Tuesday, March 17

Rise of Japanese Cameras

Leather Case and Light Meter Have Both Seen Better Days, but the Nikon S is Pretty Good
Inspired by Limom’s camera chronicles, and Chandra’s newFujifilm X100T, I thought I’d tell a camera story of my own. It’s about the camera my dad brought home from him when he came back from Korea at the close of the Korean War. It is a Nikon S.

Rarely, a product is so good that the company from which it comes is renamed to that of the product. Even less often, that product started out with its name copying an established brand. Nikon is such a company. It got established after WWII by producing excellent cameras that were far less expensive than those produced by the Germans; the previous leaders. This happened starting with the first cameras that Nikon produced. These Nikons were rangefinder cameras and came from a company struggling to re-establish itself. The company, Nippon Kogaku, produced outstanding optical products, but the closest they came to a camera before WWII was the production of lenses for Canon. Ironically, as it was to turn out, they got their start in optics by bringing some Germans to Japan for help in the wake of WWI.

These early cameras were, arguably, better than anything that came from Germany, which found itself with part of its camera factories in the Russian Zone. Nippon Kogaku synthesized the best elements of the Zeiss and Leica products and they called it “Nikon.” Nikon was a merging of the Nippon part of their name and the Ikon of Zeiss Ikon fame. Later, Zeiss came after Nikon for trademark infringement, but they’d waited too long.
At the Right of the Camera are Where the Flash Attachments Go. Plug into "F" for Fast Shutter Speeds
Anyway, this camera, a Nikon S, was the first large selling Nikon. It was actually their third try at a camera, starting with the Nikon 1 that first saw the light of day in September, 1946. Nikon was a fairly sentimental bunch and their early cameras all started with a “609” prefix in honor of the first Nikon 1. Well, until they ran out of numbers and moved up to “610” and beyond. Our camera, purchased new by my dad when he was in Japan on R&R from the Korean War, is 6105314. LOTS of American servicemen purchased the Nikon S and the steadily improving cameras that followed it. The lenses were so good that professional photographers purchased the lenses to replace the German ones on their Leica cameras.

The third picture shows the various knobs on top of the camera. All three knobs AND the shutter release rotate when the film is being wound. The shutter speed control is really odd. There are actually two different knobs there. One controls the “slow” shutter and the other controls the “fast” shutter. The fast shutter runs from 1/30 to 1/500 seconds exposure. Later, Nikon combined the two shutter speed dials into one and increased the maximum shutter speed. Truly this is something from a different era, considering that the shutter itself is made from cloth.

Besides the Knobs, the "A/R" Lever Decides Which Way the Film Winds
The fourth picture shows another oddity compared to more recent film cameras. There are two knobs that must be turned from “S” to “O” in order to remove the entire camera back. Three  more oddities I’ll mention. First, since the camera is entirely mechanical (not even any light meter in the camera), there’s nothing in the camera to indicate what speed film might be being used. Hence the pink note attached to the camera back. Second, while the lens is interchangeable (using a bayonet that’s the same as the Zeiss Contax), there is no way to reflect different lenses through the viewfinder. It is set up for a 50mm lens, pure and simple. Third, while the film advances the same as a normal 35mm for each shot, the negatives are 2mm shorter than standard. This is because Nikon originally wanted to get more photos off each roll, but the US Occupation authorities nixed it because they weren’t compatible with Kodak.

Postit Pad Helps Remember What Speed Film is in the Camera
In closing, the camera is built like a tank. It weighs just a hair under 2lb, which is the same as a modern Nikon DSLR with a zoom lens, and which is just a bit more than my Praktica camera (really a renamed Zeiss made in East Germany) with its own 50mm lens and its built-in light meter. I’ve heard that using the “Sunny 16” rule works great, and I think we’ve got another light meter sitting around somewhere. I’ve also heard that it is almost impossible to find a flash unit that will work with the camera nowadays. Oh well, one probably doesn’t use a 60 year-old camera to take indoor flash pictures anyway.

