If there’s one camera that’s been a constant presence throughout my years as a photographer and writer, it’s the Nikon F. Nearly every research trail or trip to the camera show somehow ends with the F, and for good reason – it’s the granddaddy of 35mm SLRs. I’ve long known that the Nikon F is a great camera, but when James asked me to pen a retrospective on it, I had to wonder; is the F really that special?
Answering that question revealed a story and a history that no other camera can claim. It’s a story that reaches beyond the limited subjects of photography and engineering; it concerns war, philosophy, exploration of our planet and the space around it, and the pride of a country. It’s a story that’s worth telling.
The story of the F starts in the ruins of postwar Japan, 1946. The Second World War left the country broken and defeated, with two of its cities wiped off the face of the Earth and the fabric of its society ripped to shreds. As the nation tried to pick up the pieces, the world around it continued changing rapidly. Japan needed a plan to heal and a path to a better future.
That task was as daunting as it sounds. Domestic industry was crawling, and what little value the Japanese yen had was completely drained in the immediate aftermath of the war. The country was, in the words of former Nikon president Shigeo Ono, “reduced to bartering.” To make things worse, Japanese products of the era lacked the reputation for quality that American or European products enjoyed. Japanese goods were almost universally perceived to be clunky, poorly finished, and years behind their Western counterparts in quality and sophistication.
In response, the country implemented a series of government initiatives to boost overall productivity in order to restore value to their currency, produce sellable products, and rebuild their international image. They had to start somewhere, so they looked to their major wartime manufacturers first. One of these happened to be optics manufacturer Nippon Kogaku K.K., a company we know today as Nikon.
Nippon Kogaku had already carved out a good reputation for themselves domestically, producing precision optics for Japanese Leica copies in the prewar period and for manufacturing military optics during the war. The government quickly tasked the company with designing and manufacturing truly high-quality cameras and lenses for the domestic market and, more importantly, for export.
The most notable of these early efforts was the Contax-inspired Nikon S-series rangefinders. These cameras were incredibly well-built and well-designed, and most notably showcased the prowess of Nippon Kogaku’s optics. Though derived from Zeiss lenses, Nippon Kogaku managed to improve on the German firm’s lens designs by incorporating a more durable hard-coating and mechanisms for closer focusing, and in certain instances increasing the speed of a lens’ maximum aperture. But despite the quality and workmanship of these early Nikkor lenses and cameras, the company largely flew under the radar of most shooters.
But the quality of Nippon Kogaku’s postwar cameras and optics did not go unnoticed for very long. The outbreak of the Korean War brought photographers Jun Miki and David Douglas Duncan together, both on assignment to cover the war for LIFE magazine. In one of the most unassuming yet important exchanges in photographic history, Miki asked Duncan if he could take his portrait with his Nikkor lens. When the quality of Miki’s lens amazed him, Duncan asked to be introduced to the manufacturer in order to outfit his Leica cameras with the new Nikkor optics. His new, Japanese glass delivered and fitted, Duncan went on to photograph his seminal photo essay, This is War! with Nikon lenses.
Following this and reports from other Korean War photographers, word of these new, high-quality Japanese cameras and lenses quickly spread through the world of professional photography. This attracted the attention of the New York Times, which reported on the new products in a 1950 article.
“The first post-war Japanese camera to attract serious attention in America has created a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proved superior to the German cameras they had been using.”
As could be expected, this claim was not taken lightly. The shooting public were fiercely loyal to their German machines, and didn’t readily take to the new Japanese kids on the block. Martin Forscher of the Eastern Optical Company remarked on this skepticism in the same article.
”I saw these lenses about a year ago and said at that time that I thought they were as good or better than Zeiss lenses, but people thought I was crazy. The importer who showed them to me sent them back because there was too much sales resistance.”
Skepticism and resistance to change proved to be the constant companion for Nippon Kogaku throughout the 1950s. Despite the quality of Nikkor optics and the consistently strong press reports they received, the professional market still belonged to Leica and Zeiss. No matter how good the lenses were and no matter how much better their cameras became, Nikon was still fighting Leica and Zeiss on turf those brands had held for a half-century. In other words, they were fighting a losing battle.
