The Nikon Rangefinder System - The Book

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The Nikon Rangefinder System - The Book
By Jonathan Eastland


That was the time when LIFE magazine photojournalists David Douglas Duncan and Horace Bristol, in transit through Tokyo en route to cover the war raging in Korea, were persuaded by a young Japanese stringer to visit a camera factory in the Shinagawa district of the city.

Out of the chaos and rubble of World War II, Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kaisha - Japan Optical Company Ltd., - struggled to rebuild its manufacturing programme; it had once employed 23,000 workers in more than 20 factories. Now it was reduced to 2 and a mere 1400 employees.

In the west, the regard for post war Japanese manufactured products of almost any description bordered on the dismissive. Certainly for cameras and optics, the general perception was that only Europe and the USA had the know-how to put together the high quality equipment demanded by professionals. But, as Duncan wrote to me years later after his Yankee Nomad was published in the 1960s, it was the young Japanese photographer's enthusiasm for the new products which persuaded him and Bristol to take time out of a busy schedule for the visit.

One can speculate on where Nippon Kogaku - the mighty and familiar Nikon of today, would be in the pecking order had the LIFE reporters passed up the invitation; both purchased sets of the then new Nikkor rangefinder lenses in Leica screw mount before departing for Korea. The rest of the story is now well documented history. Nikon products came to the USA to be marketed by Joe Erenreich who was soon to be voluntarily assisted by the legendary stories attaching to press photographers and photojournalists using Nikon cameras and lenses; it was Duncan's own coverage of the war which set the pace.

Unlike the outstandingly successful Nikon F slr launched in 1959, the Nikon rangefinder models which began production in 1947 and (apart from more recent limited edition re-issues.) ceased in the 1960s, were produced in relatively small quantities. Thus there is nothing like the diversity of products in the rangefinder group as there is with Leica, nor the length of history attaching to the latter. Nonetheless, such items as can be found in pristine condition appeal to a small group of international Nikon rangefinder collectors, enough at any rate to persuade the doyen historian of the brand to author the most comprehensive work on the subject to date; Robert J Rotoloni's The Complete Nikon Rangefinder System was published at the end of last year by Hove Foto Books at £55.00 Sterling Pounds.


Complete is probably an understatement. Bob's monumental tome runs to 528 pages in a large, near A4 format, with 24 pages of colour photos by Tony Hurst and countless black and white product illustrations, many previously unpublished.

While the author is well known for his previous books on the subject, none can match this new volume for its extent or depth of coverage. Following the book's introduction, chapters on Japan's Optical Industry.... Nipoon Kogaku: The Early Years...The 'Fuketa Tapes' lay out the backdrop to how these superb tools came into existence; they are followed by detailed chapters on each production model as well as several experimental prototypes.

Of possible interest to Leica rangefinder enthusiasts is the story behind the Nikon SPX prototype , which according to Rotolini's research, was a fully working model at the Ohi Nikon factory by 1962. This means that it must have been on the drawing board and under development for a number of years before this date.

The most obvious feature of the SPX featured in b+w illustrations in this new book is its Leica-M lens mount. But it also featured TTL metering using a very similar cds cell on a stalk principle to that used in the Leica M5 launched in 1971 and the compact Leica CL of 1973. The idea was developed by Leitz first in a TTL prototype M4, a design forerunner of the M5 being worked on in their Wetzlar factory as early as 1966. On the face of it, the evidence suggests Nikon was ahead of the game. But here's a thought. The Leica CL was manufactured by Minolta in Japan; being an innovative company in their own right, it's possible Minolta had the idea before Nikon or Leica and licenced it to both. Who knows?

Tony Hurst's excellent b+w and colour photographs are superbly reproduced by the printers Die Keure N.L. of Belgium and there is more than a feast of the common and the unusual to start an enthusiast's adrenalin. As the author observes, there is something very special in the way the light catches the design features of a black enamel finished classic Nikon S camera. It's a real head turner.

More than half the book is devoted to the wide range of Nikkor objectives from 21mm to 1000mm made for the rangefinder system and including the long focus presets manufactured for the Bronica 6X6cm cameras. Many of these designs may now be considered a little dated up against recent equivalents from Zeiss or Cosina/Voigtlander. Yet I know from personal experience of using a Nikon S3 for several years with a 50mm f/1.4 and the very compact 28mm f/3.5 W-Nikkor, excellent results are possible. The re-issued limited edition S3-2000 and SP 2005 cameras have 50 and 35mm lenses which from an outward perspective, are exact copies of the originals; optical designs and coatings however, bring them up to 21st century standards. Elemental arrangement drawings, details of special glasses and a host of other facts relating to the many variations of specific focal lengths are all within these pages. The most avid collector ought to be satisfied while the serious Nikon rangefinder user will not want to be without this work for the section on objectives alone.

This new exciting book is available from our website.

The Complete Nikon Rangefinder System by Robert Rotoloni - IN STOCK

Our thanks to Jonathan Eastland for allowing us to use this review. Many of his books are also available on our site.

Copyright; Jonathan Eastland 2008. 2008

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