The roots of Nikon go back to 1917, when three of Japan’s leading optical manufacturers joined forces to become Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushikigaisha (translated, it means the Japan Optical Industries Company). Soon after its founding, Nippon Kogaku invited eight Germans who specialized in camera-lens design to advise the company on its early lens prototypes—Nippon Kogaku had its sights set on industry giant Zeiss. It wasn't until 1932 that Sunayama Kakuya, head of the company's design department, finally succeeded in creating a high-quality lens for the Japanese firm.

A new shortened name, Nikkor, was adopted for the this new line of lenses, which were designed to be compatible with the successful Leica cameras from Germany. Sales were good, but in the lead up to World War II, Nippon Kogaku mostly produced items like binoculars, bomb sights, and periscopes for the Japanese military. By the end of the 1930s, the company’s production had expanded to 19 different factories employing more than 23,000 workers.

After the war, Nippon Kogaku needed to transition from military equipment to optical products for everyday life. A camera to go with the company's popular lenses was a cornerstone of that effort. Though development on what would become the Nikon I began as early as 1945, the camera wasn't released until 1948. Eventually, the company rebranded itself as The Nikon Corporation to match the name of its most successful product.

The Nikon I was a hybrid of sorts, employing features from leading camera designs of the day to create an entirely new professional-quality device. It utilized novel shutter placement and light-meter technologies, while Nikon’s history of military production ensured that the camera received rigorous product testing in extreme environments, from a meteorological lab to a fish-market freezer. The first Nikon I cameras were marked with the words “Made in Occupied Japan,” and today the rarity of these models makes them desirable among collectors.

Nikon I designers embraced the historical trend of using smaller film sizes as camera technologies improved. In fact, the first Nikon I used film that was slightly smaller than the standard at the time. Unfortunately, automatic slide-cutting machines commonly used in the United States would soon cause problems for Nikon’s new smaller film size, and require the company to rethink this change.

Despite its long development period and demanding rounds of testing, the Nikon I had numerous design issues. Accordingly, the company’s second camera, the improved Nikon M, was released in October of 1949. Toward the end of 1950, a sync contact for a flash mechanism was finally added for the release of the Nikon S, further boosting Nikon’s attractiveness to professionals.

That same year, "LIFE" magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan became enthralled with the company’s Nikkor lenses after a chance visit to the Nikon plant in Ohi. As the only Japan-based photographer for the renowned American magazine, Duncan quickly adopted Nikon products, and he continued to use them while covering the Korean War...

For Duncan, one of the chief appeals of his Nikon was that it functioned well in severe winter weather. The experiences of Duncan and other journalists shooting the Korean War influenced Nikon’s decision to give its subsequent camera designs a non-reflecting matte black exterior, thereby minimizing the camera's visibility to the enemy in dangerous combat situations. Before long, the "New York Times" was calling the camera a “sensation,” remarking that the Japanese camera “had proved superior to the German cameras” in the eyes of press photographers.

The pairing of Nikkor lenses with Leica or Contax cameras had become the norm for photographers abroad, so the release of a comparable Nikon camera for the export market was highly anticipated. Adjustments to the body design, shutter synchronization, viewfinder quality, and film size resulted in the Nikon S2 of 1954, the most successful model Nikon had released so far.

Nikon S2 negative images were slightly larger than the ones that had preceded them, bringing them closer to the established world standard of 35mm. Its lighter aluminum-alloy body made the Nikon S2 extremely portable and preferred by everyone from amateur family photographers to photojournalists working in harsh conditions.

In 1955, the company began making changes to the S2’s viewfinder technology in order to compete with the current industry leader, the Leica M3. Two years later, the first Nikon F Single Lens Reflex (SLR) series was ready for sale. The success of SLR cameras was due to the improvement of previewing an image directly through a camera’s lens. Earlier viewfinder designs required so-called "optical path diversion," meaning the printed photograph often varied from what was seen by the photographer when he snapped the shutter.

