by Philip Greenspun; created January, 2002
Kyocera's Contax N1 system is a beautifully made combination of ultrasophisticated 35mm camera engineering and heavy results-oriented Zeiss lens designs. As in the Canon EOS system, all communication between body and lens is electronic. Each lens contains an ultrasonic focusing motor. If you can live with the limited range of lenses and accessories available, the newest Contax system is a viable and pleasant alternative to the standard professional brands.
The N1 was designed from the start for simultaneous Auto/Manual focus. The AF mode selector is on the back of the camera where it belongs and offers the following choices: Manual, Single, Continuous. If you have the selector set to Manual, pressing the button in the middle will give you a burst of autofocus. This is a perfect design and much less confusing than the festival of buttons and custom functions required to set up simultaneous AF/MF on Canon and Nikon bodies.
A bright and clear viewfinder provides good eye relief for eyeglass wearers and 95 percent image coverage. A dedicated depth-of-field preview button on lens mount makes it simple to check how your selected aperture will affect the image that you're about to record on film.
Power is from a 2CR5 lithium battery, good for between 20 and 50 rolls of 36 exposure film. If you add the P-9 battery holder, which includes a vertical shutter release, you can use AA batteries.
The N1 body lacks a built-in flash (the lower-priced Contax NX has a built-in flash). X sync speed is 1/250th, competitive with Canon, Minolta, and Nikon. The camera includes a PC terminal. Contax offers a full line of dedicated flashes to go with the N-series cameras.
For tripod use when you've forgotten the cable release, the self-timer can be set to a 2-second interval.
The optional D-10 data back will print exposure data in between frames. That's not an innovation, though it is a welcome relief from data backs that violate the visible portion of the frame. What is innovative about the D-10 is that it can store up exposure data and finally, as the film is rewound, record those data on the first two frames of the roll.
For selecting among the five autofocus 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 it really is a lot more intuitive.
An innovation whose utility is unproven is the N1's automatic focus bracketing function. 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. A lot of professionals do bracket focus, especially when they are too rushed to check depth of field critically, but whether the automatic system is really worth the user interface trouble is unclear.
The most interesting accessories for the N1 are an LCD viewfinder for remote camera operation and the ability to mount lenses from the delicious Contax 645 system.
The amount of applied exposure compensation is not displayed in the viewfinder exposure bargraph. A flashing +/- symbol reminds you that exposure comp is in place but you have to refer to the top-deck LCD or knob to verify the amount.
The body does not appear to be water-sealed. If you're planning to be working in heavy rain, the top-end Canon and Nikon bodies would appear to be better choices.
Setting custom functions is just as confusing as with Canon and Nikon bodies. You need to have the manual with you. It is a shame that Contax did not copy the Minolta Maxxum 7's self-explanatory multi-lingual rear LCD panel.
As of January 2002, Contax offers only a 24-85/3.5-4.5, a 70-300/4-5.6, a 50/1.4, and a 100/2.8 macro. Despite their slowness the zoom lenses are large heavy high quality tools. And the 50 and 100 (not tested) should be excellent. But if you are doing a project that requires extreme wide angles, perspective correction, or long telephotos you'll be renting some Nikon or Canon gear.