When it comes to autofocusing manual lenses on film cameras there is really only one option: the unique and relatively short-lived CONTAX AX. Chunky sibling of the CONTAX RX and RTS cameras, the AX was released in 1996 and it remains the only camera ever produced that can autofocus manual focus lenses.

The AX was produced by Kyocera who took indirect stewardship of the CONTAX brand following their purchase of Yashica in 1983. Unable to convince Carl Zeiss, the CONTAX brand licensee, to create a range of autofocus lenses, Kyocera decided that if the lenses wouldn’t autofocus, they would make a camera body that did so instead.

The CONTAX AX was the end result.

Kyocera called this system of autofocusing using the camera body “Automatic Back Focusing”, and it’s best described as a camera-within-a-camera. The system works through the use of what Kyocera called an Internal Camera Body” nested inside a cleverly named “External Camera Body”. I get into the system in more detail below (jump to “Automatic Back Focusing) but in short, the Internal Camera Body moves back and forth to focus the lens.

That may sound confusing, so here’s a quick video showing ABF in action. As you’ll see, the camera’s internals move as it hunts for focus (obviously unattainable without a lens mounted). If you’re wondering what the tape is about, you’ll have to skip to the end of the article to find out.

From a materials and design perspective, the AX was very advanced for its time and could fairly be labelled as an over-engineered solution to a problem that didn’t exist. According to CONTAX, at the time of the AX’s release, over 100 patents for technology used in the camera were still pending (no word on how many of them were subsequently awarded).

You can take the time and effort that was sunk into the AX as a sign of innovation or a desperate need to try and financially secure a considerable and potentially foolish investment. I’ll let you decide once you’ve finished reading this article. Either way, Automatic Back Focusing was and remains a marvel of thought, design and engineering.

Speaking of which: advance warning

This article is going to take a detailed look at the technical aspects of the camera, specifically the function and limitations of its unique Automatic Back Focusing system. You’ll find a bit of CONTAX autofocus history, as well as a thorough review of the camera’s other features and functions – as you’d expect.

I’ll also be talking about my reasons for buying this camera in the first place: to mount and shoot with Hasselblad V-System and other medium and large format lenses. If you’re reading this, perhaps you’ve been thinking along the same lines.

In full, here’s what this review covers:

Let’s get stuck in.

History of the CONTAX AX

In 1973 West Germany’s Carl Zeiss formed a partnership with Japan’s Yashica to bring a new line of professional 35mm SLR cameras to market bearing the “CONTAX” brand. The first camera born from this endeavour was 1975’s CONTAX RTS which was partly designed, incidentally, by a relatively new company that now goes by the name of Porsche Design.

At 1982’s Photokina CONTAX was showing off its new RTS II 35mm SLR along with a few near-future concepts and prototypes. The RTS II was warmly received but it was a small prototype CONTAX 137 MD which got everyone’s attention.

The camera had been adapted along with three lenses to include an autofocus system driven by Honeywell’s TCL image-detector module. With a similarly modified Yashica FX-D also at the event, CONTAX/Yashica was showing off what could have been two of the world’s first mass-market 35mm autofocus SLR cameras.

The prototype CONTAX system used a motor in the camera body to drive a shaft running through the lens mount and into the lens. This, in turn, drove specially adapted helicoids in the modified lenses to create a powered focus system. The solution was elegant and all but invisible, with only two small humps on the modified Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.7 and 135mm f/2.8 lenses.

To all intents and purposes, the new CONTAX should have been a success and would likely have become the first marketable autofocus 35mm SLR in the world…had it been put into production. Sadly, it never was – something which left everyone, including CONTAX’s competitors scratching their heads.

Yashica and by extension, the CONTAX brand was purchased by Kyocera the following year (1983) and although Yashica went on to produce a range of lacklustre consumer autofocus SLRs in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until 1996 and the release of the AX for the company to be able to finally say it had a “pro” autofocus SLR camera.

The Contax AX press release also gave us a few reasons as to why the 1982 prototype never went into production…in the form of a bafflingly long-winded explanation about how plastic spacer rings, warpage, expansion coefficients and “back-lash” meant the Zeiss lenses absolutely had to be used in their original all-metal form.

For those of you skimming, here’s the TLDR and the essence of the AX’s purpose for being:

“If we cannot move the lens to gain focus automatically, we can move the film.”

