Contax N Digital
An In-Depth Review
This review of the Contax N Digital is being published in early 2004, many months after this ill-fated camera was withdrawn from the U.S. market by Contax. It is still apparently available though in some European and Asian markets.
So why am I publishing this review now? Simply because it was an important landmark in the history of digital photography — the first full-frame 35mm camera to reach the market. There have been very few published reviews of this camera. I tried very hard to obtain one for testing from Contax U.S., but was ignored, lied to and avoided by them for many months. I finally gave up in disgust. Virtually no other reviews have appeared in U.S. magazines or web sites, and I am told by other reviewers that Contax was similarly uncooperative with them regarding this product.
This review is written by Irakly Shanidze, a photographer and author whose reviews are widely published in both Russia and the United States. Even though the Contax N Digital failed in most markets, hopefully Contax will bounce back and bring to out a second generation digital SLR; something that owners of Contax 35mm lenses and 645 cameras look forward to with anticipation (myself included).
By: Irakly Shanidze
The Contax N Digital was the first professional digital SLR with a full size CCD chip and 6.04 megapixel recording resolution. In many ways it was, and still is a groundbreaking camera that sports a host of unique and innovative features. Not to mention that it is the only digital camera that provides access to professional Carl Zeiss optics, it is also the only digital SLR in existence that is fully compatible with lenses and accessories of two film systems: Contax N1/NX 35mm system and Contax 645 autofocus medium format camera. Even with the advent of Kodak DCS 14n and Canon 1Ds that feature over-ten-megapixel full-frame CMOS chips, the Contax N Digital remains the only full-frame digital camera that uses CCD technology for digital capture. Kyocera Optics managed to integrate a Philips 3008x2008 24x36mm chip used before in medium format digital backs into a camera body that still remains the lightest and the most compact among full-frame digital SLRs.
The camera is based around the well-known Contax N1 film-based camera, and it looks almost identical to the N1 with a vertical grip/battery holder attached. In fact, both cameras are amazingly similar in controls layout, handling and operation. All digital controls are located on the back plate, and they are very easy to learn and operate. The Contax N Digital inherited such fine N1 features as focus bracketing, wide array diagonal AF with dual-focus capability and a very reliable exposure system.
Since I purchased the Contax N Digital in July 2002, it was my primary substitute for a 35mm camera in most shooting situations. The transition from the Contax N1, which I used before, was very easy because of the remarkable similarity. After eight months of using the camera almost on a daily basis with lenses ranging from 17mm to 300mm, I learned a great deal of very exciting and sometimes not very exciting things about Contax N Digital that you may find interesting and useful, especially when considering committing to a very capable yet expensive film/digital system.
It is difficult to imagine a situation, except maybe shooting underwater or in outer space, which my camera has not been to. I used it in conditions as ideal as a studio with fully controlled lighting and as bad as candid street photography in pouring rain. It underwent the ultimate integrity test when it was accidentally dropped from about a chest level on a concrete floor. Amazingly, the camera was still functional, even with a misaligned and cracked top plate. I was able to take seven photos before it died. It took just one day, however, for Contax USA to bring the camera to its original state. I was surprised, though, that the top plate cracked, because, according to Kyocera, the camera was supposed to have a metal body.
Kislovodosk Castle — Sepia
Shame and Glory of the AF System
As I mentioned before, Contax N Digital utilizes the same AF system as other N-mount cameras. Its design is ingenious in terms of simplicity and ergonomics: there are five AF points within the frame (one in the center and the other four are arranged in accordance with the Rule of Thirds), and either of them can be selected and activated with a joystick conveniently placed under your right thumb. Another identical joystick is located near a vertical shutter release button. Naturally, I expected the performance of the AF system to be as marvelous as its user interface design, but it did not happen to be the case. Low-light (below 1/15 sec at ISO100 with at f/1.4) focusing performance appeared to be very poor with all lenses. Moreover, I found that only two lenses, namely f/1.4/50 Planar and f/3.5~4.5/24-85 Vario-Sonnar focus flawlessly, quietly and fast. f/2.8/17-35 and f/4-5.6/70-300 Vario-Sonnars and f/1.4/85 Planar focus much less reliably, and most of the time require manual adjustment. Another notable flaw of AF the system is its dramatically increased power consumption in low light situations. It is possible to drain fresh batteries in less than ten minutes just by frequently engaging autofocus by pressing a shutter release button halfway down.
