The Contax Aria 70 Years limited edition model is the very last manual focus camera to wear the legendary CONTAX name. With a body designed by Porsche, shutter designed by Yashica, and lenses by Zeiss and Tomioka, it is possibly the best camera ever produced by this amazing team. It’s also one of the very last manual-focus film SLR cameras ever made.
It was designed to celebrate seventy years since the introduction of the Contax I camera by Zeiss Ikon in 1932, and it’s clear that the designers took great pride in making a camera to reflect that heritage. The original Aria released in 1998 was a great camera, but the 70 Years model released in 2002 featured the most up-to-date technology from Kyocera’s later cameras, such as the Contax RTS III, the AX and the S2b.
The 70 Years model features a preview button, DX-coding, the latest 5-pin TTL flash metering contacts, three frames-per-second shooting mode, multiple exposure mode, and three different metering modes (centre-weighted, spot metering, and for the first time in a Contax camera, matrix metering). They managed to package all this technology into a carbon-fibre reinforced polycarbonate and metal body weighing just 460 grams (16.2 ounces), creating the lightest, most automated and quietest camera of the entire Contax/Yashica/Kyocera SLR range.
Apart from these improved technical features, Kyocera also made an effort to emphasise the historical links to the original Contax cameras made in Germany by way of the new Aria’s styling. The black body of the regular Contax Aria was repainted into a sort of silver, technically referred to as “Champagne,” reminiscent of the Contax S produced by Carl Zeiss Jena in 1949.
The layout and features of the camera were designed in an analogue style, but the knobs and switches are all electronically controlled, creating a perfect marriage of style and capability. A new logo was designed to replace the original Aria branding with a special 70 Years commemorative design. This was a slightly altered version of the 60 Years edition from 1992. The Contax Aria name was moved to the rear of the camera.
To further reinforce the historical roots of the camera, the Aria 70 Years model was sold with a limited-edition Carl Zeiss Tessar T* 45mm f/2.8 pancake lens, to commemorate the invention of the Carl Zeiss Tessar lens designed by Dr. Rudolph a century earlier.
The closest comparable camera to the Contax Aria 70 Years model is Nikon’s famed FM3a released the previous year in 2001. Although Nikon and Kyocera had different objectives and design philosophies, both cameras were the culmination of years of experience and both coincided with the greatest revolution in photography, the onset of digital imaging. While purists may decry the Aria for not being all mechanical, the Contax S2 already fulfilled that desire. But the S2 only offers spot metering, so for me the Aria 70 years is a more versatile machine.
By 2002, digital cameras had become widely accepted, cheap, reliable and effective. In an attempt to respond to to the changing market, Kyocera had released the TVS digital, a 5 megapixel camera retailing for $1,000, but two years later in 2004 sales of digital cameras eclipsed their film shooting progenitors, and on April 12, 2005, Kyocera Corporation announced that it would be ceasing production of all CONTAX brand cameras, bringing to an end its thirty-one years long collaboration with Zeiss.
This era just prior to 2004 was the swansong of manual-focus SLR film cameras, and the Nikon FM3a and the Contax Aria 70 years are the pinnacle of what was achieved by all manufacturers. The Nikon FM3a was released in 2001 and ceased production in 2006; it was $25 cheaper than the Aria retailing for $825, but weighed 130g more and did not have the technological features of the Contax Aria.
The Contax Aria 70 Years was a special commemorative limited edition, only produced for one year. Only 2,000 were ever produced making it a very rare camera, on par for rarity with cameras such as the Konica Hexar RF, and the Contax T3 70 Years. While the price of other Contax/Yashica/Kyocera cameras such as the Contax T2 and T3 have recently and dramatically risen in price, the Aria is rarer, has the capacity to be used with a multitude of classic lenses, and has manual controls for creative photography. Yet prices remain depressed. Today it’s selling for nowhere near its actual value, and as the prices of other fantastic cameras has recently corrected over the past decade from all-time lows, so too will the Aria’s.
A History of the Partnership, and Top Secret Project 130
The genesis of the Contax Aria stems from the radical changes that were happening in the camera market in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Zeiss and the other German camera manufacturers were facing fierce competition from the Japanese companies of Pentax, Nikon, Minolta and Canon, all of whom excelled in electronics and mass production. Zeiss’ own attempt at an electronically controlled camera, the Contarex, had been a commercial failure.
