Yes, it's been a long time in coming, but we will now resume our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series. Previous articles delved into the Big 5's (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax) manual focus (MF) 35mm SLR ecosystems, breaking them down into five main sections: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing. We will now start digging into a series of smaller Japanese manufacturers that, while perhaps not as well-known nor heralded, were certainly influential in the industry and can offer interesting alternatives to the Big 5 in your search for an SLR system. We (re)start with CONTAX/Yashica, a collaboration between Zeiss and Yashica. As before, we will confine our consideration to the MF system, which is where C/Y made their greatest mark (their Auto Focus or AF system, unfortunately, never amounted to much, in spite of a promising R&D program in the early-'80s).
Crisis Leads to Collaboration
A partnership with a Japanese camera company would have been far from Zeiss' mind prior to the early-1970s. They had not taken kindly in the 1950s to a proclamation in the New York Times stating that lenses from Nippon Kogaku (later Nikon Corp.) were now capable of superior performance to the previously unchallenged German hegemony in 35mm optics. Both Zeiss and Leitz (the makers of Leica), the dominant German 35mm manufacturers, paid dearly for their underestimation of the Japanese, particularly when it came to the refinement of the SLR into the premier tool for photojournalism and enthusiast 35mm photography from the late-'50s onward. They were rewarded with the near-collapse of their photographic divisions a decade and a half later. During the 1960s, Leitz had been a bit more successful than Zeiss in SLR design with their Leicaflexes (Zeiss' Contaflexes were overly complicated in design and archaic in their controls), but neither of them could match the rapid maturation of Japanese SLRs. Soon, the Japanese were not just refining the pioneering efforts of Zeiss in SLRs, but innovating themselves, particularly when it came to automation. Further automation of the SLR was going to require electronics, and by the early-'70s no one was more advanced in commercial electronics than the Japanese. Among camera manufacturers, Yashica had taken an early lead in applying electronics to 35mm cameras in general, and SLRs in particular. In 1968 they had released the first successful electronically-controlled focal-plane shutter SLR in the form of the TL Electro-X. This may have provided the first inkling for Zeiss that Yashica could be a good future partner as the TL Electro-X soundly thrashed the Zeiss-Ikon Contaflex SE (introduced a few months earlier) in operation and sales (300,000 vs. 3,000) and basically precipitated the withdrawal of Zeiss-Ikon (located in then-West Germany) from the SLR market completely by 1972. After a failed attempt to establish a long-term agreement with Asahi Optical Co. (aka Pentax), negotiations with Yashica began in June 1973. The partnership with Yashica was officially announced on Sept. 18, 1974.
Reflexively, when most photographers think of CONTAX/Yashica, the first thing that comes to their mind is ZEISS glass (can you see the halo and beams of light ;-)). And that is understandable, as the Carl Zeiss lenses produced for the C/Y mount were some of the finest optics of their generation. What often gets lost in the shuffle was that the majority of Zeiss-badged glass for C/Y was actually built in Yashica's Tomioka lens facility alongside the Yashica-branded glass for the system. Long before Zeiss came along, the Tomioka plant had a well-deserved reputation for producing high-quality optics, not just for 35mm, but also other formats. There were two Yashica series of lenses for C/Y: 1) the budget DSB/YUS single-coated line (comparable to Minolta Celtic and Nikon Series E lenses), and 2) the Multi-Layer/MC multicoated family (comparable to the standard lens lines of the Big 5). Befitting their premium status, the Carl Zeiss-branded lenses received Zeiss' proprietary T* multicoating, thus creating a three-tiered system. The ML/MC lenses stand up to concurrent Big 5 glass any day of the week. Truth be told, they come closer to their premium siblings than most Zeissphiles would care to admit ;-).
