Photography’s rapid growth is a testament to its youth as both an art form, and as a technology. As professionals and enthusiasts, this creates a paradox where the history of the medium that we love can feel short and overstuffed. Both conditions are not conducive to any camera gaining or maintaining a sense permanence or constancy.
It is easy to assume that every camera can do it all. The Nikon F is still as powerful as ever, unsurpassed in its ability, and one of the most important SLRs in history.
You will be amazed at how remarkable it is, once you stop and think about it. The F is not the first single-lens reflex camera by Nikon. It has no claim to be the next-level in innovation in any area. How did this happen? What is the secret to making the Nikon F a staple? Is it luck or clever marketing? Let’s go back in time to March 1959, before the camera was released.
The Second World War was the foundation for technological progress in every way. As many of our history articles at PETAPIXEL show, photography was not an exception. However, this story isn’t about military-fueled acceleration but a war-battered crawl. Japan was in ruins in 1946. Japan was in ruin. The United States decided to use the most horrible weapon ever invented by man against Japan, removing two of its most proud cities from existence in a single flash. This threatened to destroy Japan’s spirit and economy. Japan needed more than just healing. It needed resurrection.
Numerous government initiatives were launched by the government to increase the production of goods that the world needed. This was during a time when the government’s national reputation was at its lowest. These initiatives were initially targeted at companies that had been successful as wartime producers, such as Nippon Kogaku K.K. which would become known as Nikon.
Given the circumstances, Nippon Kogaku was probably the best company that the Japanese government could have promoted. It was impossible to convince the world that Japan needed exports more than offering products that were almost identical to those of European competitors. Nippon Kogaku was best known for creating hybrid cameras such as the Nikon S-series rangefinders. These are hybrids of the Leica M and Contax rangefinders with some improvements. It would take another war, however, before the company could truly earn the respect it deserves.
The Korean War started in 1950. Photographers from all over the globe were sent to East Asia by photographers. They found images of violence and impressive Japanese glass to use as lenses. David Douglas Duncan was one such photographer, and he was assigned to cover the conflict with Jun Mikhi for LIFE magazine. Miki asked Duncan to take her photograph with his Nikkor lens. Duncan was immediately impressed by the lens’s quality and sought to meet the manufacturer. He then secured Nikkor glass in every Leica camera. Although his photo essay, “This is War!” is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential ever, it also contains a subtler and more under-valued impact: Every shot was taken with a Nikon lens.
Nippon Kogaku had achieved the mission that the country needed. With each passing day, the cameras and lenses of Nippon Kogaku were more recognized on the international stage. The professional class adopted the company more often. Names of the company appeared more often in print. This climb was not exclusive to Japanese companies — Canon, Chiyoda Kogaku(Minolta), Tanaka Kogaku and Nicca were all making Leica M39 glass and Contax RF glasses along with their Leica and Contax copy rangefinder bodies.
One war had left a country devastated, but another war brought it back to life. The Korean War had made Japan’s occupiers its greatest allies and, most importantly, its biggest consumers. The “same product, but better and cheaper” strategy had worked. Now it was time for Japan and Nippon Kogaku to create something new.
Innovating does not require inventing. Nippon Kogaku, whose “copycat S-line” rangefinders were gradually gaining traction on the market, knew this better than anyone. Nippon Kogaku, who wanted to chart a new course and transform the company into one that is focused on improving and chasing others, looked back to an old idea no one had ever gotten right: the single lens reflex camera, also known as the SLR.
The history of the SLR can be traced back to the seventeenth-century, the use of a mirror in a camera obscure, and the late nineteenth-century when the first SLR patents were granted. In 1936, the Kine Exakta, a German-made SLR, was released. It was produced by Ihagee Camerawerk in Germany. The mirror box and shutter mechanism were behind the Exakta bayonet mount. The viewfinder at the waist was fixed and projected a laterally reversed view. Moving to the left of the viewfinder’s image required you to turn the camera right. This was not uncommon — every medium format TLR (twin-lens reflex) body before and after Exakta worked in this way.
It doesn’t matter that the SLR was still attractive conceptually twenty years after its introduction by the Kine Exakta. There were many problems with SLRs at the time. They were more complicated than they looked, had more complex components, were heavier and heavier, and offered a limited selection of lenses. The prices were not competitive either. They still had a significant advantage over popular rangefinders of the time: the viewfinder on an SLR showed an exact representation of your frame regardless of focal length or distance. However, this was somewhat compromised by the fact you could see the image laterally reversed.
There was no SLR that could replace the rangefinder yet, so Nippon Kogaku saw an opportunity to go beyond the established market and lead in an emerging one.
The development of Nikon’s first SLR camera began in the fall 1956. Fuketa’s abilities were not doubted — he had been responsible for designing every camera that the company had ever produced — but this project required a radical outside perspective. Fuketa did not have to look far.
Yusaku Kamekura, a graphic designer who worked previously for Nippon Kogaku, brought a unique perspective to the company’s ambitious goals. This project had such a high value that it was almost kept secret from the outside world and even the company’s executives. Fuketa Kamekura and Kamekura were virtually isolated as they worked in a small room inside the factory to design the future.
