Canon the innovator...Canon the boundary pusher...Canon the...wait just a minute! Are we talking about the same Canon that moves today at what appears to be a less-than-glacial pace? Nope, we are talking about the Canon of over three decades ago...the vintage Canon ;-). A Canon that, while still the market leader, was determined to meet a declining SLR market with more than retrenchment. From an all-time peak of nearly 7.7 million SLRs sold in 1981, by 1983 sales for all brands of SLRs had fallen by over 30%. Sound familiar DSLR users? Canon had wrung the last drops from their A-series of SLRs (1976-84), the most successful line of manual focus SLRs ever, and the catalyst to the SLR boom of 1976-81. The question now facing Canon (along with very other SLR maker) was: Where to go from here? Their first response would be the T-series of SLRs (1983-1990). So how did that work out for them? From a sales perspective, the T-series failed to accomplish Canon's goal of revitalizing the SLR market. Each model seemed bedeviled by at least one Achilles' heel. But one thing was for certain, the problems came down to execution and timing, not a lackadaisical attitude on Canon's part. And ironically, out of the (relative) failures of the T-series would come Canon's greatest period of success, the seeds of which were sown by the most tragic of the Ts...the T90.
In automotive circles, the "sleeper" has a long and roguish history. Take a plain-Jane car and throw some serious performance bits under the hood and prey upon the unsuspecting (bwahahaha). A frumpy four-door with a quiet (at least at idle) exhaust makes it even tastier :-). When it comes to old SLRs, there is no such post-purchase hopping-up per se, but there were enough models that followed the spirit of the sleeper as far as looks and features went to make things interesting. The bonus today is that you can snag one of these soporific snappers for a fair bit less than their more-celebrated contemporaries, while giving up very little (if any) outright performance. Now, if I happen to leave out your favorite flies-under-the-radar film-burner, don't get uptight. Feel free to mention my misses in the comments, and who knows, maybe we will have do a sequel. So...in no particular order...
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful slip
that happened to three companies
who thought they were so hip...
In Part 1, we focused on Pentax, Olympus, Nikon, and Minolta, respectively, as the first companies to introduce production auto focus (AF) 35mm SLRs in the early to mid-1980s. Although Pentax was the first-mover (1981), and Olympus & Nikon followed two years later, it was not until the introduction of the trendsetting Minolta 7000 in February 1985 that the AF SLR truly came of age. This was borne out by the other three manufacturers' abrupt decision to adopt Minolta's idea of AF motor-in-body (MIB) design, abandoning their previous allegiance to the motor-in-lens (MIL) philosophy. These companies' next AF SLRs bore an uncanny resemblance to the all-conquering 7000, at least in the lens mount area ;-). Minolta appeared poised to dominate SLR sales for the foreseeable future, yet within three years, they would be toppled from the peak and by the time the early-'90s rolled around, they would be back in their familiar third-place sales position that they had held from the early-'70s onward. So, even being the first successful AF SLR manufacturer was no guarantee of being the long-term winner. How could that happen? This time, we will take a closer look at the reaction to the AF revolution by the then-biggest fish in the SLR pond.
In the land of manual focus SLRs circa 1984, things were looking grim. That old implacable foe, "market saturation", had once again surfaced from the depths of the eastern Pacific to wreak havoc on the sales charts of the Japanese manufacturers. Over a decade had elapsed since its previous appearance in the early to mid-'70s. The proliferation of affordable autoexposure SLRs, from 1976 onwards, had not only blunted that attack, but had then led to the greatest sales extravaganza for 35mm SLRs, EVER. But now, the denizen of the deep was back with a vengeance and taking names. Internal motors for film advance, LCD displays, and angular '80s styling were doing nothing to stem the tide. Only another big-time innovation was going to give the SLR makers a chance. Their trump card?
The mid-1960s were heady days in SLRland. From 1964-66 all of the Big 4 Japanese manufacturers brought out new top-of-the-line enthusiast models: the Pentax Spotmatic (1964); the Nikkormat FT (1965); Canon's Pellix (1965) and FTQL (1966); and the object of our attention in this article...Minolta's SRT (1966). The feature all of these cameras had in common was: built-in through-the-lens (TTL) metering. We take it for granted now, but five decades ago this was revolutionary. Of the five models, the Pentax and Canons used stop-down metering (meaning that the photographer had to manually close (stop-down) the aperture on the lens to get an accurate reading and then focus at maximum aperture). The Nikkormat offered full-aperture metering (the lens remained at maximum aperture for the brightest view and ease of focusing while the meter reading was taken), but required the user to manually index the aperture ring every time that they changed lenses. Then came the SRT-101. Full-aperture metering and the aperture automatically indexed whenever you mounted a lens. No muss, no fuss. And all it took was a spring...a string...and a little tab on the aperture ring ;-).
