Contax   GearHead

Fastest Thumb in the West

AF, MF, VF, SAF.

After having to answer this over and over again, and by request, I'm making a permanent entry here on the subject of fast accurate focusing with the Contax G2. The next time a Leica collector starts up about "slow AF" (this from a guy with no AF), I'll at least be able to lean back and type a URL to them with a smooth, authoritarian air.

So here goes:

The trick to using a G2 quickly is to ride the AF lock button. There, that's it. Really. Treat it a bit like a good EOS (Think Custom Function #4, sorta). It's all about the grip.

Here are the standard complaints I hear about the Contax. I hear them on the web, in emails, in person. The truth is they're pretty well dispatched as long as you know how to hold the camera.

Universally, these complaints come from folks who hold the camera wrongly (if at all — often such comments are prefaced with "the guy at the camera store told me...," or "I heard on photo.net..."). Part of the problem, surely, is a nearly-universal human tendency to avoid any sort of work and assume that if convenient technology is available, that it must be used; a attitude which is deeply wrong-headed imo.

The Contax G (like the Nikon F6) can be used as a point-n-shoot. Sometimes that's all you need. But just because the camera can be operated by a three-year-old doesn't mean that's the way it should always be used (this is a problem many users have with all sorts of equipment, BTW. In the face of technology that's increasingly idiot-proofed, people often think that it gives them a free license to be an idiot, or even the belief that idiocy is required).

The solutions are actually all in the Contax manual! But bits and pieces of crucial info are scatteed on odd pages. Further, the siren song of automation probably keeps a lot of folks from ever reading the Contax manual (here's a Leica advantage, all right — you need to know at least a little bit about what you're doing before you start. The manual struggle of just loading a camera like the M7 keeps most three year olds at bay).


Here's what to do: Set the camera in SAF mode, hold it with your thumb on the lock button, ready to press — aim the AF patch appropriately, press the lock button to focus and lock. Repeat as appropriate. Once you're happy with the focus, keep your thumb pressed.

When your thumb is pressed, the lens drives out to the actual focus position (this is a bit different from an AF SLR. In an AF SLR, the lens needs to move to determine focus. In an AF rangefinder like the Contax, the lens motion and distance detection can be separated, because the AF isn't TTL). As long as you hold down the AF lock, the lens stays put. No back-and-forth between shots, no delay. No noise either — the "noisy AF" complaints come not from the AF at all, but from the motor that drives the lens. If you're using the AF lock, and not cycling the focus its full length on every shot, the focus noise is nearly non-existant.

(Sure, it may seem awkward to hold the AF button when you take your eye away from the finder — go ahead and refocus. Would you trust the focus lever of a mechanical rangefinder to not get bumped?)

The focus-lock button does the same magic for manual focus — drives the lens to the right spot. You can use MF without the lock button, sure — but then you'll have to wait for the lens to move. The focus lock, when in MF, also provides a little-known bonus: the distance in meters appears directly in the viewfinder. Not just on the LCD panel atop the camera, but in the VF too.

And an even less-known feature: if you focus using the AF lock in SAF mode, hold down the button while turning the mode-select collar from SAF to MF. Now you'll be in manual focus mode, but the distance setting has been automagically copied from the SAF value (this works best on a body that's seen some use — the collar tends to be a bit stiff on brand-new bodies, but it's easy to turn once you've had a bit of practice and time to break-in the controls (and your fingers)).


Look at the illustration below (visitors to contaxg.com may recognize the source images from a folder of G-series bloopers). The little [ ] marks show where the central AF markers are placed.

In the first example, the focus is on the ceiling in the back. That's what you get if you just point-n-shoot.

If instead you ride the AF lock, you would focus on the face to one side, lock the focus in place, and re-compose. In other words, exactly the same sequence that you'd follow using the RF patch in a Leica.

