Seeing the red Zeiss T* marking on a lens ring evokes in me the same excitement (dare I say giddiness?) of waking up the morning I leave for a vacation. I simply adore that little symbol. It communicates, “I’m a lens of superior quality. I am multicoated. I am made by Carl Zeiss. I am the best.” And I’m like, “Yes, yes, yes!”
I’m in love with t-star multicoating and its glimmering purple reflections, and I’m always on the lookout for acquiring new lenses and systems that allow me to grow my t-star collection. In 35mm, I have lenses in the G series, the C/Y series, the T series, the ZM series, and the QBM series. Other writers on this site have used the original Contax rangefinder lenses and the Nikon/Canon mount Zeiss lenses, all to rave reviews.
This is why I was instantly enthralled when I first heard about the Contax N series and its accompanying autofocus Zeiss lenses. Within this lesser known system we find the last ever 35mm cameras to proudly bear the Contax name – they’re the Contax N1 and Contax NX. And the NX in particular, the pro-sumer model in the line, is one that I’ve recently fallen in love with.
Both of the N series cameras were state-of-the-art 35mm SLRs. They were packed with features including amazing TTL matrix metering and autofocus Zeiss lenses. Kyocera was excited to announce the NX (which came after the pro-model N1) and their press release details the extensive features the NX possesses. Just a handful of lenses were made for the N-mount, mostly featuring classic Zeiss constructions like the Planar and Sonnar. The primes, in particular, fetch a pretty penny, selling for north of $500 at the time of writing.
But, lo’ and behold, the NX and its Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 28-80mm kit lens can be had for far less than that. In general, a patient buyer can get ahold of the NX and lens for between 200-350 USD. The 24-85mm lens (said to be marginally better than the 28-80) adds a bit more to the cost, but not much. If you happen to be Mr./Ms./Mx. Moneybags, then it’s worth noting that you can adapt your Contax 645 lenses to the N-mount cameras with AF using the NAM-1 adapter.
My kit came to me as new-old-stock and let me tell you, the satisfaction of opening up immaculate boxes from the early 2000s, peeling off the protective shutter label, and powering that baby up for the first time is immense. Far more satisfying than opening the usual camera wrapped in bubble wrap and newspaper packaged in a nondescript, reused box from an eBay seller.
So, it’s new, but is it good? Yes and no. The camera, while generally unsexy in its plastic body as is typical of the early aughts, is not clumsy. It feels like a run-of-the-mill DSLR but a bit cheaper in construction. Settings are regrettably (and distinct from the NX) operated using multipurpose buttons, an odd rear spindle (brilliantly called by Contax the “R dial”), and a grippy front dial (fittingly called the “F dial”).
In a nutshell, the Contax NX does not retain the sleek, Porschic styling of earlier Contax models like the T and C/Y series. C’est la vie. But while the NX is uninspired ergonomically and stylistically, it shines in its functionality. The camera produces beautiful images—truly some of my favorites of any camera I’ve had, even considering that with the NX I’m shooting a slow zoom lens.
The camera does what I need it to do extremely well. The autofocus is sweet, with the single autofocus point controlled via a back-right-mounted thumbstick that allows me to select AF point without removing my eye from the finder. The continuous autofocusing makes admirably accurate predictions, and overall focus speed is quick enough. The shutter is fast at a maximum speed of 1/4000, which would be a great benefit when using some of the faster prime lenses. The meter evaluates very nicely and also allows me to use a 3% spot meter when necessary. The built-in flash with red-eye reduction has worked for me in low-light interior shooting and for fill flash outdoors. The massive top-mounted LCD display shows everything we need, and has a convenient user-selectable light.
Aperture and shutter speed are controlled in the traditional DSLR way, one front and one back. ISO can be manually set or read via DX code. There’s a mode switch which allows us to set numerous parameters in two distinctly different modes and instantly switch between the two by flicking one switch. One mode, for example, could be auto-everything, while the other might be set for a mode that switches the camera to aperture-priority, manual focus, spot metering, and continuous burst. Pretty useful.
The in-viewfinder display shows everything we need to know to make a good photo. Exposure time, aperture selection, metering mode, focus acquisition, and exposure compensation, it’s all there in the viewfinder.
