The First 35mm Full-Frame Digital SLR: The Contax N Digital

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Introduced in 2000 and brought to market in 2002, the Contax N Digital is the world’s first 35mm full-frame DSLR.

Many people mistakenly believe that the popular Canon EOS-1Ds of 2002 was the first, but it wasn’t. The 1Ds may have caught the public’s attention in 2002, but the short-lived N Digital was actually the first.

The Contax N Digital sported a 6mp full-frame sensor made by Phillips of the Netherlands.Β The camera was designed to take lenses from the Contax “N” series of Carl Zeiss autofocus lenses. As expected, many of the lenses were outstanding.

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“Z 3D” 2013. Contax N Digital, Zeiss 50mm f/1.4N Planar, ISO 50. I think you might see some of that famous Zeiss “pop” in this image. Please click on the photo for a larger and better view.

In 2013, I was able to procure the use of the N Digital through a good friend. The camera, as might be expected from a camera from 2002, was a bit limited in its ISO range. It had a cool ISO 25, but only went up to 400.

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“Jok” 2013. A rice porridge that is a Thai comfort food. Contax N Digital, Zeiss 50mm f/1.4N Planar, ISO 400.

I was not expecting much from such an old sensor, but found the images to be superb when mated to the 50mm f/1.4N Planar and with reasonably good light, although as always, I tried to stretch its abilities to see what I could get.

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“The Fence” 2013. Contax N Digital, Zeiss 50mm f/1.4N Planar, ISO 100. One of my “boring test shots” as I call them. Contrary to what a lot of people say, I usually find Zeiss bokeh to be “busy” but eye catching. You can get “smooth and silky” bokeh, but you need to get in close without a lot of clutter in the background.

The Contax N Digital is pretty rare on the used market, although they show up once in a while on eBay, and once in a blue moon on KEH’s website. Prices are trending at $2K or above for minty, working samples.

Now here’s the CAVEAT…A few months after giving back the camera, my friend reported that the camera had a sensor failure! Thankfully, I was not to blame πŸ™‚

With my help, we sent the camera back to Tocad, who were still servicing Contax cameras at the end of 2013. I am not sure if they still are.

Anyway, Tocad sent the camera back to Kyocera in Japan for servicing. Guess what? It came back a couple months later, UNREPAIRABLE. I guess if the sensor is gone, you have $2000 brick as a souvenir 😦

I felt bad for my friend, but he took it all in stride. Still, this is a lesson to be learned especially when buying older and expensive digital cameras. They are not a good buy.

And while I loved the Contax brand, there has always been one thing I’ve known since using Contax film cameras in the 90s: They are fragile. They may feel tough and well made, but the insides are brittle, especially the electronics which are prone to failure.

I still use Contax film cameras now and then, but would never buy a Contax N Digital unless the price was really, really good. That said, there is no denying that the Contax N Digital was a pioneering camera. It was full-frame digital before anyone even thought about full-frame digital! In working condition, when mated to those spectacular Zeiss lenses, the N Digital is capable of superb images. And with its distinction of being the very first 35mm full-frame digital, well that alone makes it a Camera Legend.

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10 thoughts on “The First 35mm Full-Frame Digital SLR: The Contax N Digital

    1. Mitch, thanks for the info on the Leica S1! I guess I should say the Contax was the “first to market.” It would’ve been interesting to see the Leica make it to the mass market. Very interesting link, thanks for sharing that!

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      1. Yes indeed. We are lucky to now live in a world loaded with full-frame cameras, albeit still at high prices. In 2002, it was truly like the “haves” and “have nots” in regards to owning a full-frame camera.

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  1. Contax and Pentax were developing cameras around the same Phillips full frame sensor. Pentax backed out and released the body as the MZ-S film camera. Contax plowed ahead…and the rest is history.

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    1. Hey Bro, thanks for the good point! If there was ever a film camera that should’ve been digital it’s that funky MZ-S! One ironic thing though…Contax is no more and Pentax lives on somehow! πŸ™‚

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