History of The Single-lens Reflex Camera - Chronology - 1950s

1950s

1950
Ihagee Exakta Varex (East Germany; called Exakta V in USA): first interchangeable viewfinder, first interchangeable focusing screens, first viewfinder condenser lens SLR. Original viewfinder selection was waist-level or pentaprism. For the next half-century, interchangeable viewfinder customization was the signal feature of fully professional level SLRs, although they have not made the transition to digital SLRs.
1950
Angénieux 35mm f/2.5 Retrofocus Type R 1 (France): first retrofocus wide angle lens for 35 mm SLRs (for Exaktas). Regular wide angle lenses (meaning short focal length lenses) need to be mounted close to the film. However, SLRs require that lenses be mounted far enough in front of the film to provide space for the movement of the mirror — the "mirror box." Therefore, the focal length of early 35 mm SLR lenses were no less than about 40 mm. This prompted the development of wide view lenses with more complex retrofocus optical designs. These use very large negative front elements to force back-focus distances long enough to ensure clearance. Note, "retrofocus" was an Angénieux trademark before losing exclusive status. The original generic term is "inverted telephoto." A telephoto lens (multiple inventions, 1891) has a front positive group and rear negative group; retrofocus lenses have the negative group in front and positive group to the rear. The first inverted-telephoto imaging lens was the Taylor-Hobson 35mm f/2 (1931, UK) developed to provide back-focus clearance for the beamsplitter prism used by the full-color via three negative Technicolor motion picture process. Retrofocus wide angle prime lenses reached fields of view as wide as 118° with the Nikkor 13mm f/5.6 (Japan) lens for Nikon 35 mm SLRs in 1975, but they are extremely large compared to non-SLR short focal length lenses because of their gigantic negative elements.
1951
Zenit (Soviet Union, Russia; Зенит): first Russian pentaprism eyelevel viewing 35 mm SLR.
1952
Asahiflex I (Japan): first Japanese 35 mm SLR. Had folding waist level finder and focal-plane shutter. From 1952 to 1983, Asahi Optical (today called Pentax and owned by Hoya) manufactured cameras exclusively of SLR type and has made them in the greatest variety of formats of any modern camera company – from 110 to 6×7 film, and today's digital.
1953
VEB Zeiss Ikon (Dresden) Contax E (East Germany): first built-in light meter SLR. Had an external selenium photoelectric cell mounted behind a door on the pentaprism housing, above the lens. The meter was uncoupled – the photographer would need to wait until the meter stabilized and manually set the shutter speed and lens aperture to match the indicated exposure reading. The first camera with a built-in meter (also uncoupled) was the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex (Germany) 35 mm twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera of 1935.
1953
Zeiss Ikon Contaflex I (West Germany): first leaf shutter 35 mm SLR. Had Synchro-Compur leaf shutter and fixed 45mm f/2.8 Tessar lens. For many years, reliable focal-plane shutters were very expensive and SLRs equipped with Compur or Prontor leaf shutters were strong competitors. As FP shutters improved, their faster available speeds won out in the late 1960s and leaf shutter 35 mm SLRs disappeared around 1976.
1953
Metz/Kilfitt Mecaflex (West Germany): first (and only) square format 35 mm SLR. Took up to fifty exposures of 24×24 mm frames on 135 film. A compact Prontor leaf shutter design with bayonet mount interchangeable lenses. 135 film's standard 24×36 mm frame size is inefficient. Its 3:2 aspect ratio is too wide, recording only 59% of a required 43.3 mm diameter lens image circle. This makes lenses for the format overly large for the image area. A square 24×24 mm frame maximizes coverage at 64% of a smaller 33.9 mm image circle. The Mecaflex's designer, Heinz Kilfitt, also designed the Robot (Germany) of 1934, the first 24×24 mm 35 mm (not 135 type) camera. Both failed to disturb the entrenched rectangular format and the 3:2 ratio still dominates digital SLRs. Olympus' Four Thirds System digital format of 2002 is the latest attempt at a narrower, albeit not square, format. Note that dual 24×24 mm frames on 135 film were used by the non-SLR David White Stereo Realist (USA, 1947), leader of the 1950s stereo photography fad.
1954
Asahiflex IIB (Japan; called Sears Tower 23 in USA): first SLR with reliable instant return mirror.
1954
Praktina FX (East Germany): first available spring powered motor drive accessory for SLR, first breech-lock lens mount.
1954
Tokiwa Seiki Firstflex 35 (Japan): first interchangeable lens, leaf shutter 35 mm SLR. Otherwise a wholly forgettable camera; cheaply made to low specifications and of poor quality, with waist level finder.
1955
Miranda T (Japan): first Japanese pentaprism eyelevel viewing 35 mm SLR. Note that the Tokiwa Seiki Pentaflex (Japan), a modified Firstflex 35 (see above), had an eyelevel viewfinder four months before the Miranda, but using a porroprism. Orion Seiki (company renamed Miranda Camera in 1957) produced a versatile SLR system in the 1960s, called by some "the poor man's Nikon," but was unable to keep up with the rapid advances in electronics of the 1970s and went bankrupt in 1977.
1955