It’s not a completely mad solution to focusing a lens and in principle, is the same one used by the Mamiya Six range of folding medium format cameras – a mechanical distance dial linked to a moving film plane. Of course, an SLR is several orders of magnitude more complex than a folding camera and adding autofocus to the mix certainly complicated matters even further.

All this to say the CONTAX AX and its Automatic Back Focusing system was not cheap.

According to the May 1996 issue of Popular Photography, the camera came with a body-only price tag of $2,795. That’s ~$4,530 in 2019 adjusted for inflation…and nearly $500 more than Nikon’s new flagship of the same year, the blisteringly fast Nikon F5, which sold at list for $2,300 (~$3,726 adjusted).

The price is certainly one reason why the camera didn’t set the world on fire but it is my opinion that the main reason for its failure goes much deeper. CONTAX was lost. Kyocera had siloed it’s brand and product teams so effectively that it seems like advances and opportunities given to one were not shared with others.

Why was Zeiss so set against creating autofocus SLR lenses when the CONTAX G1 (autofocus rangefinder system) had already been on the market since 1994 with its own native Zeiss lens system? Why was it that just three years after the AX, CONTAX and Zeiss released the 645 AF, a medium format camera with – you guessed it – autofocusing Zeiss lenses? If anyone reading this has a contact, I’d love to ask a few questions.

Back to the AX and it was, well, too little, too late. Although a notably interesting solution, it was too slow coming to market and placed too much stock in customers being drawn by the (admittedly excellent) C/Y mount Carl Zeiss lens system.

Of course, some did but I would propose that most professionals and pro-consumers willing to pay list price for the AX had already moved onto Canon and Nikon, who had been pulling off autofocus for a decade with much simpler, more effective and cheaper solutions. It’s not surprising then, that by late 1997 many retailers were offering deep discounts on the AX in an effort to get them off shelves.

On the surface, the AX’s approach of “moving the film” and not the lens sounds like an inspired move: take some of the best lenses on the market and adapt the camera around them. Brilliant. In hindsight, the project should probably not have gotten past the prototype stage and had likely been a time and money sink for many years prior to the cameras eventual release.

From the perspective of this author, it screams needless innovation and expense, and if I’m blunt, a little desperate. I titled this review “An early swansong?” because it feels like the brand was in fire-fighting/recovery mode after the release of the AX.

Consider the post-AX product timeline of CONTAX/Carl Zeiss SLRs:

  • CONTAX AX – April 1996
  • CONTAX Aria – May 1998
  • CONTAX 645 AF – 1999
  • CONTAX RX II – 2002

Only the 645 AF stands out to me and that’s primarily because it’s an autofocus medium format camera. I am, of course, ignoring the hugely unsuccessful, over-a-decade-late N line of autofocus cameras – designed to be used with CONTAX’s own (non-Zeiss) lenses, as well as Carl Zeiss CONTAX 645 mount and Hasselblad V-System lenses.

Unsurprising then, that in 2005, less than ten years after the release of the AX, the CONTAX brand was officially mothballed and remains dormant to this day.

Kyocera retained the rights to the CONTAX brand as recently as 2008, however, I understand ownership has since been returned to Carl Zeiss who now own both the “CONTAX” and “Contax” marques.

The CONTAX AX in pictures

The preceding text may put you in the mind that I have little good to say about the CONTAX AX. That could not be further from the truth.

On pure looks alone, I love this camera. Chunky, purposeful, “there”. It’s not something you’d forget on a pub table and you’d certainly have trouble forgetting it was hanging from your neck or shoulder. It’s a hefty camera and is much deeper (72mm) than you’d expect if you were picking it up expecting a “normal” 35mm SLR.

Much of this girth comes from the fact the AX’s “internal camera body” must be able to move back and forth inside the body by 10mm from its resting point near the lens. The entire mechanism adds at least 20mm to the camera’s depth.

As much thought went into the external camera body as did to the internal one. The AX’s chassis is made from high pressure/high temperature, steam annealed aluminium. The top plate is titanium and the front and bottom plates are manufactured from a specially hardened aluminium.

It feels incredibly solid in the hand. The thick Contax rubber grip which covers the camera gives you confidence about maintaining grip, even with sweaty hands, even though it’s not as ergonomic as let’s say, a Nikon F5, F6 or F100.

