“Kyoto, Japan – April 12 2005
Kyocera Corporation (President: Yasuo Nishiguchi, hereafter called “Kyocera”) has decided to terminate Contax – branded camera business. Although Carl Zeiss and Kyocera have entered into a long-term cooperation regarding the development, production and sale of Contax-branded cameras, Kyocera has decided to terminate such business due to difficulties in catching up with the recent rapid market changes.”
– Excerpt from the press release announcing the end of the Contax brand, which has remained dormant ever since.
I’ve long admired the Contax cameras of the Yashica/Kyocera era. These cameras are statements of refined, modern elegance. Their utilitarian and tasteful Porsche-designed bodies married with Japanese engineering and Carl Zeiss’ tradition of optical perfection was an impressive combination. In the years prior to Contax’s demise, they manufactured arguably some of the finest film cameras ever produced, including the T series, the G series and the Contax 645, one of the most gorgeous cameras ever made. While these cameras have remained modern and respected photographic tools even today, Contax’s last cameras, the N series, has faded into comparative obscurity.
The first and flagship model in the N series was the Contax N1, introduced in 2000. This was a 35mm SLR camera aimed at professionals and the first in the series to use the newly designed N mount for Carl Zeiss’ auto-focusing lenses. It was followed by the Contax NX film camera aimed at advanced amateurs [reviewed here], and finally the Contax N Digital in 2002. Incidentally, the N Digital was the first professional digital SLR camera to have a full frame sensor. Unfortunately, the N series had dismal sales and by April of 2005 Kyocera would cease camera production and abandon its relationship with Carl Zeiss.
Two years ago, I was totally ignorant of the existence of the N series. Until a leisurely stroll past a Tokyo camera shop. I noticed an N1 perched on a display stand and instantly I was intrigued. Fearful that I might again succumb to dreaded GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), I scurried away.
Shortly after my brief encounter, I found myself searching the internet on a quest to learn more about this mysterious machine. Surely, some YouTuber, photography blog, or maybe a camera historian who scribed nostalgically about Contax and its last film camera would give some insight. But there was nothing, only scattered information. This obsession inevitably led me to purchase a mint N1 with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 24-85mm for about $400 USD. The Contax N1 was finally in my possession.
Specifications of the Contax N1
- Lens mount: N mount
- Shutter: Vertical-travel focal-plane shutter Av and P: 32s-1/8000; Tv and M: 4s-1/8000; B: Bulb; X: 1/125; Direct X shoe contact: 1/250 second or less.
- Shutter release: Electromagnetic release with release socket
- Exposure control: Aperture priority; Shutter priority; Program auto; Manual exposure; TTL auto flash
- Metering system: TTL Matrix and Center-Weighted Average at EV 0-21; Spot at EV 3-21.
- Exposure compensation: +/-2EV (1/2 or 1/3 increments)
- Film speed: Auto DX ISO 25 to 5000; Manual ISO 6 to 6400.
- Auto focus: 5-point TTL, three steps auto focus compensation.
- Viewfinder: Field of vision 95%
- Drive modes: Single frame; continuous
- Film advance speed: 3.5 FPS in C-mode
- Self-timer: delay at 2 or 10 seconds.
- Power: 1x 6v lithium 2CR5 battery
- Dimensions: 152 x 116.5 x 69 mm
- Weight: 795g (without battery)
Style, Build, and Use of the Contax N1
The camera is stoically handsome with its matte black finish and simple rounded lines. Despite being two decades old, it has aged well. It still looks very current. In fact, if you look at the top plate of Fujifilm’s XH-1 you can notice design cues similar to those of the Contax N1. It’s a well-proportioned camera that fits comfortably in the hands. And the camera grip is deep enough to support some of the heavier lenses for the system.
The buttons and knobs are laid out functionally and logically, with everything in its proper place. The left-mounted shutter speed dial goes from 4 seconds to 8000th of a second. Underneath this dial is the switch for changing modes through aperture priority, shutter priority, program, manual, flash and bulb – all from the same dial. There’s a right-mounted dial as well, which controls the exposure compensation and is located next to the display panel. While this placement of shutter speed and exposure compensations dials is certainly the inverse of most common SLRs, in use this placement is functionally intuitive.
