■ 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.
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.
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.
– 1st 35mm SLR with a vertically-traveling metal focal-plane
shutter (Konica F, 1960),
In other areas of photography, Konica originated:
– 1st Japanese mass-produced camera (Cherry
Portable Camera, 1903),
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).
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
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.
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).
● KONICA ●