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:
Today I received the scans of two series of pictures I had taken in the Atlanta area at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (which explains that the parks and the streets look empty).
Over the last couple of months, I’ve used alternatively my most recent acquisitions, a Contax ST with its very (very) large Contax-Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 lens, and a Pentax P3 with its very (very) small Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 zoom.
First observation – almost all pictures are usable – correctly exposed, with the subject in focus. No major flaw with any of the cameras or zooms.
Second observation: I knew that this Contax ST had an issue with the transmission of the value of the aperture selected on the lens to the body, and I set it with a permanent correction of +1.3 EV to counterbalance it. It’s probably too much – I’ll reduce the correction to +0.5 EV in the future. I experienced difficulties with the film rewind on the P3 (I had to open the film door in a dark room and push maybe 6 inches of film back into the cartridge) but only one frame was lost in the process. I suspect the issue to be related to the film receiving spool. Both cameras are approximately 30 years old, they can be temperamental.
Third observation: both cameras have all the features I need (aperture priority auto mode, semi-auto mode, exposure memorization) and a good viewfinder (the Contax’s is fantastic, the Pentax’s is very good considering the original target audience of the camera). Both are really pleasant to use. The Contax is definitely a big and heavy camera, and the lens is even larger and more ponderous. When you use the Contax combo, you get noticed, and you make some people nervous (carry it in a bag, and don’t shoot with it in an area where people tend to be very concerned for their privacy – that would be asking for trouble). The Pentax set, on the other hand, is compact and light, and does not draw attention. But there is a trade off to compactness: image quality.
Which bring us to our fourth observation. My intent was not to perform a scientific comparison between the Zeiss and the Pentax zooms. I shot the pictures on different days at different locations, but since it was in the same type of urban settings, and with the same type of film (Kodak Ektar 100), we can somehow compare the pictures and draw some conclusions. Sorry Pentax fans, the difference is extremely visible. I may have bought a bad copy of the lens, the front element may be dirty (I did my best to clean it, though), but in any case there’s a world of difference between pictures shot with the Vario-Sonnar and the SMC-Pentax-A zoom, in particular when it comes to contrast and sharpness. Thirty years ago, I was using a Pentax KA 35-70 zoom on my Pentax MX (I don’t remember if it was the same f/3.5-4.5 version of the lens, or the constant F/4 model) and I was pleased with the results, so not all Pentax zooms are bad, and I’ll shoot with another Pentax lens as soon as I can.
After I imported the scans in Lightroom, I made adjustments to the exposure and the highlights (the sky was over exposed by both cameras), and I tried to increase (massively) the contrast on the images taken with the Pentax lens, but Lightroom sliders can only do so much if the original picture is too soft. See for yourself.
A word of caution: you won’t see much of a difference if you look at the pictures on a good smartphone – the screen is small and smartphones are very good at enhancing images – but it’s more visible on a tablet, and pretty obvious on the monitor of a full size personal computer. Also, remember that WordPress displays the images of this blog at a relatively low resolution (width: 1024 points) – to really visualize the difference in image quality, click on the images and you will see them full size(they were scanned at 3130 x 2075 points).
A motorized, multi-automatic, manual focus, metal built camera with a conventional user interface, the Contax ST had no real equivalent when it was launched in 1992. The Leica R7 and the Olympus OM-4ti were not motorized, and the rest of the cameras targeting the high-end of the market were auto-focus SLRs with a modal user interface.
In fact, there are very few other motorized, multi-automatic, manual focus 35mm SLRs I can think of – the most interesting of them being Canon’s T90.
In 1985, the arrival of the Minolta 7000 AF had caught the industry leaders by surprise: Minolta was the first to launch a brand new – and totally coherent – autofocus system.
At that time, Canon’s engineers were working on a top of the line manual focus camera with a revolutionary modal interface – the T90 – that was launched in 1986, and whose design and ergonomic study Canon would make to good use on their first successful autofocus SLRs, the new EOS 620 and 650, that they launched one year later.
Contax, on the other hand, did not even try its hand at an autofocus SLR until the AX of 1996 (which still used the Contax Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses), and did not launch a real 35mm autofocus camera system until Year 2000. The Contax ST of 1992 is therefore a very conventional manual focus camera.
The T90 and the ST have a lot in common – they’re positioned one step under the real professional cameras of their respective brand (the F1 and the RTS III) and boast similar characteristics: they’re large, manual focus, motorized SLRs, with a big high eye point viewfinder, with multiple auto-exposure modes and multiple metering patterns (variants of average and spot metering), LED displays in viewfinder, and they are powered by alkaline AA or AAA batteries.
