Contax NX – a Multi-User Review of the Last Contax SLR

Contax NX – a Multi-User Review of the Last Contax SLR

2560 1440 Drew Chambers

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.

[Photos in the gallery above were made with Fuji 1600, Kodak Ektachrome, and Ilford Delta film]

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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Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers is a former high school teacher and current master's student at Harvard University. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts with his wife and their perfect dog. Outside of teaching, reading, and writing, Drew spends most of his time listening to indie rock. He is happy when photographing.

All stories by:Drew Chambers
10 comments
  • I was a beta tester for Contax hardware around this time. The problem with the N (and to a lesser extent the 645 range) is that the technology and precision required was testing Kyocera’s abilities beyond their capabilities. I was told by a Contax employee, that the Zeiss inspectors in the Kyoto plant were failing or sending for rectification, up to 75% of the N lenses and 50% of the camera bodies. Understandably, this eventually broke the relationship between Zeiss and Kyocera. I had two NX cameras on test, the first sent back because it was hopeless and did not focus properly at all. The second one was better but the miss rate was still somewhat higher than the single AF sensor G2 Contax I was also using at the time (my own property). The 24-85 and 17-35 N lenses were superb. The less said about the ND digital camera the better. It only really worked at 50 ISO and the firmware never got developed. It used a Philips FF 6MP industrial sensor, not designed for photography at all but for industrial robots’ image analysis and process control – it showed.

    The last point and sadly this will apply to many of the latter generations of film SLR, with their complicated chip controlled electronics, is the impossibility of repair. When either a camera like a Leica R8 or my R9 dies, unless it is a simple mechanical issue, the camera is an expensive paperweight. The same applies to Contax cameras, except I believe in Japan, where there are still a few (very few I suspect) people who will service and repair Contax CX, N and 645 cameras. It is an argument for buying the simpler older SLR’s like Leicaflex/SL/SL2, Contax S2/S2B, Contarex/Contaflex, Ashai Pentax, older Minoltas and so on.

    Wilson

    • Very interesting insights, Wilson! I tend to agree that quality control was not fantastic in the later years of Kyocera. It’s a shame, because there was so much potential for excellence.

      I think you’re probably right that for Contax the sweet spot in terms of quality build and repairability is the S2. The Yashica FX-3 SLRs are kind of neat in terms of C/Y mount cameras, too. They are simple, mechanical, and incredibly tiny and light. Those might be downsides for some, but the cameras are straightforward and can be used with the amazing Zeiss C/Y lenses. The FX-3 Super 2000 has a top shutter speed of 1/2000 (as the same suggests) and is still totally mechanical (save for the meter).

  • I bought an NX a while back, with the 28-80. I found the user interface to be confusing, and preferred the more traditional operation of the N1. On top of this, on the one roll I shot with the NX, nothing was in focus. There was no indication when shooting that focus wasn’t obtained, but there obviously was something wrong with the body. I didn’t want to give up on the lenses, so I then acquired an N1.

    However the N1 is quite a bit larger and heavier, and the N lenses (with the exception of the 28-80) are already very large/big/heavy. My favorites were the 50 and the 100, both of which are superb, but the 100 is soooo heavy…in spite of how much I love Zeiss optics I ended up selling the system as it doesn’t do much good to have great lenses on the shelf, if one always selects others to carry, due to size/weight.

  • Great review. I bought a mint-in-box N1 about 12 months ago with the 24-85 T* zoom. I have become increasingly besotted with CONTAX cameras over the last year and have a seeming collection of RXs (which is my favourite). However, back to the N1. I love this thing. The original Amateur Photographer (UK) review said “whilst it’s an expensive camera, I guarantee you will know where every £ was spent” and it is. It’s such a precise, crafted machine. And I has an even higher top speed of 1/8000. I realise this is a review of the NX, and I’m banging on about the N1, but they’re siblings after all. I just wish I could afford some primes…

  • The rendering of the photographs is very nice. They have the precision of the last years of film cameras but without losing that character to be seeing memories. Certainly the latter cameras in the industry seemed to be rather robots so one is not that engaged with the action of taking photographs, but the photos end being glorious xP

  • Very nice images. They have soul. I tend to favor manual cameras from the higher likelihood of electronics failure; My M6 needs a new board after being CLA’d by Youxin Ye. The M3 keeps going with no issues. I own a Nikon F6, it is a fabulous camera with incredible metering and of course can be used with most Nikon lenses. Nikon I believe is still making F6s (could be wrong), so it has a repairable shelf life for now. From the F6 being so robust, I truly hope it lasts me for a long time. The F6 is a rare bird with features that permit creativity in all types of light.

    Lenses (the critical tool) thankfully are more forgiving maintenance wise (if they are stored properly), and with the wide availability of new(er) bodies and lenses after a failure there is always a Plan B.

  • This article makes me very nostalgic for the Contax N1 and 645 I owned many years ago. Wonderful cameras! And, lenses. I travelled many miles with this sturdy, reliable and beautiful gear. Loved it!!
    Reading this also reminds me of my lasting anger at and contempt for the mess that Kyocera made of this opportunity and terrific camera brand. Their efforts at a digital N1 was a failure, so they quit making all Contax gear. Further, as I understood at the time, since they controlled use of the Zeiss name for 645 MF lenses, they refused to allow Hasselblad the ability to use Zeiss 645 lenses on their new line — forcing Hasselblad to go with Fuji. Bad!

  • Nice article! I have a Contax RX, which I love. I also know that when it dies, it’s gone for good.

  • Avatar
    Hans von Draminski April 29, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    I own a collection of “modern” Contax cameras: all “N” models (N1, NX, N digital) and a 645. The autofocus system is slow and not overly reliable compared to caat brright, sunny daysmeras of the same epoch. Canikon did it much better in those years, Contax was always two steps behind. But the quality of the Zeiss lenses and also the build quality of the cameras was always a class of its own.
    And yes, the N digital is still usable if you shoot on bright, sunny days. With today’s digital cameras we have grown accustomed wo machines that handle crazy high ISOs with the nearly complete absence of noise. Contax’ first try was lame in comparison and six MP are nothing today – but it could have been the start in a great future if Kyocera hadn’t abandoned the whole photo business. Lenses were superior, the reason for them to be oversized was to achieve a straight path for the light rays to hit the sensor in the best possible way. How modern the system was is best to be seen with Contax 645 – a middle format machine you still get high resolution digital backs after so many years because of an interface that could handle digital and analogue backs in the same reliable way…

    Greetings, Hans

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Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers is a former high school teacher and current master's student at Harvard University. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts with his wife and their perfect dog. Outside of teaching, reading, and writing, Drew spends most of his time listening to indie rock. He is happy when photographing.

All stories by:Drew Chambers