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Contax N-System


General Remarks

In 2000 Contax launched with the N1 a completely new Camera-System. For the first time Contax is offering “normal” autofocus (with an ultrasonic focusing motor). As many of you know, the older Contax AX had autofocus too, but just by moving the rear inside of the body. Therefore the AX was 100% compatible with the lenses of the Contax MF-line.

This is different now with the N1. From now on you just can use the newly designed N-lenses or, via an adapter, the lenses for the medium format Contax 645 AF with the N1. The N-lenses have a bigger diameter then the older MF-line. Contax/Zeiss decided for a bigger mount, because it is easier to construct lenses with bigger apertures, if the diameter is bigger. Especially longer lenses are easier to design with this new N-mount. It has nothing to do with the chip-size in the N-digital or the auto focus. I assume therefore we can expect (hopefully) some nice surprises of new lenses in the future.

Currently, both lines of lenses are manufactured parallel, although it is unlikely, that there will be new lens designs for the older MF-line. I think this is just not the time anymore to offer manual focus lenses only. The market is asking for AF. So Contax made with the N1 an extremely good compromise in AF and MF capabilities (and feelings) without sacrificing lens-quality, more details about that later.

I own a Contax N1 since last November. I use currently 3 lenses: 24-85, 70-300 and 100 Makro Sonnar (not the older Planar). First it has to be clear, that the N1 is not aimed to be the Top model in the N-line. It is not the successor of the RTS III. It is more the pendant to the RX in the MF line. Having said that, it is just a great camera and with one exception (100% viewfinder), I do not miss anything on the N1, compared to my RTS III.

In my opinion, Contax made a lot of efforts with the N1 to come out with a very easy to use camera, which is not missing any important feature to be able to make great pictures. All dials and wheels are very good situated, so you can reach them intuitively without searching for the right button or menu. This is supported by the bigger size of the body. In fact it has almost the same dimensions like an RTS III, without being as heavy (795g vs.1150g). The body is not purely metal, but you still have the feeling of a solid quality construction.


The viewfinder of the N1 shows approximately 95% of the picture, which is quiet normal in this class. Again, the N1 is not the Contax N Pro-model. The screen is bright and clear (also with the zoom), even if you wear glasses. All the information can easily be seen on the button of the viewfinder even in bright sunlight. You can see the numbers of pictures you have taken, the metering mode, AF, time and aperture and on a level-bar either the difference of the matrix metering to other metering methods in 1/3 and ½ stops or your bracketing steps, depending on in which mode you are.

Metering mode

The N1 is offering matrix-, centre-weighted and spot-metering. The matrix-metering is extremely accurate, even in difficult situations. In my experience I now seldom need the spot metering. The good thing is, that the camera shows you in the viewfinder the difference of the matrix to the centre weighted or to the spot metering (by using the option-menue) in 1/3 or ½ steps. No fear anymore, what the matrix metering is actually doing. So you always have everything under control, as it should be. In worst cases, you still can use the spot metering or bracket the picture. Here again, you can choose by the options, in which order it should do the bracketing.


Handling is for me very important. At the end of the day, I will not often use a camera, which is either to complicate to use or does not make fun to use. The N1 is again one of the highlights, where you remember, why you like the brand Contax so much. It is just a lot of fun to use it. I have small hands, but although the body is quiet big, it is easy to take the camera with you and use it over a long period of time.

The N1 holds extremely well in the hand, even better than my RTS III. You can hold the camera and the 24-85 easy with one hand. The handgrip is well formed, and the dials and buttons at the right place.

Especially the little wheel in front of the camera under the fire button (for the forefinger). Depending on the mode you are on (Tv, A etc.), you can change speed or aperture without looking up from the viewfinder by putting on the green mark on the big dial and then turning this little dial. Also, if you are in MF-mode, you just push once on an AF-button on the back with your thumb and ssssst the AF made it for you.

The Dual-Focus System of the lenses is one major part of it. Actually you do not need to switch a dial from AF to MF. If you are in AF, you can immediately turn the focusing ring of the lens and you are automatically in MF mode. This is the easiest way I can imagine to combine MF and AF together.


