In their never-ending quest to automate the operation of the SLR, the Japanese manufacturers first targeted auto exposure in the mid-1960s. Auto exposure (AE) initially meant that the photographer had only to set one exposure parameter (shutter speed or aperture) and the camera would automatically set the other. What became known as "shutter priority" (with the user setting the shutter speed and the camera choosing the complementary aperture), was the first AE mode to appear in cameras. It was the easiest to design and could be completely mechanical (no electronic controls) in operation. Konica (one of the smaller and more innovative SLR makers) was the first company to market a practical focal-plane shutter-priority SLR. Nikon began AE research & development in late 1964. It would be five years, though, before they had their first prototype and eight years before they brought an AE-capable SLR to market. So what took so long?
The Aperture-Priority Angle
Shutter-priority AE was adopted by many manufacturers due to its relative simplicity in design. Aperture-priority AE, on the other hand, would require electronic control of the shutter in order to obtain sufficient exposure accuracy, among other things. And that was the main reason why it took Nikon (as well as Pentax and Minolta, the two other major companies that favored aperture-priority AE) so long to introduce it into production. Getting the necessary electronics developed to provide: 1) aperture-priority capability, 2) reliability, and 3) the ability to fit those electronics inside the standard SLR layout was no small task! This was not a case of just copying and improving an existing design. Neither was it just grabbing some components off the shelf, it was from-the-bottom-up invention and engineering. It was this task that brought the first integrated circuits (ICs) to prominence in the SLR industry, and is a major link in the evolution of the SLR. But why did Nikon favor an AE mode that required so much more work and expense to develop?
The shutter- versus aperture-priority debate raged throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s. It was Canon (the dominant manufacturer of the late 1970s and S-P proponent) versus the other members of the Big-5 (Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, and later Olympus, who all favored A-P). It was Canon that introduced major cost-cutting to the SLR world, so it's not a huge mystery why they would be inclined toward the simpler and cheaper alternative of S-P. The reason that Nikon and the others chose A-P was that it allowed more creative control for the photographer, from their standpoint. Depth-of-field (DOF), or the relationship between in-focus and out-of-focus elements in a picture is a function of aperture and the distance to the subject from the camera. Shutter speed has no bearing on this. Selective focus is one of the unique tools in the SLR user's creative toolbox. Nikon placed greater emphasis on this and so went the A-P route. A side effect of developing the electronically-controlled shutter to facilitate A-P operation was that shutter speeds were no longer limited to the discrete settings of 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, etc. Now a speed of 1/74 or 1/558 or anywhere in between could be selected by the camera, resulting in greater exposure accuracy, particularly beneficial when using narrow-latitude slide film. The debate was really mostly based in marketing, as anyone with a basic understanding of exposure can use shutter-priority to control DOF as easily as aperture-priority can be used to control shutter speed, especially if both values are displayed in the viewfinder. From the late '80s onward it was a moot point, as almost all enthusiast-level SLRs came with both S-P and A-P modes along with Program mode where the camera controlled both parameters.
Introducing the EL
Nikon finally brought their electronic SLR to market in December 1972. It was badged as a Nikkormat (Nikomat in Japan), their enthusiast line of SLRs. The EL (which stood for Electronics & Light) was the first Nikon body to feature a hot-shoe for electronic flash to go along with the electronic shutter and electronic exposure control. (Is it just me, or is there some underlying theme here?) Compared to the mechanical Nikkormats, it had a more conventional control layout (a la the Nikon F) with the shutter speed dial on the top plate as opposed to surrounding the lens mount and the DOF preview button on the front panel instead of on the top plate. The ASA/ISO speed selector was much more conveniently situated on the left shoulder of the camera instead of on the bottom of the lens mount. The film door latch was now activated by pulling up the film rewind crank (like most of the SLR industry) instead of the side mounted pull up lever of the FT bodies. But the basic chassis was the same, meaning that the EL is one tough camera. (The front plate and mirror-box assemblies are a single casting on all Nikkormats, whereas in most other SLRs they are separate sub-assemblies).
There would be three iterations (really more like two and a half) of ELs. With the introduction of Canon's AE-1 power-winder-capable model in 1976, Nikon brought out the otherwise identically-specced ELW with its accessory AW-1 winder. The only modifications were two contacts and a coupler on the bottom plate, and an auxiliary power switch surrounding the shutter release. The EL-W was really just a transitional model to the final iteration of the ELs, the EL2. The EL2 (May 1977) would be the first amateur-level body to bear the Nikon name (Nikkormat was dropped). It also featured several improvements: a more sensitive silicon photocell meter instead of the previous cadmium sulfide (CdS) type, an exposure compensation dial, and Automatic Aperture Indexing (AI). The EL2 retained compatibility with pre-AI lenses by including a flip-up AI tab, allowing for stop-down metering with such lenses.
The ELs were quite profitable for Nikon, with around 750,000 being sold in 9 years. But their real significance lay in the foundation they laid for Nikon's most successful line of enthusiast SLRs, the FM/FE/FA series, and that technology would also trickle down into their first forays into the consumer SLR market. With the technical experience gained in developing the ELs, Nikon was well-positioned to capitalize on the SLR boom of the late '70s and early '80s.
Is an EL in Your Future?
The ELs are extremely rugged, capable cameras. All versions used a 6V 544-type battery accessed in the mirror box. They are noted to be more power-ravenous than the later 3V FE, and contemporary models like the Minolta XE that use very common and inexpensive 1.5V button cells. The 6V cells run about $7 - $12 USD for silver-oxide or lithium versions. If your EL will be sitting for any longer than a week, it is wise to pull the battery to conserve its life. Features all versions hold in common are:
Differences between the EL/ELW and EL2 are few but significant:
The era of the EL was one of intense competition between the Japanese camera companies. The early 1970s brought us some of the heaviest, most capable SLRs. If you are looking for the feeling of ultimate build quality before the accountants began to take over, the EL Nikkormats/Nikons are a treat indeed. They have one of the finest viewfinder displays in manual focus Nikonland and are pure pleasure to use.
Part 7: Nikomat EL @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/
Part 8: Nikomat ELW/Nikon EL2 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/
Debut of Nikon F2 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/
Project SLR Production Numbers @ knippsen.blogspot.ca
Niko/Nikkormat/Nikon EL/ELW/EL2 Instruction Manuals @ www.butkus.org
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.