■ Auto-Reflex (1965-1968)
The Auto-Reflex is an unusual-looking camera. Its introduction in 1965 caused quite a stir
because it was the world’s first focal-plane-shutter 35mm SLR to provide fully automatic
exposure. The words "focal-plane shutter" need to be stressed in this context
because a few leaf-shutter SLRs did offer automatic exposure before 1965. First
to do so, as early as 1959, was the French SLR Royer Savoyflex Automatic. It was
followed in 1964 by the Nikon Auto 35 and by the Topcon Auto 100, an interchangeable
lens SLR that offered TTL metering to boot. All of them were leaf-shutter cameras,
however. The Auto-Reflex represented an entirely different paradigm and a short
digression providing some background about leaf-shutter SLRs will help understand why.
The leaf-shutter stage in 35mm SLR development was an attempt to combine old and new solutions – leaf shutters, which had for decades been used on TLRs and folders on the one hand, and the advantages offered by the more recent concept of interchangeable lenses on the other. The mechanisms required to synchronize the operation of the aperture, shutter, mirror and baffle in a leaf-shutter SLR brought to the camera-making industry one of its most impressive examples of technical inventiveness. The makers that took part in this effort included Canon (the Canonex), Fuji (the Fujicarex), Kodak (the Retina series), Konica (the Domirex), Kowa (the SE series), Mamiya (the Prismat series), Minolta (the Minolta ER), Nikon (the Nikkorex 35), Ricoh (the Ricoh 35 Flex), Topcon (the UV series), Voigtlander (Bessamatic / Ultramatic), and Zeiss (the Contaflex).
All cameras of this type had serious limitations, however. Firstly, and obviously, the fixed lens ones were limited to a single focal length. Secondly, the shutters of the ones designed to be used with interchangeable lenses were dangerously exposed to dirt and physical damage. Thirdly, such cameras were extremely complex mechanically, making repairs difficult and costly. And fourthly, leaf shutters, with their narrow throat of about 20mm, virtually precluded the use of truly fast or wide-angle lenses. The only practical advantage inherent to this type of camera was flash synchronization at all speeds. But the technical acrobatics and compromises demanded by the feature that was central to the very idea of a leaf-shutter SLR – the presence of a shutter in the viewing path – ultimately doomed it. By the middle 1960s the industry had essentially concluded that the idea of a leaf-shutter camera as a platform for interchangeable lenses was a commercial dead-end. End of digression.
In contrast to its leaf-shutter predecessors, the Auto-Reflex was an automatic SLR featuring a solid and reliable shutter placed out of harm's way at the film plane and giving access to a wide range of outstanding interchangeable optics, from 21mm to 2000mm, mounted on a 46mm-wide throat. Those features, combined with the camera's unparalleled speed of operation, set it apart from all other SLRs and provided professional photographers with a degree of versatility and ease of operation that remained unmatched for nearly a decade. No longer was there any need to align needles or turn rings in order to take a photograph. In the vast majority of situations, once the film sensitivity and shutter speed had been set, the user could shoot almost continuously in a given range of lighting conditions while the camera automatically set the aperture needed to produce correctly exposed images. For action shots of all types, the advantages were obvious. Many professional photographers seeking this additional speed opted for the Auto-Reflex.
One more reason why this camera is historically famous is that it remains, to this day, the only full-production 35mm SLR that can be operated in either full-frame (24x36mm) or half-frame (18x24mm) mode. Moreover, shifting from one mode to the other can be done in mid-roll as many times as desired, using a little lever located on the top of the body housing. With a 36-frame film one can thus take 72 photos. There is even an especially-made compact zoom lens intended to be used on the Auto-Reflex in half-frame mode – the Hexanon AR-H 47-100mm f3.5. The sixties were a time when half-frame cameras were quite popular (Olympus even made an entire half-frame SLR system) but public interest in such cameras soon waned and Konica gave up this feature on its subsequent SLRs.
The Auto-Reflex introduced Konica’s new AR-mount. It was not a TTL camera, however, and the elements of the AR-mount that serve to convey the lens’ largest aperture value to the camera's AE system (by means of the lever that engages the cut-out in the flange located on the back of the lens) would only be introduced with the Auto-Reflex’s successor, the Autoreflex T. On the Auto-Reflex, metering takes place thanks to a CdS cell mounted on the speed selector dial on the front of the body. This cell measures light over a field of 26 degrees vertically and 34 degrees horizontally.
The Auto-Reflex is very pleasant to use. Its viewfinder has an aperture scale showing at all times which aperture opening is being selected by the camera when in automatic mode. At the top and bottom of the scale are warning zones indicating over and under-exposure. The scale also has a battery check mark. The focusing screen has a round field of micro-prisms surrounded by a ground glass circle and is crossed vertically by two fine lines indicating the composition frame when in half-frame mode. Two small inverted triangles aligned with the upper end of the two lines protrude into the viewfinder when the camera is in half-frame mode. The aperture scale in the viewfinder is illuminated by ambient light through a small opaque window to the left of the prism housing.
The range of the Auto-Reflex’s light meter (EV2 to EV18 at 100 ISO) is rather modest. To compensate for this, the shutter speed dial has a manual override button for when lighting conditions require exposure settings that exceed the range of the light meter. A similar override button is also present on the Auto-Reflex’s successor model, the Autoreflex T.
The Auto-Reflex is equipped with an exposure lock feature: Pressing on the shutter release button half-way has the effect of blocking the needle of the light meter and the aperture-selection mechanism at the desired exposure. With the shutter release button depressed halfway, the user can re-compose. The shutter release button has a rather long travel. Pressing it also requires more force than on other cameras of the day. This is due to the shutter-priority mechanism (for more on this system, see Section 6), whose functioning was improved in later models, reducing considerably the travel of the shutter release button, and the force required to depress it.
The Auto-Reflex is a well thought-out camera finished with attention to detail. The model’s initially intended name, at least on the American market, was Konica Auto S Reflex, no doubt in reference to the Konica’s very successful Auto S and Auto S2 rangefinder cameras. At least one of the model’s early magazine reviews refers to it as such, but the "S" in the name was dropped early on and replaced by a hyphen. It was offered in two versions: chrome (mostly) and black (rather uncommon). The Auto-Reflex was available in Japan as the Autorex and sold in Germany by Photo-Quelle, a mail-order house, as the Revue Auto-Reflex.
Characteristic featuresa) Film rewind crank with gears, meter switch and window.
b) Shutter speed dial with the photo-cell and override button mounted on the front of the body.
c) Full and half frame mode selector lever, frame counter and shutter release button.