Prior to the Nikon F, Japanese-made cameras were generally seen as inferior to their German counterparts, though their shortcomings were offset by a significantly lower cost. Priced at $359.50 for its debut at the Philadelphia photo show in March of 1959, the new Nikon F was not inexpensive, but it was a professional-grade 35mm machine that soon dominated the market, leaving Leica in the dust.

In addition to a number of general upgrades, the Nikon F was designed to accept a portable electric motor. This meant still photographs could now be taken at four frames per second, an amazing advancement for photojournalists. Simultaneously, a wide range of lenses and accessories for the Nikon F were also released. In fact, Nikon has continued to make cameras compatible with the Nikon F's lens mount ever since, making the F-style mount (a bayonet system using three interlocking lugs on both camera and lens) the largest system of interchangeable lenses in history. Today, even new Nikon Digital SLR cameras are compatible with this early design.

Besides the Nikon F’s array of features and its adaptable design, it was also virtually indestructible. As the famous New York camera repairman Marty Forcher once put it, “It’s a hockey puck.”

Concurrent with the F-series, Nikon also pushed into specialized photography realms, from cameras designed for scientific research to the fields of motion pictures and digital imaging. One particularly interesting departure for Nikon was the release of the Fisheye Camera in 1957, which was an updated version of a rounded fisheye lens design developed by the company before World War II. Improvements to the format allowed photographers to capture the entire sky above the horizon line in a single image. Although the model was never adopted by the general population, these cameras had important meteorological and defense applications.

By 1971, Nikon had designed a modified version of the Nikon F called the Photomic FTN for use on the Apollo 15 mission. Improvements to the camera included changes in the adhesives used to hold its black metal body together, the design of the battery chamber, and the introduction of enlarged exterior parts for winding and advancing the film.

If Nikon has had one blind spot, it was in the area of consumer movie cameras, although it was not for a lack of trying. In 1960, Nikon released the Nikkorex 8, an early 8mm film camera. Designed to be a compact amateur home-movie device, the Nikkorex is distinctive for its tall rectangular book-like shape. Its motor was driven by 4 AA-size batteries, and later models came with zoom lenses.

During the late 1970s, a new Video Feasibility team was established at Nikon to research and develop a camera using emerging videotape technologies. In June of 1982, Nikon released the fruits of that effort, the Color Video Camera S-100. Even by early-80s standards, the S-100 was bulky. The complete outfit included a handheld film camera attached to a portable video deck, which was designed to be carried over a shoulder. Not surprisingly, the unwieldy product was not a great success, and Nikon soon abandoned the field of video products altogether.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Collection D'Appareils Photo

Collection D'Appareils Photo

While we couldn't read everthing - it's mostly in French - the images on this site speak for themselves. Its an ext… [read review or visit site]

Magic Mirror of Life

Magic Mirror of Life

Jack and Beverly Wilgus have put together a great trove of information and images of camera obscura-related photos … [read review or visit site]

Cameras and Co

Cameras and Co

An impressive collection of antique and vintage cameras, this site features high-resolution images of over 120 came… [read review or visit site]

George Eastman House

George Eastman House

This showcase of vintage cameras and photography is plainly designed, but the camera collection and related referen… [read review or visit site]