The viewfinder displays 95% of your field of view. Within the viewfinder there are 5 focusing points. Which is given priority can be controlled from a convenient joystick. When an object is within one of the focusing frames and is in focus, its frame lights red and a beep is heard. There is a built-in diopter with an adjustment range from -3D to +1D.
The N1 has three exposure metering modes, TTL matrix, center weighted average and spot that all meter the scene very effectively. Continuing the theme of threes, the Contax N1 offer three focusing modes; these are single, continuous, and manual.
Single focusing works competently under well-lit conditions. Continuous focus functions admirably but don’t expect it to effectively track fast moving objects. I mainly use the camera in manual, where the N1 has a helpful function, one shot quick auto focusing. With a push of a button the N1 will autofocus. I use it to fine tune my manual focusing.
The Carl Zeiss Contax N Series Lenses
- Vario-Sonnar T* 17-35mm F/2.8 *
- Vario-Sonnar T* 24-85mm F/3.5-4.5 *
- Vario-Sonnar T* 28-80mm F/3.5-5.6
- Planar T* 50mm F/1.4 *
- Vario-Sonnar T* 70-200mm F/3.5-4.5 *
- Vario-Sonnar T* 70-300mm F/4.0-5.6 *
- Planar T* 85mm F/1.4 *
- Makro-Sonnar T* 100mm F/2.8 *
- Tele-Apotessar T* 400mm F/4
* lenses which I own for the system (and have therefore influenced the opinions in this review)
I’m a snob about using primes or zoom lenses with constant apertures. So I was not expecting much from the 20-year-old, slow and variable zoom. However, when I saw the images that the lens produced, I was impressed. It had great color rendition, clarity and contrast. It’s often mentioned that Carl Zeiss’s lenses produce an almost 3D rendering because of the lenses’ so-called micro contrast. The same is true in the brand’s N mount lenses. The colors are punchy, the bokeh smooth, layered and creamy. Zeiss lenses are truly the soul of all Contax cameras.
After my experience with the zoom lens I was determined to get my hands one of the primes, as well as the only fast constant aperture zoom in the system, the Vario-Sonnar T* 17- 35mm F/2.8. My excitement was soon tempered when I saw their prices online. The Planar 50mm F/1.4 in mint condition was selling for as much as $1,000 and some of the prices being asked for the Planar 85mm F/1.4 were over $2,000. There were only nine lenses created for the N mount and the prices of the prime lenses reflect not only their quality, but their scarcity as well.
And then something miraculous happened, proving that the camera gods can be magnanimous when they want to be. Within a few short months I possessed seven of the system’s nine lenses, all in mint condition and acquired through trades, haggling and just plain luck. I did not give up a kidney to acquire them, but I know the gods can be capricious. They will demand their sacrifice eventually.
All of the lenses are remarkable. They all share the same color rendering and micro contrast pop, and they all control flare and fringing well. I especially love how Zeiss lenses render on black and white film, adding a touch more contrast. They are all excellent but the 50mm and 85mm Planar primes are standouts. They may not be the sharpest wide-open, but their bokeh evokes a dreamy vintage quality, especially when shooting portraits. They definitely have their own distinctive character.
Contax produced an adaptor (NAM-1), that allows lenses from the Contax 645 medium format system to be mounted on N series cameras with auto-focus functionality. If you really have the taste for the extreme, when you use both the NAM-1 and the MAM-1 adaptors simultaneously you can use Hasselblad V-series lenses including C, CF, CFE, CFI, F and FE manually on N series cameras.
The more I use the Contax N1 the more I appreciate the camera for what it is; an instrument that gets the job done. A tool that allows me to focus on taking pictures. I admit, I have fallen under the N1’s spell. Its understated and elegant good looks, modern ergonomics and simple functionality have made me a convert. It is a solid camera. Did I mention the outstanding Carl Zeiss lenses and the fact that the N1 is typically priced lower than pro-level Canon and Nikon cameras?
The Contax brand seemed to have everything in its favor – a rich legacy with top engineers from Germany and Japan who produced timeless cameras. But in the end, the joint venture between Kyocera and Zeiss just couldn’t navigate the changing photographic landscape. If the N series are fated to be the last cameras to bare the Contax name, then the flagship N1 deserves to have its moment to shine. My journey with the Contax N1 has just begun.
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