On the Zeiss side, there were two main generations of lenses, the original AE (Auto Exposure) versions for Aperture-priority exposure and the later MM (Multi Mode versions enabling Program and Shutter-priority as well. The easiest way to distinguish between AE and MM lenses is via the minimum aperture number on the aperture ring: it is white like the others on AE lenses, while it is green on the MMs (CONTAX/Yashica basically "borrowed" Minolta's MD system, including the lightened aperture blades, green minimum aperture number, and its aperture ring-mounted tab and body-mounted lever, just clocked 180-degrees from Minolta's configuration to satisfy the patent lawyers ;-)). MM lenses are fully backwards compatible, but AE lenses cannot be used in Program or Shutter-priority modes on cameras so-equipped (they function normally in Aperture-priority and Manual modes). A few AE lenses never did receive the MM upgrade (including the 16/2.8 F-Distagon, 15/3.5 Distagon, 300/2.8 Tele-Apotessar, 60/2.8 Makro-Planar 1:1, and the 100/2.8 Makro-Planar). Another commonly-used delineation is the application of "G" to signify German production and "J" for Japanese production:
"G"-suffix lenses almost always carry a higher price tag than equivalent "J"-suffixed versions, a result of the myth of Zeiss having higher quality standards in Germany than the Japanese were capable of. This holdover from Zeiss' attitude in the 1950s provides the opportunity for informed buyers to score better deals on AEJ and MMJ lenses that are every bit as good as their German counterparts :-).
Noteworthy Lenses. The easy way out with Zeiss is to say: "all of them" ;-). Of course, things are a bit more nuanced than that. Safe to say however, you have to look long and hard to find a dud among them. About the worst you could say is that a C/Y Zeiss lens would be just "average". When the typical 50/1.7 will run you $150 - $200 USD and the others go up from there, it can make things a bit of a challenge for a person constrained by budget. However, that can also help to keep one's lens menagerie at a manageable size ;-). Cine-modders have shown a predilection for Zeiss C/Y glass and that has only served to keep values strong. But, you can find some relative bargains among the moderate aperture primes such as the 28/2.8, 35/2.8, 85/2.8, 100/3.5, and 200/4, and even more so among the zooms, which offer class-leading performance for the era, at the cost of weight. If you have the pockets for them, the 28/2, 35/1.4, 85/1.4, and 100/2 primes were all premier optics and the 85/1.2 is a light-sucking monster of a portrait lens ;-). Speaking of deep pockets, the 55/1.2 100-Jahre Planar is among the rarest of C-Y lenses and they sell for $5,000 USD and up, with virtually all of them living on collectors' shelves. The 60/2.8 and 100/2.8 Makro-Planars are also impressive and are actually within reach, financially. One other trait shared by many of these lenses (mostly AE-Series) are their short aperture blades that produce a "sawtooth" or "ninja-star" effect when stopped-down from wide-open until they get to f/8. This can create interesting bokeh effects that you may love or hate ;-). Standard filter sizes were 55mm and 67mm, with a few specialty lenses utilizing 72, 77, 82, and 86mm. The pancake 45/2.8 Tessar took a 49mm filter, but CONTAX listed it with a 49/55mm step-up ring to simplify matters.
Construction is beyond reproach in nearly every respect, apart from the curious (trying to save weight or, more likely, cost) decision to originally make the lens mount flanges and seats for many of the Carl Zeiss C/Y lenses out of anodized aluminum. This was in contrast to almost all other MF lenses of the period, which used either one-piece chromed brass or stainless steel mount flanges. This was duly noted by Popular Photography in their testing of the RTS II and the 28/2.8, 50/1.4, and 100/2 AE lenses in Feb. 1983. The problem with the anodized layer on the aluminum is that, while it is very hard, it is also very thin and is not appropriate for surfaces that move against one another. When subjected to the friction of frequent mounting and dismounting lenses, the anodized surface quickly wore away, leaving the soft aluminum underneath defenseless to the harder metals (generally stainless steel) found in the locking mechanisms of the lens bayonet mounts on the SLRs. Accelerated wear and the resulting slop between the mating surfaces ensued. Popular Photography also noted that the screws securing the lens mount seat to the barrel were somewhat undersized compared to other manufacturers (particularly the smaller heads of the screws). This turned out to be a very minor to non-existent issue in practice, unless severe physical abuse was involved.