With all of the high-tech materials employed in its construction, it’s strange then that the bottom of the camera is covered by a thin, removable plastic plate which acts as a giant battery cover. I’ve never really understood it. It’s a bit finicky and feels like a weak link in the thought that went into the camera’s general build.

With the exception of its autofocus system, the AX operates like any modern film camera. It has a shutter speed dial, an exposure mode setting, you can turn a dial to set exposure compensation and access a number of drive modes. All very normal indeed.

The dials, switches and buttons feel solid and have only the slightest play here and there. Dials and switches have just the right amount of resistance and make a satisfying “click” sound when engaged.

If you were using the AX set to its MF (manual focus) mode, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was anything other than an advanced manual focus SLR.

Layout and basic functions

Top plate

The camera’s shutter dial is on the left of the top plate and incorporates a secondary switch for setting exposure mode/ISO/custom functions. If you’re using aperture priority and auto-ISO only, you’ll probably only ever touch this dial a handful of times.

Like other late CONTAX bodies, the shutter maxes out at two different speeds depending on the mode you’re in. It has a top speed of 1/6000 second when the camera is in Aperture Priority (AV) or Programmed Automatic Exposure (P) mode. When set to Shutter Priority (TV) or Manual (M) the top shutter speed is capped at 1/4000 second.

On the other end of the scale, the longest shutter speed in P or AV is 32 seconds, or 4 seconds when in TV or M mode. For flash users, X-Sync is for 1/200 second or longer speeds and the camera has a self-timer which can be set to either 2 or 10 seconds. You’ll also find a shutter release cable port next to the X-Sync port on the left of the camera body.

The shutter itself AX is metal, multi-bladed, travels vertically and is, of course, electronically controlled.

The center is dominated by the huge prism bump. On it, you’ll find the eyepiece blind switch and a diopter adjustment dial. To the right of the top plate is a cluster of dials switches and buttons: the business end. Here you will find:

  • The exposure compensation dial (+/- 2-stops in 1/3 stop increments).
  • Auto bracketing exposure dial.
  • Drive selection dial (single, multi, etc.).
  • A small LCD screen showing ISO, frame count, DX status, low battery status. etc. (see specifications below).
  • Power switch / AE lock
  • Shutter button
  • Focus mode setting

The focus mode switch allows you to set the camera to one of the following modes:

  • CAF – Continuous Auto Focus (tracking moving subjects)
  • SAF – Single Auto Focus (single selective focus)
  • MF – Manual Focus (no AF, manual focus using the lens)
  • Macro (acts as a fixed 10mm extension tube with a manual focus lens)

In normal autofocus operation, the shutter button needs only a light touch to activate. The manual states “half-press” but trust me, there is no half-press like say, a Nikon. Press lightly and it’ll work. Too hard and you’ll fire the shutter.

The shutter button is surrounded by the power dial, which also doubles up as the Auto Exposure Lock.

Front (right/left)

Grip, self-timer light, exposure check button and IR focus-assist light (left). Lens release and DoF preview button (left of mount), lens mount (center) and meter mode switch (right of mount). X-Sync port and shutter release cable port (right side).

Rear

Mode switch release button (left), eyepiece blind switch (left of viewfinder), manual rewind lock/switch (right of viewfinder). The autofocus/autofocus lock button and dial (right) allow you to set how you autofocus the camera.

When set to “AF”, pressing this button will focus the lens. When set to “AF-L”, the camera is focused by a light press on the shutter button. Pressing the AF-L button will allow you to lock focus and reframe. At the bottom of the rear of the camera is a small port for attaching the PB-8 power bank kit.

Film can be manually rewound mid-roll by way of the rewind switch and there are also two film-related custom functions you can set. One allows you to choose if you want to keep a portion of the film leader sticking out after rewind, the other allows you to set your preference for automatic film rewind once you reach the end of a roll, or manually rewind. More on these and other custom functions later.

Given that the camera doesn’t have a film reminder window, the former option is safer in my book.

When the film door is opened, you’ll see DX contacts, additional contacts for the optional data back and a red film alignment mark. Bring your film to this position and close the door to ensure it’s loaded correctly.

The film door is chunky, to say the least. It houses a scissor-lift-like pressure plate system, which concertinas in and out as the internal camera body moves back and forth. Ingenious.

