The Contax N Digital Revisited 2020

In 2014 I posted probably one of the last “real” reviews of the elusive Contax N Digital, the world’s first full frame digital SLR with a true 35mm sized sensor. By “real” I mean it’s a review by someone who had actually used the camera and not just repeating information off the internet. The original review can be found here.

Flash forward to 2020 and today I have a new review on the Contax N Digital only for you the readers of Camera Legend!

INTRODUCTION

I won’t repeat everything that I’ve already mentioned in 2014 but I think a little bit of the specs and history of the camera are important and worth repeating.

The Contax N Digital headlining claim to fame is that it is the world’s first digital slr with a 35mm sized full frame sensor. It was introduced by Kyocera in the year 2000 and brought to market in 2002.

At the heart of the camera was a 6 megapixel full frame sensor made by Philips of the Netherlands.

The Contax N Digital is based on the Contax N1 film camera and it takes the newer N Mount lenses. The N Digital, N1 and NX are not compatible with the older Contax/Yashica (aka C/Y) lenses.

YOUTUBE VIDEO

For those of you who prefer a video review, here it is:

In this video, I discuss a few things not mentioned in detail here including image quality, and a lively “film vs digital” discussion including my early (Circa 2005) experimentations of scanned 35mm film vs digital.

At that time I had a Microtek Artixscan 120f which was a high resolution 35mm & medium format optical film scanner. In 2005, I compared scanned 35mm images to my 12mp Canon EOS 5D Classic and was surprised by what I saw. I speak about these results in my video.

REVISITING HISTORY

To fully appreciate how big this was in the camera world back then one must remember that the top cameras of the digital world from 2000-2002 were cameras with APS-C sensors like the 2.7mp Nikon D1, the 3mp EOS D30, and the 3mp Fuji S1 Pro plus a plethora of 1-3mp small sensor digital point and shoots.

As I said in 2014, the Contax N Digital was full frame before any of us knew what “full frame” was! Of course, I was talking tongue in cheek but you know what I mean. If you don’t, I was basically saying that in those days every megapixel seemed to mean something. Every increase in megapixel was exciting and expensive. And digital cameras, low end and especially high end models were also expensive.

We were getting used to APS-C sensors and hoping for increased megapixels so a “full frame” sensor was not on most people’s radar. But the thought of a “full frame” digital camera was out there no doubt. However the prevailing thought was that a full frame sensor back then was either not yet technically doable or it would be incredibly expensive.

And when the N Digital came out to market, it was indeed expensive at over $7000 for the body alone. The competition, primarily Canon, followed up in that same year with their own full frame body, the original 1Ds which came to market at $7999.

Nikon did not come out with a full frame DSLR until 2007 when it released the pro D3 model.

THE 2014 REVIEW

In my 2014 review I stated that I was lucky to have a friend who allowed me to use his camera for a short time for a review. I returned the camera to my friend shortly and a few months later the camera had a dead sensor.

Thankfully my friend did not blame me for it because it was working fine for months after I returned it. However, this is one of the reasons I no longer accept from or loan cameras and lenses to other people.

Not because I’m being greedy, but I have lent cameras and lenses to friends in the past and some of the equipment would come back with scratches or dents that weren’t there before. Sometimes, the equipment would be gone for months, and I’d have to kindly ask for the equipment back. Sometimes repeatedly!

I’m not extremely picky but as a collector if something is in pristine condition I’d like to keep it that way. The thing I hate more is the feeling when someone borrows cash and they promised to give it back to you, but then you have to chase them down to get your money back. You know the feeling! 😀

At the same time, I hate borrowing equipment from my friends for the same reasons. But since the Contax N Digital is so rare, I just had to ask! And my friend was kind enough to let me use it for a couple of weeks in 2013. I’ve always felt a little guilty for my friend’s dead sensor even though I know in my heart that I treated that camera with kid gloves and it was working when I gave it back to him.

(Above) An image from my 2014 review showing a little of that “Zeiss Pop” otherwise known as the Zeiss 3D effect. Contax N Digital, 50mm f/1.4 N Zeiss Planar.

Anyway, if you’ll remember from my 2014 review, I helped arrange and send the camera out to Kyocera for a repair and it came back a couple months later as “Unrepairable.”

FLASH FORWARD TO 2020

I was browsing photo gear ads without any real intent to buy anything when I saw a listing for a Contax N Digital for $477 USD. It was in “Bargain” condition (you know the dealer!) and no notes about a bad sensor.

Remembering what happened to my friend’s camera, but still so curious, I was hesitant but I bit hard and bought the camera!

The model I bought looked exactly like my friend’s (why wouldn’t it?) and worked well except it would only AF using the back AF-ON button.

If you’ll remember what I mentioned in 2014, I kept the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Contax N lens to use with my N1 and NX film cameras so I used this same lens on my new to me N Digital.