The two-piece anodized mounts did eventually became enough of a problem that Zeiss was forced to resort to stainless steel flanges (or one-piece chromed brass mounts for heavier/longer lenses) by the late-'80s. Somewhat ironically, the smaller, lighter, and thus more-affordable lenses (the f/2.8 "slow" primes, the 50mms, the short "slow" telephotos, and the newer zooms) had more frequent production runs than their illustrious "fast" siblings and so received the improved mounts first ;-). Some of the lower-production lenses (including the 16/2.8 F-Distagon, 15/3.5 Distagon, 18/4 Distagon, 35/1.4 Distagon, 35/2.5 PC-Distagon,) had to wait until the mid-'90s to be upgraded. The easiest way to tell if a flange is the anodized type is by its black color right out to the edge and on the perimeter when viewed from the side. Stainless steel flanges are silver-colored on the outer half (and the edge when viewed from the side) that engages the bayonet on the camera (somewhat resembling Minolta MDs).
After addressing the lenses' mount material situation, CONTAX also beefed up the lens mounts on the cameras to a six-screw (using M2 x 5mm screws) pattern from the original four-screw (using M2 x 3mm screws) pattern, starting with the RTS III in 1990 (serious overkill, but it sure doesn't hurt anything :-)). Unless you are using the heaviest of Zeiss lenses (and there are a few ;-)) while swinging your camera around with Cirque de Soleil aspirations, the four-screw-mount SLRs will be just fine. Minolta used a very similar M2 x 3.5mm x 4-screw layout in their SR-mount for over 45 years, and Olympus used an M2 x 4mm x 3-screw pattern in the OM-mount for 35 years, both very successfully.
When it comes to the Yashicas, the ML/MC lenses are very well-made (they retained aluminum-on-brass focusing helicoids just as the Carl Zeiss line did, when virtually everyone else had gone to aluminum-on-aluminum or even aluminum-on-plastic) and perform beautifully for their relative "budget" status compared to their more-celebrated counterparts. Even the cheap and cheerful 42-75/3.5-4.5 kit zoom has better build quality than it has a right to, with beautiful smoothness and positivity. Interestingly, Yashica did not resort to the two-piece anodized aluminum lens mount on their own lenses, opting for monolithic chromed brass from the get-go, making potential bayonet wear and weakness a non-issue. Prices versus the Big 5 are comparable for the common 24, 28, 35, 50, 135, and 200mm moderate-aperture focal lengths, but many ML lenses tend toward the higher end simply due to their rarity (the 15/2.8 fisheye, 21/3.5, 55/1.2, the 28-50/3.5 & 35-70/4 zooms, and the 55/2.8 & 100/3.5 Macros among them) and overall quality. It is very telling that Yashica produced no fast aperture wide-angles, nor any 85 or 100mm ML non-macro lenses that might potentially have stolen the thunder of their Zeiss brethren ;-). Filter sizes for the MLs were 52, 55, 58, 62, and 72mm with 52mm being the most common.
Just as with the lenses, the CONTAX bodies get more notoriety for their Zeissgeist than do their Yashica-labelled counterparts, but when taken together they provided one of the most complete MF SLR systems of the last quarter of the 20th century (approximate month/year of introduction to market in parentheses):
Recommendations. On the whole, potential CONTAX/Yashica buyers have things a bit easier when it comes to deciding between mechanical models than with most other brands. This was simply because the whole C/Y enterprise was embarked upon firmly in the electronic camp, with the adoption of their first mechanical body (the FX-3/FX-7 and their later iterations) basically forced on them by the entry-level market, and the second (the CONTAX S2/S2b) by a desire to cash in on the high-end mechanical market in the early-1990s. So there are very few factors to weigh if you want a mechanical C/Y model. You have value versus posh (with a bit more shutter capability and a stronger 6-screw lens mount on the posh side), with nothing in between. If you can't afford the CONTAX S2 siblings (anywhere from 5 to 10 times the cost of the Yashicas, on average) then you are living with the FX-3 (black) or FX-7 (chrome), which is really not that bad at all if simply getting great results is your primary photographic motivation :-). The early FX-3/FX-7 versions have the separate metering switch, versus the Super & Super 2000, with the latter also obviously having the additional 1/2000 sec. shutter speed. That's basically all you have to mull over, mechanically.
