SECOND COMING CONTAX FROM 1974 TO 2005
It’s the earlier history of the Contax marque which tends to attract the most attention, but there were some equally important and innovative cameras to come out of the later collaboration with the Japanese. Paul Burrows documents the Contax/Yashica years.
The Contax name was first used in 1932 – by the Dresden-based Zeiss Ikon – on a 35mm rangefinder camera designed to compete with the pioneering Leicas. As would be the pattern throughout the various chapters of the Contax history, Zeiss Ikon’s creation was actually superior to the Leica design and certainly more innovative – an inevitable benefit of designing a competitor – but struggled to gain the same traction. Leica’s rangefinder line continues today unbroken over 60 years, the Contax models finished in 1962.
There were other issues at play here, including the decision to concentrate on developing the 35mm SLR, but the second World War and the subsequent division of Europe – and, more specifically, Germany – split Zeiss in two. The operation left in the east – which became known as VEB Zeiss Ikon – lost valuable personnel and tooling while the operations set up in the west – named Zeiss Ikon AG – had to start from scratch, building a new camera factory in
Stuttgart. Both made the best of their situations – the east using its blank slate to devise the Contax S 35mm SLR; the west taking the opportunity to iron out most of the problems that had plagued the prewar rangefinder models. Introduced in 1949, the Contax S is, of course, a hugely significant camera as it established the configuration for the modern 35mm SLR, most notably the incorporation of a pentaprism viewfinder which provided a correctly-orientated image at the eyepiece. This model also introduce the M42 screwthread lens mount which, for a while, was as close to a universal fitting as the camera industry ever got. The West German Zeiss soldiered on with the reworked IIa and IIIa 35mm rangefinder cameras along with a 35mm SLR design called the Contaflex which was introduced in 1953 and used leafshutter lenses. At the time the leafshutter route was considered more reliable and less expensive than a focal-plane shutter, but it would subsequently prove restrictive in terms of the camera’s operation and the size of the lens system.
Zeiss stuck with the Contaflex line through to the end of the 1960s (there was even a model which took Kodak’s 126 ‘Instamatic’ film cartridges). By this time though, the Japanese camera industry was gathering momentum and, in particular, Asahi Optical was exploiting the new 35mm SLR
“Even on paper this looked like a powerful alliance – Japanese electronics knowhow combined with European styling sensibilities and the performance of German optics.”
design with great success, using the name “Pentax” (which, incidentally, had been considered for the pioneering East German camera). The rangefinder cameras were replaced by an SLR called the Contarex, and Leica undoubtedly benefitted from their disappearance, especially as its all-new M3 (in 1954) followed many Contax design leads. But in the 1960s the 35mm SLR was the only game in town, and neither Zeiss was able to take full advantage of it; the East Germans increasingly isolated by the Cold War while the West Germans couldn’t keep pace with the ever-advancing Japanese. The overly complex Contarex was a commercial failure which wasted valuable time and resources while the Contaflexes, though actually reasonably successful, looked increasingly archaic.
In 1966 Zeiss Ikon AG merged with Voigtländer and there followed a series of Icarex-badged 35mm SLRs which again failed to have much of an impact on the market as they were limited by a dedicated bayonet lens mount which meant only a handful of compatible lenses. Screw mount versions were eventually introduced and a ‘last gasp’ model with more popular appeal (the SL706 in 1971), but it was all too late and Zeiss ceased making cameras in the following year. The 35mm SLR production line – and the Voigtländer name – were sold to Rollei.
This may have looked like the end of the line for the Contax name, but in many ways the marque would arguably enjoy equal success under the stewardship of a much better resourced and forward-thinking camera company.
Fortuitously, as the western Zeiss was in the process of ending camera production, Yashica was looking for ways to expand its presence in the market, particularly in higher-end 35mm SLRs. The Yashica name was well respected – as it happens, thanks to a long line of very capable 35mm rangefinder cameras – but when it came to SLRs it didn’t quite have the kudos of Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Pentax or even Konica.
