A prestigious sub-brand of the famous Carl Zeiss company, Contax had stopped manufacturing its own cameras when it licensed the use of its brand name to Yashica in 1975.
Along the seventies and the eighties, Yashica developed two lines of Contax SLRs: a line of pro-models (the RTS followed by RTS II), and a line of more consumer oriented products (137, 139, 159, 167) for well heeled enthusiasts who did not want to pay for and carry around a large, heavy and very expensive pro camera. Without reaching the production volumes of Canon or Pentax, the Contax cameras of this era still sold in respectable numbers (200,000 units for the Contax 139, for instance).
The cameras were technically on par with the competition and benefited from a very attractive design, but their real differentiator was their access to a line of interchangeable lenses carrying the Carl Zeiss brand.
With the advent of autofocus systems (Minolta opened the fire in 1985 with the Maxxum, soon to be followed by all other major Japanese camera makers), manual focus cameras found themselves rapidly relegated to two niches: cheap entry level / learners cameras on the one hand, and high end products for traditionalist photographers who preferred a conventional user interface and a full metal construction, on the other hand.
Contax, having declined to adopt autofocus, did not have products for the heart of the market anymore, and had no interest in selling entry-level models. They focused on the high-end of the market, trying to create cameras for each of the many small niches composing the “traditional, manual focus cameras” market.
Aside of the Contax ST already reviewed in those pages, what was Contax selling in the nineties?
- RTS III – the “pro” camera of the Contax family – with more or less the same specs as the ST, but with a unique flash metering system, a faster motor, more “pro” features such as mirror lock-up and a unique vacuum back to keep the film flat during the exposure, but also more heft and much more weight,
- S2 and S2b – semi-auto only, with spot meter only (S2) or average (S2b) metering only – two very spartan cameras at the polar opposite of the RTS III – for a totally different – and minimalist – experience,
- RX – the successor of the ST, launched 2 years after. Most people posting in forums tend to prefer the RX to the ST, because of its focus assist and a lower weight. But it needs Lithium batteries (lighter than the AAA batteries of the ST, they are expensive and difficult to find nowadays) and its lower weight is due to a more liberal use of plastics in its construction, which is not to everybody’s taste. It was succeeded by the RX II, almost identical cosmetically but deprived of the focus assist system.
- AX – its absolutely unique autofocus system (where the photographer sets the (manual focus) lens to the infinite, and the whole film chamber of the camera moves forward or backwards to adjust the focus) makes for a very large SLR (it looks more like a medium format camera, actually) – a curiosity.
- Aria – the last of the Contax manual focus line – launched in 1998, with a set of specs similar to the ST’s, but in a smaller body, and with matrix metering. Some people like it for its reduced weight and size, other photographers hate that it’s built (at least in part) of painted polycarbonate (plastic). I still have to test one, but that’s the only one I would consider as a substitute to the ST.
In addition to its line of 35mm SLRs, Contax also launched an autofocus, modular medium format camera, the 645 in 1999, a well received line of autofocus rangefinder cameras (G1, G2), and many “premium” compact cameras – which are highly sought after today.
The last years
Contax finally launched their first autofocus 35mm SLR, the Contax N1, in 2000, but it came far too late to make an impact on a market already moving to digital. To add insult to injury, the autofocus lens mount was not compatible with the C/Y mount of Yashica’s and Contax manual focus cameras, or with Yashica’s own autofocus lens mount – in fact, it had more in common with Contax’s own medium format camera system, and was technically very close to the mount designed by Canon for its EOS cameras.
The digital version of that camera, launched in 2002, was the first attempt by a major vendor at selling a full-frame 24x36mm dSLR, but the sensor they were using was simply not good enough and the camera made a flop.
Kyocera (the Japanese ceramics giant that had bought Yashica in 1983) – finally pulled the plug on all its photographic activities in 2005, and the Contax brand has not been used since. At the time it left the photography market, Contax was still selling 35mm film SLRs (the Aria, the RX II and the RTS III, and the autofocus N1 and NX), a medium format film camera system (the 645), a line of expensive compact point and shoot cameras (film and digital) and its full frame 35mm digital SLR, the N Digital.
More about it:
The Web site of Contax-UK (frozen in 2005) – surprisingly it’s still up, 15 years after Contax withdrew from the photo equipment market:
A very detailed and well documented review of the Contax AX and its automatic back focusing: https://emulsive.org/reviews/camera-reviews/contax-camera-reviews/reviewing-the-contax-ax-autofocusing-manual-focus-lenses
A review of the Contax Aria in the Casual Photophile https://casualphotophile.com/2019/06/17/contax-aria-70-years-edition-review/
MIR is not only about Nikon: http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/hardwares/classics/contax/index.htm
2 thoughts on “The Contax 35mm SLRs of the Yashica-Kyocera era”
It looks so strange seeing the shutter speed dial on the wrong side of the camera! I’ve never shot with a Contax but the 645 is supposed to be the best of its kind and I think was THE camera for wedding photographers at the time. It’s a shame they couldn’t find their niche, if Yashica/Contax could have held on for another 10-15 years they might have been able to make a comeback.
Hi Joe – Yashica-Contax was in fact a Kyocera line of business. Why did they get out of the photo equipment market and effectively liquidated everything related to that activity? The first reason is probably because Yashica-Contax was very far from their core business – ceramics – and when their main activity is experiencing difficulties, companies tend to get rid of their non-core activities and refocus on their core business. The second reason could be that they missed the Autofocus SLR boat (because of Contax having cold feet about it and Yashica’s own autofocus SLRs making a flop), which relegated them to a small niche already occupied by Leica. And lastly, it was probably a question of size. Even their most successful model in the pre-autofocus era, the Contax 139, sold in relatively small volumes – a few hundreds of thousands at the most when Canon or Pentax were selling more than 5 million of their AE-1 or ME models. Their sales volumes must have been much smaller after 1985 (still selling expensive manual focus cameras when almost everybody else was pushing Autofocus SLRs). They could survive until the end of the film era, but the digital camera business is a scale game (you need to be able to order millions of sensors from Sony or Samsung to get their attention) and they were simply too small.
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