Contax TVS Digital Review

The Contax TVS Digital is a high-end compact camera within the legendary T range and the only digital model of the group. Boasting a massive 1/1.8″, 5 Megapixel CCD sensor this little titanium box was one of the last models pumped out of the Kyocera factories sporting the Contax badge. In 2002 I was just barely talking to girls and trying to figure out how to pass my Math classes, so this little Contax was WAAAAY off my radar when it was released. I bought it on a whim a few years back because I wanted a little compact camera I could beat up, but something that was nice to use and wouldn’t break the bank.

In recent years though anything with a Contax badge on it has drastically increased in price, due largely to the now infamous and much desired T2 and T3 film compacts (and Kendal Jenner FFS). As of writing this piece in mid-2018, the price of the lowly Contax TVS Digital (TVSd) has now skyrocketed to $300-600 or more if it’s a black model – I snagged mine for $100 about three or four years ago before all the T2/3 hootenanny really spun off the planet.

But, why is a 16 year old digital camera so desirable?

I don’t really know, maybe a combination of brand hype and nostalgia. It’s not a terrible camera to use, in fact it’s actually pretty good! I get the nostalgia factor and that for a lot of people film is just way too costly and fiddly of a venture, especially if you’re a mid-twenties hipster shooting your friends drinking coffee and smoking. Digital is just going to be WAY easier for you.

The little TVSd is a pretty well featured fun box from 2002, even with it’s tiny1/1.8″, 5 Megapixel CCD sensor (that’s an above 4.5x crop factor, baby) it can pump out some glorious looking files. I’m not one to hate on the CCD and the colour/tone combination that they produce, in fact I’m a fan it’s why I loved my Epson R-D1s so much! But, to my mind people can’t be out there hunting this camera down for it’s tech specs, they’re so out of date it’s laughable.

Sporting a sharp-enough Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar 35-105mm zoom lens the TVSd also has one of those rad optical viewfinders that zooms as you zoom the lens in, a pretty nifty feature. No doubt borrowed from the other Contax zoom capable film cameras Contax G2 and TVS before it (even though this is digital, of course) it makes you actually want to use the viewfinder. The finder itself is dull, just the like the TVS before it but remains usable enough. The camera itself is a lovely size and fits in the hand well, like the other Contax models it’s been designed from a users point of view and is really, really easy to use for daily shooting even in my large-ish man hands.

Hardware

I thought I’d take this opportunity in the product photos to compare the TVSd to it’s older and more capable brother, the TVS (film). The TVSd is much smaller than the TVS or TVS II as it’s got to fit a film plane in there, film canister and CR2 batter along with the requisite electronics. The form factor for both units does stay largely the same: mode dial to the bottom right of the top plate, LCD opposite, flash in the top left of the front panel, viewfinder in the middle, even the lens fully extended is of a similar size and shape.

As you can see from the photos the two main parallels: both models have a zoom lens and that they’re both made from titanium. The TVSd shares more of the T3’s look than any of the other Contax T models, but I guess they couldn’t just call it the the Contax T3 Digital Zoom – that would have been silly. 

On my TVSd the LCD in the top left pretty much always reads 999 with a larger than 32MB card, which was the style as the time when it was released in 2002. It’ll take up to 2GB SD cards these days, none of this SDHC fanciness here, they’ve got to be the older generation ones that have that terribly slow write speed. I’ve never been able to fill one in a day of shooting, in fact I think you could shoot this camera for a month straight and never need to change cards because the files are about 2-3MB each even on the larger “Fine” setting.

The ON button is on the back plate just above the D-Pad setting thing, once on the cute Contax logo illuminates the 84,960 pixel LCD (yes, you read it right 84k pixel screen!) and you’re off and running. It takes about 15-20 seconds to start up, read the SD card and boot in to the LCD live view, all perfectly standard for a camera of this standard from 2002. It’s ISO ranges from 80-400 but for me this beast lives in AUTO ISO mode, I wouldn’t want to force too many settings on the guy, it might lock up and wipe my SD card (which has happened before).

In daily use I usually just turn screen off by tapping the “Display” button three times (1 – some info, 2 – less info but with histogram, 3 – off) and switch it to Program and start shooting away. I’ve found that with a camera of this age changing settings isn’t really desirable as it seems to confuse the little machine, so I do what I can to just let the camera be. It’s designed to be a (largely) automatic camera as well, most point and shoots are, so why mess with it? I usually just drop in my settings and away I go.

You’re only real hurdle with the TVSd, despite the small file output (more on that later), is the write speed to the SD Card is SLOOOOOOOW due to those pre-historic old generation SD cards and their slower-than-watching-paint-dry speed.

It’s goes like this: shoot, write, wait, wait, finished, shoot and so on. JOY.

So, you’re not firing off multiple shots ever. Which is fine, because it’s not a camera you’ll be using for sports or any fast moving, moving things. It’s stills only and only ever one at a time. There’s a video mode too! But it’s unusable, so ignore it.

Shot settings can only be changed when the LCD is on, but the menus are basic and easy to use. System settings like file size and anything else you need can only be changed when the control dial is switched to “Setup”. The dial-to-access-shooting-modes approach has been used before on Contax cameras and is really nice because it’s right there by your thumb if shooting one handed. Makes switching to specific apertures easy if all you do is shoot in Program mode, again I would highly recommend that for this camera.

