Howl and Growl Review of the Kyocera Contax 645 Medium Format Camera

Day 1 First Roll Notes Advice Repairs Cost of 645 35 Size to 645 Handling The Dark Side Flash Conclusion

"A Cat with Horse Apple" Contax 645 with 80mm Carl Zeiss Planar Lens

Day 1

A year ago, I made the decision to go with the Contax N mount system and purchased the Contax 645 Kit. At the same time, the Contax ND Digital 35 was also purchased and for the last year, I have shot thousands of photographs with the ND and only recently unboxed the 645 kit.

The 645 glows with quality. Each component in the kit clicked together with just the right tolerances. Assembling the kit took less then ten minutes. The manual which includes a section on assembling was barely referenced but nevertheless helpful and complete.

A Photo Taken from the First Job with the 645:

"Tracie" Photographed with a Contax 645 Medium Format Camera with a Carl Zeiss 80 mm Planar Lens

"Tracie" Photographed with a Contax 645 Medium Format Camera with a Carl Zeiss 80 MM. Planar Lens

The Contax 645 kit components include:

When you purchase the Contax 645 system, you are buying into a specific look, feel and handling of a distinctly professional camera. One of the greatest things that Contax provides their clients is the consistency of handling from one camera to another. Users of the C/Y mount cameras which include the beautiful RX, the AX and the RTS series know that each camera may have some distinctly unique features to the model, but each camera also handles and feels much like its predecessor. The knobs are all found in the same areas of the camera (top left and top right) and unlike Contax and Canon, these cameras rely more on the setting of dials than on an electronic LCD to set the setting. The viewfinders are very bright and display a great amount of exposure data and camera settings.

And again, I have to mention the remarkable quality that is built into each camera. Yes, there is a weight associated with the equipment (the 645 with film back weighs1.4 lbs.). But the weight translates into a solid feel, and not a burden.

The concept of a Contax system is that, you are not just purchasing a camera, but rather a system. The lenses that are purchased for the Contax 645 system can also be used on their N1, NX and ND via a NAM-1 adapter, without the loss of any features! The lenses for the medium format system are large, but the lenses for the 35mm system are also large and hanging a 645 lens on a 35mm body is not as awkward a user would expect. Keep in mind, that the N1 and the ND bodies are big and solid. The NX body is lighter, but still can be matched to a 645 lens.

First Roll Notes

One of the reasons for finally unboxing the 645 was the requirement to photograph an upcoming wedding. Since I had not shot with the 645, I ran a test roll before the wedding to make sure that the mechanics were in order and that my intuitive approval of the camera was in fact warranted. This was the smartest thing I did that month, since my test roll revealed an out of the box failure with the prism!

I loaded a roll of 120, taking special care to make sure the film loader was in the 120 setting. There is a center clip on the film loader clearly marked as 120/220. You have to use your forefinger and thumb to press together the clip and then rotate the center film clip plate to the correct 120/220 orientation. The 120 and 220 markers are opposite each other, and you have to be sure that you have orientated the film roller in the correct and appropriate direction. This is really not that hard, and the type of film you have loaded is clearly seen in the film counter to the right of the prism. And of course, you only have to do this once when you load the film and it stays the same from roll to roll, unless you change film types.

My test model stood beneath a large oak tree and smiled. I had placed the Contax TLA-360 flash on the prism and squeezed off a shot. No flash. I checked the flash unit, and the indicator glowed red. The unit was ready. The camera's viewfinder indicated that a flash was mounted. Again, I took a shot and no flash.

I switched the camera to multiple frame shots and took a few more for testing. No flash fired. Next, I switched the flash to a Metz-54 flash with a SCA 3802 adapter. That flash worked. Scratching my head, I then took the TLA-360, placed it on my Contax ND and took a shot. The flash worked. The following day, I took the camera and the flash unit to the original retailer in Dallas where I purchased the equipment (Competitive Cameras on Irving Blvd.). We put my TLA-360 flash on another 645 system and the flash worked. Now we switched out the prism on my 645 and the flash worked with a different prism. So we had determined that there was a problem with the prism. Competitive Camera loaned me a working prism to use on my 645 on the trip the following week to photograph the wedding.

A Word of Advice

We hear it all the time that "you get that you pay for" and watch out where you cut corners. Find a dealer you can trust. Look for one with fair and decent prices, but somebody who can help you and support you when you are in a pinch. Be careful of mail order; while it may make sense to save some money purchasing a filter mail order be wary of purchasing a complete camera system without a solid company or individual to stand behind your purchase. In this case, my entire 645 system for photographing the wedding would have been useless if that dealer had not loaned me a working prism. The second word of advice is that if the system is new or if you have not used the system for awhile, run a test roll through the camera before photographing an extremely important event. Batteries go dead, shutters jam, and electronics falter. So be smart about being prepared for a session.

