Video here. Text below.
May regret this later, but I am calling it early. Have yet to even get through my first roll of film (Went fine. Photo samples here.), but I am calling the Contax 137 MA Quartz as my favorite SLR of all time at any price… And I have and have had quite a few SLRs. And this is one of the least expensive SLRs I have purchased. Does not matter. Why?
First off that name.
Well, not the name itself but what that name means to me. My experience with 35mm Contax cameras has set a high bar for feel, build quality and ergonomics. And this camera delivered with one caveat. The leather. From what I have read this is a common issue. Looks like Contax (Yashica) went for a grippier than usual leather wrap on its SLRs that was prone to falling to pieces, unfortunately, no matter how well treated and maintained. But this brought some unexpected advantages. Namely:
- Pricing. This camera was listed as Bargain grade on KEH.com for $53 and given the pristine state of the rest of the camera it points to the leather dragging the price down. Good for me.
- Replace. Courtesy an online review I found a site where you can purchase replacement leather for $18 shipping included. They offer an original look option as well as many other colors and patterns. The ostrich print (pictured in the review) is a bit much for me, so I chose original black but a lizard pattern. Will update once I receive it. (Update: Went very well. Related post here.)
- Remove. Ordered the leather, but the existing tattered leather bugged me. After briefly considering trying to polish the leather to smooth it out and bring it back from gray to black I decided to go another way… Ok, I could not find the polish case in the house but it worked out, fortunately. So many things could have gone wrong:
- It does not come off cleanly causing me to fight with pleather remnants and stubborn adhesive. Near anyone who has tried any DIY on near anything has been there before. Not pleasant.
- No idea what lies beneath. Electronics heavy SLRs are already not devices you want to expose to the elements. Removing the covering over much of the body could expose gaps and opening. Additionally what if the body is an aesthetic disaster?
- Turns out neither was the case. All came off with no issue. Some rubber cement remained and was removed with WD-40 and some elbow grease. Additionally what remained was mostly black metal that matched the rest of the camera. Perfect. One small hole remained. I cut a small piece of the old covering and called it a day. Result? It looks awesome!
Ok. Enough about that.
Brief history. A camera made by Yashica using the Contax name under license from Zeiss.
Why this model of all the Contax SLR models, RTS, RTS II, RTS III, 139Q, 137 MD Quartz, etc.?
- This is what they had for sale at KEH.com.
- MD is a fair bit cheaper but does not have full shutter speed control, only A, Flash Sync and B.
- RTS line. Varies. RTS and RTS II do not have an inbuilt autowinder, though the 1/2000s shutter speed of the RTS II would be nice. RTS III looks a fair bit larger, has 1/8000s shutter speed, but costs much more than the 137 MA.
What makes this a better SLR than any I have used? Glad you asked. While I have attachments to a few SLRs for various objective and subjective reasons the king of the hill recently has been the Nikon FE.
Note: On paper the Minolta Maxxum 7, with its amazing specs like 1/8000s shutter speed and AF, should reign supreme objectively, but in use I prefer the Nikon when some film therapy is in order.
So let’s use the FE as the bogey to compare the 137 to. For starters what I state below would be true regardless of price. The fact that the 137 costs less than half of what the FE costs just makes it that much better.
- Some may say looks do not matter when it comes to cameras… But it does. I love the looks of FE as noted in the title of the post I wrote about it. To my eyes the 137 has a different look, but it is every bit the aesthetic equal of the FE. Classy best of the late 70s/early 80s two-tone black and silver compared to the all black slightly menacing “Darth Vader, your camera is ready.” look of the 137. The FE also has an all-black variant, but to my eyes the 137 pulls off the monochromatic look better.
- Aperture priority.
- Aperture lock via the lever around the shutter.
- Built-in auto winder w/ single, constant, and timer modes set by a dedicated dial.
- Multiple readouts in the viewfinder.
- Exposure compensation.
- As an added feature over the MD all speeds can be selected manually.
- TTL flash available and I already picked up a TLA 280 for less than $30. I understand it works with the Contax G cameras also although I have yet to test that out.
- Runs on four plain old AA batteries accessed via the bottom plate.
Fewer than the eight AA batteries needed for the Nikon MD-12 accessory winder.
- The FE is very nice to use. But the 137 MA, like the MD before it, prevails. On, battery check, and AE Lock are all combined in one dial with a traditional lever and a nib that makes manipulating it a breeze when you have the camera to eye and your finger on the shutter. Reminds me of the Contax G cameras in that way. Autowinder is controlled by a straightforward dial with access to single, continuous and timer modes. Exposure and ASA are set on the left side of the camera as is often the case. Unlike most SLRs the shutter speed dial is under the exposure dial on the left instead of on the right near the shutter button. Seemed odd at first, but it works very well.Will stay in A, aperture priority auto exposure mode most of the time, but when you do need to adjust the speed it is also visible in the viewfinder. Like the FE’s match needle the 137 has match lights. Also like the FE the current aperture shows in the viewfinder, but instead of a simple window showing the actual lens the 137 has a synced dedicated shutter gauge at the top (not shown in the picture below). But in addition, the 137 also has a film counter readout on the left.
- In an amazing bit of packaging, the 137 is barely larger than the FE but packs a built-in autowinder and the four AA batteries needed to power it. Add the FE’s accessory winder and you really get an idea of how well packaged the 137 is.
- And here we have one of the major party pieces. I love Zeiss lenses. Reasonably priced Zeiss lenses? Even better. In this case I opted for the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.7 (lens review here) at a reasonable bargain grade price of $133.
Was tempted by the Planar f/1.4, but could not justify the extra $160+ for the .3 aperture gain. Your mileage may vary. Both get positive reviews.
Yashica and 3rd Party Lenses
- A perk of this camera sharing the C/Y mount with Yashica cameras is that in addition to the excellent Zeiss lenses it also gives you access to the perfectly fine line of Yashica lenses for even less spend. Below is a 135mm f/2.8 picked up for $72 (along with the aforementioned less than $30 flash). And in addition, I found a 3rd party lens 28mm f/2.5 for less than $30 also.
- Unconfirmed. But I am unconcerned. Foam was in excellent condition and barring some unforseen technical malady I am expecting no less than technical perfection based on my 35mm Contax experiences so far. Will report back once the first roll is done.
Wrap up. Simple. This camera is amazing. (Link to another review that came to the same conclusion.) And to think I had never heard of it until I went in search of an RTS. For my purposes, this is the better camera. Time will tell if my optimism is rooted in reality. (Have since confirmed that this is a great camera. Here is an ongoing gallery.)