Though their cameras were struggling to win market share, Zeiss was still world-renowned for their incredible lens-making ability. The brand wisely recognized that they needed a partner who could build reliable cameras on which to mount their lenses. At first they teamed up with Pentax, and the result of this was the Pentax K mount, but for some reason the relationship was quickly abandoned. Zeiss then approached Yashica, who quickly realised the potential of the relationship.
“A solution was found in a partnership with Yashica. Carl Zeiss would continue to design and produce superb optics for camera bodies constructed in Japan. A novel solution that other German camera manufacturers would use later. Yashica was an electronic camera manufacturing giant with tremendous production capability. Yashica was already producing an aperture-preferred automatic camera of the rangefinder type in the 35 GSN when the agreement was inked. It was this electronic camera manufacturing experience and the huge production capacity that drew Carl Zeiss to Yashica. After only one meeting of the Board of Directors at Yashica, the decision was made to initiate ‘Top Secret Project 130’.” – Contax UK’s official history
The relationship between Yashica and Contax began in 1971, almost ten years after Zeiss abandoned the SL 725 (a final prototype SLR camera produced by Zeiss in Germany, which would never see release). For Zeiss, Yashica was the perfect partner to help develop their goal of a mass-produced SLR camera with an aperture-priority, electronically-controlled exposure system called the RTS for “Real Time System.” Yashica had a proven track record with the Electro-35, the world’s first electronically-controlled 35mm camera, a commercial success with a great reputation that sold over 5 million copies, and they also had experience with electronically-controlled shutters and exposure metering in their Electro-X cameras.
Three years earlier, Yashica had purchased their own high-quality optical factory, Tomioka, in August 1968. At that time, Tomioka was one of the largest and most reputable lens manufacturers in Japan, and their technical expertise in the partnership would result in the majority of the Contax Yashica lenses being produced in Japan, with German quality control.
Tomioka and Zeiss collaborated to develop a new lens mount, the Contax Yashica mount (abbreviated C/Y Mount) for the Contax RTS camera, and Yashica’s new FX camera. The new mount was a bayonet design with a throat width of 48mm, and a flange focal distance of 45.5mm so it would be compatible with the previous Yashica lenses via an adapter.
Zeiss and Yashica had a goal of creating a “World’s Best” camera. With the questions of manufacturing of lenses and bodies settled, they set their eyes next on style. They wanted their cameras to be eye-catching and intuitive. The final member of the Contax/Yashica/Tomioka team was Professor Ferdinand “Ferry” Alexander Porsche, famous for designing the iconic Porsche 911 sports car in 1963, and later the Porsche watch and sunglasses.
Porsche had just left the car company to set up his own design studio in 1971; and his company’s expertise was in the field of ergonomics. While this is a term we are all familiar with today, at that time it was a foreign concept to most camera manufacturers. The F. Alexander Porsche Group is still in existence under the name “Studio F. A. Porsche.”
This final team behind the development of Top Secret Project 130 comprised a roster of veritable all-stars. Dr. Erhard Glatzel from Zeiss would be in charge of lens design; Tomioka Optical Co. Ltd. would be in charge of lens production; Prof. Dr. Katsuiko Sugaya from Yashica would design the revolutionary electronic exposure metering and stepless shutter operation with balanced curtain acceleration system, which Yashica dubbed RTS (Real Time System); and Ferdinand Porsche would wrap this technical wonder in a beautifully styled skin.
After three years of development, the end result of Top Secret Project 130 was revealed to the world at Photokina in 1974 when the Contax RTS system was unveiled. The release of the RTS system revolutionised the camera industry, the purely mechanical rod, cams, gear and levers of the past were replaced with electronic controls, ushering in a whole new era of camera design. The Contax Aria 70 Years, released 28 years later, was the final embodiment of all this work.
in 1983 Kyocera Corporation acquired the Yashica company and continued to build on the relationship first developed between Zeiss and Yashica in 1971; in fact, some of the best cameras resulted after the Kyocera purchase. So truthfully these cameras should be referred to as Contax/Yashica/Kyocera camera. Kyocera is an industrial conglomerate with a very diversified product palette ranging from industrial ceramics (which gave the Kyoto-based company its name), to audio components, photo copiers and laser printers, solar cells, mobile telephones (due to a merger with Sanyo Electric) and ceramic kitchen knives, just to name a few.
