NIKON CELEBRATES 100 YEARS
While the most notable nikon history has been post-WWii and, in particular, since 1959; the company’s activities date back to 1917 so it’s the first Japanese camera maker to hit a century.
It’s a special milestone when a camera company reaches its centennial anniversary. Leica has already got there and a few others might have too had they remained in the imaging business or, indeed, remained in business at all. Zeiss is another (although it hasn’t built cameras for a long time), so it’s still a rare occasion and Nikon is the first Japanese camera brand to celebrate a century of operations.
In July 1917 three Japanese optical companies merged to form a single entity called Nippon Kogaku K.K., which was based in Tokyo. The new company began making optical glass for a wide variety of applications from binoculars and telescopes to microscopes. In the early 1920s, the company started manufacturing camera lenses, initially versions of the famous German Tessar design which it called the Anytar. In 1932, the Nikkor brand was created and the first lenses to carry the name were Aero-Nikkor models designed for aerial photography. In 1935 the first all-Japanese 35mm camera was introduced by the company that would eventually become Canon, but it was fitted with a Nikkor 50mm f3.5 lens.
Nikon began making its own cameras in 1948, introducing a 35mm rangefinder model – although it actually recorded 24x32mm frames – which was simply called the Nikon (nowadays referred to as the Model I). It suffered from a number of problems so was quickly revised in 1949 to become the Nikon M which was followed in 1951 by the first of the S series models. This line then comprised the S2 (1954), SP (1957), S3 (1958) and S4 (1959). While these capable and durable RF cameras quickly found favour with photojournalists, Nikon still struggled to compete with the famous German brands of Leica and Contax. Consequently, towards the end of the 1950s, Nikon decided to explore the potential for a professional camera based on the still largely untried 35mm singlelens-reflex camera design. With the SLR configuration, Nikon could see the potential for a much more versatile camera which would be more convenient to use with widerangle and longer telephoto lenses.
By the start of 1959 Nikon was ready to go with a 35mm SLR body incorporating many improvements over existing designs and an extensive system of lenses and accessories which included the world’s first motordrive for this type of camera. It was capable of a rapid-fire 4.0 fps, albeit with the reflex mirror locked up (a new feature in itself). The Nikon F was ahead of its time in many other areas too, including a titanium shutter with a top speed of 1/1000 second (although the earliest preproduction models actually used cloth blinds), interchangeable focusing screens and finders (which would lead to later versions with built-in metering), a viewfinder which gave 100 percent subject coverage, and a diecast all-metal construction stronger than anything that had been seen before.
The F had its debut in March 1959 – alongside, incidentally, the first 35mm SLRs from both Canon and Minolta – and went on sale in June. It didn’t take too long for photographers – both amateurs and professionals – to recognise the vast potential of Nikon’s new camera system which was soon being used around the world (and beyond after it was adopted by NASA in 1971) in applications from sports and science to warfare and wildlife. Estimates vary, but Nikon subsequently built around 860,000 Fs in many variants and the camera remained in production until 1974 by which time its status as an iconic design – and one of the most important in photographic history – was guaranteed.
Of course, the F wasn’t just Nikon’s first SLR camera, it formed the heart of the world’s first 35mm SLR system specifically designed for professional users. As such, it was the first 35mm SLR with the options of motorising the film transport, adding a 250-frames bulk film back, interchanging focusing screens and viewfinders, and attaching lenses from an extensive line-up which spanned 21mm to 1000mm right from the start.
Before the Nikon F, professionals had been mainly using 6x6cm Rolleiflex TLRs, Leica 35mm rangefinder cameras or large format equipment with sheet film. The highly flexible, capable and efficient F changed everything and professionals switched to Nikon and its new 35mm SLR in their legions. It also significantly lifted the image of Japanese cameras overall which previously had largely been considered inferior to the German-made products. It would be more than 13 years before anybody came up with a competitive system, by which time Nikon was ready to counter with the even more capable F2 (1973).