Bottom

Not much here. The thin plastic bottom plate is released by turning a release latch (left) and there’s standard 1/4 inch tripod mount thread (center). When the plate is removed, you see the battery compartment, which takes one 6V 2CR5 battery. I use rechargeables 2CR5s for my AX. The manual states a new battery will last for “about 50 rolls of 36 exposure film”. With plenty of messing about with AF when I first got the camera, my new Energizer lasted for about 15. I recharge the 2CR5s I purchased about every 5 rolls.

Drive modes

The AX has three-motor drive modes. To set them, lift the dial, turn it to the selected mode and release. They are:

  • Multiple exposure (dual overlapping rectangles avove)
  • S – Single frame advance
  • CL – Continuous Low speed at 3 FPS
  • CH – Continuous High speed at 5 FPS

The camera’s 2/10-second self-timer and multiple exposure modes can also be set here.

One thing to note is the lack of noise produced by this camera. It employs coreless motors to advance and rewind the film. These are both fast and quiet. Although not silent, they produce much less noise than a Nikon F6 or F100.

Metering/film speed

The AX does not provide a matrix metering system. Instead, you’re stuck with TTL centre-weighted average or TTL spot metering. The latter is based on a 5mm diameter central area of the viewfinder. The metering range is from EV 0 to 21 for the centre-weighted average mode and EV 3 to EV 21 when spot metering.

CONTAX suggests using a circular polarizer (CPL) when the camera is used in spot metering mode, although I’ve found no problems in use without one.

When DX coded films are used, the camera will automatically set ISO from 25 to 5000. If you prefer setting ISO manually, you can override this manually by selecting from ISO 6 to 6400 in 1/3 steps.

The camera provides exposure compensation in 1/3 EV steps up to +/-2 stops (dial highlighted above). For those interested in bracketing, CONTAX’s Automatic Bracketing Control can be set +/-0.5 or +/-1 stop. The order for automatically bracketed exposures can be set via custom function (see below for further detail).

Through the AX’s viewfinder

The AX’s viewfinder is very bright and the default split prism focus screen allows fast manual focus and fine-tuning autofocus. Eye relief is 25mm and the built-in diopter adjuster runs from +0.5 to -2. The viewfinder also includes a blind which is useful for long exposures and accepts the same accessories as the RTS/RX.

Viewfinder information is comprehensive and does not clutter your view. Data is shown in a bar underneath which is activated following a light-press of the shutter button or by pressing the manual exposure check button on the front of the camera.

Once either is pressed, VF information will remain present for 16 seconds.

Here’s the viewfinder display in full:

  1. Exposure counter (doubles as timer countdown and auto bracketing control).
  2. Metering type (center-weighted or spot) and AE lock.
  3. Exposure compensation.
  4. Flash mark.
  5. Back focusing scale (showing the degree of the camera’s focusing system being used).
  6. Focusing mark showing if focus has been achieved (circle), is in front of the subject, behind or “impossible”.
  7. Aperture.
  8. Exposure mark.
  9. Shutter speed.

Working with flash

The AX uses the same TTL flash metering system as the CONTAX RX. I’m led to understand it’s a pretty advanced system that can read aperture settings from the lens and allows flash power output to be manually dialled in by the user.

I don’t use flash myself, so can’t comment any further.

Custom functions

There are eight custom functions available, all set via the small LCD dial on the top right of the camera. To set them, move the exposure mode selector to “CF” and use the up/down buttons on the right side of the LCD to select and set the functions you want.

Custom FunctionStatus "0"Status "1"
1Exposure check buttonDisplay exposure checkAE Lock
2Multiple exposure modeSet number of exposuresSet drive to MX
3Auto Bracketing Control (ABC)0 / + / -
(standard, over, under)
+ / 0 / -
(over, standard, under)
4Depth of field preview lockHold to stop downToggle stop down
5Film leader out on rewindNoYes
6Auto rewindManually trigger rewind at end of rollFilm is automatically rewound at end of roll
7AF assist lightAutomatically turn on if subject is too darkDo not turn on
8Beep on focusYes (SAF mode)No
CLEReset all custom functions to a status of "0"

The Carl Zeiss lens system

All CONTAX/Yashica (C/Y) CARL ZEISS T* lenses are compatible with CONTAX AX with no adaptation required. The lenses range from the 15mm f/3.5 Distagon to the 1000mm f/5.6 Mirotar. Over 50 lenses in total, including prime and zoom lenses.

