Camera - - CLASSICS -

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.

Power Mar­riage

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.

Missed Op­por­tu­ni­ties

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.

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