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In this, the first of a short series, we are going to take a look at some of the camera’s that defined modern photography. These cameras may have introduced new, revolutionary features or just refined the existing technology into something much more usable. In this first article, we will look at the Nikon F.
The Nikon F is perhaps a classic example of how the balance of power can shift in an industry. Introduced in 1959, its first revolutionary feature was that it was Japanese. The early decades of 35mm photography had been dominated by German camera manufacturers such as Leica and Contax, Japan had an industry but it was mainly aimed at the cheap, consumer end of the market. The introduction of Nikon’s F changed this forever, bringing high quality 35mm SLR’s within the price range of many more people than it’s German equivalents and led the way for the Japanese take over of the camera industry.
Oddly, very little of the F’s technology was revolutionary, it merely borrowed and bettered existing technology. Some prime examples of this were it’s pentaprism viewfinder, instant return mirror and bayonet mounted interchangeable lenses. It was the Nikon’s addition and refinement of many of these existing technologies that made it such a potent new addition to the photographic world. Much of the design of the camera was built around making the user operation much easier and giving options for a huge range of lenses and accessories. One revolutionary feature was the ability to add a motor drive to the camera allowing the photographer to shoot up to 4 frames per second, a first in a 35mm SLR, this combined with its range of high quality lenses made the Nikon extremely attractive to photojournalists, many of whom had been working with exquisitely made but fairly slow to use, Leica cameras. Amongst the other many useful accessories available were a 250 exposure back, interchangeable focus screens and different viewfinders.
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the design of the camera was its build quality. Nikon realized that to corner the photojournalist market, the camera need to be built like a tank, capable of taking the roughest knocks in the wildest of environments. That they managed to achieve this quality, with so many features, all for a relatively low price for the time is testament to Nikon’s engineers.
Like so many iconic products, it sometimes takes a major event to raise its profile to worldwide recognition and in the Nikon F’s case, this was the Vietnam war. By the start of the war, the F already had a good reputation for it’s build quality but in the brutal killing fields of South East Asia, it really proved it’s worth. War photographers such as Larry Burrows and Don McCullin would have several bodies and lenses in their kitbags with both of them, as well as others, bringing back some of the most important and striking images of that conflict. For Don MacCullin, the Nikon F was a life saver, literally, when one of his was hit by a Vietcong bullet whilst it was hanging round his neck.
Production of the F continued until 1972 when it was superseded by the F2. All in all, over 850,000 were produced, and even today it’s still fairly easy to buy a used Nikon F in good condition. The F set Nikon on its route to being one of the worlds most respected manufacturers of professional camera equipment, and although the F series ended its life in 2004 with the Nikon F6, its heritage continues with the Nikon D series – currently at D4. Even to today, all of Nikon’s DSLR cameras contain DNA from the Nikon F, perhaps most notably in the legendary Nikon F lens mount, which allows even the most modern Nikon professional cameras to accept lenses designed for the original Nikon F.
In the next article in this series we will take a look at perhaps the first iconic camera of the digital era, Canon’s EOS 1D.
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union