A unique and a very convenient feature of the N Digital AF system is the so-called focus bracketing. In this mode the camera fires three consecutive shots as follows: the first photo is focused normally, but in the other two shots the focus shifted to inner and outer margins of DOF. I found, however, that this mode is very convenient in landscape and still life photography, it is almost of no use in fast pace situations involving people and moving objects. When the camera set to manual focus, AF points work in a focus-assist mode. This is very convenient in low light, but, unfortunately, it is as unreliable as AF. It is the manual focus mode, however, that deserves to be flattered. Pioneered on Contax AX, now it is used in N and 645 systems. The camera has a focus assist button, which when pressed, autofocuses the camera in manual focus mode. After that, manual fine focus adjustment, if ever necessary, is very easy. I prefer this mode also because it is also the most economical in terms of power consumption.
Another signature feature of Contax N Digital is its excruciatingly high power consumption. It came at no surprise, however, because powering such a large CCD is not an easy task. The camera takes four AA-type rechargeable NiMH batteries, or can work from an external D-cell power pack. 1600mAh batteries supplied in a kit last for about a hundred shots under ideal conditions, i.e. RAW mode, single-shot operation, manual focus. Shooting in a TIFF mode with LCD on, however, may give you actually no more than fifty shots. Luckily, new high capacity NiMH cells such as Varta 1950mAh or Maha Powerex 2000mAh have proven to perform much better. Four freshly charged 2000mAh batteries last for about 200-220 actuations. Four D-size 9000mAh cells provide enough power for a day of shooting.
While a low per-charge number of actuations is more a matter of batteries being not powerful enough, an unreliable power level indicator system is a full responsibility of Kyocera Optics. There are two power level gauges, one is on the top LCD and another is on the little status LCD below the main screen. Both of them show full charge almost to the point when batteries are nearly exhausted and then suddenly show low battery sign. When the batteries are low, the camera may perform erratically, lock-up and even produce images with artifacts.
The AA battery choice would not be bad at all if normal alkaline batteries could be used, but this is not the case. The reason is that most alkaline cells are not powerful enough, with a notable exclusion of Energizer Titanium and Energizer Lithium cells. Another problem is that NiMH cells deliver 1.2V voltage while alkaline cells are 1.5V. According to Kyocera, higher voltage may be harmful for internal camera circuits.
Qui pro quo of Image Processing
The Contax N Digital produces images of outstanding quality that in my tests supersedes any current 6-megapixel SLR and holds up very well against Canon 1Ds and even Kodak DCS Pro Back mounted on Contax 645 body. Partly due to outstanding Carl Zeiss optics and partly to developed by Kyocera thin low-pass filter that eliminates light frequencies that produce image artifacts common in digital images.
Nothing in this life, as we know, comes free of charge. The Contax N Digital image processing system is no exception. Like Little Mermaid who was forced to surrender her divine voice for human legs, a Contax N Digital user has to make some very hard choices. The camera has three image recording modes: JPEG (three levels of compression), uncompressed TIFF, and RAW. For someone who shoots exclusively B&W, the first two modes are equally suitable and shooting RAW is hardly necessary. Due to its outstanding dynamic range and subdued contrast, the Contax N Digital produces beautiful monochrome images that when printed on 11x14 semi-gloss paper are virtually indistinguishable from traditional wet prints. For color work, however, the story becomes far more dramatic. While TIFF and JPEG-1 images shot at ISO160 and less have extremely smooth and virtually grainless structure, they are produced in 8 bit per channel color depth and in sRGB color space. RAW images can be developed in 16 bit per channel and in Adobe RGB space that has a substantially wider color gamut than sRGB. I found that 8 bit color depth is almost always acceptable, but photos shot in sRGB space do show lack of color fidelity in shadow areas and overall dullness. It can be fixed during post-processing, of course, but it takesan amount of work that one should hardly expect from a $7000 worth professional rig. Shooting in RAW mode has many advantages: it is very fast and economical, it produces 9MB files that can be processed into 35MB TIFFs, and, in addition to 16-bit and Adobe RDB capability, images can be processed with great flexibility in exposure, chroma (saturation), and contrast and sharpness adjustment. The RAW Developer software supplied with the camera enables remote operation from a computer with direct image downloading via IEEE1394 Firewire interface. This is all sounds so wonderful that one may expect at least something to be wrong.
