Updated Jan. 20, 2023
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 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 35mm 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?
Big 4 and Big 5 are terms used ad nauseum in this blog. If you happen to be visiting for the first time, these terms are used out of sheer laziness to label the major Japanese 35mm film SLR manufacturers from the 1960s through 1980s. Initially they were: Asahi Pentax, Canon, Minolta, and Nikon (Big 4) - joined by Olympus in the early 1970's (making 5, according to my sick math skills). Ad nauseum, indeed ;-). This conglomerate dominated sales and played the leading role in the advancement of the SLR as the 35mm camera of choice among serious photographic enthusiasts (and later, even consumers) during the last half of the 20th century. It is thus very easy to fall into the trap of overlooking the contributions of the many bit players in the industry when it came to the evolution of 35mm cameras, including SLRs. Companies such as Chinon, Fujifilm (which became the largest producer of film and paper in Japan), Konica (the original producer of photographic supplies in Japan), Kowa, Mayima, Miranda, Petri, Yashica, and Zunow, among others, made up this group. But we are going to key in on Topcon...the Everly Brothers of the SLR world...
Where It All Began
The Tokyo Kogaku Kikai K.K. (Tokyo Optical Company, Ltd.) was founded in 1932 (five and seven years, respectively, before Don and Phil Everly were born) based from the surveying instruments division of K.Hattori & Co., Ltd. and quickly became a favored supplier of optical equipment (primarily surveying optics, binoculars, and cameras) to the Imperial Japanese Army while the older Nippon Kogaku Kogyo K.K. (Japan Optical Industries Company, Ltd., founded in 1917) was aligned with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Naturally, the competitive spirit between the branches of the armed forces spilled over to their suppliers, and for the next four+ decades, the two companies (which would become familiarly-known in Western markets as Topcon and Nikon) engaged in a spirited battle for photographic supremacy. While both did dip their toes into the civilian market pre-WWII, it would be during the post-war era, with both companies having to turn to civilian production entirely during the American occupation of Japan and beyond, that their rivalry would reach its peak. The 35mm SLR would become the primary point of contention between the two. Topcon also diversified into medical optical instruments starting in 1947, decades before Nikon would do so. They beat Nikon by two years to market with their first SLR and each would continue introducing technical advances over the next few years, culminating with the brilliant RE Super (sold as the Beseler Topcon Super D in the USA; Beseler was the U.S. distributor for Topcon until the early 1970s) of 1963 being chosen by the U.S. Navy as its official 35mm SLR over the Nikon F. The RE Super would be the primary standard that Nikon would measure its F-system against for the next decade-and-a-half, and they would even adopt features found on the RE Super as late as their fourth-generation F4 (1988) a quarter-century later. Before we dig into that delicious comparison, let's review the evolution of the true top-flight Topcon SLRs (using the original Exakta-based R/RE mount) from 1957-77 (we will briefly get into the lower-tier UV Topcor mount later in this article).
Topcon (Exakta-style Mount) SLR Chronology
...the Redoubtable RE Super (...and Super D...and Super DM :-))
The RE Super was a revelation in February 1963. It not only took all of the incremental advances (instant-return mirror, fully-automatic aperture, interchangeable viewfinders, to name a few) of the previous decade and put them in a single package, but simultaneously pushed the technological bar farther forward than any other SLR of the 1960s. Think about this for a moment: Out of the Big 4 (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, and Pentax), only Minolta (widely regarded as the most innovative of the group) would close out the decade with an automatic-indexing, full-aperture TTL-metered SLR, and it took them three years longer to get to that point than it did Topcon (not to mention, with considerable "borrowing" from the RE Super's internal meter-coupling design ;-)). And all of this from a company with minuscule sales, comparatively speaking. And while the others would eventually catch up and surpass Topcon, the engineering of RE Super's meter is still impressive to behold.
