Tales of Glass and Ceramics, Pt 2

Continued from Part 1

The early 1980s saw two major changes for Contax: in 1983 Kyocera Corporation acquired the Yashica company. Kyocera is an industrial conglomerate with a very diversified product palette ranging from industrial ceramics (which gave the Kyoto-based company its name), to audio components, photo copiers and laser printers, solar cells, mobile telephones (due to a merger with Sanyo Electric) and ceramic kitches knives, just to name a few. Kyocera inherited Yashica’s agreement with Zeiss and an expansion of the photography division was pursued by developing new products such compact cameras and even a medium format system, all equipped with Zeiss lenses.

Another significant development of that decade was Minolta’s introduction of the 7000 AF (MAXXUM 7000) 35mm SLR camera. It marked yet another significant milestone in photography as it was the first camera to feature both integrated auto-focus (AF) and motorised film advance.

Minolta 7000 AF (MAXXUM 7000) 35mm SLR camera
Minolta 7000 AF (MAXXUM 7000) 35mm SLR camera

Obviously this was foreseeable for Zeiss and Yashica. The pressure to introduce AF had been building up over a long time. Yashica, perhaps unsurprisingly, was prepared to go ahead; a prototype based upon the Contax 137 SLR with a coupled Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 lens was presented at Photokina in 1982 and its workings were, in principle, identical to the 7000 AF introduced three years later. However, Zeiss disapproved of AF. It feared that the optical performance of its lenses was compromised by the entailing use of lighter materials. Especially the helicoid, the device controlling lens to film distance for focussing, had to be made of a lighter material to let the rotation be carried out by electric motors. The helicoid and the spacer rings, positioning and holding in place lens elements, had to be made of plastics. These components were not up to the longevity and optical expectations of Carl Zeiss. Consequently the plans for a conventional AF camera were dismissed and R&D continued.

An alternative to moving the lens for focussing was to move the film plane. This seems to be an alien thought after years of being used to turning a lens to achieve focus. Still, since the beginning of photography, using a view camera, it is normal to focus by moving the film plane — which is exactly what the Contax AX was designed to do when released in 1996.

The AX was an incredible engineering feat. It is said that over one hundred patents have been granted regarding the technology in the camera. At the core, two main technological achievements made focussing possible: the first is ceramic technology; a very finely finished ceramic rod acts as a guide rail and motor part to move the film plane forward and back. Secondly, an Ultra Sonic Motor (USM) drives the ceramic collar and an inner camera body forward and back on the rails to obtain focus.

Contax AX
Contax AX

USM offer precision control and extremely quick and quiet operation. The Automatic Back Focusing system on the AX can move from minimum focusing distance to infinity or back in less than 450ms, irrespective of focal length. The Contax AX utilized three computer CPUs to control all of the camera’s functions, a more sophisticated computer system than in any other camera. One of the CPUs controls the Automatic Back Focusing system, one to oversee auto-exposure, and a third, the Indicator CPU controls wind/rewind, shutter charging and viewfinder indications. Almost a byline is the novel concept of user configurable camera parameters, called Custom Functions, which are common today.

In 1994 attention once more shifted to rangefinders. The Contax G series was a 35mm rangefinder system with interchangeable lenses — with a difference. The G1 camera was unique in that it offered auto-focus by means of a rangefinder. Instead of displaying a fixed magnification viewfinder, the first G1 had a zooming viewfinder adjusting itself depending on the lens in use. The viewfinder is very similar to an SLR displaying focus confirmation and distance and of course light metering information.

Contax G1 AF rangefinder advertising in Oct 1994 issue of Nippon Camera
Contax G1 AF rangefinder advertising in Oct 1994 issue of Nippon Camera (click to enlarge)

Unlike AF in an SLR camera determined through the lens alone, the G1’s auto-focus used the typical twin-window rangefinder. The difference was that the alignment determination was performed electronically, not by the photographer, by means of a phase-detection sensor. The system was very novel but to this day draws criticism from many rangefinder photographers as it did not conform to the classic heritage cameras like the Leica. Auto-focus, auto-winder, no frame lines, all in a modern titanium body were pushing the RF paradigm. The first incarnation became known to be finicky at time with AF speed and accuracy, improved in the G2 follow-on model. With the G series Zeiss and Contax celebrated a return to its rangefinder heritage. Rangefinder lenses are generally assumed to offer superior optical performance as there is no need to accomodate the reflex mirror box of an SLR, demanding a greater lens to film distance. Even by today’s standards the G lenses are considered stellar performers in their class. Unfortunately the G lens mount is proprietary and lenses cannot be used on other cameras without modification.

By now the digital age loomed, and unlike with auto-focus, Kyocera Contax could not afford to miss the boat. A number of compact digital cameras were made, but the top of the line was the Contax N series. The Contax N was an autofocus 35mm type DSLR system, announced in late 2000, and began to be sold in spring 2002, after several delays, for around ¥800,000 (~US$6550 at the time). Three models were made: the N1, the NX and the N Digital, an early Digital SLR. The Contax N Digital was the first professional digital SLR with a full frame size CCD chip (made by Philips).