In 1973 Carl Zeiss and Yashica formed a joint venture which would allow the latter to revive the
Contax name on a new 35mm SLR system. The camera would be designed and built in Japan, but styled in Germany, and the lenses would be badged Zeiss and built in both Germany and Japan, depending on the model. Even on paper this looked like a powerful alliance – Japanese electronics know-how combined with European styling sensibilities and the performance of German optics.
The result was the RTS – the initials stand for ‘Real Time System’ – a professional-grade 35mm SLR that was unveiled at the 1974 Photokina and went on sale the following year. The RTS was styled by Porsche (the design bureau, not the car maker) and introduced a new bayonet lens fitting called the Contax/ Yashica (C/Y) mount which was also adopted for the subsequent Yashica SLRs. The “Real Time” reference related to the camera’s fully electronic design which included an electro-magnetic shutter release, electronically-controlled shutter speeds, LED viewfinder display and electromechanical lens mount. In other words, thanks to its advanced electronics, the camera is able to respond in real time to the photographer’s inputs.
The RTS arrived with a full system of accessories and an extensive line-up of Zeiss lenses which ranged from a 16mm fisheye to a 500mm mirror telephoto (there was later a 1000mm model). Consequently, the Contax RTS was expected to challenge the Canon F-1 and Nikon F2 in the professional market and, interchangeable viewfinders aside, it certainly matched these models in all other areas, including the choice of lenses and their optical performance. But as Minolta was already finding out with its equally capable XM, Canon and Nikon had a particular way of dealing with the professional market and they established system loyalties which were subsequently hard to break. Only Olympus had any degree of success here with its top-end OM System cameras, but Pentax and Leica also tried their hardest.
The Contax RTS system did attract plenty of professional users, but it was more successful with enthusiast-level photographers and Yashica began to specifically cater for this sector with a number of less expensive 35mm SLR bodies. The first of these was the 139 Quartz (1979) which introduced quartz-crystal timing for the automatic shutter speeds and TTL flash metering. The 137 MD Quartz (1980) incorporated a built-in autowinder – giving 2.0 fps continuous shooting – but it only had aperture-priority auto exposure control. Manual exposure control was added with the 137 MA (1981) and programmed exposure control with the 159 MM (1984) when the C/Y lens mount was updated to ‘MM’ specification to enable automatic aperture setting. The 169 MT (1986) was the first true multi-mode Contax 35mm SLR (i.e. with a full set of ‘PASM’ settings) and it included a choice of metering patterns, an auto exposure bracketing function (a world first), DX coding for auto film speed setting, a top shutter speed of 1/4000 second, continuous shooting at 3.0 fps and motorised film rewind.
Here, then, was Contax at its most competitive and Yashica was now under the control of Kyocera, a much larger Japanese electronics and ceramics manufacturer who, it might have been thought, had the resources to deal with what happened next in the design of 35mm SLRs.
Staying In Focus
This was, of course, autofocusing – tentatively pioneered by Pentax with the ME-F in 1981 and Nikon with the F3AF in 1983, then successfully fully implemented a couple of years later by Minolta and, not long after, also by Nikon and Canon.
However, the vast cost of developing an AF system – which also involved creating a whole new range of lenses – resulted in a long list of departures from the 35mm SLR market; Chinon, Fujifilm, Konica, Mamiya, Rollei/ Voigtländer, Ricoh and even, eventually, the high-profile Olympus. Like Olympus, Yashica produced a number of autofocus 35mm SLRs, but these were largely uncompetitive and production ceased in 1994, adding this brand to the AF casualty list.
It had been decided earlier on not to pursue autofocusing for the Contax SLRs, initially at least because of concerns it would compromise lens performance and durability. Leica thought along the same lines, but it was also considered that high-end users wouldn’t trust AF anyway and this certainly bought some time… at least until Nikon launched the D4 in 1988 and Canon the EOS-1 in 1989.
Yashica looked for other stories to tell so, for example, the RTS III which was launched in 1990 featured a ceramic pressure plate with a vacuum system to ensure
a film frame was held completely flat. This was probably overkill for 35mm, but came into its own when the 6x4.5cm format Contax 645 was launched in 1998. The RTS III also had another unique feature in its pre-flash spot metering which was essentially a built-in TTL flash meter. It also offered 5.0 fps continuous shooting, auto exposure bracketing and a top shutter speed of 1/8000 second so it was a formidable machine, but autofocusing was rapidly becoming an essential feature and, consequently, its absence less acceptable.
