History Spells the DSLR’s Demise - chapter II - 1950s to 1960s – The arrival of the Japanese

1950s to 1960s – The arrival of the Japanese

To be fair, it wasn’t an entire European fare when it came to camera design. Across the other part of the world, the Japanese were diligently coming into their own although during these nascent times, theirs were essentially copies of the various German standards of which Zeiss’ and Leitz’s designs were easily the most emulated. At any rate, they were largely discounted because their efforts were disparate and sporadic at best. Nevertheless they were present even if the Europeans had in the main ignored them (much to their peril eventually).


Asahiflex I, 1951 Copyright

However by the beginning of the Fifties, the Japanese were slowly becoming a force to be reckoned. Although they were held back by crude quality standards, the Asahiflex I of 1951 proved that they were learning very fast and the gap to the Europeans was nowhere as huge as people were led to believe. In fact from the Asahiflex I, Asahi Kogaku would springboard the exciting line of Pentax 35mm SLR cameras.

Three years later, the Asahiflex IIB (1954) became the first 35mm SLR in Japan to sport a self-cocking instant return mirror – as the film advance lever was cocked, the mirror would return to its rest position. By 1957, the camera became known as Asahi Pentax, which at the same time, signalled the clear message of intent to Europe that Japan was almost ready to compete. For the first time in Japan, the Pentax featured not just a fixed pentaprism finder but also the world’s first implementation of the single-stroke film advance lever, microprism focusing aid and a foldable film rewind crank. Japanese ingenuity was beginning to rear its head.


Olympus 35 Model I, 1948 Copyright Olympus Imaging Corporation

And it wasn’t just Pentax that had emerged. Following the cessation of the Second World War, Takachiho Seisakusho had laid claim to being the maker of Japan’s first 35mm effort, a rangefinder camera called Olympus 35 Model I. That was 1948. Ten years earlier in 1938, a little-known Baby Super Flex was the country’s first SLR. While it used 127-format roll film, its crude build quality signalled a premature end never to be seen again thereafter.

In 1949 came another breakthrough – Dresden-based VEB Zeiss’ Contax S showcased the world’s first 35mm SLR camera with an eye-level pentaprism. Four years later came the Contax E (1953) complete with a built-in light meter using an uncoupled selenium photo cell, predating Japan’s matching effort – Olympus Wide E – by four years. In the period between, the Ihagee Exacta Varex (1950) offered the first interchangeable viewfinder, focusing screen and condenser lens. In the same year, the French company Angénieux released the first retrofocus short focal length lens in the form of a 35mm f2.5 designed for use with Exacta cameras.

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Miranda T, 1955 Image courtesy of Flickr

In the year that the Contax E arrived, the company’s West German counterparts launched the Contaflex I (1953) to become the first 35mm SLR to eschew the focal plane shutter. Developed alongside the camera was the Tessar-based 45mm f2.8 complete with a built-in Synchro-Compur leaf shutter. Two years later in 1955, the Miranda T became Japan’s first eye-level viewfinder 35mm SLR using a proper pentaprism.

By now it was clear that the 35mm SLR form factor was slowly taking shape. Core development was focused on two areas – the shutter and the viewing aspect. Short of a few instances of resistance, manufacturers were gradually moving towards the focal plane shutter but perhaps of greater importance were the proliferation of different viewfinder designs. There were no clear directions in this regard but the wealth of ideas meant that there was much interest built up around the 35mm SLR camera.

By 1956, the market witnessed the arrival of the first premium-standard 35mm SLR camera featuring a range of interchangeable leaf-shutter lenses. The Zeiss Ikon Contaflex III was two years earlier than the Olympus Ace (1958), which although not an SLR design, had three leaf-shutter lenses on offer namely, a 45mm standard, 35mm wide-angle and 80mm telephoto and all of them could be coupled to the camera’s built-in light meter.


Zunow, 1958 Copyright

Auto stop-down diaphragm arrived in 1958 but strangely, the Zunow 35mm SLR was not sold outside Japan. Amidst M42’s growing popularity as the universal lens mount for 35mm SLRs, Yashica’s Pentamatic stood out uniquely. Released in 1959, it featured the first dedicated bayonet lens mount. Around the same time, Orion Seiki (later called Miranda) became the first to adopt the oversized reflex mirror, beating the OM-1 by almost two decades, and in the process, solved the problem of vignetting, which had been an annoyance for many years especially when longer focal length lenses were used.


Voigtländer-Zoomar 36-82mm, 1959 Copyright

In the same year we saw the world’s first ever zoom lens namely, the astonishing Voigtländer-Zoomar 36-82mm f2.8. Made by Voigtländer but designed by U.S.-based Zoomar, this leaf-shutter zoom lens was simply out of this world. In an age without advanced computer-based technologies, the ability to design a fast f2.8 zoom lens is no small feat even by today’s standards let alone back in 1959!

go to next chapter: History Spells the DSLR’s Demise - chapter III - 1960s to 1970s – The 35mm SLR comes of age

photo/kl/dslr/dslr_end2.txt · Last modified: 2013/11/03 18:34 by gary1

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