The Contax/Yashica/Kyocera Legacy
The legacy of the partnership between Zeiss and Yashica in 1971 still has effects to this day. While purists may not view them as “real” Contax cameras compared with those produced decades earlier in Germany, the thirty-one-year partnership between the Germans and their Japanese collaborators resulted in an astounding legacy of world-class cameras; the Contax RTS series, the G series autofocus rangefinders, and the Contax 645 AF medium format, to name a few success stories.
Plenty of the medium format 645 AFs are still being used today. Even now, the invention of a compatible digital back made by Phase One has significantly pushed up prices of the camera. Many original Contax/Yashica mount lenses are being used, via adaptors, on mirrorless cameras, and still highly valued for their optical performance. The Contax G series, and the Contax T2 and T3 compact point and shoots, are now selling for astronomical sums.
The relationship that Zeiss established with Yashica is now paralleled with their collaboration with Sony. The Contax name has reverted back to Zeiss, and there have been persistent rumours and the occasional April Fool’s Day prank about a new digital Contax camera. However, despite Zeiss designing and producing lenses for Sony, Zeiss in Oberkochen have remained tight-lipped about the possibility of a resurrection of the Contax name.
After 2005, Tomioka continued as Kyocera Optec Co., Ltd. On October 1st 2018, Kyocera Optec ceased to be an independent company and was folded into the Kyocera Corporation, where it continues to operate as the Optical Components Division of Kyocera Corporation. Their plants in Tamagawa (Japan), Chigase (Japan) and Shilong (China) still produce a variety of optical products, but all camera lens production ceased after 2005.
In 2008, Kyocera sold the Yashica trademark rights off to Hong Kong-based MF Jebsen Group, under its subsidiary JNC Datum Tech International, Limited, who produce Yashica branded digital products such as digital cameras, camcorders, digital photo frames, portable DVD players, digital audio players, digital voice recorders, binoculars, mobile phones and SD cards. This brand has recently made waves in the photographic community for their disingenuous Y35, a poorly-made, crowd-funded camera shooting a format called “digiFilm.” This new Yashica brand is far removed from the Yashica of yesteryear in quality and reputation.
Kyocera ceased production of all cameras in 2005 and announced at the time they would keep spare parts for ten years, so since 2015 they offered no repairs or spare parts. There are only a handful of companies existing that are capable of repairing Contax Yashica cameras, so take that into account if you’re considering buying any of these machines.
Contax Aria (May 1998 – December 2004)
In May of 1998, Kyocera released the Contax Aria. It was the only Contax camera ever produced that was known by a name, not a model number. This was because the camera was aimed at a specific target market – women.
At that time it was believed that women weren’t attracted to the large cumbersome SLR camera, and Kyocera’s compact cameras were selling well, so they decided to design an SLR camera to be as light as possible. There was also a demand by many photographers for good quality manual-focus cameras, so Kyocera added all of the best features of their high-end SLRs into a wondrously small manual-focus package.
In Japan Kyocera heavily marketed the camera directly at women, engaging the Photographer Mika Ninagawa in their marketing campaign, and featuring dancers and classical music in their marketing. Coming possibly as a surprise to its makers, the combination of high-end features in a small package offered by the Aria had an unexpected consequence; it appealed to men as well (myself included).
How good is it?
How good is the Contax Aria? Damn good! In the 1980s I lived in Paris and bought a Minolta X-700 on Boulevard Beaumarchais, that camera traveled the world with me for many years, until it died last year of capacitor failure. The two things I loved about the X-700 was the big, bright viewfinder and the dead-accurate metering using Aperture Priority. So when I went on the hunt for a replacement, those two things were my must haves.
After months of hunting I came across the Contax S2b, which I loved because of its classic looks and great metering; but while I was hunting for one I stumbled across the Aria 70 Years Model. They are pretty rare and collectible and are not cheap to buy, but I ended up getting mine for a great deal because it had a little wear.