The Yashica/Kyocera engineers began looking for alternative methods of focusing automatically and found a possible solution in history. Large format view cameras are traditionally focused by moving the film standard back or forwards in relation to the lens which is pretty easy to do when the two are attached by flexible bellows. It’s harder to achieve in a rigid-bodied camera, but it’s exactly what happened in the Contax AX (1996), made possible by again borrowing some of Kyocera’s ceramics tech – this time for the super-smooth rails on which the film plane assembly moved – and some of its electronics tech – for state-ofthe-art ultrasonic micromotors and a high-speed CPU. Inside the AX, the entire internal chassis actually moved (including the mirror box, shutter and pentaprism) over ten millimetres of travel which made the camera a bit deeper than normal, but the benefits of its ‘Automatic Back Focusing’ system arguably outweighed the extra bulk. Obviously, for starters, manual focus lenses can be focused automatically with no compromises to their mechanical integrity or optical performance. Then the extra ten millimetres from the film plane to the lens mounting flange acts as an extension ring, giving a much closer minimum focusing distance.
Twenty years down the track and with imaging sensors commonly mounted on moving mounts (for image stabilisation, pixel shifting, etc), it’s a bit surprising that nobody since has opted for body-based auto back-focusing.
On A Roll
The Contax AX was a very clever machine, but again it was poorly promoted and so had very little impact on the 35mm SLR market. Yet nobody could say the Yashica/Kyocera engineers weren’t pulling their weight.
At the 1998 Photokina, the biggest surprise was a brand new 6x4.5cm SLR system from Contax… with conventional autofocusing. As noted earlier, it used a vacuum system to ensure the film was held absolutely flat against the pressure plate. The 645 was accompanied by six Zeiss-made lenses – which incorporated autofocusing motors – and the camera itself boasted most of the features of the RTS III including auto exposure bracketing, TTL pre-flash metering, a motorised film transport and a top shutter speed of 1/4000 second. At the time, only Pentax offered a similar level of automation in a medium format SLR.
In 2001, conventional autofocusing arrived in a Contax 35mm SLR, the N1. Zeiss transferred its 645 AF lens configuration to a small line-up of 35mm models and, in fact, an adapter allowed for the fitting of the larger format lenses with full functionality. The N1 was as good as its contemporaries from Canon or Nikon, but the Contax marque was increasingly struggling for traction and, of course, the digital imaging upheaval began a new round of brand departures, especially from among the ranks of the medium format camera makers. Yet, at first, it appeared Contax would survive especially when the N Digital was announced at Photokina 2000. Based on the N1, it was the world’s first D-SLR with a full-35mm size sensor, a 6.04 megapixels CCD device sourced from Philips.
It was an ambitious project – Pentax eventually abandoned plans to use the same sensor – but there was a very long delay between the camera’s announcement and its eventual availability (in mid-2002) while various production issues were ironed out. In that time Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm all released significant high-end D-SLRs so the N Digital’s advantage was mostly lost. Additionally, some performance issues remained unresolved remained (such as the CCD’s voracious appetite for battery power) and, in the end, the N Digital proved just too
“It had been decided earlier on not to pursue autofocusing for the Contax SLRs, initially at least because of concerns it would compromise lens performance and durability.”
problematic. So did the whole – and rapidly changing – camera market for Kyocera which, in April 2005, announced its complete withdrawal from the business. Production of the 645 AF continued until the end of the year and then Contax was gone… this time, it would appear, for good.
Home On The Rangefinder
The 645 AF was one of the success stories of Contax’s modern era and, in fact, many are still being used today with digital capture backs fitted. However, also successful was the re-interpreting of the 35mm rangefinder camera, starting with the Contax G1 in 1996.