The images were just as beautiful as I remembered in 2013, color and everything looked the same. I was happy!

SAMPLE IMAGES

Here are some of the better images I got from my short five months with the N Digital in 2020. Images were shot using mostly ISO 200-400. I have always loved the Contax 50mm f/1.4 N Zeiss Planar and in combination with the sensor on the N Digital, I feel they are a perfect portrait combo, which is why you see a lot of pictures of the kids 🙂

Most images have been processed but most remain very close to the original files. Any of the images with trees have not been processed if you need to know for camera geek reasons 😀👍🏻

THE SURPRISE

About a week in to using the camera, a couple of photos started showing purple lines and blacked out images. I said uh oh! I remember seeing this on my friend’s camera back in 2014. I knew what was happening. The sensor was going to give out! 😦

This is how a failing sensor looks. Images begin to have lines, streaks, and discoloration.

In all honesty, it wasn’t a surprise to me. I was expecting the camera not to even work and when I saw the sensor failing, it didn’t surprise me at all.

I was all ready to pack up the camera for a refund when I took a few more shots and the photos came out fine. What? Yep that’s what I said!

I figure ok, no doubt the sensor is going to fail but if it works for a year I’ll keep it and take the loss so long as I get some nice pics out of it.

So over the next few months, I used it sparingly. As I’ve mentioned many times, much to the chagrin of Contax fanboys, Kyocera/Contax electronics are very delicate, fragile even.

I basically used the camera only on weekends, maybe 5-10 shots at a time. I always made sure it had fully charged AA batteries in it.

About five months into my ownership of the camera, the Contax N Digital gave up the ghost. After one last good picture, it started shooting only blanks. Black screen. It was game over.

This is how images look when the sensor finally dies. The camera starts shooting blanks. Nothing but black screen images.

I did everything I could think of to see if I could get it to start taking pictures again. I cleaned the contacts, tried different settings, tried RAW, Tiff, what have you. No dice. The sensor was dead.

PRICE & AVAILABILITY

If you’re seeking the Contax N Digital, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea, I have revised my trending prices to around $500-2000 USD for the N Digital body only. That is, if you can find one, and in working condition!

I would not recommend it unless it had a working sensor and at a very low price. Anything in the $2000 range would have to be old new stock, brand new in box, which I think is almost impossible to find.

As in the two copies I have tried, when the sensor dies, the rest of the camera may still work which is a shame because without a sensor, it becomes something like a chicken without a head or a man without a heart. A digital camera without a sensor becomes a paperweight. In the case of the N Digital, it’s an expensive paperweight.

As I mentioned in my video, I even reached out by email to Roger Cicala of LensRentals.com, a man known for tearing down cameras and lenses to see their innards and how they worked. I asked Roger if he or his team would like to open up my Contax N Digital and see if they could fix it. He politely declined to do it 🙂

BOTTOM LINE

I said this in my 2014 review and I’ll say it again…As the world’s first 35mm full frame digital SLR, the Contax N Digital is no doubt a Camera Legend.

However, it’s hard to find them, and almost impossible to find one in working condition. The main issue appears to be dead sensors in these cameras which are in Kyocera’s own words “Unrepairable.”

The camera was pulled from the market very early in its production run so it’s apparent now that Kyocera either may have known something we didn’t know or perhaps it cost them too much to produce versus how many sold. We’ll never know.

Take it from me and avoid the urge to buy one. I was your guinea pig. I did it for you guys! I can almost guarantee that if you can find a rare working model with a working sensor, that sensor will fail if you use the camera enough.

All that said, I will say something that might surprise you…when it was working, the Contax N Digital might have been my favorite DSLR ever!! I love the way it renders. There’s something to the images. A lot has to do with the Zeiss lenses but I also give credit to the flawed Philips 6mp CCD sensor. In my opinion, images can have that rare 35mm “film-like” quality and it has a lot to do with the low resolution sensor. I speak more about this in my video so check it out if you’re interested.

The N Digital also has some very digital qualities such as banding and not so pretty noise at higher iso ranges or underexposed images. But overall its images can be impressive especially when you remember it’s a camera introduced in the year 2000!

(Above) The Contax N Digital is among my favorite cameras of all time. Unfortunately, they never last and almost always end up with dead sensors

Looking back today, it’s clear that in 2002 Canon was on the verge of releasing the 1Ds, the world’s second 35mm full frame digital slr. Contax just beat them to it, but by beating them to it, they have that distinction of being the first and anything “first” will always be remembered.

So despite the Contax/Yashica brand being gone for years now, I do miss them. They thought differently and brought something different to the camera world and the Contax N Digital is a prime example of this. Despite the sad fact that in my opinion and experience, the sensor will inevitably fail and is unrepairable, the Contax N Digital will always be a Camera Legend as the world’s first 35mm full frame digital slr. It will always have a place in my heart as a camera I have experienced and loved, as well as a camera that will always have me thinking what could have been.