The Nikon FE2 SLR

The Nikon FE2 isn’t quite as well known as some of the other mid-range film SLRs Nikon has produced. It is quite similar to, but somewhat shaded by, the engineering miracle that is the FM3a with its hybrid shutter. The mechanical FM series also seems to better known than the electronic FEs. However, despite being occasionally overlooked, the FE2 is a fine film camera.

The FE and FM Series

Nikon FE2
The Nikon FE2 with 28mm Voigtlander f2.8 Aspherical SL II-S Colour-Skopar 

As one of Nikon’s semi-professional SLRs, the FE2 shares the same rugged, metal internal chassis and general design principles as its siblings, the FM, FM2, FE, FA, and FM3A.

The FM and FE formed part of Nikon’s four product lines of F, FE, FM, and EM. These targeted different classes of users and were designed to change Nikon’s brand image from a manufacturer of high-end SLRs to an “all-round manufacturer”, accommodating a wide variety of consumers from beginners to professional photographers.

While they look quite similar, the Nikon FE and FM cameras are quite different internally. The Nikon FE and FE2 both have an electronic shutter with aperture-priority automation, and the light meter uses needle matching in the viewfinder. The FM is all-mechanical (except for the light meter) and uses a “centre-the-LED” system.

the table below provides an at-a-glance comparison of the FM and FE Series. Note that the later FE10 and FM10, manufactured by Cosina, sharing the same designation but based on a different chassis and designed for a different market, have been omitted. For brevity I’ve used the term ‘automation’ to refer to shutter automation, of which these cameras either offered none or aperture priority. For other automation options such as shutter priority, programmed auto etc. you need the Nikon FA.

 FMFEFM2FE-2FM-2nFM3A
ShutterMechanicalElectronicMechanicalElectronicMechanicalBoth
AutomationNoneApertureNoneApertureNoneAperture
Max. Shutter Speed (Sec)1,0004,000
Flash Sync (Sec)1/1251/250
Lens Compatibility Since19581977
Introduced197719781982198319842001
Discontinued198219831984198720012006
FE and FM Series (excluding Cosina manufactured models)

What Makes the FE2 So Good?

What struck me first about the FE2 is the how bright the viewfinder is. It is brighter than the FE and nearly as bright as the FM3A, with excellent close-to-100% coverage at 93%. The viewfinder is Nikon’s interchangeable Type K2 focusing screen with the useful split image rangefinder and etched circle that indicates the area of the centre-weighted meter.

The FE2’s feature I like most the intuitive needle-matching light meter, which is also used in the FE and FM3A (both of which are reviewed on this site). If you like a light meter, and I do, this analogue system is the most intuitive I have ever come across. It makes manual exposure so easy that I seldom use aperture automation.

The exposure lock works extremely well on the FE2, as the needle connected to the light meter locks once it is engaged. This isn’t the case with the FE – you just need to trust that it is engaged.

A fast maximum shutter speed is always a bonus for me, and the FE2’s operates at up to 1/4000-second shutter, which provides a lot of flexibility. This enables you to shoot with a wide aperture in bright conditions or use ISO 400 film on a bright day, which is advantageous if that roll is to be used in both bright and darker conditions.

The other features that make it a very capable everyday shooter for both beginners and advanced photographers are:

  • Aperture priority automation
  • 60/40 centre-weighted metering
  • Exposure compensation (1/3 stop per click)
  • Superb damping (so good mirror lock up was omitted)
  • 1/250 sec flash (the world’s fastest sync speed SLR then in 1983)
  • Choice of replacement viewfinders (replacement sets come with tweezers)

The FE2 Shooting Experience

Setting ISO Speed

The ISO film speed setting control is on the same ring as the exposure compensation control, on the right of the top plate, just like the Nikon FE. You depress the button to the right of the dial to set ISO and lift the ring to set the film speed. Lifting the ring feels both fiddly and slightly flimsy, compared to the smaller ring on the shutter speed button on the FM2n for example.

Loading and Unloading Film

Nikon FE2
Working boats and gear, Deal Beach, shot with the FE2 and TMax 400

Loading film is straightforward and much like other Nikon SLRs. Once you have slid the safety lock mounted under the rewind crank to disengage it, you can lift the film rewind knob.  Nikon revised the location of the safety lock between the FE and FE2 and it the later model handles better as a result.

Once you have raised the rewind knob completely the back of the camera back pops open and you can load the film in the usual 35mm fashion – ensuring the perforations along the edges of the film mesh with the sprockets. When the film is engaged with the spool, press the camera back until it snaps into place. Unloading is similarly familiar: depress the button on the bottom of the camera and turn the re-winding crank in the direction of the arrow until you feel the resistance in the crank drop.

Power On

To turn the camera on, you pull the film advance lever open (to unlock the shutter release) and half push of the shutter release. The camera automatically shuts off to save power after a few seconds. The power source is two readily available button alkaline LR44s, or one more specialist lithium 1/3N battery. The FE2 can shoot at at 1/250s when the batteries are drained but without the light meter.

Through the Viewfinder

Looking through the viewfinder, the aperture you have selected is displayed in a small window to the top of the frame. This is the Nikon Aperture Direct Readout (ADR) system. To the left there is a shutter scale that displays both the selected shutter speed and a light meter readout via a pair of needles. The second longer, thinner black needle is connected to the light meter. In auto-mode this needle indicates which shutter speed will be used, whilst the thicker, shorter green needle is set it A.

In manual mode, the green needle is set by the shutter speed dial and needs to be matched to the light meter reading shown by the other needle. You can adjust either the aperture or shutter speed to obtain a match. It’s a great system, and in good lighting I much prefer it to the LED system of the FM2n (or the F3).

Lenses

I prefer prime lenses to zooms on manual focus cameras, and as I like to travel light I generally carry a wide 24mm and a standard 50mm. If I am travelling light I’ll might just take the excellent 28mm Voigtlander shown in the photo above or a 50mm. My 50mm of choice is the f1.8 AI-s pancake. All the lenses I use with the FE2 are AI-s.

FE2 versus the FE

The FE2’s predecessor, the Nikon FE, is similar to the Nikon FM introduced in 1977 but the internals are electronic. Unlike the FE2, neither camera features a model number on the front of the camera.

Nikon FE2
Deal sea front from the pier, shot with the FE2 and TMax 400

Advantages of FE2 over the Nikon FE

The most apparent advantage of the FE2 over the FE is that the faster shutter. The titanium focal plane shutter is two stops faster at 1/4000s vs 1/1000s for the FE, with the FE2’s flash sync at 1/250 vs 1/125. The backup mechanical shutter, which I don’t expect to need to use, is also more usable at 1/250s vs 1/90s.

There are other refinements: the viewfinder is brighter than the FEs, the light meter needle is locked stationary when the exposure lock is applied, and the exposure compensation is in 1/3 stop fine-tuning increments. (The FE’s scale is in 1/2 stops). The camera back lock also has been re-positioned, making it easier to operate.

Advantages of FE over the Nikon FE2

The Nikon FE has a surprisingly long list of small advantages over its successor. They seem quite minor to me, at least, but some photographers prefer the FE. As much as I have enjoyed shooting with the FE, on balance I prefer the brighter, faster FE2.

  • Power Switch The FE’s power switch is very simple – just pull out the film wind handle. There’s an additional step on the FE2 – a half push of the shutter release. The camera automatically shuts off to save power. This seems to annoy some reviewers, but it doesn’t trouble me.
  • Legibility in the Viewfinder The shutter scale speeds are more larger and easier to read than on the FE2, as there are two fewer speeds to accommodate. I only noticed this in a direct comparison between the two, though – it is not as if the FE2’s display is illegible.
  • Battery Life This FE uses less battery power than the FE2 because its faster shutter needs stronger shutter springs and the batteries have to power the electromagnets to cope. All Nikons seem restrained in their battery usage, so this doesn’t trouble me either.
  • Compatibility with Non-AI Lenses The FE can use Nikon lenses going back to 1959, while the FE2 can’t use non-AI lenses.  I don’t have any non-AI lenses, most of mine are AI-s or AI.
  • Battery Test Light The FE has a dedicated battery test light, which the FE2 lacks. This is definitely a nice feature to have but I don’t have it on most of the other cameras I use.
  • Cost The FE is less expensive than the FE2.

Pre Frame 1 Metering

There is one difference between the FE and FE2 that you may see as an advantage either way, depending on your point of view. This is Pre Frame 1 Metering.

When you load a new film, the FE2’s light meter doesn’t operate until the counter on the film advance gets to frame 1. Before frame 1 (frames 00 and 0), the shutter always fires at its single manually operated shutter speed of M250 (1/250th of a second).

Nikon added this feature because if you have set the camera to auto and accidentally fire the shutter with the lens cap on or in a dim enough environment, the camera will set an extra long exposure – potentially tens of minutes long! This can be overridden by setting the shutter speed to a fast manual speed or the mechanical backup speed, M250.

The FE does not have this feature, so experienced film photographers can squeeze up to two more frames (frames 00 and 0) out of a roll of film, which they appreciate. These early loading frames are really designed to ensure by the time you get to frame 1, your camera is properly wound, and you don’t get partial frames, but they can be utilised for shooting in many cameras. They are numbered 00 and 0 to provide a reference number to reference them for prints, etc.

Discontinuation

The Nikon FE2 was officially discontinued in 1987. A quick glance at the Year-by-Year Camera Timeline on this site shows that the market was extremely dynamic at that time, with autofocus becoming established, along with the first glimpse of digital cameras and the emergence of the bridge camera.

  • 1985 Minolta introduces the world’s first fully integrated autofocus SLR with the autofocus (AF) system built into the body – the Maxxum 7000 a.k.a. the Dynax 7000
  • 1986 The disposable camera is popularised by Fujifilm with the 35mm QuickSnap
  • The Canon T90 marks the pinnacle of Canon’s manual-focus 35mm SLRs
  • The Canon RC-701 becomes the first still video camera marketed, offering 10 fps (frames per second) high-speed shutter-priority and multi-program automatic exposure
  • 1987 Canon launches the EOS (Electro-Optical System), an entirely new system designed specifically to support autofocus lenses
  • 1988 The Nikon F4 is introduced as the first professional Nikon to feature a practical autofocus system.
  • The Fuji DS-1P, the first digital handheld camera, is introduced, though it does not sell
  • The first of the Genesis series from Chinon helps to define the category of 35mm bridge cameras

More detail on the battle between Nikon and Canon for Auto Focus Dominance can be found in a short separate article. Regardless, manual focus cameras quickly became a niche product and Nikon’s final offering was the FM3A, with its 1/4000 second hybrid mechanical/electronic shutter.

Afterword – The Nikon FE10

There is a later Nikon with an FE designation. However, it was not a successor model to the FE and FE2 as it was built on a different chassis and designed for a different market. The Nikon FE10 of 1996 is a manual focus, F-mount film SLR manufactured under license by Cosina. It has a rather unappealing ABS plastic body in champagne silver and black body and was designed as a low cost beginner’s camera based on Cosina’s C2/C3 SLRs.

As such is unlikely to appeal to FE and FE2 owners, but Nikon’s fingerprints can be seen all over the enhancements to the donor Cosina. Depth-of field preview, AE Lock and exposure compensation, to name just a few, are features that make it usable by more experienced photographers. As a result it has some positive reviews from those that appreciate its light weight and very low cost.

Conclusion

I really enjoy shooting with the Nikon FE2 – it offers a very similar experience to the FM3A, a favourite of mine. It is both easy and rewarding to shoot with, and as it’s less of a collector’s piece than the FM3A, it’s one you can take anywhere.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If have experiences to share with the Nikon FE2, please leave me a comment below. I’d be delighted to hear from you. And if you are interested in classic or vintage cameras, there are articles on this site on:

If you’ve any experience with the Nikon FE2, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

The Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie was introduced in 1904 as part of the the Folding Brownie series. This was Kodak’s least expensive folding roll film camera range with a more basic specification than their Kodak branded counterparts. The smaller B ‘Folding Pocket Brownie Model B’ was launched in 1907. Both models took 120 roll film.

Kodak No 2 Pocket folding brownie
Brill Windmill, shot with the The No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

If you are looking to obtain one, you should ensure that you don’t confuse either model with the 1910 No 2A Folding Pocket Brownie that took 116 film, which is no longer available. I have read that you can use 120 film in 116 cameras with an adaptor. This will apparently produce six very large (11 x 6 cm) images!

Like my No 2 Kodak Autographic Folding Brownie, I bought this folding pocket Brownie at a camera fair hosted by ImageX in Bicester, Oxfordshire. It came in its original cardboard box and was in excellent condition, the only sign of usage being on the handle. The red bellows look just like new.

When I opened the camera up I was delighted to find an original sticker inside. This was the original purchase sticker from Boots the Cash Chemist, showing a price of one pound one shilling, which had been there since purchase in 1911!

Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
1911 price tag inside the camera

I paid rather more than that, but it was a very fair price for such a good example. Looking online afterwards I found a less well preserved model for just under £20.

Folding Cameras

Folding cameras originated in the 1850s, replacing the 1840s sliding-box design. The lens and shutter are attached to a lens-board which is connected to the body of the camera by light-tight folding bellows. When the camera is fully unfolded it provides the correct focus distance from the film.

Folding cameras dominated camera design until the 1930s and remained significant into the late 1940s. The design persisted into the 1970s in specialized cameras such as the Polaroid SX-70 Instant film camera, and the Speed Graphic press cameras. See the article Early Cameras, a Timeline on this site for more on early camera design.

Kodak’s Folding Cameras

Kodak produced numerous folding models from the 1890’s until the 1960s. The first was the Folding Pocket Kodak which was introduced in 1897.  The last was the Kodak 66, Kodak’s only post-war folder for 120 film rolls, which was manufactured in the UK between 1958 & 1960.

The Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
The No. 2 Pocket Brownie on Deal Pier. Gimbal head not required!

The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie is a horizontal format folding camera.  Like larger large format models, the lens standard is pulled out on a track fixed to the wooden baseboard, which is fitted with a small focusing scale, which locks. It has an attractive set of red bellows (black after 1911) that can be set to three focusing positions: 100, 20, 8 feet.

The rectangular metal body has a leatherette covering a hinged back and two tripod sockets. There is a small ‘Brilliant’ finder fixed to the left side of the baseboard. A brilliant finder uses a combination of lenses and prisms to provide a bright image for composing the image. The finder on this model can be rotated through 90 degrees to allow the camera to be used in either portrait or landscape orientation.

The No 2 Folding Brownie uses a meniscus achromatic lens, the story of the which is the same design as The First Camera Lens, which is a subject of another article on this site. It uses the either the Pocket or Brownie automatic shutter.

Folding Brownie Vs Folding Pocket Brownie

The original No 2 Folding Brownie original had a wooden lens board and had a sliding latch on the back which was apparently unreliable. The Model B Pocket version abandoned the sliding latch and replaced them with had a pair of concealed buttons under the leatherette. The model name is printed inside the camera back and is also embossed into the handle on the top face. It is about 20% smaller than its predecessor.

Camera Controls

All the controls except the film wind on key are located on the lens barrel. The shutter (marked A on the diagram below) has five-blades and settings for I (Instant), B (Bulb) and T (Timed). The Instant setting was originally approximately 1/45 of a second, but likely to be slower in action. The shutter (C) is tripped from a small lever also on the lens barrel.

A typical Kodak control layout of the time

The aperture settings (marked B on the diagram) are marked 1-4. This refers to a simple numbering system used on simple Kodak cameras. This system can be confused with the U.S. Universal Scale System, (also called the “Uniform Scale System”) found on many pre-1920 cameras.   See the short article on Aperture Scales on this site for more on this.

According to About Lenses published by Kodak in 1922, the aperture settings for cameras with Meniscus Achromatic lenses are No.1 (f 11), No. 2 (f 16), No. 3 (f 16), No. 4 (f 22).

The film is advanced by a key which is marked with an arrow to indicate the correct direction. The frame number can be seen in a small circular red window on the back of the camera. The camera takes 8 exposures of 6 x 7 cm images on No. 120 film.

The No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie in Use

As usual with very old cameras, I kept my expectations from camera under control, but I didn’t experience any of the light leaks and the camera operated as expected.

A handheld shot of Deal sea front from the pier. Tripod required, but nice tone with ISO 25 film.

One film was shot handheld and one with a tripod. The tripod head I had with me was of the gimbal type, which limited me to shooting in portrait mode, but provided a lot of weight and so felt really solid. The handheld shots were all extremely blurred, so I suspect the shutter speed is well below its original 1/45 of a second. Based on the results I estimate it is now at about 1/15 of a second.

Opening and Loading the Camera

The camera is easy to open – you just press on the concealed buttons at rear upper corner of each side of the camera.  The back of the camera will open and drops down. At each end of the interior of the camera you can see a recess for holding the film spools.   Loading is also simple. To load the film you just need to pull up the axis pins, insert the loaded film and draw the film to the takeup spool. Remember to have the black side of the film facing the front and wind on using the key until the vertical arrow appears on the film spool. Close the camera and wind on until number 1 becomes visible in the red window on the rear of the camera.

Avoiding Film Fogging

I never load film in direct sunlight but you don’t need to work in complete darkness – subdued light is sufficient.

You might consider taping up the the red frame counter window on the back of the camera, whilst it is not in use. This helps prevent unwanted light getting into the camera and provides similar functionality to later frame counter windows that had covers to prevent light leaks and were only opened whilst the photographer was advancing the film.

Early film had low sensitivity to red light so a combination of the backing paper on the film, plus the red window, prevented film fogging. If you use Orthochromatic film (which is still available) this precaution is unnecessary as it is less sensitive to red light.

Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
The Pocket Kodak on Deal Pier, mounted on a tripod with the frame counter taped up.

Framing and Focusing

Framing relies on the tiny (1.5 cm x 1.5 cm) ‘Brilliant’ finder mounted above the lens.  This creates a tiny representation of approximately what the camera is pointing at.  Peering down into this minute square of glass you will see a laterally reversed image.  

Focus is basic ‘scale focusing’ and is set via a notched scale on baseboard.  This has three pre-set distances that engage with a small catch, that is slightly fiddly to operate, though you probably won’t use it very much.  I mainly use the most distant of these (100 feet). 

Setting an Exposure

Given how forgiving black and white film is in terms of exposure latitude, I didn’t found it difficult to get an acceptable exposure. In any event the controls available to set an exposure are minimal. Set the to shutter to I (Instant) and the aperture to 1 or 2 and trip the shutter.

Choosing the right film

Kodak produced a large number of different roll film formats with a variety of different negative sizes. 120 (or No. 2 film as it was originally called, as per the name of this camera) is the only one still being manufactured.   This is used extensively by medium format photographers, and readily available.  The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie model produces 8 exposures measuring 6 x 9 cm, which are the largest that can be obtained with a 120 film camera.

Film Speed

Modern 120 film is very different to what was available in 1911, so is difficult to compare sensitivity accurately as these old films had different emulsions. Early twentieth century photographers had several measures of sensitivity available to them (such as H&D) but ISO was not one of them.

The ISO film speed system, or ISO speed, was standardised in 1987 by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO)unified the various film speed rating systems that existed before, such as ASA (American Standards Association) and DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung, the German standard).

I’ve seen accounts of an equivalent ISO range of 5-25 for Orthochromatic films, which were less sensitive to red light, and ISO 10-50 for Panchromatic Films. Both of these estimates are for the second decade of the twentieth century. The closest currently available Rollei Ortho 25 (which I used), but I found 100 worked fine, though the Rollei Ortho produced the best results.

Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie with immaculate red belllows.

Pros and Cons of the Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

Pros

  • Easy to load and unload
  • Simple to use
  • Light and portable

Cons

  • Only one ‘instant’ shutter speed
  • Slow shutter makes a tripod essential
  • Fiddly scale focusing control

Further Reading and Getting in Touch

If you are interested in classic or vintage cameras, there are articles on this site on

If you’ve any experience with the Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

The Nikon FE SLR

The Nikon FE flew under my Nikon radar for many years. I regularly shoot with the FM3a, F3 and F6, and I’ve had a FM2/n in my collection for some years, but somehow I remained completely unaware of the FE. I am not sure why! When a very clean FM came up at a camera fair hosted by ImageX I examined it and saw from the serial number that it was wasn’t an FM at all – It was a Nikon FE. What exactly that meant was a mystery to me, but a few rolls of film and some reading later, I have got to grips with it.

The Nikon FE and FM – Major Differences

The Nikon FE is a semi-professional SLR model, manufactured from 1978 to 1983. The exterior is very similar to the Nikon FM introduced in 1977 but the internals are electronic. Neither camera features a model number on the front so they are easy to confuse.

Nikon FE
Nikon FE with 50mm f1.8 AI-s pancake lens

Whilst they look alike, the FE and FM are quite different in two important respects and a few details. The Nikon FE has an electronic shutter and offers aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure mode. The centre weighted light meter makes use of needle matching in the viewfinder. The FM is all-mechanical (except for the light meter) and uses a “centre-the-LED” system.

In other words, the Nikon FE is essentially a Nikon FM with an added electronic shutter and aperture-priority mode. This is reflected in Nikon’s Product Timeline which describes the FE as “a sister model of the Nikon FM (1977) with Aperture-Priority Auto [A] mode.”

I am familiar with both metering systems from the FM3a (needle matching) and FM2/n (LEDs). My preference is for prefer needle matching over the LEDs (except in low light) and I usually shoot in full manual. The system is so easy and intuitive I don’t need auto mode. It really is a just personal preference, however. Plenty of photographers find the LEDs simpler and less distracting, and they are certainly easier to read in low light.

FE vs FM – The Details

There are a few other differences between the two models:

  • Viewfinder Screen The FE has an interchangeable viewfinder screen, though the choice of replacements is limited to two (Types B and E, K comes as standard).
  • Battery Check Indicator The FE has a dedicated battery indicator LED on the back of the camera. The FM’s light meter LEDs stay on.
  • Mechanical Shutter Speeds The FE has two mechanical shutter speeds, 1/90 and B. The FM’s speeds are all mechanical.
  • Auto Exposure Lock The FE has an AE lock lever. The FM does not offer this feature.
  • Slowest Manual Speed The FE’s slowest manual speed is 8 seconds, compared to the FM’s 1 second.
  • Exposure Compensation The FE, offering an automatic setting, offers exposure compensation, although the combined ISO/Exposure compensation is quite fiddly and there’s no indication in the finder that it is active. The FM, being manual, does not offer compensation – all adjustment is manual.
  • Weight Nikon specifies 590g for the FE and 540g for the FM, making the FE slightly heavier.
  • Serial Numbers FE serial numbers begin with 3000001 (prefixed by FE), FM serial numbers begin with 2100001 or 2100020 (prefixed by FM).
Nikon FE
Deal beach shot with the Nikon FE (Ilford XP2 400)

The Semi Professional Series

The similarities between the two models are unsurprising as the FE followed the FM in a series of small, semi-professional SLRs: the FM, FM2, FE, FE2, FA, FM3A. All these models shared the same rugged, copper-aluminium alloy (duralumin) internal chassis and general design ethos. An at-a-glance comparison of the FE and FM cameras is shown in the table below:

 FMFEFM2FE-2FM-2nFM3A
ShutterMechanicalElectronicMechanicalElectronicMechanicalBoth
AutomationNoneApertureNoneApertureNoneAperture
Max. Shutter Speed (Sec)1,0004,000
Flash Sync (Sec)1/1251/250
Lens Compatibility Since19581977
Introduced197719781982198319842001
Discontinued198219831984198720012006
FE and FM camera series (excluding Cosina manufactured FE10 and FM10)

Why the Nikon FE was Important

The Nikon FE was important to Nikon for two reasons. Firstly, the electronic Nikon F3 professional camera was already in the works and pro acceptance of electronic shutters was essential. These new shutters and the battery dependence they created were a major cause for concern for conservative pros. The Nikon FE had a popular reception and the positive press coverage it generated helped to overcome the negative sentiment towards electronic shutters that was current at the time.

Secondly, Nikon needed a competitive offering in the amateur/enthusiast market. At that time the market was shifting away from heavy mechanical camera bodies to more compact bodies with microprocessor electronic automation. Nikon a needed a camera to compete in that fast growing market segment. The Nikon FE’s electronic shutter allowed it to include automatic aperture priority and enabled Nikon to introduce it as a replacement for the older Nikkormat EL and Nikon EL series.

Oxford, shot with the Nikon FE (Ilford XP2 400)

Shooting with the Nikon FE

Batteries are ready available. You can use a pair of button alkaline LR44s or a single lithium Duracell 1/3N. I chose the later option.

Loading film is straightforward. Once you have slid the safety lock towards the rear of the camera you can lift the film rewind knob.  Raising the rewind knob completely pops the back of the camera back open. Load the film ensuring the perforations along the edges of the film mesh with the sprockets. When the film is engaged with the spool, press the camera back until it until it snaps into place.

The ISO film speed setting control is on the same ring as the exposure compensation control, on the right of the top plate. You depress the button to the right of the dial to set ISO and lift the ring to set the film speed. It works fine once you are used to it.

Looking through the viewfinder, the aperture you have selected is displayed in a small window to the top of the frame. This is the Nikon Aperture Direct Readout system. To the left there is a shutter scale that displays both the selected shutter speed and a light meter readout via a pair of needles. The longer, thinner black needle is connected to the light meter. In auto-mode this needle indicates which shutter speed will be used, whilst the thicker, shorter green needle is set it A.

In manual mode the green needle is set by the shutter speed dial and needs to be matched to the light meter reading shown by the other needle. You can adjust either the aperture or shutter speed to obtain a match. It’s a great system and in good lighting, I prefer it to the LED system of the F3 and FM2n. With needle matching I almost never use aperture priority as full manual seems so intutive.

The Next Generation

Nikon updated their compact SLR range with the release of the Nikon FM2 in 1982. The new model featured a much faster titanium shutter (1/4000th of a second vs the FM’s and FE’s 1/1000th), an enhanced light meter and an increased flash sync speed.

In 1983, Nikon introduced the Nikon FE2 with an improved shutter (same maximum speed but reduced shutter travel time) and improved damping. The following year Nikon updated to the FM2 as the FM2n, which took the improved shutter from the FE2. Later FM2ns adopted an aluminium shutter, presumably to reduce production costs.

Nikon FE Hampton Gay Manor
The Ruined Manor at Hampton Gay in 2024. Shot with the Nikon FE on Kodak TMAX 100

The FE Vs FE2

The FE2’s biggest advantage over the FE is a 4x faster shutter, but the FE does have a few advantages of its own.

  • Power Switch The FE’s power switch is very simple – just pull out the film wind handle. It’s a little more cumbersome on the FE2, the film advance lever has to be pulled open (to unlock the shutter release), followed by a half push of the shutter release. It then automatically shuts off to save power.
  • Battery Test Light The FE has a dedicated battery test light, which the FE2 lacks
  • Battery Life This FE uses less battery power than the FE2 because its faster shutter needs stronger shutter springs and the batteries have to power the electromagnets to cope.
  • Non-AI Lenses The FE can use Nikon lenses going back to 1959, while the FE2 can’t use non-AI lenses. 
  • Pre Frame 1 Metering The FE2 light meter doesn’t engage until the counter on the film advance gets to 1. Before 1, the shutter always fires at its single manually operated shutter speed – 1/250th of a second. The FE does not have this feature, which is designed to prevent long exposures with the lens cap on, allowing the user to take a shot or two before frame 1.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Intuitive needle matching light meter – especially useful in dynamic lighting conditions
  • Aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure mode in a small, lightweight package
  • Modern, automation equipped mount for non-AI lenses
  • Dedicated battery test light makes it easy to see battery status
  • Removable focusing screen provides some options
  • Inexpensive to buy

Cons

  • 1/1000 second maximum shutter speed can be a limitation in bright conditions (this can be overcome with filters of course)

Conclusion

I really enjoy shooting with the Nikon FE. It occurs to me that it is an ideal camera to get back to film with – suitable for beginners to experienced photographers. It isn’t going to replace the awesome FM3A in my affections, but it is a piece of Nikon history that is rewarding to shoot with, and, given its replacement value, one I am happy to take anywhere.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If have experiences to share with the Nikon FE, please leave me a comment below. I’d be delighted to hear from you. And if you are interested in classic or vintage cameras, there are articles on this site on:

If you’ve any experience with the Nikon FE, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

The Photojournalist of Apocalypse Now

This article started as research into classic film cameras in movies, which led me to movies featuring photographers, and to my favourite movie Apocalypse Now, featuring Dennis Hopper as a manic photojournalist. The search for the origin of Dennis Hopper’s crazed character then took me on a voyage of discovery that proved to be nearly as winding as the Mekong River…

The greatest movies featuring photographers
Dennis Hopper, festooned with Nikon Fs, as the manic Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, shot by still photographer Chas Gerretsen

The Photographer of Apocalypse Now

In Apocalypse Now Dennis Hopper plays an unnamed disciple of the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who leads a renegade army of American and Montagnard troops from a remote abandoned Cambodian temple.