While Leica was struggling to modernise its 1950s-era M, Yashica/Kyocera started with a clean slate, giving the G1 autofocusing, a fully motorised film transport, TTL flash metering and features such as auto exposure bracketing. Yet, it was still classically styled with a titanium bodyshell (over a diecast aluminium chassis) and an RF-type viewfinder for manual focusing. The Zeiss G-mount lens system included the ‘staples’ of 28mm, 45mm and 90mm primes plus a glorious 16mm ultra-wide. A 21mm and a 35mm were added when the updated G2 was launched in 1996. This camera has faster continuous shooting (at 4.0 fps), a faster top shutter speed of 1/6000 second (up from 1/2000 second) and a revised AF system which used both active and passive measurement methods for faster response times. If Kyocera had continued on, the G2 would surely have been an excellent platform for a digital RF camera, much more so than the Leica M. Certainly the Zeiss G lenses have sufficient resolution, including the 35-70mm zoom which was added to the system in 2000.
Could Contax have survived? There was certainly no shortage of engineering talent at Yashica/ Kyocera and the product planning looks to have been reasonably insightful… if the N Digital had worked (and the difficulties were mostly sensor related rather than the camera itself) and the G System transitioned to digital capture, it might have been a different story. But only ‘might have been’ because one of the big issues was poor marketing which really failed to effectively tell the Contax story, especially when Canon and Nikon were doing a very good job here.
In Australia, distribution was handled by an independent agency which took matters into its own hands and so gave the marque some presence in this market (for example, I was one of the few camera journalists worldwide to actually test the N Digital), but this wouldn’t have had much impact in terms of global sales. The transition from film to digital was a challenging time for everyone, but opportunities were certainly missed and there needed to be a 100 percent commitment to ensure the large investments that were essential to stay competitive. Cameras were such a small part of Kyocera’s business, it would inevitably have been considered just all too difficult.
There are still some positive outcomes though. Zeiss was convinced to stay in the interchangeable lens business and, subsequently, was perfectly positioned when the new generations of ultra-high resolution sensors started to arrive. And many original Contax/Yashica mount lenses are being used, via adaptors, on mirrorless cameras, still valued for their optical performance. Whether Contax’s second coming was as glorious as the Zeiss Ikon era is perhaps debatable, but it still produced some exceptional cameras including the RTS trio, the AX, the G Series models and the 645 AF. That’s a pretty good legacy.
Contax RTS. The first-born from the marriage of Zeiss and Yashica. 1974
Contax 137 MD Quartz. The first of the enthusiast-level Contax 35mm SLRs and one of the first with a built-in autowinder. 1980
Contax T. High-end 35mm compacts became an important part of the Contax business. 1984
Contax 167 MT. A full set of ‘PASM’ exposure modes and a choice of metering methods. 1986
Contax T2. Classy compact with Zeiss Sonnar 38mm f2.8 lens. 1990
Contax G1. Move over Leica. The G1 was a modern take on the traditional 35mm rangefinder.
Contax S2. Released to commemorate 60 years of the Contax marque. Fully mechanical with a titanium bodyshell. Yum! 1992
Contax ST. An RTS for the masses? Well, not quite, but certainly more affordable. 1992
Contax RX. Yashica/Kyocera decided not to pursue autofocusing for its 35mm SLRs, so the RX featured a ‘focus assist’ facility instead.
Contax AX. A piece of engineering genius, but its automatic back-focusing system was never properly appreciated.
Contax T VS II. ‘VS’ Series compacts had a Zeiss VarioSonnar T* zoom (28-56mm in the case of this model) and titanium bodyshells… so they were very pricey.
Contax G2. Second-generation G Series body kept the pressure on Leica to modernise its classic M.
Contax Tix (1997). A high-end APS format compact? Well, why not?
Contax 645 AF. The Yashica/Kyocera camera engineers at the height of their powers and four years ahead of Hasselblad with an AF 6x4.5cm SLR.
Contax N Digital (announced at Photokina 2000,
not available until mid-2002). So near and yet so far. Brilliant in theory and occasionally in practice, but in the end, fatally flawed.
Contax N1. Essentially the 35mm version of the 645AF, but its all-new lens mount was a much bigger issue back in 2001.
Contax Aria. One of the very few 35mm SLRs to have a name rather than a model number. Compact and lightweight, but still without autofocusing.