I put that almost as my last point in my review. Strange, if you write about the first real AF- body of Contax and you do not start with the description how it works etc. But I did it by purpose. AF is just one of the benefits of the N1. First of all, the AF is very good. Because there are some strange reviews on the net, which comment a slow and inaccurate AF compared to other brands, I will try to manage here some expectations of prospective buyers, just to make sure, that we are on the same planet.

It is very important to bear in mind, that every new camera model is above all constructed to please the current costumers of the older camera models of the same brand. For a Contax user it is therefore mandatory, that the quality of the Zeiss glass in general, the construction quality and the manual focusing mechanism also with the new N-lenses is better then with other brands. These 3 criteria are reflected in the current N-system. For 95% of the Contax users an AF lens without the smooth MF-option as in the N-lenses would be a knock-out criteria. There you can see that the AF speed is not one of the top criteria for this target group (at least the Contax users I know). That does not mean, that the AF can be lousy. It just means that for a typical Contax user it does not have to break world-records. Still the AF has to be good.

Very often people do not think what they really need, they discuss about theoretical advantages, whether the speed of an AF-System is 2 milliseconds faster etc. In my opinion they miss the whole point. AF does not exist in our world just for speed test labs. AF was invented to help you in taking your pictures – faster and easier than with the usual MF. So before you can say whether this or that camera is faster or better (which is not the same) than the N1, you should think about what kind of pictures you want to take.

I personally use the N1 in most cases in manual focus and the AF just if the subject is to fast or to difficult to focus manually. This should be the same for most of the Contax users, who are switching from MF to AF. In my opinion, the AF of the N1 was made for people, who do not want to use AF as the only focusing method. More for the people who need occasionally AF, because it is sometimes to difficult or to slow to focus manually (at night, faster moving objects etc.) or for older people with fading eyesight. Otherwise the whole point of the very smooth manual focus mechanism with the new N-lenses would be worthless. Then Zeiss could make the same fiddly almost non existent focusing rings as some other manufactures. Same thing with aperture ring on the lens. Some brands do not have them anymore on their new lens. I do not think, that a Contax user would like to go that way.

I think it is not the right approach, if you see the N1 as an alternative to any Nikon/Canon/Minolta top product. First of all, the N1 is not the Pro-model of Contax. If you buy the N1 with the motivation to use it in the same situation for which the F100/F5 etc. were made for, then you are doing a mistake. You should compare it more to the medium level AF Cameras, which are not better with their AF speed then the N1.

Having said that, you can compare the AF speed of the N1 with the older Pro-models i.e. Minolta, the innovator of AF. I have an Minolta 9xi, which was the second generation AF-Pro model of Minolta until the Maxxum 9 came out 2-3 years ago. The AF speed of the 9xi is not (!) faster than the N1! And at the time the 9xi hit the market, nobody complained abut a slow AF speed - strange, isn't it?

Second you have to decide on the subject you want to take pictures of in the majority of your time. After that you can easily conclude, which system would be the best for you. The N1 was not aimed to help you shooting sport events. There is neither the necessary speed, nor the appropriate lenses available for the N1. This might change, if Contax comes out with an equivalent of the RTS III with AF (Pro model). This then top of the line Pro-body will surely have an even faster AF and at the same time (if at all) Contax can think about faster lenses which suits these target-group better .

Let me ask you this way: would you try to use an Leica M6 for sport events? Is the M6 because of his bad in focusing? The comparison is not that different. Even a slight slowly ness of the N1 AF compared to the top models of other brands is like day or night, if you are a sport photographer.

If you shoot professionally kids/sports etc. then you should wait for a professional body of the N line of Contax or stay with the other AF brands. For me the AF speed is really enough to take pictures in the occasions I need the AF-speed. In my opinion the AF is fast enough for 98% of the people out there – if you try to be honest to yourself, you will realize that too.

