1976. A watershed moment in the history of the SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera. The year when, depending on your point of view, camera design and manufacturing quality began its slide into a pit of oblivion, or ushered in a new era of affordability and convenience, opening the doors of SLRdom to a whole new audience. Or maybe, like me, you can feel a bit of both ;-). Either way, the camera responsible is none other than the Canon AE-1, the best-selling film SLR of all time.
To appreciate the impact that the AE-1 had on 35mm photography, it serves us well to remember the context of its arrival and subsequent domination of the market. Prior to the AE-1, SLRs had been the choice of professionals (particularly photojournalists) and enthusiasts, people who were not interested just in snapshots, but in the craft and art of photography. Having control over the different parameters of exposure was very high on their list of priorities and the SLR gave them that, as well as access to a wide variety of lenses and accessories. For the average consumer, whose top priorities are convenience and affordability, that was waayy too much camera for waaayyy too much money! Thus the conundrum Canon was facing by 1974: a small, nearly-saturated enthusiast SLR market versus a huge consumer (mass) market that up to this point was untouchable for reasons of cost and convenience. What could be done?
The impact of a leap in technology is often best measured in the reaction of one's competitors rather than only in market-share or some other basic metric. The Olympus OM series of SLRs are a case in point. While Olympus certainly did grab a nice chunk of market share in the mid 1970's, it was the changes that their fellow manufacturers made in their own designs that define the introduction of the OM-1 as a pivotal point in SLR history.
Within five years of the introduction of the mechanical OM-1, followed two years later by the electronic OM-2, the other members of the now Big 5 (Minolta, Pentax, Nikon, and Canon) had all brought out their own downsized and/or lighter-weight models. Five years seems like an eternity in today's marketplace, but back then product cycles normally lasted much longer. Take, for instance, the Pentax Spotmatic. Introduced in 1964, with slight updates in 1971 and 1973, it maintained its layout and dimensions and gained 20 grams of weight until its discontinuation in 1976, 12 years later. The Minolta SR-T 101, which came out in 1966, was produced in the same basic form for 15 years. For over 14 years, the Nikon F hardly changed. Product development also took much longer, without all of the computer modelling and simulation available today. Prototypes were hand-built and tested, and re-built and re-tested many times, before being put into production. So, the fact that within 4 to 5 years these companies all brought out new models, often replacing a full-size model that was only 2 or 3 years old, speaks volumes as to the disruption the OMs caused.
We have Kodak and Leitz (maker of the Leica) partially to thank for the shrinking of 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) cameras in the 1970s. If it weren't for the obstinacy of the former and the inspiration of the seminal IIIf & M3 models produced by the latter, we may never have seen one of the most influential SLRs in history, whose consequence is still affecting the camera industry. Let's take a trip back to the late 1960s and the birth of the Revolution...you know it's gonna be...all right...all right...all right...
"Auto", "Automatic", words beginning with "Auto..." and words ending in "...matic" have long been the stock in trade of the camera manufacturers/marketers (closely followed by the use of "Super"). While we may suffer from "auto" overload from time to time, or feel that automation has gone too far today, without the camera companies' obsession with automating the SLR, we would probably all still be shooting with rangefinders and TLRs (twin lens reflexes), or we would be manually flipping our mirrors back down after each shot, "pre-setting" our apertures, re-cocking our shutters manually, developing our film in the bathr...oh...wait...a lot of us still do that ;-). Anyhow, you get the idea. The beauty of vintage SLRs is just about anyone can find a model (ha, try keeping it to just one ;-)) with the level of automation they want. So let's take a trip back to the time when everything auto was new and exciting and was going to change the world...and we'll end up with lots of camera models with "E" in their names.
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.