An illustrious line of professionallevel 35mm SLRs followed – including the world’s first practical
autofocus design in the shape of the F3AF from 1983 – until Nikon prepared for the 21st century with its first ‘in-house’ pro-level digital SLR, the D1 (announced in June 1999).
Of course, over the decades Nikon expanded its SLR system into all areas of the amateur and enthusiast markets, initially under the Nikkormat name (Nikomat in Japan) before unifying everything under the Nikon brand in 1977. Nikon’s consumer level SLRs not only benefited from the brand’s reputation in the professional field, but also from the technologies and features developed for this demanding market. Indeed, Nikon was first with the idea of a semi- professional 35mm SLR which brought higher levels of durability and useability to a lower price point. In addition to the F3AF – ahead of the Minolta 7000 by over two years – Nikon pioneered multizone metering (in the FA, 1983), faster shutters with higher flash sync speeds and colour-sensitive light metering. A mainstream autofocus SLR arrived in 1986 (the F-501) and then, in early 1989, Nikon led the way with the first professional 35mm SLR with a fully integrated autofocus system and a full suite of dedicated lenses, the F4. Later Nikon introduced a new system of AF-S Nikkor lenses with built-in focusing motors to enable faster autofocusing.
It has subsequently been progressively deleting a bodybased AF motor from its entrylevel and mid-range D-SLRs. Of course, this is the route rival camera manufacturer Canon took right from the beginning of its EOS autofocus SLR system, but Nikon has at least been able to retain its original F-bayonet mount fitting throughout. Over the decades it’s been revised, modified and updated on a number of occasions, inevitably sacrificing some backwards compatibility, but a lens that was introduced in 1959 with the Nikon F could be fitted to today’s D-SLR flagship, the Nikon D5… and it would work.
Building On The Brand
While Nikon has strongly championed the interchangeablelens reflex camera since 1959, it’s been involved in numerous other categories at one time or another – 35mm compacts, APS cameras (the original film system, that is), the Nikonos marine models (which included an SLR), 8 mm movie cameras, and Video8 camcorders. The Zenza Bronica 6x6cm rollfilm SLRs (from the S2 to the EC-TL) used dedicated Nikkor lenses, and various Plaubel Makina 6x7cm rangefinder models were fitted with fixed Nikkor lenses. There was also an extensive range of large format Nikkor lenses for use on sheet film cameras, ranging
from a 65mm ultra-wide to a 1200mm telephoto.
With 35mm compact cameras rapidly gaining in popularity in the early 1980s, Nikon could no longer afford to ignore this sector and introduced its first model, the autofocus L35AF, in 1983. This was a significant first because, unlike many of its rivals in the 35mm SLR market (such as Canon and Olympus), Nikon had never previously offered budgetpriced, fixed-lens consumer-level cameras. Nevertheless, it quickly got up to speed and, over the next two decades, there was a huge selection of models (many built under OEM agreements, of course), ranging from super-cheap snappers to the high-end titaniumbodied 35Ti and 28Ti (1993 and 1994 respectively).
Nikon was an enthusiastic supporter of the Advanced Photo System (a.k.a. APS, launched in 1996), taking it further than just about anybody else with an extensive line-up of cameras which included a number of compact SLRs with a small line of interchangeable lenses. However, by this time, it was also exploring ‘filmless photography’ and had already dabbled in analog still video with, most notably, a SLR called the QV 1000C which was launched in 1990 and largely based on the F4 (but with a dedicated QV lens mount). It was mostly marketed
to press photographers and, while the production run was only small, the QV 1000C was one of very few still video camera designs to actually advance beyond the prototype stage.