Well, it is… The first, but minor issue, a mere inconvenience, is that the camera does not generate previews for RAW images, and therefore pictures just taken cannot be reviewed on the camera screen. This is not that big of a problem for a photographer who is used to shooting film, and I consider it even an advantage because it brings back the discipline of film photography. The second, but a very important issue with RAW mode is image quality. While tonal gradations and color rendering is absolutely, I mean ABSOLUTELY flawless, images developed with Contax RAW Developer have a moiré pattern, which does not exist in images processed with an in-camera digital image processor, and they have shadow noise not at all seen on images shot in JPEG and TIFF modes. The software has a provision for suppressing shadow noise, but checking this option seems to have no difference in terms of the final outcome. The mentioned moiré does not seem to depend upon any camera settings, but noise on processed RAW images, quite noticeable even at ISO 50, becomes a real problem at ISO 200 and higher, especially if the image is slightly underexposed and/or has out-of-focus areas characteristic of shooting at wide apertures. Moiré is not much of a problem on prints of up to 8x10” in size, but shadow noise is. TIFF and JPEG files, however, can be flawlessly printed up to 11x14” without any interpolation, and processed with Genuine Fractals Pro 2.5 easily withstand magnification to 13x19”.
During installation Contax RAW Developer makes use of a unique CCD parameter disk supplied with the camera. The second version of RAW Developer is capable of accommodating CCD parameters for several cameras, but RAW files shot with a camera for which RAW Developer has no parameters installed will be developed incorrectly. No other contemporary digital camera or digital back has software with this type of limitation. It is most likely this limitation that prevented Adobe from including Contax N Digital in a list of supported cameras for their RAW Converter plug-in for Photoshop.
3 fps. Is it?
According to Kyocera specifications, Contax N Digital is capable of shooting 3 frames per second. I found this claim somewhat unsubstantiated. You can indeed reach this speed, but only shooting JPEGs, and if the camera is powered by the power pack or an AC adaptor. Shooting RAW in sequences is still possible, but do not even dream about shooting TIFFs in a continuous drive mode. In addition to that, the camera has a small and slow recording buffer capable only of storing 5 JPEG-1, or 3 TIFF or RAW images. When the buffer capacity is reached, shooting speed decreases automatically to come with the speed of file downloading to a CF card. Shooting TIFFs in continuous mode, however, can bring camera to a halt.
Expose for Shadows, Develop for Highlights
It is amazing, how well this famous rule applies with Contax N Digital. Exposure latitude of its CCD chip is very impressive, and with RAW developer it extends even mode. I found that shooting with just a bit of overexposure and then processing with RAW Developer at -1/3EV gives the best results in terms of both highlight detail and shadow noise control. When shooting in JPEG or TIFF modes, contrast and image curve can be set in-camera, but it appears that shooting in a default contrast mode and then adjusting the image in Photoshop gives the best results.
Perfect exposure results in images of eye-popping quality, but underexposure produces increased amount of noise and sometimes even horizontal bending. The good thing is that the effect is easy to reproduce, so after a short time one can learn how to avoid it, or even use it as a creative tool. Balancing color is very easy with Contax N Digital white balance utility. It can be set to automatic, which takes care of most situations under favorable lighting levels. In low light white balance must be set manually, and it is conveniently done in two ways. Color temperature may be dialed out on a lower status LCD, or preset by pointing the camera at a white object and pressing a white balance button. The camera fires, but no image is recorded, and white balance is set.
As I already mentioned, underexposing RAW files is a very bad idea, especially at higher ISO settings. In TIFF and JPEG modes it is not that bad. I found, though, that in low-light conditions, longer exposures yield higher level of noise, and picture shot at higher ISO and faster shutter speed have less noise that ones of low ISO and longer shutter speeds. Even though the longest shutter speed is 32 seconds, any exposure of 1 second and longer results in such a high level of noise that a picture cannot be used for conventional purposes. Sadly, this problem is not acknowledged by Kyocera, and therefore no solutions are provided. This is especially annoying because this problem was successfully addressed even in the Canon D30 two years ago.
