Contax U4R digital camera


My first foray into the world of digital photography began in 2002, when I received one of the then very popular swivel-design cameras for Christmas. I couldn't wait to get into the field and start digiscoping. By the middle of January, however, I was getting extremely frustrated by the apparent limitations of digiscoping.

I hated the shutter lag, and I found it extremely difficult to keep the whole ensemble steady on the tripod. I persisted throughout 2003 and, after a lot of practice, got some decent images, but it was hard work. I gave up digiscoping after a year of trying to cope with the shutter lag. So when Contax launched the small, lightweight (140 g) U4R, rumoured to have no apparent shutter lag, I jumped at the opportunity to try it.

This camera comes with a big reputation and is the 4 MP big brother of the SL300R T*. According to the company’s literature, the Contax U4R incorporates a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* 5.8-17.4 mm f2.8-4.7 lens (equivalent to 38-115 mm in 35 mm format) which has been specially developed for digital use and achieves outstanding colour reproduction. The T* lens coating reduces flare and results in crisp, ultra-sharp images.

Kyocera Optics has provided the real leap forward for digiscopers with its unique RTUNE image-processing system. RTUNE technology means that the camera is ready for action in less than a second from start-up and shutter lag is virtually non-existent, timed at 0.07 of a second. Also, there is no image buffer (the processor sends the images direct to the SD card), so you can shoot at 3.3 frames per second at shutter speeds up to an impressive 0.0005th of a sec, until the card is full. This opens up new opportunities to obtain great action shots – it’s machine-gun photography.

A 28 mm filter thread is provided in the box. The filter thread that attaches to the lens is made of a very brittle plastic, which I could see breaking with frequent use. I kept the filter thread on the digiscope adapter provided by London Camera Exchange. I also kept the digiscope adapter on the eyepiece of the scope for the duration of the test, so I could use the scope as normal, but also attach the camera very quickly when necessary.

There is no traditional viewfinder – you use the 130,000-pixel two-inch monitor, which performed as well as any monitor on the most expensive SLR pro-spec cameras, even in bright sunlight. The menu on the U4R features Play, Set-up and Video and is accessed by three buttons on the left-hand side of the monitor.

Three metering systems are available – multi-area evaluation, centre-weighted and spot-metering. I tended to use this last, which worked well when tracking moving birds. Picture sizes (in pixels) are 2,272x1,704, 1,600x1,200, 128x960 and 640x480, and the sensitivity can be set from 50 to 400 ISO. However, I found that at the faster ISO speeds there was a clear increase in image noise levels. The best results were attained using 50 ISO, but this drastically reduced the shutter speeds. I compensated by under-exposing by 0.7 of a stop. Exposure compensation can be calibrated + or – for two stops in 1/3 steps.

All of the buttons are very small, but they are well spaced and easy to use while the camera is fixed to the scope. The zoom/navigation button is perhaps too sensitive, but this is only a minor gripe. One let-down is the lack of provision for a remote shutter release. However, you can always use the self-timer function, set to either two or 10 seconds.

This camera provides great performance for the digiscoper, and is also a very stylish piece of kit. At just 19 mm thick and only slightly larger than my pager, it is small enough to put into a shirt pocket. The body is made from a brushed magnesium alloy and finished with tanned leather, and has that swivel design that is such an advantage when digiscoping. This is a superb all-round camera, and since I had the test model three of my friends have bought one too.

Tech Spec

Price: around £345
Dimensions: 102x64x19 mm
Weight: 140 g
LCD screen size: 2 inches
Effective pixels: 4 million
Maximum image size: 2272x1704 pixels
Lens: 38-115 mm
Guarantee: 1 year