the Yashica T4. When controversial fashion photographer Terry Richardson picked up the camera and started doing photo shoots with it and taking it to parties, he essentially made the snapshot style (or call it “aesthetic” if you will) popular. Everyone started wanting to be a compact shooter a la Terry with the Yashica T4. Or, if it’s not available, there are other options — like the Contax T2.
Andrews agreed that Richardson was among the “big names” that gave rise to the compact camera movement. Another he mentioned was Ren Hang, whose increasingly popular work was mostly done using a similar point and shoot camera. “As interest climbed and prices with it, photographers started looking for alternative cameras to the T4. So yes, definitely as the Yashica T4 got more popular, it pulled other cameras like the T2 up with it.”
Eysler, however, had a different take on it. The Contax T2, to him, has always been the model above the Yashica. “The Yashica has a 35mm Tessar f3.5 lens, the Contax has f2.8… so it’s kinda like the Rolleiflex 3.5 vs 2.8 models. One has always been considered a little bit better (additionally in this case, one is plastic and the other is titanium). So maybe not as an alternative because they couldn’t find a T4 Super, but maybe if they decided they wanted a step up.”
Celebrities Pick up the T2 and T3; Shenanigans Ensue
If Terry Richardson was somehow indirectly responsible for making compact cameras popular for fashion photography, Kendall Jenner is definitely best known for catapulting the T2 to celebrity status. Remember that appearance (and impromptu fashion shoot) on The Tonight Show with a titanium black model in tow? Photographers everywhere are most likely well aware of it; a lot of them possibly shaking their heads in disbelief.
Master of None star Aziz Ansari soon followed suit and brandished his compact film cameras — one of them a Contax T3 — in a GQ video feature. Frank Ocean later took a T3 to snap fellow celebrities during the 2017 Met Gala on behalf of Vogue, apparently because “He is old school that way, preferring the authentic analog grain of film over digital immediacy.” Chris Hemsworth was the latest to pick up the T2 and go full #hipster4life, declaring “digital is dead, except when I’m digitally transferring my film shots to digital”.
Jenner et al. picking up the T2 and the T3 was a double-edged sword. While they drew further interest to film photography and compact film cameras, it also made the prices of these cameras skyrocket to way over what they ought to go for. These celebrities have the paycheck to run after these cameras without the price being an issue, but the rest of us don’t.
Contax T2 Emerging as an Insanely Popular Option
Even before celebrities had their pick among these famed compacts, these cameras were already on every film photographers’ wishlists and every seasoned photographers’ favorites. There are raves about it on every photography blog and countless social media posts out there, which is most likely how these celebrities and influencers even found out about it.
It’s this social media factor that Andrews attributes the current following to, not only for the T2, but also Contax medium cameras, the Mamiya 7, and the Hasselblad. Add to this the fact that these cameras weren’t very mainstream prior to their surge in popularity and you have a recipe for making cameras unexpectedly trendy.
“Photographers get online and see these lovely film images made with these cameras and want to replicate that so they go out and buy these cameras. It works the same way as how you see Instagram making certain locations of the world really popular with photographers. Cameras like the Hasselblad were already well-known in their own right before the Internet, though.
“I think part of the fame that cameras like the Contax T2 enjoy is due to them not necessarily being household camera names before their surge in popularity so photographers feel like they are joining an even more exclusive group by owning and using one of these. And then of course it never hurts when famous celebrities are seen using a certain camera.”
Bottomline: Should You Shoot with the Contax T2?
Sure, the Contax T2 and T3 are among the hippest cameras you can own and shoot with today. But is it really worth it — and for that much? For Eysler, it’s a bit much, and we can all have just as much fun with other options out there.
“They are incredible cameras, but they are 30-year-old electronic cameras that cannot be repaired, so it’s unfortunately not a question of if, but when they will become paperweights,” Eysler cautioned. “I love my T3, but there is no way I would have purchased one if it had cost more than my Leica at the time. There’s a list of other cameras I would purchase first for far less money that I usually recommend.”
For those who are still determined to get their hands on a T2 or T3, Andrews tells us of some possible issues with these film compacts.
“I have heard the film advance is one of the T2’s Achilles’ heels though I have not experienced one dying in this fashion. I have seen issues with the metal door that covers the lens getting dinged and no longer opening properly, so be careful with that. I don’t know if the T2 suffers from circuit failure or not but that is a common issue with many other compact cameras of this era, such as the Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti. They had a flexing circuit that just wore out over time and kills the camera. Since Kyocera no longer services these cameras, any repair is going to have to be done with existing spare parts that may be as old or older than the parts they are replacing.”
If you’ve decided not to give in to the hype and shoot with a Contax T2 alternative, Andrews and Eysler have also given us their recommendations. But that’s for another story. Stay tuned!