By the middle of the 1990s, it was clear that the future would be digital and Nikon joined forces with Fujifilm to create a series of digital SLRs – again based on the 35mm F4 – which carried dual branding. The E2 series bodies retained the F mount and incorporated a clever optical system which enabled a full-35mm image size to be derived from a 2/3-inch CCD sensor and also boosted sensitivity to the equivalent of ISO 800 (with high sensitivity settings of ISO 1600 and 3200… in 1995!). Variants of these cameras also offered the luxury of continuous shooting (at 3.0 fps) with a buffer memory. It’s worth noting here that Fujifilm’s great rival Kodak was using Nikon 35mm SLR bodies for its D-SLR explorations, starting with the F3based DCS in 1992 and followed by the DCS 200 (1992) which was based on the F-801s, the DCS 420 (F90/F90X, 1994), DCS 460 (F90X, 1995), DCS 410 (F90X, 1996), DCS 315 (Pronea 600i, 1998), DCS 330 (Pronea 600i, 1999), DCS 620 (F5, 1999), DCS 720 and 760 (F5, 2001), DCS Pro 14n (F80, 2002) and DCS Pro SLR/n (F80, 2004).
By the end of the 20th century Nikon was ready to do its own
thing in D-SLRs and its first model – appropriately called the D1 – arrived in late 1999. The D1 has spawned a long line of prolevel D-SLRs which extends to the current D5, with the D3 (2007) marking the all-important move up to a full-35mm size sensor. Nikon also branched into other sectors with lower-priced models, starting with the more compact D100 in 2002 and then the D70 in 2004.
Demand for consumer-level digital cameras was initially met with the Coolpix series of compacts which started out in 1996 with the unusual Coolpix 100. It featured a vertically orientated design built around the PCMIA connector so the camera module plugged straight into a computer’s port. The Coolpix 300 (1997) was also unusual in that it had a touchscreen colour monitor to allow hand-written notes to be input via a stylus, and there was also a built-in microphone for recording audio clips. It was another Nikon camera ‘way ahead of its time. Coolpixes of all shapes and sizes have followed, before the rising popularity of the smartphone essentially killed off the market for low-priced digital compact cameras. Nikon’s response has been to move into the potentially much more lucrative actioncam market with the new KeyMission series of rugged digital video cameras.
So what does the next 100 years hold for Nikon? There are
undoubtedly some immediate challenges, including what to do with its not-so-successful 1 Nikon mirrorless system. Back in 2011, it looked like a good idea to adopt a very small sensor size (Pentax did the same) and leverage the corresponding reductions in hardware size which did, indeed, lead to some interesting cameras, notably the much-maligned V1. But enthusiasts shied away from the small sensor and the lower-end 1 Nikon models have also been usurped by the smartphone. The D-SLR business remains strong, but Nikon is fast running out of time to do something more significant in mirrorless cameras (i.e. using bigger sensors) and counter the growing momentum of Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony.
For a camera maker that was so often ahead of the curve – and which has made plenty of pioneering decisions over the last 100 years – the inaction on a fully-fledged ‘APS-C’ or full-35mm format mirrorless camera system is mystifying. Nikon’s faith in the D-SLR is understandable; it has built its substantial reputation on the reflex camera and continues to deliver brilliant products – the D500 being one of the latest – but the times are a’changin’. The biggest danger for Nikon right now is that it could lose control of its future as more progressive-thinking rivals dictate design directions. Let’s hope not. Let’s hope, instead, that many more Nikon milestones in photography lie ahead.
Nikon Model I 1948 Nikon built its first camera in 1948. Previously it had been making other optical products such as microscopes and binoculars. Originally, this camera was simply called the Nikon – the Model I (for Industrial) designation was used later – and it took 24x32 mm frames.
Nikon F 1959 Nikon’s first 35mm SLR and the world’s first professional 35mm SLR system. Lots of other ‘firsts’ too.
Nikon S2 1954 First Nikon camera to use the 24x36 mm format and also the first Japanese-made camera with a rapidwind film advance lever.
Nikon SP 1957 The ‘P’ stands for ‘Professional’. This is the camera which first established Nikon’s credentials in this sector. The first Nikon with a titanium-bladed shutter.
