One of the most unique features of the Sony mirrorless platform is its ability to mount, and in many cases autofocus, almost any legacy lens. I’ve written in the past about the Techart Golden Eagle (CONTAX G) and Techart Pro (Leica M) adapters. Next up is the Fringer CONTAX N/645 Sony E mount adapter.
Contax is one of those camera brands that, years after their dissolution, still holds a place in many photographer hearts. The name dates back to 1932 when Zeiss Ikon developed a competitor to beat nascent Leica in the rangefinder era. Later, in the 70s, the brand was revived by Yashica/Kyocera (Contax was changed to CONTAX). The company developed many modern classics from the early RTS SLR cameras to the legendary CONTAX 645, G and T Systems. These were well designed, well built, feature rich cameras that were almost universally admired by photographers. As awesome as the cameras were, you could argue that the lens ecosystem was the major factor in their success. Since the 1930s, the brand has exclusively featured Carl Zeiss lenses, so in some ways, Sony has carried the CONTAX torch with their own close partnership with Zeiss. That relationship was and continues to be one of the reasons I switched from Canon to Sony several years ago.
The Fringer adapter was designed to support the final CONTAX system – the N Series which included the NX (prosumer), N1 (professional) and N Digital camera (one of the first featuring a full frame sensor). The N cameras used a totally new mount of autofocus Zeiss lenses – all supported by the Fringer adapter:
– Vario-Sonnar T* 2.8/17-35
– Vario-Sonnar T* 3.5-4.5/24-85
– Vario-Sonnar T* 3.5-5.6/28-80
– Planar T* 1.4/50
– Vario-Sonnar T* 3.5-4.5/70-200
– Vario-Sonnar T* 4.0-5.6/70-300
– Planar T* 1.4/85
– Makro-Sonnar T* 2.8/100
– Tele-Apotessar T* 4/400
Additionally, CONTAX developed their own adapter for the N-mount – the NAM-1 that allowed photographers to use lenses made for their medium format 645 system. The Fringer adapter can stack the NAM-1 to further support all of the Zeiss 645 autofocus lenses:
– Apo-Makro-Planar T* 4/120
– Distagon T* 2,8/45
– Distagon T* 3,5/35
– Distagon T* 3,5/55
– Planar T* 2/80
– Sonnar T* 2,8/140
– Sonnar T* 4/210
– Tele-Apotessar T* 4/350
– Vario-Sonnar T* 4,5/45-90
– Mutar 1,4x T* supports (Sonnar T* 2,8/140 – Sonnar T* 4/210 – Tele-Apotessar T* 4/350
Unfortunately, I don’t have a NAM-1 adapter to test, so for this review I only used the N lenses listed in bold above.
Like the Metabones and Techart adapters, the Fringer uses the on-sensor phase detect system of the Sony A9/A7II/A7rII/A6300/A6500 cameras to realize autofocus speeds similar to the native performance of the original N cameras. Most other Sony E-mount cameras will work with the Fringer with slower contrast detection AF only. Some cameras (Nex-3, Nex-C3 and Nex-5) will not support AF with the Fringer.
The Fringer is quite sophisticated, supporting full EXIF data, automatic 5-axis image stabilization, auto aperture and full manual modes, Aperture preview and the ability to update firmware via USB connection. The adapter does not support advanced Sony AF features like Eye AF or AF tracking.
One thing to keep in mind, autofocus speed will vary depending on the lens used. Some of the N-mount lenses will find focus quickly while others are a bit ponderous. Unfortunately, the lens I was most excited to use – the Planar 50mm 1.4 – is on the slow side. I have a CONTAX NX film body here and could confirm that AF is similarly slow on it, so the speed is not due to the adapter. But man, slow AF or not, the Planar is a winner. AF on the adapter was very accurate so at least you know you are going to have your subject in-focus, even if it takes a second or two. Compared to the modern Sony Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 for E-mount that I have been shooting (and loving) lately, the N Planar doesn’t look to have the same resolving power but resolution isn’t everything – the lens still exhibits gorgeous bokeh and beautiful color rendition. Sony shooters are swimming in good 50mm options but add the N Planar to the list.
It would be real easy for this to turn into a review of the Contax N lens lineup because the adapter just settles into the background and does its job. Not once did the Fringer misbehave or exhibit any quirks that might suggest it isn’t ready for prime time. The whole package feels very mature and stable. Other than the loss of tracking and eye-AF, the lenses behave like a native optic with full EXIF reporting and automatic assignment of the focal length for 5-Axis Steadyshot.
Aperture is controlled via two distinct modes. The first is Manual Mode and refers to manually selecting the aperture via the aperture ring found on all the N lenses. To use this mode, select the lowest aperture number on the lens ring BEFORE powering on the camera. Once powered up, the aperture ring on the lens will control the aperture.
The second setting is called Auto Aperture and refers to controlling aperture via the control dials on the camera. To activate, set the aperture to any value other than the lowest aperture value BEFORE powering on the camera. Once powered up, your camera control dials will be used to select aperture.
The Fringer controls aperture during shooting just like a traditional SLR by defaulting to the wide open setting until the shutter is tripped. On the a7 bodies, the adapter supports the Aperture Preview function which allows you to see a preview of what your image will look like at the selected aperture.
Ok, I do have to mention a couple things about the outstanding Carl Zeiss N lenses. First, the three lenses I focused on, 24-85mm, 50mm and 100mm macro, all had plenty of resolving power and seemed to perform well on the Sony a7RII sensor in the corners after they were stopped down a bit. I wouldn’t classify them at the same level as the Sony G Master 24-70, or the Sony Zeiss 50mm 1.4 Planar in terms of resolution but they do draw a very nice image. It is also clear that Zeiss designed the whole lineup to be congruent in their color rendering, which makes editing the files a joy. There’s something to be said for having a stable of lenses that have similar color performance.
After using the adapter for several weeks, I had to ask myself who this product is for. Does it make sense for a photographer to invest in these older N lenses as an alternative to native FE mount optics? The lenses are not bargain priced but given their relatively high performance, even by today’s standards, they do compare favorably (third to half the cost of native). If you can live with slower AF speed and loss of tracking features there is no doubt that the system could make sense.
Stable, feature rich and enabling great classic Zeiss optics; if you happen to already have an N lens or two sitting in your cabinet, the Fringer adapter is an easy choice. Photographers are lucky to have small companies like Fringer and Techart making these unique autofocus adapters and a mirrorless platform from Sony that supports them.