Antique Cameras D. Tristram Ludwig

Antique Cameras D. Tristram Ludwig

David Tristram Ludwig shares high resolution images of his in-depth personal collection of antique cameras, includi… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Nikon Sp Rangefinder + 5cm F1.4 Nikkor Angenieux 70-210mm F3.5 Nikon MountNikon F Camera Body W/ Nikon F Model 2 Clip On Light Meter WorkingBlack Nikon F Photomic Meter Camera Nikkor 50mm F2 Lens With HoodNikkormat Ft 35mm Camera With Nippon Kogku Lens & Case - NikonNikon F Body (early) With F36 Motor Drive!!. Ex- Cosmetics. Speeds Look Good. Vintage Nikon F Photomic 35mm Slr Film Camera With Instructions, For PartsVintage Nikon S3 Camera With CaseNikon Nikkor 50mm F1.4 Ai-s Ais Manual Focus Prime LensVintage Nikon F Nikkor-q 13.5cm F/3.5 Tick Mark 135 Nippon Kogaku Lens Pat PendTamron Sp 23a F3.8-5.4 60-300mm Telephoto Zoom Lens 1:1.55 Macro Nikon Ai-e, FdNikon Nikonos Iii 3 Diving Underwater Film Camera 35mm Lens With Strap Nikkor Nikon 35mm Camera, Nikon Len, Micro- Nikkor 105mm 1:2..8234586, Len/ Cokin, Lot Of 4 Vintage 35mm Slr Cameras For Parts Or Repair Olympus Canon Nikon ArgusNikon F90 Vintage Slr Camera Body OnlyNikon Type One Reflex Housing For Rf Nikons. Very Rare! Less Than 150 Ever Made!Nikon Nikomat Ft 35mm Slr Film Camera W/ Nikkor 50mm 1:2 LensVintage Nikon F3 Camera Body Plus 3 Lenses, Md4 Motor Drive And Sb-17 StrobeKodak Professional Dcs Proslrn Full Frame Digital Dslr W/strap & ChargerNikon F Body Only With F36 Motor Drive!!. Ex- Cosmetics. Speeds Look Good. Bolex H16 Reflex 16mm Movie Camera 28-105mm C-mount/nikon Mount Zoom1968-nikon F-35mm-slr Film Camera + Photomic Prism Meter-case-strap-body Only-nrNikon Rangefinder P Repro Copy Stand Kit With Case, Tubes And Auxilliary Lens Vintage Nikon S3 S-3 Rangefinder Camera Body Nippon Kogaku Fully Working 1958Nikon Manual Camera Fm2500233 Vivitar Flash & Kaka 818 Bundle LotNikon Nikonos-iii 35mm Underwater Camera W/ Nikkor-w 35mm *vintage* Nikon Nikkor-q / F=200mm / Aut 1:4 [# 522264] Camera LensVintage Nikon 8x Super Zoom Super 8mm Movie CameraNikon Nippon Kagaku S 2 Range Finder With Nikkor S-c 1:1.4 F=5cm LensNikon F Prism Body & 50mm/f1.4 Nikkor. Ex- Cosmetics.slow Speeds Off From DisuseNikon Black Brite Line 105mm Finder W/case. Late Version. Beautiful Condition!Vintage Nikon Em Slr 35 Mm Camera With 50 Mm LensNikon Black Brite Line 135mm Finder W/case. Late Version. Beautiful Condition!Lot Of 35 Mm Slr Canon,nikon,pentax, Film Cameras, Lenses, Caps, Hoods, Etc Nikon Pre-ai Mount Tamron Adapt-a-matic 80-250mm F3.8 Early 70's Vintage Zoom!!Vintage Nikon Em 35mm Slr W/ 50mm F1:1.8 E Series Lens Nice ConditionVivitar Mc Macro Focusing Zoom 75-150mm F3.8 Nikon Ai Lens Exc CondNikon Nikkor -h.c Auto 1:2 F=50mm Nippon Kogaku Manual Focus Nikon F Lens 50/f2Box & Plastic Case Only Nikon F Nikkor-auto Lens 3.5cm 35mm F:2.8 - 2 Of 3!Nikon Af Point And Shoot L35 2.5 Ec With Uv FilterBox & Plastic Case Only Nikon F Nikkor-auto Lens 2.8cm 28mm F:3.5 - 1 Of 3!Box & Plastic Case Only Nikon F Nikkor-auto Lens 10.5cm 105mm F:2.5 - 3 Of 3!Tokina Rmc 80-200 4.5 Zoom In Nikon Ai Mount