Why Konica?

One of the side effects of the astounding success of digital cameras was to send the price of most things related to film, or 'analog', 35-mm photography into a freefall. This has placed within almost anyone's reach high-quality, even professional-grade, cameras and lenses that were simply priced out of range 2-3 decades ago. This trend made all gear from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s affordable, but in the case of Konica, an OEM which had left the SLR market in 1988 and whose achievements as an innovator have largely been forgotten, the price-to-quality ratio is virtually unequaled. Even though the emergence of mirrorless cameras has led to renewed interest in and demand for Konica’s Hexanon lenses, one can still today acquire a high-end Konica body with three superb Hexanon lenses, all in brand-new condition, for less than the price of many contemporary entry-level plastic AF kit-lenses! And this is perhaps the simplest answer to the question in the title.

 

 

"The Konica SLR system offers great value and probably the highest quality to price ratio of any used photographic equipment available."

Tim Hobson

 

 

To those inclined to take a more technical approach, I would say that Konica SLRs – especially the earlier mechanical ones – combine all the best technical features which I associate with the Golden Age of the classic mechanical SLR camera. I've had the opportunity to use many brands of cameras from that era. The ones I remember using include the Canon FTb, EF, and A-1; the Chinon Memotron CEII; the Minolta SRT-101, XE-5, and XD-7; the Olympus OM-1; the Pentax Spotmatic, ESII, and KX; and the Yashica Electro-X. At one time or another, various Cosinas, Mirandas, Petris, Prakticas, Topcons and Soviet Zenits also graced my hands. I still own and occasionally use some of them. The only OEM whose cameras I have not had the chance to use is Nikon, but an acquaintance used a couple of Nikkormats for years and I remember how solidly made they were.

Most of the above-mentioned cameras were typical of the best SLRs made before the new compactness trend began to take over the entire industry in the mid-1970s. Between them they represented, in various combinations, all the most important technical options available at the time: Mechanical vs electronic shutter operation; manual vs automatic exposure; aperture vs shutter priority; vertical metal shutter vs horizontal cloth shutter; etc. Most were certainly good enough to be used by professionals, but in my experience, those that proved most dependable over the long run shared two traits: They didn’t rely on electronics, and they had metal shutters. Such cameras are still the ones most likely to be found today in fully operational order, the need for a CLA notwithstanding. If to those two traits one were to add access to Hexanon optics (see Section 3) and the option of automatic exposure (see Section 6), the Konica system was indisputably one of the market’s top offerings.

Incidentally, it is surprising (and sobering) to discover just how many different makers, including the above-mentioned and some non-Japanese ones, contributed to the rise of the 35mm SLR: Rectaflex gave us the pentaprism; Pentax the instant return mirror; Zunow automatic diaphragm operation; Konica the metal focal-plane shutter; Topcon TTL metering; Zenit built-in motor film advance (I just had to include this one!); Minolta full-aperture metering; Praktica the electronic shutter; and so on. The names of some have been relegated to the footnotes as also-rans while others have been forgotten altogether. Yet some of them, in their heyday, gave today’s industry leaders a run for the money.

 

The dominant position on the SLR market that Canon and Nikon have attained has led the two brands to become, by default as it were, associated in many people’s minds with the entire history of SLR photography and with its very notion. This is, admittedly, a remarkable achievement. Yet such an image is highly inaccurate historically, considering that the role of either firm in the technical advance of the SLR was secondary. Success in the highly competitive photo industry has always had more to do with astute marketing strategies and, yes, good fortune, than with any particular innovative genius ascribed to most makers – not least the two above-mentioned – by their devoted fans at one time or another.

 

The best example of the role chance played in the business fortunes of various photo equipment makers is the great popularity Canon and Nikon lenses gained with western press photographers during and after the Korean War. As those two makers’ cameras were replicas of German rangefinders, their lenses could be mounted directly onto the foreign correspondents' Leicas and Contaxes. Quite naturally, those were also the makers which attracted the their attention. And so Canon and Nikon lenses were noticed, while others were not, which is a pity, because other Japanese makers – notably Konica and Pentax, both of which had been making lenses for 2 decades by then – had lenses of comparable optical performance.

 

Nikon’s long-standing position as the SLR brand of choice among professionals in the sixties and seventies was gained to a great extent thanks to the marketing genius of Joseph Ehrenreich, Nikon’s US agent who, among other things, lent Nikon equipment to professionals and made sure they were seen far and wide using it. In Britain, which was beyond Ehrenreich’s reach, professional photographers usually opted for Pentax. Canon’s attempt to edge out Nikon as the brand of choice among professionals in 1971 with its Canon F1 was not very successful. Although Canon's first true break had come in 1976 with the introduction of the Canon A-1, an SLR that was immensely popular and brought its maker to the head of the pack, the company only became a true rival to Nikon on the professional market in the 1980s, with the introduction of the F1n and, especially, the T-90.

 

The preceding observations are not meant to question the quality of Canon and Nikon gear or to diminish the two makers’ remarkable achievements in the photo industry as such, but to illustrate the point that success in the photo industry was not a given in the 1960s and 1970s, and to argue that, in my opinion, their success was not due to any presumed superiority in quality or innovation in relation to their principal competitors. In fact, innovative genius was in great supply during the post-war revival of the Japanese photo industry and, for some time, Konica held more than its fair share of it.