To Flash or Not to Flash
TTL Flash photography with the Contax N1, maybe not as easy and convenient as with Canon EOS 1v, was reliable and predictable. I was very disappointed to learn that this is not the case with N Digital. As in most digital SLRs, TTL flash metering is problematic due to high chip reflectivity. That’s why Contax N Digital uses an algorithm that lets a photographer use the TTL flash only in fully automatic mode. It is not bad if the flash is the main light source, but fill flash results are very inconsistent, especially on short distances. After some trial and error experiments with my Metz 54ZM flash on a dedicated SCA3802 Contax module, I discovered that the best mode for fill-flash photography is automatic non-TTL flash and shutter priority. Later tests with Contax TLA360 flash gave the same results.
Working in a Studio
The convenience and economical merit of digital capture in a studio cannot
be underestimated, and the Contax N Digital makes in not just a convenience,
but also something that one wants to experience again. In my opinion, it is
in the studio where this camera shows its best. 6 megapixel medium format backs
are still widely used in studio photography, and the Contax N Digital is a great
alternative, especially for wideangle applications. Unlike this camera, no digital
back can be used with a true 17mm lens.
Maybe TTL fill flash capability is not the strongest point of Contax N Digital, but studio flash photography seems to be something that the camera was born for. White balance can be finely adjusted by dialing in color temperature, or simply set to a flash mode. In fact, the camera excellently handles the task even in an automatic white balance mode, but a problem may arise when using mixed sources or gels. For this reason I prefer to set white balance manually. Color reproduction with studio flash is very precise, and the wide dynamic range of the CCD makes working with studio flash a joy because, compared to reversal film, the Contax N Digital is much more tolerant of overexposure. At the same time, shooting in a default contrast mode yields images with almost flat tonal curve. It is very convenient, especially when working with hard lighting, because it is much easier to increase contrast during post-processing than to fight with burned-out highlights and blocked shadows.
The camera's LCD screen gives a zoomable image preview (not in the RAW mode,
of course) that is consistently about a half stop brighter than a picture itself.
In addition to that, a histogram is also available as well as a mode in which
an overexposed part of the image blinks, which makes it possible to use the
preview instead of a Polaroid test.
Contax's RAW Developer was also built with studio photography in mind. It is capable of remotely focusing and firing the camera, and image preview is available on a computer monitor within a second. In this case the preview is what-you-see-is-what-you-get, provided the monitor is properly calibrated. Another great studio-oriented feature of the Contax N Digital is its ISO25 setting. It gives not only the best image quality, but also enables use of relatively wide apertures with powerful monolights or power packs.
Is Contax N Digital for You?
After almost a year of working with this camera, I can affirm that it is a fine photographic tool that blends legendary excellence of Carl Zeiss optics with visionary ideas and technological advancements of digital age.
Outstanding image quality makes the Contax N Digital quite a capable performer, even compared to new generation over-10-megapixel DSLRs. It is especially suitable for fine art, glamour and portraiture as well as for landscape photography. Its studio performance is outstanding.
Unfortunately, there are some tasks that the Contax N Digital is just not equipped to perform well enough. High power consumption, small and slow buffer, poor performance in low light and limited selection of high-speed lenses makes it nearly unsuitable for photojournalism.
The real drawbacks of the Contax N Digital are in its image processing software and the camera firmware. It is the RAW Developer image quality that would deter most professional photographers from committing to the Contax N Digital system. Moreover, the fact that the Contax RAW format is not supported by Adobe RAW Converter plug-in (or any other independent RAW processing applications like BibbleLabs 3.0 and the like) aggravates the situation even further. The camera firmware does not enable direct computer access to a Compact Flash card mounted in the camera without Contax RAW Developer and, conversely, camera custom functions cannot be set from a computer. While the camera is most likely capable of generating preview thumbnail images in the RAW mode, this is not the case. In some instances the camera functions erratically, for example, one may be able to shoot without a CF card inserted, or it may halt without a warning when power is low.
Taking into consideration everything said above, my conclusion is that the camera's hardware capabilities are far ahead of the software and firmware developed for it. Should these issues be resolved, the Contax N Digital will be able to compete even with the Canon 1Ds and Kodak DCS 14n professional DSLRs.
© 2003 Text and Photographs — Irakly Shanidze
Irakly Shanidze's work may be seen on his web site at www.shanidze.com/en
Here is another persective on the Contax N Digital, from Lonestardigital.