Most importantly, the lens is everything I want. I almost always shoot with primes—the only zoom I own is the 28-80 N that came with this very Contax NX. But man, the range is perfect for me. The resulting images are contrasty—which I personally value most in optics—and the color is deep; these are classically Zeiss qualities. Even cooler, though, is that the lens is a macro lens at 80mm with a 1:2 magnification ratio; per Zeiss, using macro you can fill the frame up entirely with a credit card.
I use the macro function often with this lens and the sharpness blows me away. I probably prefer how this lens renders in macro more than when not in macro. The relative distortion at 80mm is also excellent, but it’s clear that the lens performs best at 50mm. The full performance and construction data produced by Zeiss can be found here. It is true that the lens is slow at 3.5/5.6, so you won’t be producing stunning bokeh with it, but as a landscape lens it works nicely.
Sadly, after months of regular use, the AF motor in my lens conked out on me. The lens still luckily works well with manual focus and the camera offers a focus indicator when manually focusing, so I’ve still used the camera and lens combo often since I lost my autofocus. But that it broke is very notable. I can’t say whether this is a common issue or not.
Suffice it to say, the camera and I were (and are) very happy together. The boss himself took notice of our match made in heaven and I suppose he wanted what we had. So, James acquired an NX and 28-80 recently and has professed his loyalty to the cult of N as well.
James’ Quick Take on the Contax NX
Knowing that I’d bought my own Contax NX just a few weeks after he did, Drew asked me to add some of my own thoughts to his concise review of the camera. And I agree with him almost entirely, with a few slight deviations. I don’t consider the NX to be ergonomically challenged. The camera fits me perfectly. Though Drew is right about the controls being a little counter-intuitive, in that many of the major settings are controlled through a settings menu, and not with dedicated dials like on the Contax N1 or other more mainstream pro SLRs of the era. For this reason, setting the camera up the way I want is a slightly longer than normal process. But it’s not overly-so. And once it’s set I’m able to get to work. Aperture priority, single shot, single point AF, and I’m ready to shoot. Cameras like the NX are my ideal camera shape, even if I also recognize that they’re not the most stylish or attractive machines (remember when I said we should all be shooting dorky AF SLRs?). Beyond this, I’m with Drew. The Contax NX is an incredible camera and its lenses are godly.
Five or six weeks ago, I took my dog and kids to the local nature trail. After winding through a forest path, we emerged to a rocky outcropping overlooking the bay. High tide was an hour away, the overcast skies provided diffused light, and the emerald ocean lapped slickly at the furry, green rocks below. Promising my daughters the opportunity to hold a snail, I clambered down the slippery slope while they waited on the rocks above.
I spent the next fifteen minutes lost in the viewfinder of the Contax NX. Shots of the ocean, shots of the tidal pools at my feet, shots of my daughters posing on the rocks above, and yes, shots of the snail I’d been dispatched to retrieve, all burned onto Kodak Ektachrome through the Zeiss zoom Drew mentioned earlier. The Contax NX did what it was supposed to do, did what any good camera is supposed to do – it got out of the way. For fifteen minutes or more, I was gloriously lost, making photos and engaging with my kids and the environment. I wasn’t worrying about settings or dials, or painstakingly focusing, or worrying about frame-lines or whether or not I’d focused accurately enough. The camera did all of that for me. The SLR type camera, as a photographic tool, had again proven its purity, and the NX is a special example of the type.
My photos came back just yesterday. They’re pretty good. As Drew says, the macro photos may be my favorite from a pure imaging point-of-view. In its 80mm macro setting, the lens is incredible, one of my favorites, in fact. And that’s odd because, like Drew, I favor prime lenses exclusively. In one afternoon (and then through a subsequent month of using the camera around the house and out with family) the Contax NX has quickly become a favorite camera. Like the Minolta a7, Canon EOS Elan 7e, and Nikon N80, autofocus SLRs that I’ve loved before, the NX does everything I need it to do, and more, without forcing a single compromise.
Unfortunately for me, April 15th is almost a month away, and on that day the Internal Revenue Service will be expecting a big honkin’ check from F Stop Cameras, LLC. They’ll instantly cash it, studiously ignoring my tear stains splashed across it. And so, just the other day the NX was listed in the shop and sold instantly. Business comes first, and all cameras are for sale, even the ones I love. But I’ll tell you this; if I’m not bankrupt on April 16th, I’ll spend part of the morning buying another Contax NX.
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