In 1889, Thomas Edison’s research assistant William K. L. Dickson split a roll of standard Kodak film down the center and perforated each side, inadvertently creating the 35mm width that would become the future standard of film. This format was soon patented for use with Edison’s various moving picture devices, yet it wasn’t until much later that the film size became linked with still photography.
While the first patent for a still camera using perforated 35mm film came in 1908, various manufacturers continued to produce an array of camera shapes with differing film sizes to match. In Germany, optical engineer Oskar Barnack was searching for an alternative photographic technology to the heavy plate standard, in which glass sheets coated in special chemicals were used to create photo images. In 1914, Barnack developed a still camera for the Leitz company that incorporated a sprocketed 35mm film design, based on his previous work with this cinema film format.
World War I put the product on hold, but in 1924 the Leitz company’s new Leica design finally became the world’s first high-quality 35mm camera. Leica’s success among professional photographers made the format so popular that lesser companies developed models specifically to compete with its design.
In 1936, German company Ihage released the Kine-Exakta 1, the first single-lens reflex (SLR) 35mm camera available. The Exakta featured a waist-level viewfinder that allowed the user to preview each exposure exactly as it would be captured through the lens. Although the viewfinder display reversed the final image, this was much preferred to earlier models where the viewfinder and lens utilized separate optical paths (twin-lens reflex cameras) that created significant differences between what was seen through the camera and what actually appeared on the negative.
The venerable German camera-maker Zeiss had also begun developing a similar product around this same time, although its camera featured an eye level viewfinder, whereby the photographer could look directly into the back of the camera and preview the frame about to be captured. World War II interrupted the Zeiss development, and it wasn’t able to market the successful Contax S until 1949.
Meanwhile in Japan, Canon’s founder Goro Yoshida had dissembled a Leica camera in the early 1930s to examine its interior workings. He found that its superior quality had nothing to do with exotic or difficult-to-find parts. Instead, Leica’s technology was based on mechanical accuracy, an attribute Yoshida’s fledgling company quickly grasped. By 1935, he had developed the first high-quality Japanese 35mm rangefinder. The machine was named the Hansa Canon, and included a body produced by Yoshida and an optical system built by Nikon.
Canon steadily produced upgraded versions of this camera design, notably introducing its own line of lenses in 1948 and creating the IV Sb model in 1952, the world’s first 35mm rangefinder with electronic flash sync. Also in 1952, the Asahiflex 1 became the first Japanese 35mm SLR. It was followed by models from Miranda, Yashica, Minolta, and, finally, Nikon. Although Nikon’s 35mm SLR wasn’t available for purchase until 1959, careful product development made this new F-series an instant success...
The Nikon F was designed as part of a larger system, which included a wide array of accessories and features, and was standardized to be interchangeable with new releases. Nikon’s F-series was the first 35mm SLR camera system to be widely adopted by professional photographers, and its popularity has held strong for more than 50 years. But as contemporary camera makers have moved away from film toward digital technologies, many have phased out 35mm production entirely; the last 35mm Nikon was the F6 from 2004.