Celebrating 100 years: Nikon landmarks

As Nikon celebrates its 100th anniversary, we take a look back at some of milestones in the company's history.

1917: the birth of Nikon

The Oi Dai-ichi Plant (now the Oi Plant) was completed in 1918, enabling the production of optical glass for Nikon’s first products

Nikon began as Nippon Kogaku K.K. (Japan Optical Industries Co., Ltd) on 25 July 1917, within the Tokyo Keiki company at 120 Haramachi, Koishikawa-ku (present-day Hakusan 4-chome, Bunkyo-ku) in Tokyo. 

The design and mass production of cameras and interchangeable lenses wasn’t the company’s focus, as Nippon Kogaku would find its feet – and build its reputation – with the design and production of optical instruments such as rangefinders and microscopes.

At this point in Japan’s history, the production of advanced optical instruments was a matter of national urgency. Entrusted with this objective was Koyata Iwasaki, the president of Mitsubishi and nephew of Mitsubishi founder Yataro Iwasaki.

To realise this ambition, plans were made to establish an optics company by merging the Optical Instruments Department of Tokyo Keiki Seisakusho and the Reflecting Mirror Department of Iwaki Glass Manufacturing, to form a comprehensive, fully integrated optical company known as Nippon Kogaku K.K. 

Immediately after it was established, Nippon Kogaku merged with Fuji Lens Seizo-sho in 1918. The following year, the Oi Dai-ichi Plant, where Nikon’s first cameras would eventually be made, was completed, and the company started to research optical glass production – although it wouldn’t be until 1923 that the company would begin test-melting dedicated optical glass.

1932: Nikkor brand name established

Historically, Japan had been reliant on other countries for the supply of photographic lenses, but there was a strong desire to produce lenses domestically. Designers were dispatched to Europe to observe its optical industry, and devoted their time to gathering information on photographic lenses, visiting camera store after camera store in Berlin. In addition, eight German designers were brought to work at Nikon, including renowned optical engineer Heinrich Acht.

After much trial and error, the company produced its first lens in 1929, the Anytar 12cm f/4.5. A range of lens models were subsequently developed, and the prospect of photographic lens manufacture became a reality. When considering a brand name, Nikon settled upon NIKKOR after deciding to combine the ‘NIKKO‘ abbreviation of the ‘Nippon Kogaku‘ company name, with the letter ‘R’ often used as a suffix for photographic lens names at the time. This name was registered as a trademark in 1932.

1946: Nikon is adopted as a brand name

When deciding what to call a compact camera developed to meet the strong demand for domestically produced cameras, the company came up with the name ‘Nikorette‘, which was tentatively used. The company eventually shelved this idea, opting to use the Nikko base and added an ‘N’ to the end, which creates a more masculine impression in the Japanese language, and thus the official Nikon name was born.

1948: Nikon Model I

Though it’s now a brand, the name ‘Nikon’ was originally ascribed to the first camera produced by company Nippon Kogaku. By the middle of the 1930s, the company was making screw-mount lenses for Leica and early Canon cameras, but camera production didn’t commence until after World War II.

Less than two years after the completion of blueprints in September 1946, the company’s Nikon Model I was launched in March 1948. It was the first sold as ‘Nikon’, but ‘Model I’ was added to the name to distinguish it from later cameras.

The design and construction of the Nikon I was an intriguing blend of both pre-war Contax and Leica rangefinders. These were indisputably the premier 35mm-format cameras of the time. In terms of shape, it resembled a 1936 Zeiss Contax. Like that camera, the Nikon I also used a bayonet lens-mount system, instead of Leica’s screw mount. Film-loading was done via a removable back (again a Contax feature) rather than a removable base (favoured by Leica). However, the Japanese designers preferred a horizontal-travel cloth shutter, in the style of Leica, over the vertical-travel metal shutter of Contax.

The Nikon Model I was highly anticipated after being advertised in magazines and via other channels before its release. At the time, supply could not keep up with the demand for domestically produced cameras, but the real battle began the moment the camera went on sale. Designers had to take on board plenty of feedback from customers, but they responded by overcoming any issues one by one, and quickly made improvements.The Nikon M followed in 1949, and the Nikon S the following year.

1959: Nikon F

The first SLR camera made by Nikon. It proved to be a landmark camera with a specification that included interchangeable prisms and focusing screens, a depth of field preview, a large bayonet lens mount and a fully removable back. No other SLR of the day had this degree of detail.

During the 1960s, it was the main choice for war photographers in Vietnam, while press pros liked its 250- exposure back and motor drive for shooting the launches of both the Gemini and Apollo space capsules.

By the time the F was succeeded by the F2 in the early 1970s, over 860,000 of its bodies had rolled off the assembly line. The bayonet lens mount it introduced is still a feature of every Nikon DSLR.

1967: Nikon F Photomic TN

Visually, there’s little to distinguish the TN from the T, but this iteration of the Nikon F gave the world its first taste of centre-weighted metering, a feature that to this day still makes the specifications sheet of Nikon DSLRs.