Hopper’s photojournalist appears at the end of Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey up the fictional Nung River to terminate Kurt’s command due to his ‘unsound methods’.

Hooper greets Willard as the ne plus ultra of combat photography; bearded and unkempt, wearing full camouflage with a red headband and sunglasses and covered in Nikon photography gear, some of it visibly battered.

Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now

Hopper’s improvisational skills and unconventional acting style shine through in his depiction of the Photojournalist. His character serves as a representation of the war’s impact on the human psyche, showcasing the blurred lines between sanity and madness in the midst of chaos. Hopper’s performance brings a sense of unpredictability and instability to the film, mirroring the disorienting nature of the war itself. Francis Ford Coppola has talked admiringly of Hopper’s dedication to his character, saying, “Dennis Hopper was out there being crazy, as usual. He was mad, but I loved him. I loved working with him.”

The Literary Inspiration for The Photojournalist

The Photojournalist appears in only three scenes, but despite these brief appearances, Hopper’s role is central to the sprawling story.

The Photojournalist is based on The Harlequin in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a Russian sailor who was Kurtz’s only European companion for several months before the steamboat arrives, and who acted as his listener and advocate.

The Role of the Photojournalist

The Harlequin and The Photojournalist are both insiders obsessed with Kurtz’s genius who attempt to convert outsiders to his way of thinking. Here is the Photojournalist’s unsuccessful attempt to justify the severed heads on poles outside Kurtz’s headquarters:

The heads. You’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far. But… he’s the first one to admit it.

Both cut absurd figures: The Harlequin with his colourful patches and cheerful demeanour in such a hellish environment; the Photojournalist a parody of the crazed hippy combat photojournalist in a headband. Both have a tendency to babble.

This is the Way the World Ends

Although the Photojournalist speaks many of the The Harlequin’s lines they do not play identical roles. The Photojournalist is also illustrative of the heavy price war photographers can pay, particularly the blurred lines between observer and participant and the internal conflicts set off by the accompanying moral ambiguity. The unimaginable trauma of Kurtz’s bloody compound and all that came before it must also weigh very heavily:

This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man!

An Ounce of Cocaine

Coppola builds the photojournalist’s crazed dialogue around lines from the Heart of Darkness and poems by Rudyard Kipling and T. S. Eliot. These are combined with Hopper’s hippy jive talk, which may have been delivered ad lib, fuelled by Hopper’s prodigious drug intake on set.

Hopper was reputed to difficult to work with on set because he was almost always high. George Hickenlooper’s documentary about the production Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse supports this: “Dennis recounted the story to me that Francis came to him and said, ‘What can I do to help you play this role?’ Dennis said, ‘About an ounce of cocaine.’

A Pair of Ragged Claws

This is in stark contrast to Coppola’s extensive use of poetry in the Photojournalists dialogue, which comes from Kurtz reading poetry to the The Harlequin in Heart of Darkness. The exceptionally strange last line of the speech below is from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Captain Willard : Could we, uh… talk to Colonel Kurtz?

Photojournalist : Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say “hello” to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s… he’s a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas…

The photojournalist’s evident admiration of Colonel Kurtz is because he had enlarged his mind, which is also what The Harlequin admired so greatly about Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

We Were All Crazy

The role was suggested to Coppola by the set stills photographer Chas Gerretsen, the still photographer for film. Describing war photographers he told Coppola that “we were all crazy” – and so the role was born. Chas had served in Vietnam and routinely carried Nikon F’s, some of which he sold to the production company for use in the film.

When Dennis Hopper arrived on set Chas was asked to advise  Francis Ford Coppola: “on how to dress a combat photographer” and the role of Dennis Hopper as Captain Colby was changed to the  photojournalist. Chas sold three of his old Nikon F cameras with lenses to the production company and they were used by Dennis Hopper in the film. The Nikon F cameras are on display in the Coppola Winery Movie Museum.

FORGET IT

All that was left to do was to replace the role of Captain Colby, Willard’s predecessor, in which Hopper had originally been cast. Colby appears only very briefly and does not speak, surrounded by Montagnard natives and stroking a rifle. His appearance is set up in Willard’s briefing:

There has been a new development regarding your mission which we must now communicate to you. Months ago a man was ordered on a mission which was identical to yours. We have reason to believe that he is now operating with Kurtz. Saigon was carrying him MIA for his family’s sake. They
assumed he was dead. Then they intercepted a letter he tried to send his wife :

      SELL THE HOUSE
      SELL THE CAR
      SELL THE KIDS
      FIND SOMEONE ELSE
      FORGET IT
      I’M NEVER COMING BACK
      FORGET IT

Captain Richard Colby – he was with Kurtz.

Bad, Dope-Smoking Cats

The Cultural References section of Sean Flynn’s entry in Wikipedia references him as the basis for the Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Though it is not substantiated it is entirely possible. Flynn, along with Englishman Tim Page, are portrayed as the lunatic journalists and “bad, dope-smoking cats” of Michael Herr’s classic book on the Vietnam War Dispatches.

Herr went “chopper-hopping round the war zone” with Page and Flynn, taking huge risks according to one reviewer of Dispatches. He later collaborated on the narrative of Apocalypse Now.

In Dispatches Herr described Page as the most extravagant of the “wigged-out crazies running around Vietnam”, largely due to his drug intake. Page’s Wikipedia page also describes him as part of the inspiration for the character of the Photojournalist, who specialised in wigged-out craziness:

One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions – what are you going to land on – one-quarter, three-eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics.

I thought dialectic physics was pure invention and part of the madness. It is not, and is helpfully described as “a living method of cognising nature and of searching for new truths in modern science, and in physics in particular” in M. E. Omelyanovsky’s Dialectics In Modern Physics.

In Like (Sean) Flynn

Whether he acted as an inspiration for the role or not Sean Flynn, the only child of hell-raising screen legend Errol, has one of the most fascinating, but also one of the saddest stories of the war.

Initially following in his fathers footsteps as an actor (his first film was Son of Captain Blood, sequel to his father’s classic Captain Blood), he abandoned the craft to start a new life in Vietnam as a combat photographer.

He exploits are truly intrepid. He shot his way out of an ambush with the Green Berets with an M16; incurred injuries from a grenade fragment in battle; made a parachute jump with an Airborne Division, and identified a mine whilst photographing troops, saving an Australian unit from potential destruction. Flynn used a Leica M2 in Vietnam, and it came to light, complete with a strap that fashioned from a parachute cord and a hand grenade pin, just a few years ago.

The Disappearance of Sean Flynn and Dana Stone

In 1970 Flynn was captured by Viet Cong guerrillas at a checkpoint along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. The pair had elected to travel by motorbike rather than the limos the majority of photojournalists were travelling in. Neither he or Stone were seen again. Despite the efforts of his mother to find him, Flynn was declared dead in absentia in 1984 and the fate of two remains unknown, notwithstanding the continued efforts of friends and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the organisation responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldiers.

Sean Finn’s story is told in a film inspired by his life entitled The Road to Freedom which was filmed on location in Cambodia in 2011. It also the subject of an eponymous track on the album Combat Rock by The Clash.

A CIA Kurtz?

Whilst the role of Colonel Kurtz and his ‘unsound methods’ was clearly inspired by ‘Heart of Darkness’, there is another potential influence which is less well known. This is revealed in the UK documentary ‘The Search for Kurtz’ which describes how CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Tony Poe and his leadership of Operation Momentum, which was launched in 1962 to turn the Laotian Hmong people into anti-communist guerrillas.

The Wrath of Klaus Kinski

Another significant influence for the Vietnam river epic is Aguirre, Wrath of God by Werner Herzog, starring a barely sane Klaus Kinski in the role of his life. The story follows the self styled ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme’ Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, city of Gold.

It is an astonishing and spectacular film, described by Robert Egbert as is “one of the great haunting visions of the cinema”. Curiously, I did not make the connection with Apocalypse Now until researching this article. Like Apocalypse Now, which was troubled by a heart attack, an overweight star, a mental breakdown and storms that destroyed the sets, the filming of Aguirre is the stuff of legend. Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski to force him to continue to act in the remote fever-ridden jungle district where the film was shot.

Has a character in a movie, especially an unnamed one, ever had such a rich set of sources?

The Photojournalist’s Cameras

The Photojournalist’s cameras are Nikon Fs with a variety of lenses; possibly a fast 50mm, a 105mm and a 200mm. This isn’t a a surprising photographer’s rig as the Nikon F, along with the Leica M2, was the leading film camera of the Vietnam war and carrying multiple cameras was common. Richard Crowe a former Combat Cameraman who served between 1966–1972 described the practice on the Q&A website Quora:

“If we are talking about photojournalists, they usually carried two to three 35mm cameras each with a different focal length lens. Nikon and Leica cameras were the favorites and the photojournalists usually owned their own equipment. The guys that I worked with often carried both a Leica with a UWA lens and two Nikons with normal and short telephoto lenses. The Canon SLR cameras of the day would often not stand up to the rough usage and dirt and grime in Vietnam. The photojournalists began to paint the silver portions of the camera bodies black so the camera would not be a point of aim for a sniper. Later on, camera companies began to supply cameras with black bodies and called them “Photojournalist Models”. BTW: no photojournalist that I knew or met ever carried a zoom lens on his camera. The early zoom lenses for SLR cameras were pretty crappy in image quality.”

Notable Vietnam War Nikon F users included Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows, Tim Page, Henri Huet, Dana Stone, Philip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin, whose F famously stopped a bullet from an AK47.

The Legacy of the Nikon F

The Nikon F was not the first SLR, that distinction belongs to the Exakta, which is the subject of another blog about photographers – Rear Window. Prior to its introduction, however, no SLR could challenge the mighty German rangefinder in the 35mm camera market; SLRs were often compared unfavourably to rangefinders as heavy, slow and less than reliable, with dim viewfinders.

The F swept away that dominance and many professional photographers abandoned Leica for Nikon. Leica lost its market dominance and never recovered it, though it has prospered in its niche of late.

Photographer of Apocalypse Now Nikon F
The long shadow of the Nikon F

The Nikon F brought many advancements to market simultaneously:

  • A system camera with interchangeable viewfinders and focusing screens
  • An automatic diaphragm and an instant-return mirror, which made it the quickest SLR by far.
  • An impressive lens line up
  • A large reflex mirror that kept the viewfinder bright, and reduced vignetting
  • A 100% viewfinder, an SLR first
  • A focal plane shutter with titanium-foil blinds—also a first

These advancements made the technical advantages of the SLR over the rangefinder compelling. The need to match lenses to frame lines and for external viewfinders to use wide angle lenses disappeared. Gone too were the framing and parallax compensation issues and the limitation on zoom and lenses longer than 135mm.

Over time the F became legendary for indestructible levels of reliability and durability. It still casts a long shadow.

The Legacy of Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is an iconic movie, savage and darkly comic, and an expedition through insanity from start to finish. It is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. I have watched it many times and it has retained its power for me.

Robert Egbert said of it: “Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.

Related Articles on Flash of Darkness

If you enjoyed this article, another movie that is a favourite of mine and features a photographer is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The journey wasn’t quite as twisting as Apocalypse now but it was interesting nonetheless…

There are also two articles on classic film cameras in the movies on this site – one of Leica and one on Nikon.

The Greatest Movies about Photographers: Rear Window

This article was inspired by classic film cameras in movies – specifically , Leicas and Nikons. From cameras in movies, it’s a short step to movies about photographers. My favourite movie with a photographer as the lead character is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and I was intrigued by the camera and telephoto lens Jimmy Stewart used in the role – hence this article.

The greatest movies featuring photographers
Jimmy Stewart, his Exacta Varex with Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window contains probably the most iconic photographer/film camera combinations in movie history. The film is based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” and stars Jimmy Stewart as LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, a New York magazine photographer. Recuperating from a broken leg, Jeffries is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Greenwich Village.

Jeff’s rear window looks out onto a courtyard and his neighbour’s apartments, which he observes during his convalescence in a stifling Manhattan summer. The include a lonely middle-aged woman, a new wed couple, a dancer, a husband and his sick wife, an alcoholic pianist and a couple who often sleep out in the balcony in the hot weather. Jeff’s observations include some suspicious sounds and behaviour and he becomes convinced one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald, has committed a murder.

Inspirations for a Murderer

Mischievously, Hitchcock modelled the murderer on a former meddling producer he did not care for, David O. Selznick. Grace Kelly plays the archetypical Hitchcock blonde heroine in Lisa Carol Fremont, a stylish and resourceful socialite who has to engage in much of the action as Jeff is wheelchair bound. Although he did not write the the screenplay, Hitchcock also supplied colour for the murder story from two cases he head read about in the newspapers: the infamous Dr. Crippen and the less well remembered Patrick Mohan, both of whom dismembered their victims.

The Role of the Photographer

Rear Window is another of my favourite films, and the role of the photographer is pure Hitchcock. David Campany describes it well in the essay Re-viewing Rear Window:

“For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks. It is their socially accepted voyeurism that is significant, not their images. Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed (much like a movie audience, watching but not accountable). In Rear Window, the photographer is cut off not just by the lens of his camera, or by the glass window of his apartment, or indeed by the abyss of the courtyard across which he stares. It is his professionalized looking, with its fantasy of objectivity, that cuts him off. It demands his separation from the world. Despite witnessing what he believes is a murderer covering his traces, he feels no urge to get it on film. Rather, he uses his camera’s long lens as a telescope to watch, swapping it for binoculars when things get really intense.”

That Obscure Object of Desire

Jeff’s camera was an Exakta Varex VX 35mm film SLR made by the improbably named Ihagee of Dresden, which was in East Germany at the time. This manufacturer is best known for the Kine Exakta (1936-1948), the first 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in regular production.

The Exakta Varex VX was introduced in 1951 and was based on the Kine Exakta. The Exakta Varex VX was a system camera that could be used with either a waist level finder or with a pentaprism and a variety of focusing screens. Other specialised equipment available for the camera system included microscope adaptors, extension bellows, stereo attachments and medical attachments.

Exakta as Witness

In addition to a staring role in Rear Window Josef Koudelka used an Exacta Varex to photograph the invasion of Prague in 1968. He had returned to Czechoslovakia from Romania recording his photo-essay Gypsies (also with an Exacta Varex) two days before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

These photographs, of crowds staring down the barrels of tank guns, defiant youths waving resistance flags in smouldering streets and anti-Soviet graffiti that sprang up every day and was whitewashed every night, came to define one of the pivotal moments of 20th-century history. However Josef Koudelka would have to wait another 16 years for an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery before being credited as the photographer. Until then, the pictures had been attributed to PP (Prague Photographer) to protect Koudelka and his family from reprisals. Josef Koudelka: the lonely, rebel photographer

Rear Window

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window the Exakta Varex VX was paired with a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model. The f/5.6 400mm lens weighed 1.76kg and almost certainly required a tripod to obtain sharp shots.

Collectively the camera/lens combination is known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and is much desired by collectors.

Although scarcely known today beyond its association with the Hitchcock classic, Kilfitt was an innovative German lens manufacturer who introduced the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography – The Zoomar of 1959, which arrived the same year as the Nikon’s game changing F. Kilfitt also produced the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing in 1955. If you are interested in photography milestones such as these, take a look at the timeline on this site.

My Own 400mm Rear Window Lens

Greatest movies featuring photographers - Rear Window
The Nikon 400mm f3.5 prime mounted on an F6

I have a 400mm lens prime also. Not wanting to spend several thousand on a lens I would use only occasionally I purchased an old school manual focus Nikon Ai-S 400m f3.5 IF-ED from a Japanese eBay seller.

A Beast of a Lens

It’s an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, a whole 1kg heavier than the Rear Window 400mm, and built like the proverbial tank. Mine came with a protective clear 122mm filter, which made it even better value. It is an amazing piece of kit but not the most practical. There’s no VR and it requires a tripod and a gimbal head, which makes the combined shooting weight pretty substantial.

The first version of the lens was introduced in 1976 and was followed in 1977 by an Ai version. Mine is the Ai-S lens version introduced in 1982 and which can be identified by the minimum aperture number which is engraved in orange. The expression ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ was never more true than with this lens which is an incredibly solidly engineered piece of work.

I used it originally for shots of the moon with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking, but I have recently acquired the new 100-400 mm zoom for that kind of shot. It’s better optically of course, and far lighter, but has nothing like the presence. I’ve kept the old monster for use with my older Nikon cameras – the F series and FM film classics. Sometimes, only film will do.

Other Movies Featuring Photographers

Whilst my favourite movie with a photographer as lead is Rear Window, but there are many others featuring photographers. My favourite is Apocalypse Now – the subject of another article on this site, but here’s a list of some of the most notable of the others.

  • Blow-Up (1966)
  • Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (1989) 
  • Proof (1991)
  • The Killing Fields (1991)
  • High Art (1998)
  • Pecker (1998)
  • Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
  • Gentlemen’s Relish (2001)
  • City of God (2002)
  • Closer (2004)
  • Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)
  • Everlasting Moments (2008)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
  • Kodachrome (2017)
  • Photograph (2019)

The Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie

Kodak Autographic
Kodak No. 2 Folding Autographic Brownie

The Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie has couple of unique points of interest. The front plate is engraved with tiny text that describes the rather eccentric ‘Autotime’ system, and there is a stylus on the back to engrave notes on the negative using the Autographic feature.

It also has a good deal of ‘early camera’ DNA. Not only is the lens standard pulled out on a track fixed to the baseboard like a Victorian field camera, but the back is detachable, though it takes 120 roll film rather than a plate.  This makes it one of the most interesting cameras I have ever come across, which inspired me to research and write this article.

From the serial number (109947) engraved on the foot this particular Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie was probably manufactured in late 1916.

For cameras made between 1915 and 1919 you can determine the date of manufacture of this camera with reasonable precision from the design changes listed by serial number at brownie-camera.com.

Serviced by Kodak in 1953

I bought it at a camera fair hosted by ImageX in Bicester, Oxfordshire and when I opened the camera up I discovered a Kodak London service sticker from 1953, proving it had a very long shooting life.   Although the body shows quite a lot of wear and the aperture blades and shutter are slightly pitted, the camera is light-tight and in working condition – no doubt due to the care of attention of Kodak London.

Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie
‘Serviced by Kodak Ltd London 1963’

Kodak’s Folding Cameras

This model of Brownie is a vertical format folding camera.  Folding cameras originated in the 1850s, replacing the 1840s sliding-box design with leather bellows.   See the article Early Cameras, a Timeline on this site for more on early camera design.

Kodak produced numerous folding models from the 1890’s until the 1960s. The first was the Folding Pocket Kodak which was introduced in 1897.  The last was the Kodak 66, Kodak’s only post-war folder for 120 film rolls, which was manufactured in the UK between 1958 & 1960.

The non-box Brownies

The name ‘Brownie’ brings a low-cost box camera to mind, but Kodak manufactured several folding models in that famous and long-lived family of cameras between 1904 and 1926.  The Folding Brownie series were Kodak’s least expensive folding roll film cameras and had a more basic specification than their Kodak branded counterparts. The also offered fewer optional configurations.

The first folding Brownie was the No. 2 Folding Brownie, which was introduced in 1904, with a model B introduced in 1907 as the Folding Pocket Brownie.  These were the predecessors of the Autographic Brownies.

The No.2 Autographic Folding Brownie

Kodak Autographic Brownie
Kodak Advertisement for the new Autographic Brownie

The No 2 model in Kodak Autographic Folding Brownie series was produced from 1915-1926 for the type 120 Autographic film. The exact number of cameras manufactured of this type in that 11-year period isn’t known, but brownie-camera.com states that 540,000 were made before 1921. Kodak only made minor changes to the design during the production run.

The most notable of these changes is the early change from the square-ended box shape shown in the Kodak Advertisement. This was changed to a more to a more curved design in 1917 (from serial no 133,301 according to brownie-camera.com.) Another change that is useful in dating models is the shape of the foot, which was modified from an S-shape to a C-curve in 1919 (from serial no 133,301 according to the same source).

120 Roll Film Format – The Last Survivor

Kodak produced a huge number of different roll film formats with a variety of different negative sizes. 120 (or No.2 film as it was originally called, as per the name of this camera) is the only one still being manufactured.   The larger 116 and 130 film utilised by other Autographic Brownie models have both been discontinued.

120 film is still used extensively by medium format photographers, and readily available.  The No 2 Folding Autographic produces 8 exposures measuring 6 x 9 cm, which are the largest that can be obtained with 120 film.

6 X 9 is a less common format than 6 x 7 (e.g. the hallowed Pentax 67), 6 x 4.5 (e.g. Mamiya or Pentax 645 models) or 6 x 6 (e.g the legendary Rolleiflex). Some examples of 6 x 9 cameras include the Fuji GW690 series, Zeiss Super-Ikonta C, Plaubel 69W ProShift, Royer Teleroy and Agfa Record III. Some technical and field cameras can also take 6 x 9 film backs.

The Kodak Autographic System

Kodak was researching a way to allow the photographer to enter their own notes onto a negative when Henry Jacques Gaisman’s invention came to the company’s attention. ‘Jack’ Gaisman (1869 –1974) was a prolific inventor and the founder of the AutoStrop Company, a safety razor manufacturer.  His patent was purchased for the sum of $300,000.  It was such a large amount at the time to as to be newsworthy and the purchase was covered in the New York Times. Gaisman reputedly filed over one thousand patents including those related to swivel chairs, men’s belts, and carburettors, as well as razors and cameras.

The Kodak Autographic System uses a narrow slot covered by a light-tight hatch.  To write a note, the user lifted the hatch, which revealed the film’s paper backing.  A stylus held by a clip on the back of the camera next to the hatch was used to make a notation on the paper backing.  The hatch was left open for a few seconds, depending on the prevailing light, which exposed the marked area and burned the note in.  The text entered would appear in the margin of the processed print

Kodak’s autographic films (which were designated by an ‘A’ after the film size designation) made use of thin carbon paper sandwiched between the film and the paper backing. 

Other Autographic Models

There were two other models of Folding Autographic: the No 2A for the slightly larger 116 film, and the No 2C for 130 film, which produced the largest negatives. Kodak sold autographic backs as upgrades for their existing cameras.

Kodak Advertisement showing an annotated negative

Autographic Advertising

The Kodak autographic was hailed in the original 1915 advertisement as ‘The biggest photographic advance in twenty years’.  Kodak also promoted the Autographic with the slogan shown in the advertisement below: ‘Any negative worth the making is worth a date and title’.

Despite Kodak’s promotional efforts the system was never popular. It was discontinued in 1932.

You can read Kodak’s account of the benefits of autographic photography, from the 1915 ‘Kodaks and Kodak Supplieshere.

Lens Options and Shutter Variants

There was a choice of two lenses.  The higher end lens option is a rapid rectilinear which was widely used in more expensive cameras. The other is a very simple achromatic lens.   They are easy to distinguish as the glass elements the achromatic lens are behind the shutter and the aperture.

Information on the focal length of either lens is hard to come by, but I have seen a reference to 98mm and a maximum aperture of f/7.9.  Given the crop factor of a 6×9 image the 35mm equivalent is approximately 42mm, which is what I would expect from the shots I have taken.

Both lenses made use of the quirky and not particularly accurate Kodak ball bearing shutter until it was replaced in the last two years of manufacture by a Kodex shutter.

Shutter speeds are limited to 1/50 seconds and 1/25 seconds plus B (Bulb) and T (Time) for long exposures.   In keeping with the rest of the camera, the shutter speed selection scale is rather eccentric with the B and T modes set between the ‘instant’ speeds.  

The Autotime System

The Kodak Autographic System isn’t the only Kodak innovation on the camera. Setting the correct exposures was originally performed using the Kodak Autotime system, an early, and rather incomplete, automation system.

Aperture Scale Kodak

Using Autotime, the photographer selects the shutter speed to match the lighting conditions. The 1/50th second speed is marked “Brilliant” 1/25th “Clear” and guidance for “Gray”, “Dull” and “Very Dull” is marked in between. These make use of the slower, and manually, controlled Bulb and Time settings. Aperture selection using Autotime is via a choice of subjects marked at the bottom of the shutter dial.  These are “Portrait/Near View”, “Average View”, “Distant View”, “Clouds/Marine”.

The Autotime Patent

Autotime was patented in 1908. It was not a Kodak invention, nor was the idea fully implemented as it lacked the mechanically geared linkage between aperture and speed settings suggested by the inventor, Frank S. Andrews.   I can find little about the visionary Mr Andrews except in this article on the Autotime scale. The concept was well ahead of its time, and it was not until the 1950’s that the coupling of aperture and speed settings was resurrected by Kodak in the Retina range of 35mm cameras.  

The Autotime Scale was eventually abandoned along with the Autographic feature. 

The 1-4 Aperture Scale

Below the Autotime labels are the numbers 1-4. These are from a simple 1-4 scale often used on low cost Kodak cameras. This can be confused with the U.S. Universal Scale System, also called the “Uniform Scale System”, often used on simple cameras prior to 1920. See the article Aperture Scales on this site for more on this.

The 1-4 numbers on this camera represent f/8, f/16, f/32, and f/64.

The No2 Kodak Autographic Folder in Use

My example has the simple lens option so my expectations from camera weren’t high, but I was pleasantly surprised by the results. I didn’t experience any of the light leaks that often plague cameras of this vintage, presumably because the bellows were replaced during the 1953 service – they are in excellent condition. The focus was reasonably sharp and the exposures fairly accurate.

Kodak Autographic
The Ruined Manor at Hampton Gay, shot with a 1916 Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic

Framing and Focusing

Framing isn’t easy as it relies on the tiny (1.5 cm x 1.5 cm) ‘Brilliant’ finder mounted above the lens.  This creates a tiny and approximate representation of what the camera is pointing at.  Peering down into the minute square of glass the photographer sees an image that is laterally reversed just like a viewfinder in a Rolleiflex, but much, much smaller!  It is usable, though getting the horizon level isn’t easy.

Focus is very basic ‘scale focusing’ and is set via a scale on baseboard.  This has just two pre-set distances that engage with a catch on side of the lens standard.  I’ve only ever used the most distant of these (30m or 100 feet). I’ll get round to trying to shoot some portraits at some point and try out the 2.5m/8 feet setting.

Setting an Exposure

Setting an exposure isn’t difficult as there aren’t that many usable options! I always use 1/50th of a second as the 1/25th is a bit slow without a tripod, and I avoid setting the aperture wide open as this is likely to be when the rather unsophisticated lens will produce the softest image.  This gives me a fixed shutter speed and a choice of 3 apertures, which I select after consulting the light meter on my iPhone.  Given how forgiving black and white film is in terms of exposure latitude, I haven’t found it difficult to get a reasonably accurate exposure.

The shot above left was taken on a cloudy day with Kodak TMAX 100. I had to crop it as the horizon wasn’t straight. It is by no means a great shot of a wonderful location, but it does prove the Kodak to be surprisingly effective. I have a gallery of shots of the manor and you can also read about the story of the ruined manor and the lost village of Hampton Gay.

The shot below right was taken with same film from the first roll I shot from the pier in Deal, Kent. The shot is reasonably sharp and the image is uncropped as I managed to get the horizon straight. There is a dark patch in the centre of the sky, though I am not quite sure what caused it. This was evident in a couple of other shots from that roll. There are several galleries on Deal on this site.

