Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Contax is a camera brand noted for its unique and sometimes odd technical innovation and a wide range of Carl Zeiss lenses. Its latest incarnation is a line of 35mm and Medium Format cameras engineered and manufactured by Kyocera, featuring modern optics engineered by the famous Carl Zeiss corporation, which has an outstanding reputation for high quality photographic equipment. Kyocera has recently announced that they will no longer produce Contax cameras.
The Contax brand finds it's origin in a pre-war Zeiss-Ikon rangefinder camera that was a competitor to the Leica.
After the Second World War, the German Zeiss-Ikon company was split between East and West Germany. Most of the manufacturing plants were in East Germany, which became Carl Zeiss Jena VEB, but the West German Zeiss corporation managed to resume production of cameras and lenses. Among the post-war cameras produced by the West German Zeiss Ikon was the next version of the Contax.
Facing increased competition from Japanese cameramakers, Zeiss was again split into two companies: a camera manufacturer, Zeiss-Ikon AG, and a lens and optical glass manufacturer, Carl Zeiss AG.
With the Zeiss lenses' reputation for high quality, Carl Zeiss AG managed to sustain profitability by selling them to Zeiss-Ikon and other camera manufacturers and by diversifiyng into producing various optical products. On the other side, Zeiss-Ikon AG failed to introduce a mass-produced SLR to rival the new Japanese models, and went banrupt in 1971.
After the bankrupcy of Zeiss-Ikon AG, Carl Zeiss AG found itself without a small format camera-maker to sell its lenses to. An agreement was made with Yashica to build cameras in Japan that could fit Zeiss optics under the Contax brand.
Technically, they are branded Carl Zeiss, but often shortened to Zeiss for brevity.
Zeiss lenses for Contax cameras are referred to by their optical design as well as focal length and maximum apeture:
- Distagon lenses are wide-angle retrofocus lenses.
- F-Distagon lenses are fish-eye lenses.
- PC-Distagon lenses are wide angle lenses that have tilt and shift features for correcting perspective convergence.
- Hologon and Biogon are non-retrofocus wide angle lens designs.
- Planar lenses are fixed focal length primes of very large maximum apeture that range from medium wide angles to short telephotos.
- Sonnar and Tele-Tessar lenses are telephoto lenses, and Tele-Apotessar and Aposonnar lenses are apochromatic telephotos.
- Vario Sonnar lenses are zooms.
- Makro-Sonnar and Makro-Planar lenses are macro lenses for extreme close-up work, based on the Sonnar and Planar designs.
- Tessar lenses are 4 elements lenses of medium focal length, sometimes referred to as a "Normal" lens.
- Mutar lenses are teleconverters.
- Mirotar lenses are mirror lenses.
The "T*"(T star) coating is highly developed Zeiss multilayer coating, or multi-coating. The 'T' comes from a German word 'Tarnung' ('Tarnung' means 'camouflaging', as in making invisible).
The optical glass elements are all manufactured and multicoated in Germany by Schott Glass, so almost all Zeiss optics for Contax are T* lenses. (The Mirotar lenses, being mirrors, do not have nor require T* multicoating.)
Zeiss lenses may be manufactured in Germany or in Japan... some lenses were produced in both. While it is rumored there are differences in build quality, this is unproven: the only way to tell a Japanese-made lens from a German-made one is to look at the country of origin label. Nevertheless, German-manufactured lenses are considered more collectable and therefore sell for more on the used market.
Zeiss optics are held in very high regard by many photographers, noted for their sharpness, excellent contrast, smooth bokeh, brilliant color fidelity and the "3D Effect", which makes some images seem almost three dimensional.
The Contax 645 is an autofocus medium format SLR system, featuring an array of Zeiss lenses and interchangeable film and digital backs. One of its unique features is a film back equipped with the vacuum system originally developed for the 35mm RTSIII SLR. Contax claims this increases sharpness by keeping the film perfectly flat in the plane of focus.
Lenses currently available for the Contax 645:
- Distagon 35mm f/3.5
- Distagon 45mm f/2.8
- Distagon 55mm f/3.5
- Vario-Sonnar 45-90mm f/4.5
- Planar 80mm f/2
- Apo-Makro-Planar 120mm f/4
- Sonnar 140mm f/2.8
- Sonnar 210 f/4
- Tele-Apotessar 350mm f/4
- Mutar 1.4x
In addition to 120 and 220 medium format backs with film inserts for quick loading, including the previously mentioned vacuum back, many manufacturers offer a variety of interchangeable digital backs for the Contax 645 system:
- Phase One
Contax N Series
The Contax N Series is an autofocus 35mm SLR system. There are three models of camera, the N1, the NX and the D1, an ill-fated and now discontinued early Digital SLR. They use the new N-Mount lenses, and this means the system is not compatible with the older manual focus SLR system.
Lenses currently available for the N Series:
- Vario Sonnar 17-35mm f/2.8 - Noted for the unusually high speed for this type of lens.
- Vario Sonnar 24-85mm f/3.5-4.0
- Vario Sonnar 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6
- Planar 50mm f/1.4
- Vario Sonnar 70-200mm f/3.5-4.5
- Vario Sonnar 70-300mm F/4.0-5.6
- Planar 85mm f/1.4
- Makro-Sonnar 100mm f/2.8
- Tele-Apotessar 400mm f/4
This is the original Contax camera line by Kyocera and Zeiss, beginning with the RTS in 1975, and is still in production. It's an SLR system designed for manual focus lenses.
