Today I would like to talk about the Contax N Digital. It is a digital SLR camera, an older model that was discontinued several years ago. It sold poorly. Today it has a cult, and that is why I would like to talk about it. There are lots of cult cameras, but there is only one cult digital SLR, and that is the Contax N Digital. The field of professional digital cameras is too small and too young to support a widespread cult movement. There are only a few families of modern-generation digital SLRs, and they are all technically competent, in some cases technically exceptional; they work, they are aimed at well-defined market sectors, and they do not have obvious flaws. The Contax N Digital, on the other hand, was a confused mess, a technically ambitious failure. I'll state up-front that I have never used or owned or touched or even seen an N Digital, I am basing this article entirely on the few things I have managed to find about the camera on the internet.

There was a time when all digital cameras were at least a little confused. I will skip over the electronic still video cameras of the 1980s, which are nowadays obscure technical curiosities that are almost impossible to get working. The first generation of digital SLRs emerged in the 1990s, and resembled contemporary professional film cameras fitted with bulky accessory backs, which is essentially what they were. The Kodak DCS 420 of 1994, for example, was a Nikon N90 film body with a rectangular digital back that made the camera twice as tall. The DCS 420 was a 1.5 megapixel model aimed firmly at photojournalists who need to transmit pictures back to their agency double-quick. It cost about $12,000.

In those days the big name in professional digital photography was Kodak. Kodak made the digital gubbins, with camera bodies supplied by Nikon and Canon. The arrangement was inherently unstable, in the sense that both Nikon and Canon would eventually develop their own digital technology, but it held steady throughout the late 1990s. Nikon broke from this scheme with the all-in-one Nikon E2 of 1996, but the camera was not a great success. It was not until the Nikon D1 of 2000 that the modern age of professional digital SLRs truly emerged. The D1 was a practical, usable digital SLR that was no larger or bulkier than a professional 35mm film camera. It had no quirks and it was easy to use and interface with a computer. The resolution was quite low, even by contemporary standards - not quite 3 megapixels - but it was enough for newspapers and uncropped 8x10 prints.

Kodak still makes digital SLRs, although the company no longer dominates the market, indeed it has only a very small market presence. Instead, Canon head the pack, with Nikon just below, and a small mass of other digital SLR makers swimming around in the consumer arena. Sigma, Pentax, Sony, Olympus and Fuji are the most prominent. Some of them have a clever gimmick that sets them apart (Sigma's Foveon sensor, Fuji's high-dynamic range SuperCCD), and some compete on price.

Still, back in 2000 there was perhaps still room for a new boy. In July of that year Kyocera announced the forthcoming Contax N Digital, a full-frame six megapixel professional-looking digital SLR that would use Carl Zeiss lenses, and it would come out in 2001.

The Contax name dates back to 1932, when the Zeiss Ikon company released the Contax rangefinder camera. Mr Carl Zeiss had been one of the master lensmakers of the 19th Century, and the company that bore his name quickly ended up at the top of the market, jostling with Leica for the wallets of rich photographers and rich people in general. I want you to savour those names, Zeiss and Contax and Ikon. They sound Germanic and professional. I like to say the word Zeiss, it is an extrovert word. I have to make a kissing shape with my mouth to say that word. As I understand it, the umbrella company was called Zeiss, the lenses had Zeiss written on them, and Zeiss Ikon was the part of the company that made camera bodies. The company's history is notoriously complicated, especially because it was torn into bits during and after the Second World War. The company's factory and facilities in Jena, Dresden ended up in Russian control, whereas the company itself and its more fortunate employees ended up in Stuttgart. There were Carl Zeiss Jena lenses made in East Germany, there was a range of Kiev cameras made with Zeiss machinery in deepest Russia, and there was a Carl Zeiss GmbH in West Germany, and and and and.

After the Second World War, the proper official Zeiss made a range of Contax SLRs, although the Contax name was bought by Japanese camera maker Yashica in 1973, with Zeiss making the lenses. Yashica was bought by all-purpose industrial conglomerate Kyocera in 1983, and so the Contax N Digital should really have been called the Yashica-Kyocera Zeiss Contax N Digital, but that would be silly. The proper official Zeiss still exists today, and its lenses are still very very expensive.

