From camera obscura and Daguerrotype to Instagram and Lytro’s light field photography, photography has come a long way and the Japanese brands have been integral in its development, helping to shape the evolution of photography and its technologies.
The infatuation with photography has grown stronger as the technology has advanced – with plenty of help from local companies such as Nikon, Canon, Konica, Minolta, Fujifilm, Sony, Panasonic and Olympus. The caricature of camera-wielding Japanese is for the most part an accurate depiction: from the enthusiast retirees decked out with their state of the art telephoto lens kits and the vacationing tour groups snapping away at foreign landmarks with their gleaming compact cameras to the schoolgirls who frequent the purikura photo sticker booths or share cell phone snapshots with their friends.
Canon EOS 60D; Nikon D40X; Sony NEX-5N; Fujifilm FinePix X100 : : all original images copyright of their respective companies.
To put Japan’s involvement in the history of photography into context:
The optical principles of projecting light to produce images date back to ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy, when pinhole camera and camera obscura – darkened room – concepts were first mentioned. Modern photography dates back to the late 19th Century and Japan’s involvement in it began soon after.
1817: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the first recorded image with his camera obscura; the initial images weren’t permanent and it wasn’t until 1827 that he captured the first permanent image.
1836: Louis Daguerre, with help from Niépce, developed the daguerrotype to capture images, using copper plate technology that heralded the development of plate cameras.
1889: George Eastman produced the Kodak camera, and followed it up the following year with the Brownie, putting cameras into the hands of the general public for the first time.
1902: Konishi, later to be renamed Konica, began selling the Cherry Portable Camera, the first Japanese produced consumer camera.
1913: 35mm film had been around since 1892 and was used for filmmaking, but the first 35mm camera, the Tourist Multiple – which filmed both moving and still images, was produced in 1913; that same year the Ur-Leica prototype was built, going into production in 1924 as the Leica 1.
1929: Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shōten, later to be known as Minolta, releases its first camera, the Nifcarette. It introduced the Minolta SR-2 SLR camera in 1958, partnered with Leica to produce some of its cameras through the 1970s, and merged with Konica in 2003, before discontinuing its involvement in film and camera production in 2006, Sony taking over its digital technologies.
1933: Nippon Kōgaku, which was founded in 1917, introduced its first Nikkor branded lens. In 1948 it released the Nikon 1 rangefinder camera.
1934: The first 35mm SLR camera – the cпорт or sport – was developed in the Soviet Union by GOMZ – it went on sale three year later. Japan’s Kwanon built the Kwanon prototype 35mm camera with a focal plane shutter – Japan’s first. The company changed its name to Canon in 1947. The Fuji Photo Film Co (later Fujifilm) was also established in 1934, producing its first batches of photographic film.
1935: Eastman Kodak released Kodachrome film.
1936: The first Olympus Zuiko lens appeared on a camera. In 1948, the company released the Olympus 35 Model I, which was the first Japanese lens shutter type 35mm camera.
1948: Instant photography was introduced by Edwin Land and his Polaroid model 95 camera. Land invened the light polarizing technology in 1929, introduced the famous collapsible SX-70 model in 1972. It was discontinued in 2006 and the company stopped instant film production in 2008.
1952: Asahi Optical, later to be named Pentax, released its first camera, the Asahiflex 35mm SLR camera.
1959: Nikon introduced its classic 35mm F system camera, beloved of photojournalists of the era.
1978: Konica introduced the world’s first auto-focus ‘point and shoot’ camera.
1987: Canon released its first 35mm EOS (Electro-Optical System) camera, the EOS 650.
1988: Digital imaging technologies had been developing since the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, Japan’s Sony, Nikon and Canon each developed variations on modern digital cameras, but it was another Japanese company, Fuji, that introduced the first modern digital still image camera, the DS-1P.
1995: Atlus and Sega introduced the purikura, プリクラ, photo sticker machine.
1996: Though Sony was estabished in video and fimmaking technologies and had experimented with digital video stills cameras, it was in this year that it introduced its first Cyber-shot digital camera.
2000: Japan’s J-Phone (now Softbank) phone company together with Sharp develop and launched the first camera enabled cell phones and – just as importantly – a picture messaging service, sha-mail.
2001: Panasonic, which manufactures Leica’a digital point and shoot cameras in Japan, released the first of its Lumix branded cameras, which came with Leica lenses.
2009: Fujifilm introduced the FinePix Real 3D W1 camera, that could capture stereoscopic 3D still and video images.
2011: Lytro introduced two light field cameras that use technology that allow photos to be refocused after they’ve been taken.
Cameras have long been, to take a line from Steve Jobs, at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. Not only are they works of scientific innovation and engineering precision, they capture our best and worst moments, used in places as diverse as the home and the battlefield, in advertising and newsrooms, by artists, hobbyists, students, parents, tourists, lovers.
When it comes to buying photographic gear, Tokyo’s camera retailers cater to novices, enthusiasts, collectors and professionals, offering a dizzying array of equipment – and it’s possible to find everything from the latest model cameras and lenses to toy cameras, old mechanical cameras and all kinds of accessories. Electronics departments stores such as Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera are a camera fetishist’s dream, but Tokyo also has many specialty camera stores that reward a visit.
Yodobashi Camera Camera Kan ヨドバシカメラカメラ館
In addition to the cameras on display in the flagship Yodobashi Camera tower, there are seven floors of cameras and equipment in the nearby Camera Kan store covering film, digital, video, lenses, lighting accessories, tripods, studio equipment and more. Enough said!
Another great place in Shinjuku for camera lovers is Map Camera. Comprising two neigboring stores just behind Yodobashi’s main store, both with discreet entrances by a noodle shop and brand watch store, they contain a combined 9 floors of new and used cameras and related goods – and you can sell used equipment as well as buy here.
Fujiya camera フジイヤ カメラ
Situated in one of Tokyo’s otaku centers, Nakano, Fujiya camera is considered one of the best used camera stores in the city. They also stock new pieces and a bunch of accessories. There are three shops in all clustered together, including the fascinating junk shop with its various bits and pieces.
Sanpō camera 三宝 カメラ
Another spot treasured by camera enthusiasts is Sanpō Camera. It’s not the biggest of stores, nor is it in the most convenient of spots – in Meguro, a 10 minute walk from the east exit of Gakugei Daigaku station on the Tokyu Toyoko line – but Sanpō is likely to offer the best prices in town for new and used camera equipment.
Camera Hirano カメラ ヒラノ
Camera Hirano is also off the beaten track, in the back streets of Saitama, north of Tokyo, but it’s a used camera store with a difference: Yoshimi Hirano is a master craftsman who hand fashions quality leather cases and straps for cameras. Orders take 2 – 3 weeks and the results are brilliant, the cases especially suiting rangefinder and micro four third style cameras. It may be easier to enlist the help of a Japanese friend and order online.
International buyers: consider warranty terms, voltages and language setting options before purchasing in Japanese electronics and camera stores.
International products are also available at some retailers but at a premium price, whereas similar domestic items tend to be less expensive and can at times be had for a bargain.