1971: joining the space race

In January 1971, Nikon agreed a contract in response to a request from NASA. This was to supply cameras to record the Apollo 15 mission to the lunar surface to be launched that year, and for the Apollo 17 mission planned for the following year. The Photomic FTN was selected as the base for the development.

NASA gave Nikon designated specifications to ensure that these cameras would function correctly in the extreme environments of space. These included use of NASA-specified materials such as lubricants and high shock-absorption characteristics, and to prevent possible problems due to the reflection of sunlight, the exterior of the devices were to be matte black. The 55mm f/1.2 lenses that were to be mounted to the cameras also had to be finished in matte black.

By June, all of these criteria had been satisfied and the company supplied NASA with nine cameras. These products were heading for the moon the following month with the launch of Apollo 15. The NASA-specification Nikon Photomic FTN was also later adopted as a special camera system used in Skylab, a mission which would see three astronauts living in space over a prolonged period. 

The cameras were designed to photograph the Earth’s ozone layer and Auroras.

Nikon used the space programme to pioneer new technologies, and in 1991 it constructed a DSLR for the Space Shuttle. Known as the Nikon NASA F4 electronic still camera, it featured a digital back on an F4 body, a separate processor and a laptop computer mounted on a playback-downlink unit (PDU). Compact and bijou it wasn’t!

1971: Nikon F2

Although the Nikon F evolved through the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1971 that a ‘true’ successor to the mainline camera arrived. The Nikon F2 was designed with four requirements in mind: it had to maintain the highest possible quality, offer easier and automatic operation, be faster to shoot 

with and, crucially, maintain the ‘F’-system compatibility with interchangeable lenses and accessories.

The camera featured improved functionality and refined details such as a reliable 1/2,000 sec high-speed shutter to satisfy professional photographers, 1/80 sec flash sync (the original F offers 1/60 sec), a 2-10 second slow shutter that utilised a self-timer mechanism, a built-in ready light, a large-size mirror, hinged rear-lid and a more convenient shutter button position.

1972: Nikomat (Nikkormat) EL

The Nikomat (Nikkormat outside of Japan) was developed with serious enthusiasts in mind, and while the EL wasn’t the first SLR camera to feature a built-in auto-exposure mechanism (that honour went to the Nikon AUTO 35), it was the first-generation electronic camera from Nikon to offer aperture-priority auto-exposure with exposure memory lock. 

1977: NOCT-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2

Nikon’s reputation for producing high-quality lenses has been enhanced over the years by an ability to manufacture specialist optics that few other lens makers would consider. One such lens was the 58mm f/1.2 Noct-NIKKOR AI. 

One of the rarest of all NIKKORs, it was designed for handheld low-light, night-time and astronomical shooting (‘Noct’ is an abbreviation of nocturnal). The Noct-NIKKOR was made for use at maximum aperture. 

The f/1.2 aperture meant it was the fastest NIKKOR lens ever made (along with the 50mm f/1.2 AI and 55mm f/1.2 NIKKORs). More significant was the optical performance: at f/1.2, image sharpness and contrast at the centre were as good as other standard lenses when stopped down. The key to this was a hand-polished aspherical coating on the front lens element, which also contributed to a smoothly defocused bokeh. 

1980: Nikon F3

As a flagship model, the Nikon F3 adopted brand-new electronic technologies of the day, such as the first electronic shutter control and aperture priority auto-exposure control mechanism. The camera also featured new functions such as an LCD viewfinder display, TTL sensor located at the bottom of the camera mirror box, and Speedlight TTL light control. 

But when Nikon decided to create a mark of distinction for its new camera, it called in one of Italy’s greatest product designers, Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose product design was honed in the car industry on the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Audi 80 and Lotus Esprit. The red line on the F3 was important because it marked the first time that colour had been added to the exterior of a pro SLR. Giugiaro also added a red stripe to the company’s first autofocus compact, the L35AF, when it launched in 1983. An identity was born.

“The red line was really a style point to add a bit of flair to a professional camera that had been all in black,” Giugiaro said in a 2007 interview. “It’s natural, however, for something that is functional to evolve into something beautiful.” The F3’s red line changed into a thicker stripe on the F4, and then into an elongated ellipse on the F5. By 2003 it had been replaced by a red triangle on the D2H. The creative process continues with the D4 and D800, on which the triangle has been flattened to resemble a red brow beneath the sub-command dial.

1988: Nippon Kogaku K.K. becomes Nikon

On 1 April 1988 the Nippon Kogaku K.K. company restarted as the Nikon Corporation. At the time, the Nikon brand already possessed an excellent reputation in a number of fields. The name was changed in order to make it easier to expand as an international company, and to take advantage of its reputation for reliability. 

1988: Nikon F4

Less than five years after the launch of the F3, the rapid development of camera technology meant Nikon began planning a replacement for its flagship camera. 

Autofocus was of primary concern because body-integral AF systems were in their infancy and many pros remained unconvinced about relying on AF. Nikon knew that the success of the F4 depended on it possessing the most advanced and dependable body-integral AF system of the time. 

By the launch date of September 1988, the F4 had won over doubting pros by including focus tracking for moving subjects – the first Nikon to do so – and being the first pro Nikon body to include a built-in winder.

