While not directly on the topic of the relationship of great cameras and great photographs, I got thinking about great lines of cameras, and I thought I’d share my thoughts while I work on the larger topic.
In his New Yorker essay, Lane went further than saying that one camera model could offer tangible advantages to photographers; he attributed that property to the whole Leica M-series product line. There are great lines of cameras. There are occasionally lines of cameras that stand far above all others in their class. Poll a large group of photographers, and most would agree that the M-series Leicas were (and are) the pick of the 35mm rangefinder cameras, and that the Rolleiflex A through F (and maybe G) cameras occupy a similar place among 6×6 twin-lens reflexes. Most people would agree that the Linhof Technikas are the best of the small population of 4×5 rangefinder cameras; like the M-series Leicas, they are the only serious competitors for best in their class still in production. There would be less unanimity, but the 500-series leaf-shutter Hasselblads might get the nod in the medium-format SLR class. It wouldn’t be easy to get agreement on the best line of 35mm single-lens reflex cameras, monorail studio 4×5 view cameras, or folding 8x10s.
The four lines of cameras that have dominated their genre were produced over more than fifty years. All these cameras had significant changes as the model numbers changed. Let’s consider their history (Corrections are appreciated).
The Leica M3, introduced in 1954, fixed three problems with the III-series Leicas that preceded it. The finder was a marvel; it was clear and bright, combining the viewfinder and the rangefinder into a single device, so the photographer could compose and focus at the same time, while providing parallax-corrected bright outlines showing the coverage for several lenses. A bayonet-mount lens system instead of the screw mount of the previous cameras speeded lens changes. A lever-operated film winder allowed the photographer to advance the film with the camera still at eye level, although on the early cameras it took two pulls on the lever to advance one frame. There were a few smaller improvements: the shutter speed dial didn’t move during the exposure, and it was easier to load the film. All in all, the camera, as well built as it was well designed, was a tour de force, driving Canon out of the high end of the market, and sending Nikon back to the drawing boards, where they designed the S2, which didn’t quite catch up, and the SP, which arguably did, but then Nikon withdrew from the 35mm RF market. The M3 was inspired but not perfect, and Leica improved on the design over the years, switching to a single-pull film advance in the middle of the production run, brightening the finder and adding a rewind crank with the M4 in 1967. After the unloved and oversized TTL-metering M5, Leica, enamored of the SLR market, almost quit making Ms; a Canadian-built, cheaper-to-make version of the M4, the M4-2, kept the line alive, but compromised the reputation for quality. The M4-P added a more versatile finder. In 1984, Leica reintroduced TTL metering in the M6; electronic technology had improved enough that they didn’t have to pork up the body. The M7, introduced in 2002, added aperture-priority exposure automation. The next year, the MP, with TTL metering stripped out but improved build quality, filled out the product line. Leica also introduced many limited-production and/or commemorative models, and added a program whereby well-heeled customers can customize the configuration of their cameras by choosing finder magnification and finishes. In 50 years, much has changed in lens technology, and Leica has added aspherical elements, modern antireflective coatings, and even an odd kind of zoom lens.
In 1946, Linhof, who had been the first to manufacture an all-metal view camera, introduced the Technika III, a folding, rangefinder-focusing, 4×5 view camera from which all the modern Technikas were derived. Over the next 9 years, four design iterations occurred, adding a drop bed, more locks on the movements, and sturdier and more elegant construction. In 1956, Linhof began shipping the Technika IV, with an even more rigid body, front swings, optically centered lens tilt, and moveable infinity stops which eliminated the need for the user to file (!) indicators in the camera bed. Linhof came out with relatively minor modification to the IV called the Technika V in 1963, with perhaps the most significant change being standardized rangefinder cams. In 1972, the Master Technika hit the streets; it also was not much changed from its predecessor, the biggest change being a cutout in the top of the camera (hinged by the leatherette body cladding!) so the lens standard could be raised higher with short lenses before it bumped into the camera body. The current camera is the Technika 2000, which drops the rangefinder and adds a way to precisely focus lenses so short the front standard doesn’t reach the bed. With the exception of plastic tips on some levers, the Technika has avoided the predations of the cost-cutters with whom long-lived camera are sometimes afflicted. With the exception of the short-lived electronic rangefinder of the 2000, the Technika has also avoided photographic modernity, a good thing for the kind of instrument it is, in my opinion. Of course, the user is free to mount the most modern lens available.