Back then, and today, there are two main justifications for buying one of those cameras:
they are high quality instruments, with a very good viewfinder, great ergonomics, and lots of control options for the photographer who wants to remain totally in charge of focusing and exposure,
they are backed by a renown line of manual focus lenses.
There is one big drawback – of course: those systems are anchored in the past. Canon lost interest in the T90 and in the FD line of lenses as soon as the EOS hit the market, 33 years ago. The last new Contax manual focus 35mm SLR (the Aria) was released in 1998, and Kyocera has stopped providing any type of support a long time ago.
Whether you prefer the ST to the T90 comes down to lenses (the ones you own and the ones you would like to buy), ergonomic preferences, and your expectations regarding reliability.
Back then: how did the two cameras compare?
Cost and Availability: having been launched 6 years apart, the two cameras never really competed for space on the shelves of the retailers. The T90 was manufactured for less than a year, but remained on Canon’s catalog until the launch of the EOS-1, in 1990. It was a very expensive camera – in the same price range as the Olympus OM-4ti – only professional cameras such as the Nikon F4 and of course the Leica R series were more expensive. The Contax ST became available at the end of 1992. It also had a very high list price (in the same bracket as the Canon New-F1 or the EOS-1) but cameras were heavily discounted in those days and it’s difficult to know how much people were really paying (and whether Contax cameras were more discounted than Canon’s).
Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics – The T90 (nicknamed the “tank” in Japan) is not that heavy after all – at 800g, its weights is the same as the ST’s (without batteries) but the Canon uses AA cells which are heavier than the AAAs of the ST. Because of its smaller dimensions (height and depth), the ST looks denser and feels heavier. One of the best examples of “bio-design” the T90 falls naturally in the hands, with all the command easily accessible. It’s also the first example of totally modal interface (I press a key to call a menu, and I rotate the control wheel to select the setting which is shown on a large LCD display on the top plate). The ST offers a very conventional user interface, with one knob, one ring or one switch per command. Because the analog commands are designed to be smooth, the knobs are susceptible to changing position in the bag of the photographer, and the Contax’s commands are protected by a series of locks – it’s useful, but it slows the photographer down until the position of the locks is memorized by the muscles of the hands. More than 30 years later, the market has still not decided which UI it likes best – Canon, Nikon and Sony are committed to the modal interface, while Fujifilm is selling cameras whose command organization is very similar to the ST’s. Both cameras are motorized – but not as fast as the Nikon F4 or the EOS-1 (3 frames / sec for the Contax, 4 frames / sec for the Canon). And both are loud – you can’t shoot unnoticed indoors.
Viewfinder – They’re very comparable on paper – the T90’s viewfinder covers 94% of the actual picture area, with a magnification of 0.77 and an eye point of 19mm. The ST’s viewfinder, on the other hand, covers 95% of the actual picture, with a magnification of 0.8. The eye point is not documented but feels longer than the T90’s.
Practically, the viewfinder of the ST is cinematic, and next to it, the T90 looks narrower, as if affected by tunnel vision.
The viewfinder screens look equally luminous (which means not as luminous as what you would find on a Nikon camera of the same era). The micro prism ring on the T90 is made of coarser elements, and is easier to the eyes than the very fine prisms of the ST, which are very difficult to see, even with the dioptric correction of the viewfinder carefully adjusted.
Both provide information at the bottom and on right side of the viewfinder – the Contax is using only red LEDs, and the T90 a combination of LEDs and of LCDs. Both viewfinders are informative, easy to read, and don’t overload the photographer with useless information.
Shutter and metering system: The T90’s shutter was the absolute best of what was available in 1986 – with a flash X sync speed of 1/250s and a top speed of 1/4000. The Contax ST offers similar performances (it can go up to 1/6000sec, but that shutter speed is not user selectable – practically, 1/4000 is the limit). The Canon T90 is probably the most complex SLR ever designed when it comes to exposure control.
First, it offers no less than four metering patterns: central weighted average, selective (a sort of ultra large spot, for the nostalgics of the Canon FTb), Spot, and last but not least, Multispot. In addition, you can also adjust the exposure for the highlights or the shadows by pushing two small buttons to change the exposure value by increments of 0.5IL. Honestly, it’s a bit too much.
