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?
From the introduction of the Asahi Pentax in 1957 onwards, it had been a non-stop automation party for 35mm SLRs. Everything from lens aperture actuation...to exposure...to film advance and rewind...had been automated. That left only one major operation: focusing. Research into AF had begun in the mid-'60s and had been making slow progress. There had been no great sense of urgency because manual focus (MF) sales had been strong, with Canon and Nikon in particular making major gains in market share through the 1970s. Canon had vaulted to #1 in sales, and not by a small margin, with its A-series of cameras, and Nikon dominated the professional market throughout that decade as well as being very strong in the enthusiast category.
With SLR sales falling from their all-time peak in 1980-81 due to the success of compact AF 35mms, the various Japanese camera companies were searching for something to make SLRs relevant again. Having been the first to hit the latest sales decline, Pentax felt a pressing need to make a splash. So, it was not a huge surprise to see them take the first crack at a production AF SLR in October of 1981, with the ME F.
That made Pentax the first-mover in production AF SLRs. The next AF SLRs (the Nikon F3AF & Olympus OM 30/OM F) would not debut for another year or more. Which meant that Pentax had the entire AF market to themselves for that time. The result? About 90,000 cameras sold in 4 years. To put that in perspective: the manual focus ME super (from which the ME F was derived) sold about 20 units for every single ME F sold during that same period (and this was at the beginning of the decline phase for MF SLRs). Ummm...so being first didn't exactly translate to sales success for Pentax. Why? For two basic reasons. Most glaringly, the performance of the ME F failed to impress photographers. The contrast-detect AF system used by Pentax was very slow, and even worse, not very reliable, particularly as light levels dropped. The camera body itself required double the amount of batteries (4 - SR44s) that the ME super did, not to mention that the single available AF lens (a 35-70mm f/2.8) needed 4 AAA batteries and it consumed these rather ravenously ;-). And both the body and lens-based batteries had to be healthy for AF to work. So you could be faced with replacing up to 8 batteries at a crack, something many photographers were not prepared to live with. It had only been a decade since the first electronic SLRs had appeared, and there were still quite a few mechanical-only holdouts in 1981. The other elephant in the room was...(you guessed it :-)) price. From B&H in the summer of 1982, the ME F with the AF lens would set you back a cool $1,295 USD (inflation adjusted to 2022, as are all prices in this article) whereas an ME super with a 50/1.4 was less than half that ($622 USD). An underperforming camera with only one lens for twice the price was not exactly dressed for success ;-).
When Nikon joined the fray, they did so with a twist. Instead of an enthusiast-level body, they went whole-hog with the professional F3AF. That Nikon viewed this as more of a test-bed rather than a full-fledged system was made apparent by the availability of only two AF lenses (an 80/2.8 & a 200/3.5) although MF Nikkors could be used with the AF sensor providing electronic focus confirmation (as did the ME F with Pentax MF lenses). But the F3AF ran into similar issues as the Pentax: AF performance was much faster (and the AF Nikkors used internal focusing, which was nice), but still sketchy in lower light (EV 4 was the lowest either camera was rated for) and the pricing was even tougher to swallow. By March 1984, the F3AF with the 80/2.8 would run you an eye-watering $2,805 USD ($2,143 for the body & $662 for the lens) at B&H. Compare that to the MF F3HP with an 85/2 MF Nikkor for $1,365 USD ($1,011 + $354) and it's no wonder that F3AFs are fairly rare birds nowadays :-).