Nikon M 1949 Updated version of the Model I which took 24x34 mm frames.
Nikon S 1951 First Nikon camera with a flash hotshoe.
Nikon F2 Photomic 1973 Announced in 1971, the F2 was the F’s muchawaited successor and production started in 1973. It introduced many improvements over its predecessor and retained interchangeable viewfinders.
Nikkormat FT 1965 First of the Nikkormat models (named Nikomat in Japan) designed to complement the F. Rugged build with built-in TTL metering, but fixed prism viewfinder.
Nikkormat EL 1972 Nikon’s first 35mm SLR with automatic exposure control and an electromagneticallycontrolled shutter.
Consumer level 35mm SLR with fixed 43-86mm f3.5 zoom and non-TTL selenium cell meter. Nikkorex Zoom 35 1963
Nikkorex 35 1960 Consumer level 35mm SLR with fixed 50mm f2.5 lens and non-TTL selenium cell meter.
Nikkorex F 1962 Consumer level 35mm SLR with interchangeable lenses, but no built-in light meter.
Nikon F Photomic T 1965 First metering prism viewfinder with through-the-lens measurements.
Nikon F Photomic FTN 1968 TTL metering prism with ‘automatic’ lens speed recognition.
Nikon F Photomic 1962 First metering prism viewfinder, but with non-TTL measurements.
Nikon F2 Photomic A 1977 Nineteen seventy-seven was a big year for Nikon as it launched its new generation of Ai (Automatic Aperture Indexing) bodies and lenses… kissing good-bye to the famous pin-and-prong manual indexing system. The Photomic A head allowed Ai lenses to be fitted to the F2.
Nikon FM 1977 The first of the Ai-compatible 35mm SLR bodies, replacing the Nikkormats (and adopting the ‘Nikon’ brand on non-pro SLR bodies).
Nikon F3 1980 Third-generation professional 35mm SLR with bodyintegrated TTL metering and an electronic shutter. Viewfinders were interchangeable.
Nikon FE 1978 The FM body, but with an electronic shutter and aperture-priority auto exposure control.
Nikon F2 Photomic AS 1977 Last of the F2 metering prisms, replacing the old CdS cell with a much more reliable silicon photo diode (SPD).
Nikon EM 1979 First truly low-cost 35mm SLR and with auto exposure control only.
Nikon FE2 1983 FE replacement with titanium-bladed shutter for electronically-controlled speeds up to 1/4000 second.
Nikon F2 Photomic S 1973 First Nikon 35mm SLR with LED exposure indicators.
Nikon FM2 1982 Top shutter speed of 1/4000 second was a first.
Nikon F3AF 1983 Fully integrated autofocusing years before the Minolta 7000. New AF lenses had built-in focusing motors… an arrangement Nikon didn’t pursue when it finally launched a full 35mm AF SLR system in 1986.
Nikon F4 1988 The world’s first professional autofocus 35mm SLR system. New AF lenses were initially driven from the camera body, until Nikon introduced the first AF-S Nikkor models in 1998.
Nikon QV 1000C 1990 Nikon’s first foray into ‘filmless’ photography was with an analog still video SLR which captured in B&W only.
Nikon L35AF 1983 Nikon’s first fixed-lens 35mm compact camera had autofocusing, a built-in flash and a motorised film transport.
Nikon F-401 1987 Nikon’s first entry-level autofocus 35mm SLR and its first model with a built-in flash.
Nikon FA 1983 First 35mm SLR in the world with multi-zone metering.
Nikon F-501 1986 First ‘mainstream’ Nikon autofocus 35mm SLR with a body-based focusing motor.
Nikon L35AWAF 1986 Water-proofed AF compact was an affordable alternative to the Nikonos. The AWAD version added a data back.
Nikon F-301 1985 First Nikon 35mm SLR with an integrated autowinder for automatic film advance.
