So where does our fixation with Top Ten Lists come from, anyways? Letterman? The Ten Commandments? Well, if you can't beat 'em.....Here, for your casual perusal, is a chronological consideration of ten important Japanese SLRs that pushed the development of such cameras forward for over 30 years. This is not to say that these are the 10 "top" or "best" SLRs of all time (far be it for me to be the arbiter of such things ;-)), and some may be less familiar than others, but all of them had an undeniable effect on the industry or market as a whole. Let's dive in :-).
1981 saw some major technological milestones: the first manned orbital mission of the Space Shuttle...the debut of IBM's Personal Computer (aka the PC)...the first flight of Boeing's second-gen wide-body, the 767...and the first Delorean DMC-12s began to roll off the line in Ireland. In step with such advancements, Pentax sought to push the technological boundaries of the 35mm SLR, much as they had a decade earlier with their Electro Spotmatic (ES) aperture priority autoexposure model. Only this time it was focus rather than exposure that they were seeking to automate. In late-'81, the ME F would become the first production 35mm auto focus (AF) SLR (with a caveat ;-)) to hit the scene.
Updated June 21, 2022
Canon's A-Series of 1976-85 was, unquestionably, the most commercially successful lineup in SLR history. In excess of 14 million bodies (divided among six models) were produced. The A-Series came...they saw...they conquered...and then they did what all empires eventually do...slid into oblivion. The AL-1 QF was the final desperate gasp for the chassis, as Canon sought to milk the last drop from its traditionally-styled SLRs, with the oh-so-'80s T-Series waiting in the wings. Along the way, it upheld the lofty A-Series' ideals of bargain-basement battery door latches, consumer-conscious construction, and Canon's time-honored tradition of over-promised performance resulting in mass consignments to drawers, closets, and attics ;-). What's that, your eyes are glazing over already?? Fear not, dear reader...you may well end up having a refreshing power nap before this is all over ;-).
Updated Jan. 12, 2021
As the purveyor of choice for professional SLRs for over three decades, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Nikon was among the more conservative of manufacturers. After all, most professionals in any field are inclined to stick with the tried-and-true over any newfangled gee-whizzery that comes along. Case in point: the original F lasted in production for 14 years, the whippersnapper F2 for 9, and the last bastion of manual focus pro Nikons, the F3, stuck around for 21 years. Likewise, the enthusiast-targeted FM/FE/FA platform barely changed in layout (a couple of minor control changes from the original FM to FE in 1978, and in the final FM3A model of 2001 being the biggest modifications) in nearly a quarter-century of production. So when Nikon did make major design changes, even in their non-professional models, it was a...big...deal. The summer of 1988 brought such a change, the DNA of which has managed to leapfrog from the venerable F-mount (in both film and digital forms) to the latest Z-mount mirrorless models. Worst of all for Nikonistas, it originally came from C...C...C...Canon (aaauuuggghhh!!!).
Updated Sept. 25, 2021
Ka-Chang! Ka-Chang! Ka-Chang! The 1980s were anything but unobtrusive, so it should come as no surprise that the N2000 (F-301 outside of the US & Canada), Nikon's first SLR with internal, automatic film winding, was not bashful in its efforts to advance 35mm film to the next frame. This by no means distinguished it from its peers as there were no truly quiet motorized film advances until the '90s came along. Long spurned by Nikonistas due to its cardinal sins of: 1) Complete battery reliance, 2) Hybrid construction (READ: it's not all-metal...gasp!), and 3) Automation for everything but film rewind and auto focus, the N2000 is an all-time sleeper among Nikon SLRs (although the ruckus it makes when you squeeze the shutter release would serve as an effective alarm tone on your smartphone ;-)). It was Nikon's last proper, in-house, clean-sheet, manual focus SLR design (don't get me started on the FM-10/FE-10 imposters or the oddball N6000/F-601M that supposedly replaced the N2000, but was just a de-contented MF version of the AF N6006/F-601). But there was more to this under-the-radar SLR than just a fancy film advance system.
