Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2021
The Incredible Shrinking Business
I didn’t come up with that title. An old friend, veteran of the photography magazine business, used that phrase and it stuck in my mind. When I first got serious about photography in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were many quality 35 mm SLRs to choose from. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, SLR stands for ‘Single Lens Reflex’, the type of camera that uses a flipping mirror to let you see the view from your lens directly, projected onto a viewing screen. Most allow lens interchangeably. Until recently, almost all high end cameras were SLRs. But, recently, a new type of camera has come along, generally referred to as ‘mirrorless’. One disadvantage of the SLR design is that the mirror must flip out of the way during the actual exposure, causing a momentary loss of the image at the moment of exposure, and vibration in some cases. This led to incidences of eyes closed in photos when someone blinked at just the wrong instant, and worse, you never knew it until the film was developed. This is one of the things that mirrorless cameras eliminate.
Back in ‘those thrilling days of yesteryear,’ when I first delved into photography, we had many brands of SLR cameras to choose from. Some, in no particular order, were Alpa, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Yashica, Contax, Miranda, Rolleiflex, Ricoh, Cosina, Chinon, Exakta, Edixa, Praktica, Praktina, Olympus, Voigtlander, Pentax, Kiev, Topcon, Kowa, Samsung, Contarex, Contaflex, Icarex, Kodak Retina Reflex, Petri, Mamiya, Vivitar, Konica, and, of course, Leica, although the first Leicaflex SLR was a wildly impractical design.
All were either Japanese or German, with a few Russian and Ukrainian, and the outliers Samsung, the sole offering from South Korea, and Alpa from Switzerland. I’m sure I missed some, but all were capable of making decent images.
My first serious SLR camera was a somewhat beat up Nikon F that I bought from a friend when I was living in DC around 1967. It had a 50 mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens, but no light meter, so somewhere I got a Gossen Lunasix hand meter to use with it. Camera and meter were later stolen when I was away from my apartment for a few days.
I didn’t have much money in those days, so my next camera was a Zenit B Russian-made SLR that I bought from Cambridge Camera Exchange in New York, $ 39.95 mail order, brand new. It produced surprisingly good images, but was clunky design. Later I had more money, so I bought a Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DTL from the camera department at J.C. Penney. In those days every major retailer had a camera department, and price competition was fierce.
I’ve always been a tinkerer. I have to know how things work. I never owned a 35 mm camera that I didn’t take apart to see how it worked. So, in the early 70s I took the camera repair mail order course from National Camera in Colorado. I had a ball taking cameras apart and putting them back together, usually with no pieces left over! Once I gained some confidence, I began repairing cameras for money. But, in those days camera repairmen were mechanics, electronics hadn’t invaded the insides of cameras much, aside from the simple electronics of built-in light meters.
All of this is leading up to the electronic invasion of cameras, first starting in the later 70s. I’d be totally out of my depth trying to fix one of today’s digital cameras.
In many ways, it’s like cars. I was at home when cars had points and plugs to be gapped, and the only electronic item in my tool chest was a timing light. Work on one of today’s cars without a diagnostic computer — forget it!
Same with cameras, in many cases they require diagnostic equipment only factory service technicians have access to.
Not long after I got serious about photography and camera repair the first attrition of camera brands began, with brands like Edixa, Praktina, Kowa, Petri, falling by the wayside. In the mid-70s Zeiss-Ikon, the famous German camera maker folded its tent and dropped out of the camera business, their last camera the gorgeous Zeiss-Ikon SL706. They just couldn’t compete with Japanese prices, although the Zeiss-Ikon SL706 was reborn as the Rollei SL35M with cosmetic changes, built at Rollei’s ill-fated manufacturing plant in Singapore.
I won’t try to list the companies that collapsed over the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, but suffice it to say that they fell like leaves in a forest, the last collapses being those that couldn’t make the transition to digital imaging. Minolta, one of the oldest Japanese brands, went into bankruptcy and was bought by Konica, only to have that iconic brand itself go bankrupt. It’s an open secret that Minolta was acquired by Sony, a company that had avoided the SLR market for years. That’s why Minolta lenses fit the first generations of Sony SLRs before they went mirrorless. Even the Minolta Alpha designation for their SLRs was retained by Sony.
With the recent announcement that Olympus is shutting down its camera division, a serious photographer has only Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica, and Pentax to choose from, Pentax being the only one not to go mirrorless and retain the flipping mirror. I wouldn’t invest in Pentax’s long term survival, but I’ve been wrong before, and some photographers prefer the traditional mirrored SLR’s viewfinder.
Do I expect the photo business to shrink even more? Certainty. Demand for high end cameras is way down, and lower end cameras were killed by cellphones with built-in cameras, some of which produce remarkably good images. I’ve seen full page pictures in several magazines shot with iPhones. But, for those times when the cellphone just won’t do, such as long telephoto shots of nature and sports, the high end camera is still essential.
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/in-praise-of-reality/
Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.