Japanese Leicas

Leica-like Leotax, Nicca & Yashica Copies

and the not so Leica-like Minolta 35

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Contents

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About

This Page
My Approach

Japanese Leica Copies - a Potted History

Like a Leica
Identifying Leica Models
The Leica and What Makes a Camera a “Leica Copy”

Two Leica Idiosyncracies Which Don't affect Copy Status

The Japanese Copy Makers

Nippon Kōgaku (the future Nikon)
The End of the Japanese Copies

The Comparison

Icon
The Leica's Place
The Japanese Competition

About

This Page

This page is the entry point to the featured Japanese Leica copies on my site. In chronological birth order, the original three are the Leotax, Nippon/Nicca and Yashica models and although that is not the order in which the site developed, that is the order I have now adopted, sort of. I have also added a Minolta 35 page and whereas that came before Yashica, the Yashica models are an extension of the Nippon/Nicca story so I have plonked the Minolta 35 at the end - its a nice bookend to the LTM copies because it is different and also because Leica and Minolta eventually got into bed together. This page is not essential reading to look up information on any of the other pages but for anyone interested, the first part helps understand where the information comes from and whether it is likely to be reliable. The main part seeks to put the Leica copies genre into context and provides a historical overview of how it arrived and developed in Japan. Finally, there is a comparison between Leica and the copies and their respective places in the world. It's not a camera test or feature by feature assessment but more of a philosophical overview of both historical reality and general perceptions.

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My Approach

My name is Paul Sokk. If you want to know more about me, or how to contact me, those details are on the main page of the Yashica TLR site.

Originally, this part of my site developed from an expansion of the Yashica YE & YF section of my Yashica the Company - Success & Failure page. It has since matured into full stories about the YE and YF models, Nicca, Leotax and finally Minolta, each on their own pages. Nicca because it became part of Yashica history and contributed to its SLR development. Leotax because it was Nicca's main competitor in their market segment (Canon also started there but innovated and moved to the more premium end) and there was the Leotax Leonon-S lens which was also badged as the obscure Yashica Yashikor f/2 5 cm. Plus, I felt that I needed to tell the World that the Leotax Merit is actually called the Leotax “Merite”. The Minolta 35 because it was different with a different history and because the copier eventually became a partner with the copyee. Most of all, because I like screw mount Leicas and Leica copies at least as much as TLRs.

In researching these cameras for my own interest, I found the same types of errors and misconceptions as I did with Yashica TLRs, except that their history has been even less well documented. In order to make a difference rather than just create another website about particular models, I have tried to cover the history of the companies to the extent that it is possible (not so much Minolta, the history of which has been well documented) and to provide as much information about the cameras as I can to assist anyone looking for some small detail. Not everything will be of interest to everyone but if you are looking for something esoteric, hopefully, you will find it.

I have read the other websites with relevant information, e.g. Camera-wiki.org and archived pages from the Ian Norris “Leica Copies” site, now defunct, and whilst being informed by them and noting that some of them, including Norris, quote the Hans P. Rajner, HPR, “Leica Copies” book, I have tried to develop my own interpretation based on my observations and research, e.g. every site I have looked at has made a meal of flash synchronisation. I have however used parts of low resolution versions of photos from Massimo Bertacchi's “Innovative Cameras” site to illustrate features of some early cameras, principally on the Leotax page, images that are just not available elsewhere (some of them appear on other sites). Where used, I have acknowledged his site as the source. His site is well worth looking at, for the photos especially, but keep in mind, some of the information is, in my view, suspect.

I have used many photos acknowledged as “Detail from larger web images”. These are always low resolution, cropped, sometimes drastically, images from completed auctions in most cases from Japan. That's where most of the cameras are and there is an obvious language barrier.

I am not an avid collector but when I decided to write about these cameras, I acquired several examples of each to give me a feel for at least the mainstream, more recent versions and these are featured on the site.

My main tools, as always, are my databases, mainly in the form of spreadsheets tabulating serial numbers of many hundreds of cameras of each of the four makes and all sorts of trim and specification variables. I have not used anyone else's documented serial numbers or ranges from websites nor any of the reference sources. They are serial numbers that I have seen on a camera, obviously mainly in photos. Serial numbers of my and contributors' cameras are displayed in full as are the numbers of publicly displayed rare early cameras, mainly the Leotax examples displayed on Massimo Bertacchi's site, but also in a number of Japanese magazine Camera Collectors' News editions. The rest are all those that I have found, mainly on Japanese auction sites, and are displayed with at least the last digit shown as “x” to preserve anonymity. Photos can have up to the last three digits obscured.

I have also tried to find as many ads, brochures, user manuals and related documents as possible, some acquired, some downloaded and some provided by contributors. Some of these are featured on the site.

