They’ve been in the game for a long time, 100 years to be exact.
Nikon. One word and everyone already knows what I’m talking about. They’re one of the most well-known, well-loved camera makers on the planet and, as of this month, they’ve been around for 100 years. A full century. That’s an incredibly long time and an equally incredible and beautiful history.
Once upon a time, there were three Japanese optical companies…
Way back when, it really did start with three of Japan’s leading optical manufacturing companies. In 1917, the companies merged to become Nippon Kogaku K.K. or Japan Optical Industries Co. Ltd.
Still not quite the brand we recognise today, but we’re getting there. A short while after forming, the company went full throttle on research and development, becoming the primary manufacturer of optics for the Japanese military.
It was a difficult time for much of the world, but after the war, Nippon Kogaku returned to their roots and resumed the production of more civilian friendly optical products. Lenses, telescopes, microscopes, you name it, if it had or required optics, it seemed like they were making it.
The lens range was a little more on track with the NIKKOR moniker nailed down in 1932 and known to be some of the most precise lenses at the time.
1948 saw the release of the Nikon I, a rangefinder camera and the first product to bear the actual Nikon name badge. Only about 400 of them were ever made so needless to say, it’s a rare collector’s item now. Though it was highly anticipated, it didn’t receive the warmest welcome upon its release. However, a cold reception didn’t stop Nikon at all. In fact, they worked harder. They listened and they learned. They pushed forward, committing themselves to change and improvement.
A mere 6 months after the Nikon I experience, Nikon overcame several performance issues and incorporated requests and ideas into the new Nikon M (1949) and Nikon S cameras (1951) that followed shortly after. Nikon was starting to gain traction on its own, but was still very much a ‘local’ camera company. As it often happens, though, one photograph can make a huge impact.
While Nikon was quietly evolving, famous American photographer, David Douglas Duncan, happened to be doing some work in post-war Japan when he had his first encounter with a NIKKOR lens. It was owned by Japanese photographer and photojournalist, Jun Miki, who asked if he could take Duncan’s photo.
Despite the shot being taken in low light, Miki–with his NIKKOR 85mm f/2.0 lens–was able to capture a stunning portrait which he presented to Duncan the next day.
Astounded by the sharpness and quality produced in such unfavourable conditions, Duncan was hooked. He started fitting NIKKOR lenses to his camera just before heading over to cover the Korean War in 1950 for LIFE.
Once back in New York, his colleagues were amazed by Duncan’s photographs. His already notable work helped popularise the optics in America. A piece in the New York Times shed light on the incredible quality of Nikon and NIKKOR products and things really started to shift into gear.
Inspired by the Nikon SP Instruction Manual from 1957. Who doesn’t love this retro vibe?
Breaking into the North American market meant that a world of opportunity was suddenly at their fingertips. All Nikon had to do was keep listening, keep improving, and keep producing. Luckily, this was something they had come to excel at.
1957 saw the release of the now legendary Nikon SP, one of the most innovative Rangefinder cameras ever made in Japan at the time. Its defining feature was a built-in universal viewfinder that supported 6 different lenses. With fast, quiet curtain shutters, a direct connection flash sync accessory shoe, and a built-in self-timer, the SP was an award winning camera that put Nikon in the spotlight.
As Nikon continued to adapt and evolve so too did their camera range, finally becoming something a little more recognisable for photographers even today; The Nikon F.
The iconic Nikon F became a new standard for professionals upon its release in 1959.
Departing the realm of professional rangefinder cameras, the Nikon F hit the market in 1959. It was the first 35mm SLR made by the company and one of the most advanced cameras of its time, taking all the most in-demand features and combining them into one robust little unit. After all this time, finally, photographers didn’t have to compromise. For obvious reasons, this became a new standard for what professionals had come to expect from their gear.
Nikon was on the rise and everyone else was backed against the ropes. The Nikon F was in production for an astounding 15 years, really hammering home the fact that Nikon was here to stay.
On top of producing cameras for professional photographers, Nikon went a step further. Say, a step off the planet further. In 1971, they agreed to a contract with NASA that would see them develop a camera for the Apollo 15 lunar mission. What’s cooler than that? Not much, if I’m being honest.
The Nikon Photomic FTN was chosen as a base for the soon-to-be space camera. Due to its lofty destination, the specifications for this camera were incredibly tight. Only NASA approved and specified materials could be used in the design to prevent as many problems as possible for the Astronauts that would be using it.
Nikon and NASA have been working together since 1971, bringing us all to the moon and back.
Each Photomic FTN camera had to be heavily modified to withstand the harsh and unusual conditions of the lunar surface. Nikon had finally reached the moon. Even to this day, the partnership with NASA still stands. Every manned space flight since Apollo 15 has had Nikon cameras and lenses on their equipment checklists.
With all the trial and error that went into creating actual space-cameras, there were a lot of takeaways and new technology that Nikon was able to incorporate into their earthbound models. It’s exactly this kind of innovation that kept Nikon in the hands of professionals for so long, capturing some of the most recognisable photographs of all time, including that one National Geographic cover photo that everyone knows. [Afghan girl 1984 taken by Steve McCurry]
It was taken with a Nikon FM2, originally released in 1982. It was a time when competition between camera manufacturers was fierce and the world was starting to see a shift from mechanical camera bodies to ones featuring more electronic automation.
Talk about a classic read; we were lucky enough to get our hands on an old school Nikon F booklet.
The FM2 was created with serious photographers in mind, not really intended to be a professional level camera despite the fact that so many professionals chose to carry it. The all-mechanical FM2 was incredibly robust and reliable, able to handle a range of punishing scenarios without fail, making it the ideal companion for photographers venturing into unknown territory.
Jumping forward a few years to 1999, the 80’s have un/fortunately ended and things are starting to look a little more familiar. Or at least the internet was finally a big thing.
While some of us were concerned about Y2K, Nikon was concerned with releasing something amazing; the D1.
Released in 1999, the monstrous Nikon D1 was a real powerhouse of its time.
The D1 was a digital SLR designed from the ground up with integrated metering, white balance, and tone compensation. It had a 4.5 fps frame rate and a whopping 2.7MP sensor. At the time, that was actually pretty amazing. Before you laugh, I’ll take this moment to remind you that was 18 years ago.
Looking back through the years of Nikon’s incredibly rich portfolio, there’s almost too many landmark cameras and moments to choose from. The D90 in 2008 had the first video recording capabilities ever seen in a DSLR camera. In 2010, Nikon delivered a D3S and two D3X cameras along with a host of NIKKOR lenses, accessories, and software to be used by Astronauts aboard the ISS.
On top of capturing some of the most iconic photos ever made, they’ve also captured our imaginations as one of the most recognisable, reliable, respected photographic brands to this date.
It’s a long and vibrant history that came from truly humble beginnings. From post-war to the moon, Nikon has made a lasting impression on so many people.
Here’s to the next hundred years!
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