Innovations in 35mm SLR Camera Design: 1980 to 2000

In 1980, the Nikon F3 was the first 35mm SLR with a viewfinder liquid crystal digital data display (LCD). This showed little more than shutter speed information, but it started a design trend that virtually all SLRs adopted in some form.

German company Rolleiflex was the first of several companies (including Yashica’s Samurai, and Ricoh’s Mirai later in the 1980s) that attempted – and failed – to introduce an alternative camera shape with their now forgotten SL 2000 F. Let’s just say it didn’t prove popular. In the same year (1981), Pentax marketed the ME F: a heavily modified ME Super that was the first 35mm SLR with built-in auto-focus. This used a passive contrast detection system, which worked poorly, and was a commercial flop.

Sigma was more successful, and produced a 21-35mm f/3.5-4 zoom lens: the first super-wide angle zoom lens for SLRs. I’m not going attempt to address the technicalities, other than to say that computer-aided design made possible something previously thought to be impossible.

On to 1982, and Ricoh’s XR-S was the first solar-powered SLR. It was another unsuccessful idea.

1983 proved to be a better year. The Pentax Super A was the first SLR with external LCD data display.

One of several leaps forward came in the shape of two new, and highly sophisticated metering systems. Nikon’s FA was the first camera with multi-segmented metering (also know as matrix metering), which used an on-board microprocessor to analyze light levels in five different segments of the field of view, and determine the best compromise exposure. For the time, it was so advanced the buying public didn’t take to the camera; they neither understood how it worked, not trusted its accuracy, but Matrix meters became standard in 35 mm SLRs by 1990, and digital cameras that followed – where this system is more commonly known as evaluative metering.

At the other end of the metering spectrum, Olympus produced the OM-4: the first camera with built-in multiple spot-meter, which could measure eight individual spots and average them for precise exposure in difficult lighting situations.

Still in 1983, Minolta scored the biggest hit when they launched the Alpha 7000, which became the first commercially successful auto-focus 35 mm SLR, and additionally introduced totally automated film handling (auto-load, wind, rewind and film speed setting). This camera was revolutionary, and its auto-focus innovations permanently changed 35mm SLR design. Other manufacturers were either forced to get on-board with auto-focus, or withdraw from the 35mm SLR arena (e.g. Mamiya, Fujica, Chinon). The Alpha 7000 started Minolta on the path to become (briefly) the number one camera manufacturer. However, as is often the way, before too long Minolta suffered a reversal of fortunes, were forced to merge with Konica, and finally stopped making cameras in 2006.

The next innovation came in 1987, when Pentax brought us the SFX, which was the first interchangeable lens SLR with a built-in electronic flash coupled with through-the-lens (TTL) auto-exposure. In a short space of time, built-in TTL auto-flashes became standard on all but the most expensive 35 mm SLR cameras.

Meanwhile Canon gave us the EOS 650 and 620, which used a new EF mount lens mount. This was the first all-electronic contact camera lens mount. Previously, camera-to-lens linkages had been mainly mechanical, but auto-focus required data exchange between camera and lens, and so the lens mount effectively became a computer data port.

The next year (1988) Minolta‘s Maxxum 7000i featured the first multi-sensor auto-focus SLR. While first generation auto-focus SLRs had a single central focus sensor, the Maxxum 7000i used an H pattern array of sensors to cope with focusing on off-centre subjects. This set the trend of growing numbers of auto-focus sensors.

By the end of the 1980s, most commercially successful cameras bristled with technology, and did all the thinking for the photographer. Point and shoot photography had become the order of the day.

Come 1991, it was ironically the company who had given birth to the popularisation of film photography that began its demise. Kodak Digital Camera Systems heavily modified a Nikon F3 to produce the first digital SLR camera. It was ridiculously expensive (and stupidly large), but it marked the beginning of the next generation of cameras, and the move away from film photography.

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