This brings us to yet another possible answer to the title question: Owning some Konica gear is like owning a piece of SLR history, for Konica originated several key technical innovations as an SLR maker and an impressive number of less significant ones. Konica's contributions to the development of camera technology remain crucial in our day, and it would be no exaggeration to say that without them today’s SLRs, irrespective of who makes them, would not be what they are.

Konica’s most important firsts in the field of 35mm SLR technology are:

  1st 35mm SLR with a vertically-traveling metal focal-plane shutter (Konica F, 1960),
  1st 35mm SLR with a shutter speed of 1/2000s (Konica F, 1960),
  1st 35mm SLR with flash synchronization speed of 1/125s (Konica F, 1960),
  1st 35mm SLR with fully coupled light meter (Konica F, 1960),
  1st 35mm SLR with focal-plane-shutter and auto exposure (Auto-Reflex, 1965),
  1st 35mm SLR with focal-plane-shutter, auto exposure and TTL metering (Autoreflex T, 1968),
  1st 35mm SLR with film motorized auto-loading and auto-advance (FS-1, 1978),
  1st 35mm SLR with DX film speed coding capability (TC-X, 1985),


 

Konica was always a highly innovative firm – first series produced Japanese camera ever, first Japanese film, first AF 35mm camera, first auto-exposure SLR with focal plane shutter, first motorized SLR, and I could go on and on...."

Chris Mullin

 


In other areas of photography, Konica originated:

  1st Japanese mass-produced camera (Cherry Portable Camera, 1903),
  1st Japanese SLR (Sakura Reflex Prano, 1907),
  1st Japanese photographic lens (Konishiroku Hexar 105/4.5, 1931),
  1st TLR with interchangeable lenses (Tele-Koniflex, 1956),
  1st 35mm rangefinder with a vertically-traveling metal shutter (Konica FR prototype, 1961),
  1st 35mm AE camera with CdS lightmeter (Konica Auto S, 1963),
  1st medium format SLR with auto exposure (Konica SF prototype, 1967),
  1st 35mm AE compact camera with incorporated flash (Konica C35 EF, 1975),
  1st 35mm camera with auto-focus capability (Konica C35 AF, 1977),
–  1st 35mm AE half-frame camera (Konica AA-35, 1984),
  1st 35mm camera with multiple exposure and silent mode operation (Konica Hexar AF, 1991),
  1st M-mount camera with motorized film advance (Konica Hexar RF, 1999),
  1st M-mount camera with aperture priority automatic exposure and AE lock (Konica Hexar RF, 1999),
  1st M-mount camera with a vertically traveling metal shutter (Konica Hexar RF, 1999).

One of Konica’s trademarks in the industry was cutting-edge quality control standards. For example, in its care for the quality of its manufacturing process, Konica manufactured many of its own machine tools. In optics, only 30% of the optical glass delivered to the company was deemed suitable for the manufacturing of Hexanon lenses for which the company is most famous. It is in optics that Konica earned most recognition as an OEM. Konica's optics manufacturing standards were such that, for years, some of the equipment used by the Japanese Camera Inspection Institute (Japan's official photo equipment testing authority - JCII) to assess the quality of all exported Japanese photo equipment was outfitted with Hexanon optics (see Konica and the JCII, in Section 6).


Konica was also one of very few makers whose SLR manufacturing operations remained based in Japan throughout, in contrast to its main rivals, which outsourced first the assembly and, in time, also the manufacturing, of their cameras to countries where labor was much cheaper than in Japan. Production facilities were initially relocated to nearby places like Hong-Kong and Taiwan and, with time, to more distant ones like Malaysia and Thailand. The relocation of production operations, dictated by the need to cut costs, especially from the mid 1970s, very often entailed compromises in quality, not only because foreign workers were not as skilled as their highly-trained Japanese counterparts, but also because manufacturing abroad allowed camera makers to escape the scrutiny of the JCII. Konica, whose photo division had always suffered from a lack of investment capital, was one of the few makers which didn't relocate and, for this reason, remained bound by Japan’s strict production and export norms. Some claim that this fact, and a greater reliance on hand assembly procedures, explains the relative quality of most Konica products at a time when the most of the industry was making ever bolder compromises.

The shortage of investment capital that seems to have been an chronic problem for Konica, as well as misguided business decisions, are probably the main reasons why Konica failed to market a number of ground-braking prototypes (see Section 7); why Konica only won a small part of the SLR market and its sales volume always stayed far behind that of its principal competitors; and why Konica's efforts to develop its own AF SLR in the 1980s ultimately failed. Likely for the same reasons the range of Konica cameras was more modest than that of its competitors, its distribution network less extensive, and its promotional efforts didn’t have the magnitude, or the aggressiveness, of other makers’ marketing campaigns.

 

Most Konica SLRs have nonetheless stood the test of time and continue to operate with precision and dependability over 25 years after the last models were produced. This is especially true of the Autoreflex mechanical cameras, which are practically indestructible and, more often than not, in better shape today than most of the cameras they competed with.

The principal advantage of the Konica system, however, is that it gives access to a superb line of optics: The Hexanon AR lenses, whose quality of manufacture, in both optical and mechanical terms, is absolutely first rate. Many Hexanon lenses hold their own against similar lenses made today using the most sophisticated computer assisted design systems. In fact, it is worthwhile to purchase a Konica body for the sole purpose of using Hexanon lenses and this is the last and arguably the best answer there is to the title question (see Section 3).

 

 

"Mainly, to my way of thinking, the most important thing these cameras offer is allowing you to use all those wonderful Hexanon lenses! [...] their lenses are the heart of the system."

Alan Myers

 

 

  KONICA