By the time Topcon introduced the RE Super, it was widely accepted that cadmium sulfide (CdS) cells were the way to go when it came to camera meters. Although they did require a power source (aka battery) for operation, they were far more compact, responsive, and had much greater low-light sensitivity that the selenium cells then-extant. CdS would remain top-of-the-line until the early-'70s and Fujica's introduction of the Silicon Photo Diode (SPD), and would survive well into the 1980s in lower-specced models from many SLR makers. There would be a variety of configurations selected by different manufacturers (some consisting of two or even three cells to improve exposure accuracy), but none were as ambitious as Topcon's. While most CdS cells were of a button-type and around 6mm (1/4") in diameter, Topcon, in collaboration with Toshiba (with whom Topcon had become affiliated in March 1960), developed a single CdS cell that was the nearly the size (26mm x 34mm) of the 35mm film frame and then was sandwiched between the mirror and the mirror backing plate. Not content with just size, they went for sophistication as well. Now, Minolta's two-cell CLC (Contrast Light Compensating) meter (introduced in the SR-T 101 in 1966) is sometimes referred to as the earliest example of a rudimentary "matrix" meter, having two segments that were intended to balance exposures by emphasizing the fore ground versus the (brighter) sky in landscape orientation. However, the Topcon RE Super's metering cell was divided into five basic segments, with four being termed "combs" divided by a central "cross". Last time I checked five is more than two, and Topcon was over three years ahead of Minolta, to boot :-). Topcon's method of compensating for brighter skies in landscape orientation was to make the two upper combs smaller in size than the lower combs which would automatically bias exposure towards the non-sky area. Not content with that, they also made the comb areas with a higher sensitivity to light by concentrating the etched lines in the mirror in a fine diamond pattern over each segment. They balanced this by using a far coarser diamond grid over the central cross segment of the meter for situations where light levels were higher. The internal resistance of the CdS circuits was thus varied and automatically balanced depending on light levels, with camera shifting more towards the central cross as they rose higher. Safe to say, in 1963 (and well into the 1970's, for that matter), there was nothing that came even close to the technical level of the RE Super's meter. There would be a (literal) price to pay for such technical achievement, however, as we will see.
While somewhat less technologically revolutionary than the metering cell, the method of coupling the meter to the lens and shutter of the RE Super was ingenious. Forgoing all of the previous external levers, arms, or whatever other appendages were used to connect lenses and shutter speed dials to add-on meters, Topcon came up with a clever internal system of gears, pulleys and miniature chains connecting the lens aperture lever, shutter speed/ISO dial, and the meter for a seamless transfer of exposure information between the meter, lens, and shutter. Completely out of sight (except in cutaways in Topcon's marketing materials :-)), this system contributed as much as the TTL meter to the ease and speed of operation of the RE Super. No futzing with twisting aperture rings back-and-forth or pushing levers into slots, etc. Just install the lens and go. The RE super was the easiest SLR to use in 1963 and wouldn't have any serious competition in this segment until the SR-T 101 came along. But, there were other features of the RE Super that the Minolta still couldn't match.
It is one thing to put all manner of technical sophistication into an SLR (as Minolta proved a few times over the years), but it is quite another to marry that to sturdy reliability with very good overall ergonomics, and top build quality. And here again Topcon excelled with the RE Super (it had one of the smoothest film advances of any SLR of the era, outdoing the Nikon F handily). It was no coincidence that the RE Super was selected in the mid-'60s by the US Navy and many law-enforcement agencies for its combination of ease of use and rugged build. Upon its introduction, no other SLR offered the total package of the RE Super and its RE Topcor lenses. The 58/1.4 and 100/2.8 were some of the finest examples of their ilk ever made (Cosina would go so far as to recreate the 58/1.4 in the early 2000s, available in Nikon F-mount, ironically :-)). A professional would, at least, have to take a good hard look at the Topcon before selecting the Nikon F over it during that time (Nikon still dominated Topcon when it came to overall sales, but we'll get to that soon enough ;-)).