The Center Weighted Average metering (the one you use for casual or travel photography) gives more importance to the sky than I wish, but because you can’t lock the exposure with the camera set for center weighted average, you have to let the camera do what it wants, and it under-exposes a bit. The Multi-Spot is gimmicky, the “Highlight and Shadows” correction is extremely powerful but very difficult to use unless you’re fluent with the theory of exposure. Lastly, only the older FL lenses offer a real semi-auto exposure mode, but you have to operate stopped down.
Compared to the T90, the ST is a model of simplicity – if offers only two metering patterns (center weighted average and spot). Like the T90, you can only lock the exposure in spot, but at least you can work with a real semi-auto mode at full aperture.
None of those cameras offer “matrix metering” – they’re definitely “old-school” in that regard.
Reliability: “the tank” may have been solidly built, but when trying to innovate with the design the camera, Canon’s engineers went a bit too far, and introduced some weaknesses. With the benefit of hindsight, some of the design decisions look outright stupid (soldering lithium batteries to the circuit board or replacing springs with magnets in the shutter, for instance). The second issue in particular impacts reliability, and it’s the reason the value of the T90 on the second hand market is so low.
The ST is not without flaws either – it seems that Contax cameras of that generation (the RTS III, ST and AX) need the aperture command lever to be re-calibrated every now and then, and the process requires access to a workshop manual and a Contax Planar F/1.4 lens. I could not find a copy of the manual workshop on the Internet so far, and having to buy a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens just to be able to calibrate a camera is not a very palatable perspective (the workaround is to play with exposure compensation dial). Apart from this non trivial issue, I’ve not found or read much (positive or negative) about the Contax ST’s reliability. As far as I know, the only real troubled child of the Contax-Yashica family is the 159MM.
Scarcity: both cameras were very expensive high end machines – which limited their sales volumes – but also ensured that most of their owners did not consider them disposable, and took good care of them.
Most of the interest for the Contax cameras seems to be concentrated in Japan – I could not find any in the US and finally bought my ST on eBay from a Japanese reseller (buying from Japan is generally a very pleasant experience – the cameras are in top condition and you get yours in less than a week through the Postal Service). It’s easier to buy a T90 from a domestic reseller, even if there are only a handful on sale at any given time. And because of the potential reliability issues, I would only buy a T90 from a seller with a very good reputation, who has really tested the camera, preferably with film.
Battery: Contrarily to many autofocus SLRs of the same vintage, the T90 and the ST don’t require expensive and difficult to find single use Lithium batteries. They simply need a few AAA or AA batteries.
Lens selection: The T90 was designed for Canon’s FD lines of lenses, but also works very well (in particular in semi-auto exposure mode) with older FL glass. Canon also sold for a while an adapter for 42mm screw mount lenses. If you add the lenses sold by third parties, the offer is limitless.
There are two issues with Canon FD lenses: the interesting ones (the luminous wide angle lenses in particular) were purchased en masse by users of Sony’s A7 series mirrorless cameras (who use them with an FD to Sony E adapter), which raised the price level on the second hand market. And since production ceased more or less with the launch of the EOS series in 1987, there are relatively few good zooms in the catalog (and in any case none of those f/2.8 constant aperture zooms preferred by the pro photographers).
Contax lenses have a great reputation – and Contax used to cover any need from the 15mm ultra-wide angle to the 600mm telephoto lens, with specialty items such as the 35mm shift lens or the medical lens also represented.
Outside of the 28, 35 or 50mm glass which sell for reasonable prices ($150.00 to $200.00), Contax branded lenses are much more expensive than Canon’s. But since Contax kept on releasing new Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses until 1998 (the last one was a compact zoom for the Aria), the lens designs are a bit more modern than with Canon, which could be good if you’re looking for a zoom.
How much? Not much. Probably because of its reliability issues, the Canon T90 is not in high demand and can be found for less than $100.00; the Contax ST is also relatively cheap (approx $150 if you buy it from a Japanese reseller). In the Contax family, the S2, the RX II and the Aria are more sought after, and sell for two to four times the price of the ST.
The Contax ST and the T90 have a lot in common on paper, but are very different cameras in day to day use:
ergonomics – Contax has a conventional user interface, the T90 is modal. Both are extremely pleasant to use and a photographer will enjoy working with each of them – it’s really a matter of taste.
exposure determination – in this specific area, the Contax is more limited, but easier to use, while the Canon is much more complex and sometimes gimmicky. Honestly, none of them is a perfect fit for me: ideally, I would simply like to use the central weighted average metering with an auto-exposure lock – an option none of them offers. A matrix metering option would also have even valuable – but no manual focus Canon camera ever offered it, and Contax fans had to wait for the last manual focus SLR of the brand, the Aria, to benefit from it.