Kodak Autographic
Deal, Kent from The Pier

Avoiding Film Fogging

Care needs to be taken of the red frame counter window on the back of the camera, which displays the frame counter numbers on the backing paper of the film. Early film had low sensitivity to red light so a combination of the backing paper on the film, plus the red window, prevented film fogging. Modern film is sensitive across the whole spectrum of light, so taping up the window whilst it is not in use helps prevent light getting into the camera.  I haven’t experienced any fogging by removing the low tack tape I use to view the film counter when winding on, so it doesn’t present a real problem. This is similar to later frame counter windows that had little covers to prevent light leaks and were only opened whilst the photographer was advancing the film.

Some reviewers have developed workarounds for winding on ‘blind’ with the tape applied throughout but I haven’t found that necessary.

Loading and Unloading

Loading the camera with film isn’t especially difficult – I used this YouTube video to help me the first time round. I have found that my camera won’t wind on past frame 8, but I work round that by unloading the camera in darkness, and haven’t lost any frames as a result.

Getting in Touch and Further Reading

If you’ve any experience with the Kodak No 2 Autographic Folding Brownie, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

If you are interested in the history of photography, you might enjoy these articles on this site.

Nikon Film Cameras in The Movies

As a Nikon user and collector, I’ve noticed quite a few Nikon film cameras appearances in the movies and on TV shows. This short article outlines those appearances. I’ve also written in more detail about the Nikon F’s appearance in one of the all time great movies – Apocalypse Now and there is an equivalent article on Leica M cameras in the movies.

The Nikon F, Film Star

The first of Nikon’s SLRs was quite the film star, as described in Michael Pritchard’s excellent book ‘A History of Photography in 50 Cameras‘.

“The Nikon F reinforced its reputation and established itself as modern design icon through its starring roles in films such as Blow-Up, with David Hemmings as a fashion photographer in London; Apocalypse Now with Dennis Hopper as a Photojournalist; and, later, with Clint Eastwood as National Geographic photographer in The Bridges of Madison County.”

Nikon SLRs in Movies

Beyond those described above, the Nikon F series Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras appeared in several movies, including more greats like Full Metal Jacket and Taxi Driver. I found additional appearances from a little internet research, which revealed quite a few more. The Nikon F, F2, F3, F4 and F5 have all made appearances, but despite searching, I can’t find a movie with Nikon’s final pro SLR, the mighty Nikon F6 in it. Whilst I haven’t included TV, I am sure that my favourite TV detective, Columbo, used a Nikon F or F2 in one episode but I can find no reference to it. I suppose I will just have to watch every episode again… I am also yet to see another favourite, the Nikon FM3a on the screen, though the FM and FM2 have made appearances. With retro cameras becoming more popular its by no means impossible it’ll appear one day.

classic cameras in movies Nikon F
1971 Nikon F with the classic 50mm f/1.4 NIKKOR-S Auto lens (1966-1974)
  • Lolita (1962, Nikon F1)
  • Blow-Up (1966 Nikon F)
  • The French Connection (1971, Nikon F Photomic)
  • Diamonds are Forever (1971, Nikon F)
  • The Killing Fields (1984, Nikon F)
  • Jaws (1975, Nikon F2)
  • Taxi Driver (1976, Nikon F2)
  • The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978, Nikon FM with MD motor-drive)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979, Nikon F)
  • Cannonball Run (1981, Nikon F)
  • The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Nikon F)
  • Under Fire (1983, Nikon F2)
  • Ghostbusters (1984, Nikon FE2)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987, Nikon F) Private Joker and Rafterman!
  • Gorillas in the Mist (1988, Nikon F)
  • Groundhog Day (1993, Nikon F Photomic)
  • The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Nikon F with S36 motor drive)
  • Heat (1995, Nikon F4) 
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Nikon F5)
  • Ronin (1998, Nikon FE2)
  • City of God (2002, Nikon F)
  • Walk the Line (2005, Nikon F Photomic)
  • The Bang Bang Club (2010, Nikon FM2)
  • Batman v Superman (2016, Nikon S3 Y2K)
  • Ford v Ferrari (2019, Nikon F Photomic)
  • Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, Nikon F3 HP)

The First SLR?

Today many people think of the Nikon F as the first Single Lens Reflex camera, but it was actually the much less well known Ihagee (who made the Exakta VX Ihagee Dresden famously used in Rear Window) that manufactured the first 35mm SLR outside of prototypes. The F brought the innovations and features of earlier models into a single body so well that earlier models seem to have faded from consumer memory. Its effect on the camera market is similarly profound as it ended the dominance of German rangefinders from Zeiss and Leica. If you are interested in the history of photography there are a couple of comprehensive timelines on the site. From Chemistry to Computation is the timeline of the photographic process, whilst the Camera Timeline Year by Year describes camera introductions and innovations every year from 1900 to the present day.

My Nikon Film Cameras

Beyond Nikon Film cameras in the movies, I have a small collection of Nikons I enjoy shooting with. Some of which are reviewed on this site (The F6 and FM3a).

I have a late Nikon F from 1971 and it shoots very well. It has the original standard non-metered eye level finder, like the ones Dennis Hopper was carrying in Apocalypse Now. As much as I like an integrated light meter, the Photomic heads spoil the lines of the F too much so I use a hand held lightmeter. The Photomic heads are a little easier on the eye on the F2 and I have added a DP-12 Photomic head to my 1975 F2. I have a rather battered 1980 F3, which I bought in Sweden, and a 2004 F6, which I use a great deal. I also have an FM3a and FM2n, both of which are very lightweight and great to shoot with.

Other Classic Film Cameras in Movies

A huge number of film camera manufacturers have come and gone and their products have appeared in hundreds, if not thousands of movies, but below are a few of the more notable ones. Of the models listed below, I have only shot with the Olympus OM-1, another game changing camera which began a shift towards more compact, lighter 35 mm SLRs, away from the increasing weight of the Nikon pro SLRs and back towards the smaller form factor that Leica had always delivered with rangefinders.

Though I don’t have any of the Rolleiflex models listed below (2.8F and T), I have a Rolleiflex 3.5F from 1961 which I absolutely love, and is considered by many to be one of the finest film cameras ever made. The Rolleiflex uses 120 medium format film which produces huge and very detailed 6x6cm negatives. Shooting a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera is an entirely different experience to shooting either an SLR or rangefinder, and though manual focus can be challenging, gazing at the world through that illuminated ground glass screen that sees the world back to front is absolutely entrancing.

  • Rear Window (Graflex Speed Graphic, 1954)
  • Lolita (Agfa Isolette, Nikon S2 Rangefinder, 1962)
  • From Russia With Love (Rolleiflex T, 1963)
  • Bullit (Rolleiflex 2.8F, 1968)
  • Jaws (Pentax Spotmatic, 1975)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Rollei B35, 1977)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (Olympus OM-1, 1983)
  • Easy Money (Exacta VX, 1983)
  • The Killing Fields (Rolleiflex 2.8F, Pentax Spotmatic, 1984)
  • Bridges of Madison County (Nikon SP Rangefinder, 1995)
  • Ronin (Leica R6.2, 1998)
  • Catch me if you Can (Kodak Retina 2C, 2002)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Pentax 67 medium format, 2009)
  • Jurassic World (Lomography Diana F+, 2015)
  • Batman v Superman (Nikon S3 Y2K Rangefinder, 2016)
  • Kong: Skull Island (Canon AE-1 Program, 2017) 

Early Cameras, a Timeline

This timeline of early cameras describes significant photographic milestones and early cameras representative of their year of introduction between the inception of photography and 1900. I’ve also provided an overview of the most important developments decade by decade from 1840-1900 as an introduction to the timeline.

If you are interested in the development of 20th century cameras there is also a timeline from 1900 to the present day on the site, whilst the article From Chemistry to Computation provides an overview and timeline of the development of cameras, lenses, and photographic processes from the 1840s to the present day.

The Genesis of Photography 1826-1839

The Daguerreotype

Early Photography timeline
Susse Frere Daguerreotype, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

The first cameras were smaller versions of the camera obscura, a simple viewing device based on a sliding-box design that had been in use for several hundred years. By the 19th century this was commonly employed by landscape painters to achieve proper perspective. French artist Louis Daguerre built upon the work of Nicéphore Niépce, who had produced what is widely regarded as the first photograph in 1826, by designing the first camera to be commercially produced. This was the Daguerreotype, which was announced to the world in 1839.

Daguerreotypes followed the sliding-box design of the camera obscura, and used two boxes, one slightly smaller than the other.  The lens was placed in the front box. The second, slightly smaller box, slid into the back of the larger box. Focus was achieved by sliding the rear box forward or backwards until the image was sharp on the ground glass focusing screen. The image was laterally reversed unless the camera was fitted with a mirror or prism to correct it. When the image was sharp the lens cap was put on the lens and the screen was replaced by a plate holder loaded with a sensitised plate to make an exposure. The lens cap was used as a shutter.

The daguerreotype used a direct-positive process, which created a unique and highly detailed positive image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin, highly polished coat of silver. The photographic process made use of a number of hazardous chemicals. Before sensitisation, the surface would be wiped with nitric acid to remove any organic matter. The plate was then sensitised by exposing the silver surface in darkness or under safelight first to iodine fumes, and then to bromine fumes, resulting in a silver halide coating. After exposure, the plate was carried to a developing box, where it was exposed to fumes from heated mercury. Finally, the plate was fixed by removing the remaining silver halide with a mild solution of sodium thiosulfate.

As there were no camera manufacturers at the time, Daguerreotypes were manufactured by opticians, cabinet makers and instrument makers.

Fox Talbot and The Paper Negative

A few years earlier, during the mid-1830s, the British gentleman scientist and polymath William Fox Talbot, had been keen to make a permanent record of what another draftsman’s aid, the camera lucida showed. The camera lucida’s purpose is to superimpose a refracted image of the landscape onto the artist’s sketchbook. It consists of an adjustable metal arm fastened at one end to the artist’s sketchbook and a glass prism at the other.

Talbot’s frustration with the camera lucida led him to recollect his previous experiences with the camera obscura and start to experiment to see if he could capture a permanent image to make nature record the image. He referred to these experiments as ‘photogenic drawing’.

Talbot found that a sheet of writing paper, coated with salt and brushed with a solution of silver nitrate, darkened in the sun, and that a second coating of salt impeded further darkening or fading. Talbot used this discovery to make tracings of botanical specimens. He would place the specimen on a piece of sensitized paper, cover it with a sheet of glass, and expose it to the sun. Wherever the light struck, the paper darkened, but wherever the plant blocked the light, it remained white. He called his new discovery “the art of photogenic drawing”, and it is still in use today in the salt print process.

Talbot’s salt print process evolved into the Calotype photographic process, where a sheet of paper coated with silver chloride was exposed to light in a camera obscura yielding a negative image. The image was “developed” on the paper, which was actually the acceleration of the silver chloride’s chemical reaction to the light it had been exposed to. The developing process permitted much shorter exposure times in the camera. The developed image on the paper was fixed with sodium hyposulfite. The negative could yield any number of positive images by contact printing on another piece of sensitized paper.

To minimise exposure times Talbot made use of much smaller cameras with short focal length lenses which would concentrate light on a smaller area. The best made lenses available to him were microscope lenses, which he fitted to small cameras his wife referred to as ‘mousetraps’ as he had so many of them around the house. It was with one of these small cameras, measuring only 2.5 inches each side that was used by Talbot to take his first successful photograph in 1839. Though the ‘mousetraps’ are the most well known Talbot made and commissioned many more sophisticated cameras during his research which are now distributed in museums throughout the world.

Similar Cameras, Different Images

Ottewill sliding box camera c. 1856 (Coeln Cameras)

Creating a Calotype used much of the same basic equipment as found in Daguerreotype making. A similar camera type, though there were many variations for both methods, similar ways to expose the image and similar way of preparing, although the Calotype offered a somewhat safer process.

However, the difference between the images they produced was vast. While both created a monotone image, the Daguerreotype created pictures that recorded very fine details across the whole range of tones and appeared to produce a glow from within the image due to the reflective properties of the metal, which of course had no grain.

The Calotype images had higher contrast because the chemicals were absorbed into paper fibres, which reduced detail in the highs and lows. Because of those fibres, the image also offered a grain that would diffuse detail, rather than preserve it. As it was a paper to paper positive negative process, further detail would be lost in the transfer.  This resulted in a less detailed but highly atmospheric image. 

Cameras of the 1840s

Faster Lenses

The earliest daguerreotype exposure times ranged from three to fifteen minutes, making the process fairly impractical for portrait photography. This was due to the slow Chevalier lenses used by Daguerre. Accordingly, with few exceptions, daguerreotypes made before 1841 were of static subjects. Josef Max Petzval, a professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna, changed this with the design of a new lens, though it took nearly a year to design and manufacture it. It was the first lens to be designed using optical principles and mathematical computation – previously they had previously been ground and polished according to experience. In 1841 the first camera fitted with this lens was introduced by Voigtländer and Sons, an Austrian maker of telescopes and other optical equipment. It was the first  portrait lens and had a 160mm focal length and an achievable aperture of f/3.6. Exposure times were many times shorter than with the previous generation of lenses.

Faster Exposures

In 1841 Franz Kratochwila freely published a chemical acceleration process in which the combined vapours of chlorine and bromine increased the sensitivity of the plate by five times, greatly reducing exposure times from minutes to between fifteen and thirty seconds in bright lighting conditions.

Early Camera Manufacturing

Early cameras
Marion & Co. advert, 1852 (Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History)

Gradually the opticians, cabinet makers and scientific instrument makers, as well as chemists familiar with the chemical process required for early photography evolved into photographic supply shops and camera manufacturers. French optician  Noël Paymal Lerebours was one of the first, and used his skill in optics to manufacture and sell a sliding box whole-plate Daguerreotype camera, working from the instruction manual for Daguerre’s pioneering instrument. W. Butcher and Sons of London started as a pharmacy but evolved into a magic lantern supplier, then a camera importer and finally a manufacturer. George Hare was a joiner, like his father, before he started producing the high quality cameras he became renowned for in London. Frank Brownell, of Kodak Brownie fame, started as a cabinet maker in the 1880s. Another start point was stationery – Marion and Co Ltd, originally an offshoot of Auguste Marion of Paris, started in fancy stationery but widened their business to papers, prints, plates and then onto cameras.

These small firms were economically quite vulnerable. Thomas Ottewill, one of the leading British camera makers, was made bankrupt on several occasions during the 1860s. This was despite his claim in 1856 of ‘having now the largest manufactory in England for the making of cameras’ and having an incredible talent pool. Camera makers George Hare, T. Mason, Patrick Meagher, T. Garland and A. Routledge all worked for Ottewill before establishing their own businesses. Ottewill and brought in partners William Morgan and a Mr Collis after bankruptcy. A partnership arrangement offered greater protection for the business and this model was often adopted by the emerging photographic firms.

The 1850s

A Faster Chemistry Set

The wet plate collodion process of 1851 invented by Frederick Scott Archer was many times faster than previous methods and enabled photographers to make glass negatives combining the sharpness of a daguerreotype with the replicability of a calotype. However, wet plates needed to be processed wet which required photographers to carry around a portable darkroom as well as the camera.

A commercially viable method of producing a photographic print on paper from a negative was already available for wet plate collodion photographers in the form of the albumen print. This was published in January 1847 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard. Thin paper was coated with a layer of egg-white (albumen) containing salt and sensitized with a silver nitrate solution, then printed using daylight under a negative. The prints could be toned with a gold solution which gave a purple-brown tint to the image and reduced the risk of fading. This process would became the dominant form of photographic positives from the mid 1850s to the start of the 20th century.

The wet plate collodion process offered an alternative to the Albumen print in the form of glass-based positive made by taking an underexposed negative so that it could be viewed as a positive using a dark backing. This was known as the Ambrotype and was introduced in the early 1850s. The ambrotype quickly grew in popularity because it maintained the image clarity of the earlier daguerreotype —but was faster and cheaper to produce. The finished plate was usually mounted in a decorative presentation cases just as daguerreotypes had been. Also like the daguerreotype, which it replaced, each image was a unique original that could only be duplicated using a camera.

A second collodion-based positive emerged in the form of tintype, or ferrotype, which replaced the Ambrotype’s glass plate with a thin sheet of japanned iron. The process was first described by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin in France in 1853. This type of photography survived well into the twentieth century because of its continued use by street photographers.

Bellows

In the late 1850s sliding-box gave way to a leather bellows with a lens plate at one end, and the light-sensitive plate holder at the other. First came a square design and then a more compact tapering version. In 1856 Captain Francis Fowke patented a compact concertina-pattern pleated bellows camera of his own design, which was the first to use cloth bellows, rather than a wooden body between the lens and plate. The tapering design invented the following year by C.G.H. Kinnear, and proved extremely durable. It is still in use in large format cameras today.

The 1860s

First Steps Towards Industrialisation

By the 1860s the medium had started to become industrialized. Instead of mixing chemicals according to their own recipes and hand coating their papers, photographers could buy commercially prepared albumen papers and other ready made supplies. The market was moving increasingly towards the middle-class, which required photographers to produce a greater quantity of cheaper prints. In this new market, the photographers original artisan processes and refined techniques became less important.

The quest for a larger volume of prints gave rise to the he carte de visite (CdV) which was patented by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854. His camera featured a moveable chassis and multiple lenses, with which he could make eight exposures on a single glass-plate negative, print the entire plate at once, cut the sheet into eighths, and paste the individual photographs on mounts the size of visiting cards. The carte de visite was slow to gain adoption until 1859, when Disdéri produced CdVs of Emperor Napoleon III’s which caused a sensation a triggered a craze that would last throughout the 1860s as ‘cardomania’ until it was supplanted by the larger ‘cabinet card’ of the 1870s.

The cameras that took multiple images at once were known as “Multiplying Cameras.” The number of lenses varied with some cameras having 4 lenses others 8, 9, 15 or a few a even 36 lenses, but regardless of the number of lenses the multiple images were exactly the same.

The Fast(er) Distortion Free Lens

By 1865 photographers had three types of lenses available to them: the simple landscape meniscus, the Petzval Portrait lens, and the wide-angle Globe lens or the Ross Doublet. What they needed was an intermediate lens with minimal distortion. The Rapid Rectilinear lens which fulfilled this requirements was introduced by J. H. Dallmeyer in 1866. Most previous rectilinear (i.e., distortion less) lenses had been slow (f16), and Dallmeyer was therefore justified in calling his f8 lens rapid. Lenses of this type were fitted to most better quality cameras for nearly sixty years.

The 1870s

Ernemann Alex Tailboard Camera, introduced c. 1895, this example c. 1901 (Coeln Cameras)

The Tailboard Camera

The tailboard camera gradually became more popular – a camera with bellows and rear focusing. Focusing with a tailboard camera is carried out by adjusting the ground glass back’s position forward or backward until the image on the matte screen is sharp. The design goes back to the 1850s but adoption accelerated in the 1860s. A good example is the Hare Tailboard of 1878. Tailboard cameras were still available into the 1890s and 20th century, as typified by the Ernemann Alex shown left.

The End of the Portable Chemistry Set

Dry plates, glass plate coated with a gelatin emulsion of silver bromide, superseded wet plates in the 1870’s. These could be stored until exposure, and after exposure could be brought back to a darkroom for development at leisure. This was far more convenient than the wet collodion process, which required the plate to be prepared just before exposure and developed immediately after. The dry plate could be factory produced. It was still important to have a camera which could fold down to increase portability size even though the photographer no longer required a portable darkroom.

The 1880s

Hand and Detective Cameras

In the 1880s the hand camera, also known early on as the ‘detective camera’ was introduced. The terms ‘detective’ and ‘hand’ camera were used interchangeably during the 1880s. The Oxford English Dictionary records the former term in the British Journal of Photography in 1881 and the latter term in the Photographic News in 1889 and meaning a hand camera adapted for taking instantaneous photographs. Compared to larger bellows cameras, the design was unobtrusive. Many manufacturers introduced their own designs, including Rouch with the Eureka and Fallowfield with the Facile. The Eureka’s back incorporated a built in changing bag so that the photographer could move an exposed plate and insert an unexposed on ready for his next shot without the need for separate plate holders.

Modern Bellows

The 1880s also saw an evolution of the bellows design with George Hare’s New Patent Camera of 1882, a front focusing model which built on the Kinnear design with a back hinged to the baseboard and a front which pulled out on rails for focusing. The British Journal of photography described the camera as ‘the model upon which nearly all others in the market are based’ – despite Hare’s patent.

The Quest for Flexible, Lightweight Media: Celluloid Plates

A number of photographers experimented with celluloid as a replacement for their heavy and fragile glass plates. John Carbutt, an English photographer who had emigrated to America, was the first to gain some success. He persuaded the Celluloid Manufacturing Co. to produce a thin celluloid film which was sufficiently transparent for photographic purposes around 1884 and started to manufacture cut film using this material in 1888, but it was slow to catch on.

Paper and The Roll Film Holder

In 1883, George Eastman startled the trade with the announcement of film in rolls, with the roll holder adaptable to nearly every plate Camera on the market. His first approach was to coat the photographic emulsion on paper and then load the paper in a roll holder. The holder was used in view cameras in place of the holders for glass plates.

Flexible, Lightweight Roll Film

Eastman was well aware, however, of the serious drawbacks associated with using paper as a photographic support and began experimenting to find a flexible, transparent base from about 1884 onwards. It was not until early in 1888, however, that he began seriously considering celluloid as a possible medium. He set a young research chemist, Henry Reichenbach, to work on the problem, which Reichenbach duly found. The first successful roll-film hand camera, The Kodak, was launched publicly in the summer of 1888, followed by an improved model in 1889. This second Kodak was the Kodak No 1 and featured an easily removable lens board, and an improved shutter.

Independently, the Rev. Hannibal Goodwin had also devised a process for making celluloid film and applied for a patent in 1887. However, due to an unclear patent submission (Goodwin was not a chemist), the patent was not granted until 1898. By this time George Eastman had started production of rollfilm using his own process. It was not until after Goodwin’s death that it was ruled that Kodak had infringed Goodwin’s patent.

Roll Film Processing

Although the Kodak was made possible by technical advances in the development of roll film and small, simple cameras, Eastman’s real genius lay in his marketing strategy. By simplifying the operation of the camera and the processing the film for the consumer, he made photography accessible to the casual amateur, coining the memorable slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

The 1890s

The 1890s Camera – Greater Variety, Faster Shutters and Easier to Use

The 1880s saw a number of significant developments, but in the 1890s this accelerated with faster shutters, daylight loading film, packaged dry ferrotype plates, camera movements, folding cameras and pocket cameras all appearing in that decade.

The Dry Plate Tintype

The dry plate process came to tintype or ferrotype photography with the manufacture of the gelatin tintype in the 1890s. This was followed by the introduction of packaged dry ferrotype plates the following year. This was popularly adopted and was popular into the the 1920s when the widespread use of the roll film camera by the amateur photographer greatly reduced the need for street, country fair and beach vendors.

The First Fast Shutter

In the 1890’s the first fast shutter appeared, patented by Ottomar Anschütz in 1888 in Germany and 1889 in Britain. It was capable of exposures as short as 1/1000 of a second, which at the time was considerably faster than other shutter designs. It was incorporated into the Goerz Anschütz camera, including a collapsible version, which proved both popular and durable. This fast, portable camera made the medium capable of capturing activities such as cycling races, rowing and other sports. These were featured in illustrated periodicals and newspapers that started to incorporate photographs during the 1890s.

Early Cameras
Dallmeyer New Naturalist, c. 1896 with focal-plane shutter stamped ‘Ottomar Anschütz’, vertical reflex viewfinder and red leather bellows (Coeln Cameras)

Daylight Loading Film

The 1890s also saw the introduction of daylight loading. Kodak introduced its first daylight-loading camera, the Daylight Kodak, in 1891 which meant that the photographer could now reload the camera without using a darkroom. Film for the Daylight Kodak had a black paper trailer at the beginning and end of the film which covered it during loading and unloading.

Camera Movements

In 1895 Fredrick H. Sanderson patented a mechanism for swinging the front lens panel, resulting in Sanderson’s Universal Swing Front Camera. This was a bellows camera with a variably movable lensboard and the first highly flexible view camera which introduced large format camera movements which include include rise and fall, lens shift, swing and tilt, and are still in use today. The field camera, a term suggestive of portability compared to heavier studio cameras, was one of several types of cameras available in the late nineteenth century including hand and stand and reflex models. There were as yet no rangefinder cameras, which would not be introduced until 1916 with the Kodak 3A Autographic Special.

The Pocket Camera and the Snapshot

In 1895 The Pocket Kodak was introduced, which was the first mass-produced snapshot camera. The Pocket Kodak was one of the first cameras that use front roll design, daylight film spools and a red window to see the number of the exposure on the back of the film. In a front roll design the feed and take up film spools are located in the front of camera, where there is enough room to the left and right of the incoming light rays. Before this design was introduced, the spools were located behind the plane of focus, making the camera about one third longer.

This small compact camera was also was easy to use: “one button does it” was the Kodak slogan. Photography was no longer restricted anymore by heavy equipment supported by with tripods and casual amateur photography, characterised by the snapshot was born. The term snapshot was coined earlier, in 1860, by Sir John Herschel, based on the hunter’s term for a quick shot made without careful aim, although it took until the 1890s to be matched to a technology. The associated term ‘snapshotter’ was noted by The Oxford English Dictionary from 1899, ‘snap-shottist’ from 1891 with the term ‘snap-shot’ from 1894. 

Folding Cameras

The Folding Pocket Kodak of 1897, was a significant milestone in camera development as it was to establish the principals of the folding roll film format, which would continue to dominate camera design from the 1890s to 1930s. This design offered the photographer a camera that would fold up into a compact package that was light and easy to carry via a lens standard panel that pulled out on sprung struts with collapsible bellows. A classic example is the Kodak No. 2 Folding Autographic Brownie which is reviewed on this site.

The Turn of the Century

The Rise of Personal Photography

By the early 1900s Kodak had introduced the first of the Brownie series which brought the snapshot to the masses in the form of an affordable cardboard box camera that took pictures on roll film.