Of course, there are a few differences:


The viewfinder is cited variously as a strong or weak point of the Contax. YMMV. It's a telescoping finder, so it doesn't show you areas outside the frame. Then again, neither do SLR finders. It zooms-in for using the 90mm lens, and zooms-out for the 28mm, without changing the overall size of the finder. Just like an SLR. Some people like that. I do. I keep around a Voigtländer 50mm outboard finder for use with the Contax 45mm, but I rarely, rarely have found it to be useful.

The finder in the Contax does have one lack w.r.t. a traditional mechanical split-image rangefinder patch — sometimes it can be tricky to verify where you're focused, other than looking (when in SAF mode) at the LCD panel. But the viewfinder, like a Leica M, is parallax-correcting. With a small amount of practice, you'll find that you can pretty accurately tell where the lens is focusing just based on the amount of right-to-left shift in the VF window (relative to the meter info and RF marker) as you adjust focus. Window moves to the right: close-up. Moves to the left: far.

A few Leica users get very comfortable with their focus, proud of the fact that their left hand just "knows where to go" without even looking at the patch or looking through the finder — quarter-turn for three meters, half turn for one meter... and I'm a huge fan of that. It's good to have a close physical connection to your tools, whether it's a camera, a shovel, or a violin.

I'm 100% convinced that modern camera designers tend to casually dismiss the muscle memory and hand skills of an expert user. In their rush to reduce all functions to a single electronic controller and an on-screen menu, they seem to have all forgotten the interconnection between hand and eye that's been essential in almost every successful tool since the days of the stone axe.

Fortunately, you can do the same sort of focus-by-feel with the Contax, though with its own flavor. When you press and release the AF lock, the lens drives in and out. Over time, you get a natural sense of how much vibration corresponds to a focal distance. No vibration: infinity. A little: 3 meters. A lot: very close. For critical focusing wide-open, look through the finder. But 1/250 f/11 outside on the street? No problemo.

One handy bit of extra info: I printed up a wee hyperfocal-distance chart and taped it onto the back of my G (you can see it in the top pix). I based it on this Excel chart that prints a tiny, pocketable guide to DoF for every Zeiss lens at each f/stop (I keep the guide in my wallet, for occasional but rare reference). The little on-camera chart makes it easy to use the Contax with hyperfocal or zone focusing, which I do a fair deal (often I leave my AF set to 2.7 meters — a favored fixed distance for the 28mm at f/11).

So there you have it — my complete kit of fast and quiet focus tips for the Contax G.

HEGR-biased backpedallers will be unconvinced, of course. "The camera is too loud, it has a motor." As do M cameras with Leicavits. As do the Konica Hexar RF and the Xpan. "The shutter is metal, not that quiet Leica *kfik* that you get from a cloth shutter." True enough, it has a metal shutter just like the Voigtländers, the Konicas, and the Xpans. Or most any SLR. Not that you could tell with the motor running. I'm totally convinced that these subtle differences are worth four or five thousand dollars to some people, though I suspect that many of them would pay more for the red dot than the fabric shutter.

One final handy fact about the correct Contax grip:

When you use your thumb firmly, it's a lot easier to use the AE lock too. Your index finger is freer to move around. Of course, AE is one of those foolish modern features that no proper rangefinder user would want. I mean, not before 2002, at which point it became perfect.


February 07, 2005

Comments on "Fastest Thumb in the West"

Kudos for pointing out what should be obvious. I use the same method, having stumbled upon it as the closest G2 analog to the way I focus a manual RF.

Posted by: Chris Chen at February 9, 2005 12:11 PM

Kevin,

Not only do your photos rock, you've posted THE best "how to use your G2" page I've ever seen. Way to go!

Posted by: Gregg Humphrey at February 9, 2005 01:20 PM

Now waiting for a guide on how to focussing the Canon G2 manually :)

Posted by: Dirk at February 10, 2005 06:57 AM

With my G2 I discovered the same focusing method by accident, but I never realized how versatile it could be until I read this piece. Great job!

Posted by: Carl Siracusa at February 28, 2005 12:36 PM