The Contax TVS on the Streets of Bangkok

This story begins with a Rollei 35 and a Lomo LC-Wide being traded away for a camera that I’d long had a crush on, the Contax T. Recently a local shop posted an all black Contax T, no flash, but in very good condition. They took my beloved Rollei 35 – another pocket-able gem, and my similarly-pocket-able Lomo LC-W.

In fact I had owned a silver Contax T some time before this fateful trade, but that one had come to me beaten up, and I eventually sold it to a local shop in Hanoi, Vietnam where I’ve lived part time for the past four years. After 2 rolls, the T started taking audibly long shots in bright daylight with 400 ISO film. After the roll came back with some overexposed motion blur shots, I knew that there was an issue and brought it back to the shop.

They offered to let me trade the T for another camera, and I reluctantly chose the Contax TVS.

I had also previously owned a TVS – or more accurately, a TVS II. I loved the photos I made with it, and the camera seemed solid, but the manual twist out zoom lens felt a bit loose, as if it would break at any moment and leave me holding a champagne brick. So I sold that one, too.

But my newest TVS (the original one, this time) felt great. No loose bits, and it seemed to work right. A quick comparison between the two models follows.

The original TVS has a tab to extend and zoom the lens – love it. It lacks the built-in lens cover of the second camera, and mine came with the expensive-to-lose lens cap (which I did promptly lose at the airport). The TVS II has the ability to remember your flash choice while the original has its flash set to Auto initially. I forgot to turn it off and blasted a couple on an escalator, but usually I can remember to choose the setting when turning on the TVS. Besides that, they’re very similar things.

Rather than repeating information shared in James’ post on the TVS, I want to share some surprises about my experience bringing the TVS as my only film camera to Bangkok for an unwanted work-cation/visa run.

I was saddened at giving up the rare and desirable Contax T for the TVS, which is, as James’ article explained, the best value in Contax compacts – which also means that maybe it’s a little less prestigious to own. And mine has the databack. How uncool.

Prestige aside, there I was, a Contax TVS and a few rolls of film in Bangkok.

As mentioned before, this model has a tab to extend the lens while simultaneously turning on the camera. I like how this feels and it’s buttery smooth on my model. Shooting mostly outdoors, I turned off the flash except for a few times where it was needed for daylight fill. Over the past year, I’ve come to discover how much I’ve over-valued my input in choosing manual settings on cameras with great light meters/automatic EV. For this trip I wanted to be in the action, to experience the sights while quickly taking snapshots – only briefly pausing to compose a shot when possible. I left the TVS on P, or Program mode, and let it choose the Aperture and Shutter values. I was very pleased with the results, and as most shots were street photos, getting the subject in focus was a priority to subject isolation.

I wandered, often lost, through the back roads along Sukhumvit and other busy streets. When I could frame a shot, I did. But many times I didn’t raise the camera above my waist – I just took the shot blind.

The Contax T versus the Contax TVS

And what about trading the prime 38mm f/2.8 lens of the Contax T for the TVS’s 28-56mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom tab contraption?

It proved way more useful to have a range of focal lengths than the extra f-stop (or three, when zoomed since the TVS has a max aperture of only 5.6 when zoomed in). There were many shots that the subject wouldn’t have filled the frame or would’ve needed too much cropping without zoom. And the auto-focus hit almost every time. A put down of the manual-focus T, not hardly. But for general photos, the TVS is very sharp. Squinting in on scans at max zoom or for those with an enlarger, maybe shots from the prime-lensed T is sharper, but the TVS is fantastic too. It’s a Zeiss after all. And I shot with 400 ISO film in mostly well-lit situations, so the larger maximum aperture wasn’t that necessary.

And what about the TVS being more bulky, or less portable?

Yes, and no. Pop the flash on the Contax T and now it’s less portable/pocke-table. Also, not having a drawbridge door (no offense T and Minox lovers!) to fold out was great. I just moved the tab to extend the lens and bam! Photo Time.

Another great feature of the TVS and TVS II is that if you half-press the shutter button while looking at the film counter window, it shows the focal length the lens is set to. Want to shoot with a Zeiss 35mm at f/5.6? Go ahead! 28mm at f/3.5? Feel free! Tighter framing at 56mm f/5.6? Sure.

This review may sound like a battle between the Contax T and the TVS. Sort of. I may be biased after my beautiful black Contax T went wonky on me, trying to feel better about the TVS – with databack. ugh. Turns out, the TVS with databack has a better grip than the TVS without. It only adds 2mm of thickness, and is less prone to those ugly scratches on the titanium champagne back.

I digress.

Final Thoughts

After owning the Contax G1 with the 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses, the Contax T, and the fantastic Minolta TC-1, I can say that I’ve finally found the camera that works for me. I’m a street and landscape photographer that likes portability due to a nomadic lifestyle. I want something (jacket) pocket-able that can do most of what I need (aperture setting, auto, flash, ev compensation) and the Contax TVS nailed it for me in Bangkok. I was shocked at how many photos came out decent, were perfectly focused and exposed, and were very sharp.

I can’t wait to see what images come through this lens on the next adventure. While I love the Contax T, Lomo LC-W, and Rollei 35 that were lost in rediscovering the TVS, I’m not too sad about it.

Buy your own Contax TVS on eBay here

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