Tuesday Titans: The Contax AX Film Camera

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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.

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“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.

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“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 🙂


BOTTOM LINE

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.

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The Best Camera I Never Knew Part III: The Contax Tix APS Film Camera

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The Contax TiX from 1997. Perhaps the most beautiful Contax point and shoot, but doomed by being born an APS film camera.

I have to admit I’m a big fan of Contax point and shoot film cameras from the 90s. There was just something special about the whole series.

While I stand by what I wrote in earlier articles about the fragility of Contax cameras and their brittle electronics, I loved the concept, the feel, and execution despite the feeling that I could never really rely on them completely.

THE CONTAX Tix

The Contax Tix (pronounced T…i…x as opposed to Tix, I think!) is a high quality point and shoot camera introduced by Kyocera in 1997.

The camera featured a Carl Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 Sonnar T* lens and used the infamous and now defunct APS (Advanced Photo System) film system. The camera was the smallest of the Contax film point and shoots.

The camera has autofocus, a shutter speed range of 15 seconds to 1/1000, and came with a data back for date imprint. It was powered by one 3V CR-2 battery.

WHY IT DIDN’T JIVE WITH ME?

The last two cameras I profiled (Rolleimatic and Rollei A110) didn’t jive with me because they didn’t work. That was NOT the case with the Contax Tix.

A little history…I got my first Contax point and shoot, the original Contax T, in 1997. That was a superb little manual focus rangefinder and I got some wonderful shots from that thing. Basically, after the Contax T, I was hooked on Contax for a while!

I got the Contax Tix some time in the mid 2000’s, mainly as a curiosity and to add to my collection. I did not expect to use it often because even at the time of the introduction of the APS film system in 1996, I was never really interested in that format. Even back then, I wondered why would anyone bother with this over 35mm?

The 35mm format already had its limitations vs medium and larger formats and I felt like APS was a step backwards.

The negatives were smaller and despite the stuff you were able to do with it, ie, the three image formats, 16:9, 3:2, and 3:1 aspect ratios, as well as the quasi-panoramic mode, I wasn’t into it. I just thought they were gimmicks, but even if they were useful to some, I would take the larger negative of the (already relatively small) 35mm standard over APS any day.

So back to the Contax Tix. Yes, the camera worked and worked well. I used it for two or three rolls of snapshots expecting good quality, but most of the shots from this camera looked excellent!

I’m sorry I have no pics to show you now because as mentioned in the last couple of postings, I am without my main working computer and using a 10′ Chromebook. I would still need to scan these prints.

My assessment of the 28mm f/2.8 Zeiss Sonnar on the Tix is this…The lens is excellent, as expected. It is very sharp. Not as bitingly sharp as the lens on the Contax T3, but still sharper than most point and shoots. But my favorite part is that the lens seemed to have more of a classic look, a soft/sharp kind of thing like the 38mm f/2.8 Sonnar on the original T or T2. So, in my opinion, the lens on the Tix was in between that of the T3 and T/T2. That’s almost perfection right there!

So the camera itself was never a problem. The fact that it used APS film was what didn’t jive with me and why I got rid of it.

If looking for one of these, prices have been trending steady for years at a low of $70 to around $150 with an average of around $90. The camera came in silver or black which is a bit more rare.

If I were to seek one out today, I don’t think it would take me too long to find one. And there are apparently places that will still develop APS film if you send the film out to them. But I’m already dealing with enough dead or outdated systems like Polaroids, 127mm, 110mm, etc that I wouldn’t bother with APS film right now.

BOTTOM LINE

The Contax Tix is a beautiful, jewel-like camera. I feel that this camera could’ve been THE best of all the Contax point and shoots, but unfortunately it was and will forever be hindered by the format it was born with, the APS film system, which is probably one of the biggest flops in film history.

Now before any APS film fans get mad at me, I want to say the concept, and indeed the quality of APS film was not bad. If I recall correctly, there were even some APS films that equaled or exceeded its 35mm equivalents in magazine tests.

In many ways APS was “pre-digital” film. It wasn’t designed for ultimate quality, but instead was made for easier development (with machines specifically designed to take APS film, of which one can guess the companies also hoped to make money selling) and promised smaller, lighter cameras. It foresaw almost all that we see in digital point and shoots today!

But APS wasn’t friendly for the home developer. I’m sure someone must have done it, but I haven’t met anyone who actually home developed APS film. You actually had to bring that film into the store as each film cartridge was locked and coded. The main problem for APS film was timing. It was introduced in 1996 right around the time the first wave of digital cameras were coming in.

