It is really difficult to narrow down a list of the thousands of cameras that have been introduced since the technology was invented. So this is a list that has been months in the making. Many of these cameras have historical significance. The Polaroid SX-70, for example, was not considered a great camera. But it was accessible and it set the tracks for an entire generation of photographers. We love the camera for nostalgia reasons, but because of its impact on the scene, you will find it here (#7). So that’s the general thought process behind this list. There are some omissions – believe me, we struggled with that – and maybe some aren’t exactly in the place you expect them to be. But I’m sure you will agree these all belong.
10. Pentax K1000
There was nothing special about the fully manual K1000, which was introduced in 1976. Technically, it was already behind at the time of its launch, but it was simple, economical, durable and it just worked. In fact, it was probably a starting point for many photographers who took classes up through the ’90s simply because many schools still had tons of them on their shelves (along with the Canon AE-1). Pentax made the camera through 1997 which is why it remains as one of the most recognizable classic cameras to this day. The K1000 earned its place on this list simply because of it’s simplicity and it’s durability. But most of all, it’s here because it is one of the longest lasting productions of camera bodies of all time.
9. Fujifilm X100
Introduced early in 2011, the X100 is a fixed focal length (35mm equivalent), 12.3 megapixel digital camera with a hybrid viewfinder (not quite a traditional rangefinder, but we won’t sweat the details). It quickly grew in popularity as the “poor man’s Leica”, particularly among street photographers, because of its classic styling, nearly silent leaf shutter and its relatively small rangefinder. It was an instant classic and it helped Fujifilm return to the limelight after many years of mediocre (good but not fancy) camera introductions. It’s a nice looking camera, but it’s difficult to understand why it’s so popular until you use it. On the surface, it looks like a classic rangefinder camera, and its use isn’t that different. It even has the aperture ring that isn’t very common among digital bodies anymore. You can use the viewfinder to see through-the-lens, you can use it as a pure optical rangefinder or you can even use it as a hybrid with digital information (such as level, exposure) overlaid on top of an optical view – not unlike an SLR, but in a far more compact body. But perhaps the real reason it is so popular is because of its simplicity and compact size, making life simpler for those who have adopted the philosophy of “just shoot”.
8. Nikon D700
The Nikon D700 came out in 2008 and while was not Nikon’s first full-framed Digital SLR (that honor belongs to the Nikon D3), but it was a significant step in the company’s lineup. Early SLR cameras featured a cropped (DX) sensor, a sensor that is slightly smaller than the industry standard 35mm frame. As a side effect of early sensor technology, there are a ton of lenses designed specifically for those cropped sensors. The Nikon D3 introduced full-frame (FX) sensors and once again allowed traditional F-mount lenses to be used. But what about all those DX lenses on the market? Enter the D700 which used the same FX sensor of its big brother, but also featured a unique crop-mode for use with those DX lenses, offering the best of both worlds. Unlike its big brother, it did not have a built-in vertical grip (it was available as an add-on) resulting in a smaller and lighter form factor than the D3. In the end, its connectivity, versatility and performance earned its place as a workhorse for many professional photographers through its succession in 2012 by the D800, though some would argue the D700 will still have a place in the professional market for years to come.
7. Polaroid SX-70
It wouldn’t be right to have such a list without at least one of Polaroid’s cameras in contention. Our favorite among Polaroid’s extensive lineup is the SX-70 (a photo of which garners the top of this article), which took Polaroid’s instant film concept and made it simpler and easier to use. Earlier versions of Polaroid film required a special sequence of time-consuming steps in order to get the so-called instant film to develop. For example, you had to manually remove the film, peel it open after a minute, leave to dry for several more minutes and you inevitably had fingers covered in developing chemicals. The SX-70 was introduced with self-ejecting, self-developing film and no need to wash your hands afterwards. But the camera was also compact, collapsible and easy to use, picking right up where the Kodak Brownie left off. It remained popular as a companion camera among photographers who would often use the camera for reference shots right up to the advent of digital photography. Today, it remains as a cult classic with a following so great that an entire third-party film manufacturing industry spawned after Polaroid itself discontinued production of SX-70 film in 2006.