At first glance, the FE (along with its slightly-older sister the FM) is as nondescript a Nikon as there ever was. Its specifications are nothing out of the ordinary for a late-'70s enthusiast SLR: 1/1000 sec. fastest shutter speed, Nikon's venerable 60/40 centerweighted metering, sub-600 gram weight, and a seeming dearth of innovation. Looks? Nothing to see here people...move along...move along. Flanking the classic Nikon logo on the pentaprism housing are two virgin swathes of metal betraying no clue as to the identity of this wallflower. Only once you go to bring the camera to your eye is there the possibility of positive identification, that is, if your right thumb isn't already covering the tiny "FE" that precedes the serial number on the rear of the top plate. But don't sleep on the FE, there is more here than meets the eye ;-).
Canon got off to the slowest start of the original Big 4 Japanese camera makers (Minolta, Nikon, & Asahi Pentax were the others) when it came to SLR development and sales . This was partially due to their commitment to interchangeable lens rangefinders for longer than their competitors. By the mid-1960s, however, they had embarked on a slow but steady climb that would lead them to market dominance by the late-1970s. Their first truly competitive SLR was the FT of 1966, and it would spawn one of the finest series of mechanical-shuttered enthusiast SLRs of the age and Canon's most successful non-A-series manual focus model. The second- and third-iteration FTb & FTb-N would prove to be the backbone of Canon's amateur lineup in the first half of the '70s and sold extremely well while both Pentax and Minolta were facing declining sales of their excellent Spotmatic & SRT mechanical SLRs at that time. That alone makes it a pivotal model in Canon's history. But it is much more than a sales footnote, it was one of the best enthusiast-level SLRs of its day, and that makes it a great choice today for the film-SLR aficionado. You could call the FT the analog 5D of its era :-).
1975 saw the introduction of the Contax RTS, the first camera since 1961 (when the Contax IIa/IIIa rangefinders were discontinued) to bear that moniker and which was the firstfruits of the technological alliance between Zeiss (owners of the Contax name) and Yashica, the Japanese camera maker (who did the actual manufacturing). The RTS (which stood for Real Time System, to emphasize the supposedly superior responsiveness of the body) was aimed at professionals and serious enthusiasts with pocketbooks sufficiently large to take on the task of mounting pricey Carl Zeiss glass in front of it. The RTS was a success, but as Nikon had found out two decades earlier with the F, having a single model camera lineup that aimed towards the high-end of the SLR market tended to limit opportunities for sales (less cameras sold = less lenses & accessories sold ;-)). So, four years later, in a move that mirrored Nikon's introduction of the enthusiast-oriented Nikkorex F in 1962 (followed by the more-successful Nikkormat of 1965), Contax/Yashica introduced their Contax-badged contender in the very-competitive amateur market. But what does this have to do with the Yashica FX-D? Let's find out :-).
Maybe it has something to do with the application of the term "vintage" to items over 30 years old, but there is a dead space for most cameras (and many other manufactured goods) that are in the 15 - 25 year old range. Not elderly enough to evoke nostalgia, and far from the cutting edge of current technology, they languish in a veritable no-man's-land. The subject of this article, the F90(X), is in such a place today. If you are a 35mm bargain hunter, and are willing to look past its plebian polycarbonate pelt...your ship may just have come in :-).
Coming-of-age. If any term could be applied to Nikon's auto focus SLRs from 1986 to 1991, that one has to be at the top of the list. The transition to AF maturity coincided with Nikon's rise to second place in the overall SLR market to essentially form a duopoly with Canon as the other members of the then-Big 5 (Minolta, Olympus, and Pentax) slid further and further behind, and in Olympus' case, dropped AF SLRs completely. The irony in all of this was that Minolta had gotten the drop on everyone and dominated the first few years in AF SLR sales with their groundbreaking 7000 model. Canon brought out their T80 FD-mount SLR a couple of months after the 7000, and it wasn't even close to the Minolta. So much so, that Canon abandoned further FD-mount AF development and began a crash program to come up with a completely new mount and SLR system. It would be two years before they brought out the EOS 650. For Canon, that would turn out to be time well spent, as the EOS cameras rocketed them to AF SLR sales leadership in rather short order. Nikon got on the board in April of 1986 (over a year after the 7000 made its not-so-subtle entrance). While the F-501 did not surpass the 7000, it was the first true competitor to the Minolta and gave Nikon a toehold (and critically, a one-year head-start over Canon to get established in the market) until they could bring out their second generation enthusiast AF SLR in 1988. By the mid-'90s Nikon had clawed their way past Minolta and tried to maintain pace with Canon in market share (which didn't happen, but they did comfortably establish themselves in second place :-)). Let the retrospecting begin...
