The Contax AX. A camera that could “autofocus” manual focus lenses. Totally unique, but it didn’t always work well. Note the tripod attachment on the very bottom is not an original part of the camera.
Today, I present to you good readers a double whammy:
“Tuesday Titans” and “The Best Camera I Never Knew” and the recipient of this honor is the legendary Contax AX 🙂
THE CONTAX AX
The Contax AX is a 35mm single lens reflex film camera introduced by Kyocera in 1996. At the time of its introduction, the AX made camera headlines due to its unique ability to autofocus manual focus lenses.
Although probably more technical than this, in a nutshell, AF was achieved by moving the film plane, the distance from lens to film. The official company description of this was “Automatic Back Focusing.” This was a remarkable achievement and still something unmatched in the camera world today.
THE CONTAX AX BODY
The Contax AX is a big, bulky, OX of a camera! The extra bulk was needed to accommodate the mechanism that would drive the film plane to focus.
The camera feels well built, sturdy, and again, bulky. Like most Kyocera made Contax SLR cameras, it gives the feel and impression of quality.
Ergonomically, the AX is pure Contax. That is, controls are well placed with knobs and dials, things I really like on a camera.
On the left top plate you have a mode shifter for AV/TV/P/M/X/B and the shutter speed dial which runs from 4s to 1/4000. Also on the left is where you can change ISO values as well as play around with the cameras Custom Functions. I can’t remember these off hand, but I think the only one I used was the function to leave the film leader out.
On the top right plate of the camera you have the on/off switch, the film counter lcd, the exposure compensation dial, the focus switch which includes macro, manual focus, continuous, single af. Also on the right is a dial for drive, i.e., single shot, continuous, even double exposure.
Again, all these are on switches, knobs and dials that are well labeled which I really love on a camera.
WHY IT DIDN’T JIVE WITH ME?
I tried two of these. The problem? Well, the first one I got couldn’t autofocus to save my life! It would just rack back and forth. Then it would get close, but seemingly give up. I sent that one back. I eventually got another one and it did autofocus…when it felt like it 🙂
Actually, I’m being unfair. Maybe not. Anyway, it did autofocus, and when it did, I got some nice shots. However, the AF was very fidgety. On certain targets, it would be great, but in general, the AF was inconsistent. It would rack back and forth, sometimes never getting the focus, even on easy targets. Sometimes it would be so out of focus and give up. Pre-focusing the lens seemed to help, but again, it wasn’t consistent.
The autofocus was also somewhat slow, but that’s to be expected and I’m not blaming the camera for that. You have to remember this was a camera that was attempting to autofocus manual focus lenses.
“Olympians” 2011. Contax AX, 50mm f/1.4 Zeiss Planar lens, Kodak Tri-X 400 developed in HC-110. When the AX managed to focus, it focused well, but it was inconsistent. Shooting in daylight seemed to help.
And speaking of manual focus, you can do that with the AX and if you use the camera that way, it’s a pleasure to use, but maybe not to carry around due to its bulk.
“Fix My Hair” 2012. Contax AX, 50mm f/1.4 Zeiss Planar, Kodak T-Max 400 in HC-110. Aside from trying to capture the moment, I was actually testing the autofocus system on the AX. The problem is that, with the AX, I always seemed to have to be “testing” it 🙂
So why does this “Titan” of a camera get a “Best Camera I Never Knew” badge? Because autofocus was its selling point. It was an admirable attempt by Kyocera, and like I said, if and when it worked, it’s great. But most of the time, for me, it didn’t hit its mark.
Ultimately though, I just could not rely on the AF to get the shots I wanted and decided that the AX was better as a manual focus camera. And if I wanted a manual focus Contax, I much prefer the (also big, but more portable) RX or the smaller ST (my favorite Contax body).
The Contax AX was a titanic attempt by Kyocera to bring autofocus to their fine line of manual focus Carl Zeiss lenses by doing something no one else had ever done before. It was made at a time when AF had already become the standard for 35mm SLR cameras.
However, company was not ready to join the AF race and wanted to keep their loyal customers happy. They eventually came out with a true autofocus SLR cameras, in 2001 with the introduction of the Contax N1 and the NX in 2002. Unfortunately, the company folded in 2005.
Kyocera and their Contax/Yashica line were something unique in the camera world. They were innovative and sought to bring the philosophy of high quality cameras and lenses to the masses and market themselves as an alternative to a “luxury” camera market that was ruled by the German giant Leica.
Kyocera and their Contax brand were the Lexus/Acura/Infiniti of the camera world. Unfortunately, many of their cameras, such as the AX, while beautiful, did not deliver the expected performance nor were they as reliable as a Lexus or Acura, or in this case, Leica.
They do, however, hold a special place in my heart and in the hearts of millions of camera fanatics around the world. The Contax brand still has a huge and loyal following. The AX may not have lived up to my expectations, but as I said it was an admirable attempt by a Camera Legend. In some ways, it was ahead of its time with technology that wasn’t quite ready for prime time. If only it worked better than it looks 🙂
WHERE TO BUY?
Due to its unique technology, the Contax AX is still quite popular among camera collectors. I think most people will seek one out based on curiosity, as I did, only to find its headlining autofocus abilities clunky in real world use.
If seeking one of these, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea, prices have been trending steady at $200-300 dollars. Mid to low two hundreds are a good price on the AX. I got my first malfunctioning one about five or six years ago at around $300. As mentioned, I sent it back for a refund. I got my second one, which was sold as a parts camera because the battery chamber lock was broken, for $80. I replaced the battery chamber lock with a lock from a tripod and was more than happy with my $80 AX 🙂
If seeking one make sure your seller has a good return policy because I’ve said many times that the electronics in Contax cameras DO NOT age well. For a safe purchase try HERE and HERE.