Some people argue with the price tag for the N1. So if it is the same price like the F100 or F5, it has to have also the same focus speed – or if you compare it to the F 80 as a midline model, it should offered at a cheaper price. You are right. The N1 cost a multiple. It was always more expensive to use Leica or Contax then Nikon or Canon. But lets face it, currently this is the only possibility to use Zeiss lenses in 35mm (except the MF-Contax-line). If you want to shoot sports, go for Canon. If you want to use Zeiss lenses, go for Contax. You can not have everything from both worlds – there is no free lunch.

You have the right to choose, so do it and be happy. Do not overemphasis AF, just think for what you really need AF and how fast it really has to be. Forget what marketing departments try to make you believe. There are so many different brands out there and each has an advantage on his own. Why not picking the one, which suits to your needs the best?

The N1 has 5 different sensors to focus on. They react in a different way. The outer ones (4) seem to be situated in an angle of 45 degrees. So they react differently then the central sensor (they are also slower). Sometimes a slight twist of the camera body helps. Additionally it seems that only the central sensor gets help from the AF assist beam, the outer ones do not. For selecting among the five AF points, the N1 has a really nice joystick on the rear of the body. It is hard to describe or explain why this is better than equivalent controls on Canon or Nikon bodies that I've used but I found it really more intuitive.

The N1's automatic focus bracketing function is also new You focus manually and the camera takes three exposures. One is where you focussed. One is a bit nearer and one is a bit farther. I have not tested it yet, but it could help you with portraits, if you do not know in advance which point would be the best (i.e. slowly playing kids, very dark eyes). Maybe it will be difficult to see the difference. I will check that.

I had at the beginning problems to auto focus on moving flowers in a field. This is because the 4 outer AF always catches the movement of a different flower and so the AF goes back and forth. Just use the central AF and the problem is gone. Use the optional Split screen tom make sure that the AF is doing what you want it to do (FX1). This makes also MF easier. Do not forget to program the individual function for this screen – see the manual.

And the feeling you have with manual focusing the Zeiss lenses is totally different to any Canon/Nikon/Minolta AF lens I used. There is this certain kind of smooth focusing while you are turning the focussing ring, that is totally lacking with other brands. Just for that it is worth it to own the N1.


The 24-85 lens is just outstanding. I made test-shots with my Leica M6 and the current 90/2.8. after stopping one down, you can not see any difference anymore (slide projection 1,5x1.5; Fuji Velvia, handheld). Fully open the difference is almost not to see without concentration. This is just crazy.

Vignetting just slightly at 24 and fully open. Shooting with the sun in the picture – no problem ! Pictures always very crisp, excellent contrast, colourful, sharp. Forget the MTF Charts. In my tests, the 24-85 Zoom is in every aspect better then the older fixed focal lengths of the Contax MF line. I just love it !

The 100 Makro-Sonnar is also excellent, but to heavy for a fixed focal length (1kg). The same with the 70-300. The Tele-Zoom is very good balanced on the N1. Short transportation measures.

The following lenses are out or are available within the next weeks (prices are cheaper in the US and Asia):

17-35/2.8 (ca. 1kg and filter size of 95!, 2700 Euro)
24-85/3.5-4.5 (1500 Euro)
28-80/4.5-5.6 (700 Euro)
50/1.4 (1000 Euro)
85/1.4 (Filter size of 82mm, May 2002)
70-200/3.5-4.5 (1000 Euro)
70-300/4.5-5.6 (1500 Euro)
400/x ?

There is a rumour that more lenses will come end of this year. This should be a similar 17-35 with 3.5 or smaller aperture and a tele-lens i.e. 400 or so. As far as I am informed, the optical construction is already on the desk, but the decision is not yet made whether to produce it this year or not.

And of course the N digital shall come to the dealers in April. The full size chip seems to blow everything else away. Rumours again, that the initially targeted price of 7k will be reduced by 25% because of new models of the competition (Kyocera is just to slow with their efforts and bad in marketing.

Other important features/Accessories

Mirror lock-up (with the 2 second self timer) is an important feature. Great to have it with the N1.

Battery consumption (2CR5) seems to be with my N1 quiet heavy. I have to change batteries after 10 rolls of film. I have to check that long-term, maybe I set something wrong – otherwise I will send it to Contax to look at it.

