28 July 2009

Nikonians and Canonistas (Part 1)

Anyone even modestly familiar with modern photography will know that the two main rival manufacturers are Nikon and Canon. They have been slugging it out most earnestly since Canon introduced the pro Canon F-1 system in 1971, challenging Nikon from then to today for dominance among professional 35mm photographers.

Nikon has long had powerful, iconic appeal. It invented the modern SLR system with the 1959 introduction of the Nikon F, which was widely adopted by professionals. Several other makers developed similar SLR systems, but in the SLR golden age of the 1970s, Nikon and Canon reigned supreme.

The turning point for both companies was in the late 80s, with the advent of autofocus (AF). Second-tier companies are often freer to innovate that market leaders, because market leaders must protect the success of existing product lines. So it was Minolta who first moved their SLR line to autofocus beginning with the Maxxum 7000 in 1985. This camera was hugely successful and it forced Nikon and Canon to adopt autofocus or die. They both had tried it out in novelty products, but now it was clear they had to make a wholesale switch to AF systems.

Both companies, and their customers, had invested enormous resources into manual-focus (MF) systems. This was a most important consideration with respect to lenses. A professional photog with many $1000s invested in MF lenses would be loath to buy an AF camera body on which they would not work. Nikon, in particular, had been producing F-mount lenses since 1959 that worked on even their most modern cameras. And that Nikon glass enjoyed iconic status.

The full complement of Nikon F-series lenses from the mid-70s.

There were two basic routes makers could take in AF SLR design. The first was to make AF lenses electro-mechanical, housing a mechanical focusing mechanism in the camera body which linked to the lens. This made lenses lighter and cheaper, and also enabled manufacturers to retain compatibility with older MF lenses (even if losing AF and perhaps some metering functions when employing them). The downside was that in-body mechanical systems could never be as fast and quiet as all-electronic systems. It also made camera bodies more expensive.

The second option, then, was to house focusing drives in the lenses themselves and make the lens-body linkage purely electronic. But with this design, no MF lenses would work with the camera at all. This would therefore make sense for a maker without a legacy MF system to support, but otherwise you would both risk alienating longtime loyalists and require yourself to produce an entirely new system from scratch.

It probably made sense at the time for Nikon to go the electro-mechanical route, which they did. They had an unparalleled legacy system to protect. Canon had a little less to lose and more to gain. But it was still a bold stroke for them to break entirely with their FL/FD manual-focus systems and introduce the purely electronic EF lens mount with their new EOS camera system, starting with the EOS 650 in 1987.

But Canon made the right move. (Part 2)

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