History: Contax and Porsche Design

The Contax brand began its life in Dresden, Germany during 1932, being introduced not as a company name, but as a model designation under the Zeiss Ikon company. While this product line would only be produced for four short years, the name would create an impact on the photography world far beyond its humble beginning.

The Zeiss Ikon company was born out of a merger during 1926, between four camera companies; Contessa-Nettel, Ernemann, Goerz and ICA, all of whom producing relatively primitive bellowed compact cameras. The group of manufacturers would be brought together as one by the world’s most renowned producer of, at the time, microscopes since 1846; an industry in which they are still today considered the world’s finest.   

contax t2 tvs snapshot 

The Contax I, a name chosen by poll among Zeiss employees, was designed to be superior to the increasingly popular Leica system; the main point of difference being a bladed vertical-plane shutter mechanism which allowed for dramatically higher shutter speeds than the competition.

By the 1960s, it was clear that the company was failing to gain momentum in a meaningful way, and Zeiss made the decision to cease production of cameras, focussing on what had really been working for them up until that point; lenses. Despite this surrender, in 1972 a secret project by the name “Top Secret Project 130” came about, which was the collaborative effort of Japanese manufacturer Yashica and Zeiss. At this time, German electronic technology was far behind the Japanese, and in a similar move, Leica had partnered with Minolta in developing their modern era SLR cameras. This pairing would go on to create a relatively brief, but golden era of Contax, overseeing the release of iconic systems like the RTS, the G series, T series and the largest of all, the Contax 645 medium format.

contax porsche design RTS T2 rs 2.7 

The 1972 collaboration was actually not just a pairing of corporations, as the newly formed Porsche Design Group had been invited to assist in designing the cameras. Founded in the same year, the Porsche Design Group was spearheaded by Professor Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the original designer of the iconic Porsche 911.

"Unchanging Yet Developing" - Contax 

The philosophies of the two organisations we’re very clearly aligned, as the Porsche company had made a name for themselves designing beautiful, yet functional shapes in their cars. Not only were these shapes beautiful and functional, but with each iteration, technical improvements were applied which clearly spoke to Contax’s tagline, “Unchanging yet developing.”


The first camera to emerge from the modern era of Contax, Yashica and Porsche was the RTS; standing for Real Time (electromagnetic release) System. This camera represented quite a significant step forward for the brand who had been slipping with the professional market for some time. The RTS represented more of a ‘catch-up’ than anything else, with Nikon systems offering similar levels of performance. Where it did gain ground was with its Leica counterpart, the R3, offering twice the shutter speed capabilities and a significantly more ergonomic user experience.

It’s important to note, that while Nikon, among others, were making ground technologically, the lens quality of Leica and Zeiss were considered to be the best available; particularly important when considering pre-digital era cameras where the sensor plays more of a role. In short, strategically speaking, they had made a successful move on their direct competitor.


Beyond the product itself, the relationship with Porsche wasn’t entirely hidden, with campaigns and competitions surfacing in print, showing the iconic 911 along side the Contax RTS. The philosophy of the two brands being so naturally intertwined that the famous tagline of Contax; “Unchanging Yet Developing,” could apply to either brand quite comfortably. One promotion offered a Porsche 911 as the first prize in a competition, for one lucky RTS owning entrant to have their (up to) 5 colour images judged by six world renowned photographers. Another public association was in another campaign, showing the RTS along side a silhouetted duck-tailed Porsche, outlining the partnership between the three brands, Contax, Yashica and Porsche; representing the best in lenses, electronics and design, respectively.


The RTS would go through two further updates in the RTS II (1982) followed by the RTS III (1990), with the latter being arguably the most significant step up for the product line. However, during the mid 1980s, a compact design called the Contax T was released that would start a period of resurgence for the brand in an entirely different sector of premium point-and-shoot cameras.