For more on Nikon history, go here, here, here, or here. I especially recommend the first and second sources for their story on the older history of Nippon Kogaku and the Nikon rangefinder cameras. The last reference covers many other major camera companies.

Nikon Labeled their Early Lenses in Cm. Hence, This Camera Has a 5cm Lens Rather than a 50mm
Lens Locks into Focus at Infinity. Button on Front Unlocks the Lens Focus


Khal said...

Wow. That is beautiful, Steve. I love old cameras.

greatpumpkin said...

I've used a Nikon SP which was the last of the series (it changes frame lines with different lenses), and I've owned and used a 1938 Leica IIIa, most memorably on a bike tour of England in 1976. Both Canon and Nikon copied both Leica and Contax. Canon copied the inner workings of Contax (including a vertical metal shutter) with an outside resembling Leica and the Leica's 39mm screw mount. Nikon copied the outside of a Contax and the inside of a Leica (including the silk shutter), but used the Contax's lens mount. Canon lenses are the ones that interchange with early Leicas. In my opinion the quality of the Nikon was not superior to the Leica, but it was considerably less expensive (and I've heard they gave free samples to journalists during the Korean War). Contax and Leica were near-equals before WWII, but Zeiss was in Dresden which was destroyed, and later in East Germany, and Leitz was in Wetzlar, which was never bombed. Both sides of WWII were photographed with Leicas, and afterwards there were plenty of Allied photographers ready to buy more. I think the main thing about Nikon at this stage was that they could make something that was almost as good as a German camera for a lot less money. Later on (1959) when they modified the S-series into the SLR F, they had again a price advantage and a growing reputation. They were not the first 35mm SLR (that was Contax in the 1930s), not even the first Japanese 35mm SLR (that was Pentax in 1957) but they had a bayonet mount, high quality and a versatile system, and they got their SLR to market before Leica did, just as that was starting to matter--though journalists still liked the rangefinders because they were quiet. At any rate, the Nikon S is a great camera and you're lucky to have it, especially with its history in your family. Go shoot some film and enjoy it.

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Cool post Steve! I never knew the story about the naming of the company and product. I figured there was simply a Mr. Nikon at the helm.

Trevor Woodford said...

Great post Steve..... I have never owned one of these, but as I have always been a rangefinder fan this was a camera on my 'desirable' list....

cafiend said...


Chandra Eswaran said...

You are a camera historian, Steve. I didn't know anything about this camera or that the Japanese were a big competitor to the Germans in photographic equipment.
Beautiful narration, fine illustrations via pictures - you done it, my friend.

I am going to go back and read-up on Sunny 16. I haven't the faintest clue, but I will learn.

Have a Beautiful Day!
Peace :)

PS. My dad's old camera, the Contaflex went to my nephew. I am glad it did.

John Romeo Alpha said...

My dad came back from the same war with a Samoca made by Sanei Sangyō K.K. Looks like your dad had better taste or luck in cameras than mine, although the Samoca shares several of the same characteristics you mention. Built like a tank, all mechanical, no meter, etc. Still works, too.

Justine Valinotti said...

Great post, Steve. I never knew the back story you related in this post; like "recumbent", I always assumed there was a Mr. Nikon behind it.

I shot all of the photos from my early bike tours--and some on my blog--with a Honeywell Pentax from the '60's, I believe. Like your father's Nikon, it's built like a tank. When it needed cleaning--and I suspected the shutter needed re-calibration-- after a bunch of rainstorms and tumbles down stairs and Alpine rocks,I brought it to an old German camera repairman in Manhattan. Professional photographers brought their equipment to him. He said, "Nothing today is this good." I can only imagine what your father's Nikon was like!

Steve A said...

The Pentax used the Zeiss M42 mount - a lens mount from the East German part of Zeiss. That part became Pentacon and then Practika. The mount became the Pentax screw mount when it became unpopular to attribute things to the East Germans. Of course, since the mount dates back to 1938, they were Fuhrer fans. BTW, Zeiss saved a lot of Jews from the Nazis by employing them and sending them to foreign offices.

RANTWICK said...

Where's the phone part?

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