You’ll also find a host of adapters to allow lenses from other systems to the AX: M42, Contax 645, Hasselblad V and Pentacon 6 to name a few.

The Automatic Back Focusing system

First a quick, simplified word on how focusing a lens works. Skip the next two paragraphs if you already know this.

Lens focusing basics

Take a lens, any lens. Mount it on your camera and set it to infinity – the format doesn’t matter.

Moving the lens away from the film plane will make it focus on closer objects. Moving the lens closer to the film plane allows it to focus back to infinity. If you move the lens too close to the film plane, you’ll go beyond infinity and the image will be out of focus. This is something large format photographers have been doing for over 100 years.

With a smaller, more complex package like an SLR, the need to move the lens back and forth from the film plane is dealt with simply: the lens stays where it is and a focusing ring moves the lens elements back and forth from infinity to whatever the closest focus distance is. In every single other autofocus camera today, the action of turning a focusing ring by hand is supplemented/replaced by a motor in the lens, camera or both, which performs the action.

Autofocus manual lenses with the CONTAX AX

CONTAX, unable to convince Carl Zeiss to “make their lenses move”, flipped the idea on its head and decided to move the film instead. The end (focusing) result remains the same, but instead of having a fixed piece of film and “moving” the lens, the AX keeps the lens fixed and moved the film.

The AX achieves this feat with its Internal/External Camera Body system. The Internal Camera Body houses the camera’s mirror box, pentaprism, shutter and film plane. The External Camera Body houses everything else: battery, motor drive, switches, lens mount, etc.

The internal body moves back and forth from its resting position by way of a ceramic rod, ultrasonic motor (USM) and guide rails – the ceramic bit is important here and heavily tied into Kyocera’s materials history. After all, they were once called the Kyoto Ceramic Company.

Here’s a quick two-frame diagram showing the AX in action from that same issue of Popular Photography noted above.

It’s the ceramic rod, USM motor and guide rail components of the AX which make its autofocus incredibly quiet, smooth and – considering what’s happening – relatively quick. All-in-all, the camera takes less than half a second to run from one end of the focus range to the other.

If you said that the camera acts as a giant automatic macro extension tube, you wouldn’t be far off but even without autofocus/built-in macro, the AX would be an excellent camera.

With Automatic Back Focusing, the camera opens up an entire world of possibilities from “normal” 35mm lens options and macro, to medium and large format. My specific desire in buying this camera was to use Hasselblad V-Mount lenses and to experiment with a hoard of large format options starting with Kodak’s Aero Ektar.

I might be a bit of an outlier in that respect as, since I first returned to film photography, my M.O. with all medium and large format equipment has been to ensure I can adapt lenses across and “down” formats.

In order to achieve fine-focus, the camera was built to exceptionally high tolerances. CONTAX states:

“Two microns (2/1000 mm) is all that separates one sliding component from the other.

This gap is so small that special lubricants must be employed since normal grease or oils are particulate at 10 to 50 microns (10/1000 to 50/1000 mm).”

I’ve already mentioned the speed of the focusing system – from minimum focusing distance to infinity or back in less than 450 milliseconds. According to others on the web, it’s about as fast as the Minolta Dynax 9xi, which was produced between 1992 and 1996. Today, in 2019, the speed of the AX’s autofocus system is less important (to me) than the fact it exists.

For the most part, and especially with longer lenses, I consider the AX to provide more of a “focus assist” than autofocus. I’ll typically (auto) focus on the subject and then manually adjust if needed. Unlike a dedicated autofocus SLR, the AX only has a single focus point/zone: dead center. For subjects elsewhere in your frame, you’ll need to focus and reframe.

All that said, it still works wonderfully as a point and shoot SLR.

Focusing modes

As previously noted, the AX has four distinct focus modes:

  • CAF – Continuous Auto Focus (tracking moving subjects).
  • SAF – Single Auto Focus (single selective focus).
  • MF – Manual Focus (no AF, manual focus using the lens).
  • MACRO – Acts as a fixed 10mm extension tube with a manual focus lens.

In SAF mode, the camera locks focus on a subject before it allows the shutter to fire. The camera will not let you take an out of focus photograph. In CAF mode, the camera switches to a predictive system that allows you to trip the shutter as and when you desire – in focus or not.