But what if they didn’t have to fight on that turf? What if they changed the battlefield entirely? An interesting idea, and one for which Japan was more than ready.
A New Hope
The late 1950s ushered in a new era for the country and for Nippon Kogaku. The Japanese government declared that the post war rebuild was complete, and that the nation would move to implement a policy of sustained economic growth. This new, forward-thinking policy provided the inspiration that Nippon Kogaku needed to execute their plan to help Japan become an international economic power, as well as establish themselves as a world-renowned optical powerhouse.
At the heart of this plan was a simple but radical idea – abandon the popular rangefinder camera and develop on the relatively new single-lens reflex design. To that point in time, few manufacturers had toyed around with the format, notably Ihagee Dresden with the Kine Exakta in 1939 and Asahi Camera Co. with the Asahiflex in 1952, but these efforts failed to capture the imagination (and money) of professional photographers and the shooting public. Their mechanisms were complicated, delicate, and often cumbersome. Mirrors had to be manually returned after firing, viewfinders were dim, and the overall designs weren’t as effective or accurate as the German rangefinders that ruled the 35mm world throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Nippon Kogaku recognized the lack of quality competition in this new market segment, and quickly decided to take over. They sought to develop a completely new SLR, one that would solve all of the issues present in early SLR designs and make the SLR a viable tool for professional photographers.
Nikon looked to their veteran head engineer, Masahiko Fuketa, to spearhead the project. Fuketa had previously overseen the design of every Nikon camera up until that point, and the quality of his earlier designs proved he was up to the task. However, top brass at Nippon Kogaku recognized that a totally new camera design would also benefit from a fresh and unconventional vision. This came in the form of graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura, who was experienced in crafting Bauhaus and Espirit Nouveau inspired logos and advertisements for Japanese brands, including Nippon Kogaku themselves. The duo of the visually-minded Kamekura and the nuts-and-bolts Fuketa was an unlikely one, but one that was necessary to accomplish Nippon Kogaku’s lofty vision of producing a beautiful and functionally revolutionary new camera.
The aesthetic sensibilities of Kamekura imbued Nikon’s new camera with an artistic and philosophical dimension. It featured a simple lens mount housed in a rectangular mirror box and lens surround, topped with a triangular pentaprism. This design was described by Japanese broadcast company NHK as eerily similar to Zen monk Sengai’s portrait of the universe. The resulting design gave the camera a unique (and timely) balance of traditional Japanese design and forward-thinking modernity.
Kamekura’s input resulted in a handsome camera design, but he also understood that the design had to function. In his own words, “Design is like flying. You can fly free as a bird. But you’d better be able to get back to the runway.” The new camera prototype looked good, but it still had to fix everything that was inherently inferior in the SLR format. Engineer Fuketa got to work.
He and his team developed an entirely new instant mirror return mechanism, an auto-diaphragm stop down mechanism for open-aperture focusing, and an all-new removable and interchangeable pentaprism and focusing screen system which featured 100% viewfinder coverage. After all was said and done, Fuketa and his team did the impossible – they made the SLR work faster, better, and longer than their rangefinder competition.
But they weren’t finished yet. In order to put their new camera above the rest, Nippon Kogaku needed to build something of such high-quality that it would once and for all eliminate the idea that Japanese products were inferior to those from the West. To accomplish this, Nippon Kogaku imposed a series of rigorous (and some might say ludicrous) objectives for the new camera’s design. The new camera would have to withstand an endurance test of 100,000 actuations, a brutal shock and vibration test, and a temperature test which required the camera to work flawlessly at -20º C.
To complete their vision, Nippon Kogaku planned to develop a full complement of new lenses that were compatible with both the new lens mount and the new auto-aperture system. Their previous efforts in rangefinder design served them well, and many of their earlier and much-lauded lenses appeared for the new system and its new lens mount. The 5cm f/2 and f/1.4 returned new and updated, along with the legendary 10.5cm f/2.5 and 13.5cm f/2.8. Fresh designs included the wide-angle 3.5cm f/2.8 and 2.8cm f/3.5 lenses, the latter which featured an all-new retrofocus design which made it usable on the SLR system. This incredible interchangeability of focal lengths immediately demonstrated the superiority of the SLR over the rangefinder. No matter what lens was mounted, the photographer saw exactly what his or her final image would look like, rather than a crude representation through a frame-lined viewfinder.