Timeline of Early Cameras

  • c. 1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce uses bitumen of Judea for photographs on metal and makes the first successful camera photograph, View From My Window at Gras
  • 1827 Niépce addresses a memorandum on his invention to the Royal Society in London, but does not disclose details
  • 1829 Unable to reduce the very long exposure times of his experiments, Niépce enters into a partnership with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre
  • Charles Chevalier creates a compound achromatic lens to cut down on chromatic aberration, a failure of a lens to focus all colours to the same plane, for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s photographic experiments
  • 1832 Robert Hunt’s Researches on Light records the first known description employing platinum to make a photographic print, but does not succeed in producing a permanent image
  • 1835 William Henry Fox Talbot makes his first successful camera photograph or “photogenic drawing” using paper sensitised with silver chloride.
  • 1839 The public birthday of photography, from three inventors – Daguerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard
  • Susse Frères manufactures a daguerreotype camera which is one of the first two photographic cameras ever sold to the public
  • The first camera to be manufactured in any quantity is the Giroux Daguerreotype
  • c. 1840 The Voigtländer Daguerreotype is the first camera made of metal. It is the fastest camera lens of its time, with an aperture of f3.6
  • 1840 French optician and daguerreotypist Noël Paymal Lerebours uses his skill in optics to manufacture and sell a sliding box whole-plate camera, copied from the instruction manual for Daguerre’s pioneering instrument
  • Alexander Wolcott patents the daguerreotype reflector camera which uses a concave mirror to focus the available light onto a photosensitive plate
  • 1841 Charles Chevalier creates a double-box camera that uses a half-sized plate 
  • William Henry Fox Talbot patents the calotype, or paper negative process
  • The Nouvel Appareil Gaudin camera uses a metal disc with three differently-sized holes mounted on the front of the lens to provide variable f-stops
  • 1843 Joseph Puchberger patents the first hand crank driven swing lens panoramic camera
  • Two French Physicists, Fizeau and Foucault develop the first recognisable shutter mechanism in order to photograph the sun
  • 1845 The Bourquin of Paris camera is the first camera with the lens in a metal tube using a rack and pinion mechanism for focusing
  • 1849 David Brewster develops the lenticular Brewster Stereoscope.
  • 1851 English sculptor Frederick Scott Archer invents the Collodion process, or collodion wet plate process, which is 20 times faster than all previous methods and is free from patent restrictions
  • The Great Exhibition transforms stereoscopy from a minor scientific interest to a craze which will not wane until the 1870s
  • 1851 W. and W.H. Lewis introduces the first commercially produced bellows camera in the US, the Lewis-type daguerreotype
  • 1853 Thomas Ottewill and Company registers a double folding sliding camera
  • The Tintype process is first described by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin – an inexpensive direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel
  • 1854 Andre Adolphe Disderi is the first to devise a way to make multiple Carte de Visite images on a single photographic plate, which requires a new type of camera with a shifting back. Each time the back is moved, a different portion of the plate is exposed allowing a set of several images to be printed at the same time. These cameras soon become known as Multiplying Cameras
  • James Ambrose Cutting takes out several patents relating to the Ambrotype process, underexposed or bleached wet collodion negatives that appeared positive when placed against a dark coating or backing 
  • 1856 Captain Francis Fowke patents a compact concertina-pattern pleated bellows camera of his own design. It is the first to use cloth bellows, rather than a wooden body between the lens and plate. It will be produced the following year by Ottewill & Co. for the British Government
  • 1857 The folding camera with tapering bellows is invented by C.G.H. Kinnear, forming the basis for subsequent bellows designs
  •  David Acheson Woodward patents the solar camera, derived from the earlier solar microscope, using sunlight to make enlargements from glass negatives
  • c. 1857 Horne & Thornthwaite produces a sliding box wet-plate camera featuring a sliding box movement and a rack and pinion lens movement
  • 1858 John Waterhouse invents Waterhouse stops, a system using plates with different aperture diameters that could be inserted into a slot in the lens barrel which are the earliest selectable stops
  • 1859 The Excelsior Wet Plate Camera is invented by August Semmendinger, one of the first US manufacturers of wet plate photography equipment.
  • 1860 P. Meagher introduces an improved version of the Kinnear design called the Improved Portable 
  • 1861 The first photographic single-lens reflex camera (SLR) is invented by Thomas Sutton
  • 1862 The Pantoscopic camera is produced by Johnson and Harrison in England. It is one of the first designed to take panoramic photographs (110º view) on glass plates. It produces 7½ x 12 inch images on flat collodion plates
  • 1864 The Dubroni No. 1 is the first successful self-developing camera
  • 1873 Charles Harper Bennett improves the gelatin silver process by hardening the emulsion, making it more resistant to friction
  • 1866 The Rapid Rectilinear lens is introduced by John Henry Dallmeyer, reducing distortion, coma and lateral colour
  • 1874 The Scénograph, an early collapsible strut camera ideal for use in the field, is designed by Dr. Condèze of Belgium
  • 1878 G. Hare introduces Improved Portable Bellows Camera, with bellows and rear focusing. It is focused by adjusting the ground glass back‘s position forward or backward until the image on the matte screen is sharp, an approach which characterises the tailboard camera
  • 1878 Heat ripening of gelatin emulsions is discovered by Charles Harper Bennett, making possible very short exposures and paving the way for the snapshot
  • W.W. Rouch & Co. produces the Patent Portable, a light weight bellows camera which takes 6 ½” x 8 ½” plates held in slides
  • 1879 The Lancaster’s Gem Camera (Carte Apparatus) is manufactured by J. Lancaster & Son. Gem cameras produce multiple small images, although there is no standard size for ‘gem’ images.
  • c. 1880 The Photographic Artists’ Co-operative Supply Association introduces the PACSA tailboard camera
  • 1881 Thomas Bolas patents a hand-held, box form camera he calls a detective camera
  • 1882 Etienne Jules Marey perfects a chronophotographic gun, a device capable of taking 12 exposures a second
  • G. Hare introduces the influential New Patent Camera or ‘1882’ pattern with a back hinged to the baseboard and a front which pulled out on rails for focusing
  • c. 1882 Transitional wet-plate cameras, which can take both wet and dry-plate slides are sold by companies such as J.H. Dallmeyer
  • 1883 Ottomar Anschütz designs a camera with an internal roller blind shutter mechanism in front of the photographic plate – the first focal-plane shutter in recognisable form
  • William Schmid patents the first detective camera to be widely sold
  • 1884 The first production SLR with a brand name is Calvin Rae Smith’s Monocular Duplex
  • The McKellen Treble Patent marks the boundary between the older Kinnear pattern and the newer field camera design that will remain popular to the end of the Edwardian period
  • 1885 The London Stereoscopic Co.’s Carlton may be the first off-the-shelf twin-lens reflex TLR camera
  • The Waterbury View Camera is offered by the Scovill Manufacturing Company. Its is a light and compact popular camera that becomes available in numerous sizes from 4 x 5 to 8 x 10 inches
  • 1886 The first single use camera, the Ready Fotografer, is introduced, using a dry plate, though it appears to have enjoyed very limited success
  • Thornton-Pickard Manufacturing Co. introduces the Jubilee in readiness for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee incorporating a rotating lens panel able to hold up to four lenses
  • C.P. Stirn patents the Stirn Concealed Vest Camera (or waistcoat camera in the UK) which becomes a popular and much copied design
  • George Eastman and Franklin M. Cossitt patent the Eastman Detective Camera. Though it is not successful, it is a precursor of the hand-held Kodak of 1888
  • c. 1886 J. Lancaster & Son Introduces The International patent tailboard mahogany half-plate camera
  • c. 1887 The Mayfield Pocket Camera from Mayfield, Cobb & Co. Ltd is one of the first cameras to be made of a plastic-like substance such as ebonite
  • 1887 E. Français introduces the Kinegraphe Grand Angle, one of the first twin-lens reflex cameras
  • Marion & Co. introduces the New Academy which adds a mirror behind a glass screen to a pair of vertically mounted lenses which slide for focusing making the camera into a twin-lens reflex model
  • The Interchangeable View Camera is marketed by Eastman Dry Plate & Film Co. It is a plate camera that can also be fitted with an Eastman Roll Holder containing a roll of flexible film
  • 1888 The Kodak is George Eastman’s legendary first roll-film camera bearing the new brand name. It comes pre-loaded with a 100-exposure roll of flexible film. After finishing the roll, the consumer posts the camera back to the factory to have the prints made
  • ‘Krügener’s Taschenbuch’ Patent Book Camera is one of the smallest cameras of its time, with dimensions of just 45 × 100 × 140mm
  • E & H T Anthony introduces the Fairy, an 8 x 10 inch lightweight folding view camera with a revolving back and bellows so pictures could be taken both horizontally or vertically
  • 1889 The No.1 and No. 2 Kodaks are introduced. They resemble the original Kodak Camera, but have a different shutter and are available with paper-based stripping film or its successor, Eastman transparent film
  • George Eastman introduces the first transparent plastic roll film, made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate film
  • The Loman Reflex, the first commercially produced camera with a focal-plane shutter, is introduced
  • c. 1890  L’Orthoscope by E. Tourtin, is the first French reflex camera, for plates 9 x 12cm
  • 1891 Kodak markets its first daylight-loading camera, the Daylight Kodak, which meant that the photographer could now reload the camera without using a darkroom.
  • 1892 The Boston Camera mfg. Company produces the Bulls-Eye camera, the first to use Samuel Taylor’s new numbered paper backed film, which requires the introduction of a red window
  • W. Griffiths & Co. Ltd introduces the innovative Zodiac which replaces the usual wooden base of the period with telescoping metal tubes. The rear standard slides along the tubes and for fine focusing they are extended by a worm screw
  • 1893 J. Lancaster & Son, Birmingham, England introduces the Instantograph Patent Camera, a 1/4-plate model complete with Lancaster’s Patent Instantaneous Lens and rubber-band shutter, one of a series of models first introduced in 1888
  • The first Richard Vérascope stereo camera is launched. It is the best selling stereo camera of its time. The range will continuing through the 1950s 
  • 1894 Kodak markets the Flat Folding Kodak in England. It is a folding camera for darkroom loaded roll film, with a capacity of 48 pictures of 4 x 5 inch on one spool
  • The Xit series of cameras are introduced by J. F. Shew. The folding side-strut design (also known as chambre à joues) makes the camera quite compact when folded. Shew advertises them as “the most portable camera in the world”
  • 1895 The Pocket Kodak appears, the first mass-produced snapshot camera
  • Sanderson’s Universal Swing Front Camera is introduced, a bellows camera with a variably movable lensboard and the first highly flexible view camera
  • The Briefmarken Camera was manufactured by Emil Wunsche, of Dresden Germany featuring 12 lenses to capture 12 stamp size portraits simultaneously on 9 x 12cm size plates
  • 1896 The Zar Camera Company of Chicago launches the Pocket Zar, a miniature glass plate box camera with a body entirely constructed of cardboard, a material never used to such an extent in cameras before
  • 1897 Kodak markets the Folding Pocket Kodak, which produces a 2¼ x 3¼ inch negative
  • Kodak introduces the No. 4 Cartridge Kodak, which takes 4 x 5 daylight loading roll film and becomes the most successful of the range with more than 90,000 produced between 1897 to 1907
  • 1898 The ‘Al-Vista’ panoramic camera is produced by Multiscope & Film Co, Burlington, USA
  • c. 1899 The Pascal is one of the first cameras for roll film, and the first with spring-motorised film advance. It is a box camera, with a wood-and-metal body, with leather covering and makes twelve pictures 40×55 mm on special roll film
  • 1900 Kodak introduces the first of the Brownie series which brings the snapshot to the masses. It is a cardboard box camera with a simple meniscus lens that takes 2 1/4-inch square pictures on 117 roll film
  • Kodak markets the The No. 3 Folding Pocket Kodak Camera, a camera that would go on to have probably the largest number of model variations of any Kodak camera made.

Early Photography Web Resources

Most of the resources I have found for early photography provide information on British manufacturer’s and their cameras. This is not because that is my exclusive interest, jut what I have come across so far. If you have information on early photography books or websites from Germany, France, the US or any other country, please share them with me and I’d be glad to update this article.

Early cameras

Books on Early Photography

  • British Camera Makers This fine book by Norman Channing and Mike Dunn, now out of print, but still available second hand, covers early photography in Britain in detail, extending into the twlighlight of manufacturing in Britain in the 1960s.
  • A History of Photography in 50 Cameras by Michael Pritchard is one of the best books on cameras I have read and covers some of the most important camera models, including some early cameras
  • The massive Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography appears to be the definitive work on early photography up to the beginning of the twentieth century, with 1,200 essays. It is however, extremely expensive to purchase in print – I’ve read a couple of the essays online but have not purchased it.

I hope you enjoyed this article on cameras through the years and accompanying timeline. If you spot omissions or errors, please let me know in the comments.

Leica Film Cameras in Movies

The legendary German marque has had more than its fair share of movie appearances, particularly the M3. Leica pioneered the 35mm ‘miniature format’, back in 1930 with the first practical camera to use standard cinema film, which required high quality lenses and negative enlargement to make the format work.

classic film cameras in movies leica M3
1962 Leica M3 with collapsible Elmar 50mm f2.8 with 2000 Leica M6 TTL and 28mm Elmarit-M

Subsequent development, based on many years of learning, resulted in the M3 of 1954, which a huge step forward on its predecessors, combining the viewfinder and rangefinder in one bright window, a bayonet lens mount, and rapid film advance lever. Despite its high price it was very successful with over 220,000 units sold by 1966 when production ended. By that time the Nikon F, nemesis of the teutonic rangefinder, had been in the market 7 years and the world of 35mm photography had changed forever, with the SLR having won the hearts and minds of many professional photographers.

The M6 TTL

Enthusiasts continue to argue over which is the best Leica and the M3 maintains a strong fan base, mainly for its large, bright high magnification viewfinder, which many argue has never been bettered. I’ve shot with the M3, M6TTL and M7 and my personal favourite is the M6TTL (0.58 version pictured below, along with 0.85 M7) The built in light meter is eschewed by the Leica hardcore, but I find it preferable and it has superior ergonomics with a modern film crank and large dial for the shutter speed. Leica consider a film rewind crank, which has been standard on virtually all film cameras since the ’60s to be a bit racy and like the original M3, neither film camera in production today (the Leica M-A and Leica M-P) sports one.

I came to Leica from the autofocus Q, which I travelled the world with as part of my job at the time. I am not a digital Leica M shooter, but I do love shooting with film Ms, the lenses are outstanding and full of character and the build quality is second to none. They are also very beautiful cameras and look great in the many movies they have appeared in.

The Leica M in Movies

  • Persona (1966, M3)
  • Downhill Racer (M3, 1969)
  • Darling (M3, 1965)
  • Green Berets (M3, 1968)
  • Le Mans ( M3, 1971)
  • Patton (M3, 1970)
  • The Day of The Jackal (M3, 1973)
  • The Odessa File (M3, 1974)
  • Woodstock (M4, 1974)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (M3, 1975)
  • The Omen (M3, 1976)
  • Under Fire (M4-2, 1983)
  • Salvador Leica (M3, 1986)
  • Wings of Desire (M4, 1987)
  • Mighty Joe Young (1988, M6)
  • Addicted to Love (M6, 1997)
  • George of the Jungle (M6, 1997)
  • Payback (M3, 1999)
  • Spy Game (M6 with motor drive, 2001)
  • Imposter (M6, 2002)
  • We Were Soldiers (M3, 2002)
  • Blood Diamond (M6, 2003)
  • Eurotrip (M7, 2004)
  • The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (M7, 2005)
  • The Omen (M7, 2006)

Other Classic Film Cameras in Movies

A huge number of film camera manufacturers have come and gone and their products have appeared in hundreds, if not thousands of movies, but here are a few of the more notable ones. Of the models listed below, I have only shot with the Olympus OM-1, another game changing camera which began a shift towards more compact, lighter 35 mm SLRs, away from the increasing weight of the Nikon pro SLRs and back towards the smaller form factor that Leica had always delivered with rangefinders.

Though I don’t have any of the Rolleiflex models listed below (2.8F and T), I have a Rolleiflex 3.5F from 1961 which I absolutely love, and is considered by many to be one of the finest film cameras ever made. The Rolleiflex uses 120 medium format film which produces huge and very detailed 6x6cm negatives. Shooting a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera is an entirely different experience to shooting either an SLR or rangefinder, and though manual focus can be challenging, gazing at the world through that illuminated ground glass screen that sees the world back to front is absolutely entrancing.

classic film cameras in movies spiderman
‘Spiderman’ Yashica Electro 35 GSN
  • Rear Window (Graflex Speed Graphic, 1954)
  • Lolita (Agfa Isolette, Nikon S2 Rangefinder, 1962)
  • From Russia With Love (Rolleiflex T, 1963)
  • Bullit (Rolleiflex 2.8F, 1968)
  • Jaws (Pentax Spotmatic, 1975)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Rollei B35, 1977)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (Olympus OM-1, 1983)
  • Easy Money (Exacta VX, 1983)
  • The Killing Fields (Rolleiflex 2.8F, Pentax Spotmatic, 1984)
  • Bridges of Madison County (Nikon SP Rangefinder, 1995)
  • Ronin (Leica R6.2, 1998)
  • Catch me if you Can (Kodak Retina 2C, 2002)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Pentax 67 medium format, 2009)
  • Jurassic World (Lomography Diana F+, 2015)
  • Batman v Superman (Nikon S3 Y2K Rangefinder, 2016)
  • Kong: Skull Island (Canon AE-1 Program, 2017) 

The Last Word

The last word in this article goes to the humble Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder pictured above, a typical manual focus rangefinder camera with a fixed lens and aperture priority auto exposure mode. You simply set the aperture and if it is not correct for the lighting conditions the ‘over’ or ‘slow’ directional arrows light up.

Long after it was discontinued, the inexpensive Electro has developed a cinematic identity thanks to an appearance as Peter Parker’s camera in The Amazing Spiderman (2012). There are several Electros (G, GS, GSN, GTN, GL, MG-1 and CC) and thanks to its moment in the spotlight the GSN has become known as the Spiderman version.

In addition to being inexpensive and fun to use, the camera has highly evocative 1960s branding; the space-age atomic symbol on the front of camera and the Color-Yashica branding on the sharp 45mm f/1.7 lens are both very 1960s indeed. Colour was new to consumers when the camera was first released in 1966! I have one myself, and whilst its no Leica, for value for money and fun to shoot with its hard to beat.

That’s it for my classic cameras in movies round up. If I have missed any cameras you think I should include please leave me a comment. For more about historically important cameras, please visit the year by year timeline.

Camera Timeline – Year by Year

This year by year camera timeline lists significant milestones and cameras representative of the year, as well as some curiosities and evolutionary dead-ends, from 1900.

The timeline does not include developments in lenses, film processes or camera phones. These can be found in the history of photography timeline – from chemistry to computation. There is also a timeline for nineteenth century cameras on the site. The cameras shown here are from my own collection.

1900-1920

early cameras Kodak Autographic
1916 Kodak No2 Autographic Brownie
  • 1900 Kodak introduces the first of the Brownie series which brings the snapshot to the masses. It is a cardboard box camera with a simple meniscus lens that takes 2 1/4-inch square pictures on 117 roll film
  • Kodak markets the The No. 3 Folding Pocket Kodak Camera, a camera that would go on to have probably the largest number of model variations of any Kodak camera made
  • 1901 The Kodak No.2 Brownie is the first camera to use 120 roll film
  • 1902 The Royal Ruby is introduced by Thornton-Pickard, an early pioneer in the development of the camera industry, as its top of the range field camera
  • 1903 The Century Camera Co. introduces the Grand Century Senior. It is constructed of mahogany and features a revolving back and triple extension bed in addition to front standard adjustment
  • 1904 Century introduces the No. 2 Field Camera offering front and rear focus via rack and pinion; double swing; reversing by removable back and a three-piece lens board for 5 x 7, 6.5 x 8.5 and 8 x 10 inch plate film
  • The No. 4 Screen Focus Kodak combines the use of roll film with a ground glass with an unusual construction that allows the roll film back to be swung out of the way to make place for the ground glass
  • 1905 The Soho Reflex single-lens reflex camera is introduced and becomes the definitive SLR model until after WWII
  • Houghtons Limited introduces the Ticka Watch Pocket Camera. It is about 2½ inches in diameter with the lens mounted in the barrel and the film in a cassette
  • 1906 Kodak markets the No. 4A Folding Kodak, a large camera for amateur photographers, producing negatives of 4 1/4 x 6 1/2 inch on roll film or glass plates
  • 1907 The Revolving Back Auto Graflex camera is first patented by the Folmer and Schwing division of the Eastman Kodak company. The camera’s main feature is a revolving back for taking horizontal or vertical pictures without having to rotate the camera
  • The Butcher Royal Mail Stamp Camera is the simplest type of multiplying camera, featuring a polished mahogany box with fifteen lenses, an internal septum to separate the images, and spring mounted metal plate shutter to produce fifteen images on small 3-1/4″ x 4-1/4″ dry plates or film
  • 1908 Kodak markets the No. 4A Speed Kodak, a specialist camera for the professional or serious amateur photographer offering shutter speeds from 1/5 to 1/1000 of a second
  • 1909 The 1A Graflex SLR is introduced. It shoots 2¼ x 4¼ inch Kodak 1A roll film and is notable for its pantograph viewing hood
  • Houghtons Ltd. introduces the Ensignette Camera, an all metal bellows camera which folded into a vest pocket size camera like the Kodak VPK. It is a milestone in popular photography, providing for the first time a practical, truly compact camera at an affordable price to the average person
  • 1910 Kodak launches the No. 2A Folding Pocket Brownie folding roll film camera for 116 film producing 2 1/2 X 4 1/4″ images
  • 1911 Newman & Guardia Ltd introduces the Model 11A Postcard Sibyl for 5 ½” x 3 ½” plates featuring a folding reflecting view-finder with spirit levels
  • c. 1911 The original Makina model is launched by Plaubel. It is a strut folding press-type camera, taking 6 x 4.5cm film plates
  • 1912 The first Speed Graphic press cameras are produced. Production continues until 1973
  • The Vest Pocket Kodak camera, or ‘VPK’ as it was usually known, is launched and becomes one of the most popular and successful cameras of its day. Over 2 million would be sold before the model was discontinued in 1926.
  • 1913 The Homeos stereo camera is the first 35mm camera to go into production
  • The first commercially successful 35mm camera is the American Tourist Multiple produced by Herbert & Huesgen, New Ideas Mfg. Co
  • 1914 Oskar Barnack, creates the Ur-Leica, the prototype of a small-format 35mm camera
  • Kodak introduces the No. 0 Brownie, the smallest in the range. It takes pictures the same size as the popular Vest Pocket Kodak of 1912
  • 1915 The Minnigraph, made by Benno Levy-Roth of Berlin, may be the first still camera to use cine film. It makes what will later be considered half-frame (18 x 24 mm) pictures, on film held in special cassettes
  • 1916 Kodak introduces the 3A Autographic Special. Generally regarded as the first rangefinder camera, it has a 3-band split-image coupled rangefinder built into the base of the front standard
  • c. 1917 Conley’s Kewpie No. 3A is a postcard format box camera for type No. 125 roll film with two reflecting type finders, one for horizontal and one for vertical exposures
  • 1918 The Adam, a cardboard box camera, is the first Japanese camera to sell for ¥1
  • 1919 The Cocarette is one of the first new products of German camera maker Contessa-Nettel after the merger that led to the foundation of that company in 1919. 
  • 1920 The Venus is a folding camera made by Ihagee in Dresden optimized for exposures in horizontal format

1921-1930

  • 1921 Newman & Guardia Ltd launches the N&G Folding Reflex with a collapsible focusing screen and mirror
  • The Paff-Reflex is introduced by Ihagee. It is the first SLR made by the company which will later introduce the first 35mm SLR
  • 1922 The Ensign Cupid is the first camera to use a ‘double window’ arrangement for doubling the number of exposures on a roll
  • 1923 J.H. Dallmeyer Ltd introduces the Dallmeyer Speed with a a fast focal plane shutter capable of providing speeds up to 1/1000th of a second accompanied by a fast Pentac F2.0 lens.
  • 1924 The first common wide aperture lens becomes available with the f/2 Ernemann Ermanox, manufactured by Heinrich Ernemann A.G. of Dresden
  • 1925  Leica introduces the Leica I (A), a watershed design that makes the 35mm format truly viable
  • c. 1926 The Agfa Standard medium format roll film and plate cameras become available with an optional coupled coincident rangefinder at extra cost. Ingenious and advanced for their time, they would serve as the inspiration for later Zeiss Super Ikontas and Voigtlander Bessas
  • 1927 The first monorail camera, the Stegemann Studien-Kamera-C, a 9 ×12 model is designed by the Pictorialist photographer Heinrich Kuhn
  • 1928 The hugely influential Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera (TLR) is introduced, with an ingenious focusing mechanism using a the carriage that held both the viewfinder and the imaging lens, achieving the same function as bellows but with metal
  • 1929 Zeiss-Ikon introduces its top product line of folding medium format cameras, the Ikonta
  • Minolta, originally named the Nichi-Doku (which means “Japan-German”) Photographic Company, introduces its the first camera, the Nicalette, which is equipped with a German shutter and lens.
  • 1930 The Leica I (C) offers a camera with interchangeable lenses using the Leica Thread Mount (LTM)

1931-1940

  • 1931 The first 35mm prototype SLR is the Filmanka developed by A. Min in the Soviet Union
  • 1932 The Leica II is launched, the first Leica camera with a rangefinder, which becomes a signature of the company
  • Zeiss Ikon produce the Contax I to compete with the  Leica II
  • This Rolleiflex Standard K2 Twin Lens Reflex upgrades the original camera with several significant features, including support for 120 format roll film, a film rewind crank, sports finder, removable back and exposure counter
  • The first Voigtländer Brillant is released, resembling a TLR but functionally closer to a box camera, since it cannot be focused in the viewfinder using zone-focusing.
  • 1933 The Leica III is introduced – a response to the introduction of the Zeiss-Ikon Contax and Oskar Barnack’s last design.   It will remain in production in various iterations until 1960
  • Kodak introduces the The Jiffy Kodak Six-20, a folding camera for 620 film with a Twindar periscopic lens with zone focusing and three selectable apertures
  • The first Rolleicord is introduced, a simplified version of the Standard Rolleiflex
  • 1934 Zeiss Ikon introduces the Super Ikonata folding camera, which takes 16 4.5 x 6cm images on 120 film and is equipped with a coupled rangefinder
  • Kodak enters the 35mm market with the Retina I which introduces the 135 cartridge used in all modern 35 mm cameras.
  • Berning introduces the Robot I camera with a stainless steel body, a spring drive that can shoot at 4 frames per second, and a rotary shutter with speeds from 1 to 1/500th second
  • Houghton-Butcher introduces the Ensign Midget, a tiny roll film strut folder with a 3-speed shutter
  • 1935 The Leica IIIa is released with a top speed of 1/1000th of a second
  • 1936 the first widely-distributed 35mm SLR camera, the Kine Exakta, is introduced, with a design that will influence many subsequent SLRs
  • Canon introduces the Hansa, the first Asian 35mm camera
  • Zeus Ikon launch the Contax II, the first camera with a rangefinder and a viewfinder combined in a single window
  • 1937 Franke & Heidecke unveil the Rolleiflex Automat which features an ingenious automatic first frame positioning and frame counting system which monitors the length of the film as it passes between rollers and sets the camera accordingly, eliminating the need for a red window
  • Russian manufacturer GOMZ introduces the Sport. Designed between 1934 and 1935 It is the earliest known production 35mm SLR camera ever to be built, but fewer than 320 examples were made and is overshadowed by the Kine Exacta.
  • Swiss watch maker Jaeger LeCoultre & Company manufacture the ultra compact Compass for the Compass Cameras Ltd. of London, one of the most complicated miniature camera ever made. Measuring a mere 6.5×2.5×5.5cm, it packs a multitude of features into its trim body
  • The Purma Special (named after the founders Tom Purvis and Alfred Mayo) is a British 127 roll film viewfinder camera with an innovative gravity controlled shutter
  • 1938 Kodak Introduces the Super Six-20, the world’s first camera with built-in photoelectric exposure control
  • Leica introduces the first commercially successful 35 mm motordrive, the mechanical MOOLY
  • The Leica IIIb is released with a redesigned viewfinder optic, which brings the RF and VF eye pieces close together
  • British camera manufacturer Gandolfi launches the Precision, a development of the Imperial model introduced in 1899, which will remain on sale into the 1970s
  • Voigtländer introduces the Focusing Brillant adding a small opaque spot in the brilliant finder
  • 1939 The Praktiflex 35mm SLR is launched by the Kamera-Werkstätten AG. The design is simple but will constitute the pattern along which virtually every subsequent 35mm SLR camera will be built, regardless of place of origin
  • The Argus C3 is introduced and becomes the world’s best-selling 35mm camera, offering affordable 35mm rangefinder photography to amateurs
  • 1940 The Leica IIIc is introduced in 1940 with a total redesign of the body and shutter crate. It will remain the mainstay of Leica’s line-up through out the 1940’s
  • The Mamiya Six is introduced, offering a unique 6 x 6cm coupled rangefinder with film-plane focusing