Macro mode simply draws the internal camera body back to its farthest position from the lens mount (10mm behind normal). The lens needs to be manually focused from there. This is your “10mm macro extension tube” mode.

Finally, MF mode sets the camera to work like any other AF camera with a manual lens but with the addition of focusing assistance. The AF system can be engaged to help set focus when you need it and return to “normal” when you don’t

Special focus and system limitations

The AX is good, very good but isn’t a silver bullet for autofocus with manual lenses and does have a few limitations. There are three in my opinion.

The first is the number of focus zones or lack of them: there’s just one, dead center in your viewfinder. There’s no confirmation light in your field of view, although back/front/accurate focus is shown in the viewfinder’s display. If you’re so inclined, you can set the camera to make a “beep” when focus lock is achieved in Single AF mode.

The second limitation is also its advantage: the internal camera body’s distance of travel. 10mm of travel is enough to shift most lenses focused at infinity to their closest focus point. If the lens you are using is already set to its closest focus distance, the autofocus works like a variable macro extension tube, bringing you much closer than you would be able to normally.

This system works well for most normal, wide and macro lenses but that same 10mm of travel means that longer lenses (typically those over 180mm) cannot be autofocused across their entire range. The solution sounds much more complicated than it is: bring your longer lenses into approximate focus manually, then use autofocus for fine-tuning. The AX’s manual has an entire section on it (pages 74-75).

This “pre-focus” works well and is only mildly inconvenient when compared to modern autofocus systems…which brings me to the third limitation: pre-focus is absolutely necessary for lenses with Floating Lens Elements (FLE), such as those below.

  • 15mm f/3.5 Distagon
  • 18mm f/4.0 Distagon
  • 21mm f/2.8 Distagon
  • 28mm f/2.0 Distagon
  • 35mm f/1.4 Distagon
  • 35mm f/2.8 Distagon PC
  • 55mm f/1.2 Planar (Anniversary)
  • 85mm f/1.2 Planar (Anniversary)
  • 100mm f/2.8 Planar-Makro

In normal operation, these lenses will automatically adjust their Floating Lens Elements as the focusing ring is moved. Because the AX “moves the film, not the lens”, the FLE will not move to compensate and edge sharpness will be diminished. If you own any of the above lenses and intend to use them with the AX, you will need to follow this the “pre-focus” procedure noted above.

A limited use-case to tag onto the above is the more complex (manual) FLE systems employed by Zeiss’ Hasselblad V-Mount lenses. These lenses require the FLE to be set to an approximate scale first and then focused second.

Again, it’s not a deal-breaker for me and the solution is much easier/quicker in practice than it sounds.

Macro and the CONTAX AX

Macro and extreme close-up with the AX is simple, engaging and quite a bit of fun! It’s performed in one of two ways:

One: set the lens to its closest focus point and let the AF hunt. Autofocus is generally quick and accurate but may slow down if you’re using a lens that’s already quite slow to begin with, if you’re shooting under low light or if your subject is quite dark.

Two: set the lens to its closest focus point and set the camera to “Macro” mode. This moves the internal camera body to its close focus position, 10mm away from its resting point. You may then use the lens’ focusing ring to obtain focus manually.

I should note that both options can be supplemented with optional macro extension tubes, either first or third-party. For most macro applications, the AX works well right out of the box – especially if you employ a dedicated macro lens.

Why I bought the CONTAX AX

Unlike a few of my other purchases, my decision to purchase the AX was not (primarily) born out of rampant Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I have been shooting medium and large format lenses on 35mm cameras for almost as long as I’ve been shooting medium format cameras and the one thing that’s always been missing has been autofocus and simple (easy) macro.

The AX solves that.

As I mentioned previously, this is very much of an outlier use case and it’s likely that most of you reading this article will be far more interested in adapting other 35mm format lenses, projector lenses and vintage oddities. Your needs will likely vary from mine, I didn’t buy the AX to shoot 35mm system lenses and although I have dallied with the occasional M42 adaptation, medium and large format lenses are where it’s at for me.

With medium and large format lenses on the AX, I feel like I’ve successfully scratched an itch and the combination just works for me. To that point, at the time of writing, I have now sold all my remaining CONTAX 35mm SLRs and either sold or adapted my CY mount lenses to Nikon F.

Photography with the CONTAX AX

I’ve shot maybe 30 rolls of film through the AX since buying it two years ago. Everything from ILFORD HP5 PLUS to new Kodak EKTACHROME E100 and even Rollei Vario Chrome.