Here is the final edition of our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series for manual focus SLRs. In Part #1 we looked at the Pentax M42 screwmount system. Pentax was the last of the "Big 5" (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus being the others) to adopt a bayonet-style lensmount, doing so in 1975. The K-mount has continued to serve (in modified form) into the digital era. For now we will confine ourselves to the manual focus film era. So let's get to it with our standard format of: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Greetings, and welcome to our fifth vintage SLR system overview, this time featuring Pentax (or Asahi Optical Co. as they were originally known). In this installment we will examine their first SLR system, which (aside from the Asahiflex models) utilized the M42 screwmount introduced by Zeiss in 1949. Over time, such was their success, M42 became commonly referred to as the Pentax screwmount. The M42 mount was used by Pentax for 20 years (1957-76) and today represents one of the most affordable and accessible SLR systems available to the vintage-focused photographer. In the second part of our Pentax overview, we will dig into the bayonet-style K-mount system introduced in 1975, and which is still used (in a modernized electronic form) by Pentax. As usual, we will break things down by: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Welcome to the fourth installment of our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" overviews! It features Olympus, one of the most influential Japanese camera manufacturers. We will work our way through: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability & Servicing. But first...a little introduction :-).
Olympus first came to prominence in photography in the late 1950s and early '60s with their half-frame (18x24mm, which was half of the 35mm frame) Pen series of cameras specifically targeted at the Japanese and later, the European markets. They were designed to be affordable for the average worker and economical to operate while still providing decent quality for an 8x10 print. Olympus sold millions of Pens. Ironically, it was the refusal of Kodak to support the half-frame format in the USA that pushed Olympus into the 35mm arena. For a more in-depth look at this turn of events, see this article. Although Olympus was the last of the major Japanese manufacturers to get into the 35mm SLR game, they made quite the splash in 1972 when they finally joined the fray. The immense influence Olympus exerted on the photographic world was due, in large part, to the efforts of the brilliant designer Yoshihisa Maitani and his team of engineers. The creator of the Pen and OM series was always seeking to do something different, not just copy others, and this does much to explain the success of Olympus over a three-decade period with its film-based equipment. The OM series would do more to reduce the size and weight of 35mm SLRs than any other system. What is more interesting was the impact this had on the other, more well-established manufacturers (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, & Pentax) known as the "Big 4". By the late-'70s, that designation had to be changed to the "Big 5", due to the success of the OMs. So let's take a closer look at all the OM system has to offer.
The third article in our series "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" takes on the Nikon F-mount, arguably the most well-known, and definitely the longest-lived of all the 35mm SLR bayonet systems. After a brief introduction, we will break down our overview in this format: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) began to build their reputation in the early 1950's as one of the premier Japanese optics manufacturers. Fortune and Life magazine photographers Horace Bristol and David Douglas Duncan were working in Japan and they were introduced to Nikkor lenses for the Leica M39-mount and Contax cameras then favored by photojournalists. Within a few years, Nikon introduced their famed S-mount series of rangefinder cameras that set new standards for rugged reliability. With the success of the Asahi Pentax SLR of 1957, Nikon found itself at a crossroads, with two management factions forming: one wanting to stick with rangefinders, and the other pushing for SLR development. Eventually (and fortunately for Nikon) the SLR project went ahead, drawing much from the SP rangefinder design. The result was the Nikon F of 1959, a professional-oriented machine. A whole line of Auto-Nikkor lenses underwent rapid development in the early '60s, giving Nikon one of the most extensive offerings of the early Big 4 (Canon, Minolta, and Pentax were the other companies). Nikon also developed a large assortment of accessories to increase the performance and versatility of the F: interchangeable finders, focusing screens, motor drives, etc. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Nikon solidified its reputation as the first choice of photojournalists and widened its scope to include advanced amateurs, and by 1979, to the average consumer. By the early '80s, they had risen to second place in overall sales among the now-Big 5 (Olympus had elbowed its way in during the mid-'70s). That would be the high-water mark for the Nikon manual focus system (and all other MF systems), although Nikon would continue to produce MF bodies and lenses into the 21st century, which was longer than any other major Japanese manufacturer. So let's get it on...with Nikon.
Welcome to the second system overview, this time featuring the Canon FL/FD system, in our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series. Following a brief introduction we will break things down via the format of 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Canon was an early entrant into the SLR market in 1959 (the same year as Nikon) with its Canonflex model in what it called the R-mount. Compared to its competitors Asahi Optical Co. (Pentax), Chiyoda Kogaku (Minolta), and Nippon Kogaku (Nikon), Canon got off to a slower start in SLRs as far as sales went. This was due to a couple of factors: 1) Canon remained focused on the rangefinder market as the others went pretty much all-in on SLRs, and 2) the Flex and its immediate descendants the RP, and R2000 were quirky machines with a bottom plate-mounted film advance trigger which was rangefinder-derived. The R-mount, with its breech lock lens coupling, did serve as the basis for the succeeding FL and FD mounts, although it used different internal controls for aperture functions. With the final R-mount camera, the heavyweight RM (1962), Canon went more mainstream with the control configuration and it was their first SLR with a built-in meter. They still remained fourth in sales, however, because they trailed the other three manufacturers in camera/lens automation.
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.