6. Nikon D1
The entire digital industry owes a great deal to the Nikon D1. The D1 wasn’t the first digital camera to market, but in 1999 it was the first developed by a major manufacturer as a single complete system. The early digital camera market was owned by Kodak, and the D1 was the first to rival that lead. This is somewhat ironic, of course, because Kodak’s DCS system – the market leader at the time – was basically a digital back that was mounted on Nikon’s film bodies and used Nikon’s F-mount lenses. So when Nikon introduced the D1 to market, the early adopters of digital photography had an easy transition between Kodak’s system and Nikon’s system, namely because it was one in the same. I bet Kodak was kicking itself for not using a less prominent camera body, because Nikon’s already wide user-base helped to nearly eliminate Kodak’s digital market share (the rest was eaten up with the introduction of the Canon EOS-1D two years later). So we honor the NIkon D1 for bringing substance to the blossoming Digital Photography industry.
5. Nikon F
If we were to pinpoint the Nikon legacy and its entire market share on a single camera, it would be the Nikon F. It was introduced in 1959 and was a revolutionary camera in that it combined so many unique features – features already lusted after in the market – into a single camera body known as the Nikon F. It was the first to use Nikon’s coveted bayonet style ‘F-mount’ for its lenses that is still in use today. Yes, you can take a 1959 era lens made for the Nikon F and mount it to your most current Nikon camera and it will likely work in manual mode (granted, depending on the type of camera you have, you may need to shoot blind without the benefit of the internal metering, but the camera will function). It was a system developed with many add-ons, including high-capacity motor-driven film backs, which made it the first SLR system to be widely adopted by professional photographers, particularly among photojournalists documenting the Vietnam War (which is possibly the first time that Leica was not the leader in war-time photojournalism). Even today, many of the core features are still part of every one of Nikon’s most current lineup. This is yet another body that is popular among collectors. But it is especially popular because many of Nikon’s lenses continue to work with the camera.
4. Hasselblad 500C (V-System)
Introduced in 1957, the Hassleblad 500C was the professional’s choice for medium format film for over 40 years. Until its introduction, Hassleblad’s competition (Rolleiflex, Leica, etc) was unable to create cameras that offered both fast shutter speeds and through-the-lens (the shooting lens) viewing. Hassleblad’s improvements and their use of medium format film made the 500 series cameras a staple in the industry for many years to come. In fact, the system (Now called the V-System) is still offered today with very little changes since its original introduction. This is the camera that was found in every portrait studio through the 80’s and 90’s. It traveled into space on many of NASA’s missions. It’s a timeless classic, but one of the most well-built, dependable medium format film cameras, even today.
3. Canon AE-1
The Canon AE-1 was a workhorse of its era that was popular long beyond its time. Canon made this camera between 1976 and 1984, yet it remained as a staple for many photographers well into the 1990’s. When it was introduced in 1976, it was the first SLR camera to have a microprocessor, which means it was the first that was easily used by amateurs. By today’s standards, the AE-1 is pretty bare bones. Sure, it does assist in determining shutter speeds and it had a depth of field preview button. But in terms of frills, it ended there. Frame advanced was manual, focus was manual and even flash was manual. But for the time, it was revolutionary. Because of it’s relatively no-frills design, there wasn’t much opportunity for it to fail, and so it was veritably indestructible. But there’s another reason for favoring the AE-1 over any other camera on the market: Price; for its feature set, it couldn’t be beat. Nikon, Minolta, Pentax and Olympus were late to market with their own competitors and their cameras weren’t as simple, weren’t as refined and weren’t as cheap. In fact, in 1984, the Canon AE-1 P (a slightly updated version of the now 8 year old flagship) was still the Official 35mm Camera of the Olympic Games. Even today, many film enthusiasts still seek out this camera if only to have as part of their collection.