Updated Feb. 19, 2022
It is common knowledge among Nikonistas that the Series E line of lenses are unworthy of the Nikkor designation, due to the copious amounts of "plaaaastic" in their construction and their intended audience of wet-behind-the-ears beginner hacks (the only thing worse than "plaaaastic" to a Nikonista is a "baaaattery", always uttered with head reared back and clenched fists shaking at the heavens). Even having "Nikon" engraved on these "re-badged third party" lenses went way too far for these gatekeepers. Seeing as the little EM consumer SLR that the E lenses were designed for deservedly "failed" on the market (selling a paltry 400,000+ units in its first full year of worldwide distribution and "only" 1.5 million in less than 5 years overall) it should come as no surprise that the Series E line of lenses turned out to be one of Nikon's greatest blunders. Read on to see how they barely survived and the lessons they learned (or rather, failed to learn ;-)).
Updated Feb. 17, 2022
Maybe tomorrow, I'll find what I call home,
Until tomorrow, you know I'm free to roam.
So if you want to join me for a while,
Just grab your hat, come travel light, that's hobo style.
-- excerpt from "Maybe Tomorrow", theme song from "The Littlest Hobo" --
The revival of The Littlest Hobo aired on Canadian television from 1979 to 1985 and continued in syndication throughout the rest of (and beyond) my childhood. I didn't like dogs much at the time so I thought that the show was by turns hokey, cheesy, lame...you name it (Macgyver was far more suited to my rarefied juvenile tastes and definitely not cheesy or hokey at all ;-)). Little did I realize that a similar situation was occurring simultaneously in the world of Nikon SLRs. Please allow me to introduce the hobo family of Nikon SLRs that was introduced in 1979 and discontinued in 1985 (coincidence or convergence? You be the judge ;-)).
Updated May 21, 2021
Game Changer. An overused phrase nowadays to be sure, but when applied appropriately it conveys an unmistakable break with the past and an opening up of previously unthought-of possibilities. So it was with the Bobby Orr of SLRs - what came to be called the Olympus OM-1. Bobby Orr??? It's like this, eh. Like Bobby Orr totally changed hockey forever, eh. Like, before Bobby Orr, defensemen didn't lead the rush, eh, or score more than 21 goals a season, eh (he did so for 7 consecutive years, topping out at 46 in 1975), or like score more than 60 points in a season, eh (he scored over 100 for 6 straight years, winning two scoring titles along the way, something no defenseman has done before or since). Or win MVP, eh (three years consecutively, only one other defenseman has won MVP once in the last 50 years). Or win Best Defenseman in the league like eight times in row, eh. And he did all that on like, one knee, eh (his left knee was first seriously injured in his second year in the NHL and he would have 13 or 14 surgeries on it over the course of his career). But his effect on the game was far more pronounced than just the record books. Offensively-minded defensemen (paradox, anyone? ;-)) became indispensable in hockey. Arena construction went nuts in New England as thousands of kids were turned on to hockey by "numbah foah, Bawbee Oah". He turned casual or non-fans into hockey lifers. GAME. CHANGER. In the same era, the Olympus OM-1 did likewise for 35mm SLRs. In this article we will concentrate mostly on the features, operation, and handling of the OM-1 and how it changed the SLR landscape and 35mm photography forever.
There, there, Pentax Nation. Your clickbait detectors just needed a little recalibration, that's all. As for your well-known inferiority complex, there is only so much one article can do, but I'll give it my best effort ;-). All kidding aside, we are going to take a closer look at my favorite Pentax SLR, Nikon-tainted as it may be, and how it came to be so.
Updated Apr. 19, 2022
Canon. The bane of the 35mm purist's existence. Has any other manufacturer done more to suck the soul out of these beautiful machines with microprocessors, green rectangles for grubby-fingered greenhorns, and punished us with a plethora of polycarbonate, penta-mirrored, pale imitations of a proper SLR? And worst of all, to dominate the market for the past four-plus decades while doing so?! Ugh, there will be copious amounts of antacids and Gravol needed to make it through this one ;-). But if Big C had been such a force since the mid-1970s, why would they need to "catch up"? Read on...if you dare...bwahahahahaha...