Here’s a gallery with some of my favourites taken on a mixture of Agfa Cinerex IC1N, Fujicolor C200, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional, ILFORD HP5 PLUS, ILFORD SFX 200, KODAK Panchromatic Separation Film 2238, Kodak Eastman Double-X 5222, Kodak Hawkeye Traffic Surveillance Black and White Film 2485, Silberra ORTA 50, Silberra Pan 50.

Lenses used here include the Hasselblad Carl Zeiss Planar F 80mm f/2.8, Distagon C 50mm f/4 and Distagon CFi 50mm f/4 (medium format) and the Contax Zeiss Sonnar 135mm f/2.8, Zeiss Tessar 45mm f/2.8 and Helios 44-3.

Conclusion

There’s no escaping that in the hand, the AX feels like a lot of camera.

Weight and undeniable bulk aside, with Hasselblad or other medium format lenses mounted, the AX has a sense of balance. With smaller lenses, perhaps not so much…

After spending any appreciable amount of time with the AX, its size melts away, as do the collections/clusters of dial and switches. I treat it as a “set and forget” camera and use it mostly in aperture priority mode. I focus on my focus and framing and let the camera do the rest.

I guarantee that when you switch over to another SLR after using the AX for more than a few hours, almost anything else will feel “puny” in comparison. No doubt that’s a similar feeling encountered by long-time users of the Fuji GX680 and Mamiya RB/RZ.

That’s actually not a bad comparison to make: the CONTAX AX is the Fuji GX680 and Mamiya RB/RZ of the 35mm camera world. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered another 35mm SLR that’s quite as big and have definitely never seen another which is able to autofocus manual lenses.

Sure, the AX has its drawbacks but the workarounds, well…work and they’re not a problem in real-life. Some people have and will continue to complain but that’s more to do with the individual rather than anything else in my opinion.

One issue of note that I promised I would get back to: that tape in the video at the top of the page. In warmer climates, the glue used to secure the AX’s (and other CONTAX) mirrors to their frame is not up to the job and will loosen. This, in turn, causes the mirror to slowly slip down. It’s easily remedied – do a web search for “Contax mirror slip fix” and follow the instructions if you’re being plagued by the same problem. Why do I still have tape on mine? Old habits die hard.

That niggling issue aside, in comparison to other modern film SLRs, the CONTAX AX ticks all the boxes:

  • Fast top shutter speed plus bulb/long exposure mode.
  • Multiple drive/focus modes.
  • Manual ISO/exposure compensation.

With the exception of matrix metering or a mirror lock-up mode, no other functionality sticks out as missing and in all other respects, it is simple, solid and straightforward to use. Autofocus performance is fast and accurate enough to use for street photography. The camera is quiet and buttery smooth in operation and although it’s not the quickest among its contemporaries, it performs two tricks they can’t. These alone were the reason to get one:

  • Autofocus manual lenses!
  • Built-in macro mode.

It may well have been an obsession to the detriment of the rest of the business but CONTAX’s Automatic Back Focus is truly a thing of wonder – superlative absolutely demanded in this case. To use it brings me feelings of childhood glee and makes me wonder how it would have been improved if CONTAX and Carl Zeiss hadn’t finally made the switch to AF lenses just a few years after the AX’s release.

Additionally – and this is something I did not expect – the camera’s approach to autofocus as part of the process – and it’s super quiet autofocusing – makes photography feel different when compared to something like let’s say, the Nikon F5 or F100. In essence you either:

  • Autofocus and nail the shot…
  • Autofocus and manually fine-tune…
  • Manually focus and use autofocus to fine-tune…

The second and third methods make using the camera more involving than anything else I’ve used and although they may only be small points in the bigger picture of the review, it makes the experience rewarding and feels less automated.

Take what you will from that.