Nikon Nuvis Mini i 1996 Nikon produced quite a few APS compact cameras and the Mini I was claimed to be the world’s smallest.
Nikon 35Ti 1993 Classy titanium-bodied 35mm compact spawned a flurry of ‘prestige compact’ rivals. Needle indicators added a real touch of class.
Nikon F90 1992 Nikon’s first semi-pro autofocus 35mm SLR with new ‘3D’ metering using subject distances obtained from ‘D-type’ lenses.
Nikon Coolpix 100 1996 First consumer digital camera and, as the way ahead was still very uncertain, Nikon decided to try something different. The camera module detached from the grip to plug straight into a PCMIA port.
Nikon Pronea 600i 1996 Nikon was an enthusiastic support of the Advanced Photo System (APS) and the Pronea 600i was the very first SLR to use the format.
Nikon F100 1998 Last of the semi-pro 35mm SLRs and undoubtedly the most capable.
Nikon E2 1995 Nikon’s first digital SLR co-developed with Fujifilm and based on the F4.
Nikon F5 1996 Arguably the pinnacle of Nikon 35mm SLR development and the first model with coloursensitive ‘RGB’ metering.
Nikon Coolpix 300 1997 More outside-of-the-square thinking in digital compact camera design. Features included a touchscreen and stylus-based user interface.
Nikon D300 Nikon D90 2007 2008 Highly-capable semi-pro ‘DX’ format D-SLR set a new standard for size-versus- performance and served as the smaller format alternative to the D3. The world’s first D-SLR to offer high definition video recording.
Nikon D3 2007 Nikon’s first pro-level D-SLR with a full-35mm format sensor (a CMOS device) and the world’s first D-SLR to offer high-sensitivity shooting up to ISO 25,600.
Nikon D1 1999 First D-SLR fully designed and engineered by Nikon. Based on the F100 and with a 2.74 megapixels size CCD sensor (Nikon’s ‘DX’ format).
Nikon F6 2004 The end of the line for Nikon’s pro-level 35mm SLRs and essentially an F5 shoe-horned into an F100-size body. Still available on special order.
Nikon Coolpix 900 1998 First consumer digital compact camera with a 3x zoom lens. Swivelling body design allowed for the LCD monitor module to be tilted for low-level or overhead shooting.
Nikon D100 2002 Nikon’s first semi-pro D-SLR with a more compact body and a 6.3 megapixels ‘APS-C’ CCD sensor.
Nikon D70 2004 Nikon’s first enthusiast-level D-SLR.
Nikon D2H 2003 Capable of shooting at 8.0 fps, the D2H was the fastest D-SLR in the world at the time.
1 Nikon V1 2011 Nikon’s mirrorless digital camera system has had mixed success, but the V1 was a superb little camera with advanced features such as 60 fps shooting at full resolution.
Nikon D5 2016 Nikon’s current D-SLR flagship with superlative 153point autofocusing, 12 fps shooting and ultra-high sensitivity. Nikon’s first pro D-SLR with 4K video.
Nikonos RS 1992 The world’s first underwater 35mm SLR… and with autofocusing.
Nikonos V 1983 Similar to the Iva, but with the addition of fully manual exposure control and, perhaps more importantly for underwater photography, TTL auto flash metering.
Nikonos I 1963 Derived from the French-designed Calypso, and the world’s first production underwater camera. Also the first with interchangeable lenses.
Nikonos IVa 1980 The first Nikonos model with integrated TTL metering and aperture-priority auto exposure control.
Nikon D800 2012 History may well prove the D800 to be Nikon’s most important D-SLR, as it made ultra-high resolution capture more accessible and more affordable.
Nikon D500 2016 Continuing in the vein of the D300, the ‘DX’ format D500 packs all the power of the D5 with the convenience of a more compact bodyshell.
Nikon Df 2013 Classic 35mm SLR styling combined with a full35mm CMOS sensor and digital-era conveniences.