The new camera needed a name, and with this name Nippon Kogaku sought to match the simplicity and clarity of the camera they’d made. They called it the F. Some now say that the name derived from the first initial of Fuketa’s family name. Others say it stands for the “f” in “reflex”. Whatever the truth, once the big, bold F was engraved atop the signature triangular pentaprism, the camera was finished.
In March 1959, the public got their first glance of the F in a Japan-wide press tour, then in a US trade show in Philadelphia later that month. The early reaction was enthusiastic, especially in Japan. An Osaka department store demo in particular attracted 130,000 admirers over six days. The press was similarly enthused, with Asahi Camera declaring that the camera had basically solved every one of the SLR format’s major failings. By the time the camera reached Photokina in 1960, it had already made a name for itself. Orders through camera sellers and wholesalers were piling up by the thousands, and pressrooms everywhere quickly adopted the new machine. The modern SLR camera had finally arrived.
The F Strikes Back
The F quickly became the gold standard for professional cameras. Not only did it represent a huge leap forward in camera technology through the implementation of its many innovative features, but it combined this with an unheard of wealth of lenses and accessories, all built to a universally high standard of quality. The amount of care taken in its design and build made it clear – the Nikon F was the only camera to own for professional 35mm work. For the entirety of its production run, the Nikon F would consistently prove itself to be the most reliable, versatile, and effective photographic tool available.
In April, 1963 a group of American geographers set out to be the first Americans to scale Mt. Everest. They needed a camera that could withstand the extreme conditions of the Himalayas. Being that their previous expeditions featured the similarly reliable Nikon rangefinders, the new F seemed like a natural choice. It worked as advertised and served the Yanks all the way to the top of the world and back.
Later in the decade, the F’s reliability and durability would take on a truly mythical status by way of the Vietnam War. Its indestructibility and ease of use endeared it to war photographers such as Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, and that first Nikon fanboy David Douglas Duncan. Whether covered in mud and dirt, temporarily waterlogged during a trip across a river, or strapped to the outside of a helicopter flying through a hail of bullets, photographers could rely on the F to shoot without fail. It seemed the only way an F could be killed was by firing squad, and even then it would save your life. Just ask Don McCullin.
Being the most reliable camera on Earth might be enough for most cameras. Not the F. Nikon wouldn’t rest until its cameras had reached the final frontier. In 1971, it did. The F was chosen by NASA as their 35mm camera of choice for its quality and reliability, although not without some conditions. Nippon Kogaku would have to modify the camera heavily in order for it to be NASA approved, so the company’s engineers took it apart entirely and optimized key components to comply with NASA’s stringent requirements. What resulted was the Nikon F Photomic NASA edition, a heavily modified F Photomic which would successfully bring back photos from the Apollo 15 mission.
But perhaps the F’s greatest feat is found in its legacy. From 1959 to 1971, the F single-handedly established SLRs as the preferred method of making images. After the F, all professional photo systems would use the SLR format, and Leica and their rangefinder would see years of decline (that nearly ended in bankruptcy when the German brand finally decided to chase the SLR dream – a different story for a different day). The F was the camera that put Nippon Kogaku in the conversation as one of the top camera and optics manufacturers in the world, and the brand has stayed there ever since.
The F also accomplished Nippon Kogaku’s goal of giving Japanese products a better reputation in the international marketplace. It represented a watershed moment for Japanese design and engineering, and set the tone for all products to come out of Japan thereafter. Former Nikon president Shigeo Ono once remarked, “These cameras soon became used worldwide. It was a proud moment. The Japanese people felt a bit stronger.”
Fifty-nine years later, the F still holds up; these cameras still work flawlessly. Its ease-of-use endears it to photo geeks of all skill levels, its F mount lenses make jaw-dropping images, and its simple elegance and clarity of design still turns heads today. It’s one of the rare cameras that can truly be called timeless. For the work it produced and its impact on photography, the Nikon F deserves no less.
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