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As SLR users, we are all aware of the many components and features of the cameras we shoot with every day, because the SLR has become the universal standard for today's professional and serious amateur photographers. But where did this highly successful camera design come from, and what turned the SLR into the success that it is today?
While it may come as a surprise, the first SLR camera didn't have the kind of viewfinder we use today! It was built in Hungary in 1948, and resembled a rangefinder camera, using an intricate system of mirrors to project the image onto a small viewfinder. In 1949, Zeiss built on this design, launching the first SLR with a pentaprism viewfinder. Despite their utility relative to rangefinder or large-format cameras, these SLRs weren't perfect, as they lacked features that even film SLR users of the 70's would take for granted. And while most early SLRs originated in Europe, in later years much optical innovation would actually take place in Japan by a company founded in 1919, known as Asahi Optical.
Asahi Optical Company was the first to introduce many of the features that are common in SLRs as we know them today. In 1952, they launched the first-ever Japanese SLR, known as the Asahiflex, which featured an eye-level viewfinder.
After spending a few years on improvements for this model (such as the instant-return mirror), Asahi launched the Asahi Pentax in 1957, a camera which would influence the design of future SLRs worldwide.
Although the Pentax was not the first SLR to employ a pentaprism viewfinder (as mentioned, Zeiss had done so in 1949), the following features were unique to it, most of which we would take for granted today:
These features accomplished that the photographer could finally spend more time looking through the viewfinder, rather than constantly having to take his eye away to adjust knobs on the body. The camera's control layout would eventually be adopted by most camera manufacturers. The camera also featured a new M42 lens mount, which would become standard on other cameras of the era. The Pentax became so popular, that Asahi chose to change their name to "Pentax Corporation," a company which hardly gets any recognition nowadays for its continuing innovation.
The modern-day photographic giants, Canon and Nikon, followed in the footsteps of Pentax, each launching their first SLRs (the Canonflex and Nikon F, respectively) in 1959. While the Canonflex seemed to be two steps behind the competition, the Nikon F—which employed all of the features of the Pentax—was targeted at professionals, and demonstrated the superiority of the SLR, as well as the high quality of Japanese camera design. For the next 40 years, the SLR would be the camera of choice for professional photographers.
Throughout the '60's and '70's, innovation continued at all Japanese camera companies, but Pentax continued to stand out as one of the most popular and successful manufacturers. Early on, the company set a precedent of elegant design and affordable pricing.
The Pentax Spotmatic, launched in 1964, was one of the first cameras to feature through-the-lens metering, and arguably the most successful camera of the decade. Its design was kept for later Pentax SLRs, including the K1000, which became one of the most popular cameras among students and was produced through 1995.
In 1971, Pentax launched lenses with the world's first multi-layer anti-reflective coating (SMC), something that practically all modern lens manufacturers have adopted. Two years later, the Pentax ES marked the world's first SLR with stepless electronic aperture-priority auto exposure (Av mode), meaning that its calculated shutter speeds were not confined to pre-determined intervals.
In 1981, the ME F entered production, which was the world's first commercially-available autofocus SLR.
As stated by the Asahi Optical Historical Club, "The history of Pentax cameras is the history of the step-by-step development of the 35mm SLR, from the awkward equipment of the early days to the winning concept outperforming all other types of cameras. Pentax can claim more world's firsts and SLR improvements than any other manufacturer in the world."
Unfortunately, due to poor performance, the AF technology used in the ME F was not a success, and Pentax had to rush to design an entirely new system, which was launched in 1987. Although this autofocus system was among the first out there, and Pentax again came out with something new—the first SLR with built-in auto flash—in the following years the competition began to overtake Pentax, making their products become less and less noticed.
Pentax continues to bring innovation to their SLR cameras today! Their latest flagship, the K-5, was determined by DxOmark to have the highest image quality among all APS-C SLRs.
If you were an owner of a Pentax SLR, you would also know that:
If you'd like to join the club, check out PentaxForums.com, the largest site dedicated to Pentax users! Also, don't forget to visit us on Facebook. We regularly hold giveaways, sponsored by B&H!