CONTAX 139Q – Best CANON AE-1 Alternative?
What’s The Best Film Camera For Beginners? While there’s no simple answer to that question, be sure the Canon AE-1 will rank among the Top 3 answers. I’ve always been surprised by this almost unanimous voices and decide to look at what made the AE-1 legend but also if there could be a better camera to consider when looking for a first film camera…
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The CANON AE-1 Success Story
Fun and easy to use, affordable and combined with an electronically controlled Shutter Priority mode (revolutionary at the time), the Canon AE-1 had the road paved for success. It was advertised as the perfect camera to shoot sports and fast moving subjects which made it the Official 35mm Camera Of The 1980 Olympic Winter Games. With over 1 million units produced between 1976-1984, it’s probably the most sold camera in the photography history.
Once the AE-1 Olympic golden age over, it became the “family camera” that would pop out once in while on special occasions, before eventually fading as a family souvenir in the attic. From the attic, most of them have been passed in the hands of the new generations, or sold on flea markets for close to nothing to new film photographers.
While there are still plenty available on the market, the AE-1 is no longer the student budget film camera it was a few years ago and prices have skyrocketed over the past decade. Today you’ll have to spend between 200$ and 300$ to find a copy in mint condition with the popular Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 standard kit lens. Sure there are plenty cheaper but don’t forget we’re talking about a +30 years old mid-range camera that most often have never been serviced. You may be lucky and find a good copy at a reasonable price but they may have some quirks that would require a minimum of maintenance in order to work properly. Not ideal as first film camera if you ask me.
The Contax Legacy
With so many photographers coming to film, the demand for the AE-1 has never been so high so I’ve been thinking about other cameras still under the radar that would perform better within the same price range. Luckily for you, I just happened to have one in my hands: the CONTAX 139 Quartz.
There are many good systems but I believe 139Q, and CONTAX SLRs, are some of the most underrated film SLR. Sadly CONTAX didn’t made it through the digital transition, and the once renowned brand doesn’t rind any bell to the younger generations of photographers.
When I came to film, it took me a few months to start looking at CONTAX cameras. At first that name didn’t mean anything to me until I started earring about the CONTAX 645 and T2. Then I discovered that Contax was created in 1932 by Carl Zeiss to compete against Leica. This is just to give you an idea of the quality threshold we’re talking about here.
Then, in 1983 the well-known Japanese camera maker Kyocera bought Contax and relabelled it “CONTAX”. From this acquisition came out some of the greatest Point & Shoot ever made like the Contax T2 or T3, but also one of the best SLR film cameras line-up.
Contax 139Q VS Canon AE-1
Quick disclaimer so you know who you’re dealing with: From my Instagram feed you’ll see that I’m a CONTAX fan boy and have owned a good share of their modern made cameras. Just so you know that my comparison may be a little biased but I still believe the 139Q can be a great first film camera or a nice piece to add to your collection.
That brings us now to the (absolutely unbiased😉) 5 reasons why you should consider getting CONTAX 139Q over the Canon AE-1.
Aperture VS Shutter Priority
If you plan to shoot in Manual mode this is irrelevant for you, but for me the first no-no with the AE-1 is that it comes with a Manual or Shutter Priority mode. Shutter priority is useful for wildlife or sports photography where you need to freeze or capture motion.
Unless you are planning to shoot fast moving subjects, you’ll prefer like most people do, the Aperture Priority mode on the Contax. Controlling the Aperture of your lens gives control over the depth of field, so you can decide on what should be in focus on your image. Great for blurring out the background on portraits or using zone-focusing when doing Street Photography for example .
Metal VS Plastic Body
Being designed by Porsche and Yashica, the 139Q didn’t go down the cheap road and came with a top metal plate, whereas the AE-1 is made of plastic under its brushed chrome finish. This puts the Contax ahead in terms of robustness and durability. All that without adding any weight on the scale which brings us to our next point.
Handling & Ergonomics
The 139Q with its standard 50mm kit lens is about 90 grams lighter than the AE-1 and was one of the lightest SLR of its generation. The difference comes mostly from the body as both 50mm kit lenses have almost identical weight. Size wise, the Contax body is also a little more compact and feels better in my average sized hands.
The finish is also better on the Contax and every knob or button are right where you expect them to be making it very intuitive to use. Except maybe for the Aperture Lock and Depth of Field Preview buttons that I find a little awkward to use.
While they both share a x0.86 magnification, the viewfinder on the Contax looks a little brighter to my “unbiased” eye. The LED light meter reading is also more intuitive than the Canon with its needle.
Another refinement is the Aperture setting shown inside a small window right above the finder. This allows you to adjust the exposure without having to look at the camera
Zeiss Lens Lineup
Thanks to its strong connection to Carl Zeiss, CONTAX SLRs benefit of an amazing line-up made of 52 lenses all featuring the legendary T* coating that gives so much character to images captured on Zeiss glass.
The kit lens for most Contax SLRs is the Zeiss 50mm f/1.7 that came with mine. Some even say that it outperforms the f/1.4 version that cost the triple! Haven’t tried that version to compare but all the samples I’m sharing below were shot on this 50mm f/1.7 and that’s more than enough for me.
If you’re worried to be limited with the choice of lenses and have to pay a premium for Zeiss glass, the next point should calm your anxiety.
C/Y stands for Contax/Yashica, meaning that if you won’t be short of lens options to choose from with 380 C/Y lenses can be mounted on your Contax, or Yashica, body versus 444 lenses using the Canon FD mount.
Some of these are undiscovered gems among the Yashica ML lenses lineup and cost close to nothing. I’ve had the chance to try out the Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4 and it will not disappoint you.
If that’s your thing, C/Y lenses are also easy to adapt on mirrorless cameras with adaptors available for most common mounts.
My Tip To Get a Cheap Contax 139Q
To my knowledge, the Contax 139Q biggest downside is the crappy fake leather covering that will inevitably fall apart. This is why you often find 139Q that look like they are good for scrap but in reality chances are that it’s still in perfect working condition!
Those ones with damaged covering are usually going for really cheap and you can easily replace it yourself with one of these customer leatherette replacement kit if you want to give a fresh new start.
Another option is to go for its cousin the Yashica FX-D Quartz which is the exact same camera lacking some of the 139Q refinements.
Contax 139Q + Zeiss 50mm f1.7 Samples
I hope these few lines could help to discover the CONTAX system which again I believe deserve its rank among the best cameras ever made. That being said, the Canon AE-1 is still a fantastic camera to get acquainted with film photography and if you get your hands on a good definitely go for it, but if you want to step-up your game and appreciate handling refined cameras, the CONTAX 139Q will not disappoint you!