While there has been much affiliation to Porsche design without confirmation, we have been able to confirm with the Porsche Design Group, that this was in fact a Porsche design and would go on to form the design language of the entire Contax T and G series cameras. The now iconic titanium bodied cameras, which many professionals consider to be the gold standard of point-and-shoot would be used by important photographers like Juergen Teller, Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino and Nobuyoshi Araki to mention just a handful of a long list.

contax t2 tvs tvsiii 

The first of these cameras was an ingenious clamshell design comprising two pieces, allowing for a particularly small overall profile  when compared to traditional swing doored competitors. The design was a titanium bodied, futuristic looking object which shares more of a visual relationship to modern Apple products of today, than it did to compact cameras of the time. This sleek, futuristic use of titanium would go on to be a hallmark of many Porsche Design products to follow, and became the benchmark for the entire T and G series cameras.

Contax T Porsche Design snapshot

While it is unconfirmed at this point, many believe that all T and G series cameras were designed under the Porsche Design Group, or at the very least were the developments of the design language set by the illustrious group. From an excerpt in the ‘Only Zeiss’ book, released by Contax in 1994, Porsche decreed that “the body should be as smooth as possible, with versatile function for photography.” They continue to state that this fundamental policy has been consistently applied to all Contax cameras that would follow, albeit with Porsche taking a more background position in the relationship.

contax t2 porsche design titanium

Each of the T series cameras would be fitted with a T* coated high quality Zeiss lens, offering sharpness and character like no other camera of the time. In fact, they are still used by professionals and enthusiasts today for the very same reasons, and have achieved a cult-like status among those in the industry. The most significant leap for this series of premium compacts came in the form of the Contax T2 in 1990, with functionality that would allow for professional use. The T2 was considerably faster than any other compact in its class, focussing almost instantaneously, with upgraded specifications for metering, a brighter larger viewfinder than ever before and a powerful flash. This combination of more professional functionality made it a go-to editorial camera for photographers shooting with magazines like i-D, The Face and Vice Magazine; though the latter was more commonly attributed to the Yashica T4, a plastic bodied camera which also carried a Zeiss T* lens, but at quite a different price point (around half the price).

contax tvs vario sonnar snapshot porsche

As the 1990s continued, by 1993 Contax would introduce the TVS, a Vario-Sonnar 28 - 56mm f/3.5 / 6.5 T* 35mm point and shoot. The TVS was designed to be a sister model to the T2, which was seen as a development of the original T camera. The aim was to create a camera of almost identical dimensions, but with increased optical flexibility, versus its fixed lensed counterpart. While the TVS nowadays is significantly cheaper to buy, the original retail price was about 25% higher than the T2, owing to its complex lens construction.

contax tvs zeiss porsche design vario sonnar

The TVS would undergo two technical upgrades in its lifespan, with the final iteration arriving in 1999, the TVS III. The first two versions looked considerably different to the latter, appearing very similar to the much celebrated T2. The original TVS and TVS II had manually operated zoom lenses, switched on and adjusted with a small knurled cylinder at the base of the lens for the TVS and via a rotating ring on the end of the lens for the TVS II. Manual lens functionality like this was very uncommon, and again would make this camera more appealing to a professional or semi-professional end of the market. The optics, which will come as no surprise, were excellent, despite the stigma towards the overall quality of variable lenses. The TVS III, which concluded the series, underwent quite a dramatic change of design and functionality, taking away the manually operated zoom and adding a flip down lens protector.

contax TVSIII snapshot zeiss porsche design

This futuristic design was a hark back to the original Porsche Designed Contax T from over a decade before. The TVS III served as perfect testament to the “Unchanging yet developing” ideology of the brand, utilising a classic design feature which proved timeless. The lens cover is automated and flaps down with an inbuilt motor, activated by rotating the dial on the top of the camera body. While the similarly designed ‘80s Contax T would only serve to protect the lens, the TVS III has a small LCD which displays aperture settings.

We would like to thank the team at the archives of The Porsche Design Group, for confirming some of the historical information mentioned in this article.