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CONTAX 645

R.I.P. or Resurrection?

On April 12, 2005, Kyocera Corporation announced that it would be ceasing production of all CONTAX brand cameras, including the Contax 645 system, by the end of the year. A translation of that press announcement can be found here. This followed a couple of months during which Kyocera badly bungled its press and distributor relations, allowing rumours and speculation to run rampant.

Their definitive announcement is of particular interest to two groups – students of the history of photography, but more particularly those that currently own Contax 645 camera systems.

Sunflowers — Credit Valley, Ontario. August, 2004
Contax 645 with Kodak DCS Proback 645C and 120mm Zeiss f/4 Apo-Makro Planar

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A Bit of History

Rather than write a rehash of the history of the Contax brand, I'll simply point to two on-line references – The History of Contax, and  Zeiss Ikon Contax 
Bodies, Lenses and Photography
. There are other historical resources, but these two will get you up to speed.

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Contax Cameras

The main concern that photographers have is with the 645 system. Other than this model, and its associated Zeiss lens line, the Contax brand has been at a dead-end for several years. Their film cameras were once highly regarded, for their use of Zeiss lenses as much as for their remarkable build quality and excellent handling. I owned a Contax RTS III for a while in the '80s and found it to be an exquisitely built camera with excellent ergonomics.

But all of that is history, because there are likely not to be any further film-based SLRs from any of the major camera makers, with the Nikon F6 being in all likelihood a last hurrah for the genre. For those with Contax RTS 35mm cameras and lenses, if you're happy working with film then you have a fantastic system that is unlikely to ever be bested. If you lust to put your Zeiss lenses on a DSLR though, you're out of luck, at least on a Contax body. You can though use your Contax / Zeiss lenses on Canon DSLRs through the use of lens adaptors, though you will of course lose autofocus and auto diaphragm capability.

Kyocera / Contax's digital point and shoots were never much of a market factor, and simply have been a stylish but technically me-too line up.

When it came to DSLRs though Contax was the first company out of the starting blocks several years ago with its Contax N Digital, a full-frame 6MP camera. It was a highly flawed product, and though heavily marketed initially, was only shipped in small quantities in most markets. In typical Kyocera fashion the company flubbed the way it handled the camera's problems, and it wasn't long before it was withdrawn.

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Contax 645

The one crown jewel in the Contax line for the past half decade has been the Contax 645 medium format system. This has been a favourite of many fashion, portrait, wedding, nature and event photographers who required medium format quality, and who wanted Zeiss lenses on an autofocus 645 format body. Its competitors were the Mamiya 645, Pentax 645, and eventually the Hasselblad H1. Bronica, the only other 645 camera maker, never went autofocus, and in any event, went out of business in 2003.

So for the past few years photographers contemplating a move to 645 format for use with digital digital backs (which is now the name of the game), really had only three choices – the Mamiya 645 AFD, the Hasselblad H1 and the Contax 645. All three are very fine camera systems.

In early 2003 I needed to choose a 645 system for a move to digital MF. My Rollei 6008 system had served me well for quite a few years, but there were no digital backs available for it fr field use, and none on the horizon at the time. Also, the AF model was promised, but still hadn't shown up. In the end I chose the Contax system, and you can read about that process in this article. The Pentax 645 and Pentax 67 which I owned subsequent to the Rollei, were fine systems, but Pentax refused to even acknowledge that digital backs existed (until just a month ago (March, 2005)), and so that brand appeared to be a dead-end. Based on price, features, build quality, and especially lenses, the Contax 645 seemed like the best choice.

New. a couple of years on, many thousands of frames later, and having shot both film and digital with the Contax (with the 16MP Kodak DCS Pro Back and subsequently the 22MP Phase One P25), I couldn't be happier with my purchase. The camera has worked flawlessly in extreme conditions, from the Arctic to the desert, and I've never had a body failure. In fact, in late 2004 I purchased a second 645 body, eye level prism, and battery grip,as back up and for when working in remote locations. I also have 7 lenses, the Zeiss 35mm, 80mm, 120mm, 210mm and 350mm lenses (+ 1.4x Mutar), along with the Hartblei 45mm Super Rotator and 30mm Arstat Rectangular Fisheye in Contax mounts.


Brickworks #7 — Toronto. November, 2003
Contax 645 with 35mm f/4 Distagon
& Kodak DCS Pro-Back @ ISO 100

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And Then Along Came Digital

Not only did digital come along, but the Canon 1Ds, and more recently the follow-on 1Ds Mark II, debuted, and the face of medium format changed. The 1Ds not only sent 35mm film to the retirement home, but seriously challenged the image quality possible from scanned medium format film.