Is one of those two the ultimate manual focus 35mm SLR?
Besides the ST and the T90, there are few cameras that can legitimately compete for the distinction: a few Leica R models, the Olympus OM-4ti, a few other Contax cameras, maybe.
The Contax ST is a high quality, carefully designed and nicely built manual focus SLR for photographers who prefer their cameras full featured, but also easy to use and unobtrusive. A very nice tool. But it lacks this ounce of folly and excessiveness that graces the T90.
The Canon T90 is far from perfect – even if its limitations in the exposure department are inherited to a large extend from the FD lens mount’s shortcomings – and it has its own reliability issues. But it was a revolutionary camera in its time: there’s no manual focus SLR like it, and there’s still something magic in the simplicity of its user interface.
Just before the lock-down was implemented in Georgia, I shot a roll of film with my newly acquired Contax ST, and it took a long time for the film to get processed and the scans to be made available on line (blame the postal service).
So, here we are…
The camera is pleasant to use in the field (large viewfinder, logical commands, convenient exposure memo lock (associated with Spot metering only). It’s heavy, and the Zeiss 28-85 f/3.3-4 Vario Sonnar zoom makes for a very bulky and ponderous combo (more than 1.6 kg/ 3.5 pounds with batteries and strap). You can’t carry it with the strap wrapped around the wrist for too long – you need a backpack for any photo expedition longer than 30 min.
The zoom is sharp, but it’s a one ring design (you rotate the ring to focus, and you pull or push it to zoom in and out), and of course, the front element tends to slide out under its own weight.
Some of the pictures are correctly exposed, but the majority seem over-exposed, by 0.75 EV up to 1.5 EV.
I had not noticed it when I received the camera, but the aperture information displayed in the viewfinder does not correspond to the values on the aperture ring of the lens: at full aperture, the aperture ring shows f/3.3, but the viewfinder LEDs show f/2.8; at F/8 (on the lens), the LEDs show f/4.5; at f/22, the LEDs show f/13. Roughly 1.5 EV off except at full aperture, where the two values are closer. I tried another lens (a Tamron 28mm f/2.5 with the Adaptall II ring) – same issue. When I googled it, I found out that it’s (probably) a rather common problem related to the calibration of the “aperture linkage lever” of the bayonet mount, on the camera’s side (*).
The Contax workshop manuals describe in detail the process to follow to re-calibrate the aperture linkage lever (some people call it the “feeler”) on the body’s lens mount. Unfortunately, the process is different with each model (you need to perform an obscure sequence of key presses to access the maintenance mode of the camera), I have not found a Contax ST workshop manual yet, and it apparently requires a rather expensive Contax Planar 50mm f/1.4 as a benchmark for the calibration.
Until I find a way to fix the issue, I’m simply going to use the exposure correction dial and hope of the best.
(*) I exchanged a few emails with Peter Robinson, who repairs and reconditions a few specific Contax models in the UK, and maintains the Contax139 blog (very nice guy, btw).
According to him, the aperture transmission from the lens to the body is “analog” on models like the RTS III or the RX, but encoded (I translate it by “digital”) on the 167. I suspect the ST, being a derivative of the RTS III, and the predecessor of the RX, also falls into the “analog” category. Peter posted a few workshop manuals on his Website, and the recalibration process is described in detail for each model of camera, unfortunately there are variations in the key presses from model to model, and without the workshop manual corresponding to the exact model you own, fixing the aperture transmission lever is an impossible task.
A compact point of shoot camera from the late eighties, the Contax T2, is currently red hot, selling for obscene amounts of money (well above $1,000). We’re observing here the manifestation of a new trend – a few film cameras have suddenly reached stardom – and make you pay dearly for them – while the mass of the point and shoot and SLRs from the nineties still languish in the $5.00 bargain bin.
In the world of manual focus SLRs, Contax bodies and Contax Carl Zeiss lenses, while not exactly cheap, can still be had for a small fraction of the cost of this T2.
Zeiss and its sub brand Contax have a very long history – Carl Zeiss founded the company that bears his name in 1846 in Jena (Germany) and Zeiss launched their first Contax camera in 1932.