When it comes to electronic models, there are many more hairs to split and/or pull out ;-). The first major consideration will be your preferred method of film advance:
If you value discretion above all else, a manual-winding model will have more appeal than one with internally-powered winding. Aside: it is possible to add an external winder or motor drive to most of the above manual-winding bodies (excluding the FX-1, FX-2, and FX-70 Yashicas), should you desire both options.
Among the manual-winding electronic CONTAXes, the 139 Quartz and 159 MM both offer better viewfinders, shutters, TTL flash metering, battery life and availability (2 x 357/SR44), along with 25 - 30% less weight than the original RTS. The 159 MM, in turn, gives you two extra steps of shutter speed over the 139 Quartz, along with Program exposure modes and interchangeable focusing screens. It was also the first CONTAX body to use rubber grip armoring after the biodegradable leatherette debacle (more on that later ;-)) of the early-'80s. The RTS II sports the best viewfinder of any of the 1975-1985 manual advance bodies but is the heaviest (by only 4% over the original RTS :-)). It does offer TTL flash metering, the best accessory motor drive performance, MLU, and interchangeable focusing screens. The 139 Quartz is the simplest design of these four and has a good track record for reliability (look for serial numbers above 110000 for shutter release magnets that are shrouded for improved protection against oil/dirt-fouling, and above 150000 for an improved transfer switch); the 159 MM offers the most features and ergonomic shape; the RTS II is a notable improvement in terms of internal build-quality and reliability over the original RTS. You certainly can use an original RTS to good effect if one finds you, but if you are starting from scratch, the newer models in this category offer more refinement and capability, for very little, if any, more cost.
Speaking of value, if you are drawn to the RTS-era SLRs for their feel, size, and weight you may find the Yashica FR I a compelling option. 45 grams lighter than the RTS, it offers almost every feature (except MLU, 1/2000 sec., and the interchangeable focusing screens) that its ancestor does, including the same external winder, if desired. Busted frame counters are common to the FR-series, but this otherwise does not affect the operation of the cameras. Likewise, the FX-D Quartz offers most of the capability of the 139 Quartz, but lacks a few refinements such as: the inertial mirror damper, TTL flash, aperture display in the viewfinder, and a slightly smaller ISO range (still plenty for most people today :-).
Moving on to the internal advance models, the 137 MA is probably as far back as you would want to go, seeing as it is an improved 137 MD, while offering more features (manual exposure mode, a much better film rewind crank, and improved internals, with no drawbacks versus the older version. The 167 MT is simply more than the 137 MA in almost all areas: a faster, higher-quality shutter, all four standard exposure modes, interchangeable screens, built-in autobracketing and a high-eyepoint viewfinder. It does, however, sport a mid-'80s LCD-centric control layout, which many vintage enthusiasts do not exactly appreciate ;-). Both the 137 MA and 167 MT can be had for bargain prices, nowadays, for $150 USD for premium-condition copies, and often far less. The big thing as far as the internal-advance bodies go, is that the newer they get, the more refined they become and the feature-sets only improve. The RTS III set the pattern for the final decade and a half of CONTAX SLRs: plenty of external controls, and very good to excellent ergonomics. And bodies like the ST and RX can be had for quite reasonable prices currently, with excellent-condition copies often available for well-under $200 USD (versus $300 - $500 USD for the RTS III and AX). They do extract a marked weight penalty for their solid construction and feature-set, however. The RTS III runs 1,200-1,300 grams/42-46 oz depending on battery configuration, the AX 1,120 grams/40 oz, and the ST and RX both sit well above 800 grams/28 oz, all with batteries installed. The Aria is the only real lightweight option amongst the internal-winders, and while its construction is very good, it is not up to the levels of the ST/RX/AX trio and certainly not the RTS III. Somewhat ironically, the simplified RX II now generally sells for an extra $100 USD over the original RX. In summary, for the auto-winders: if you are looking for the simplest...137 MA; the cheapest...the 167 MT; the lightest...the Aria; the best bang for the buck...the ST; the geekiest...the AX; pull out all the stops (who cares about the weight or the money ;-))...the RTS III.
