Because the Chinon name more or less disappeared from the front of cameras in the early 1990s, there’s a chance you’ve never heard of it, but the brand was a major player during the glory dates of 35mm film, both in SLRs and compacts.
Established in 1948 in Tokyo by a young entrepreneur called Hiroshi Chino (then aged 28), the company was first named Sanshin Seisakusho and made the main physical components for camera lenses, such as barrel tubes and internal sleeves. These parts were supplied to Canon and a number of other leading Japanese camera manufacturers. The company then branched into making the lenses for 8mm movie cameras and, in 1959, produced the world’s first 8mm zoom lens. In 1962 the manufacture of 8mm movie cameras began, and the company changed its name to Sanshin Optics Industrial Co. Ltd. The manufacture of 35mm cameras began in 1971, but mostly for other customers under OEM agreements and Chinon-badged models didn’t appear until 1973, when the company name was changed to Chinon Industries, Inc. During the early 1970s, movie cameras represented the biggest part of Chinon’s business and it was the first Japanese manufacturer to develop 8mm movie cameras which recorded both pictures and sound. In 1976 the company’s annual output of 8mm movie cameras reached 800,000 units, which represented 35 percent of the global market.
In the 35mm camera business, Chinon was involved in the all the major technological developments of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978 it was one of the first Japanese manufacturers to introduce an autofocus 35mm compact camera (which, like a number of models at the time, used Honeywell’s passive Visitronic module) and, in 1981, became the first Japanese company to develop an active near-infrared autofocusing system. This was used in both its 35mm compact cameras and interchangeable lenses for its 35mm SLRs, a 50mm f1.7 and a 35-70mm f3.3-4.5 zoom. Both models incorporated the ‘bug-eye’ IR AF module, drive motor and power supply (three AAA-size batteries) and so were bulky affairs, but in the early 1980s they represented the first tentative steps towards an autofocus 35mm SLR. Designed to complement the AF lenses, the CE-5 35mm SLR body had a green LED in-focus indicator in its viewfinder, but Chinon already had a number of reflex camera designs under its belt by then.
The company’s first 35mm SLR was called the Chinonflex TTL and, introduced in 1966, it used the M42 screwthread lens mount which, as the name suggests, built-in metering (albeit for stoppeddown readings). The first few Chinon 35mm SLRs were largely unremarkable, but the CE Memotron, which was introduced in 1974, was a much more progressive design, especially for a camera which had the M42 screw mount. Using an arrangement which introduced the idea of metering by pressing the shutter release to a half-way position, Chinon has able to provide not just open aperture metering, but also aperture-priority auto exposure control. Furthermore, if the shutter release was held at this position, the meter reading was held as well… the first iteration of the AE lock which Chinon rather grandly called “Memotron”. Unlike other systems (most notably
from Pentax and Yashica), Chinon’s worked with any M42 screwthread lens and the company promoted its Memotron models (there was subsequently a CE II and CE-3) as “An automatic electronic camera to fit the lenses you already own”. Consequently, Chinon kept the M42 mount alive until the very end of the 1970s when, with the CE-4, it finally switched to the Pentax K bayonet fitting. The CP-5 Twin Program, introduced in 1983, was the world’s first 35mm SLR with program shift via adjustment of either the aperture or shutter speed, and it evolved into the CP-5s (with spot metering added) and CP-6 (with automatic film speed setting via DX decoding. The CP-7m (1986) incorporated a built-in autowinder capable of 2.5 fps and, in 1988, Chinon introduced its first and only autofocus 35mm SLR, the CP-9AF. By now, though, the company was starting to concentrate mainly on OEM work, primarily for Kodak which, in 1997, became a majority shareholder. With its Genesis series cameras (198892), Chinon was an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘bridge’ concept – essentially wellspecced 35mm SLRs with fixed zoom lenses – but the category ended up being comparatively short-lived. From 1993 onward, Chinon’s main activity was manufacturing digital compact cameras for Kodak, including the game-changing DC20 (1996) which was also marketed as the Chinon Pocket Digital ES-1000.
Following a complete take-over by Kodak Japan in 2004, Chinon ceased to exist as a separate entity, but the name has since been revived by descendants of Hiroshi Chino and the new Chinon has returned to its roots, manufacturing retro-style Full HD digital video cameras which look like the company’s original Super 8 film models, and also revive the “Bellami” name.