Each of the four pages follows a slightly different format. Some of it is due to my thinking of other ways to present the information but mostly, it is due to the different source material available and the different characters of the companies.

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Japanese Leica Copies - a Potted History

Like a Leica

The screw mount Leica is often claimed to be the most copied camera in the world, although I suspect that the Rolleiflex/Rolleicord duo from the TLR world may give it a run for its money. However, there is no doubting its iconic status and game changing concept and design. Whilst it wasn't the first 35 mm stills camera, nor the first to use the 24 x 36 mm format, it was the first commercially successful one. The design was revolutionary and it created 35 mm photography as we know it, remaining a leader until usurped by its re-imagined offspring, the Leica M3 in 1954. There are aspects of its design that continued into the 35 mm SLR era and are still influencing how a camera should be laid out in the digital age.

From an early ad for the first production Leica camera, now known as the Leica I (model A) which was introduced in 1925 (only called Leica I when the II was released in 1932):

Apart from the non-interchangeable lens and lack of rangefinder, it was much like the following Leica screw mount models and copies.

Whilst the 1934 Soviet FED is undeniably the earliest mass produced “true” Leica copy and appearance-wise is almost a carbon copy of a Leica II (basically, a Leica I model C with rangefinder), technically, its slightly different spec lens mount pushes the definition boundaries, more below. The lens barrel is also a faithful Leitz Elmar copy but the optical formula is a Tessar. There were also a couple of obscure predecessors from 1933 connected to the same project. 1938 FED (“1b” collector classification - by this time, the viewfinder window frame had lost its Leica notch and gained the rectangular shape that is the most obvious give away of fake Leicas, Nippons etc):

The FED was an “illegal” copy in that it ignored international patent laws but as we shall see, except for the Japanese War-time Nippon (Nicca ancestor), that cannot be really said for subsequent copies, although some may argue that the Kardon developed for the US military during World War II was also an “illegal” copy. Until the end of the War, it is probably fair to say that it was the policies of governments and the passion of the camera makers that drove copy making rather than commercial greed, after the War, all the legal barriers were removed but I see no scarcity of passion in any of the models that resulted.

Following the Soviets came the first Japanese makers and post-War, with the USA and Allies claiming German patents as War reparations, they were joined by cameras from the USA (civilian version of the Kardon), UK, Italy and later China (the sometimes included French Foca used a different lens mount, was innovative in its own right and was more inspired by than a copy). Some of these were very well made but it has to be remembered that by the time the later and better copies of the screw mount Leica began arriving, Leica itself was moving to the superior M3.

Screw mount Leicas are often called “Barnack Leicas” after the designer. Some would argue that strictly speaking, Barnack Leicas ended with the IIIb, the designer himself dying in 1936 (his last involvement was with the IIIa), and that the 1940 die cast IIIc didn't fit Barnack's mould. The IIIc didn't move far from the original, except for the new stronger body and one piece top plate design, but the strongest objection to calling it a “Barnack” seems to be the couple of mm increase in size, the designer having been fanatically intent on maintaining the camera's petite dimensions. I'm sympathetic but that nuance is for others to debate. However, whilst inconsequential to many, I am reasonably certain that Barnack would have been completely disapproving of the further size and weight increases of the Japanese die cast copies regardless of who made them so it would be a travesty to refer to them as “Barnacks”, as some do, just because they share some/many Leica screw mount features.

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Identifying Leica Models

Leica model names are a little esoteric. Pre-War, the European and US markets used different naming conventions, e.g. the German Leica II is the US Leica model D, the III is the F and the IIIa is the Leica model G, the last model using the dual names (O.K., not quite, the IIIb seems to have also been called the model G followed by “-1938”). According to the Leica historian and author Gianni Rogliatti, the alphabetic model names were actually the names used within the Wetzlar factory. Why the numeric names were used for European models is not known.

These days, the European convention is mainly used, at least in my part of the World. Leica I, II and III can indicate relative ages of cameras if talking about the most fully featured models available at the time, but they also indicate feature sets. Simplistically, “I” models don't feature rangefinders, e.g. the early Leica I but neither does the last type Ig released in 1957 (companion to the IIIg). “II” models do have rangefinders but no slow speeds, e.g. the 1932 Leica II and the IIf post-War companion to the IIIf. Confusingly, the Leica IIIa and IIIb are stamped body types with rangefinder, slow speeds and a top speed of 1/1000 and a IIIc is a die cast body with the same specs. Whilst a very significant construction improvement, Leitz didn't consider it a capability/operational change worthy of a major name change.