Kilfitt 4 cm f/3.5 Makro-Kilar (West Germany/Liechtenstein): first close focusing "macro" lens for 35 mm SLRs (for Exaktas and others). Version D focused from infinity to 1:1 ratio (life-size) at two inches; version E, to 1:2 ratio (half life-size) at four inches. Because SLRs do not suffer from parallax error due to the offset between the taking lens and a viewfinder lens, they are far superior for close-up photography than cameras with other optical viewfinder systems (though the viewfinder screens on digital cameras also show the image as seen by the taking lens). Most SLR lens lines continue to include macro lenses optimized for high magnification, although their focal lengths tend to be longer than the original Makro-Kilar to allow more working distance. "Macro zoom" lenses began appearing in the 1970s, but traditionalists object to calling most of them macro because they usually do not focus closer than 1:4 ratio, with relatively poor image quality.
1956
Zeiss Ikon Contaflex III (West Germany): first high-quality, interchangeable lens, leaf shutter 35 mm SLR. Was improved Contaflex I (see above) with bayonet mounted front cell lenses.
1957
Asahi Pentax (Japan; called Sears Tower 26 in USA): first SLR with right-handed rapid-wind thumb lever, first fold-out film rewind crank, first microprism focusing aid. First Asahi SLR with M42 screw mount. Established the "modern" control layout of the 35 mm SLR. Well-integrated focal-plane shutter, instant return mirror and pentaprism design.
1957
Hasselblad 500C (Sweden): replaced the Hasselblad 1600F/1000F's (see above) problematic focal-plane shutter with reliable interlens Synchro-Compur leaf shutters and made the 2¼ medium format SLR the dominant professional studio camera by the late 1950s. Well-integrated, durable and reliable design without instant return mirror, but with excellent auto-diaphragm interchangeable lenses and large accessory system.
1958
Zunow SLR (Japan): first internal auto-diaphragm (Zunow-matic Diaphragm System) 35 mm SLR and lenses. Well-integrated focal-plane shutter, instant return mirror, pentaprism and auto-diaphragm design with excellent lenses and good accessory system. Stopping down (closing) the lens aperture (iris) to prepare for exposure transmits less light to the mirror and the viewfinder may become very dim – perhaps even too dark to see the image. Auto-diaphragms coupled to the shutter release that automatically stop down when the mirror swings up and reopen when the mirror comes down provides almost continuous fully open aperture viewing. Auto-diaphragm lenses and instant return mirror, focal-plane shutter SLRs require precise camera-to-lens linkage, but can choreograph the entire shutter-button release, close lens, raise mirror, open shutter, close shutter, lower mirror, open lens exposure sequence in as little as ⅛th second. Originally, these were mechanical spring/gear/lever systems energized concurrent with manually winding the film, but modern systems are electronically timed and operated by an electromagnet. The financially weak Zunow company was unable to capitalize on its design; few examples of the camera (and much fewer of the wide and tele lenses for it) were produced before the company switched back to lenses for other companies' cameras. Zunow went bankrupt in 1961. Note, the 1954 version of the Ihagee Exakta VX (East Germany) 35 mm SLR introduced an external auto-diaphragm lens system using a spring-loaded shutter button plunger connection rod.
1959
Zeiss Ikon Contarex (West Germany): first SLR with a built-in light meter coupled to a viewfinder exposure control indicator – a galvanometer needle pointer. It had an external, circular selenium photoelectric cell mounted above the lens; earning it "Bullseye" (in USA) and "Cyclops" (in UK) nicknames. For proper exposure, the photographer would adjust the meter, which was also coupled to the shutter speed and lens aperture, until the needle was centered on a mark. (The Carl Braun Paxette Reflex leaf shutter SLR had an external top mounted, coupled light meter needle system in 1958.) The Contarex also had interchangeable film backs, a feature common with medium format SLRs and used in a few 35 mm rangefinder cameras, but almost exclusive to Contarex/Contaflex series among 35 mm SLRs. Although Contarex SLRs and their Zeiss lenses were of extremely high quality, they were also extremely expensive and of idiosyncratic (even clumsy) handling.
1959
Nikon F (Japan): first pro caliber 35 mm system SLR, first electric motor drive accessory for SLR. (The Japanese Nikon SP 35 mm rangefinder camera had the first electric motor drive for any camera type in 1957.) Well-integrated, durable and reliable focal-plane shutter, instant return mirror, pentaprism and auto-diaphragm design with excellent interchangeable lenses and huge accessory system. Although the F was not technologically ground-breaking, it sold 862,600 units and made the 35 mm SLR the dominant professional miniature format camera (displacing the 35 mm RF) by the early 1960s. The perfection of the optical and mechanical formulae of the interchangeable lens SLR in the one-two punch of the Hasselblad 500C (see above) and Nikon F also ended the popularity of the medium format twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera (typified by the Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex/Rolleicord series ) by the early 1960s. The F's improved successor, the Nikon F2 (Japan) of 1971, is widely regarded as the finest mechanically controlled 35 mm SLR camera ever made.
1959
Voigtländer–Zoomar 1:2.8 f=36mm–82mm (USA/West Germany): first zoom lens for 35 mm still cameras. Designed by Zoomar in USA and manufactured by Kilfitt in West Germany for Voigtländer. Originally mounted for Voigtländer Bessamatic series (West Germany) 35 mm leaf shutter SLRs, but later available in Exakta and other mounts. Zoom lenses and SLR film cameras are perfect for each other, because an SLR always shows what the lens is imaging during zooming, something difficult, if not impossible, to do with other optical viewfinder systems.

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