Updated Mar. 16, 2021
The Pentax K1000. The Minolta X-700. The Nikon F3. When it comes to naming the Japanese 35mm SLRs that remained in production the longest, those three models are at the top of most lists with both the Pentax and Nikon breaking the two-decade barrier (21 years for the Pentax and almost 22 years for the Nikon to be more exact), and the Minolta clocking out after 19 years. Unsurprisingly, all three of these models are very popular with film enthusiasts today, with the Pentax and Minolta routinely being recommended as "Best Beginner Film SLR" and the Nikon being lauded as an all-time classic and sometimes espoused as the "Best 35mm SLR of All Time". The objective of this article is not to wade into any fray over "the Best..." (seeing as what's best for me or you will not necessarily be the same in any case), but rather, to introduce you to another entrant in the longest-produced sweepstakes; one that receives far less notoriety, yet can prove to be an excellent choice as an introduction to film photography.
Updated Oct. 30, 2021
Three decades...Six (and-a-half ;-)) models...ONE platform. Approximately 4.5 million bodies sold. That makes the compact enthusiast/semi-professional manual focus line of Nikon SLRs the longest-lived chassis in the history of the marque, and arguably, the most successful. Spurred on somewhat by the success of the Olympus OM bodies but mostly by the groundbreaking Canon AE-1, Nikon's foray into the world of compact SLRs first bore fruit in 1977 with the FM, and ended up with an "old vines" distillation of body and flavor with the FM3A in 2001. But there was a lot of ground covered between those bookends. So which one will be right for you? Let's dig in :-)
Updated June 18, 2021
1957. A year of events that would reverberate for years to come. Sputnik. The debut of cable TV in the USA. "I Love Lucy" ended production. The Cat in the Hat was published. And a musical duo that would be as influential as anyone on the next two decades' of popular music (the Beach Boys, Beatles, and Bee Gees were only a few among the many that would cite themselves as being significantly impacted by them) had their first #1 hit:
1957 would also see the introduction of the first 35mm SLR from a relatively small Japanese manufacturer that was to have an outsized influence on the industry that would continue for over thirty years. In that year, TOPCON (Tokyo Kogaku) would find themselves at the leading edge of 35mm SLR technology and they would remain there for the next decade. The 1960s would see them emerge as Nikon's (Nippon Kogaku) most serious competitor in the professional 35mm SLR market. By 1977, however, Topcon's photography division would be a shell of its former self, outsourcing its remaining SLR production to Cosina and diving right to the bottom of the market. By 1981 (with Nikon owning over 75% of the pro market), Topcon was out of the photographic equipment business completely, even though they live on to this day in the industrial and medical optics arenas. So, what happened? How did Topcon go from industry leader to also-ran in the space of a generation?
Updated Nov. 3, 2021
In an earlier article, we looked at the differences between the Nikon F3 & F4 and how they might affect your purchase and/or usage of either body. Not being able to leave well enough alone, I thought, "seeing as you can purchase an excellent F2 Photomic or Photomic A or a plain F3 for $250 - $300 USD, what if we tried the same sort of comparison between the F2 and F3?" I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh...right...we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka "Knights of the Order of F2" (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.
...waits 5 seconds...
Okay...now that the pitchforks, torches, burning effigies, and other accoutrements to a rational discussion are at hand, let's wind the clock back to 1980 and the seismic shift that occurred in the Kingdom of F.