1941-1960

  • 1941 The Kodak Ektra offers a rangefinder that could accurately focus a 153mm telephoto and the first complete anti-reflection coated lens line for a consumer camera
  • 1942 The F24 aerial reconnaissance camera is developed into the F52 model with an image format of 8.5 ×7 inches and magazines up to 500 exposures
  • 1943 the FS-3 FotoSniper prototype is developed by GOI for the Soviet Baltic Fleet Navy as a long-range reconnaissance camera.  It has a FED body and a 60cm lens with an f4.5 aperture 
  • 1944 The Alpa-Reflex 35mm SLR is presented to the public at the Swiss Trade Fair in Basel 
  • 1945 Houghton-Butcher introduces the Ensign Commando, a folding coupled-rangefinder 6 x 6cm camera for the British Military. It is released so late in the war it does not see much active service
  • 1946 Houghton-Butcher introduces a dual format civilian version of the Ensign Commando offering the smaller 6 x 4.5cm format in addition to 6 x 6cm
  • The Universal Camera Corporation offers the Mercury II which adds support for normal 35mm film rather than the proprietary Univex film used in the original.  Both Mercury cameras use a unique rotary focal plane shutter that enable a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 second whilst keeping costs low
  • 1947 Konishiroku introduces the Konica (later known as the Konica I), a knob-wound camera with a single eyepiece for a coupled rangefinder and viewfinder, based on an earlier camera called Rubikon, developed c.1938
  • The Bolsey B is introduced, a 35mm rangefinder camera with a finely cast aluminium body
  • 1948 Instant photography is introduced with the first instant-film camera, the Land Camera 95 or Polaroid camera
  • The Gamma Duflex is the first SLR camera with an instant return mirror. Production is limited and few models find their way beyond the domestic Hungarian market and so the later Asahiflex IIb is often credited with this innovation
  • Hasselblad launches the1600F, a 6 × 6cm format focal-plane shutter SLR camera with a revolutionary modular design that allows lenses, viewfinders and film magazines to be exchanged
  • The Nikon 1 is released, the first Nikon-branded camera, featuring a smaller than standard picture format which produces up to 40 negatives from a single roll of 36 exposure film.
  • 1949 Contax S camera is introduced, the first 35mm SLR camera with a pentaprism eye-level viewfinder
  • The Canon II B is launched with a three-mode optical viewfinder offering magnifications from 0.67x to 1.5x to match the focal length of the lens fitted.
  • The Ilford Advocate is introduced, the first British 35mm camera introduced after WWII. It is made of white-enamelled die-cast aluminium alloy 
  • Nikon releases the second iteration of the Nikon rangefinder, the Nikon M, with a slight increase in picture size from 24mm x 32mm, to 24mm x 34mm
  • 1950 The Leica IIIf is launched, offering built-in flash synchronization
  • Voigtländer introduces the Bessa II, the ultimate iteration of the model first available in 1929 and offering a combined viewfinder and rangefinder and 6 x 9 images
  • Voigtländer launches the Perkeo 6 x 6 folding camera. Measuring just 125 x 85 x 40mm when closed, and 95mm deep when the lens is extended it is one of the smallest medium format camera.
  • The Agiflex II is a 6×6 SLR, made by Agilux and derived from the British WWII military aerial camera ARL that was in turn derived from the German Reflex Korelle
  • 1951 The Nikon S becomes available, retaining the unusual 24mm x 34mm format
  • The Ilford Witness, an advanced 35mm coupled-rangefinder camera, is introduced with either a 2-inch f/1.9 Dallmeyer Super Six, or a 5 cm f/2.9 Daron. Production difficulties led to less than 350 cameras being made
  • The WrayFlex I is a British SLR which uses two mirrors instead of a pentaprism, so the image is reversed and not very bright. It has a full complement of speeds from ½sec to 1/1000th sec in the focal plane shutter. 
  • 1952 Kodak introduces the Brownie 127, a plastic box camera with no aperture or focus controls, and a single-speed shutter that produces eight 4 x 6 cm pictures on 127 film. It rapidly becomes an extremely popular snapshot camera in Britain with over a million made.
  • The Asahiflex, built by the Asahi Optical Corporation (later to become Pentax), is the first SLR camera built in Japan
  • The Canon Camera Company markets the Canon IVSb 35mm rangefinder, the first 35mm camera to support flash sync for both flash bulbs and electronic X-sync through Canon’s proprietary rail mounted flash shoe
  • 1953 The Coronet 6×6 Flashmaster is introduced with a rigid Bakelite body, a fixed lens and a simple shutter with no aperture or speed setting
  • The Graflex KE-4 Combat Camera, a 70mm model, is manufactured for the military. Since the design resembles a giant Contax camera it is given the nickname “Gulliver’s Contax”
  • The Periflex 35mm camera is launched by K. G. Corfield Ltd. It resembles the Leica Standard, Model E but provides through the lens visual focusing using an inverted periscope lowered into the light path between the lens and the film
  • 1954 The Leica M is introduced with the new Leica M mount and popularises the combined rangefinder and viewfinder
  • Nikon introduces the S2 rangefinder that takes conventional 35mm film and a 1.0X finder. It offers the option to attach the world’s first battery powered motor drive
  • The Asahiflex IIb is the first volume 35mm SLR with an instant return mirror. Early SLRs left the mirror in its up position until the camera was wound for the next shot, blacking out the viewfinder. The introduction of instant-return mirror mechanisms and the subsequent elimination of mirror blackout is an important step in the acceptance of SLRs
  • 1955 The Miranda T 35mm SLR camera is launched by the newly established Japanese Orion Camera Co. It is the first Japanese 35mm SLR camera with an eyelevel Pentaprism finder.
  • 1956 The Rolleiflex 2.8E is the company’s first model with a built in, uncoupled light meter as an option
  • The VT is Canon’s first camera to have a camera back which swings open for film loading. The film advances with a fast-winding trigger at the camera bottom instead of a knob on top.
  • 1957 The Asahi Pentax SLR is introduced, placing controls in locations that would become standard on 35 mm SLRs
  • Tokyo Kogaku KK launch their first 35mm SLR camera, the Topcon R, ahead of Nikon and Canon
  • Leitz releases the Leica IIIg as the final model in the series with a newly designed top cover with a larger and improved viewfinder
  • The Nikon SP is the worlds first rangefinder to include built-in frame lines for 6 different focal lengths
  • Hasselblad introduces the medium format 500 C, which will go on too become one of most influential and successful cameras of all time
  • 1958  The Minolta SR-2 is the first SLR camera with an automatic diaphragm which maintains maximum aperture for brightest viewing and stops down only when the picture is taken
  • Nikon releases a new rangefinder, the S3, a stripped down version of the Nikon SP at a lower price
  • Konishiroku introduces the Konica IIIA with three finder windows and offering 1.0× finder magnification
  • 1959 The Nikon F is introduced, marking the transition from rangefinders to SLRs for professional photographers
  • Canon introduces the Canonflex, its first SLR
  • The Olympus Pen is the first half-frame camera produced in Japan. It is one of the smallest cameras to use 35mm film in regular 135 cassettes.
  • The Zenza Bronica is the first Japanese 6 x 6cm format camera with interchangeable lenses and film backs
  • 1960 Konishiroku introduces the Konica F, featuring the Hi-Synchro, the first SLR shutter with a speed of 1/2000s
  • Nikon introduces the S3M, a half-frame variant of the Nikon S3 with a modified viewfinder and a frame counter that displays up to 72 exposures
The Leica M3 Rangefinder 1954-1966. This model is from 1963.

1961-1970

  • 1961 Canon introduces the Canonet, a mid-market 35mm camera with a fast f/1.9 lens. Two and a half years later, a million Canonets had been sold.
  • 1962 AGFA introduces the first fully automatic camera, the Optima, with an automatic programmed exposure, using a selenium-meter-driven mechanical system
  • The Nikkorex F is the first production single-lens reflex camera with the metal Copal square shutter
  • 1963 Kodak introduces the Instamatic range of cameras, with an easy-to-use film cartridge and the phrase ‘load it you’ll love it’
  • The first SLR with TTL light metering is the Topcon RE Super, which has the CdS metering cell placed behind the reflex mirror.
  • Olympus introduces the Pen F, a compact half-frame 35mm SLR that supports interchangeable lenses and a distinctive logo rendered in a gothic font
  • The world’s first full-fledged underwater camera goes on sale in Japan – the Nikonos 1 
  • 1964 The Pentax Spotmatic SLR is introduced with revolutionary stop-down light metering
  • 1965 The Konica Auto-Reflex of 1965 is the first focal-plane-shutter auto exposure 35mm SLR. This is not TTL metering, although it does offer a shutter-preferred, auto-exposure mode
  • Hasselblad launches a new design, the 500EL, with an electric motor integrated into the camera body
  • Eastman Kodak replaces the individual flashbulb technology used on early Instamatic cameras with the Flashcube
  • The Practica mat by VEB Pentacon Dresden is the first 35 mm single-lens reflex camera with TTL exposure metering
  • 1966 The Electro 35 rangefinder camera is introduced by Yashica with a coupled and fixed 1:1.7 45 mm lens. It is the first electronically controlled rangefinder camera offering aperture priority ‘auto’ mode
  • The Rollei 35 becomes the smallest 135 film camera
  • The Olympus Pen FT updates the F model with a single-stroke film advance and an uncoupled, integrated light meter
  • 1967 Nikon F Photomic SLR is the first camera with a centre-weighted exposure metering system
  • 1968 Leica introduces the Leicaflex SL, the world’s first single-lens reflex camera with a precisely defined microprism zone for TTL spot exposure metering displayed in the viewfinder.
  • Konishiroku launches the Konica C35, combining light weight and compact size with the simple operation of “auto only” exposure
  • 1969 The Olympus-35 EC, an electronically controlled 35mm compact camera, is introduced. It features a fixed Zuiko 42mm f/2.8 lens and and an automatically controlled Seiko shutter with a range of 4 to 1/800 sec
  • The Mamiya C220 is released as part of the Mamiya C series of interchangeable lens medium format TLR cameras
  • 1970 The Sinar P 4×5 sets the standard for high-end, large format cameras with asymmetric tilts and swings, as opposed to traditional centre or base tilts.

1971-1990

Nikon F: 1959-1973. This example is from 1970.
  • 1971 The Canon F-1 is introduced, a highly durable model built to endure 100K picture-taking cycles, temperatures from -30 C to 60 C, and 90% humidity.
  • Nikon’s F High Speed Motor Drive camera, developed for the ’71 Chicago Photo Expo offers a blazing 7 frames per second
  • The Leica M5 is introduced, departing from the traditional silhouette of the Leica rangefinders and the first of those cameras to feature through-the-lens (TTL) metering
  • 1972 Kodak reduces the popular Instamatic Camera to pocket size with the introduction of the Pocket Instamatic Camera.
  • Olympus launches the OM-1, an ultra-compact 35mm SLR that initiates the compact SLR revolution of the ‘70s and ‘80s
  • Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land announces the SX-70, taking out a folded SX-70 from his suit coat pocket whilst on stage and taking five pictures in ten seconds
  • The Wista 45 wood and brass Field Camera is launched – an evolution of a design available since the 1890s. Later models offer several choices of wood including Japanese cherrywood, rosewood and ebony
  • 1973 Minolta releases a new flagship model camera, the SR-T 303 (102 in the US) which bought open aperture metering to a wide audience
  • The Leica CL, a compact rangefinder, is designed in Germany by Leitz Wetzlar and built in Japan by Minolta with Leitz lenses
  • 1974 Canon introduces the Datematic, which features date imprinting and a body and exterior made of reinforced plastic.
  • 1975 Olympus launches the XA series, one of the smallest rangefinder cameras ever made
  • 1976 Canon introduces the AE-1, the world’s first 35mm AE SLR camera equipped with the shutter speed-priority TTL metering and a Central Processing Unit (CPU).
  • The first of the Zenza Bronica ETR series of 4.5 × 6cm SLRs manufactured by Zenza Bronica Industries Inc. of Tokyo is introduced.
  • 1977 The Asahi Pentax K1000 is launched and goes on to become the most successful basic student SLR of all time, combining a Pentax Spotmatic F with Pentax K-type bayonet mount to produce a competent and affordable camera
  • The Minolta XD11 is the world’s first camera with aperture priority and shutter priority, as well as a fully metered manual mode.
  • 1978 Konica introduces the C35 AF, the first point-and-shoot autofocus camera
  • Canon introduces the A-1, a sophisticated electronic camera with all-digital control featuring the first fully automatic program AE mode, pre-set aperture-priority AE, and speedlite AE mode.
  • 1979 Canon launches the SureShot, the world’s first lens-shutter 35mm autofocus camera, with a triangulation system incorporating a near-infrared emitting diode (IRED)
  • The Nikon EM is introduced the first model in a revised design concept by Nikon to introduce a series of ultra compact bodies characterized by compactness, light weight and ease of use.
  • 1981 The low-tech plastic Holga camera is introduced, which will later attain cult status with the advent of Lomography and become a major source of inspiration for Instagram
  • Canon introduces the AE-1 Program camera to succeed the original AE-1 offering shutter speed-priority AE and program AE modes.
  • 1982 Nikon introduces the FM2, which uses an improved Copal Square Shutter to achieve an unheard-of speed range of 1 to 1/4000th second
  • Kodak launches the disc photography format with a line of compact cameras built around a rotating disc of fifteen 10×8 mm exposures. Labs resisted investing in new development equipment resulting in poor quality photos and the format was short-lived
  • The Nimslo 3D camera is launched – the first camera offering lenticular printing from 35mm negative film. A lenticular print combines four pictures into a single print that appears 3 dimensional
  • 1983 The Olympus OM-4 is the first camera with a multi-spot exposure meter
  • Minolta launches the Disc-7, a disc camera with a small convex mirror on the front plate. With the help of a telescoping stick that anticipates the later selfie-stick, this allows the user to take self-portraits.
  • 1984 LOMO begin mass-producing the LC-A, achieving popularity within the USSR and kickstarting Lomography
  • The Leica M6 heralds the renaissance of the rangefinder system in a market dominated by single-lens reflex cameras
  • Canon introduces the new F-1 High Speed Motor Drive Camera which is able to zip through a 36-exposure roll of film in 2.57 sec. at 14 fps, a record at the time.
  • 1985 Minolta introduces the world’s first fully integrated autofocus SLR with the autofocus (AF) system built into the body – the Maxxum 7000 a.k.a. the Dynax 7000
  • 1986 The disposable camera is popularised by Fujifilm with the 35mm QuickSnap
  • The Canon T90 marks the pinnacle of Canon’s manual-focus 35mm SLRs
  • The Canon RC-701 becomes the first still video camera marketed, offering10 fps (frames per second) high-speed shutter-priority and multi-program automatic exposure
  • 1987 Canon launches the EOS (Electro-Optical System), an entirely new system designed specifically to support autofocus lenses
  • 1988 The Nikon F4 is introduced as the first professional Nikon to feature a practical autofocus system.
  • The Fuji DS-1P, the first digital handheld camera, is introduced, though it does not sell
  • The first of the Genesis series from Chinon helps to define the category of 35mm bridge cameras
  • The R6 is the first mechanical, manual-exposure-only SLR produced by Leica since the Leicaflex SL2 was discontinued
  • 1989 Steven Sasson and a colleague, Robert Hills, of Kodak create a prototype camera which is the first modern digital single-lens reflex camera that looks and functions like today’s professional models. It is known as the D-5000 or Ecam (electronic camera) and features a 1.2 megapixel sensor and uses image compression and memory cards.

1990-2000

Contax G2 with 45mm lens, produced 1996-2005
  • 1990 first digital camera shipped in the United States is the Dycam Model 1, which comes with a neutral density filter to prevent over exposure in bright settings.
  • 1991 The world’s first digital SLR is introduced, The Kodak Professional Digital Camera System (DCS) based on the Nikon F3
  • Logitech introduces the Fotoman FM-1, a modified Dycam Model 1, and the first consumer point and shoot camera sold in Europe
  • The Konica AiBORG is introduced as the world’s first moving frame auto focus camera. It will go on to achieve infamy as the Konica “Darth Vader” due to its bulbous looks and poor design.
  • 1992 Leica introduces the R6.2 SLR, an update of the R6, with a higher top shutter speed and an improved TTL flash mode
  • Contax launches the S2 fully mechanical, manual-focus SLR to commemorate the company’s 60th anniversary. It offers only a spot meter and no centre-weighted or matrix metering options
  • The Nikonos RS is the world’s first underwater Auto-Focus SLR camera
  • 1993 The Vivitar Opus 20 is a late example of a  110 film camera with a modern new look, motor-driven film advance, a built-in flash, and red eye reduction
  • 1994 The Apple Quicktake 100 is the first camera to use USB to connect to a computer.
  • 1995 The Casio QV-10 is the first camera to incorporate an LCD screen on the back for image preview and playback
  • The Ricoh RDC-1 is the first digital camera offering a dedicated movie mode. It is capable of recording 5-second 768×480-pixel clips at 30 frames per second, and saving them in the new MPEG format
  • The Nikon D1 is the first fully integrated digital SLR designed from the ground up, rather than a digital modification to a film SLR
  • The Minolta RD-175 combines an existing SLR, the Dynax500si Super, with a three way splitter and three separate CCD image sensors which are combined digitally and interpolated to produce a 1.75 megapixel image
  • 1996 the Canon PowerShot 600, Canon’s first consumer digital camera, is released featuring a 0.5 megapixel sensor
  • The Coolpix 100 is Nikon’s first consumer digital camera.  It features a 1/3 megapixel sensor and a PCMCIA interface which enables it slot it into a laptop, where it appears as a removable drive
  • Canon introduces the first IXUS APS ultra compact as Canon’s contribution to the launch of the Advance Film System (APS). The model will later form the basis of the Digital IXUS range and is considered a milestone of compact camera design.
  • Minolta introduces the TC-1, a high-end, titanium-bodied compact autofocus 35mm camera with the smallest frontal area of any professional-grade compact autofocus camera
  • 1997 The  Pentax 645N is the first autofocus medium format SLR camera
  • Yashica’s first digital camera, the KC-600, is announced
  • The Epson PhotoPC 550, the third Epson digital camera and the first Epson to feature an external memory slot for SmartMedia cards, features a microphone to record up to six seconds of sound per photograph
  • 1998 Fuji reveal the FUJIX DS-1P at Photokina as “the world’s first camera to save data to a semiconductor memory card”. It captures images using a 400 kilo-pixel CCD that Fuji had began developing in the 70s.
  • Leica introduces the M6 TTL, which improves on the M6 with TTL flash and improved ergonomics to become one of the most highly rated film cameras of all time.
  • Kodak launches the DC 210, the first affordable megapixel resolution digital camera
  • 1999 The Nikon D1 is the first professional digital SLR to displace Kodak’s previously-undisputed reign over the professional market
  • Canon introduces the IXUS II in the most successful camera range in the APS market. This success will go on to make IXUS an important trademark in the compact camera market
  • Canon launches the first camera in the PowerShot S range, the S10 with a fully retractable zoom lens with built-in lens cover, advanced functions including Spot Metering and AE Lock, and compact, high-density packaging
  • 2000 The Fujifilm FinePix S1 Pro is the first interchangeable-lens DSLR to hit the market. It is based on a Nikon N60 with Fuji’s APS-C-format Super CCD Sensor and is capable of creating 6.13 megapixel images
  • Nikon reissues the 1958 Nikon S3 rangefinder, the Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition, with an improved chrome finish as and a redesigned 50mm f1.4 lens with modern coatings
  • Canon launches the Digital IXUS range of ultra compact cameras, based on the technology of the PowerShot S10 in a body similar to the APS IXUS II
  • The Canon EOS D30 is the first ‘native’ DSLR made in-house by a camera manufacturer with a price tag that is affordable to enthusiasts
Nikon FM3a camera milestones
The Nikon FM3a, the last manual film camera shipped by a volume manufacturer

2001-Present

  • 2001 Nikon introduces the FM3a, the last manual focus film camera to be launched by a volume manufacturer
  • Ricoh launches the GR21, the first compact camera in the world to have a super-wide 21mm wide angle lens
  • Pentax introduces the 645NII medium format film camera which adds mirror lock-up to the list of features
  • 2002 Contax launches the N Digital the first full frame digital SLR digital camera
  • Nikon introduce the D100, which becomes the first digital SLR to score a resounding sales success amongst both professional and serious enthusiast photographers
  • Leica departs from the mechanical design of previous M cameras with the introduction of the electronic M7
  • 2003 The Olympus E-1 is the first removable lens digital SLR with a lens mount and imaging system specifically designed for digital
  • Digital cameras outsell film cameras for the first time
  • Leica introduces the all-mechanical MP rangefinder film camera which incorporates many design features of the 1954 M3 and a TTL lightmeter.
  • The Minolta Dimage A1 is the first model to stabilise images by shifting the sensor instead of using a lens-based system
  • Canon introduces the EOS 300D, arguably the first digital SLR for the mass-market
  • 2004 The Epson R-D1 is the first digital rangefinder camera
  • Leica makes the detachable DMR (Digital Module R) digital back available, making it possible to transform the Leica R8 and R9 film cameras into digital SLRs
  • The Nikon F6 is launched, Nikon’s last high end professional film camera
  • 2005 The Canon EOS 5D is the first consumer DSLR to feature a full frame sensor
  • Kyocera announces the company is to cease production of film and digital cameras, ending one of oldest brands in photography, Contax.
  • 2006 The Flip video camera is released as a “Pure Digital Point & Shoot” video camcorder 
  • The M8 is Leica’s first digital camera in the rangefinder M series
  • 2007 Nikon’s first full frame DSLR, the D3, pushes the ISO range into six figures for the first time – to ISO 102,400
  • Microsoft introduces RoundTable, a videoconferencing device with a 360-degree camera  with active speaker detection technology, which switches between different meeting participants as they speak.
  • 2008 Panasonic releases the Lumix G1, the world’s first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera
  • The Nikon D90 is the first DSLR with HD video recording capabilities
  • 2009 Leica launches the M9, a full-frame digital rangefinder compatible with almost all M mount lenses.
  • 2010 Samsung introduce the first APS-C format mirrorless camera, the NX10
  • Sony introduces the SLT-A55, the first camera to incorporate a translucent mirror design which offers live view with full-time fast phase-detection AF whether in stills or movie shooting.
  • 2011 Lytro releases the first pocket-sized consumer light-field camera, capable of refocusing images after they are taken
  • Nikon Introduces the J1 and V1 mirrorless cameras which offer on-sensor phase detection autofocus
  • 2012  Sony launches the world’s first full frame compact camera – the RX1, with a fixed 35mm F2 lens
  • Olympus introduces the OM-D E-M5 with a 5-axis sensor-shifting image stabilisation system – the first of its kind in a consumer camera
  • Fujifilm unveils the X-Pro1 mirrorless interchangeable-lens digital with a Hybrid Viewfinder that allows photographers to choose between an optical finder and an electronic view (EVF)
  • Canon launches the EOS 6D DSLR which introduces full frame photography to a new generation of photographers who had previously discounted it due to cost
  • Rolleiflex’s last TLR model, the FX-N, is introduced at Photokina. It is similar to the Rolleiflex FX, but can focus down to 55cm
  • Leica releases the Monochrom, with a monochrome sensor based on the same Kodak CCD sensor as the Leica M9 but without the colour filter array
  • 2013 Sony announces the ⍺7 which starts the full frame mirrorless revolution.
  • The Android powered Samsung Galaxy NX unsuccessfully attempts to combine the best features of a smartphone and a dedicated camera
  • Hasselblad discontinues the last of its film cameras – the V-series 503CW
  • 2014 Samsung introduces the mirrorless APS-C NX1, offering new features and higher levels of performance unheard of in the mirrorless market
  • Leica launches the Leica T, a camera made from a solid block of milled aluminium with an app-like touchscreen interface that resembles that of a smartphone
  • Leica releases the M-A, a purely mechanical 35 mm rangefinder film camera devoid of electronics and based on the designs and features of previous Leica M models
  • 2015 Sony announces the first camera to employ a back-side illuminated full frame sensor, the α7R II
  • 2016 Leica introduces the Leica Q, a full frame, mirrorless camera with a Summilux f1.7 lens that brings the brand to a new audience
  • Hasselblad launches the H6D range of medium format digital cameras with a choice of 50 or 100 megapixel resolutions
  • Fujifilm introduce the GFX 50S medium format camera, opening the format to photographers who had never considered it before
  • 2017 The Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 is introduced, bringing high quality low cost video production capabilities to a wider audience
  • Intrepid Camera launches its Kickstarter project for a light-weight, low cost, compact, 10X8 large format film camera
  • Sony introduce the ⍺9, a mirrorless camera designed to compete with DSLRs in sports and action photography and the first camera to feature Eye Auto Focus that works in continuous AF mode
  • Nikon introduces the D850, one of the most technically impressive DSLRs ever made
  • 2018 Nikon introduces the Z6 and Z7 full frame mirrorless cameras with the new Z mount.
  • Within days of the Nikon Z system launch, Canon launches the EOS R system, its first full frame mirrorless system
  • Leica introduce the Leica M10-D, a digital camera without an LCD screen designed to combine the excitement of film with digital technology
  • 2019 Worldwide camera shipments drop by 87% 2010-2019, wiping out four decades of growth
  • Fujifilm launches the GFX100 with a 100 megapixel medium format, BSI-CMOS sensor
  • 2020 The Nikon F6 film SLR is officially discontinued
  • Mirrorless cameras overtake DSLRs based on unit volume.
  • 2021 Sony introduces the ⍺1, a 50.1 megapixel, 8.6K camera capable of shooting bursts at up to 30 frames per second
  • Olympus exits the camera market, completing the sale of its camera business to JIP, a venture capital
  • Nikon launches the Z9 which is the first production camera to eliminate the mechanical shutter without the compromise of rolling shutter
  • 2022 Leica introduces the M11 rangefinder with a 60MP full-frame back side illuminated sensor
  • Leica announces a reissue of the Leica M6 film camera, along with its remake of the original 35mm Summilux
  • 2023 Sony launches the a9 III which delivers the world’s first full-frame global shutter sensor, which allows the camera to freeze motion in captured images with a max shutter speed of 1/80,000 second and 120 fps continuous shooting.
  • Sony has a prolific year of new releases with six camera launches, solidifying its position as the number one full-frame mirrorless brand.
  • Nikon releases the Z8 which delivers the majority of the Z9’s capabilities into a much smaller, more portable camera body
  • 2024 Fujifilm announces the launch of the X100VI , the latest model in the popular series of high-end compact digital cameras originally introduced in 2011. 

If you spot omissions or errors in this year by year camera timeline, please let me know in the comments.

The Nikon F6 – Great Film Cameras

The Nikon F6 was the last of the line of Nikon’s professional SLR film cameras, and perhaps the most technically refined and advanced 35mm film camera ever made. It is the film camera I taken most pictures with. This is its story.

The Launch of the Nikon F6, 2004

The Nikon F6 was announced at Photokina 2004, along with the digital Nikon D2X. As Thom Hogan observed at the time, the launch of a new pro SLR surprised a few people, but it really shouldn’t have; Nikon delivered the F6 eight years after the F5, which was the standard interval between pro film bodies at that time.

Perhaps what caught those people out was how far digital photography had already come by 2004. The world’s first digital SLR, The Kodak Professional Digital Camera System, had been introduced 13 years previously in 1991. It was based on the Nikon F3. The LCD screens on the back of digital cameras we take for granted arrived in 1995. By 1999, five years before the F6 appeared, the first fully integrated digital SLR designed from the ground up, The Nikon D1, had been launched. In 2002 Contax shipped the first full-frame DSLR, which was followed by Canon’s popular version, the EOS-1Ds. In the same year the Minolta Dimage A1 became the first digital camera to stabilise images by shifting the sensor. Digital photography was not new in 2004.

Nikon F6 with 50mm f1.4 lens

Roll forward to another trade show – CES 2017 and the president of Fujifilm’s North American imaging division provided a clue as to why Nikon launched the F6 in 2004. “The film market peaked in 2003 with 960 million rolls of film” he said. Film sales were already in decline by 2004 but post-peak demand was still impressive.

According to the same source, by 2017 film sales had dropped to a low point of 2% of that peak before rebounding. Happily, film sales have been growing modestly since then, with film specialists like Analogue Wonderland now selling over 200 types of film stocks.

The Nikon F Mount Pro SLRs

As its name suggests, the F6 is the sixth of Nikon’s F mount pro bodies. The “F” came from the F in reflex. The F6 evolved from the legendary Nikon F, introduced in 1959 (and also reviewed on this site). The F had a huge impact on the camera market, introducing the era of the professional SLR at the expense of Leica and Zeiss rangefinders. It was not the first SLR, but is often thought to be as it brought the innovations and features of earlier models into a single body.

The Evolution of the F6

The Nikon F evolved from Nikon’s rangefinder cameras, the first of which was introduced in 1947. The SP and S3 rangefinders required the addition of an optional reflex housing for telephoto lenses with focal lengths of 135mm or greater. Hence the need for an SLR camera, and the Nikon F was born.

In the original prototype Nikon F cameras, only the mirror box, pentaprism, and bayonet mount were new. The rest of the camera was virtually identical to the SP/S3 rangefinder.

Strong industrial design has always been a feature of Nikon’s pro SLRs – the lead designer of the Nikon F was Yusaku Kamekura, a leading figure in post-World War II Japanese graphic design, whose work included the 1967 Summer Olympics logo.