With Olympus and the OM 30, it was a bit more complicated. The OM 30 had a built-in electronic focus detector (the Honeywell TCL) that was usable with manual focus lenses as well as the 35-70/4 AF Zuiko that also had a built-in EFD which would enable it to offer AF on manual focus Olympus bodies. Both were introduced in prototype form at Photokina in Sept. 1982. Again, this was really a test program at best and Olympus was working at it from two directions (AF sensor in the body vs. AF sensor in the lens). Come the spring of 1983, the OM 30 was on the shelves and selling for around $500 USD. It lasted in stores for about a year and a half at most (B&H dropped it by June 1984). But the lens (which was the critical component as far as true AF was concerned, otherwise the OM 30 was just another focus-assist body like all the others at that point) was delayed until the summer of 1985 by which time the body had been discontinued for a year. Not exactly a coordinated effort. The AF Zuiko sported a very similar profile to the Pentax AF lens, with the motor assembly hanging below the lens barrel (however, there was a provision for powered manual focusing), and required 3 - AAAs along with the 5 - SR44s needed by the OM 30. Performance was a non-starter. Discombobulated may be the best way to sum up Olympus' approach to AF ;-). Their heart was never fully in it, as they felt it was only for consumers, and their future efforts would prove to stay in step with this conviction :-(.
By the start of 1984 the SLR depression was entering its third year, and the bite was being felt by every manufacturer. By late-1983 Ritz Camera had bought up the entire remaining ME F inventory in the US (other retailers such as B&H had already dropped the camera), and was blowing them out with the 35-70/2.8 AF for $628 USD and with the standard SMC-A 50/1.7 for just $452 USD (that was $50 less than the same lens with an ME super), indicating just how difficult it was to move them by that time. By June 1985, the F3AF also was gone from the listings of B&H. But the F3AF faced a far more formidable obstacle than the long-gone ME F and the Olympii by the time the spring of 1985 had rolled around. Which leads us to the the most-influential AF SLR of all time, at least as far as its effect on the competition. And the beginning of what would turn out to be the final reprieve for 35mm film SLRs.
Minolta had been even harder hit than Pentax by the post-1980 SLR recession. So, it should come as no surprise that they were keen to regain sales momentum. The difference was that Minolta wisely decided to bring a fully-mature AF system to market. System here refers to not just a body and a lens or two, but a range of lenses covering common focal lengths right off the bat and to be filled out on both ends within a couple of years. They were also determined to offer more-consistent AF performance and...(here was the biggie) at a price that would be competitive with traditional MF SLRs. These self-imposed requirements meant that Minolta took a different approach to AF than the vast majority of the industry had up to that time.
The major divergence in philosophy between Minolta and almost all of the others came down to how to implement AF drive. From Nikon's first prototype AF lens in 1971 to the introduction of Canon's T80 in April 1985, the prevailing conception (aside from Yashica, with their Contax 137 AF prototype) was to power the AF drive with a motor in the lens. This was a very logical conclusion to draw, particularly with the size of electric motors in general during that period. But the early 1980's had brought major advances in miniaturization. A visual comparison between the 1971 prototype 80/4.5 Nikkor (scroll down to the second-last picture) and the 80/2.8 introduced with the F3AF (which was definitely the most tidy of the AF lenses at the time) shows just how far things had come. But the complexity and size of such lenses still extracted penalties in size/weight and cost over standard MF lenses that prevented the widespread acceptance of AF. This is where Minolta's history of outside-the-box thinking came to the fore. They realized that it was the lenses that would make or break their AF system. To be successful in the mass market, they would have to be within spitting distance of their MF ancestors, both in footprint and impact on the wallets of photographers. This led Minolta engineers to adopt the same idea as Yashica: why not put the AF drive in the camera body? This would allow them to utilize much of their existing lens technology, thus reducing the complexity and cost from motor-in-lens designs. The difference was that Minolta actually did it while Yashica's nascent AF program was scuttled for a time after their purchase by Kyocera in 1983, along with their partner Zeiss' reluctance to develop AF lenses (the Zeiss optical engineers were loath to reduce the precision of their MF lens focus mechanisms to allow for reasonable AF speed). Initially, Minolta's approach worked out splendidly.