For a system with a three-decade lifespan, there were relatively few flash units produced for the C/Y-mount SLRs. There were five in total, with four of them offering TTL (through-the-lens) metering capability with appropriately-equipped CONTAX and Yashica bodies.
The final models we will consider include the first flash unit provided with the original RTS (the RTF 540) and its late successor: the TLA 480. Both were professional-targeted and sported the "potato-masher" bracket/grip layout.
CONTAX pushed the entire industry forward when it came to accessories in the mid-to-late '70s with the RTS system. They offered the first wireless infrared (IR) and radio transmitters for remote shutter release that many of their competitors adopted in short order. They were also the first to eschew a mechanical remote cable release for an electronic version (Cable Switch S for the original RTS to 159 MM; Cable Switch L for the 167 MT to RX II models; these were available in various lengths and there were also adapters to allow for use on the older CONTAX models), much to the chagrin of many a vintage SLR enthusiast. Interchangeable focusing screens were standard on all of the RTS and quite a few of the enthusiast models (the Yashicas were notably left out here to maintain that market separation ;-)). Here is a short list of screen-series, the models they are tied to, and the number of options available, in chronological order:
Reliability & Servicing
As with any vintage SLR system, C/Y has its share of foibles, ranging from minor to more serious for potential buyers. The most noticeable, and something relatively easy to rectify, is the cheap leatherette used on all models from the the 139 Quartz to the FX-103 Program introduced from 1979 to 1985. If the cameras have seen any kind of use over the last 40 years, the soft outer layer has simply crumbled and flaked away, leaving the inner cloth mesh/adhesive layer behind. I recently found an FX-D virtually untouched in its "never-ready" case and it sported the nicest leatherette I had ever seen on a C-Y body...until I touched it :-). It immediately began to disintegrate. Nothing an order to hugostudio.com couldn't fix, however ;-). Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of camera re-covering suppliers that have found their niche: offering a multitude of colors and textures of both synthetic and genuine leather coverings, notably for Leica rangefinders, Minolta XDs, and the C/Y family of the early-'80s (among plenty of others and many newer digitals, to boot). A relatively easy fix, all told, and an opportunity to customize your camera a bit, if you wish.
A second, more serious issue, that can crop up on any C/Y model is what has been termed "mirror slip". This describes a situation where the adhesive securing the reflex mirror to its frame lets go and the mirror slides down or "slips" in the frame thus producing focus errors at a minimum, and physical interference within the mirror box or the rear of the mounted lens, at worst. Refitting the mirror is a fairly involved process, including removing all of the old adhesive and duplicating as closely as possible its original thickness (about 0.1mm or 0.004") with new double-sided tape or an appropriate glue, replacing the mirror, and then recalibrating focus using the adjustments within the mirror box. Not an operation for the faint-hearted, but doable with patience and an eye for precision, and a service manual, if possible. Although this condition can potentially crop up at any time, inspecting the operation of the mirror very closely before purchasing a new-to-you body can at least prevent you from laying down your hard-earned money for one already suffering from this malady. How to check for it? Probably the easiest way is to set the shutter speed to "B" and hold the shutter open with the release while looking at the potential projecting of the mirror in it's UP position, with no lens mounted. The front edge of the mirror should be flush with or even slightly shy of the mirror bumper strip in the lens mount mouth. If it is sticking out by two or more millimeters, the mirror has already definitely slipped and you would best move on in your search for an appropriate body.