The RE Super and the Nikon F: Head-to-Head in 1965
Now, for a few things that the specs don't tell us. Just like every other SLR ever created, the RE Super had its drawbacks, which could be categorized from minor nuisances to dealbreakers depending on your perspective. The location of the OFF/ON switch for the meter on the bottom of the camera was probably the most noticeable, particularly if you wanted to mount a motor drive, which impaired access to the switch considerably. This was not an issue for the Nikon F, which had its meter switch integrated with its Photomic viewfinders. Conversely, the Nikon couldn't meter with any of its other interchangeable finders aside from the Photomics, while that was a huge benefit of the in-body meter of the Topcon. Another niggle for the RE Super was the metering display, which lacked clear markings to indicate over or underexposure. Now, this was something that the user would come to understand clearly upon study of the manual, but the catch was that the top deck meter readout displayed the meter reading in reverse of that in the viewfinder. While this was great if you had your RE Super mounted on a microscope or copy stand (and you were thus looking at the top of the camera from the front and pointed down), it made for some cognitive dissonance if you had it at waist-level. There was also a price to be paid for that smooth winding stroke: less torque meant a longer throw (180 degrees) versus the higher-effort, but snappier 135-degree stroke of the Nikon. A side-effect of the etched mirror was that the pattern of lines would become visible in the viewfinder as the aperture was stopped down past f/8 and DOF preview was engaged, which had no effect on the image, obviously, but could be distracting for some users. One other issue that was never addressed by Topcon was the lack of a shutter speed setting display in the viewfinder, which almost all of its competitors had some form of by 1970.
The Effect of the RE Super on an Industry
A good argument could be made for the RE Super as the most influential Japanese 35mm SLR ever, full-stop. Just how influential? Well, Minolta's very successful SR-T lineup (which also lasted for 15 years on the market, from 1966-81) pinched the line-and-pulley meter-coupling system (substituting nylon strings for the over-built miniature chains of the RE Super). Miranda and Nikon both adopted the behind-the-mirror location of the metering cell in their Sensorex (1966) and F3 (1980) models, respectively. Miranda utilized the etched-lines approach of Topcon, albeit in a different configuration to avoid violating Topcon's patents, and Nikon developed a method for using 50,000 oval-shaped "pinholes" to allow 8% of the incoming light to pass through to the F3's metering cell, which was verrrry close to the Topcon's 7% transmission ;-). Nikon even went further 25 years after the RE Super debuted, when the F4 became the first professional Nikon with a proper slide-in rail system for its interchangeable viewfinders, which Topcon had had from the beginning on its original R model, and which was more secure than the press-in clip latch used on the first three F-generations. But beyond all of the specific instances of competitors "borrowing" features from Topcon, was the general proliferation of TTL meters, and full-aperture ones at that. Now, it's obvious that many of the Japanese SLR manufacturers were busily working on TTL metering as early as 1960 (when Asahi-Pentax revealed the Spot-Matic prototype at Photokina). But once the the RE Super hit the market, there was no going back...it was TTL or go home for any company wanting to be successful long-term in the 35mm SLR market, and the rush was on to get a TTL model on the market from all of the major players. The fact that it took at least two or three years longer for Canon, Minolta, and Nikon to get TTL metering up and running, and eight years more for Canon to get to the full-aperture stage, demonstrated the level of engineering that Topcon was capable of in 1963. Pentax' failure to quickly move to full-aperture TTL did not impact Spotmatic sales in the least during the 1960's (they sold more Spotties within the first few months of release than Topcon would sell of all three iterations of the RE Super in 15 years), but would prove costly to them by the time the '70s rolled around. The technological break, before and after the RE Super, is unmistakable. Even with all of the advances that have been made into the digital era, full-aperture TTL metering is still the standard for interchangeable lens cameras and has even survived the transition to smartphones. How many other features introduced by SLRs nearly six decades ago are still viable or necessary today? Thinking...