Because The Rolleiflex cameras don’t have interchangeable lenses, (as far as I know, the Mamiya TLRs were the only twin-lens-reflex cameras with interchangeable lenses), there were a dizzying proliferation of models with different lens formulations, different maximum apertures, and different focal lengths. The make matters simple, I will discuss the evolution of the 80mm f/2.8 Rolleiflexes. In 1949, Franke & Heidecke (later renamed Rollei) introduced the Rolleiflex 2.8A, which featured a well-made body, crank film winding with film detection, X synch, and a sports finder. There were two taking lenses available, both made by Carl Zeiss; one was the Tessar, a famous four-element design which by then was a little long in the tooth. The 1952 2.8B featured a similar Zeiss Biometar lens. In 1953, the lenses took a big step forward, with Zeiss Planar and Schneider Xenotar lenses available, and some improvements to the controls. The 1955 2.8D kept the same lenses and coupled the shutter speed and aperture controls to support the EV system; today most would consider this a step backwards. The next year, the 2.8E added an uncoupled exposure meter. The 2.8F, considered by many to be the zenith of the line, first shipped in 1960. It featured the same Planar/Xenotar lens choices, filter exposure compensation, interchangeable focusing screens, coupling of the exposure meter to the shutter speed and aperture controls, and, in later iterations, the ability to take 220 film. The F was discontinued in 1984, ending with special (think gold or platinum plating and lizard skin), versions. After a five-year vacation, Rollei returned to the market with the a limited production reprise of the F, and its replacement, the 2.8 GX, which featured a Rollei-manufactured version of the Zeiss Planar with modern coatings, a coupled TTL exposure meter with LED indicators, dropping support for 220 film, and simplified construction when compared to the F. The 2.8GX was built until 2002, when Rollei replaced it with the 2.8 FX, a similar camera which is available today to anyone with an extra $4500 lying around.
In 1957, Hasselblad introduced the 500C, a 6×6 SLR with interchangeable (Compur, that’s what the C stands for) leaf-shutter lenses, film backs, film winders, and finders, replacing earlier 6×6 cameras with unreliable focal-plane shutters. The camera proved to be more than reliable; it was a workhorse. A line of excellent Zeiss lenses made the optics as desirable as the mechanics; these lenses have kept pace with optics technology over the years, adding modern coatings, exotic glass, aspherical surfaces, and floating elements (Early lenses have linked aperture and shutter speed controls, so that opening the lens a stop halves the exposure time; this feature, almost universally disliked today, was fashionable in the fifties and early sixties). After thirteen years, a successor camera, the 500C/M (M for modified) shipped, adding some refinements such as interchangeable finder screens. The 503CX, introduced in 1989, added TTL flash metering. The 503CXi removed the body-cocked indicator and the shutter lock. The 1994 501C improved the tripod mount, and removed the body-cocked indicator and the shutter lock. Sometime in the late 80s the focusing screens were improved for greater brightness. Many backs became available, including 6×6 and 6×4.5 220 backs, and, recently, digital backs. The 1996 503CW, and the 1997 501CM lengthened the mirror so that the finder showed the whole image with long lenses, and added a tricky mechanism so the new mirror wouldn’t smash into the camera as it flipped up. Like most of the manufacturers of long-lived, respected cameras, Hasselblad has constructed many limited-production and commemorative variations of the 500-series. In 2004 Imacon and Hasselblad merged [corrected — see comment]. The current cameras in the 500-series (called the V-series by Hasselblad) are the 501CM and the 503CWD, a 16MP digital version of the 503CW. They no longer the apex of the company’s product line, which has included motorized versions of the 500 series, a different 6×6 SLR with a focal-plane shutter, and the new top of the line, a family of completely new 6×4.5 and digital SLRs called the H-series, with lenses produced by Fuji.