Updated July 23, 2020
PROGRAM...the buzzword for SLRs in the early 1980's. Only with this technological breakthrough could photographers now surmount the barrier of having to think about camera settings and composition at the same time! Freedom from Aperture- or Shutter-priority or (heaven forbid you were still using) m...mm...mmm...Manual exposure beckoned. At last, focus (no pun intended) only on composition...unencumbered by such banalities...and our wunderkamera will do it all better than you ever could, anyways...(Okay, okay, that's enough...1980's marketing-speak now set to OFF). Riiight. Anyhoo, Program was going to be the next big thing to save the Japanese manufacturers from the the slippery slope of the latest SLR sales slide (Aside: it didn't ;-)). From the introduction of the Canon A-1 (1978), the first proper Program mode SLR (along with the three more familiar exposure modes mentioned above), to the 1985 introduction of the real "next big thing" (Auto Focus), the profligate proliferation of Program SLRs only accelerated. Followers included: Fujica's AX-5 (1979), Canon's AE-1 Program (1981) & T50 & T70 (1983 & '84), Minolta's X-700 (1981), Nikon's FG & FA (1982 & '83), Olympus' OM-2S & OM-PC/OM-40 (1984 & '85) , Ricoh's XR-P (1983), Yashica's FX-103 Program & the Contax 159MM (1985), and the two subjects of this article: the Pentax Super Program (1983) and Program Plus (1984). That's 16 models within seven years. So what set the Pentaxes apart from the rest of their competitors? Read on at your leisure ;-).
Updated June 18, 2022
In our previous article, we started searching for a possible precedent in the film SLR era for today's sea-change in the digital (and DSLR, in particular) age. Is Canon president Fujio Mitarai's forecast of a possible 50% reduction in digital camera sales within the next two years overly pessimistic? (UPDATE: As it turned out the decline from 2018 to 2020 came to 55%, so no it wasn't :-)) Sigma Corporation president Kazuto Yamaki's recent comparison of the current state of transition from DSLRs to Mirrorless ILCs (Interchangeable Lens Cameras) with the MF to AF SLR transition of the late-'80s begs further investigation. So, just how quickly did the transition from manual focus (MF) to auto focus (AF) SLRs as far as market dominance actually take in the late-1980's? Before we answer that, let's identify our Cast of Corresponding Characters.
Updated June 18, 2022
"plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"
- Jean-Baptisite Alphonse Karr c. 1849
or as it is commonly rendered en Anglais:
"the more things change, the more they stay the same"
As of the spring of 2019, this maxim still rings true in the photographic equipment world (and the larger world in general :-)).
***FAIR WARNING*** - This series of articles contains numbers (please, no), history (bleccch!), and eventually, analysis (make it stop!). 678 Vintage Cameras cannot be held responsible for drowsiness, general lethargy or any other sleep-inducing effects should you choose to continue. Parallels are about to be drawn between the digital and film eras, which will be an immediate turnoff for adherents of the "either/or" crowd, and therefore an utter and complete waste of such a person's time. (As opposed to the standard waste of a person's time that this space traditionally occupies ;-))
Now that we've got that out of the way (is it too early in the spring for crickets to be out and about?), let's see how a 170-year-old saying relates to events in the camera industry today. In this first portion, we will look at the present state of affairs and some underlying factors, and Part 2 will deal with the breathtaking details of the Auto Focus revolution of the 1980s. (I swear I keep hearing crickets...)
In the manual focus (MF) era, the XD was arguably Minolta's biggest step forward technologically. It was the first 35mm SLR to feature both aperture- and shutter-priority auto exposure modes and all within the flanks of the first compact Minolta SLR body. The new form factor and added electronic sophistication necessitated the adoption of integrated circuits (ICs) by Minolta. The XD was thus far more complex electronically than its predecessor, the XE, which did have an electronically-controlled shutter and aperture-priority, but was still largely mechanical in its actual operation. The XD's basic electronic layout would prove to be the pattern for all subsequent manual focus Minoltas (including the XG and X-xxx series). And it was the XD that made capacitors front and central in the basic operation of the mirror and shutter assemblies of every succeeding Minolta MF SLR. Capacitor failures are few and far between with XDs and the majority of XGs, but became much more prevalent with the X-xxx series. My personal X-700 fell victim to "capacitor-itis" almost 20 years ago, but my XD 11 has never skipped a beat. That set me to wondering...
Updated Sept. 13, 2021
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 to 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.
Updated May 2, 2022
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?
Updated Oct. 19, 2021
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:
Updated July 23, 2020
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 :-).
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.