In the seventies, Zeiss signed a licensing agreement with Yashica (the Japanese company subsequently became part of the Kyocera group). Contax and Yashica never said much about the role split in their joint venture, and most of what we know is an educated guess. High level, the “Contax” branded cameras of the Yashica/Kyocera era were designed and manufactured in Japan with some input from Zeiss. The F.A. Porsche studio (*) was in charge of the industrial design of some models. Yashica and Contax SLRs shared the same bayonet lens mount, and Contax cameras could be paired with Contax as well as cheaper Yashica branded lenses.
The “Contax Carl Zeiss” lenses were named after famous Zeiss lens designs (Distagon, Planar, Sonnar, ..) and benefited from Zeiss’ excellent multi-layer coating. Some of them were made in Germany, but the majority were manufactured in Yashica’s Japanese plants.
Because of their Zeiss and Porsche lineage, their beautiful industrial design and their advanced technical content, the Contax cameras of the Yashica era could be sold as premium products, for much more than what Yashica could have extracted from their own line of SLRs.
In Contax’s product range, the top of the line was always occupied by a camera of the RTS family, and the bottom by derivatives and successors of their original entry level camera, the Contax 139Q (137 MA, 137 MD, 159MM, 167 MT). There was room in between for what we would now call a line of “prosumer” cameras.
Contax’s middle of the range cameras were a motley crew of SLRs addressing the needs of different niches – the S2 and S2b were semi-auto mechanical cameras, the RX had “a focus assist” system, the AX was an autofocus SLR designed for manual focus lenses (the lens had to be set to the infinite, and the film chamber was moving to adjust the focus).
Among them, my pick, the Contax ST, was launched in 1992. It’s a somehow simplified and less bulky derivative of the RTS III, a full featured, motorized, manual focus camera with a large viewfinder, a bit like the Canon T90 from 1986. Its unique selling proposition was that the film pressure plate was made of ceramics rather than steel or aluminum (hint: the CERA in KYOCERA stands for Ceramics). I’m not sure that this ceramics pressure plate brought any real benefit to the photographer, but it spoke to the imagination.
Of course, at the time the camera was launched, all major manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Pentax) had followed Minolta’s example and converted their whole SLR range to autofocus, so the manual focus ST is a bit of the odd man out.(**)
Very first impressions
It’s a beautiful, very traditional SLR which exudes quality, with no autofocus, no modal interface, no menus, no control wheel, no matrix metering, no lithium battery, and a limited use of plastics.
The ST feels dense (heavy, but not too much) and falls very well in the hands. The commands are conventional, with an aperture ring on the lens, and a large shutter speed knob and an exposure compensation dial on the top plate. Almost all controls (except for the shutter speed and exposure compensation knobs) are secured by locks (like they are on a Nikon F4). There is only a tiny LCD (view counter and ISO display) at the right on the top plate.
For the anecdote, the body of today’s Fujifilm X-T3 looks very much like a small Contax ST, at the 2/3 scale, that is. Even the location and logic of the commands is strikingly similar – with the emphasis given on exposure compensation over any other control – you don’t need to search any longer where the designers of Fujifilm got their inspiration from.
The viewfinder is exceptional. Combining a high enlargement (0.8) and a long eye point (I don’t have the figure, but by comparison with other cameras, it’s really long), it offers a cinematic view of the scene. But at the same time, it’s old school – it’s graced with red LEDs, and the focusing screen does not seem to be one of those ultra fine and ultra luminous Acutemate or BriteMate laser etched screens – as a result the image is a bit darker than what you would see on a Nikon FE2, for instance (not by much, maybe 1/2 stop). The ST is also one of the few manual focus cameras with a continuously adjustable dioptric correction – all in all one of the best viewfinders of its time.
Lesser Contax SLRs have a rubberized skin. that degrades over time – it’s not the case for the STs – they still look pristine 28 years after leaving the assembly shop.
The lens mounts and lens mount adapters
Contax and Yashica had abandoned the 42mm screw mount in 1975 with the introduction of the Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount on the Yashica FX-1 and Contax RTS.
The original Contax Carl Zeiss lenses belong to the AE series. The design of the lenses was modified in 1985 to support the Program mode and the Shutter priority modes introduced on the 159MM – therefore the modified lenses are part of the MM series (for Multi-Mode). The two versions of the lenses are inter-compatible – you just don’t get the Program mode or the Shutter priority mode if you mount an AE lens on a body like the ST.