Still, the N Digital. It was announced in July 2000, and previewed to the press in early 2001, with release scheduled for summer of that year. This was later pushed back to February 2002, and then March, and then April. After scouring Google I cannot state with confidence when the camera was finally put on sale. I am not entirely sure that it went on sale at all. It seems to have fallen into a strange information black hole. PC Pro magazine reviewed the camera, briefly, in September 2002. Lone Star Digital reviewed the camera, although the review is not dated. On the other hand. the big photography sites, such as Digital Photography Review, Steve's Digicams, the Digital Camera Resource Page, and so forth, did not review it. There were rumours that Kyocera was unwilling or unable to provide review samples, which was in stark contrast to Nikon or Canon, who typically send out lots of promotional bodies and top lenses etc. Digital Photography Review notably thorough reviews can make or break a camera. Perhaps Kyocera thought that the Contax name was too posh for mere internet review sites, but if they did, they were very wrong. The N Digital was discontinued some time in early 2003, having failed to set the world afire.

That was the end for Contax. The brand was used by Kyocera for one more product, an overpriced, undistinguished compact called the Contax TVS, which came out in 2002. In 2005 Kyocera dropped the Contax name and pulled out of the digital camera market entirely, preferring to concentrate on industrial products and mobile phones.

In 2000, a six-megapixel professional digital SLR camera sounded pretty good. A six-megapixel professional etc with a full-frame sensor sounded incredible. It was still pretty good in 2001, when it would have bested the Canon 1D's resolution by two megapixels. By the time the N Digital was released, in 2002, its specification was good but no longer ahead of the game. By that time six megapixels was the standard for cheaper "prosumer" digital SLRs such as the Canon D60 or Nikon D100. The full-frame Canon 1DS had an eleven megapixel sensor, and a much tougher body than the N Digital, and was an all-round more professional camera.

The N Digital was proudly non-standard. Most digital SLRs draw power from a proprietary rechargeable Lithium battery pack. A digital SLR is essentially a small laptop computer with a tiny backlit screen and autofocus motors. All of this requires a lot of electricity. Digital SLRs are devices that eat electricity and produce pictures, they convert energy into art. In contrast, the N Digital used four standard AA rechargeables, and bear in mind that the AA rechargeables of 2002 were more expensive and of a lesser capacity that those available today. At this point I will mention the only substantive, well-written review of the N Digital that remains on the internet. Here it is:

My eyes skim over it until they reach "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", at which point I start to understand why Kyocera kept the camera away from the other review sites. I am sure that professional photographers would choke in their coffee at the though of their essential work tool packing up after only ten minutes. AA batteries are commonly used in compact digital cameras, because AA batteries are widely available, but the N Digital drew more power than a compact camera. The reviews pointed out that it could take a couple of hundred shots with high-capacity, well-conditioned rechargeables, but in practice rechargeable batteries quickly fall below their optimum charge, and no-one wants to carry multiple sets of four AA batteries. The N Digital thus acquired a reputation as a battery muncher, requiring a big bag'o'batteries for a day's shooting. There was an external booster battery pack, which apparently clipped onto the photographer's belt, but it sounded like a kludge. The N Digital also had a main power adapter, and this is one of the reasons why it was quickly stereotyped as a studio camera.

Now, let us talk about lens compatibility. Canon and Nikon make a range of lenses for their camera bodies, and there are other companies, such as Sigma and Tamron, that make proprietary lenses for Canon and Nikon cameras. If you buy a Canon SLR, you should have no problem finding lenses. There are lots of for sale new, and lots second-hand. The Contax N Digital had its own lens mount, the Contax N mount, which was an electrical autofocus design developed for the Contax N1 35mm film SLR, which was released a year or so before the N Digital. The mount was only ever used on three cameras - the N1, the NX (basically a consumer variation of the N1), and the N Digital. There were less than a dozen lenses made for it. Admittedly they were Zeiss lenses, and were uniformly excellent, but they were also uniformly expensive, and are no longer made today. N-mount lenses can be converted to fit the popular Canon EF system, although this requires professional modification and will make them unusable with a Contax body. I have no idea if there was any way to mount Pentax, M42, Canon etc lenses on an N-mount body. To be fair, the N Mount is not the first SLR mounting system to be discontinued. Canon killed off the FD mount when the company introduced its EOS system, but there are lots of cheap second-hand FD lenses on eBay, because the system sold well for a decade. N-Mount lenses are very rare.