Data back D10. You can record all relevant data like f-stop, shutter speed etc. either on the first 2 pictures, or between the frames. Very comfortable, but makes the grip slightly to thick.

P8 Power supply and cable. For cold winter shootings, batteries stay warm.

LCD light for early morning/late evening sessions etc. See also the folder Accessories for the N-System

If you want to have also the “little” important features, I highly recommend to buy the N1, especially with the 24-85 zoom – you will not regret it !

Summary most important points

Excellent matrix metering
Very good AF
MF is a pleasure.
Excellent Handling
Mirror lock up (via 2 sec. selftimer)
Access to the same lens type as the future Contax N Digital – an investment for the future.
Excellent image quality of the N-lenses.
No 100% Viewfinder
Battery consumption

Price/performance ratio “expensive” (1849 Euro) - compared to other Contax models, especially to the RX (1499 Euro), but street price is lower.



I am also fascinated by the N1 design, but disapointed by Contax bad (uninformed) public relation. They are not telling why the AF points have been positioned right inside the areas of the "Rule of Thirds", maybe they thought customer would know. Do they? Popular Photography magazine did not!

Another feature is the < Custom function 8 > for which a software plug-in for Photoshop/Elements is needed to make it convinient to use. This custom function could provide very wide Depth-of-Field, DOF, even when hand-holding. I actually wrote a paper on this and send it to Contax, but never heard from them. Here is the URL for the paper:
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I would apreachiate any comment on this.


I'm new to the Contax world and wanted to know if there are Macro lenses available for the N-system.


Hi Megan,

There is a most wonderful macro lens for the N-system... it is the Makro-Planar T 100mm f2.8 and I highly recommend it. I plan to pick that one pick along with one or two zooms.



Thanks Alfie! I'm actually in the process of deciding what system to buy. I really like the Contax N1 but feel that I should look at Nikon and Canon as well.

I currently have an old manual Pentax that I've been using forever and I'm not all that familiar with all the new features these camera's offer.

I want a system that I can do sports, portrait, and nature photography with but I'm afraid all the features may overwhelm me. At the same time, I'd like to get something that will last me a good long time - another 15 years or so.

If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear about them.


Hi Megan,

If you're interested in having the biggest lens setup with tons of accessories (worthless and otherwise), I would go for Nikon by far. I never cared much for it in terms of the pushed up but unnatural contrast. For low-light shooting, both Nikon and Canon are horrible wide open. In other words, I would go for Leica and Contax as the only possible choices.

If Leica R system had better bodies and affordable lenses, I would recommend that system rather well.

I am heavily biased to Contax for the kind of work I do which is photojournalism, the Autofocus isn't as blazingly fast as Nikon and Canon but the lenses quality are a million times better.

It's like asking yourself, do you want a picture at least in an easier or faster mode or the highest picture quality possible for blow ups? If the first, go for Nikon for the price point and if the second, go for Contax.

Nikon is more suited to sports but my experience is that the image quality isn't very good to be honest. Horrible rendition of a volleyball game.

I tried out the Contax N1. Very fast for me in my opinion. Maybe it's because I'm a slow guy. For macro and portrait stuff, the Contax is perfect because you can interchange the Contax medium format 645 lenses onto the N bodies. Think about sticking on a Hasselblad quality lenses on your SLR with an adapter (NAM-1)! ;) Not even Nikon and Canon can compare to that functionality.

Contax is the most underrated but most innovative company in the business. They just need better marketing and more Contax Days to boost their sales. But at least they are not overpriced like Leica SLR stuff.

, Alfie (my 2 cents)


Hi Alfie,

I agree, the Makro lens in the N-system is great. But the Makro Planar for the N-system was replaced last year by the Makro-Sonnar.

As far as I know was the reason the improvement in the AF speed of the Sonnar.

So if you want to buy one, make sure it is the Makro Sonnar!



The Makro Planar was never released for the N1. The Makro Sonnar is the current macro lens and it is the best N lens in the line up. Some images are here:

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