The Aria has all the bells and whistles of professional cameras like the Contax AX and RTS III, except for two things; variable diopters (which I don’t use), and the rewind switch. I have the camera set to automatically rewind once a roll is finished, but if you really need to rewind halfway through a roll there is a tiny rewind button hidden on the lower left-hand side of the body. It does lack a built-in flash, but I am an outdoor shooter, and the camera supports TTL flash metering with a dedicated Contax flashgun. Get the TLA 200 which came with the Contax G series – it’s smaller and just looks nicer.
Viewfinder and metering
“The Camera viewfinder can be likened to a painter’s studio. If the studio is not bright, flooded with well-balanced light, the artist will not be able to accurately discern the true colours and subtleties of the subject, or vividly interpret the image on canvas.” – Contax Brochure
There are very few film SLRs that have such a large, bright, crisp and easy to use as that on the Aria. It’s superior to many of best cameras of its era. I have a friend who’s been a professional photographer for thirty years, and when I showed him my camera he was astonished at how good it is. It’s just a joy to use, and the focus really pops when shooting portraits, even at very fast apertures.
Since the advent of autofocus lenses the quality of camera viewfinders has decreased. Most modern DSLRs have pretty poor-quality viewfinders. I shoot classic manual focus lenses, and some like my Biotar 75mm at f/1.5 have a razor thin depth of field. A good viewfinder is critical, and this is the main reason I settled on buying a Contax Aria. The viewfinder of the Aria is widely recognised by experts like the writer below, as one of the best, and he explains why there are important.
“ … the Aria, which, like most Contaxes, has a particularly excellent viewfinder, the coverage goes down slightly to 95% (still very good), but the magnification goes up, to .82X. This, plus the Aria’s excellent “focusing snap,” makes manual focusing easy. Combined with the Aria’s outstanding eye relief (more than one inch, better than both the Nikon F5 and Canon EOS-1V!), it makes for a very good viewfinder indeed.” – Understanding viewfinders by Mike Johnson
On top of that, the viewfinder has a green LCD display panel on the right-hand side which shows us everything we’ll need to know. Just a light touch of the ISO button and it’s easy to see, even in the brightest sunlight.
After the amazing viewfinder, the best-selling point of the Contax Aria is its metering system. The Aria was the first Contax Yashica camera with evaluative multi-segment exposure metering (matrix metering). I know that may not sound particularly state-of-the-art by today’s standards, but very few manual focus film cameras have this feature, and it doesn’t have to link with a multipoint autofocus system, so it’s great for the classic manual lenses I use. As shown in the graphic above, you also have center-weighted and spot metering. In matrix mode the LCD meter shows the difference between matrix and center-weighted readings.
Apart from the amazing viewfinder and the exceptional metering system, the best feature of the Aria is its incredible lightness. The Aria is a light-weight, easy to handle and use camera, ideal for traveling. This makes it equally suited to professionals and amateurs, who will value lightness for similar but different reasons. The Porsche designed body, ergonomically excellent controls, and the and rubberized grip points make it a joy to handle.
Yes, there are some plastic elements of the camera, but it doesn’t look or feel like a cheap camera. All the important parts internally, like the chassis and the mirror box, are stainless steel. Yes, it does take batteries, but the two CR2 Lithium batteries are readily available, and will last for around 1,000 shots. I know, it’s not purely mechanical like the Contax S2, and there is a chance the electronics can fail, but I bought it for a reasonable price, and that is a risk I am happy to take to enjoy its benefits today.
The Aria uses the Contax Yashica bayonet (C/Y) mount, allowing us to use Zeiss or Yashica lenses, including the older MM lenses. But the mount doesn’t tie you down, C/Y adapters are available, and I often shoot M42 lenses on mine.
Persistent shoppers should still be able to get the 70 Years model for a fair price, but if this eludes, the ordinary Aria was produced until 2005 and can be picked up for even less money. There are some camera dealers that specialize in selling Contax Yashica cameras, but the 70 Years model and the regular Contax Aria are readily available on eBay.
All in all, I love this little camera, partly for its looks, partly because of the history that it represents, but mainly because of how well it works. I sold all my other 35mm cameras except my Carl Zeiss Jena Contax D from 1954; this is my everyday walk around camera. As the photos show, it can handle portraits, scenery, and even 25 ISO films like a champion.
Want your own Contax Aria?
Some images used in this article come courtesy of Safelight Berlin and are used with permission. Model credits – Chanel Roche, Heaven Arici, Tim Field, Miquela Spence, David Glasheen, and Rod Overell.