A Comment on the Contax Repair Center

To send in the repair to Contax, I went to their web site and tried to download the RMA repair form. For some reason (probably the fault of my notebook), I could not download the form. I then just typed up a letter indicating the problem, and enclosed a copy of the original invoice, and sent the entire pack (insured) to New Jersey for repair. I also called Contax (Kyocera) to let them know the package was coming. On the initial call, I had to leave a message, but within 30 minutes a repair technician returned my call. It took Contax less than 10 days from start to finish to repair my prism and to return the prism to my office. These included U.S. Postal time. I was very pleased with their service and turnaround time.

Contact Information (check their web site to verify this information has not changed!)

Kyocera Optics, Inc.

2301-200 Cottontail Lane

Somerset, New Jersey 08873


"Sgt. Storm and Wife Tracie" Contax 645 with Carl Zeiss 80 mm Planar and TLA 360 Flash

"Sgt. Storm and Wife Tracie" Contax 645 with Carl Zeiss 80 MM. Planar and TLA 360 Flash

The Cost of Medium Format

We all know the supposed advantages of medium format which include larger, sharper negatives, prints and slides. (A 6x4.5 CM. medium format negative is 3.5 times larger than a 35mm negative). But the downside is the expense. There are basically three main choices most professional and pro-amateur photographers have when making the decision on what portable capture device to use:

Most Medium Format Systems now have third party companies offering digital backs that range in price from 6,000 to 20,000 which give a resulting tiff file of 11 to 60 megabytes accordingly.

All the major camera companies offer digital 35mm systems. Each system has quirks and qualities. The Contax ND is a remarkable camera (first full frame 35mm sensor), and while there are stories of the camera's failure, most of those stories come from people who have never used the camera. It is a capable camera, that can and does offer the user a remarkable platform for capturing remarkable images.

A quick comparison of the cost to shoot medium format 220 film (32 exposures) to 35 MM. film for 36 exposures and for digital. These costs are based on my experience and includes a single print, a scanned image from the photo processor, and of course film developing for negatives. No costs are includes for the initial system purchase or supporting equipment (which is extensive and expensive for any digital processing)!

Medium Film Format: $1.40 per image (developing, print, and scan)

35mm Film Format: $0.55 per image (developing, print and scan)

35mm Digital Format: $0.45 per image (print)

The digital prints are misleading, in that you tend to only print the very best shots. Hence you're rarely paying for the printing of mediocre shots, which in all honesty tend to be to many for even the very best photographers! But, as mentioned earlier, if you have a digital darkroom, the expense is high.

Comparing a 35mm Image with a Medium Format Image

At the wedding, I photographed group shots with both the 35mm Contax N1 and the Contax 645 system. And, recently I also photographed Tommy Irvin for a CD cover with both the Contax 645 and the Contax ND. The point I'm making is that you really have to be aware of final format sizes. While 35mm is great for producing 4x6 prints, the ratio is also perfect for 8x12 prints. This is an 8x10 world, so you have to crop the 35mm frame for an 8x10 print.  Conversely, the 6x4.5cm format is a perfect ratio for an 8x10 print ... but it is a poor ratio for a standard 4x6 print! (You loose about 20% of the image).  Life is complicated, and when you purchase standard frame sizes on sale you pay the price when you try to fit a 4x5 print (645 system) into a 4x6 inch frame.

The following samples shots of cropping considerations.

Click Here to see a 645 Sample Compared to the Same 645 Photo Printed as a 4x6!

Click Here to see a 35 MM. Sample Compared to the Same 35 MM. Photo Printed as an 8x10!

For prints up to 8x10, the difference in grain structure or overall quality was not discernible. Only if you want larger prints (greater than 11x14?) does it really make sense to shoot in medium format when using Carl Zeiss lenses.


The handling of the 645 is just great. The two biggest differences between 35mm and medium format are film loading and the "dark slide". Film loading, while slightly more cumbersome then the 35mm drop and load system, takes longer, but is not an unbearable experience. Using 220 film, you get 32 shots and if you go to the expense of additional film holders, you can already have film ready to simply drop into the camera back. But, loading film, during a shoot, is straightforward and easy. The dark slide is made foolproof by Contax. The concept of a dark slide is simple, to keep a wall between the shutter and the film back at all times except when the film back is actually on the camera. The dark slide keeps the user from touching and damaging the camera's sensitive shutter when the film back is removed. On some medium format systems, you can inadvertently start shooting while the dark slide is in place. And, on some systems, there is no place to hold the dark slide once the film is loaded. Both of these problems are taken care of by Contax. The shutter will not trip if the dark slide is in place and when you remove the dark slide, the slide will go into a slide catcher at the back of the camera safe and out of the way. When it comes time to remove the back to unload the film, the back can not be removed without placing the dark slide between the shutter and the film back! Easy, easy, easy.

