The Contax RTS II (Part I)


This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

RTS IIContax RTS II with Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar

60mm ƒ/2.8 C 1:2 macro lens

I don’t know how deep a dive you want on this. I just noticed that these seem to be quite cheap on eBay, and it’s a camera I had a lot of history with, although I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of what I once knew. Although I’ve refreshed my memory on a few names and dates, the following is mostly off the top of my head, not researched exhaustively (I’m a blogger, folks), so take it with that leetle grain o’ salt.

Background

Brief history: Zeiss was once by far the most prestigious camera manufacturer in Germany (right, Leica was distinctly second fiddle) and hence the World. When the Japanese started making cameras in a serious way after WWII, most of their efforts were knockoffs and copies at first, and nobody thought they would amount to much. But Japanese cameras were cheap—always an advantage—and as the years went by they got better and better. What turned out to be the last great flowering of mainstream German cameramaking occurred in the 1950s, when Leica sold almost a quarter of a million of one of the most beautiful cameras ever made, the M3 rangefinder*. No similar Zeiss rangefinder ever sold in numbers like that, because Zeiss rangefinders were saddled with a more complicated and less reliable shutter design. But no other Leica M rangefinder ever sold as much, either. The M3 was kinda like the Miata in that sense—Mazda still trumpets the Miata as the most popular two-seater ever made, but that’s because of huge sales of the original model in the ’90s. Later ones sold in what, comparatively speaking, are dribs and drabs. Same for Leica rangefinders (although the M6 sold strongly, considering. Nowhere near as well as the M3 however). Even Leica once tried to give up on rangefinders, when it moved the tooling for the M4 to Canada.

When Nikon made the professional Nikon F, its first SLR and a camera with build quality rivaling that of older Zeisses, at the end of the nineteen-fifties, and other Japanese makers started upping their game in SLRs (Pentax, with its M42 screwmount Spotmatic line starting in 1964, was the dominant SLR maker of the decade), it spelled the beginning of the end for rangefinders as mainstream top pro cameras. What formerly had been the most admired type of photographer, the globe-trotting photojournalist and the embedded combat photographer, with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David Douglas Duncan, and LIFE magazine’s Alfred Eistenstadt as paragons, began giving way among amateur shutterbugs to more of an admiration for studio pros and and fashion photographers such as the David Bailey character in the movie Blow-up. Amateurs wanted to use wider, faster, and longer lenses for effect, and camera magazines, led by the influential Herbert Keppler, who had taken the helm at Modern Photography in 1956, heavily touted the advantages of the SLRs’ through-the-lens viewfinders. As photographers began migrating en masse to SLRs, the old rangefinders (apart from the cheaper and delightful fixed-lens compacts you can read all about on Stephen Gandy’s CameraQuest site) got slaughtered, and the Japanese eventually sent the Germans packing. (And by the way, this was the origin of the Leica mythos, because a whole new generation of artistic and expressive photographers in the 1960s, young and poor at the time, found Leica M3’s plentiful and cheap on camera store used shelves, and adopted them.) By the early 1970s the shift was more or less a fait accompli—Germany was no longer the center of cameramaking in the World. Zeiss’s camera business, and in fact the entire German camera industry, was in decline, Japan in the ascendancy.

Contax to CONTAX

The result for Zeiss was a cooperative agreement with Yashica, a second-tier Japanese camera company founded in 1949 and based in Nagano, officially dated from 1975 (it’s complicated). Yashica would make the cameras, and Zeiss would make the lenses: the best of both worlds, on paper. The marque took a venerated Zeiss model name, Contax, as its brand name; the Japanese styled it “CONTAX” in all caps, but that “sounds” wrong when English speakers read it (all caps was later called “shouting” when the Internet took off) and it never stuck, except internally.  

Yashica had something to prove, which is always a good thing. Although it was a giant high tech company, it was not the most prestigious of the Japanese makers: that was Nikon, in those years. Yashica’s maiden Contax (or CONTAX) product was the RTS (for “real time system”), designed by Prof. Dr. Katsuiko Sugaya and known from 1973 as “Top Secret Project 130.” It was a premium SLR boasting what was then the latest in technology, including an electronically-controlled shutter and electronic aperture and shutter-speed readouts next to the image in the finder. The electronics look rudimentary to us today, but they were the latest thing then: the landmark full-electronic Canon A-1 didn’t come along until 1978. Fully in keeping with the new marque’s strong German connections, the industrial design—the styling—of the RTS was created by Porsche Design, which had recently been founded as an independent concern in Stuttgart by F.A. Porsche. “Butzi” Porsche, as he was known, was the son of Ferry Porsche and grandson of founder Ferdinand. His first(!) product design had been the original Porsche 911, no less. Which is not too shabby, you must admit. I believe the RTS was his first camera design, but don’t hold me to that. The date for the Contax RTS is variously given as 1974 or 1975.

Seven or eight years later, in 1982—eight to 10 years being pretty standard as a rate of refresh for top camera models in that era, a standard set by Nikon—along came the RTS II. And although the outer styling was still by Porsche Design and the RTS II looked a lot like the original RTS, the innards, and the operation, of the refreshed and refined new camera were a different story entirely.

And we shall get to that tomorrow.

Mike

*”Willi Stein designed the camera, the rangefinder is from Stein and Ludwig Leitz, the finder optics are from Heinrich Schneider and Willi Keiner, [and] the M bayonet is from Hugo Wehrenfennig.” —the late Erwin Puts, in private correspondence.

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Featured Comments from:

Andrew Kochanowski: “A post after my heart. The shutter and the overall feel of the Contax cameras, no matter what model, is exactly the same: smooth, damped, weighted, and impeccable. The beauty of it today is you can buy a banged-up model off eBay and it will likely work like new. I got one for about $130 to use with a Zeiss 24mm for a project, and sold it a few years later for about $135. If you don’t mind, I can tell you that my book The Grift was shot with a Contax T2 that dates back to the late 1990s. The Trump people frowned on ‘professional’ cameras, I didn’t have the heart to tell them my 38mm ƒ/2.8 Zeiss was as pro as anyone needed. Looking forward to Part II and maybe many more on Contax.”

Shaun O’Boyle: “I photographed with an RTS II for years. I don’t think I’ve felt as much ‘one with a camera’ since using the RTS II. It had what I needed, where I needed it, with a solid reliable build. I miss that connection to a well-made image-making instrument, lacking to various degrees in every camera I have owned since the RTS II.”

Stephen S. (partial comment): “Please do continue telling us fascinating stories of these cameras, hopefully in a way that satisfies all I want to know without making me want to try to buy one!”

John Krumm: “It’s kind of funny to read about the Z8 everywhere, and then come here and the big gear post is part one about a Contax RTS II. Refreshing actually.”

Mike replies: I’ll get around to writing about the Z8 in 40 years or so.

Spin Drift: “I was in high school when the original came out. I was using my Dad’s Contaflex at the time and was smitten by the Zeiss glass. In college I was fortunate to work in a department store camera department and could buy equipment on discount. Saving up for a year and a second job netted me a first generation RTS, 25mm ƒ/2.8, 85mm ƒ/1.4, and 135mm ƒ/2.8. I still have them and use them. Went Nikon for digital and secured an adapter that lets me use those lens on my Z cameras. I bought a ‘Blad instead of upgrading to a RTS II in ’85. Still have the ‘Blad. Sensing a theme here? I like old glass for use on newer mirrorless bodies. I was able to buy an F2AS with 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm and 200mm out of an estate. Having a lot of fun with them. Keep on keeping on!”