Tag Archives: kyocera

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

Tales of Glass and Ceramics, Pt. 1

When the E. Leitz Company introduced the first practical 35mm camera in 1925, it was an instant world-wide sensation. The Leitz Camera — Leica –, paved the way for a completely new way of creating photographs. At that time the Carl Zeiss Foundation of Jena, Germany, was already a well-established company with almost 50 years of optical history behind it. It had begun producing camera lenses in 1890, but was not able to respond to the success of the Leica by offering a comparable product. To do so, Zeiss acquired four small camera manufacturers and merged them into the Zeiss Ikon AG, based in Dresden and Stuttgart. Even so, it took several more years to develop and produce a match for the meanwhile dominant Leica camera. This was the Contax, Zeiss Ikon’s top of the line rangefinder camera, presented in 1932.

Postcard of Carl Zeiss in Jena around 1910
Carl Zeiss in Jena around 1910

The first Contax did not manage to fully live up to its ambitions. It was a very sophisticated and also complex little device and soon became known to suffer from a lack of reliability, especially due to its complicated shutter. Hubert Nerwin, Zeiss Ikon’s camera designer par-extraordinaire, picked up the pieces from the first unreliable Contax designs, and re-designed it to one of most famous and desirable 35mm cameras ever to have been produced; the Contax II. In 1936 it was brought to market with many revolutionary improvements, such as a combined viewfinder and rangefinder. In terms of features, it beat the comparatively primitive Leica hands down. Not resting on its success, Zeiss immediately started working on the next generation, the Contax III. But another ambitious project was already lined up beyond it — the Contaflex twin-lens reflex camera (TLR).

Zeiss Ikon Contax I, image courtesy of Tomei Collection
Zeiss Ikon Contax I, image courtesy of Tomei Collection

The second world war saw the cities of Jena and Dresden become the Soviet sector of occupied Germany. The production facilities were damaged and everything salvageable was relocated to Kiev in the Ukranian province, to provide the Soviet Arsenal conglomerate with the means to construct a world class camera called the Kiev, initially entirely from leftover parts from Germany. Prior to the handover to the Soviets, the withdrawing US Army had recognised the significance of Zeiss and facilitated the relocation of over 100 key personnel, management and engineers to West sectors. This chapter alone is a fascinating period of Contax history and many papers and books have been published trying to establish on what exactly happened under the Russians’ control and what cameras where built at what location.

Like Germany itself, Carl Zeiss was now divided into East and West. In the West, Zeiss continued working on improving the classic II and III series rangefinder cameras, whereas in the Soviet sector work concentrated on developing the single-lens reflex. In 1949, at the Leipzig Spring Fair, an industrial showcase, Zeiss Dresden (East) released the Contax S (for Spiegelreflex [reflex mirror]. Due to increasing disputes around the Zeiss trademarks, which occupied German courts for 15 years, Zeiss Dresden renamed their cameras to Pentacon, derived from the combined words PENTAprism CONtax). It was the one of first 35mm SLR film cameras featuring a pentaprism allowing direct viewing from behind without a reversed image.

Contaflex ad in National Geographic, January 1958
Contaflex ad in National Geographic, January 1958

The era of the rangefinder camera started drawing to a close and the SLR’s rise began. Carl Zeiss (West) released their first SLR in 1953, the Contaflex. Unlike its pre-war TLR namesake, it was a single-lens reflex camera (SLR) it featured a leaf shutter and but unlike the TLR only at a later stage was it equipped with a built-in (selenium) exposure meter. The follow-on model was called the Contarex and showed German engineering at its best: the world’s first exposure meter-coupled, focal plane shutter camera; it even sported interchangeable film backs. Despite its sophistication, the Contarex and its follow-on models were not commercially successful. While it was superbly crafted and packed with innovation, it was an engineer’s camera, which is to say ugly and heavy. Its selenium metering cell in front of the pentaprism gave it the name Cyclops or Bullseye. Production of the renowned Contax rangefinders IIa and IIIa (the a distinguishing them from the pre-war models) was ceased in 1961.

Meanwhile Japan had risen from its own ashes and started the onslaught that would leave the German camera industry practically wiped out (except for, ironically, the more and more archaic seeming Leica M). The Japanese practical design and not least pricing of cameras like the Nikon F simply could not be matched. Nonetheless, Zeiss continued to deliver in its cameras many world firsts that are taken for granted in today’s cameras: electronic auto-exposure, attachable motor drive and the technical feat of an electronically driven and vertically travelling shutter (a shorter travel distance means that shorter shutter speeds became possible). Undoubtedly SLR cameras would not be the same today if it wasn’t for the continuous innovation by Zeiss in their Contax cameras. The economic perspective was different, however. Zeiss simply could not continue to produce cameras in Germany alone, facing the fierce Japanese competition.

Yashica Electro 35 GSN, image courtesy kenrockwell.com
Yashica Electro 35 GSN, image courtesy kenrockwell.com
The key strategy was to find a strategic partner in Japan. Initially talks were held with Pentax, but efforts abandoned. The Pentax K is one remaining legacy of this attempted co-operation. In 1973 the alliance between Zeiss and Yashica commenced, a partnership that would hold for over 30 years. Yashica was founded in 1949 in Nagano prefecture and made a name for itself by producing high-quality 35mm and TLR cameras. The Yashica Electro 35 was a very popular rangefinder, said to have sold over 5 million units, and the Yashicamat a very reputable TLR. Yashica’s expertise in building electronic cameras paired with Zeiss’ excellence in producing optics seemed a promising formula for success.

Perhaps it was the experience of the cyclops that prompted the addition of another ally: the F. Alexander Porsche Group. Industrial design was still in its infancy as a concept or product development consideration, yet Zeiss and Yashica must have recognised its importance and potential. Porsche Design were a pioneer in ergonomics and consulted on appearance and human interface design. The fruits of this collaboration were introduced at Photokina 1974 — the Contax RTS SLR.

Contax RTS
Contax RTS
The RTS (Real Time System) once more introduced a fireworks of innovation: a wholly electronic camera with aperture priority and manual exposure modes, optional five frame per second motor drive with intervolometer (selectable frame per second rate), 5-flash-per-second electronic flash capability and two frame per second winder. The totally stepless electronic shutter had a maximum speed of 1/2000s. Exposure compensation was found for the first time on any camera. The traditional maze of mechanical levers, rods, cams and gears, common to most shutter release systems had now completely given way to electronics and electro-magnetics. All timings in the body were now governed electronically; the follow-on RTS II had adopted quartz to ensure precision timing. A slew of other models targeted at different types of photographers followed and Yashica also continued to manufacture cameras under their own brand, which shared the Contax mount (C/Y mount) so that lenses were interchangeable between them. Zeiss concentrated on producing their fine SLR lenses.

Read in Part 2 about how ceramic kitches knives from Kyoto helped Contax to remain on the cutting edge, tackling the challenges of auto-focus and the looming age of digital…