Zeiss C/Y Lenses
In the mid-1970s, Carl Zeiss (West Germany) formed an alliance with Japan-based Yashica to launch a new line of Contax SLR cameras, starting with the RTS of 1975. The cooperation involved the creation of a new bayonet mount, the CONTAX/Yashica or C/Y mount, which replaced the M42 screw mount that had been used on earlier Contax-branded reflex cameras. The C/Y mount features three claws and is relatively wide, with a diameter of 48mm and a flange-focal distance of 45.5mm. It was used both for the premium CONTAX line of cameras, as well as the lower end Yashica series. In 1983, Kyocera acquired Yashica and continued production of both CONTAX and Yashica branded cameras until 2005 when the company discontinued all its photographic equipment manufacturing.
The CONTAX cameras made good use of state-of-the-art electronics, while an extensive lineup of high quality lenses from Carl Zeiss further added to the appeal and success of the system. Zeiss optics served the need of both ordinary and special-purpose applications, and covered a range from the 16mm fisheye to the huge 1000mm mirror lens. All Carl Zeiss lenses for the C/Y mount are manual focus and most feature the proprietary T* lens coating to reduce flare.
Over time the C/Y system evolved. Early Carl Zeiss lenses in the C/Y mount were of the AE-variety and could support aperture priority and manual. With the Contax 159 MM of 1984, Carl Zeiss introduced the MM ("multi mode") variety of its C/Y lenses, which had an additional pin that allowed the camera to change the aperture and made it possible to operate in shutter priority and program mode also. Apart from the mount, there is a small visual difference between the varieties: On MM lenses, the highest f-stop number (normally f/16 or f/22) is colored in green instead of white. Optically, there were generally no differences between the AE and the MM versions. The exceptions are the Distagon 2.8/25mm, Distagon 2.8/28mm, and the Sonnar 2.8/135, which according to Zeiss were optically improved in the MM-version. Also, the coatings on MM lenses were changed and provide for higher contrast and a different color rendering (MMs flare purple instead of green).
Another difference between AE and MM lenses is in the shape of the aperture blades. When closing AE lenses down by 2 to 3 aperture stops, the aperture blades do no longer form a circle, but generate a Ninja-Star. This irregular shape of the aperture creates a characteristic, busy bokeh in out-of-focus areas. Some photographers find the Ninja-stars charming, others regard them as annoying. The MM-variety of the Zeiss lenses do not have this particularity and show "regular" bokeh.
As the production shifted over time from the Zeiss factory in Oberkochen/Germany to the company's facility in Oume/Japan, there are lenses marked as "Made in West Germany" and others labeled "Made in Japan". Both production locations adhered to the same demanding quality control standards and the optical quality of the lenses is the same. However, the production location is often included in lens descriptions, and the letters "G" or "J" are amended to the lens variety to distinguish four types of CONTAX Carl Zeiss lenses: AEG, AEJ, MMG, and MMJ. The German-made optics often command a price-premium among collectors.
The table below lists the specifications of virtually all Carl Zeiss lenses for the C/Y mount. In addition, Zeiss produced some lenses, about which little is known: some extremely rare optics (a night-vision 210mm f/5.6 N-Mirotar; a Tele-Apotessar 600mm f/4), some macro lenses for use on bellows (S-Planar 60mm f/2.8 and S-Planar 100mm f/4), and some lens prototypes (Tele-Apotessar 500mm f/5.6, Tele-Apotessar 800mm f/8). All CONTAX lenses can be used on Canon EOS and mirrorless cameras with the help of suitable adapters, but the lenses have to be operated in stop-down mode due to the lack of aperture coupling. Since there is no aperture control via the camera in this case, the additional aperture functionality of MM lenses is of no consequence.
CONTAX lenses FAQ
Why is CONTAX always written in capital letters?
The capitalized spelling is the way Kyocera defined and used the brand name.
How do the CONTAX lenses relate to the Zeiss ZE and ZF series?
Many of the ZE/ZF lenses seem to be based on CONTAX optical designs. The newer ZE/ZF optics have more modern lens coatings and provide for aperture coupling with today's Canon and Nikon cameras. On the other hand, pre-owned CONTAX lenses will cost only a fraction of their ZE/ZF equivalents.
Are there any special edition lenses for CONTAX?
Yes, there are some lenses that were released to commemorate important dates for Carl Zeiss. In particular, in 1982 the Planar 1.2/85mm was launched, carrying a "50 years" inscription, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Contax brand. Ten years later, a second batch of the 1.2/85 and a limited edition of the Planar 2/135mm were released to mark the brand's 60th year of existence (inscription: "60 years"). Moreover, the Planar 1.2/55mm was issued in 1996 to celebrate the 100 year-anniversary of the development of the optical formula for Planar lenses and carries a "Planar 100 Jahre" inscription. Similarly, the 100th anniversary of the Tessar lens design was celebrated in 2002 by the release of a limited edition of the Tessar 2.8/45mm lens that has a titan-colored finish and bears the inscription "Tessar 100 Jahre".
What is the difference between the Makro-Planar 60mm and the Makro-Planar 60mm C?
The Makro-Planar 60mm C has the same optical formula as the Makro-Planar 60mm, but is packed in a more compact barrel and provides for a maximum magnification of only 1:2 (instead of 1:1 for the Makro-Planar 60mm).
What makes the N-Mirotar 210mm f/5.6 special?
The N-Mirotar is a mirror lens with a built-in image intensifier that makes it possible to use the lens for black and white photography at night. Only about 40 copies of the lens were produced.
Are there any cosmetic differences between AE and MM lenses?
The highest aperture number on MM lenses is colored in green. Moreover, a few MM-varieties have a modified lens barrel. This is notably the case for the Sonnar 180mm and the Tele-Tessar 200mm.
Were any of the Zeiss zoom lenses for CONTAX produced in Germany?
Yes, both the 40-80mm and the 70-210mm zooms were produced by Zeiss in Oberkochen.
What does the Distagon family of lenses have in common?
Distagon is the Zeiss designation for wide-angle lenses that are based on retro-focus design.
What characterizes Planar lenses?
Zeiss uses the Planar designation for fast lenses in the normal to short tele-photo range. In the original Planar optical formula, the front and rear groups are arranged almost symmetrically with the aperture component positioned in between.
What are Tessar lenses?
Tessar lenses were originally composed of only four lens elements, and tend to be very compact.
What are the characteristics of Sonnar lenses?
Zeiss uses the Sonnar designation for some of its tele-photo lenses. The original Sonnar 1.5/50mm of 1932 was a modified Tessar design with seven elements in three groups.
The official UK website for CONTAX cameras and lenses is still online. Additional information on using CONTAX lenses for video can be found in a comprehensive guide put together by Nick Morrison. Moreover, if you are generally interested in adapting legacy lenses to modern cameras, you might also want to check out the Leica R-lens catalog, which contains optics that are comparable in quality to Carl Zeiss and can equally be used with a variety of camera systems.