In only a few short years it was killed by digital, but somehow managed to hang on till 2011 when Fuji and Kodak, the last two APS film manufacturers ceased production of this film forever.

Again, in many ways, APS had some key concepts that made its way into digital such as switchable aspect ratio, smaller cameras and lenses, and of course APS lives on in our memories by the APS-C sensors which is approximately the same size as APS film. This is the lasting legacy of the APS film system I guess.

The Contax Tix was one of those cameras that I loved as a camera. It had a wonderful lens and beautifully small proportions. The Tix is probably at the apex of APS point and shoot cameras. It is no doubt a camera that added to the Camera Legend of Contax/Yashica.

It is a camera which was only held back by the APS format that it was created for and a camera of which I was never able to realize its full potential. The Contax Tix is a superb camera that unfortunately became one of…the best cameras I never knew 🙂

Note: Still waiting for my Mac in repair, but the show must go on! While I have created a workflow with this Chromebook, I have noticed it is becoming painfully slow the more I use it. Thanks to all who continue to visit, I appreciate it, and I continue to write about cameras for you my friends.

It’s Fall Foliage Time!

It’s that time of the year again. Especially for those of us in the Northeastern part of the country, the autumn leaves are at or approaching their peak. In some parts, they may even be past their peak.

While I haven’t gotten my foliage pics yet this year, I hope to soon. Maybe this weekend or next.

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to post some fall foliage from years past. Many with gear I no longer have, but how I miss them!

This is a great time to photograph and use some of those Camera Legends in your closet. Don’t miss it!

Update 10/17/15: I did get some shots today, but only have one to post so far. It is the top photo using the EOS-M I reviewed HERE.

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“AutM Leaves” 2015. Canon EOS-M, 22mm f/2 STM.

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“Change” 2007. Canon EOS 5D, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS.

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“Fall Fashion” 2014. Nokia Lumia 1020.




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“Red, Green, and Gold” 2008. Nikon D700, Hasselblad 110mm f/2 Planar via adapter.

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“Fall Back” 2007. Rolleiflex 2.8F, 80mm f/2.8 Planar, Kodak Portra 400 UC.

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“Crown Of Thorns” 2012. Sony NEX-C3, 25mm f/1.4 CCTV lens.

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“It’s Raining Leaves” 2008. Contax 645, 80mm f/2.8 Planar, Kodak Portra 400 film.

Some Film Images Part II

I had so much fun going down memory lane last night, I decided to do it again, one more night. This time the focus is on people and portraits. Back to reviewing cameras soon, I promise 🙂

Again, captioned with these images are equipment that I have profiled or am planning to profile. Most of the gear I no longer have, except for the negatives and memories I have of them.

And again, while I love reviewing equipment, I love the equipment even more if it helps me take a decent pic!

Also as mentioned in the last article, a lot of these photos were posted for photo sharing sites long before I started blogging on WordPress. As such, some were resized much smaller than I’d like, but it would take me forever to locate the originals and work on them again. I thank you kindly for taking a look.

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“Separate Your Colors” 2011. Contax T3, Fuji Reala. Manila, Philippines.

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“The NWA” 1990. Minolta X-700, miscellaneous brand 80-200mm. No this is not Dr. Dre and the “West Coast” NWA. This is “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and the original NWA 🙂

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“The Young & The Restless” 1988. Minolta X-700, 50mm f/1.7 MD lens. Los Angeles, California. I was at the Farmer’s Market in L.A. and checking out magazines at a newsstand when I spotted two (then) very popular soap opera stars, Tracey E. Bregman and Doug Davidson, who were also checking out magazines. They must have been on a break from their show which was being filmed at CBS Studios nearby. I asked them for a photo and they graciously obliged. I was most impressed that they had no movie star “issues” and smiled for a geeky teenager with a camera 🙂

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“The Gentle Giant” 2011. Nikon F4s, 28mm f/2.8 AIS Nikkor, Kodak Portra 160. I ran into NYC icon Louis Mendes, a photographer well known for his old school Speed Graphic camera and sharp retro outfits. Lou takes unique Polaroid portraits and has made a living and a legend out of it. I’ve bumped into Mr. Mendes a few times over the years and he has always been a willing a gracious subject for my cameras. Thanks Lou!

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“Bangkok Bride II” 2005. Olympus Stylus Epic, 35mm f/2.8, Kodak High Definition 400 film. Bangkok, Thailand.

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“Native New Yorker” 2015. Leica M4P, 50mm f/2 Summicron-M, Kodak T-Max 400 developed in D76. NYC is a melting pot of cultures. No matter where you come from, you can quickly transform into a New Yorker!




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. 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 🙂

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.