At its launch, the Nikon F introduced a comprehensive professional system. This provided a choice of lenses and accessories far beyond what had been available previously with rangefinders. By 1962 Nikon’s lens range extended from 21 mm to 1000 mm, and the F-mount would go on to support one of the largest collection of optical lenses ever created.

Mechanical Perfection – the Nikon F2

The Nikon F2 continued what the F had started, becoming standard issue for professional photographers for the most of the 1970s. It is still widely considered to be one the greatest 35mm mechanical SLRs of all time. In addition, the F2 also offered a choice of 10 viewfinders throughout its product cycle to suit every possible imaginable photographic situation. This unique modular approach continued until the introduction of the F6.

The Electronic Nikon Fs: F3-F5

Nikon introduced the F3 in 1980 as their flagship electronically controlled SLR camera. This was the camera that got me back into shooting with film, the story of which (and the story of the F3) you can find in the article Back to Film with the Nikon F3.

Giorgetto Giugiaro, a renowned Italian automotive and industrial designer, who has designed more great cars than just about anybody, designed the exterior. It was Guigiaro who introduced the grip and the red accent that would become a feature of the range. Initially, professional photographers didn’t trust the F3’s electronics but time proved the F3 to be reliable. With pro adoption Nikon were able to cease production of the F2.

With the F4, introduced in 1988, Nikon brought multi-pattern metering, a high-speed shutter, faster flash sync, and automatic focusing in a camera which had been designed from scratch. Just as with the original F, Nikon did not pioneer the new features, they would be the first to gather them all in a single camera body. 

The tank-like F5 of 1996 offered a more sophisticated matrix metering system, faster autofocus with better sensor frame coverage, higher continuous shooting capability and exposure bracketing. It was the biggest and heaviest of the range (including the F6), weighing in at a hefty 1,445g including its 8 AA batteries. I know photographers who really like the F4 and others that are stalwart F5 users but I’ve never gravitated to either of them and prefer either the earlier F3 or later F6.

Enter the Dragon

Bluebell Railway Line Nikon F6
Railway engineer shot with a Nikon F6 and AFS 24-70mm f2.8 lens in 2022

In 2004 the range culminated in the F6, which remained in production until late 2020. Giugiaro was once again responsible for styling the F6, as he had done for all the Nikon F bodies since the F3, and it closely resembles the Nikon D2 DSLR. An F6 review in Casual Photophile gushes at the F6’s awesome specs in a way that resonates with a fellow camera geek:

The F6’s spec sheet promises everything any shooter could want, including a 1/8000th of a second maximum shutter speed, a 1/250th of a second flash syncspeed, Nikon’s incredible color matrix metering along with spot and classic center-weighted metering, full PASM mode selection, i-TTL wireless flash metering, 100% viewfinder coverage, built-in 5.5 FPS motor drive (8 FPS with the added MB-40 battery pack), 41 slots of custom settings, compatibility with all Nikon AF lenses including full VR capability, backwards compatibility with every Nikon AI lens (extendable to non-AI with a factory modification from Nikon), CF card data storage, AF tracking, and a thousand more functions that’ll somehow justify this ridiculous run-on sentence.

Should I buy a Nikon F6?

Like many photographers, I thought long and hard about whether I should buy an F6. An F6 is not an inconsiderable purchase, especially compared to the F100 I already owned, which was giving me excellent results at a fraction of the cost of Nikon’s last flagship film camera. The F6 is also larger and heavier at 975g vs. 785g without batteries.

In the end I found plenty of reasons to buy an F6:

  • It is very rugged, featuring magnesium alloy construction, weather-proofing, a pro film transport and a Kevlar shutter rated to 150,000 releases. Weather proofing is particularly important to me.
  • The autofocus is faster and the matrix meter superior to the F100’s
  • The long production run should mean the camera remains serviceable for some time
  • It has a built-in data facility to display and store the camera settings for your film shots without a bulky data back. These settings can be also printed between frames on negatives which is really handy when you are trying to work out why a particular shot did or did not expose correctly.
  • Unlike the F5, the Nikon F6 supports matrix metering in “A” and “M” mode with Nikon Ai and AiS manual focus lenses. This means it works with almost any Nikon F-mount lens made since 1977.
  • The F6 is compatible with the latest generation of Nikon flashes and supports Nikon’s Creative Lighting System.
  • The F6 accepts a wide range of batteries. The body will take CR123A or DL123A cells, whilst the optional MB-40 accepts AAs or a rechargeable EN-EL4.
  • Film loading and unloading is simple and intuitive. To load, just switch it on, pull up the rewind knob and the back opens. There is no additional button to worry about. Slide in the film, pull out the leader to the mark and close the back. The film auto rewinds after the last frame. If it doesn’t rewind automatically (which has only happened once to me) it is easy to get the camera to try again with the dedicated buttons.
  • It’s Nikon’s last and most advanced autofocus film camera

The only disadvantages I’ve found are the F6’s appetite for batteries, which is considerable, and its size and weight relative to other film cameras, such as the Nikon F3, Nikon FM3a or Nikon F100. No matter, unless I am really counting the grams I am probably going to take the F6. I’ve certainly shot more frames on it than any other film camera. For some more sample shots head over to the Nikon F6 Gallery.

The Purchase and First Impressions

I bought my F6 at Grey’s of Westminster, largely because of their after sales service. Once I had been using the camera for a little while, mostly shooting in Deal, Kent, I found a few more advantages over the F100, a camera I really enjoy using.

Straight out of the box the F6 has that top-of-the-range look and feel. Its smoother command dial operation and the embossed logos were immediately apparent. When setting up the F6 up I found the custom settings menu to be far easier and less cryptic than the F100’s codes. The F6 makes use of the rear LCD panel to use words rather than just numbers.

The F6 in Action

As I started shooting I found the grip felt better in my hand, whilst the AF-on button is angled up on the F6 to a position I find to be perfect for back-button focusing, which is how I prefer to shoot.

Ergonomically, the F6 is close to perfect. I also discovered that I preferred how the F6 displays exposure compensation, which I use frequently.

It really is a great film cameras and a joy to use. I’ve read some gripes about the autofocus sensor coverage being too small. The F6 uses the same autofocus module as the D2X APS-C DSLR, so the autofocus sensors cover a smaller area of the frame, but that has never troubled me. Some also decry the discontinuation of removable finders, but replaceable viewfinders make the camera more difficult to weather proof effectively so that decision makes perfect sense to me.

F6 Battery Consumption

As an all electronic film camera if the F6 runs out of battery power the shoot is over. There are no manual options to fall back on – unlike the amazing FM3A. I find that the F6 is good for about 15 rolls in good weather and perhaps as low as 10 during the winter, which isn’t great, but manageable. I always carry a spare set of CR123 batteries with me, which is not much of a hardship. You can use AA batteries using an accessory, but I have never gone down this route. For more information on battery consumption and options there is a good write up on the F6 project.

Nikon F6 with the massive 400mm f3.5 Ai-S lens

Lenses for the F6

I generally use the F6 with the 24-70mm f2.8 AFS G ED, which gives me a lot of flexibility. I tend to use primes on my other Nikon cameras particularly 35mm, 50mm and 85mm AF-D lenses, but the 24-70mm zoom seems to be the perfect partner for the F6 and I continue to enjoy the results I get from that combination. A yellow filter is always on the front if I am shooting black and white. If I do use a prime, I generally mount the 50mm f1.4 AF-D shown in the picture of my F6 at the top of this article. Recently I’ve been shooting with the excellent 135mm f2 DC (Defocus Control). The longest lens I’ve used with the F6 is the manual focus Ai-S Nikon 400mm F3.5 ED-IF shown here.

The End of the Line for the Nikon F6…

In July 2020 Nikon issued a recall of all F6s manufactured and/or sold after July 22, 2019. The recall was due to some components containing levels of a plasticiser called dibutyl phthalate which potentially exceeded the value specified in an EU regulation. The F6’s demise looked imminent and so it proved. It was was discontinued in October 2020 and an era ended.

Throughout its production the F6 was manufactured at the Sendai Nikon factory in the Tōhoku region North of Tokyo, which produced its first SLR in 1979.

In December 2020 Emulsive published an article titled The Nikon F6 is Dead! Long live the Nikon F6, which served as the camera’s obituary:

The F6 represented the pinnacle of 35mm film camera functionality and usability. It embodies everything Nikon knew about making robust, reliable, and supremely usable cameras.

..but not for Film

You can still buy new film cameras. There are plenty at the lomography shop, the large format camera has been reinvented by The Intrepid Camera Company and Leica continue to ship M rangefinders, even re-issuing the M6 in 2022. However, I know of nothing that comes close to the sophistication of the Nikon F6. The Contax G2 was a very advanced electronic rangefinder, and beautifully made, but I never gelled with it for a variety of reasons and sold mine.

Medium format is even more difficult to get close to an F6 spec. The autofocus Pentax 645 nII and the sophisticated manual Hasselblad 203FA probably come closest – at least in my experience.

I’ve shot with quite a few Nikon cameras, including the F, F2, F3, FM2n, FE, FM3A, F100, 28ti, D40X, D300, D600, D800, Df and Z7, but the F6 is my favourite. For manual focus I’d go with another engineering marvel, the FM3a or the F3. If I weight is a consideration, and the weather is likely to be good, I’d take the excellent F100.

For those interested, selected F6 specs are below, together with links to the full Nikon specs and original brochure.

Nikon F6 Specifications

Nikon F6
  • Shutter: Electronically controlled vertical-travel focal-plane shutter with built-in Shutter Monitor, 1/30 to 1/8,000s; Bulb in M mode
  • Viewfinder frame coverage: Approx. 100%
  • Finder magnification: Approx. 0.74x with 50 mm lens set to infinity at -1.0m-1
  • Focusing screen: B-type BriteView Clear Matte Screen II, interchangeable with six other optional focusing screens
  • Exposure control: Programmed Auto with Flexible Program, Shutter-Priority Auto, Aperture-Priority Auto, Manual
  • Exposure compensation: With exposure compensation button; ±5 EV range, in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 steps
  • Auto Exposure Lock: with AE/AF-L button
  • Autofocus: TTL phase detection, Nikon Multi-CAM2000 autofocus module, approx. EV –1 to EV 19 (ISO 100)
  • Focus modes: Single Servo AF and Continuous Servo AF, and Manual
  • Focus tracking: Automatically activated in Single Servo AF or Continuous Servo AF
  • AF Area Modes: Single Area AF, Dynamic AF, Group Dynamic AF or Dynamic AF with Closest-Subject Priority selectable
  • Exposure metering: Three built-in exposure meters — 3D Color Matrix, Center-Weighted and Spot
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing: Number of shots: 2-7; compensation steps: 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV steps
  • Self timer: Electronically controlled; timer duration: 10 seconds
  • Automatic film loading: automatic or manual film rewind
  • Film speed setting: DX or Manual selectable (manual setting has priority over DX detected film speed); DX: ISO 25-5000, Manual: ISO 6-6400 in 1/3 steps
  • Flash control: TTL flash control by combined five-segment TTL Multi Sensor with single-component IC and 1,005-pixel RGB sensor; i-TTL Balanced Fill-Flash with SB-800/600; Film speed range in TTL auto flash: ISO 25-1000
  • Power source: Two CR123A or DL123A batteries; The optional MB-40 accepts eight AA batteries or a Nikon EN-EL4
  • Dimensions: (W x H x D) 158 x 119 x 77.5mm (6.2 x 4.7 x 3.1 in.)
  • Weight: (body only without batteries) Approx. 975g (34.4 oz.)
  • You can find the Original Nikon spec sheet here and brochure here

Thoughts and Further Reading

If you have experience with shooting with the F6, please leave me your thoughts below, I’d love to hear from you. For more about historic and classic cameras, you might also enjoy these articles on this site. Nikon’s timeline can be found here.

The Nikon FM3A – Great Film Cameras

The Nikon FM3A (often written as FM3a) is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made, and as a 21st century manual focus film SLR, somewhat of a throwback. It was introduced in July 2001 when the shift to digital cameras was well underway. The model was the last of Nikon’s semi-professional line of compact 35 mm film SLRs and one of the brand’s last film cameras; only the autofocus F6 SLR of 2004 and Nikon’s limited edition rangefinder swan song, the SP of 2005, came later.

Nikon FM3a
Nikon FM3A with 45mm f2.8 pancake lens

The D1X, an improved version of Nikon’s first DSLR, the D1, was already out by the time the FM3A was launched. The retro looking FM3A sat on shelves in camera shops around the world next to the hulking digital flagship and autofocus film cameras such as the F5 and F100. Increasing digital camera sales, low sales volume and the increasing costs of such a mechanically sophisticated unit put paid to the FM3A in January 2006. This left only the Nikon F6 and the Cosina manufactured Nikon FM10 in Nikon’s 35mm film SLR line. 

Nikon built the FM3A for serious amateur photographers who wanted a a high quality camera with full manual control. Personally, I am grateful for that. It may be a camera out of time, but it is an outstanding piece of engineering: compact, handsome, precise, durable, reliable and a pleasure to shoot with.

Evolution of the F/FE Series

The first model of the mechanical Nikon FM series, the FM was introduced in 1977. Along with the electronic FE of 1978, the FM replaced the mechanical Nikkormat FT series and electronic Nikon EL series.

In 1983 Nikon introduced the mechanical FM2 with a honeycomb-pattern titanium curtain shutter that enabled a top shutter speed of 1/4000 sec and 1/200 sec for flash sync. The flash sync speed increased to 1/250, (identifiable by the flash sync speed labelled in red). This was a huge step forward compared to the FM’s 1/1000 sec. and 1/125 sec. The electronic Nikon FE2 followed later the same year. In 1989 the titanium shutter was replaced by an aluminium version – the FM2n – this is the version I have of the FM2.

The Table below shows the FM and FE series at a glance.

 FMFEFM2FE-2FM-2nFM3A
ShutterMechanicalElectronicMechanicalElectronicMechanicalHybrid
AutomationNoneApertureNoneApertureNoneAperture
Max. Shutter Speed (Sec)1,0004,000
Flash Sync (Sec)1/1251/250
Lens Compatibility Since19581977
Introduced197719781982198319842001
Discontinued198219831984198720012006
The FM and FE Series of SLRs (excluding the later Cosina FE10 and FM10)

Development of the Nikon FM3A

Development started in December 1998. Engineers from Mito Nikon (a Nikon production facility that had originally created the Nikkormat of the 1960s and later the F3, FM2n, F4, and others) joined forces with their counterparts at the Ohi Plant. The Ohi facility was the source of Nikon’s first cameras and early models such as the Nikon rangefinders and the Nikon F. Top engineers from these two facilities came together to form a project team.

Nikon FM3A
The FM3A, Deal Beach

The FM3A’s predecessor, the manual all-mechanical controlled ‘New FM2‘, had been a best-seller since its introduction in 1984. It was popular amongst experienced amateurs and some professionals, and offered shooting even when the battery was exhausted. At that time Nikon could see also increasing demand for the aperture-priority AE. The project team needed to produce a design that would reconcile these conflicting requirements. Eventually, in order to address the simultaneous availability of aperture-priority AE and battery-free shutter operation, the team decided to adopt a hybrid shutter design.

The hybrid shutter design meant that the shutter had to operate with two control systems. This resulted in a larger, more complicated shutter mechanism with more component parts. As the FM3A was the successor to the New FM2, a larger camera body was not acceptable, meaning the larger shutter unit had to be mounted in the limited space available.

It was extremely difficult to develop a reliable shutter unit with such a complicated mechanism in such a limited space, and in the early stages the project team thought that the highest speed of 1/4000 second would be unattainable. However, after much development work the design was successfully realised. It really was a heroic effort.

Launch and Packaging

The Nikon FM3A was introduced in February 2001 at the PMA show in Orlando, Florida. Prior its introduction, Nikon customers had to choose between the mechanical FM model with manual exposure control or the electronic FE with aperture priority mode that wouldn’t work without batteries.

After the FM3A became available photographers had the best of both worlds with a hybrid shutter that allows both electronically-controlled auto-exposure shooting and full manual control without the need for batteries. The hybrid shutter was an innovation for the FM3A. though the FM3A adopted the traditional exposure meter with indicator needle, which had been continuously applied from the Nikkormat EL released in 1972.

When the FM3A went on sale in July 2001 the shift to digital photography was in full swing. Nikon had released the digital SLR camera D1 in 1999 for professional use and in the same year as the FM3A was released Nikon put the D1X and D1H on the market. Just at the time when digital cameras were going to the mainstream, Nikon consciously chose choice of launch a manual SLR camera. It was a brave move, and one that many photographers applauded then – and now.

The FM3A came in all black and silver and black. For the silver version there was a matching Nikkor 45mm pancake lens available at launch, which is shown in the picture above. The FM3A could make use of a range of accessories such as the Nikon MD-12 motor drive, the MF-16 databack and the various TTL flashes.

The Pancake Lens

In July 2001, the manual focus Nikkor 45 mm f/2.8P AI-s pancake lens went on sale simultaneously with FM3A. It was a lightweight Tessar design just 17 mm deep and weighing only 120 g. The lens consisted of 4 elements in 3 groups with a 7-blade circular diaphragm. Initially the finish was matched to the silver FM3A model, with a black finish added that November. A CPU in the lens enables programmed, aperture-priority, shutter-speed priority, and manual exposure modes. The CPU also enabled it to function with Nikon’s autofocus cameras. It pairs really well with the camera, but my preferred lens is the 50mm f1.4 – which is what I used with the sample shot shown below.

What Makes the Nikon FM3A a Great Camera?

Brill Windmill Nikin FM3a
Brill Windmill shot with a Nikon FM3A and a 50mm f1.4 lens

The Nikon FM3A is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made. Its compact size, large bright viewfinder, ergonomic controls, excellent analogue light meter display and accurate focusing split image focusing screen make it a pleasure to use. The absence of the normal SLR blackout is an added bonus.

The focusing screen is actually the brightest standard screen of any manual-focus Nikon. This is Type K3 Focusing Screen, the interchangeable focusing screen that comes as standard. The K3 is ‘a matte/Fresnel screen with a split-image rangefinder spot surrounded by a microprism ring and a 12mm centre-weighted area reference circle’. It is optimized for f/2 lenses – faster lenses won’t get any brighter. I’ve found it very easy to use. Nikon introduced two alternatives along with the K3, the E3 matte screen for close ups, and the B3 etched screen with horizontal and vertical lines. The B3’s lines are useful for composition, architectural photography or multiple exposure operation.

The meter is predictable, accurate and extremely easy to use via needle matching. It uses a 60% centre-weighted pattern but also provides a welcome and well-placed AE lock button on the back for manual adjustments. There is also a film window, which was a new feature for the FM series.

The build quality is exceptional. The top and bottom body covers are each drawn from a sheet of brass; the shutter release and film wind cap are lathe-turned, whilst the shutter and film advance actions run on self-lubricating bearings. The film transport mechanism is very tough and makes use of hardened metal gearing.

An Engineering Marvel

Under the covers the Nikon FM3A’s hybrid shutter is one of the most advanced SLR shutters ever built – a marvel of compact mechanical engineering built to such a high standard that it can shoot at 1/4000 of a second without battery power. This is a feat most other mechanical shutters just can’t match, topping out at 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second. Adding batteries powers the the electronically controlled shutter for aperture priority shooting, the excellent analogue light meter, exposure lock, and DX film coding. Batteries also enable the TTL flash exposure compensation for fill flash – the only manual-focus Nikon to have this feature.

The camera weighs in at 570g, only a little more than the king of compact SLRs – the Olympus OM-1 (510g). At 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm it also compares well against the OM-1’s diminutive 136 x 83 x 50 mm form factor.

I enjoy using the analogue light meter, which is preferable to the one on my F3. The two needles, one matched to your settings and one to the light measured by the meter, are clear and easy to see. That analogue instrument is also far more durable than LEDs. When the inevitable electronics apocalypse claims many of my cameras the FM3a (along with the F and F2) will just keep going…

Drawbacks

Beyond the difficulty of viewfinder visibility in low light, there is very little to say against the FM3A, other than it was, and a remains pricey camera. It has a fixed pentaprism so it isn’t quite as versatile as the F Series cameras with their interchangeable finders, but you can change the focusing screen if you want to. Some also find the locking device on the exposure compensation dial annoying, and it certainly isn’t strictly necessary, but it doesn’t trouble me much.

Comparisons with Other Cameras

The FM3A Vs the FM2n

The FM3A is regularly compared to its predecessor, the FM2n often to determine whether the additional investment for the FM3A is worth it. Both cameras feature an all-mechanical vertically-traveling focal plane shutter capable of taking 1/4000th a second exposures but the FM3A adds electronic aperture priority mode. Both are also very light, but the FM2n comes in a tad lighter at 540g versus 570g. You can shed a few more grams if you go for the FM2/T which makes use of titanium top and bottom plates to get to a very trim 515g for a tough, metal camera.

FM3A
One of the many Temples at Stowe, shot with the Nikon FM3A

The most obvious difference to the FM3A is the FM2n’s -o+ LED metering display (a bit like the Leica M6 TTL’s), which is quite different to the FM3A’s analogue twin needle display. The needles are great in normal lighting conditions, whereas the FM2n’s is better in low light. I enjoy shooting with both, but I think the FM3A’s makes for a more engaging shooting experience. The price difference between the two models is even more acute with the black FM3A as it commands a premium as a collector’s item. I went for silver FM3A and a black FM2n, which gives me the best of both worlds.

Nikon FM3A Vs FE2

The FM3A is also regularly compared to the FE2. There a lot of similarities between the FM3A and the FE2, such as the needle matching finder and the 1/4000 maximum shutter speed. These are the differences as far as I can see, not all of which favour the FM3A, depending on your perspective. The FM3A has:

  • Fully mechanical operation at all speeds without the need for a battery. FE-2 has 1/250th or B.
  • DX film speed encoding
  • A different placement for the Auto Exposure (AE) lock button
  • A film window to display the film in the camera
  • Metering that works immediately after you load the film – no waiting for frame 1
  • No rewind knob lock (aka camera back interlock)
  • A chrome plated brass lens mount instead of the stainless steel used on the earlier cameras.

Nikon FM3A Vs F3

Curiously, there has been quite a bit of debate on the internet on the FM3A vs the F3, though the current Nikon F pro body at the time of its launch was the F5. A frequently asked question seems to be which one is tougher and more resilient. I have both and they both seem pretty tough, though the F3 seems to have an Achilles heel when using a flash mounted above the rewind knob. There are several reports that if a mounted flash is bumped reasonably hard, the chip which controls exposure functions under the rewind knob can crack, rendering the F3 largely inoperable. 

The F3HP has the hot shoe above the prism which fixes that problem, but if you are looking for the toughest possible camera I would take an F2 or original F ‘hockey puck’. I am not sure how useful the comparison is, but the main differences between the F3 and FM3A is that the F3 is heavier and larger, uses LEDs in the viewfinder, offers an interchangeable prism and pro accessories and is slower for flash sync (1/80 versus 1/250) and shutter speed (1/2000 versus 1/4000).

Comparison with Leica M

An odd comparison, for me at least, is one with the Leica M6. In some cases this occurs as part of a search for an SLR that feels as good as a Leica, in others I think it is just a comparison of late model film cameras – the M6 TTL was introduced in 1998, the FM3A in 2001. I shoot with both Nikon and Leica cameras – digital and film, but I am not sure of how useful comparisons are. Rangefinders and SLRs are very different, and Leica takes a unique approach to building cameras and lenses – which is reflected in the cost. I really enjoy shooting with both the M6 TTL (a 0.58 model) and M7 (a 0.85), but I don’t have to worry about finder magnification with the Nikons.

Discontinuation

Unlike the FM2 that was a best-seller for 16 years, the FM3A had a shorter production life. In January 2006, five years from its introduction, production of FM3A was discontinued along with the F100, F80 and other major film cameras. Nikon’s discontinuation was necessary to allow the firm to concentrate its resources on the digital cameras.

Nikon FM3A Specifications

  • Shutter: Vertical-travel, metal focal-plane shutter: 8 to 8 to 1/4000 sec step-less aperture-priority auto. Bulb, 1 to 1/4000 sec manual with mechanical control (all settings available without batteries in manual)
  • Viewfinder frame Coverage: Approx. 93%
  • Viewfinder Magnification: Approx. 0.83x with 50-mm lens set to infinity
  • Focusing screen: K3 type (split prism-image microprism type, Clear Matte Screen IIa) standard, B3 type and E3 type optional
  • Viewfinder information: Shutter speed, exposure meter indication, shutter indication, direct aperture value, exposure compensation mark, ready light
  • Exposure Compensation: ±2 EV in units of 1/3 EV
  • Auto Exposure Lock: AE lock button 
  • Self-timer: Mechanical, countdown time of approx. 4 to 10 seconds
  • Flash sync speed: 1/250
  • TTL flash Compensation: Compensation to -1 EV activated with the TTL flash compensation button
  • Automatic DX film recognition
  • Film-check window On rear of camera
  • Power Source: One 3-V lithium battery (CR-1/3N type), two 1.55 V silver batteries (SR44 type), or two 1.5 V alkaline batteries (LR44 type)
  • Dimensions (W x H x D): Approx. 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm / 5.6 x 3.5 x 2.3 in.
  • (camera body only)
  • Weight: Approx. 570 g / 20.1 oz. (camera body only, including battery)

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Large, bright viewfinder
  • Exceptional build quality, including brass top and bottom plates and a chrome plated brass lens mount.
  • Easy manual focus using the split-image focusing patch and micro-prism focusing ring (standard K3 screen)
  • Accurate and intuitive needle matching metering
  • Fast (1/4000th second) hybrid shutter, which works even without batteries
  • Compact and light weight
  • Very large choice of lenses, including one designed for the camera (45mm pancake).
  • Extremely well featured, including AE lock, TTL flash exposure compensation for fill flash and film recognition window

Cons

  • Price – especially in pro black!
  • Viewfinder visibility in low light
  • Exposure compensation lock?

Conclusion: Future Proof Pleasure

The FM3A is an outstanding piece of engineering that will last long into the future. It is compact, handsome, precise, durable, reliable and a pleasure to shoot with. For me, along with the F, F2 and F6 it is one of Nikon’s greatest cameras. It makes an appearance on a few greatest ever and favourite film cameras lists too, though I think the FM2 shows up just as regularly.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If you have experience with the FM3A please leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear from you, and if you interested in classic cameras you might also enjoy these articles on the site:

For more about historically important cameras, visit the year by year timeline.

Photography Timeline – From Chemistry to Computation

early cameras Kodak Autographic
My Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie

There are many strands in a photography timeline – the chemistry of film and processing, the physics of optics, the mechanical engineering of shutters, the electronics of metering and digital photography, and the iconic camera designs that bring everything together. At each end of the photography timeline, the science is bewilderingly complex – from the arcane chemical processes of early photography to the algorithms of computational photography, which enables cameras to go beyond capturing photons to compute pictures.

It’s not a linear journey; digital photography has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in all things analogue, characterised by toy cameras, digital filters and apps that produce or replicate the look of film as well as the renewed growth of film photography. I started to shoot with film again in 2016 and around the time I first wrote this article, during the lockdowns of 2020, I started to expand my small collection of vintage film cameras and went back to film photography. There is an all-film gallery of the boats of Deal, Kent shot with a variety of film cameras including SLRs, TLRs and rangefinders here. It’s gratifying to see the growth of UK film businesses such as Analogue Wonderland, which supplies a vast range of film stock and The Intrepid Camera Company, which has reinvented large format photography for the twenty-first century. I’m as interested in looking forward as back however, and and follow new developments with great interest, including crowd funded ventures such as the AI powered Alice Camera.

I’ve reviewed, and borrowed from, many timelines and dozens of articles and books on the history of film, film processes, cameras, lenses, digital technology, phone camera development and computational photography to compile this photography timeline and in an attempt to combine these strands. The sections of the timeline are of my own devising.

I’ve tried to be diligent with my research and check the facts. The sources for the majority of entries are included as URLs. I have also referred to several excellent books: A History of Photography in 50 Cameras by Michael Pritchard; the Taschen books 20th Century Photography and A History of Photography; Photography A Concise History by Ian Jeffrey and Photography, the Definitive Visual History by Tom Ang, all of which I can recommend. If you spot any factual errors please feel free to share them with me along with the source(s).