Although the Nikon F’s clandestine development was undoubtedly influenced by corporate interests, Kamekura had unprecedented freedom of expression. There was no second-guessing. No second-guessing. Kamekura’s artistic prowess was mingled with Fuketa’s technical wizardry. They found their way to the perfect marriage. Kamekura chose to concentrate on bold designs with straight lines. It was a stunning concept. The SLR, which is well-known for its many complications, was to be something simple, elegant, sharp, and most importantly, modern.
Fuketa and Kamekura were on the same page mechanically but practical realities slowed him down. Kamekura wasn’t satisfied. Fuketa shared prototypes with Kamekura. Fuketa was making tremendous strides in simplifying some of the most difficult features of the SLR. However, to make the camera work properly, the design must be clean. The camera’s top, which protruded from the camera’s body, caused a lot of frustration and hampered Kamekura’s vision. After a brief burst in inspiration, no doubt fueled by the technical know-how Fuketa imparted to him, Kamekura realized the solution to his exterior problems: the pentaprism.
The pentaprism was one of the greatest leaps forward in the race for a popular, wide-use SLR camera. Reflex cameras have a mirror that is placed behind the lens at 45 degrees. This projecting the lens image onto a screen of ground-glass viewed perpendicular to the optical axis. This projecting a reversed image into the viewfinder, which was common before the pentaprism, limited the comfort and usability. The viewfinder was able to work at eye level, allowing it to produce both vertically correct and laterally correct images by internally reflecting the image. The photographer could see what was happening in the scene — right was right, left was right, up and up…
This technology was not invented by Nikon. Many other companies, including Contax S in Germany and Rectaflex Italy, were already using the pentaprism in their SLR cameras, beating the Nikon F. Kamekura was not inspired by invention but incorporation. Why not make the top of the camera have a housing that houses the elements that impede the clean lines of his vision? And why not give the housing the distinctive shape that marks this amazing advancement? The housing could be modeled after the pentaprism.
This idea was a huge success in every aspect. It was not only a solution to aesthetic problems, but also a marketing trademark. It was amazing. The pentaprism was not an easy shape to make at the time. Machined pieces were a failure time after another. It would come out with holes, inconsistently broken and misshapen. Fuketa asked Kamekura for an alteration. Cut the intersection point at top and leave an opening. These pieces could then be fused using rectangular elements. Kamekura did not back down. Kamekura was not a prima donna. He understood the importance of a design being functional and repeatable. However, this shape was too important to lose sight of. After many trials, the problem was finally solved. The Nikon F’s design is flawless.
Fuketa was a mechanical wizard who had his own dragons. His team developed a number of new features under his enthusiastic leadership. Each one was able to reduce the gap between SLR and rangefinder even further. The Nikon F was complete by the end of the project. It featured a number of new features, such as an instant mirror return mechanism, interchangeable viewsfinders and focus screens, and an impressive auto diaphragm stop down mechanism for open-aperture focused and depth-of-field preview. Fuketa’s skill and Kamekura’s artistic vision combined to create a truly remarkable camera. The result was a camera that could revolutionize the market.
Despite how spectacular this camera was, Nippon Kogaku’s goals and those of Japan were still very high and personal. It’s one thing to make a splash, but Japan had managed to rise from the ashes to become a true global power, with one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, a more liberal society and a partner in the same Western democracies they had so bitterly opposed. Japan had proven to the world that it can rebuild faster and more efficiently than anyone could have imagined. It had demonstrated the world that it was able to innovate. It needed to prove that it can dominate. Nippon Kogaku products needed to be more than just excite. They had to go further than that. It had to be trusted. It had to be reliable.
Two key steps were taken by the company to overcome this challenge. The first was to benchmark and test the camera in some of its most rigorous and thorough testing. Can the camera withstand an earthquake? A lightning strike? The arctic cold How many shutter actuations were made before it failed? 25,000? 50,000? It had to be 100,000. The team pushed themselves beyond their limits to give Kamekura’s elegance, Fuketa’s ingenuity and reliability. They succeeded.
Nippon Kogaku made the Nikon F more than just a new camera. It was a bold new system of cameras. This was the final step to ensure its longevity. A whole new set of lenses was designed to be compatible with the new mount and auto-aperture system. The rangefinder was certain to die in the face of this unprecedented level of interchangeability.
No more matching lenses with the camera’s frame lines, or external viewfinders for large lenses. The days of poor framing, parallax compensation problems, and long minimum focus distances are gone. How do you preview depth of field through the viewfinder? It’s possible. Zoom lenses are possible? This is not a problem. Focus wide open at 135mm or 200mm. Sure.
The F made its debut on the international stage in 1959. It received immediate acclaim. Nippon Kogaku had done it. This was a remarkable feat, a game-changer and a breakthrough. It was a landmark. It was revolutionary. These words are used every day on forums, comment sections, and photography sites. We get excited but don’t really understand the full extent of what a truly innovative product is.
It is often not the new thing but the thing that does it so well that we forget it was ever new. It was the Nikon F. It was the first camera to reach Everest’s summit. It was the first 35mm camera ever to be taken to the Moon by NASA’s Skylab. It was the first SLR that saw widespread (and popular) use in war.
It is a result of the strength of the past and the ability of the present as well as the desperate need to secure the future. It is not surprising that it has remained timeless. After being decimated by its western enemies, a country that was utterly devastated rebuilt itself and set its sights for global economic dominance. They succeeded.
The SLR may soon disappear due to the advent of digital mirrorless technology, but the Nikon F will always be a part of the photographic history that has shaped it.