Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Okay, hang onto
your hats; this is not going to be an overtly glowing review.As a long-time owner
of this camera's brethrens (the Contax T2 and the Yashica T4), I can honestly say
that I'm not yet ready to give up this camera's predecessor, the T2.
Summary of Camera
High-end 35mm point-and-shoot
Lens: 35mm Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* f/2.8 – f/16.
Full program mode plus aperture priority mode; long time exposures to 3
Size: About the size of an APS camera (105mm x 63mm x 30.5 – shirt
pocket size if you wear big shirts)
Price: Ranges from $500 to $800
Summary of Review
Pros: Superb optics, small size, beautiful packaging, nice feature list.
Cons: Poor user interface; key features must be re-set after every exposure;
autofocus gets confused easily; manual focus and long-time exposures a royal
This is a camera that seems to have been designed by engineers based on
well-researched input from marketing. It doesn't appear as if a photographer was
ever consulted. I've created a table of easily implementable (via firmware) yet
badly needed improvements at the end of this article in case anyone from Contax
is reading this.
me start with the positives. Optically, the T3 is in the same league as the Nikon
35ti, the Ricoh G1, the Olympus Infiniti Stylus Epic, the Yashica T4, and (of
course) the Contax T2 in terms of tiny cameras that do not compromise on image
quality. This new, smaller form factor (about the size of a small APS camera!)
has optics that pretty much beat any of my 35mm wide-angle prime lenses, and has
more useful features per cubic inch than any camera I've seen.
And the difference in the optics aren't just noticeable when making 24"x 36"
prints. As I rummage through vacation photos and family pictures taken over the
years, I can ALWAYS spot the pictures that were taken with my older T2. Because
of the lens' high contrast, they just have a different "look". (Kind of
different. Kind of better.) Sometimes I get frustrated because my Nikon Coolscan
LS-2000 can't capture all the detail that this camera can capture. The T3 is no
different - its lens is as sharp as its reputation promises.
But being an avid photo.net community member, you probably already knew all of
this. Let me tell you some of the things about this camera that you WON'T find
from a product blurb.
For me, the most compelling feature that prompted this camera's purchase was
the promise of a "pre-focus" mode, where the lens actually moves into position
when you depress the shutter halfway. This theoretically leads to an extremely
low latency time between when you depress the shutter release and when the camera
actually takes the picture. Well, having been spoiled by the instant response of
SLRs and disposable cameras alike, I can tell you that there is still a latency
time of a few tenths of a second. (Probably harmless for snapshots, but I still
find it disappointing and slightly frustrating when shooting children or even
mild sports activities.)
Other new features that I liked:
Much closer focusing than the T2 - down to 0.35 meters
Long exposures up to 3 minutes (manual or automatic) (The T2 had a "B" mode,
but you had to hold the shutter release button down and be a mime. Not too
The camera doesn't "time out" when you've pre-focused and are waiting for the
right moment to shoot. (One of the design flaws of the T2.)
Custom function settings include setting the default flash mode, film leader
left out on rewind, whether a handful of select features should cancel after one
shot or when camera is turned off. (They didn't go far enough with this - some
options are settable via custom functions; others strangely are not.)
They actually included a depth-of-field scale in the instruction manual!
Setting the lens to 3m at f/16 gives sharp subjects from 1.3m to infinity
What is missing that the T2 had? Two things:
The T2 had a more intuitive user interface. (I admit this simplicity is hard
to maintain when you add more features.) Instead of nice knobs you have mode
buttons you must press multiple times to get what you want, making it just like
most other point-and-shoots on the planet.
The T2 had a very nice 1/30th of a second low-end flash synch speed, which
maximized background burn-in and improved the quality of most indoor flash
pictures. This feature was a double-edged sword; this one extra stop of exposure
made my indoor flash pictures look much better than that of the average
point-and-shoot; on the down side whenever I would give the camera to someone
else to take a picture of me, the person inevitably had shaky hands which would
always result in fuzzy pictures of myself. Anyway, this 1/30th of a second flash
synch option is missing from the T3. Instead, the T3 offers a different kind of
slow-speed flash synch, which cannot be used in as many everyday situations: it
will expose for whatever the ambient light necessitates (up to 15 seconds) and
the camera imposes mandatory red-eye reduction mode when shooting this way. So
when it comes to slow-synch flash, the two cameras offer completely different and
I must say, the more I
use this camera, the more frustrated I become. Why?