For all of that, it's been over four decades since a Topcon 35mm SLR has been sold new, and even longer since a model worthy of the name was available. So what the heck happened? How do you go from being the technological leader of an industry to abandoning the entire enterprise in the space of less than two decades?? Well, here are seven reasons for Topcon's topple:
Outside of a few 35mm enthusiasts, the only recognition of the name Topcon today will come from those in the medical or industrial sectors. The RE Super has cult status in Japan and often lists for anywhere from $350 - $1,000 USD with a lens. But in North America, where brand-recognition for Topcon is somewhat lower, you can sometimes score one for less than $300 USD, particularly if it is badged as a Beseler-Topcon. The typical solutions for dealing with mercury-battery-powered SLR meters all are in play and the usual caveats for buying any vintage SLR apply:
The later Super D and SUPER DM bodies are preferable to some people due to their refinements over the RE Super, but the original is nothing to be sneezed at if you happen to come across one, especially with a 58/1.4 RE Topcor attached. The film winding of the original model (180-degree) is more reliable, with the late bodies (135-degree) requiring more frequent lubrication of their geartrains to prevent excessive wear. The RE-2/D-1 bodies are more of a bargain due to their even greater obscurity than their illustrious forebears and they compare favorably to a Nikkormat FT or FTn .
If you are looking for something a little less mainstream but just as capable as a Nikon F, and with a larger impact on SLR development, you will be hard pressed to beat the top-flight Topcons. They are truly classics in every sense of the word. The tragic part, as we have seen before, is that being first and/or the best is no guarantee of overall success. Sales of the Nikon F totalled over 862,000 by June 1974. F2 production in just nine years reached 816,000 in June 1980. In December of 1980, the Nikon F3 was just nine months old when Topcon pulled the plug. They exited 35mm camera market and the RE Super/Super D(M)s slid further into obscurity. By September 1992, Nikon had produced 751,000 F3s (which also proved to the longest-lived F-model, lasting until 2001). A bitter pill for Topcon, as the F3 was the first (and, as it turned out, the only) F-Series body to adopt the RE Super's meter-in-the-body configuration. By the time the F3 was discontinued, Nikon had sold close to 2.5 million of the first three F-models. Total production figures for the Topcon RE Super/Super D(M) are not readily available, but Modern Photography noted that the US Navy had ordered several thousand Super Ds by 1974. Serial number analysis (caveat: this is fraught with supposition and thus should never be taken as gospel ;-)) supposes that around 90,000 RE Super/Beseler Super D bodies were produced from 1962-71, maybe 10,000 Super Ds from 1972, and not much more than 25,000 Super DMs from 1973 to the discontinuation of 35mm camera sales in December 1980. Total production, therefore, was very likely south of 150,000 from 1962-77. So yeah...Nikon won the sales competition in a walk, but as far as influence on SLR design, Topcon's contributions with the RE Super belied their small market presence.
As irony would have it, only three years after Topcon put the lights out on their camera division, the Everly Brothers reunited and gave us a beautiful rendition of the perfect song to express the feelings of any lover of Topcons. Oh, and it just happened to be originally released in 1962...just a bit more of that foreshadowing thing ;-).
Captain Jack's Early Topcon SLR Pages @ Captain Jack's Exakta Pages
Various Topcon & Nikon Brochures & Manuals @ Pacific Rim Camera
Phot Argus Topcon Super D Test, Nov. 1969 @ Pacific Rim Camera
Modern Photography's Test Report: Topcon Super DM, Mar. 1974 @ PRC
Various Topcon Manuals @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/beseler.htm
The Casual Collector - Super Topcon
History - TOPCON @ https://global.topcon.com/about/history/
TOPCON CLUB @ http://www.topgabacho.jp/Topconclub/index.htm
Debut of Nikon F2 @ https://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/history-f2
Debut of Nikon F3 @ https://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/history-f3
Suffers from a quarter-century 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.