There are two other timelines on this site, one for nineteenth century cameras and a year by year timeline for cameras from 1900. These exclude lens, photographic process and phone cameras covered in this article.

Photography Timeline 1826-2020

1826-1850 The Genesis of Photography

c. 1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce uses bitumen of Judea for photographs on metal and makes the first successful camera photograph, View From My Window at Gras

1827 Niépce addresses a memorandum on his invention to the Royal Society in London, but does not disclose details

1829 Unable to reduce the very long exposure times of his experiments, Niépce enters into a partnership with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre

Charles Chevalier creates a compound achromatic lens to cut down on chromatic aberration, a failure of a lens to focus all colours to the same plane, for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s photographic experiments

1832 Robert Hunt’s Researches on Light records the first known description employing platinum to make a photographic print, but does not succeed in producing a permanent image

1835 William Henry Fox Talbot makes his first successful camera photograph or “photogenic drawing” using paper sensitised with silver chloride,

1839 The public birthday of photography, from three inventors – Dagurerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s Daguerreotype becomes the first photographic process to be adopted, creating a unique image on a silvered metal plate of remarkable sharpness.

Hearing of Daguerre’s invention, Fox Talbot announces a paper process to achieve images by action of light and presents his photogenic drawings at the Royal Society in London

Hippolyte Bayard produces direct-positive images (like Daguerre’s process) on sensitized paper (like Talbot’s).

Sir John Herschel suggests fixing images in sodium thiosulphate. He also coins the terms photographynegative and positive.

The first camera to be manufactured in any quantity is the Giroux Daguerreotype, which uses a sliding box design.

Stereoscopic depth sensing is first explained by Charles Wheatstone as he invents the stereoscope

1840 The Petzval Portrait becomes the first wide-aperture portrait lens and the first photographic lens where the design was computed mathematically before construction

Alexander Wolcott opens The earliest known photography studio New York City – a “Daguerrean Parlor” for tiny portraits, using a camera with a mirror substituted for the lens

Alexander Wolcott patents a modified Daguerrotype camera using a polished concave mirror to reflect the focused light onto a photosensitive plate

The cyanotype or blue-print is invented by Sir John Herschel, the first photographic process not to use silver

Fox Talbot discovers what will be revealed as the Calotype process the following year, the first known method of multiplying an image

J.F. Goddard uses iodine to shorten exposure times for daguerreotypes

1841 Fox Talbot patents the Calotype process, or photogenic drawings that produces photographic images on salted paper – a negative-positive process that makes multiple copies possible.

The first photographic studio in Europe is opened by Richard Beard in a glasshouse on the roof of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London

The Royal Academy of Science in Brussels displays the earliest stereographs

1843 Anna Atkins publishes the first book with photographic illustrations, using the cyanotype process.

Joseph Puchberger patents the first hand crank driven swing lens panoramic camera

1844 Fox Talbot publishes The Pencil of Nature bringing photography to the attention of a wider public

1845 The Bourquin of Paris camera is the first camera with the lens in a metal tube using a rack and pinion mechanism for focusing.

Two French Physicists, Fizeau and Foucault develop the first recognisable shutter mechanism in order to photograph the sun

1847 Louis Désiré Blanquard-Evard improves Talbot’s Calotype process and presents his research to the French Academy of Sciences

1848 Edmond Becquerel makes the first, temporary, full-colour photographs, though an exposure lasting hours or days is required and the colours sometimes fade right before the viewer’s eyes

Claude Felix Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor uses albumen on glass plates for negatives

1850 The albumen print is announced by Louis-Désiré Blanquard-Évrard, delivering greater density, contrast and sharpness than had been possible with a salted paper print.

1851-1870 Instantaneous Photography

1851 English sculptor Frederick Scott Archer invents the Collodion process, or collodion wet plate process, which is 20 times faster than all previous methods and is free from patent restrictions

The Great Exhibition transforms stereoscopy from a minor scientific interest to a craze which will not wane until the 1870s

1853 The Tintype process is first described by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin – an inexpensive direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel

Thomas Ottewill registers the double sliding folding camera which combines the folding principle with the sliding box design

1854 James Ambrose Cutting takes out several patents relating to the Ambrotype process, underexposed or bleached wet collodion negatives that appeared positive when placed against a dark coating or backing 

Parisian portrait photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patents the Carte-de-visite (CdV), a new style of portrait utilizing albumen paper the size of a visiting card that will become commonly traded among friends and visitors

1855 The carbon process is patented by A. L. Poitevin, producing an image resistant to fading which becomes widely used in book illustration

1857 The folding camera with tapering bellows is invented by C.G.H. Kinnear, forming the basis for subsequent bellows designs

1858 John Waterhouse invents Waterhouse stops, a system using plates with different aperture diameters that could be inserted into a slot in the lens barrel which are the earliest selectable stops.

John Harrison Powell registers his design for a portable stereoscopic camera.

Fox Talbot perfects photoglyphic engraving, the forerunner of the they dust-grain photogravure process.

1859 Thomas Sutton introduces the Panoramic Camera, which uses a spherical water-filled lens to create a panoramic photograph

Dr. J.M. Taupenot develops the dry collodion-albumen process, though adoption of dry plate photography would come later with the gelatine dry plate process

1860 John Jabez Edwin Mayall popularises the carte-de-visite with a set of portraits of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace published in an album

1861 James Clerk Maxwell presents a projected additive colour image, the first demonstration of colour photography by the three-colour method

The first photographic single-lens reflex camera (SLR) is invented by Thomas Sutton

Oliver Wendell Holmes creates but does not patent a handheld, more economical, stereoscopic viewer than had been available before

1862 The first successful wide-angle lens is the Harrison & Schnitzer Globe

1863 The cabinet card is first introduced by Windsor & Bridge in London, a larger form of the carte-de-visite suitable for display in parlours

1866 The Rapid Rectilinear lens is introduced by John Henry Dallmeyer, reducing distortion, coma and lateral colour

The Woodburytype process is patented, producing very high quality continuous tone monochrome prints

1868 Louis Ducos du Hauron patents the process for making subtractive colour prints on paper

The South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) offers Julia Margaret Cameron space for a portrait studio, making her the museum’s first artist-in-residence

1869 Pictorialist photographer Henry Peach Robinson publishes Pictorial Effect in Photography with a goal of teaching aesthetic concepts to photographers

1871-1900 Instantaneous Photography without the Chemistry

1871 English physician Richard Leach Maddox invents the lightweight gelatin dry plate silver bromide process, assigning the complex and arduous chemistry work photographers had previously to undertake to a factory

1873 Charles Harper Bennett improves the gelatin silver process by hardening the emulsion, making it more resistant to friction

The platinotype process, which produces platinum prints, is patented by William Willis.

1877 George Eastman learns to make his own gelatin dry plates, based on the writings of the British innovators, including Charles Harper Bennett

Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke produce Blitzlicht – the first ever widely used flash powder

1878 Heat ripening of gelatin emulsions is discovered by Charles Harper Bennett, making possible very short exposures and paving the way for the snapshot

1879 George Eastman applies for a patent for an emulsion-coating machine, which enables him to mass-produce photographic dry plates

1881 Thomas Bolas patents a hand-held, box form camera he calls a detective camera

1882 Etienne Jules Marey perfects a chronophotographic gun, a device capable of taking 12 exposures a second.

1883 Ottomar Anschütz designs a camera with an internal roller blind shutter mechanism in front of the photographic plate – the first focal-plane shutter in recognisable form

William Schmid patents the first detective camera to be widely sold

1885 The first flexible photographic roll film was sold by George Eastman, though this original “film” was actually a coating on a paper base

1886 Frederick E. Ives develops the halftone engraving process, making it possible to reproduce photographic images in the same operation as printing text

The first single use camera, the Ready Fotografer, is introduced, using a dry plate, though it appears to have enjoyed very limited success

C.P. Stirn patents the Stirn Concealed Vest Camera (or waistcoat camera in the UK) which becomes a popular and much copied design

1887 The Rev. Hannibal Goodwin files a patent application for camera film on celluloid rolls, though it will be not granted until 1898, by which time George Eastman has started production of roll-film using his own process

1888 The Kodak n°1 box camera, the first ready-loaded, easy-to-use camera is introduced with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”

1889 George Eastman introduces the first transparent plastic roll film, made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate film 

The Loman Reflex, the first commercially produced camera with a focal-plane shutter, is introduced

1890 The Zeiss Protar, the first successful anastigmat photographic lens, designed Dr Paul Rudolph, is introduced

Hurter and Driffield introduce the “S” shaped characteristic curve which is central to sensitometry, the science of light-sensitive materials

The Ilford Manual of Photography is first published, providing detailed technical information regarding optics, chemistry and printing.

W.W. Rouch and Co. introduce the Eureka, which will become a popular detective, or hand, camera

The German manufacturer C.P. Goerz incorporates the Anschütz focal-plane shutter into a camera

1891 Bausch and Lomb introduce the first of their iris diaphragm shutters, incorporating an f-stop and shutter speed setting device

1892 Samuel N. Turner applies for a US patent for paper-backed, daylight-loading roll film. The backing paper is printed with white exposure numbers which can read through a red window in the back of the camera. The idea is incorporated in the Boston Manufacturing Company’s ‘Bullseye” camera of the same year.

1893 The Cooke triplet lens is patented by Harold Dennis Taylor of T. Cooke & Sons, the first lens system that eliminates most of the optical distortion or aberration at the outer edge of lenses

1895 The Pocket Kodak appears, the first mass-produced snapshot camera.

Samuel Kodak recognises the potential of the Samuel N. Tuner’s daylight loading process and acquires his company, having licensed the process initially.

1896 The Zeiss Planar lens, designed by Dr Paul Rudolph, is introduced.

The Dallmeyer-Bergheim soft-focus lens produces soft definition without losing the natural structure of the object being photographed

A collapsible version of the Goerz Anschütz camera, the Ango, is introduced, which becomes popular and is widely copied

1897 Kodak markets the Folding Pocket Kodak which produces a 2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ negative – the standard size for decades

1899 The Sanderson hand camera, the first highly flexible view camera that allows photographers to retain the correct perspective, is introduced

1900-1947 The Rise of Popular Photography

1900 Kodak bring the Brownie, an inexpensive user-reloadable point-and-shoot box camera and the most successful camera range of all time, to market

1901 The popular medium format film 120 film is launched by Eastman Kodak for its Brownie No. 2, and will become the longest surviving roll film format

1902 Carl Zeiss introduces the Tessar lens, an inexpensive design that becomes extremely popular

The Thornton-Packard Company introduces The Royal Ruby, a field camera in polished mahogany with brass fittings and leather bellows, as the King of Cameras

1903 To compensate for the curl resulting from gelatine emulsion, Kodak adds a layer of gelatine coating to the back of the film and introduces it as N.C. (Non Curl) film.

1904  Realising that tarnish reduces reflection, Dennis Taylor of Cooke Company develops a chemical method for producing lens coatings

The term Straight Photography is first used in the journal Camera Work as response to Pictorialism

The Midg No. 0, a quarterplate magazine camera that takes twelve glass plates in metal holder is introduced.

1905 The Soho Reflex large-format single-lens reflex camera is introduced and becomes the definitive SLR model until after WWII

The first telephoto lens optically corrected and fixed as a system is introduced – the f/8 Busch Bis-Telar

Thomas Manly introduces the Ozobrome process, a simplified carbon process, which becomes a favourite amongst Pictorialists

1906 Panchromatic plates, sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light, are marketed by Wratten and Wainright in England

c.1906 The Ticka, a watch-style disguised camera, is introduced and goes on to become the most popular watch-form camera ever made. It is loaded with a film carried in a one-piece drop-in cartridge.

1907 The Autochrome plate is introduced, the first commercially successful colour photography product.

1908 Kodak produces the world’s first commercially practical safety film using cellulose acetate base instead of the highly flammable cellulose nitrate base.

c. 1910 Adoption of the bromoil process begins, creating the soft images reminiscent of paint popular with the Pictorialists

1911 In Italy, The Bragaglia brothers begin experiments in photodynamism

1912 Kodak introduces the Vest Pocket Kodak, or ‘VPK’

The Graflex Speed Graphic press camera is introduced and will continue in production until 1973

1913 Kodak invents 35mm film for the early motion picture industry

Oskar Barnack, creates the Ur-Leica, the prototype of a small-format 35mm camera, doubling the width of 18x24mm cinema film and running it horizontally, rather than vertically as in cinema cameras of the time

The introduction of Eastman Portrait Film begins the transition to sheet film instead of glass plates for professional photographers

1916 The first camera with a coupled rangefinder is marketed – the 3A Kodak Autographic Special

1917 Paul Strand’s essay Photography and the New God in the final issue of Camera Works argues for images to be sharply focused and clearly camera-made

1924 The first common wide aperture lens becomes available with the f/2 Ernemann Ermanox

1923 The first fisheye lens is the Beck Hill Sky (or Cloud in the UK) lens designed for scientific cloud cover studies

1925  Leica introduces the Leica I, a watershed design that makes the 35mm format truly viable

The wide aperture Ermanox becomes available with an f/1.8 lens

1928 The Rolleiflex offers photographers superb build quality, superior optics and bright viewfinders

The Zeiss Sonnar lens is patented by Zeiss Ikon. It is notable for its relatively light weight, simple design and fast aperture.

The Vacublitz, the first true flashbulb made from aluminium foil sealed in oxygen, is produced in Germany by the Hauser Company.

1929 Minolta, originally named the Nichi-Doku (which means “Japan-German”) Photographic Company, introduces its the first camera, the Nicalette, which is equipped with a German shutter and lens.

1930 The Leica I Leica Thread Mount (LTM) offers a camera with interchangeable lenses.

LOMO (Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association) produce the first Russian-manufactured camera

c. 1931 Dr Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton, invents of the ‘strobe’ flash, transforming the stroboscope from an obscure laboratory instrument into a common device

Rodenstock introduces the Imagon, which will become one one of the classic professional soft-focus portrait lenses, a look strongly associated with images of Old Hollywood

Kodak introduces Verichrome film, offering greater latitude and finer grain than the Kodak NC (Non-Curling) Film that had been the standard since 1903.

1932 The Leica II is launched, the first Leica camera with a rangefinder, which becomes a signature of the company

Zeiss Ikon produce the Contax I to compete with the  Leica II

Group f.64 is formed – an association of California photographers who promote sharply detailed, purist photography

The first Agfacolor film is introduced, a film-based version of their Agfa-Farbenplatte (color plate) product which is similar to Autochrome

The first photo-electric light meter is introduced, the Weston Model 617

Voigtländer introduce the Prominent, a a6x4 folding bed, coupled rangefinder camera, Voigtländer’s first rangefinder camera

1933 The Leica III is introduced and is produced in parallel with the Leica II, and will remain in production in various iterations until 1960

The first Rolleicord is introduced, a simplified version of the Standard Rolleiflex, with a cheaper 75mm Zeiss Triotar lens

1934 Kodak releases the first preloaded 35mm film, the 135 film cartridge, removing the need for photographers to load their own film into reusable cassettes in a dark room

Minolta creates the first Japanese camera to use the 6 x 4.5cm format – the Semi Minolta I.

1935 Eastman Kodak markets Kodachrome film, the first colour film that uses a subtractive color method to be successfully mass-marketed

Zeiss Ikon introduce the Super Ikonta B, a premium quality, folding medium format rangefinder camera notable both for its build and image quality

Canon introduces the Hansa, the first Asian 35MM camera.

Leica introduces the Thambar, a legendary 90mm f2.2 soft focus portrait lens

Interference-based anti-reflective coatings are invented and developed by Alexander Smakula of the Carl Zeiss optics company

1936 the first widely-distributed 35mm SLR camera, the Kine Exakta, is introduced, with a design that will influence many subsequent SLRs.

Zeus Ikon launch the Contax II, the first camera with a rangefinder and a viewfinder combined in a single window.

1937 The Rolleiflex Automat introduces automatic film loading and transport.

The Minox subminiature camera is introduced, becoming one of the most suitable cameras for covert use.

1938 Kodak Introduces the Super Six-20, the world’s first camera with built-in photoelectric exposure control

The first hot shoe appears on the Univex Mercury, though hot shoes did not become common until the 1960s.

Jaeger-LeCoultre produce the Compass Camera, an Ultra-Compact 35mm Camera, machined out of solid aluminium and designed by Noel Pemberton Billing

1939 The Argus C3 is introduced and becomes the world’s best-selling 35mm camera, offering affordable 35mm rangefinder photography to amateurs

Kodak adds a ready-mount Service for 35 mm Kodachrome Film. This makes it possible to project slides as soon as they are received from the processing laboratory.

1939-40 The Zone System is formulated by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer as ” a codification of the principles of sensitometry“, based on the studies of Hurter and Driffield

1940 Kodak introduces Tri-X film in sheet film formats

The first Minolta-made lens with the “Rokkor” name appears on a portable aerial camera used for military purposes, named in honour of Mt. Rokko.

1941 The Kodak Ektra 35mm RF is introduced with the first complete anti-reflection coated lens line for a consumer camera

1942 Eastman Kodak introduces Kodacolor – the first negative film for making colour paper prints.

1945 The Kodak dye-transfer process is introduced

1946 Kodak markets Ektachrome Transparency Sheet Film, the company’s first colour film that photographers could process themselves using newly marketed chemical kits

1948-1984: The Refinement of Film Photography and the Birth of Digital

1948 Instant photography is introduced with the first instant-film camera, the Land Camera 95 or Polaroid camera.

The iconic Hasselblad 1600F camera is introduced and goes on to develop a reputation as the ultimate professional camera.

Nikon introduces the Nikon 1 rangefinder, the first Nikon-branded camera ever produced. The design is based on the Contax rangefinder but with a simpler shutter similar to that used by Leica.

1949 The modern lens aperture markings of f-numbers in geometric sequence of f/1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32 etc. is standardised

The Contax S camera is introduced, the first 35 mm SLR camera with a pentaprism eye-level viewfinder

1954 The Leica M is introduced with the new Leica M mount and combined rangefinder and viewfinder

Kodak introduces high-speed Tri-X black and white film on 35mm and roll film. Aimed squarely at photojournalists, it was the first fast film for general use.

1955 The Kilfitt Makro-Kilar f/3.5 is the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing

1957 The Asahi Pentax SLR is introduced, placing controls in locations that would become standard on 35 mm SLRs

Hasselblad introduces the medium format 500 C system camera, which will go on too become one of most influential and successful cameras of all time

1958 Minolta introduces the first achromatic lens coating – two layers of magnesium fluoride deposited in different thicknesses to radically reduce glare and flare.

1959 The Nikon F is introduced, Nikon’s first SLR and the first SLR aimed at professional photographers

The the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography is produced – The Zoomar 36-82mm f/2.8 for Voigtländer Bessamatic 35mm SLRs

Kodak High Speed Ektrachrome film becomes the fastest colour film on the market

1960 Konica introduces the Konica F, featuring the Hi-Synchro, the first SLR shutter with a speed of 1/2000s

1961 Eastman Kodak introduces faster Kodachrome II color film

1962 AGFA introduces the first fully automatic camera, the Optima, with an automatic programmed exposure, using a selenium-meter-driven mechanical system

The Nikkorex F is the first production single-lens reflex camera with the metal Copal square shutter

1963 Kodak introduces the Instamatic range of cameras, with the easy-to-use Kodapak 126 film cartridge and the phrase ‘load it you’ll love it’

Polaroid launches the first instant picture colour process, Polacolor

1964 The Pentax Spotmatic SLR is introduced with revolutionary stop-down light metering

1965 The word pixel is first published by Frederic C. Billingsley of JPL

1966 The VEB Pentacon Prakica is the first SLR with an electronically controlled shutter

Zeiss produce the Planar 50mm f/0.7, the world’s fastest lens, used by NASA to photograph the dark side of the moon

The Rollei 35 is introduced as the smallest full-frame 35mm camera in the world

1967 Nikon F Photomic SLR is the first camera with a centre-weighted exposure metering system

1969 The foundations for digital photography are established with the development of the charged-couple device (CCD) at Bell Labs

1971 Nikon introduce the F2 to succeed the legendary F with a variety of finder options.

1972 Kodak reduces the popular Instamatic Camera to pocket size with the introduction of the Pocket Istamatic Camera with the new easy-load 110 Film Cartridge, extending the cartridge loading principle to what had hitherto been known as the sub-miniature camera.

Polaroid introduces the SX-70 an improvement on previous models that ejects pictures automatically and without chemical residue,

1973 Fairchild Semiconductor launch the first commercial CCD chip (0.01 Megapixels) and the MV-100, the first commercial CCD camera.

Olympus launches the OM-1, an ultra-compact 35mm SLR that initiates the compact SLR revolution of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

1975 Steven Sasson invents the world’s first digital camera while working at Eastman Kodak which shoots shoots a mere 0.01 Megapixel image.

Bryce Bayer of Kodak develops the Bayer filter mosaic pattern for CCD color image sensors, an integral part of most digital camera’s image sensor.

Olympus launch the XA series, one of the smallest rangefinder cameras ever made, featuring a fast 35mm f2.8 F. Zuiko lens, and aperture priority metering.

1976 Canon introduces the AE-1, One of the most well known and widely circulated 35mm SLR cameras ever made

Leica experiments with the first autofocus camera system but abandons it.

The Copal Compact Square Shutter (CCS), one of the most notable focal plane shutters of the ’70s, is introduced with the Konica Autoreflex TC

1977 Fuji introduces the first zoom lens to be sold as the primary lens for an interchangeable lens camera – the Fuji Fujinon-Z 43-75mm f/3.5-4.5

The Minolta XD11 is the world’s first camera with aperture priority and shutter priority, as well as a fully metered manual mode.

Kodak enters the instant picture field with a range of cameras and a new film. Kodak instant cameras do not need a mirror to reverse the image laterally, which is a requirement for Polaroid cameras, but litigation from Polaroid soon follows.

1978 Konica introduces the C35 AF, the first point-and-shoot autofocus camera.

1979 The highly portable and collapsable medium format Plaubel Makina 67 is released

1980 The Ricoh AF Rikenon 50mm f/2, the first interchangeable autofocus SLR lens, is introduced

Nikon introduces the F3, with manual and semi-automatic exposure control.

1981 Sony introduces the Mavica, a TV camera that records TV-quality still images on magnetic floppy discs.

The Sigma 21-35mm f/3.5-4 becomes the first super-wide angle zoom lens for still cameras.

International speculation on the silver market causes a significant rise in the price of silver, an important base material for the photographic industry. Agfa-Gevaert’s struggles results in the group being acquired by Bayer.

The low-tech plastic Holga camera is introduced, which will later attain cult status with the advent of Lomography and become a major source of inspiration for Instagram.

1982 Nikon introduces the FM2, which uses an improved Copal Square Shutter to achieve an unheard-of speed range of 1 to 1/4000th second and a fast flash X-sync speed of 1/250th second.

Kodacolor VR 1000 film is announced at Photokina. It is a T-Grain film, which makes possible such a high speed film with tolerable grain.

1983 The Olympus OM-4 is the first camera with a multi-spot exposure meter, taking up to eight spot measurements and averaging them

Nikon introduces the FA, the first camera to offer a multi-segmented (or matrix or evaluative) exposure light meter, which uses two segmented silicon photodiodes to divide the field of view into five segments.

1984 LOMO begin mass-producing the LC-A, achieving popularity within the USSR and kickstarting Lomography.

The Contax T, the first in a series of high quality, exceptionally compact 35mm rangefinder cameras is introduced

Leica introduces the M6, which resembles the Leica M3 but adds a modern, off-the-shutter light meter with no moving parts and LED arrows in the viewfinder.

1985-2006: Autofocus to Camera Phones

1985 Minolta introduces the world’s first fully integrated autofocus SLR with the autofocus (AF) system built into the body – the Maxxum 7000.

1986 The disposable camera is popularised by Fujifilm with the 35mm QuickSnap, which helps to define consumer photography in the late ’80s and ’90s

The Canon T90 marks the pinnacle of manual-focus 35mm SLRs

Canon launches the RC-701 ‘Realtime camera’ the first commercially available Still Video Camera

Kodak introduces T-MAX film which is smooth, fine grained and sharp – characteristics due to its use of a tabular grain emulsion. T-MAX 100 has a very high resolution of 200 lines/mm and is often used for testing the sharpness of lenses.

1987 Canon launches the EOS (Electro-Optical System), an entirely new system designed specifically to support autofocus lenses.

Canon becomes the first camera maker to successfully commercialise Ultrasonic Motor (USM) lenses which appear with the introduction of the EF 300 mm f/2.8L USM lens

1988 The Fuji DS-1P, the first digital handheld camera, is introduced, though it does not sell

The JPEG and MPEG standards are set.

Kodak introduces the DC 210, the first “Megapixel resolution” digital camera selling for under $1000 ($899).

1989 Canon introduces the 50mm f/1.0L, the fastest AF EF mount lens, and one of the fastest lenses in the world.

1990 Adobe Photoshop 1.0 image manipulation program is introduced for Apple Macintosh computer.

Eastman Kodak announces the development of its Photo CD system

The gum oil process, a painstaking and highly expressive photographic method, is invented by Karl P. Koenig. 

1991 The world’s first digital SLR is introduced, The Kodak Professional Digital Camera System (DCS) based on the Nikon F3

1992 The Lomographic Society International (LSI) is founded

Leaf Systems Inc. release the first digital camera back for medium format cameras with a 4x4cm, 4-MP CCD.

1993 The f2 35 mm autofocus  Konica Hexar is introduced, one of the quietest of 35mm cameras

The instantly recognisable Nikon 35Ti compact camera is released with a distinctive analog display on top

The Canon EF 1200mm f/5.6L USM is introduced, which Canon claims as the longest focal length lens available for any interchangeable-lens autofocus SLR.

1994 The Apple Quicktake 100 is the first camera to use USB to connect to a computer.

Nikon introduces the Vibration Reduction system, the first optical-stabilized lens.

1995 The Casio QV-10 is the first camera to incorporate an LCD screen on the back for image preview and playback

1996 Eastman Kodak, FujiFilm, AgfaPhoto, and Konica introduce the Advanced Photo System (APS), enabling the camera to record information other than the image

The Canon IXUS is the first IXUS APS camera, Canon’s contribution to the launch of the APS film system and an important milestone in compact camera design

Hasselblad introduces the V-system 503 C/W medium format film camera which will continue into production until 2013 

1997 Philippe Kahn publicly shares a picture via a cell phone for the first time

1998 Leica launches The M6 TTL to replace the M6 with a larger, reversed shutter dial and TTL flash capability

Kodak introduces the Portra family of daylight-balanced professional colour negative films for portrait and wedding applications.

1999 The first commercial camera phone, the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, is launched in Japan

The Nikon D1 is the first fully integrated digital SLR designed from the ground up, rather than a digital modification to a film SLR

2000 Sharp and J-Phone introduce the first mass market camera-phone in Japan, The J-SH04

Canon introduces the EOS D30, the company’s first digital SLR produced in-house. Previously Canon had a contract with Kodak to rebrand DCS models. It was also the first DSLR with a price tag affordable to enthusiasts.

2001 Nikon produce the manual focus FM3a, the last manual focus 35mm SLR released by a major maker

Kodak lose $60 for every digital camera according to a Harvard case study

2002 Contax launch the N Digital the first full frame digital SLR digital camera

Europe gets its first camera phone with the arrival of the Nokia 6750

Canon introduces its full-frame DSLR, the Canon EOS-1Ds

Foveon X3 sensor technology is introduced in the Sigma SD9 DSLR camera

Leica introduces the M7 with auto-exposure in aperture priority mode and an electronically controlled shutter.

2003 The film market peaks with 960 million rolls of film sold

The Minolta Dimage A1 is the first model to stabilise images by shifting the sensor instead of using a lens-based system.

2004 The Epson R-D1 is the first digital rangefinder camera

The Nikon F6 is launched. It is the sixth and last high end professional film camera since the Nikon F of 1959

2005 The Canon EOS 5D is the first consumer DSLR to feature a full frame sensor

AgfaPhoto files for bankruptcy and the production of Agfa brand consumer films ends

Kyocera announces the company is to cease production of film and digital cameras, ending one of oldest brands in photography, Contax.