Contax N1 DSLR
Contax N1 DSLR

The N-series bodies required new N-Mount lenses which made them incompatible with the older manual focus SLR system. A total of nine lenses were produced and received high acclaim. An adapter that allowed lenses from the 645 medium format system to be used on N bodies was also offered. The N camera system itself was a market failure. While some aspects worked very well, like colour fidelity and resolution afforded by the Zeiss lenses, the camera also had serious shortfalls like sensor noise and power consumption, although that may not be too surprising provided it is a first generation digital product. Many observers criticised Kyocera’s haphazard release of the system and in retrospect this could be interpreted as an indication of a lack of commitment to the camera division. Contax users had their hopes pinned on an improved revision of the N-series DSLR, however on 12 April, 2005 Kyocera Corporation announced that it had “decided to terminate CONTAX-branded camera business. Although Carl Zeiss and Kyocera have entered into a long term co-operation regarding the development, production and sale of CONTAX-branded cameras, Kyocera has decided to terminate such business due to difficulties in catching up with the recent rapid market changes.”

In 2008, Kyocera sold the trademark rights of the Yashica brand to a Hong Kong-based company to use on photo products such as digital cameras, digital camcoders, digital photo frames, portable DVD players, digital audio players, digital voice recorders, binoculars, mobile phones and SD cards — undoubtedly a sad fate for any camera maker with such great history, but not the first and probably not the last time.

Contax Salon
Contax Salon

What else is left in Japan of the proud Contax heritage and history? Like most other camera manufacturers Contax maintains a photo gallery called Contax Salon in the centres of Tokyo and Kyoto. I have to admit though that the work on display there is of little interest as it falls into the mainstream nature and landscape categories so often seen in Japan. Like other manufacturers there is a Contax Club.

Next to the Contax Salon Tokyo is the Kyocera Service Station (other locations also have their Service Stations) which is able to supply spare parts and little pieces like caps and covers for Contax cameras and lenses. Repairs are also accepted here for the the products still supported by the company (including the ROM upgrade for the G1 rangefinders); a list can be found here. Often repairs are impossible because parts are no longer available. In such cases a third-party repairer needs to be found, which for electronic cameras might not be easy.

The last remaining question is: what will happen to the great Contax name? Statements issued by Zeiss in reaction to Kyocera’s announcement in 2005 indicate that the agreement between is still in effect: “Kyocera has several years left of its agreement with Carl Zeiss. If they keep paying the minimum royalties, they could block any developments. Currently, we cannot initiate talks with a possible new partner until Kyocera makes a decision. In the meantime, they will have to keep using the Contax brand name or give it up.” Kyocera has not commented on the licence issue.


My personal experience with the Kyocera Contaxes is very good. I own a RTS II with a Distagon 28/2.8. I bought the RTS II due to its enormous focussing screen, it shows 97% of the image taken on film, which is great. The RTS II also has the best shutter release button I have ever experienced. Since it is electrical, there is only very light resistance and immediate response. Moreover it has no half-press, the first time you use it you wonder what is going on and how to obtain a meter reading. For that another button is placed in the front of the camera. My only qualm with it is the placement of the shutter speed dial on the left. It should really be on the right where the ASA/exposure compensation control is. With a manual focus camera your left hand is occupied focussing, so it is difficult to change shutter speeds as well.

The other Contax I own and currently actively use is the G1 rangefinder. A lot has been said about its perceived shortcomings, but perhaps it is often misunderstood. The G1 is an autofocus, autoexposure rangefinder camera offering a great degree of user control to meet the demands of the experienced photographer. This is not a Leica, and not trying to be one. This system offers its own advantages and would even complement a manual focus rangefinder: focussing in low light, focus tracking of moving subject, motor wind, auto exposure with bracketing just to name a few things that become easily possible.

The most important aspect of the Contax G system is the line of Carl Zeiss T* lenses that rival, or might even surpass, the quality of Leica lenses — at a fraction of the price.

The German-Japanese Contax venture was extremely popular in Japan and I think with the history we recounted in this article it is easy to understand why. Here are the world’s best engineers working together in creating top quality photographic products, with a great heritage. This is something that the Japanese very much appreciate. The popularity of Kyocera Contax has an interesting side effect: since there are so many cameras and lenses out there, with the change to digital enormous quantities of Contax equipment is reaching the second hand market at extremely low prices. Obviously these are still very capable cameras, and the quality of the fine lenses is not diminishing. Using an adapter, C/Y lenses can even used on digital bodies like the Canon EOS or Micro Four-Thirds bodies like that of Panasonic Lumix G1.

Please consider the Japan Exposures Equipment Sourcing Service if you are looking for any of these cameras.


Ken Rockwell’s review of the Contax G system

Contax Cameras UK

Contax and Zeiss Ikon on Camerapedia

Very detailed information on Contax RTS, RTS II and RTS III Series SLR camera pages