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Nick's Classic Corner - No 43 - Contax RTS/139/137 MA

Discussion in 'Classic Models & Marques' started by Benchista, Nov 17, 2013.

  1. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    I've touched briefly on what Zeiss planned to do when they decided to get out of camera making themselves by looking at a tie-up first with Pentax, but later choosing to go with Yashica because of their greater prowess in electronics.

    The first fruit of this new parternship was shown at Photokina in 1974, the Contax RTS. RTS stood for Real Time System, and was so-called because of the minmal shutter lag courtesy of the electromagnetic shutter release. This shutter release probably has the softest touch and shortest travel of any I've ever seen, and still feels something special - although mine could do with a service, and sometimes sticks a bit - think it's actually the mirror.

    The RTS was designed to be a professional electronic camera - a slightly different concept to the Nikon F2 and Canon F-1 cameras, with no interchangeable finders for a start, but with motordrives, interchangeable screens and so on, aperture priority and an electronically-controlled horizontally running cloth focal plane shutter with peeds from 4s to 1/2000, and of course with access to Carl Zeiss lenses. And design from Porsche Design, unusual for the time.

    The RTS is a fairly heavy and extremely solid camera, and was built to take significant abuse.

    From the start, the layout of controls was a little different - the shutter speed dial surrounds the rewind crank. Where you might expect the speed dial to be is the film speed dial and exposure compensation dial - marked in exposure factors from 4x to 1/4x instead of in stops. The shutter button is precisely where my index finger falls naturally, and the front metering button is precisely where the second finger of my right hand goes. Just next to it on the side of the mirror box is a small lens release button - it actually works rather well. Also on this side of the camera is a traditional self timer and the depth of field preview button. On the other side of the mirror box is a mirror lock-up lever, and the flash sync socket is also on this side of the body.
    On the top rear of the camera is a battery check button (light on the topplate) and a remote release socket.

    On the base are sockets for winder/motordrive, the usual rewind release button, tripod bush, and what looks like a traditional base plate removal key, but it's actually the battery compartment.

    The viewfinder has an aperture scale across the top, selected aperture indicated in blue (it's a mechanical blue pointer), shutter speeds down the right (selected speed or auto indicated by another blue pointer, metered speed shown by a red LED). The screen in mine is my favourite microprism only.

    So what's it like to use? When the mirror's not sticking, lovely. It's a bit heavy for carrying around all day, but is so smooth in action that it really does feel like an extension of your hand and eye. It's not surprising tht it was lusted after by so many.

    The camera introduced a new bayonet mount, which was shared with sister models from Yashica, and also opened up Yashica's own lenses, which were generally very decent. Models launched at the same time as the RTS were the FR series - FR, manual exposure only, FR I, aperture priority and manual, and something of a cut-down RTS, and FR II, aperture priority only.

    In 1979, a second, lower-priced body was introduced, the 139 Quartz. As its name hints at, this was the first camera to use quartz timing in its shutter, but in many ways, it's simply a smaller, lighter RTS. Shutter release isn't quite so soft and instant, and has greater travel, but it still feels swift enough. The controls are different, but in the same places. Shutter runs only 1s to 1/1000, but has a faster synch speed of 1/100 (v 1/60 for the RTS), and the 139 has TTL dedicated flash. There's no mirror lock-up or battery check button, and the battery compartment is more traditional. Around the front metering button is an exposure lock control.

    Screens are non-interchangeable, and it has the standard split image/microprism offering. Aperture is displayed at the top by what appears to be a Judas window, but isn't, and speeds on the right are indicated by red LEDs.

    I really like this camera - it's light and compact, stands up well to rough treatment, and delivers great results with those lovely lenses. In fact it's probably my favourite camera of its type - compact auto/manual manual focus SLR.

    The next release bearing the Contax name in 1980 was a bit of an oddity, the 137 MD. This was an aperture-priority only model that was the first 35mm SLR with integral motor drive. I've not bothered with one of these, but in 1982 it was replaced with the 139 MA - that added manual exposure to the camera. It's very similar to the 137 in many ways, except that it takes 4 AA batteries in the baseplate, there's no metering switch - around the shutter release is an OFF/ON/ AE Lock/Battery Check switch, and behind it, a covered rewind release button. Just to the side is a single/continuous/self timer control.
    The shutter speed dial, around the rewind crank (still manual) now handles exposure compensation and film speed duties.

    The other difference is that there's now a frame counter in the viewfinder.

    It's certainly not a quiet camera, and it's obviously bigger and heavier than the 139 because of the motor and batteries, but it does work very well and is another camera I always enjoy using.

    One thing these cameras all have in common is that the body covering tends to get horrible. They had a very tactile soft covering at first, which doesn't age well. However, many different coverings are available which can also transform the look of the cameras.
    Any of these models in good electronic and mechanical condition, married to a Carl Zeiss lens or two is a wonderful picture-taking tool.

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