When the 1Ds first appeared I tested and then immediately purchased one. For me it spelled the end of not only shooting 35mm film, but also medium format film. When I wrote about my initial tests and conclusions there was much incredulity, and even anger from many fronts – people not believing that this could be the case, or, more often that not, wishing that it weren't.

But it wasn't long before other pros did the evaluations for themselves, and the 1Ds quickly because the primary camera used by many of leading professional photographers around the world, not to mention legions of amateurs with gold Visa cards. On interesting side note is that not long after the 1Ds appeared the world's largest stock agency started to insist that it would only accept DSLR submissions if they were taken with an 11MP or greater camera. Guess what that effectively meant?

But the instant success and steamroller effect of the 1Ds put medium format camera makers into a bind. While there are obviously a great many photographers still shooting medium format film around the world, new sales were rapidly drying up. Existing users were looking at the workflow advantages of digital with the 1Ds, along with its comparable image quality to MF film, and making the transition – and then either trading in their MF gear, or putting it on the shelf.

New photographers wishing to move up to the advantages of medium format were a steadily declining customer pool because they either could purchase used gear at fire sale prices, or discovered for themselves what the 1Ds had to offer.

Is it any wonder then that we saw the weakest of the breed either go to that big camera store in the sky (Bronica), or merge with a medium format digital back maker (Hasselblad and Imacon).

That left Mamiya, Pentax and Contax.

Pentax is a relatively small (by Japanese standards) family-owned business. They are a very innovative company which has traditionally made quality products. Indeed they were among the first to announce an entry into the DSLR fray, using the same Phillips 6MP full-frame chip as Contax was to use in their ill-fated N Digital. But, after showing prototypes at trade shows for a year or so Pentax pulled the plug on the project prior to initial shipment. They just couldn't get it to work to their satisfaction. (By the way – this is storied to have had more to do with problems with the Phillips chip than any lack of capability on Pentax and Contax's part).

Nevertheless it needs to be understood that from a software engineering perspective creating a digital camera is a non-trivial matter. With their first iteration Pentax completely failed, and Contax's N Digital, while it did eventually make it to market, then ended up beating a hasty and ignominious retreat. It took Pentax an additional two years until they released their 6 Megapixel *stD, which is a fine camera, though it's too bad that Pentax didn't get better advice in the product naming department.

Mamiya announced their foray into the digital world with their ZD 645 camera and ZD backs for existing Mamiya 645 AFD bodies, during 2004. But by April of 2005 these have yet to be seen. If the rumour mill is to be believed, Mamiya are experiencing development difficulties on the digital side, and the promised delivery date has now slipped to June, if not later

Pentax, likely because its resources have been concentrated on getting their *stD series to market, has only just woken up to salvaging their medium format business. While it seemed as if they were ignoring it, in reality it was only when the 35mm-based models were well launched that they had the resources to turn to MF. (In my opinion they should have done things the other way round – but, that's just one man's opinion). So, here we are in the Spring of 2005, and Pentax has just announced that they will be bringing out a 645 digital body that will accept existing Pentax 645 lenses. Given that they have only shown design mock-ups, I would guess that a shipping camera is still at least a year away.

That leaves Contax, which as we know has had Kyocera declare to be history. But, Contax isn't really Contax. Let me explain. Contax is a brand name that belongs to the Carl Zeiss Foundation, and which was licensed to Yashica (now a part of Kyocera). Similarly the Zeiss lenses which are used on Contax cameras, while they were produced under license by Kyocera, are still Zeiss lenses. The are made from Zeiss designs, with Zeiss glass, under the supervision of Zeiss technicians – at least this is so for the 645 and RTS lenses.

Indeed, just as the famous RTS line of Contax 35mm cameras was designed by Porsche together with Zeiss, and simply built and marketed by Yashica / Kyocera, there are strong industry rumours that the Contax 645 system was in fact designed by Zeiss as well, not Kyocera – who simply provided manufacturing, and marketing (or a sort).

Whether true or not (and if anyone has a definitive information on this I'd appreciate hearing it), we now find ourselves at the end of history, or it would appear to be so for Contax.

But – not so fast. Let's not forget that the Contax brand belongs to Carl Zeiss, and now that Kyocera has exited stage-left (no great loss in my opinion), Zeiss presumably continues to have a strong interest in having a vehicle for its superb lenses. (The Hasselblad H1 uses lenses made by Fuji, so Zeiss's field of play there has been reduced of late as well).