Other lens options
Contax Carl Zeiss Lenses in C/Y mount are rather expensive, even now. There are three alternatives if you don’t want to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a lens:
Yashica lenses: Some models have a very good reputation (the prime lenses in the ML series, generally) – they were manufactured in the same plants as the Carl Zeiss series, but were not built to Zeiss specs and did not benefit from Zeiss lens treatment. People who have tested them next to Contax lenses say the color rendering and the micro contrast are different (which makes sense – each lens manufacturer has its “signature”). Other series of Yashica lenses (DSB, YUS) are not necessarily that good – do you research.
Third party lenses: very few independents offered lenses in the C/Y mount. Tamron and Vivitar had C/Y adapters for their respective universal mount systems. But does it really make sense to mount a Tamron or a Vivitar lens on a Contax camera?
Last but not least, you can also mount older 42mm screw mount lenses (from Yashica, Contax or other defenders of the Universal mount such as Pentax) thanks to an adapter proposed by Yashica. You can still find those adapter rings on eBay.
The elephant in the room – made in Japan or in Germany?
There is no doubt where the bodies were manufactured – my ST proudly bears its “Kyocera-Japan” signature. The Contax Carl Zeiss zoom (the 28-85 f/3.3-4.0) that came with the camera was also made in Japan (no mention of Kyocera, though).
In the early years of the Zeiss / Yashica collaboration, a lens could originate from the German workshops of Zeiss or from the Japanese factories of Yashica (even for a given model – some were produced simultaneously in Europe and in Asia). Over the years, the manufacturing activities were increasingly concentrated in Japan. I did not find any evidence that lenses made in Asia were better or worse than the lenses made in Europe – and I don’t think it matters: they were all designed and manufactured to Zeiss’s specs with Zeiss’s T* multi-layer coating.
Buying Contax cameras and lenses today
In the nineties, Contax cameras were positioned and priced as premium products, a big notch under Leica, but in the same ballpark as Nikon’s or Canon’s Pro cameras.
Today, their high-end bodies hold their value very well even if Leica R products remain more expensive.
The Contax magic percolates to Yashica ML lenses and to certain Yashica bodies (like the FX-3 Super 2000), which are also sold at a premium, for products of a second tier brand, that is. The 21mm and 28mm wide-angle lenses are particularly sought for, selling for at least $350.00.
The least expensive Contax SLRs are the entry level models (139, 137, 167) at less than $100.00 for a nice copy. Really sought after models like the RTS III, the S2 (the semi-auto camera) or the Aria (a compact SLR, the last camera in the Contax manual focus line and the only one with matrix metering) typically sell in a $350.00 to $600.00 bracket. The rest of the products (ST, RX, RTS I or RTS II) sell for approximately $150.00.
But be cognizant that in order to enjoy the full Contax experience, you’ll need Contax Carl Zeiss lenses. It’s very difficult to find anything (even a very common Planar 50mm f/1.7) at less than $150.00, and really interesting lenses (the 21mm wide-angle for instance) can cost well over $1,000.
More about the Contax ST and the Vario-Sonnar 28-85mm f/3.3-4.0 in a few weeks, after a few rolls of film.
The Contax brand has been dormant since 2005, and there is relatively little information about their products on the Web.
(*) Porsche used to be a family business. And everybody in that family seemed to be named “Ferdinand”. Because it was a family business, the eight grand-sons of Ferdinand Porsche, (the engineer who had founded the company and designed the original Beetle) ended up working at the Porsche car company under the direction of Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, who had taken over the business from his father Ferdinand after WW2. When the conflicts between the most talented of the cousins reached dangerous levels, Ferry asked them to leave. Ferdinand Piech, who had designed the engine of the 911, left to start a new career at Audi, and ended his professional life as the chairman of the Volkswagen Group. The other cousin, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, who had designed the body of the original 911, started his own design studio. And one of the first clients of the studio was… Contax.
(**) – Contax launched its first autofocus film SLRs (the N1 and the NX) in 2000 with a new lens mount and a new series of lenses – roughly 15 years after anybody else. And followed up with the first full-frame dSLR in 2002, the Contax N Digital. The products did not sell well and were rapidly withdrawn from the market, and Kyocera left the photography market for good in 2005. The Contax brand has been kept dormant ever since.
The lens mount of the Contax N, N1 and Nx of the early 2000s was totally different from the C/Y mount of this ST. From an engineering point of view, the new lens mount was so close to Canon’s EOS that conversion jobs were possible. You can read a test of a converted lenses in Optical limits