The Contax 645 also imprints the shutter and aperture information between each frame. Wow. Very, very nice. If you shoot with digital, you are easily spoiled with all the EXIF information for the exposures. The data imprinting includes, the lens type, the film type, the EC data, shutter and exposure. The system also features "auto load" for roll film and has spot metering, center weighted metering and exposure bracketing.

The Dark Side

There are basically two major considerations (disadvantages?) when shooting medium format:

The cost of developing has already been covered with the basic bottom line that the each shot cost about three times the price of a corresponding 35mm shot. But, that makes sense, since the area size of the negative is over 3 times the size of a 35mm format. It is back to "you get what you pay for" and depending on the final size or the print you are desiring, the medium format negative certainly offers the advantage for larger prints and many types of commercial work.

The shape of the negative problem was a surprise to me. Somewhere, I discounted the problems that medium format would present when printing traditional print sizes. When you are trying to print traditional formats for 4x6 and 5x7, the 6x4.5cm format presents more of a challenge than even a 35mm negative. The 35mm negative at print time requires slight cropping compared to the severe cropping of a medium format negative for a 4x6. The 6x4.5 requires NO cropping when printing an 8x10. The only answer is that when you take the shot with the Contax 645 (or any 6x4.5 CM. format) and you think that the final output may be a traditional size, do NOT get to close to the subject. Keep in mind, that you will need to trim the image to make the size fit a 4x6. This is definitely a square peg in a round hole problem.

Of course, if you have complete control over the printing process and the final output size, the 6x4.5 can give your image a distinct look and does have a pleasing rectangular shape when printing full frame.  And of course, there are always custom or professional labs.

Flash on the 645

Frankly, the use of a flash on any of the Contax cameras (including the G2) has always been a headache if you use the flash and camera in the default settings. Many of your images will be overexposed. The overexposures on the Contax digital ND are even a bigger nightmare due to highlight pixelation. So, for my sanity (since I use several Contax cameras), here is my little secret after a lot of trial and error:

Always dial the flash down on the flash - not on the camera. This assumes that you are using a Contax flash where you can dial down the flash ratio (such as the TLA-360). Keep in mind that if you are shooting in Manual Mode, that using the EC dial on the camera has absolutely no effect. If you shoot in A or T mode, yes you can use the EC dial, but if you are trying to get some ambient (background) light in your photo for a more natural effect, Contax cameras, when in A or T mode and with flash, jump to some minimum shutter speeds. The minimum shutter speeds are 1/60th of a second depending on the camera model. Check your manual. The absolute most successful flash images I have taken are always in M mode with the flash on TTL setting and with the flash set to -1 flash ratio (1 stop down). This setting virtually eliminates overexposures and results in correct exposures for the majority of photographs! And, worst case, if your shot is one stop underexposed (rarely happens) the negative is still very usable!

The 645 has the unique feature of the pre-flash system. There is a lever on the top that you click and the flash fires. When it fires, it takes a TTL reading and automatically calculates the correct exposure. The viewfinder by EC indicator shows a small FL and if the flash exposure is within two stops you are set to go. Now, with the lever still on, you take your actual shot. The shot is properly exposed (in theory!). This works with any lighting setup, including studios lights. You do not have to use a TTL flash system with the 645 for this feature to work. However; common sense still prevails. Get close to your subject, or use the spot meter with the pre flash system for an accurate exposure.


The Contax 645 is an extremely capable camera. Due to the expense of each shot, you really think before taking that shot. Digital backs are available for the 645 which opens up an entirely new world. Prices for digital backs are dropping, so if you start building your 645 system today, you will be able to purchase a digital back. The costs of the 645 lenses are comparable to their corresponding cousins in the N-mount 35mm line. And keep in mind, you can always mount the 645 lens on the 35 N1 or ND by using the NAM-1 lens adapter. The 645 also offers some great features:

Review Prepared by: Michael Hahn of Outback Coyote, Inc.

The Contax 645 was purchased at:

The Contax Web site can be found at:

Call (972) 768-7469

Copyright 1998, 99, 00, 01,02,03 Outback Coyote, Inc., All Rights Reserved.

Last Modified 12/26/03.

Return to Main Page