Now, this still meant for a steep development curve and here Minolta made another wise decision. There would be no test-beds put on the market. It would be all-up or nothing. Thus, they kept a very tight lid on their AF program and they were willing to wait longer to make sure that they had a properly ironed-out design before bringing it to market. AF was a hot topic in the mainstream photography magazines from 1981-on. But you heard nary a peep about Minolta even though they were pouring nearly all of their resources into their AF program. There were loads of AF prototypes at the trade shows (most of which never matured into a production version). Almost every manufacturer offered transitional SLRs with electronic focus confirmation for manual focus in the early '80s (such as the ones mentioned earlier) and Minolta played along with their X-600 (it looked like an X-370 with a bigger grip), but they kept it very low-key. The X-600 was only available in Japan and Minolta used it mostly to solicit feedback from journalists about the viability of focus assistance versus full-on AF. It makes one think that they did it as more of a diversion for their competitors, using it with their original SR lens mount, betraying no clue to the development of their new Alpha (A-) mount. The result, when the 7000 (with a dozen lenses) was introduced in February 1985, was pandemonium in the SLR market. Minolta caught out every one of their competitors, who either rushed to start development, redoubled their efforts, or completely scrapped their existing programs and totally started from scratch (more on that in Part 2 :-)).
The keys to this success were:
The impact of the Minolta 7000 was indisputable. Pentax, Olympus, and Nikon immediately switched over to the MIB concept to accelerate development of their ripostes to Minolta, and Pentax also abandoned contrast-detect AF for phase-detect. It took Nikon 14 months, and Olympus & Pentax over two years to bring their challengers to market. This matter of timing would loom large in the future. Nikon was able to gain a foothold with their F-501 (N2020) that was a decent competitor for the 7000, but more importantly, they were better-positioned to take Minolta on when the second-generation of AF bodies appeared in 1987-89. The Olympus OM77/OM707 was a tire fire and mercifully was quickly put out of its misery ;-). They began to put all their AF energy into bridge cameras. Pentax' delay would cost them dearly, as by 1987 the market was far more crowded and they would never be a serious challenger for market share in the AF-era. That is not to say that they were not able to make some good cameras, but they would never be class-leading (they were basically a generation behind everyone else, at least when it came to AF performance). In the space of half-a-decade Pentax would go from first to fourth in sales when it came to the AF SLR market.
By now, it should be clear that good execution trumps being the early bird. And this paradigm holds up across various technology markets. There have been countless examples of first-movers with the right idea, but poor implementation or timing, and oftentimes the second- or third-movers proved to have the advantage of learning from the missteps of the originator and/or taking a bit more time to develop a superior product. Minolta was third among the Big 5 to introduce an integrated AF SLR and lens system (the delay between the OM 30 body and the AF 35-70/4 Zuiko lens cost Olympus that placing, although it didn't really matter in the scheme of things), yet their implementation was so far ahead of everyone else that it literally took years for the others to catch up, let alone surpass them, if they did at all. But did being the first successful AF manufacturer guarantee Minolta's continued domination? You may have noticed the near-absence of the biggest player in the 1980s MF SLR market in this article. Coincidence? I think not ;-). Tune in next time for the stunning conclusion of our two-part tale...a tale of tragedy and redemption...a tale of complacency and comeuppance (alright, alright...enough with the manufactured drama <eyeroll>). If you are not already bored thoroughly out of your skull, don't count me out yet :-).
Inside Autofocus - How the Magic Works - Pop. Photo Feb. 1982 p.77
Autofocus - Its History & Great Future - Popular Photography July 1985 p.12
Minolta X-600 - Popular Photography June 1983 & Dec. 1994
Minolta 7000 - Popular Photography March, May, & June 1985
Pentax ME F - Popular Photography Nov. 1981 & Feb. 1982
Olympus OM 30 - Popular Photography Oct. 1982
Nikon F3AF - Popular Photography May & Oct. 1982
Various SLR Manuals - http://www.butkus.org/chinon/index.html
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.