2006 DALSA Semiconductor announces the worlds first sensor with a total resolution of over 100 million pixels

ISO 518:2006 specifies the standard dimensions of camera accessory shoes

Konica Minolta announces the end of camera design and production, as well as the development and production of film and photo paper

2007-Present: Smart Photography and Analogue Nostalgia

2007 Apple reinvents the phone with the iPhone, replacing the keypad with a touchscreen and adding computer-like capabilities

The Samsung B710 offers a dual lens phone

2008 Panasonic releases the Lumix G1, the world’s first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera – which uses the main image sensor for autofocus, metering and full-time electronic viewing.

The Nikon D90 is the first DSLR with HD video recording capabilities

2009 FujiFilm launches world’s first digital 3D system

The FinePix Real 3D System includes includes the FinePix Real 3D W1 digital camera, FinePix Real 3D V1 picture viewer and 3D print capability

 The Leica M9 is the first full-frame digital Leica M. 

2010 Instagram, the photo and video-sharing social networking service is launched on iOS.

Apple launches the iPhone 4S and pitches it as a point-and-shoot camera killer

Worldwide demand for photographic film falls to less than a tenth of what it had been ten years before

2009 Sony introduces the first consumer back-side illuminated (BSI) sensor, the “Exmor R“, which improves low-light performance

c.2010 Photographers start to use social media filters and apps such as Hipstamatic s part of a wave of analogue nostalgia

2011 Lytro releases the first pocket-sized consumer light-field camera, capable of refocusing images after they are taken

The Fujifilm FinePix X100 is introduced, the first model in the Fujifilm X-series, a range that makes the case for the benefits of APS-C over full-frame cameras

Instagram adds hashtags to help users discover both photographs and each other

2012  Sony launches the world’s first full frame compact camera – the RX1, with a fixed 35mm F2 lens

Olympus introduces the OM-D E-M5 with a 5-axis sensor-shifting image stabilisation system – the first of its kind in a consumer camera

Nokia launches the Lumia 920, the first cell phone with an optical stabilised sensor

The Nikon D800 is introduced with the world’s highest resolution DSLR sensor

2013 Sony announces the ⍺7 which starts the full frame mirrorless revolution.

Nokia launches the Lumia 1020 phone with a 1.5 inch 41 megapixel rear sensor

Sales of digital cameras in the United States of America start to fall in terms of revenue and in unit shipments, as more consumers turn to smartphones and social media

Hasselblad discontinues the 503CW medium format film camera

2014 The HTC One M8 popularises dual lens cameras

Leica introduces the Leica T (Typ 701) with Leica’s first fully-electronic, designed-for-mirrorless lens mount

2015 Google Photos delivers AI-based organisation of images

Sony announces the first camera to employ a back-side illuminated full frame sensor, the α7R II.

Leica announces the full frame, fixed-lens compact Leica Q (Typ 116) – the first full-frame Leica to incorporate an autofocus system.

2016 Apple introduces Portrait Mode, which uses the dual backside cameras to create a depth map to isolate a foreground subject and then blur the background

Apple introduces the iPhone 7 Plus. The iPhone offers a dual camera setup with different focal lengths, 23mm and 56mm, entering the realms of telephoto on a phone.

2017 Intrepid Camera launches its Kickstarter project for a light-weight, low cost, compact 10X8 film camera.

2018 The Huawei P20 Pro provides a new triple camera system

Canon officially discontinues the EOS-1V, the company’s last remaining film camera

Nikon introduces the Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras.

Canon introduces the mirrorless EOS R

Google Night Sight achieves similar results to a camera on a tripod with a handheld Pixel camera phone using consecutive shots reassembled into a single image via an algorithim

Production of Ektachrome film resumes

Leica introduce the Leica M10-D, a digital camera without an LCD screen designed to combine the excitement of film with digital technology.

Researchers at Dartmouth College announce the Quanta Image Sensor (QIS) which replaces pixels with jots, where each jot can detect a single particle of light (photon)

Mirrorless cameras overtake DSLRs based on value (CIPA data)

2019 Xiaomi introduce the CC9 Pro, with five rear cameras including one with 108-megapixels

The Fujifilm GFX 100 is the world’s first medium format camera to offer in-body image stabilization, with a 102MP BSI-CMOS sensor

Nikon officially releases the 58mm f/0.95 S Noct, its fastest lens.

4.5 million digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras manufactured by CIPA companies are shipped, down from 16.2 million in 2012

2020 Samsung Introduces the Galaxy S20 Ultra with five cameras to capture 108MP photos, 100 x zoom and 40MP selfies

Nikon’s introduces the D780, its first DSLR to incorporate on-chip phase-detection autofocus, a feature inherited from its mirrorless Z series 

Canon launches the EOS R series next-generation full-frame mirrorless cameras featuring Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology that provides autofocus in low-light conditions previously too dark to focus in.

The Apple 12 ships, with a new 7-element design with an ƒ/1.6 aperture for the primary camera as well as advancements to Smart HDR and Deep Fusion.

Digital camera shipments drop to a new low of 8.9 million units, down from 121 million units in 2010.

The Nikon F6 film SLR is discontinued

Mirrorless cameras overtake DSLRs based on unit volume (CIPA data)

The first large-scale image recognition system based on transformers, Vision Transformer (ViT), is introduced by Alexey Dosovitskiy and Thomas Kipf

2021 Sony introduces the ⍺1, a 50.1MP, 8.6K camera capable of shooting bursts at up to 30fps blackout-free, with 15 stops of dynamic range, real-time animal eye AF and anti-distortion shutter technology.

Olympus exits the camera market, completing the sale of its camera business to JIP, a Tokyo-based venture capital firm.

Canon ships its 150-millionth interchangeable lens for EOS cameras – an RF 70-200mm f2.8L IS USM lens

Nikon announces, and very late in the year, ships, the Z9 – the first professional camera to arrive without a mechanical shutter without rolling shutter thanks to its fast stacked shutter. It also offers the world’s fastest still image frame rate of 120 fps.

2022 OpenAI launches DALL-E 2. A portmanteau of ‘Dali’ (as in Salvador) and Pixar’s ‘WALL-E’, it offers a massive upgrade on its predecessor, with more realistic results and four-times higher resolution

Stability AI launches Stable Diffusion, a deep learning, text-to-image model based on diffusion techniques.

Midjourney, Inc. launches Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence program and service.

Apple introduces the Photonic Engine with the iPhone 14, a computational photography technique that enhances photos taken in mid-to-low lighting conditions.

Leica introduces the M11 with a 60MP full-frame back side illuminated sensor

Japanese media organisation Nikkei reports that the compact ‘point-and-shoot’ market has retracted to 3.01m units as of 2021, a drop of 97% from its peak of 110.7m cameras in 2008.

2023 Sony launches the a9 III which delivers the world’s first full-frame global shutter sensor, which allows the camera to freeze motion in captured images with a max shutter speed of 1/80,000 second and 120 fps continuous shooting.

ChatGPT expands its capabilities by adding voice and image functionalities.

Around the World with a Leica Q

Nearly three years after I first posted about my new Leica Q on this site, it was stolen from a South Kensington Pub. This was after a visit to the Natural History Museum to see the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. I am fairly sure it was a professional thief, rather than an opportunist, who stole it as the camera was right next to me in its bag and our table was never unattended – yet we saw nothing. As the pub had no CCTV the police soon closed the case. Happily the camera was insured, and I was able to replace it.

Always on the Move…

Leica Q Empty Quarter
The Empty Quarter, UAE

2016-2018 were big travel years for me as my work took me to the US, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and, for a short while, the Far East. I also went on a couple of road trips – one from Canada to Mexico, and another across Japan. I was rarely at home during those years and I took my Leica Q everywhere I went. I took around 25,000 shots along the way and came to love my camera; it took everything the world could throw at it, whilst remaining perfectly usable, was a joy to handle and allowed me to create some of my best images. In this post I’ll share what I learned along the way.

Lessons Learned

Firstly, the Leica Q is extremely tough and resilient . When I changed straps from the elegant, but thin, leather strap that came with the Q to my preferred, and wider, M strap I didn’t attach it correctly. It later came unfastened – just as I was about to shoot the Sydney Opera House. It hit the ground hard but fortunately had only a small ding on the top plate to show for it. Many other cameras would have been rendered unusable by the impact, if not damaged beyond repair.

Sydney Opera House Leica Q
This shot was taken just after my Leica Q hit the ground with some force.

The reason the Q survived the impact so well is because the top plate is machined from a solid block of aluminium that sits atop a tank -like body of magnesium alloy. For travellers there is just no substitute for a resilient camera – knocks are inevitable over time.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a knack to putting the strap on correctly to avoid testing the Q’s build quality the way I did. The easiest way is to take the metal fastener off the strap, put it on the camera first and then attach the strap. It’s actually pretty hard to get it wrong if you do it that way.

For a camera that lacks weather proofing it does very well in harsh conditions. Eventually the sensor needed cleaning, but that was after two years of shooting in some hostile climates including a couple of visits to one of the most inhospitable – the Rub al Khali desert, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter.

The Summilux f1.7 stabilised lens is unparalleled for sharpness. It’s the best lens I have ever owned, works incredibly well with the full frame sensor and of course delivers the recognisable but difficult to define Leica look. It is an aspherical (ASPH) lens, a design that tends to be more compact, sharper in the corners wide open and offers a bit more contrast.

I also found Leica’s choice of 28mm for a fixed lens to be a good one. 28mm is wide enough for landscape and urban work and you can easily crop in a little for street photography.

Shooting with the Leica Q is enjoyable and intuitive. The Q combines minimalist manual controls with modern electronic assistance to create a first class user experience.

After service is incredible. When I had the sensor cleaned (which was free of charge) Leica service replaced the chequered outer covering of the camera as part of the service!

It is worth considering both the hand grip and the Match Technical Thumbs Up for improved ergonomics. I prefer the Thumbs Up both in terms of handling and because the hand grip needs to be removed to change the battery or a memory card. It comes off quickly, but it will still slow you down a little. I use the Thumbs Up EP-SQ2 which is machined from solid brass and locks onto the hot-shoe with a hex key. It is pricey, but worth it as it is beautifully made. Once the Thumbs Up is on the camera it really does feel like it was always there and part of the original product.

When I got my replacement camera I was reminded of just how excellent the packaging is. The ‘chest of drawers’ that contains the camera, its accessories (all in their own little Leica bags) and documentation is really well designed. Just search YouTube for Leica Q unboxing to see how many people have been enthralled by the experience.

Despite its relatively small size it is a camera that attracts attention – good and bad. I keep the famous red dot logo covered, but Leica cognoscenti still comment favourably on my choice of camera from time to time. This is particularly the case in Deal, Kent where my parents live, and where I often visit. It seems there is a high concentration of Leica users there…

The Leica Q – A Game Changing Camera

Objects, Deal MarketInspiration

When a friend of mine purchased a Sony RX1  in 2016 I thought it was way to much to spend on a compact camera.  At £2,700 this was no trivial purchase and so I looked closely at cheaper options: the Fujifilm X100T and Olympus OMD 5 Mk II.  Both of these cameras have retro looks and plenty of external controls, which personally I prefer and were far less expensive than the Sony.  The Leica Q was not on my list.

 Temptation

Then I read started to read reviews of the Leica Q.  Pocket-Lint described it as “the best fixed-lens full-frame compact ever made” but it was Craig Mod‘s blog that really got me thinking.  It was a six month field test in Asia and was one of the positive and compelling reviews I have ever read of a camera.

“Make no mistake: The Q is a surgical, professional machine. It pairs best-of-class modern technology (superb autofocus, an astounding electronic view finder, workable isos up to and beyond 10,000, a fast processor, beefy sensor) with a minimalist interface packed into a small body, all swaddled in the iconic industrial design for which Leica has become famous. The result is one of the least obtrusive, most single-minded image-capturing devices I’ve laid hands on.”

“If the gf1 so many years ago set in motion an entirely new genre of camera with micro four-thirds, the Q epitomizes it. If the iPhone is the perfect every person’s mirrorless, then the Q is some specialist miracle. It should not exist. It is one of those unicorn-like consumer products that so nails nearly every aspect of its being — from industrial to software design, from interface to output — that you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the r&d lab. Out of the meetings. Away from the committees. How did it manage to maintain such clarity in its point of view?”

I believe that in hindsight… the Leica Q will be seen as one of the greatest fixed-prime-lens travel photography kits of all time.”

After reading that review I realised I wanted a Leica Q quite badly – but at close to £3,000 could I justify the purchase?

A demanding specification

Thinking through what I really wanted out of a large sensor compact I came up with a fairly demanding specification:

  1. Large sensor (full frame if possible, but no smaller than APS-C)
  2. Silent shutter operation
  3. Usable at high ISO
  4. A sharp, fast lens preferably with image stabilisation
  5. Fast autofocus
  6. Effective viewfinder
  7. Good handling/ergonomics
  8. Durable magnesium alloy construction
  9. Weather proof
  10. Good battery life
  11. Decent burst performance
  12. Value for money

The Leica Q has all this nailed except for weather sealing.  That said, Craig Mod’s review indicated it was pretty tough:

“Over these last six months, the Q joined me while on assignment in South Korea, trekking across Myanmar, hiking the mountains of Shikoku, and spending a few freezing nights on Mt. Kōya. It was used in searing heat, 100% humidity, covered in sweat amid rice fields beneath a relentless sun….  The Q is small but substantial. Solid. It becomes an effortless all-day companion. Strapped across my chest, it was banged sideways against rocks, motorcycles, stone walls, metal water bottles, farmers, cats.  It captured everything thrown at it and into it.”

Purchasing The Leica Q

I attended the Photography Show and after testing some of Nikon’s newest gear, went to the Leica stand to see if I could get my hands on one.  There was one to hand and it didn’t take me long to decide that I really wanted one.  The lens was astonishingly sharp, the build quality was rock solid and the camera was a joy to handle.  The good people at Leica told me that the London Camera Company had six Qs on their stand to sell at the show, so I went and promptly bought one – the alternative being a lengthy waiting list.  I wondered whether I would suffer buyer’s remorse afterwards – at £2,900 the Q is by far the most expensive camera purchase I had ever made.

Leica Q Folkestone HarbourQ Results

My experience with the Q, and its successor the Q2, has really been an extension of my first touch of the camera – it is a delight to use.  It took me quite a while to get over how sharp the f1.7 lens is – I believe it is the sharpest lens I own.  What I also found is that the camera can be remote controlled from my iPhone, which has permitted some street shots that I would not have got otherwise and that I could compose in high contrast black and white whilst simultaneously shooting in raw. 

The shot of the boats in Folkestone harbour is straight from the camera.  The image at top is of some objects for sale in Deal Market as was shot at f1.7 focusing on the statuette at the back of the table and shows the almost 3D effect a fast, very sharp lens can produce.  Here is my summary of how the Q met my requirements:

  • Value for money – Leica’s 28mm f/1.4  retails at £3,900 with the  f/2 costing £2,700.  £2,900 for a full frame camera plus an f1.7 lens suddenly seems quite reasonable
  • Fast burst performance –  10 fps burst
  • Good battery life – 300 shots (Leica/CIPA tests) which is decent
  • Weather proof – sadly the Leica Q is not weather sealed
  • Durable magnesium alloy construction – a milled aluminium top and base plates and a magnesium alloy body provide an unrivalled quality feel
  • Good handling/ergonomics – The camera is built in Germany, the home of the Leica M.   There is a good thumb grip on the back, and the optional grip is excellent.  The controls are well laid out with an excellent tactile feel to them.
  • Effective viewfinder – The Q’s viewfinder is electronic rather than optical, but it does a pretty good job of mimicking an the optical EVF with its high resolution EVF, which at (3.68 megapixel resolution is the highest currently available.
  • Fast autofocus – The Leica Q is the first full-frame Leica to incorporate an autofocus system. It has a 49-point system with multi, 1-point, tracking, face-detection and touch AF.  
  • A sharp, fast lens preferably with image stabilisation – f1.7, 5 axis stabilisation
  • Usable at high ISO – up to 6,400 in my estimation with film like grain
  • Silent shutter operation – leaf shutter for close to silent operation (1/2000s)  
  • Large sensor – 24 megapixel full frame  sensor with no optical low-pass filter for improved  detail and tone mapping

And here are some of the extra’s I didn’t expect.

  • Remote control from iPhone via the Leica Q App
  • Rapid transfer of images of to iPhone via the Leica Q App
  • Ability to shoot wide open in bright conditions due to the electronic shutter (1/16000s)
  • Excellent monochrome setting, which allows high contrast mono JPEGS to be captured along with full colour RAW images
  • The Outstanding macro mode with 17cm minimum focus distance, activated from the control ring on the lens.  The distance markings on the lens change to a new set of macro markings in a way that really exemplifies engineering excellence.
  • The aperture is controlled by a ring situated at the front of the lens (as with any M lens) and is astonishingly pleasing to handle and use
  • Excellent bokeh, especially for a relatively wide angle lens
  • The lens hood is incredibly solid and attractive – it is similar to the M’s Summarit 35mm

For a compact camera the Leica Q is quite substantial – it is not, by any means a pocket camera at 130 x 80 x 93mm and 640g.  The purchase price is the same, but more so – it is very substantial!  However, it is the best camera I have ever owned, and for me, an important step forward in camera development.  I am shooting more and shooting differently – in street photography the 28mm makes you get in close (like Robert Capa and William Klein) and that means I am shooting better with the Leica Q and that is worth a lot to me.

Postscript – The Q2 and Back to Film

My Q was stolen in London – somehow thieves hooked the camera bag out from under the table where I had put it in a London pub.  I I was sad about it as it had been all over the world with me – as described in Around the World With a Leica Q.   The upside is the Q2 had just become available and I upgraded, giving me both weather proofing and the ability to crop in a little more, because of the larger sensor.

During lockdown I got back into film photography. I wasn’t sure about rangefinders so I started out with a low cost option – a Yashica GSN, which is a great way to get started. Finding that I got on with the Yashica well, I saved for a M6 TTL which I have enjoyed shooting with ever since. I have not switched from Nikon for a removable lens system as the cost of the many lenses I use is prohibitive, so the Q2 is the only digital Leica I own, but for street, travel and general purpose photography it remains my go to camera. so is the Leica worth it? With the built in Summilux the Q2 offers, I say it is.

Back to Film with the Nikon F3

V and A Museum Knight's TombIt’s been a while…

Before I went back to film with a Nikon F3 in 2016,  my previous film camera was a Canon IXUS, from the late ’90s – a point and shoot compact which took APS film. My photos from that time date from before I actively studied photography and the shots aren’t the best.  My APS films were developed on standard machines, not the specialist ones they had been designed for, which further compromised the results.  So my journey with film photography journey really started with the Nikon F3..

A Fortunate Find

Whilst staying with friends in Stockholm in 2016, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several Nikon F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives.

The Nikon F3 model I picked out showed signs of wear and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was quite taken with it and bought it on impulse.

An Early Model

This was my first Nikon film SLR. A bit of research revealed that the F3, the successor to the legendary Nikon F (also reviewed on this site) and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras. It was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001, despite being superseded by the autofocus F4 in 1988.

That’s a long run – especially as according to the MIR site, work on the F3 started back in 1974, barely three years after the debut of the Nikon F2!  The formal design process started in 1977 and a prototype was ready by late 1978, which is when NASA came knocking for an automatic exposure control camera for the Space Shuttle.

A check on the serial number showed my F3 was an early model from 1981, not the more common HP (High Eyepoint) variant introduced in 1982. The HP model is identical to its predecessor except for the finder (DE-3), which allowed those wearing glasses a better view of the entire frame. This became standard on the F3, which became known as the F3HP.

Finder Tradeofs

I don’t wear glasses when shooting, preferring to use a diopter, and in this case that’s an advantage, as the trade off the HP model makes to make the whole viewfinder visible from slightly further back is fractionally lower magnification. The F3 is also slightly lighter than the HP variant as the finder HP finder weighs a little more, though the HP finder has slightly improved rubber sealing. Unless you wear glasses, there isn’t much in it.

Five Finders

The F3 has five finders (all interchangeable) to choose from: eye-level (DE-2), eye-level HP (DE-3) waist-level (DW-3), sport (DA-2), and high-magnification (DW-4). The F3 also offered a right-angle viewing attachment (DR-3) and an Eyepiece Magnifier (DG-2). I’ve stuck with the DE-2 my F3 came with.

F3 Exotics

Beyond models based on finder variants there are several more exotic models of the F3. The best known, is the F3/T titanium model, which not much lighter than the regular F3 but quite desirable.

There was also a ruggedised F3P Press/Professional model, the F3 AF autofocus model and the weighty F3H F3 High Speed, a motorised speed demon that could shoot at 13 frames per second.

The autofocus Nikon F3 AF, which became available in 1983 with 2 autofocus lenses, was Nikon’s first entry in the world of AF technology. The Nikon F-501 arrived in 1986, and the Nikon F4 in 1988. 

The F3 Electronics Controversy

Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries.  Electronic shutters and dependence on battery power for anything more than a light meter was initially resisted amongst Nikon professional shooters. Their initial response was to remain loyal to their fully mechanical F2s and eschew the F3.

This controversy apparently continued for years and may still continue. As one blogger wryly commented as recently as 2019: “I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh…right…we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka “Knights of the Order of F2″ (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.”

The fears of Nikon pros at launch turned out to be unfounded as the F3 was demonstrated itself to be just as bulletproof as as the F and F2. Nikon was committed to increasing reliability – as an example the F3’s shutter was designed to last an incredible 150K actuations, increased from 100K for the F and F2. However, to give photographers more confidence in the new technology Nikon built in a backup mechanical shutter into the F3 that operates at 1/60 sec.

In practice, the F3’s batteries last a very long time (compared to my Leica M6 TTL for example) and the tiny LR44s are easy to carry as spares. I also have an F2 with a Photomic head, and it is excellent, but my F3 gets used more.

The F3’s Horizontal Shutter

Another issue that the professionals weren’t keen on was the slow flash sync speed. The F3 has a horizontal travel shutter which, given the 3:2 aspect ratio of film, takes longer to operate than a vertical travel shutter. The 1/80 second maximum sync speed was the same as that of the F2, but well below the semi pro models (FA, FM2, FE2) with vertical travel shutters, which offered 1/250 second. The F3 was the last of the Nikon Pro cameras with a horizontal shutter – the F4’s went the other way.

Longevity versus Mechanical Cameras

Over time electronic components can be the Achilles heel of older film cameras and initially I thought the Nikon F3’s LCD which displays the shutter speed might be a weak spot. The display in the viewfinder, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR), is just a display window so is not subject to deterioration, but LCDs don’t always age well. They can become harder to read over time and eventually stop working entirely. Nikon predicted they would only last about seven years or so with pro usage! 35 years after leaving the factory my well used F3’s LCD is holding up perfectly well. The F3’s manual controls also mean that the camera can still be used without the LCD display, although not with automation.

The last point to consider in the electronic vs mechanical Nikon stakes are that electronic shutters usually maintain their accuracy over time better than mechanical shutters.

F3 Surprises

One surprise to me about the F3 was that it was styled by an Italian design legend: Giorgetto Giugiaro, the man who styled the Ferrari 250 GT Bertone, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Bertone, and much else. 

Another surprise was that there were Space Shuttle versions of the F3. These had large magazine backs of different capacities and various other modifications for use in space. It wasn’t the first Nikon in space however, as modified Fs were used aboard Apollo 15 and Skylab.

Upgrades and Repairs

Before I could shoot with my new purchase I needed to get it serviced and replace the missing motor drive coupling cover.  Reading a little more, I learned that my camera was fitted with an unusual focusing screen, a plain matte screen which lacked the usual split image rangefinder spot.

The F3 is highly modular. It’s 5 interchangeable viewfinders could be paired with 15 interchangeable focusing screens. These vary from the standard central split-image microprism rangefinder screen to those for very specific use cases such as close ups, astro and architectural photography.

Mine was fitted with a Type D, which is used for close ups and with long lenses.  I called Greys of Westminster and ordered the more usual Type K type rangefinder screen, a new coupling cover and a -2 diopter.

It’s easy enough to remove the F3’s finder to change the screen. Sliding the grooved buttons on each side of the finder back towards the eye piece releases the front of the finder which can then be lifted out and removed.

All that remained was to take the body into my local camera shop, imagex, who sent it away for a much needed service, at a very reasonable cost of £69.

Adjusting to the F3

It wasn’t difficult to get used to the controls of the F3.  They are simple and the dials on the top plate of were familiar looking, as I was shooting with the  retro styled digital Nikon Df at the time, and the F3 only offers aperture-priority automation and manual operation.

I did fire the shutter accidently with the backup mechanical release lever (‘what does this lever do? doh!’) to the right of the lens beneath the ‘exposure memory lock’ button (AE-L on modern cameras).

LCD Display

The LCD shutter speed window in the finder isn’t especially bright and can be hard to read at times.  There is button to light it up but its exceptionally hard to press and gives so little additional light that its not worth the effort. I actually prefer the needle matching system of the FM3A, FE and FE2, though that is even harder to read in low light.

80/20 Centre Weighting

An adjustment I thought I might need to make was to get used to the heavily centre-weighted metering system, apparently a request from Nikon Pros looking for greater precision.  Metering is TTL and reads the light over the whole focusing screen, but nearly all (80%) of metering sensitivity is set to the central 12mm, whilst the rest of the screen gets the remaining 20%. 

Nikon accomplished this weighting in an unusual way; by putting thousands of tiny little pinholes in the reflex mirror. These allow exactly 8% of the light to pass through the mirror and onto a metering cell. This didn’t make it’s way into subsequent models; the F4 reverted to 60/40. weighting.

In practice the heavy centre weighting can be useful, and certainly hasn’t presented a problem, even when I forgot about it, but that maybe because I shoot with very forgiving black and white negative film.

The F3 was the first in the F series to put the meter in the camera body. Previous models, which had the meter in the prism, featured 60/40 centre-weighted metering. This is also the case with the last of Nikon’s film cameras, the rather wonderful FM3A.

One little control that isn’t at all obvious is the Multiple Exposure Lever on the far right of the top plate. This enables you re-cock the shutter without advancing the film.

First Outing with the Nikon F3

Once the camera was back from service I bought some Ilford HP5 400 film and headed for the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I shot some of the statues in various galleries, whilst I also visited the excellent Paul Strand photographic exhibition.  Initially I kept looking at the back of the camera to see what I had shot, only to be greeted by cardboard film type insert on the camera back.   My first keeper is shown above – I really liked the grain and the tone of film and I was hooked.

From the Nikon F3 Onwards…and Backwards

Since I bought the F3 I have acquired several other Nikon film cameras, including the mighty F6 and the hybrid mechanical/electronic marvel that is the FM3A, all of which you can read about in detail on this site from the preceding links.

I’ve also gone back to the start of the F series with a late F from 1970 and an F2 from 1975, both of which are excellent cameras. I particularly like the way you can see rangefinder DNA in the F’s baseplate, which evolved from the Nikon SP rangefinder. The prototype for the F was built on an SP model, adding the distinctive mirror box and pentaprism of the SLR, and a new lens mount, the F mount. The letter F comes from re-F-lex.

F3 Film Nikon
A scene from the Faroe Islands, shot with the Nikon F3

Though some of my photographer friends love the later Nikon F4 and F5, I have never taken to either of them – preferring either the earlier F, F2 or F3 manual focus cameras or the final F6 model. 

I’ve taken the Nikon F3 with me when I’ve travelled, including some fairly harsh environments like the Faroe Islands, and it performed very well. I thought about taking my FM2n on that trip, as it is lighter, but the more rugged F3 inspired more confidence.

The Go Anywhere F3

The Nikon F3 remains one of favourite manual Nikon film cameras. Unlike other more expensive classics, such as Leica M6 or Nikon FM3A, which most photographers (including me) fret about in use, my F3 presents no worries at all. It is extremely rugged, affordable to service (or replace), and easy to use.

I bought it slightly beaten up and it’s so tough I am comfortable taking it anywhere. I have 50mm and 28mm (Voigtländer) pancake lenses to keep the form factor to a minimum – the F3 and both pancake lenses easily fit into a small camera bag. It is versatile: the shutter is fast (up to 1/2000 second), and though I haven’t needed them to date, there is a PC connection (though a flash requires an adaptor), and it will take a standard cable release. It takes great pictures. What more could you ask for?