Giorgetto Giugiaro was hired again, and his design emphasised the camera’s level of automation by replacing cranks and levers with buttons and dials.

1999: The Nikon D1 revolution

Based on the concepts of ‘superb image quality’, ‘ultra-high speed’ and ‘ease of use,’ the project to develop the Nikon D1 DSLR camera was begun directly under the president. The challenge he set was to bring the project to fruition within two years. 

Team leaders asked for three years, on the grounds that two years was insufficient, as the company did not possess much accumulated digital technology at that time. The response was “Nikon does not have that much time right now” and the company endeavoured to make it happen in just two short years.

The D1 was a ground-breaking device that offered the comprehensive strengths of excellent image quality, operability and functionality while being only about a third of the price of competitors’ products, at JPY 650,000, thereby spurring on the popularisation of digital SLR cameras. 

The D1 featured a 2.7MP image sensor, 4.5-frames-per-second continuous shooting, and was of course compatible with the full range of Nikon F-mount lenses. The design was based on the F5 and had the same general layout of controls, which helped to ensure that existing users of Nikon film SLR cameras were able to transition from film to digital relatively seamlessly. 

Since then, Nikon has continued to produce advanced flagship models exceeding professional expectations, right up to the new D5 DSLR, but it’s the D1 that is rightly seen as a major milestone in the digital photography era.

2000: First for Vibration Reduction

Nikon was the first manufacturer to include optical Vibration Reduction (VR) in a camera (1994’s Nikon Zoom 700VR / Zoom-Touch 105 VR QD), but its first interchangeable lens with built-in VR followed six years later. The AF VR Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED enabled pictures to be taken handheld at a shutter speed that was three stops slower than you ordinarily could without using a VR lens, and still get sharp results – assuming the subject wasn’t moving of course.

2007: Nikon D3

Nikon’s first full-frame camera was announced in the summer of 2007, going on sale early the following year. Nikon described the new 36 x 24mm sensor as ‘FX format’ and didn’t stack the extra space with more pixels – the D3 actually had slightly fewer pixels (12.1MP) than the D2X (12.2MP). 

The D3’s specification improved on those of previous pro models in every sense. For example, it featured a record-beating continuous drive of 9fps, a 51-point autofocus system and a 3in LCD monitor with a 922,000-dot screen.

Pros were also impressed by the auto ISO mode, which set the ISO rating to meet your desired shutter speed. This is a common feature now, but was pioneered with the D3. The camera was also praised for its lack of noise at higher ISO ratings. Here was a body that proved you could shoot at ISO1,000, 2,000 or higher with confidence.

2008: Nikon D90

Filmmakers have been quick to take advantage of the cinematic look that affordable and easy-to-position DSLRs can bring to their productions. But it was the Nikon D90 that really started the video-recording revolution.

The first DSLR with a dedicated movie mode, the D90 offered HD video and sound recording. With a maximum resolution of 1,280×720 pixels at 24fps, it trounced all but a few digital compacts, made MiniDV camcorders look a bit sick and, with its comparatively large APS-C sensor and access to the vast NIKKOR lens range, it was capable of providing perspectives not possible with typical HD camcorders.

2012: Nikon D800/D800E

It’s hard to believe that the D800 is only five years old. With its FX-format sensor packing 36.3 effective megapixels, the excitement surrounding its announcement was unprecedented. Although it has a more densely populated sensor, the D800 utilised many of the new features of the previously announced 16.2MP D4 in a smaller body and at a cheaper price. These include the EXPEED 3 processor, the 51-point Multi-Cam 3500 FX autofocus system and the same 91K-pixel metering system. It was also capable of focusing right down to -2 EV, which, coupled with its ability to shoot at up to ISO25,600, made it the low-light shooting king.

The D800 was available in two versions: a ‘standard’ body, plus a special edition, the D800E. The latter had a modified filter over the sensor with no anti-aliasing qualities, allowing for a potentially greater amount of detail to be resolved.

2017: D5 and D500 100th Anniversary Editions

So here we are. One hundred years on from the day Nippon Kogaku was formed to further Japan’s interests in the world of optical instruments. And it’s fair to say that Nikon has been instrumental in furthering our knowledge of the world through its optical excellence.

Nikon has prepared a range of special-edition cameras, lenses and accessories to mark its 100-year milestone. Heading the line-up are 100th Anniversary Editions of the current flagship FX and DX DSLRs – the D5 and D500 – each of which features an attractive metallic grey body with a 100th Anniversary logo on one side of the pentaprism.

Both the D5 and D500 are supplied with specially designed body caps and embossed leather straps, each of which features the 100th Anniversary logo, and come cocooned in a bespoke metal case with a plate engraved with the 100th Anniversary logo, along with the camera’s serial number.

To distinguish the special-edition D5 further, not only is it supplied with an anniversary booklet that celebrates Nikon’s contribution to space exploration, but the bottom of the camera is engraved with the message: ‘Nikon – contributing to manned space flight since 1971’. 

This feature was originally published in N-Photo Magazine, to subscribe, click here

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