The autofocusing mechanism seems less robust than that of the T2; it gets
confused often and gives a "can't find the focus" flashing green light when you
try to focus-lock on items about 20 feet away. (It often fails in situations
where the T2 has no problem.) Last night I was shooting a sunset and it couldn't
find infinity. Not good.
The self-timer and the Long Time exposure modes automatically cancel
themselves after one frame. Since these features are usually invoked when it is
dark, bracketing long exposures purely by tactile feedback of the camera's
controls is a very frustrating endeavor. Why couldn't they have provided the
ability to keep these set until cancelled, as they did with other custom function
parameters?? The self-timer requires a minimum of 4 button presses and knob
turnings EVERY TIME you wish to shoot a frame. A 30-second Long Time Exposure
requires 3 button presses and 11 clicks of the wheel for each frame.
Having a camera this small (which is quite a feat of engineering, I might
add) sometimes can cost you in terms of usability, not unlike a pocket computer
whose keyboard is too small to use. In low-light, no-flash situations where I am
shooting vertically, I find it difficult to hold this tiny camera steady.
The camera also carries the T2's legendary (not in a positive way) condensed
shutter-speed viewfinder indicator, where the only indicators displayed are 500,
125, 30, and LT (Long Time). This never bothered me as it has some other
community members; for a point-and-shoot all you really need to know is the
ballpark of where the shutter speed will be.
The manual focusing feature as implemented on the T3 I think is the camera's
most poorly-implemented feature. Here's another area where the T2 was superior;
on that camera you simply rotated a manual focus knob while looking through the
viewfinder, and the camera would indicate when the subject was in focus. To
achieve manual focus on the T3, you have to do the following:
Ascertain what the actual focus distance should be first (this can be done by
pressing the shutter release button halfway, taking your eye away from the
viewfinder, and reading the distance off the LCD.
Make a mental note of the reading.
Press the MODE button 4 times, then dial in the desired distance from
In practice this is inconvenient and inefficient. Most T3 owners are probably
yelling by now, "That's OK; because Contax added an AF Lock button - Just point,
press the button for 3 seconds, and it will lock focus there!" Well, yes and no.
It will work as advertised, but the lens will not move to its pre-focus position
- you must still press the shutter release down halfway (assuming you have that
custom function set - otherwise it won't move the lens until you take the
picture). That takes away somewhat from the idea of putting it into manual mode
to begin with: faster response time and less battery drain (due to decreased
focusing motor activity).
What the camera's designers SHOULD have done (and I've written to Contax about
this) was have the AF Lock button work the following way:
Immediately put the camera into manual focus mode, set to the distance of the
subject, and move the lens into proper focus position.
Do not require holding the button for 3 seconds. (I'm sure they did this to
avoid accidental activation.)
Another thing they should have done was to create a custom function that says
"Don't worry about accidental activation of the controls". When in this mode, the
camera's AF Lock button would respond instantly, and the +/- wheel (used in
conjunction with the mode button to adjust everything) would have a default
action of exposure compensation. (Currently there is no default action for this
The noise level of this camera has also been diminished compared to the T2, or
at least the pitch of the whirring motor has been lowered. This results in the
camera displaying a kind of wimpy, underpowered motor sound upon turn-on and
turn-off that does not instill much confidence. I'm not sure if it's fair to
compare the turn-on time to that of the T2 (it's slower), since on the T3 the
lens has a greater distance to travel.
Contax makes an
accessory dedicated flash which has a larger guide number than the camera's
built-in flash, but will only get invoked when the subject is out of range of the
built-in flash. I'm not sure why they made that decision; if I invested a ton of
money in a larger flash I would always want the benefit of the greater lens-flash
distance, regardless of how far away the subject was.
Most of the deficiencies mentioned in this article could be fixed by modifying
the camera's firmware, without increasing manufacturing cost or affecting the
camera's point-and-shoot appeal. In the event that someone at Kyocera is reading
this, here is a table summarizing these needed improvements:
So, in summary, I love the optics and the form factor, I love the enhanced
features, but the user interface is unnecessarily cumbersome. I will continue to hang onto my T2.