If we stand back and squint at our sample of four, we can see some commonalities and draw some conclusions about how to produce a celebrated line of cameras.
Invent the genre. Leica was the first to design a still camera around 35mm motion picture film, they spent many years improving their designs, and then pit everything they knew into the M-series. Linhof was the first to manufacture metal folding view cameras. I don’t know if Franke & Heidecke came up with the idea for the TLR, but they were at least among the first, and they’d been at it for twenty-some-odd years before they designed the Rolleiflex 2.8A. Same with Hasselblad; I don’t know if they were the first medium-format SLR, but they were certainly among the first. They got their dodgy focal-plane-shutter cameras out of their system fairly quickly, shipping the 500C eight years after they built their first production consumer SLR.
Don’t stint on quality. All of the hyper-successful lines of cameras we looked at were, for at least most of their lives, built to an extremely high standard of quality, both in an absolute sense, and compared to the rest of the photographic world. Quality by itself won’t do the job, though. There are many manufacturers with equally high standard that never achieve the status of a legend.
Don’t be afraid to charge a lot. All of the above lines of cameras were expensive which they were first manufactured. All of them grew more expensive with time. The ones whose niches have dwindled to almost nothing (all but Hasselblad) have acquired jaw-dropping prices. Especially after you’re a legend, the customers are undeterred by high price; it may even add to the mythos.
Don’t give up. Three of the four camera lines are the last of their genre still in production. Leica almost dropped the M-series to concentrate on the SLR market. Rollei went after the medium format SLR market with some success, but continued to make the TLRs, with only occasional gaps on production. Linhof watched the exit from the market of the Speed and Crown Graphics (which some wouldn’t consider completion since they lacked full movements) and still kept plugging away until they were the last man standing.
Create artificial scarcity. Once your cameras are sufficiently celebrated, people want to buy them for other purposes than taking pictures. Many will want to collect them. Give them lots of different models to collect, with limited production runs and commemorative models.
Make sure you always have great optics. This doesn’t apply to Linhof, since the lens for a view camera is a separate purchasing decision. The quality of lenses has improved dramatically in the last fifty or sixty years. Better antireflection coatings, computer-aided design techniques, new low-dispersion glasses and fluorites, and aspherical curvatures have all combined to yield crisper, sharper lenses. Since the ability to make great pictures is necessary (but not sufficient) for camera greatness, any long-lived line of cameras musy keep pace with the state of the optical art.
Except for optics, don’t try to keep pace with technology. Linhof has completely ignored electronics, except for their failed electronic rangefinder, and it hasn’t hurt them a bit. Leica’s attempt to include cutting edge exposure metering, the M5, turned out to be a step backwards. Leica learned their lesson; the contemporary digital M8 has only aperture-priority auto-exposure and no auto focus. The selenium light meters on Rolleiflexes now look sort of silly; at least the clip-on Leica meters can be removed and stored safely in the bottom of a drawer. When Hasselblad decided at the turn of the century to make a state-of-the-art camera line, they started afresh, rather than overburdening the 500 series with technology for which it is ill-suited.
Legendary status is not necessarily something to be sought; in all three of the four cases we’ve discussed, with Hasselblad the exception, it’s been achieved by dominating a shrinking market. There’s no clear winning line of 35 mm SLR cameras, because there are many (well, two, if you raise the bar high enough) contenders for the title. Because of the vibrant market, there’s plenty of competition, so no manufacturer can rest on their laurels long enough to have a single long-lived line of cameras. Although there is a modest amount of lens compatibility between the Nikon F and the F6, the cameras are almost completely different from each other; they are members of the same line in name only. During the same time period, Canon has made even greater changes, including, in 1987, a change in lens mount that forced customers to abandon their lens collections to use current bodies.