~ EM

CONTAX AX technical specifications

ManufacturerKyocera Corporation
Camera nameContax AX
Manufacture dates1996-?
Camera typeSingle Lens Reflex
Film format35mm film
Image format24x36mm
Lens mountC/Y mount (45.5mm flange focal distance)
LensesRanging from 16mm to 300mm, 36 first party prime/zoom Carl Zeiss lenses in total.
ShutterFocal plane, electronically controlled.
AV & P modes: 32 secs. to 1/6000 sec.
TV and M modes: 4 secs. to 1/4000 sec.
Electromagnetic release with exclusive cable switch socket
ViewfinderFixed pentaprism high eye point with 95% coverage (x0.8 magnification)
Built in, +0.5 to -2 diopter correction
Default fresnel matte screen with centered microprism spot
Viewfinder displayFocusing indicator, shutter speed, exposure warning, aperture, exposure compensation, metering Indicator, back focusing scale indicator, exposure counter, self-timer remaining time, flash ready light
Body LCDISO and exposure data.
Film loaded/camera empty.
Battery status.
Custom function display.
Exposure modesAperture-Priority AE (AV)
Shutter-speed-Priority AE (TV)
Program AE (P)
Manual Exposure (M)
Focusing modesSAF (single autofocus)
CAF (Continuous autofocus)
M (manual focus)
MACRO
AutofocusTTL phase difference detection
Automatic Back Focusing System
Focus sensing range of EV 2-21
Drive modesSingle-frame
Continuous CL (approx. 3 frames per second)
Continuous CH (approx. 5 frames per second)
Self-timer (2 or 10 seconds)
Multiple exposure
Additional functionsMirror lockup
Multiple exposure
Single shot, multi shot (silent), mu
Custom functions1. Exposure Check Button
2. Multiple Exposure Mode
3. Auto Bracketing Control (±0.5EV or ±1EV)
4. Depth of Field Preview Lock
5. Film Leader on Rewind
6. Auto Rewind
7. AF Assist Emitter
8. Beep in Single AF
MeteringCentral weighted average metering (CW) and spot metering: EV 2 - 21
DX coded ISO from 25 - 5000
Manually set ISO from 6 - 6400
FlashDirect X-contact (Coupled with TLA flash)
1/200 Sec. and Slower
Power2CR5 (6V)
Weight1.08Kg (body only, no battery)
Dimensions
(appx)
Body only:
162 x 123.5 x 72 (W x H x D in mm)
6-3/8 x 4-7/8 x 2-7/8 (W x H x D in inches)
AccessoriesFocusing screens:
FW-1 (horizontal split-image/microprism)
FW-2 (microprism dot/collar combination screen)
FW-3 (matte screen)
FW-4 (sectioned matte screen)
FW-5 (cross-scale screen)

Eyepiece/cup:
Eye-Cup F (8x diopters)
Right Angle Finder N
Eyepiece magnifier

Power/Data:
Contax Data Back D-8
Contax Power Pack P-8

Shutter:
Cable Switch S

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Yeah, a strange and interesting beast, the AX. This is a great run through of what it’s about.

    As big Contax fan I have one and 10+ lenses. The AF does seem to work OK. Certainly it’s a far better AF system than the insanely clunky P&S style refocus for every shot method of the G-series models.

    One little factual point – the N series lenses are Zeiss, although one or two of the cheaper zooms may not have been designed in Oberkochen, in the way that the Batis lenses seem to be Tamron formulations.

  2. Thank you for a very thorough review of a camera whose design complexity has not weathered the test of time all that well. Current demand for used AX bodies must be fairly low, judging by prices on That Auction Site. Mechanical or electronic failure rate might also be high (at least when compared to, say, a Nikon F3) judging by the ratio of “for parts/repair” AX bodies to working ones. I believe you’ve described a truly niche camera, one that would never really have conquered the pro market even at a lower introductory price. Now, if Contax and Zeiss had gone ahead with “normal” autofocus in 1982, both pro and advanced amateur market shares might have played out quite differently for Canon and Nippon Kogaku!

  3. Great article that made me start looking for an AX…
    I am curious about one thing. You say in the article that you adapted almost all your Contax lenses to mount on the Nikons. How did you do that? Are you using an adapter with lenses to compensate for Nikon cameras higher draft or is there a way to modify the lens mount?
    Thanks and regards.
    Claudio

  4. @Aivaras, Granted it’s not an Aero Ektar, but I have a piece coming out shortly with a few shots taken with a Cyclop 100/2 on my AX that may interest you.

  5. Amazing Review! Thanks EM – while loving the looks of the Contax RX, RTS I had no idea the AX existed… such nice design elements, and what a beast, but having held my F4 today (also gorgeous and just so damned perfect) made me think, “How could they expect to sell that Contax to anyone in 1996?” Hope you have a lot of fun with it!

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