2. Leica II and Leica III (Leica F)
Whether you like rangefinders or not, you cannot deny the importance of Leica’s presence in the industry. The German company started making cameras as early as 1913, but it was the Leica II (1932) and Leica III (1933), which were manufactured parallel of each other, that really caught on, especially in the world of photojournalism. The Leica rangefinders were revolutionary for their time with their coupled rangefinders, compact size, wide range of shutter speeds (from 1 second up to 1/1000), superior optics and ease of use. In an industry that was filled with clunky and overly complicated cameras at the time, Leica’s introduction breathed life into the growing photojournalism industry. It quickly became the camera of choice, particularly among war photographers, even if such photographers were in support of the Allied Forces. Frankly, there were many knock-offs: Leica was the Apple Computer of its day, and there were many copy-cats. Today, Leica’s modern cameras sport many of the features that were originally popularized by the early Leica cameras. It was the Leica II and the Leica III that started turning heads. For that matter, Leica’s innovation is why rangefinder style cameras are still popular today. But let’s face it, the real reason we love the Leica II and III so much is because of all the history that they documented.
1. Kodak Brownie
The original Kodak Brownie wasn’t much to look at. Introduced in 1900, it was little more than a cardboard box and a simple lens and basic controls. It took 2 1/4″ square photos using 117 roll film. The photos it created weren’t very sharp, weren’t crisp and light leaks were common. But the camera was introduced at $1 USD (which is less than $30 today). Later iterations of the camera, like the Brownie 127 introduced in 1952, was made out of bakelite and was therefore a bit more durable. But it still featured the simple controls, simple lenses and less-than-stellar photo quality (even for its time). So if this camera was such a poor performer, why do we count it as one of our all time favorites? Because of accessibility. Before the Kodak Brownie, cameras were a luxury item. The Brownie made snapshot photography popular, an easy and economical way to record memories. And so we recognize the Kodak Brownie as a critical path for the careers of many of our most renowned photographers today.
Well, we there were a few cameras that almost made the list. We can’t entirely ignore them, because they have earned their place in their respective corners of the market. Maybe they weren’t game changers or workhorses in the industry as a whole, but they can’t go unnoticed. So we would like to list a couple of cameras that deserve some recognition for their respective
Pentax ME F
The Pentax ME F goes down as one of the great cameras because it was the first 35mm camera body in production that featured an automatic focus. It’s autofocus system consisted of a through the lens electronic contrast metering system to determine the proper focus of the subject and a drive system that would push the lens to focus at that depth. Granted, the system was plagued with problems such as slow focusing and incorrect focusing. Its flaws prevented us from recognizing it in our primary list. But it paved the way for modern AF systems and we must tip our hat for that reason.
The SD9 came out early in 2002 and it didn’t look like much at the time in a market dominated by Nikon and Canon. But it was the first to feature Sigma’s unique Foveon X3 digital image sensor, a CMOS sensor. A traditional (and still widely used) mosaic CMOS sensors that use a tiled pattern of photo sites sensitive to red, blue and green light. The result is often a patchwork of colors that later gets combined into a single image. The Foveon X3 sensor, on the other hand, uses three stacked sensors each filling the entire frame and each sensitive to a specific color range. The result is a more complete, more accurate color rendition of the shot resulting in richer colors and sharper edges. Granted, the power of the Foveon X3 sensor wasn’t fully realized until Sigma launched the Sigma SD1 Merrill in 2012, coupled with a lot of professional features exhibited in the bodies of Sigma’s competitors. In today’s market, it’s tough to break into a market where Nikon and Canon collectively control 70% of the SLR market. But if the quality of the Foveon X3 processor catches more eyes, and if Sigma continues to innovate on the lens front, Sigma may very well earn its place among the greats. And they will have the SD9 to thank for starting them down the right path.
Nicknamed the ‘Tank’ by photojournalists – because it was literally indestructible – the T90 has a cult following. It featured a whole new body design that was both aesthetically pleasing (for the time) and ergonomically comfortable for users. The look and feel of it is still used today – though slightly more rounded – in most of Canon’s lineup. It included a small LCD screen near the shutter button on the right that give more context to the on-board metering. But the thing that really set it apart from other cameras of the time was its interface: The placement of the shutter button, the ease in finding other support buttons without looking and an innovative new command wheel near the shutter button (again, ergonomically located) really made this a great camera for the working professional. Alas, its life was short lived and it was discontinued after only a year once Canon introduced it’s new – and incompatible – EOS lineup. It is for that reason why we can’t consider the T90 among the greats, but it certainly pushed the user-centric design model of the future Canon cameras.