The two camera models in this system currently are the RTS III and the Aria. The RTSIII is notable because of its vacuum backplate, a feature the manufacturer claims improves sharpness by keeping the film perfectly flat in the image plane. It also introduced a flash exposure measurement system that was particularly useful to studio photographers.
Other notable, but discontinued Contax SLRs include:
- AX - This had a unique autofocus system that worked with manual focus lenses by moving the film plane inside the camera.
- RX - This had a focusing system that would show an indicator light in the viewfinder when the center circle was in perfect focus.
- S2 and S2b - Titanium-bodied mechanical SLRs that only required a battery for the light metering system, not the operation of the camera, and was deliberately designed without exposure automation. The S2 had a spot meter, and was popular with some Zone System photographers, while the S2b had a traditional centerweighted meter favored by some photojournalists.
These cameras take "Y/C" mount lenses, short for "Yashica/Contax"... Yashica being the low-end consumer brand SLR system made by Kyocera that shared its lensmount design with Contax SLRs. Zeiss lenses in the Y/C mount came in either AE or MM varieties. MM lenses are more recent, and have a setting that allows the camera to select the apeture as part of its autoexposure system, while the older AE lenses do not. There is often no difference between an older AE and a newer MM lens apart from this feature. Sometimes, the older AE lens will be worth more on the used market because it will be a German-made example, while the newer lens is Japanese-made, despite an identical optical formula and build quality.
Many of these lenses have unique features or exemplary qualities not found in more recently designed competitors.
MM Lenses currently available:
- Distagon 15mm f/3.5
- F-Distagon 16mm f/2.8 - Noted for its unusually high speed.
- Distagon 18mm f/4
- Distagon 21mm f/2.8 - Noted for its unusual design and sharpness.
- Distagon 25mm f/2.8
- Distagon 28mm f/2.8
- Vario-Sonnar 28-70mm f/3.5
- Vario-Sonnar 28-85mm f/3.3-4
- Distagon 35mm f/1.4
- Distagon 35mm f/2.8
- PC-Distagon 35mm f/2.8 - Noted for its tilt and shift capabilities.
- Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.4
- Vario-Sonnar 35-135mm f/3.3-4.5
- Tessar 45mm f/2.8 - Noted for its unusual "pancake" design, being very thin and lightweight.
- Planar 50mm f/1.7
- Planar 50mm f/1.4 - Noted for its sharpness.
- Makro-Planar 60mm f/2.8 - Offers a higher magnification ratio (1:1) than the other MM macro lenses.
- Makro-Planar 60mm C f/2.8
- Planar 85mm f/1.4
- Sonnar 85mm f/2.8
- Planar 100mm f/2
- Makro-Planar 100mm C f/2.8
- Sonnar 135mm f/2.8
- Sonnar 180mm f/2.8
- Aposonnar 200mm f/2 - Noted for its unusually high speed and an iris with extra blades for smoother bokeh and rounder highlights, designed for portrait and fashion work. It comes with a set of center filters.
- Vario Sonnar 80-200mm f/4
- Tele-Apotessar 300mm f/2.8 - Noted for its sharpness and stratospheric price.
- Tele-Tessar 300mm f/4.0
- Vario Sonnar 100-300mm f/4-5.6
- Mirotar 500mm f/8 - A fixed-apeture catadioptric "mirror" telephoto.
- Mutar I - 2x teleconverter
- Mutar II - 2x teleconverter of high quality, designed to mate with long telephotos.
- Mutar III - 1.4x teleconverter
Other lenses of note that are no longer in production include the Tele-Apotessar 600mm f/4 AE, of which only a handfull were made to order, the Mirotar 1000mm f/5.6 AE, and the Vario Sonnar 70-210mm f/3.5 AE, which is reputed to be the lens to most clearly exhibit the Zeiss "3D effect", and fetches large sums on the used market because of this.
The G Series is a unique 35mm autofocus rangefinder system with interchangeable lenses. Rather than being a true rangefinder, it had a zooming viewfinder with a focus confirmation light activated by the autofocus system if manual focus was required. The G2 is the camera body currently available. The lenses use optical formulas not often used by Zeiss, who had specialized in SLR photographic lenses for many decades prior to the G Series. It also boasted the only true zoom available for a rangefinder system, made possible by the electronic coupling of the camera's viewfinder and the lens.
G Series lenses currently available are:
- Hologon 16mm f/8 - Comes with an optical viewfinder and a center filter to control vignetting. Noted for its extremely low distortion.
- Biogon 21mm f/2.8 - Comes with an optical viewfinder.
- Biogon 28mm f/2.8
- Planar 45mm f/2
- Sonnar 90mm f/2.8
- Planar 35mm f/2
- Vario-Sonnar 35-70mm f/3.5-5.6
Electronic Flash Units
All of Contax's flash units are cross-compatible with all Contax camera systems, and Metz makes a Contax-compatible control unit for its strobes as well.
Flash units currently available:
- TLA200 (GN 68) - Compact flash unit originally designed for the G Series.
- TLA280 (GN 98)
- TLA360 (GN 138)
Metz SCA adapters:
- SCA382 - Works with the older cameras, but won't work on the Contax 645.
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