It's not that I have anything against APS I still think it's the perfect system for amateurs who love taking pictures but who hate their cameras. After all, with APS one never has to touch the film, never has to handle negatives, never has to worry whether the film is threaded correctly onto the take-up spool. The only problem is that you have to make do with really puny little negatives, and settle for really puny little prints.
But, hey, life's a tradeoff.
The other reason I laid off reviewing P&S cameras (aside from the fact that they seemed to multiply like lemmings on Viagra) is that they all looked about the same and worked about the same.
Every one of them looked like a car bumper--not surprising since many of them were made, like bumpers, of impact-absorbing polycarbonate plastic.
And many of today's point n' shoots shared a common trait with many of their full-size 35mm counterparts. They just didn't feel like cameras anymore, or at least not the kick-ass cameras of my youth, like the multi-pound Nikon F2 and motor drive, the tank-like Beseler Topcon, the rugged yet sensual Leica M2, or the imposingly clunky Alpa 6.
The new Nikon N80 loaded with electronic goodies though it may be-is a perfect case in point. This plastic marvel [made mostly in Thailand, not Japan, by the way] is so lightweight that I thought at first I was holding a plastic dummy of the real thing. This was not a camera, I thought; this was my VCR remote.
Still, I couldn't keep ignoring the appeal of lightweight, user-friendly cameras, especially point n' shoots. Even I didn't lug an F5 or a Hasselblad with me all the time. So I kept looking for a P&S that was simple enough for an amateur to use yet had enough features and in-your-face attitude to appeal to a professional like me.
Finally I found it in the drop-dead gorgeous and quietly gear-laden Contax Tvs III [List: $1550; Street: $999]
A confession: I originally had planned to do this column comparing the Contax Tvs III with Leica's premier amateur model, the C1. [List: $479; Street: $429]. In fact I had planned to do a column called "Battle of the Luxury Point n' Shoots." But to be perfectly honest, there simply was no comparison. The C1, elegant though it may be to look at, is just another run-of-the-mill point n' shoot camera with a woefully slow 38mm-105mm lens to boot [a myopic f.10.5 at full zoom!]. It feels as flimsy in the hand as any other such camera and has had a history of development problems which now appear to have been solved.
By contrast, what immediately appealed to me about the Contax was its agreeable heft. By no means a heavy camera, it nonetheless had the reassuring feel of a well-made car: think of closing a door on a high-end Mercedes and then on an economy Ford.
The damn thing just felt wonderful. Part of the reason for the camera's 320-gram weight is that the body is made largely of rugged and beautiful titanium, not plastic. Remember too: metal bodies take a hit better than plastic ones. Those polycarbonate bodies are meant to bounce back after impact [again like car bumpers] but too often they do not provide good protection for the delicate computer parts sitting just under a camera's thin skin. And speaking of protection, even though the wonderfully soft black leather carrying case of the Tvs III probably works no better than one made of plastic, it only adds to this machine's luxury aura.
On a more serious note, a very retro hinged door that folds down automatically when the camera is activated provides lens protection on the Tvs III. I'm much happier having this built-in metal lens cap than with having a thin plastic eyelid covering my lens, a la the C1 and God knows how many other point n' shoots.
And speaking of the lens, the one on the Tvs III is a very sharp 6-element Carl Zeiss 30mm-60mm Vario Sonnar (f/3.7 to an acceptable f/6.7 at full zoom).
Incidentally, as someone who in the past has preferred the generally superior optics of P&S cameras with fixed focal length lenses, I'm happy with the 30-60 on the Contax precisely because it isn't much of a zoom and therefore doesn't sacrifice too much light-gathering power at the high zoom end.
For all the above, what really sets the Tvs III apart from the usual run of mediocre, uninspired point n' shoots is its raft of manual features. To be sure, in full auto mode, this camera works just about like any other. But it also offers a highly user-friendly bag of manual tricks that might even justify the manufacturer's claim that this little point n' shoot has virtually the same array of features as a full-blown high-end 35mm camera.
For example, this is the rare P&S that allows for full aperture selection, if desired. It also lets you manually focus, with an external passive system that registers focusing distance in the viewfinder down to a half-meter.
Shutter speeds range from a whopping 16 seconds to 1/1000 of a second certainly in the conventional 35mm camera range. Though there is no manual selection of shutter speeds, one can take excellent time exposures in dark areas simply by turning off the on-board flash and letting the camera calculate the correct shutter speed for the aperture you or the camera has selected.
The viewfinder even offers diopter adjustment [find that on most point n' shoots] as well as internal exposure compensation of plus or minus two stops.
If I could find one flaw in this camera, it would be in its red-eye reduction mode. Since, like all point n' shoots, the Tvs III has a direct [i.e., non-bounce] flash, red eye will always be a problem in dark rooms. Some point n' shoots deal with this problem with a rapidly blinking strobe light beforehand to close down a subject's pupils, making them less susceptible to the red-eye effect. Others do this more sensibly with a bright continuous light to achieve the same end before firing the actual flash. The Tvs III makes an odd compromise. It simply fires the flash twice the first as a way to shine bright light at the pupils, forcing them to contract, then the second about a half-second later in conjunction with the actual shutter release. But this seems like a recipe to confuse one's subjects and for you to miss shots as they assume, incorrectly but with reason, that they already have been photographed by the first flash.
But that is a very minor quibble about what arguably may be the finest point n' shoot camera on the market today. Sure, it costs a heck of a lot more than the average P&S, most of which I view as one step above throwaways. But ironically, given the raft of features and its rugged construction, the Tvs III may actually be viewed by the serious photographer as the better long-term value.
Finally, it should be noted that even though both the Leica C1 and Contax Tvs III point n' shoots bear highly respected German names, neither camera is made in Germany. My demo C1 was made in Indonesia, one of several places (like Thailand) where labor is comparatively cheap. The Tvs III was made in Japan. However that should not be considered a drawback nor come as a surprise. The venerable Contax name has long been the property of Kyocera Corp., one of Japan's leading high-tech companies. [They also own Yashica.]
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.