I have talked about the power issue and the lens mount. Let me tell you about the sensor. The N Digital's most intriguing selling point was its full-frame sensor, which was the same size as a 35mm film frame. In 2001 it was, I believe, unique - Canon's full-frame 1Ds did not come out until the end of 2002 - and even today it is an unusual and highly desirable feature. Photographers love to use the phrase "full-frame". It sounds wholesome. You see, most digital cameras have a sensor that is smaller than a 35mm film frame, but they use lens mounts that were designed in the days of film. As a consequence, the lens projects a circle of light that is too large for the sensor. The outer edge of the image is wasted, and the sensor only picks up the middle portion; this has the effect of magnifying the focal length of a lens, so that a typical 50mm lens becomes a mildly zoomy portrait lens. The N Digital did not have this effect. The N Digital's Contax Vario-Sonnar 17-35mm lens really had a 17mm field of view at the widest zoom level, which was handy for landscape photographers. Bear in mind that, in 2000, a magnification factor of 1.6x was good; the old Kodak DCS models had a magnification factor of 2.6!

Another benefit of a full-frame sensor is that, in theory, a larger sensor equals less noise, and finer image quality, because INSERT TECHNICAL SOLUTION HERE. I'm sure you agree. In practice, the N Digital was plagued with high noise at anything above ISO 160, or with exposures of longer than a second. In contrast, Canon's D30 and D60 models could take almost noiseless thirty-second exposures, and could produce useful results at ISO 800, even ISO 1600. I do not know why the image quality was as it was, there are no explanations on the internet, and I am not a technical expert. Apparently the image quality was wonderful below ISO 160 (the camera started at ISO 25, which suggests to me that the sensor was just very insensitive to light), and the reviews emphasised that the combination of lenses and full-frame sensor could produce fantastic pictures in the right situation. The RAW converter was apparently awful, though, it transformed the pictures into .TIF files and that was it, it had almost no functionality, no white balance tweaking, exposure controls, etc.

The full-frame sensor was made by Philips, and was originally slated to go into the N Digital and the Pentax MZ-D, which would have been the first Pentax digital SLR. Nonetheless, after spending much money, Pentax abandoned their digital SLR in October 2001. At the time they said that the camera would not find a market, because it would be very expensive. The sensor was hard to make, and most of the chips were defective in some way. On a professional level, the MZ-D was expected to cost one and a half times as much as established professional cameras from Nikon and Canon, and there wasn't really a market for a very expensive professional Pentax. Perhaps Kyocera decided to go ahead with the Phillips sensor because they believed that there was a market for a very expensive Contax SLR.

They were wrong. The camera flopped, and the very few examples that were sold can now be found on eBay for inflated prices, because although the camera is a quirky dead-end, it has some redeeming features. The lenses are fab. As a studio camera, it is apparently quite lovely, although it has to be said that most of the sample images I can find were shot outdoors, and look very nice. When I think of the phrase "studio camera" I think of a bespectacled little man poking his face into a shrouded box camera, peering at Minnie Driver in the film The Governess. I will leave you with that thought. Join me in the next paragraph.

The N Digital was a technically perverse camera, and thus it became a cult. Technical perversity plus market failure plus interesting story equals cult. The N Digital looked like a professional camera, with one of those built-in portrait grips. It was not overly large or heavy. The Contax and Zeiss names still have a certain cachet, and perhaps because of this the N Digital has fallen into the hands of snobs. It is an excellent thing to have in your EXIF data.

Did I mention that the N Digital used standard CompactFlash cards? I was half expecting to find out that it used punched cards impregnated with fine wine, but no, it used standard CompactFlash cards.

Six megapixels ain't so bad.

The first announcements, July 2000:

The next announcement, November 2000:

Another announcement, the last of many, April 2002:

The reviews:

The Pentax MZ-D:

The Contax lens range:

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