Lastly, the final two shooting modes: Macro and Manual Focus. Macro is macro, so you don’t need my help with that. What is cool is the manual focus option. It works much like a digital version of the Contax G2’s manual focus wheel where you just dial in the AF point manually. For street shooters this is awesome as you can set your autofocus distance and aperture manually giving you a nice little Snap focus mode a la Ricoh GR! I use this approach about 30% of the time when shooting the TVSd and it’s pretty good at nailing the focus and guessing the shutter speed and required ISO.

Handling

In the hand the TVSd is great. Not too heavy, not too light, stable and easy to fire off shots here and there. The dials and buttons are placed in easy to reach locations around the top and back of the unit that accessing key features is a breeze. The TVSd is really a one hand shooter: the control dial is accessible by the thumb while holding it, moving your thumb from the top to back plate you can access the zoom buttons “W” for wide and “T” for tight to make the mechanics work and send your little Zeiss lens forward, back or where ever you like.

The LCD is usable, surprisingly so, even in super bright sun. It’ll tell you your key settings as they’re all assembled around the sides of the screen and your single but reliable enough AF point lives dead center. As I said, the AF is reliable. Not fast. But reliable, probably annoyingly so because the TVSd refuses to take a shot unless it’s certain the file will render successfully – which isn’t bad, really. The AF does hunt a bit, but not enough to be dreadful or time consuming.

Batteries are easy to find and can be charged in the camera itself, making it a bit of a legendary travel camera – if you’re into that sort of thing. I used it in NYC for a couple of days here and there, all I did was charge it off the wall to bring it back to life. Although, it’s not like the TVSd is a battery fiend either. Depending on your shooting style, how many shots you take daily or hourly and the age of your battery the life of a standard battery should be at least a full day, if not more. I bought a new one off of eBay for about $10 and it can take several hundred shots across many days without a recharge. I usually just charge it once a month or so to make sure it’s ready when I need it.

Finally, the Zeiss Vario Sonnar zoom lens will get you to 105mm if you really, really need to but I keep mine locked in at the 35mm minimum and rarely zoom it in. Again, this approach works well as the lens doesn’t need to move other than for focusing so the camera can’t really confuse itself and fail. Whatever you can do to reduce the load on the camera’s CPU the better, because it’s old and super small. That’s why I’m a firm advocate for leaving the screen off, setting your shoot mode to P and let the camera take care of the rest.

Files & Results

Only JPG here folks. Likely because they couldn’t get the camera to spit out RAW files fast enough onto the POS old generation SD cards. So, you’ve got two JPG modes at your disposal. The “Normal” mode which compresses the bejesus out of the files and makes them look like turds rolled in the occasional light-exposed pixel and the “Fine” mode where the camera does slightly less compression and therefore generates usable files.

The files themselves spit out at 2560 x 1920 so long as you use the Fine setting, which for those of you playing along at home is roughly the size of a low-res film scan. Good enough for web, instagram and your facebook snaps but not printable above 6″x4″ish. Which is rather interesting, really. This camera is capable of pumping out files relative to low-res-ish scans from a Fuji Frontier machine, all without having to go to a lab – a major plus for many people I would imagine.

While the results from the TVSd are unmistakably digital, they do have a sort of film like feel. That probably comes from the super tiny sensor, old tech innards and a nice enough Zeiss lens slapped on the front – a combination that results in good looking files. And by good looking I really mean good looking enough. They’re not 35mm film by any stretch, but if you’re looking at a low-res scan and a TVSd shot side by side you be surprised and how similar they were.

The files are plenty sharp and are easily manipulated in Lightroom, although you don’t have much room to move. I wouldn’t be pushing your sliders too far in either direction to get the desired results, only light treating of the files is really possible. The files convert to Black & White nicely and retain their tone well enough to remain interesting after the conversion, no mean feat for a 5 megapixel beast from 2002. In general the files a good looking but tiny. The trade off is that you’re never printing anything larger than A4 but you can drop your files online super fast because even the biggest file is only a couple of megabytes.

Availability

This camera isn’t rare nor is it super hard to get if you really want one, there’s usually about ten or so listed on eBay at any given time. I was lucky enough to find mine in used, but relatively good shape from Japan where it appears that they are in abundance. The few that are listed on eBay every go for insane prices, because of that sweet, sweet Contax badge. But, as the price of the fabled Contax T2 & T3 have risen it has left no Contax model cheap in it’s wake. It’s really not even that good of a camera by today’s standards, but people still want them because of the Contax legacy, I guess.

Final Thoughts

Don’t buy this camera. I’m not even sure why I bought it! Save your pennies for a real film Contax T instead, if that’s what you’re craving because the user experience is just SO MUCH better. If you’re in the hunt for a solid digital point and shoot, go and get yourself a Ricoh GR. It will serve you so much better than a camera from 2002.

Sidebar: I wish they’d made a TVSd with a fixed prime lens. That would have been a true gem, even if the sensor was terrible.

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JC

I've been taking terrible street shots on and off since around 2014. I started this site in a attempt to better understand the process of photography and write about it at the same time. While I’m obsessed with gear like pretty much all photography nerds, I’m also obsessed with good photographs that make us feel something. I hoping that through this site my photography will develop into something that makes you feel something (other than complete disappointment, of course).

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