I spend a lot of time at thrift stores, usually in search of records, clothes or cameras. I can browse through the music department for hours, try on jacket after jacket just to put them all back, and scan the electronics section for anything camera-shaped in seconds. Hitting up these stores is such a fun Saturday activity, and gladly my girlfriend enjoys it as much as I do.
If you are at these venues as often as I am, you will eventually start to notice which products are more likely to fly off the shelves. Brand clothing and 1980s records are top sellers. Point-and-shoot and foldable cameras do not sit for long, either. But certain things are real shelf warmers: Konica cameras, for example. Like brightly colored 5XL suits and Swiss folk music CDs, Konicas don’t get a lot of love. Outside of the thrift shop, among the blogosphere and on camera culture YouTube channels, Konica seems a bit overlooked.
As a result of this tepid enthusiasm (and my own innate curiosity), I’ve always been left wondering what hides behind the brand. So, I did some research.
A Very Brief History of Konica
Konica’s history dates back to 1873, making the company older than Kodak. At that time, the pharmacist Rokusaburo Sugiura started to sell photographic and lithographic products in his store called “Konishi-ya” based in Tokyo. After passing the business on to his younger brother, he founded a new venture to design and build a camera. This new business was called “Konishi Honten.”
While photography had started to gain popularity in the 1890s, many people where still hesitant to use wet plate cameras. Dry plate cameras, on the other hand, made photography more accessible. And it’s this type of camera which Suguira’s company would develop first.
Konishi Honten’s first camera was called the Cherry. It debuted in 1903 and sold for about 2 Yen. It appealed to the Japanese masses thanks to its simplicity and low price. Although the name below the lens was written in Latin letters, the product was never intended to be marketed internationally. This decision was likely made because international competition was just too numerous – Sugiura had patterned the Cherry after the British “Little Nipper” which was already a copy of a French camera called “the Gnome” – yes, the market for dry plate box cameras was pretty saturated. In Japan, however, the Cherry sold strong enough that Konishi Honten soon became the country’s leading camera maker. [Editor’s Note – no surviving examples of the original Cherry are known to exist in the world today.]
The first Cherry was followed by a second and a third version, which were manufactured and sold until about 1920. Shortly thereafter, while still holding the lead position for Japanese camera makers, Rokusaburo Sugiura’s eldest son took over management and changed the company’s name to “Konishiroku Honten.”
The company would go on to release the first Japanese-made color film called “Sakura Natural Color Film” in 1940 and follow up with the original “Konica” camera in 1946. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1987 that the company officially decided to change its name to “Konica.”
For decades, Konica was the fourth largest film manufacturer in the world, behind Kodak, Fuji and Agfa. But in the end, it suffered the same fate as Miranda, Petri and Topcon. The company floundered as sales of single-lens reflex cameras declined dramatically in the 1980s (in favor of compact electronic point-and-shoots largely made by other Japanese brands). Konica eventually ceased production of its SLR systems and finally withdrew from the SLR market entirely in 1987.
Konica’s point-and-shoot cameras stood little chance against their competitors, especially in Europe, even though many are of pretty good quality. Not long after ending their SLR production, a decision had to be made. In a last attempt to save themselves from going out of business, Konica merged with Minolta in 2003. But this only delayed the inevitable. On January 19, 2006, Konica-Minolta announced its intention to withdraw from the photographic business. The total withdrawal was completed by the end of the same year. Konica’s film business was abandoned and the camera division sold to Sony. While the recipes of Minolta lenses continued to be incorporated into new Sony lenses, Konica’s centuries-old name (and expertise) has vanished.
Konica’s Legacy Today
Today, as film photography and film gear reaches popularity not known since Konica’s heydey, the brand’s products are often overlooked. But while the products of its hundred years of manufacturing are overshadowed by more popular competitors, Konica hasn’t entirely faded from memory. A handful of their cameras have regained some popularity in the 21st century – the Recorder, the Tomato and Pop, the Big Mini, and the Hexar RF. But there are many more excellent and important Konica cameras and lenses that have simply been forgotten.
There’s Konica’s very first SLR, the quite rare Konica F, which was also the first 35mm SLR in the world to achieve a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second. It is the only Konica with interchangeable viewfinders and was introduced with some serious glass worth collecting. Then there is the more popular Konica Auto-Reflex, which was one of the first 35mm SLR cameras with an automatic exposure control. It is a very standard SLR but also a pretty reliable one. Its successors can be had dirt cheap and are pretty good companions for anyone looking to start their film photography journey (Jeb touched on this in his review of the T3, and the 40mm Hexanon lens which often comes attached). The FS-1 was the first 35mm SLR with a built-in motor for film advance. It set the trend for all other cameras after it. And Konica even made the first production autofocus camera, the Konica C35 AF.
Konica was a true brand of firsts, but somehow the name gets little to no recognition for it today. And we’ve only talked about the cameras so far. The story’s the same for Konica’s lenses.
Oftentimes the Konica lenses we encounter at flea markets or thrift stores have been stored horribly, and they suffer fungus or damage. That is why they are regularly overlooked. But knowing about the demands the Japanese have towards their technology and manufacturing, you should definitely reconsider the brand’s lenses if you find one in good condition.
The AR-mount lenses produced from 1965 come in four variations. The first version distinguishes itself through a silver collar between aperture and focusing ring. It is probably the most sought after, although the second and third versions look sleeker in their all black appearance. The two successor versions differ optically through their focus ring, which in later lenses is no longer completely made of metal, but covered with rubber instead. The automatic aperture control on version one and two is indicated with the orange letters “EE” standing for “Electric Eye”. In the latest version, the markings are very similar to those on Canon’s FD lenses. The mark is now green and says “AE” for “Automatic Exposure”. We could go into much more detail here but for anyone looking to build a full film camera kit, this information should be enough to start digging. If the glass elements or blades look dirty: do not worry. These lenses feature no electrical components and disassembling them is easy enough. Just make sure you have the right tools. If you give Konica lenses the love they deserve, they will quickly regain the beauty that once made them so popular.
If They’re So Good, Then Why Are They Dead?
Don’t sleep on Konica or other obscure Japanese camera companies just because they’re no longer around. Competition in the Japanese photographic technology industry was (and remains) unbelievably fierce, and many companies died even though they had impressive products and potent designs (even Olympus recently called it quits). The likes of Miranda, Petri, Topcon, Minolta should not be discounted out of hand. These and others made countless contributions to the field of photography through smart engineering and innovative technologies. What’s more, each of these brands has a history that’s as interesting as any other, once we do a little research.
Take Topcon for example. This lesser-known Japanese camera-maker emerged from the measure instruments section of Seikosha, the predecessor to Seiko, and was a photographic supplier to both the Japanese Army and the United States Navy. Their flagship, the Topcon RE was the first camera in the world to offer a through-the-lens exposure meter. Josh wrote a review of the RE Super which reinforces many of the points I’ve made here about Konica. CP editor James, about the Topcon, wrote this – “The RE Super is one of the finest-made mechanical cameras of its era. It’s a beautiful machine, impressively over-built, and I think it should get more credit in classic camera-liking circles.”
We admire and covet cameras and lenses from Nikon, Canon, Olympus or Pentax because their quality and versatility are world-class. The equivalent products from these less-lauded brands are easily their equal. You simply need a bit more research to find these gems. So the next time you see a Konica lens or camera on the shelf of your local thrift store, take a look at it and check the price tag. Is that not one hell of a bargain? I bet it is. And now excuse me, I have to go thrifting!
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