Likely of equal importance, as Imacon has become captive to Hasselblad (or is it the other way round?), and the Jenoptik EyeLike to Sinar, where does that leave Leaf and Phase One? Mamiya is headed down the path of making their own medium format digital backs and cameras, and Pentax is as well. (Previous Pentax 645 cameras didn't have interchangeable backs, so prior to the upcoming digital redesign they were not part of this equation).

Leaf is an open question because they were recently sold to Kodak as part of Creo, and it appears that Kodak has only just realized that they own this small part of Creo, which has put them back in the digital back business, which they only just exited last year when they discontinued the DCS Pro Back line. (I know this is all confusing, but pay attention, because this definitely will count toward your final mark).

That leaves Phase One. Phase is the largest of the medium format back makers, reportedly with some 65%+ market share. While they currently make backs that fit Contax, Mamiya and Hasselblad 645 cameras, and have a special version of the P20 for the Rollei 6008, they also have backs that work on almost all large format view cameras as well as 6X6 cameras via adaptors. Phase One has no alliance with any particular camera maker at this time, the way that Imacon and EyeLike do. (They did have a marketing program with Contax in North America in the Spring of 2005, but no corporate relationship).


Golden Path — Jasper National Park. October, 2003
Contax 645 with 120mm f/4 Apo-Makro Planar
and Kodak DCS Pro Back @ ISO 100

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The Future?

All my crystal ball ever displays are reruns of unplayed 2005 season NHL games, so don't count on it for much. I don't. But it doesn't take a fortune teller to look at the current market situation and make some informed guesses as to where things may be going.

Contax is one of, if not the oldest and most venerable names in photographic history. Carl Zeiss owns the brand name, and Zeiss is very much a going concern. In fact there are few photographers who don't appreciate, if not actually covet owning and using Zeiss lenses. For Zeiss to abandon the Contax brand and its flagship camera now doesn't seem like a sensible thing that any company would do, (especially since it was Kyocera who took all the losses in recent years – which of course is why they bailed out).

So, assuming that the designs and tooling for the 645 bodies and accessories are available to Zeiss (the lenses of course are), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the 645 Contax camera either resurrected, or re-released in an updated form in the not too distant future.

Leaf and Phase One need as many places as possible to hang their backs, and I'm sure that Imacon and EyeLike won't want to ignore the significant installed base of pro Contax users either.

Are there more consolidations, mergers, and corporate partnerings coming up? Does a bear walk in the woods?

Stay tuned. As Yogi said – "it ain't over till it's over".

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Advice

Since the Kyocera announcement I've recent a large number of e-mails from Contax 645 owners asking what they should do. My response has been to tell them what I am doing. I'm sitting tight. I have two bodies and 7 lenses, along with a Phase One P25 back, and this system is working beautifully for me. In fact, if I didn't have a second body, or if my lens collection wasn't complete for my needs, I'd go out and buy a new or used one while the getting is still good.

Kyocera pulling out of the game has done nothing to make the camera system any less useful, and indeed if I were not interested in upgrading the digital back at some point, I could well see using the equipment that I have for the next 10 years or so. And, since Kyocera is committed to providing parts and service for at least 10 years, this is not an unrealistic consideration.

But, I also expect that the Contax 645 will resurface before too long with a new parent, or at least a strong corporate partner on the digital side. It's simply too good a camera system to be relegated to the history bin.


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Concepts: Camera, Contax, Single-lens reflex camera, Hasselblad, Carl Zeiss AG, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera back, Digital camera

Entities: the Contax 645, Pentax 645, Kyocera Corporation, Kodak, Mamiya, Phase One, Hasselblad, Bronica, Canon, Nikon, Yashica, Porsche, North America, Jasper National Park, Carl Zeiss Foundation, NHL, Michael Reichmann, a going concern, Mark II, Imacon, Leaf, F6, Arctic, Ontario, Hasselblad H1, DSLRs, SLRs

Tags: contax, camera, medium format, digital, Pentax, Zeiss lenses, contax brand, Kyocera, digital back, Phase One, contax camera, Contax 645 camera, camera maker, mamiya 645 afd, camera system, Contax RTS, Contax 645 medium, Carl Zeiss, medium format film, Zeiss Ikon Contax, Contax 645 owners, CONTAX brand cameras, Contax RTS III, Pentax 645 lenses, Contax 35mm cameras, Kodak DCS, Hasselblad H1, Contax body, Contax line, Contax mounts, pro contax users, ZD 645 camera, Pentax 645 cameras, autofocus 645 format, Phase One P25, Hasselblad 645 cameras, associated zeiss lens, Carl Zeiss Foundation, market, Apo-Makro Planar