In the ever-present echo chamber of the Internet, it can be very easy to get the impression that CONTAX and Yashica electronic SLRs are fragile, temperamental beasts. This is not unique to these brands or even cameras in general, as we always hear the horror stories about any product repeated again and again, while we hear virtually nothing about any of the units that continue to function normally. All too often, we make the assumption that all copies of a given camera behave exactly like the one or two (or maybe even more) that we have owned or used: whether for good or bad. Forums abound with this type or reasoning: "I never had a problem with mine for xx-many years so this must be the greatest camera ever made, and anybody that says otherwise is..." or "Mine didn't last three weeks before it broke, so it must be the worst camera of all time..." ;-). So is it possible for us to draw any rational conclusions about the overall reliability and durability of C/Y SLRs?
In my limited experience, I would say that C/Y sits squarely in the middle of the Japanese electronic SLR pack regarding reliability and durability, never quite matching Nikon's or Canon's level in professional models, while on par with Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and Olympus in the consumer to enthusiast categories. I have noted several Popular Photography Lab Report Stripdowns of CONTAX and Yashica SLRs from the early-'80s that consistently described the quality of soldered joints as only "Fair" compared to the industry as a whole. That may explain to a certain extent the amount of electrical failures reported over the years. With the financially tenuous position of Yashica in the early-'80s until the buyout by Kyocera, it is not implausible that quality control was lacking a bit during that time. By the time the 167MT came along, it seems like things were getting back on track a bit as far as QC went. The stuff from the '90s-'00s seems to be at least on par with the rest of the industry. LCD bleed is better than average compared to other brands (average = Minolta = more common; above average = Nikon = less common), but should be something you watch for when inspecting any model from the 167 MT onward.
Obviously, factory service is long gone (as with any other MF film SLRs), so your only options are the few remaining independent repair outfits that are willing to tackle C/Y equipment or DIY. There is a very good selection of Repair Manuals and Assembly Charts available for much of the CONTAX/Yashica SLR lineup at learncamerarepair.com for a very reasonable price of $1 USD per PDF document.
Undeniably, the major draw for many photographers to the C/Y system is Zeiss glass...end of story. And that is a good enough reason on its own. But it does come at a cost...literally ;-). While not stupidly-priced like Leica R-mount optics, there is a certain price premium to be extracted for Zeiss privileges, particularly when compared to the Big 5 and the other smaller Japanese manufacturers. But if you are willing to sample some of the smaller-aperture (f/2.8-3.5) Carl Zeiss lenses or the Yashica MLs, you will likely be pleasantly surprised at how much value for your dollar you can get. The camera bodies, on the other hand, whether CONTAX or Yashica-labelled, are often (but not always, looking at you S2/S2b ;-)) a bargain, particularly if you are not afraid of electronically-controlled SLRs, which made up the vast majority of production over the 30-year history of the marque. Not to be forgotten is the marvelous opportunity to do a little customization with the early-'80s bodies and their pitiful, peeling pelts if that perks you up ;-). The ability to mix and match between both brands is a definite plus, and you can dial in as much value or extravagance as you like. Lens compatibility is virtually a non-issue, with MM lenses being required for Program or Shutter-Priority operation with bodies so-equipped being about the only thing to watch for. Cee/You later!
CONTAX/Yashica Documents @ www.pacificrimcamera.com
CONTAX/Yashica Manuals & Brochures @ www.panchromatique.ch
Contax & Yashica Manuals @ https://butkus.org/chinon/index.html
Numerous Issues of Popular Photography 1981-2006
Contax 139 Resource @ https://www.contax139.co.uk/home
Contax Resources by cdegroot.com @ https://cdegroot.com/photo-contax/
C/Y Lens Datasheets @ https://www.zeiss.com/consumer-products/int/service
Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.