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The Leica and What Makes a Camera a “Leica Copy”

So, what is a Leica copy? Leica copies generally follow the design parameters of the German Leica camera designed by Oskar Barnack in 1913 and launched by Ernst Leitz in 1925. A basic criterion is the use of 35 mm film using a 24 x 36 mm frame size. The Nikon, not a Leica copy, and the Minolta 35 both started with an “ideal” 4 x 3 format of 24 x 32 mm and moved to 24 x 34 mm (the Minolta via an interim 24 x 33 mm) but Nikon soon succumbed to the Leica 3 x 2 standard of 24 x 36 mm whereas the Minolta has been claimed not to until at least 1958 but I can confirm that claim is incorrect and the Minolta 35 never did change from 24 x 34 mm (34.5 mm claimed for a short while). The move of the Japanese to the 24 x 36 mm frame size is often directly related to matching the requirements of automatic slide film cutting machines in use in the USA but that is only partly correct. The 24 x 32 mm frame used 7 sprocket holes per frame and that resulted in 40 frames per standard roll/length. By moving to 8 sprocket holes when Nikon increased its frame size to 24 x 34 mm and Minolta made its first move to 24 x 33 mm, the number of frames per roll, albeit smaller, were reduced to 36 and the needs of the slide cutting machines were satisfied.

The shutter must be focal plane - most examples copied the Leica cloth type fairly closely, although the 1959 Canon P introduced metal foil curtains which operated on the same principle.

The first production Leica, model A, did not have an interchangeable lens so Leica copies are usually compared to the model C, now both usually called the Leica I with the alphabetic name in brackets, released in 1930 (the earlier model B featured a fixed lens with Compur leaf shutter instead of the usual Leica focal plane type). That introduced the use of the 39 mm Leica Thread Mount (LTM) with a Whitworth thread pitch (used on microscopes of which Leitz was a maker) of 26 turns per inch and a 28.8 mm lens flange to film distance (nominal, not exactly that until 1931).

Note: Whilst Leica Screw Mount (LSM) and L39 are acceptable alternative descriptions of LTM, the commonly used M39 is not. The “M” stands for metric and M39 uses a thread pitch of 1 mm (LTM is approximately 0.977 mm). M39 mounts are commonly found on Soviet Leica copies and with a different flange to film distance, on early Soviet Zenit SLRs. It is claimed that the Soviets didn't initially realise that Leitz had used a Whitworth thread instead of metric. My Soviet f/2 Jupiter mounts easily on my Leica IIIc but pre and post-War f/3.5 FEDs bind, and would cause damage if forced. They have less of a problem on my Japanese bodies - the tolerances are probably greater. It is also claimed that the Soviet rangefinder camera mounts changed to the LTM standard in the “1950s”, presumably before my Jupiter was made.

The inclusion of a coupled rangefinder is not mandatory for a Leica copy. Some Leica models don't feature them, notably the “I” models and the “Leica Standard” or model E. Black bodied Leica II left and black Leica Standard on the right (similar to Leica I model C):

(Detail from larger web images)

However most Leica copies end up looking like a typical screw mount Leica with rangefinder, either the earlier slightly smaller stamped and assembled body type or the later slightly larger (2 mm wider, 2 mm taller depending on reference but also as measured by me) but stronger die cast type with one piece top plate introduced by the 1940 Leica IIIc. With the exception of the special War-time Nippon with rangefinder housing but no rangefinder, the Leica Standard based early Chiyoca and little known Muley and some early Leica II based Leotax and Chiyoca models, Japanese examples were typically Leica III based with slow speed escapement and separate front mounted slow speed shutter dial.

Early body Leica III/a/b type below left (the IIIa added 1/1,000, the IIIb moved the viewfinder eyepieces close together, not usually found in Japanese early body types), late body Leica IIIc/f type below right (IIIc shown, the 1950 IIIf added flash sync with a manual flash delay setting dial under the high speed shutter dial but Japanese copies typically offered a simpler auto-switching X/FP sync, although the switching on the first die cast Leotax models, F, T and K, was manual):

(Left detail from larger web image. Note, probably not exactly to scale)

Like its Nippon ancestor, early body Nicca Type-III S still mirrors its 19 year older Leica III inspiration closely with the exception of the added flash sync:

Below is the Leica IIIc inspiration with its close die cast body copies, the Nicca 3-F and Leotax K (the Leotax K is related to the Leotax F as the Leica IIc is to the IIIc, i.e. they are basically the same camera but without slow speeds):

The Leica is (width x height) 135 x 69 mm, the Nicca 139 x 71 mm and the Leotax 140 x 72 mm. Note, no Leotax model offered dioptre adjustment (the lever under the IIIc rewind knob) and the only die cast Nicca models to do so are the Type-5 and 5-L.

The Minolta 35 and some later variations were less clearly related. The later variations borrowed elements of design from the Leica M3, most commonly the improved viewfinder and the associated “bulking up”, with lever wind film advance and/or improved film loading often already appearing on earlier more Leica-like bodies. However, these still at heart remained Leica screw mount copies even if their Barnack link was mainly limited to the frame size, lens mount and shutter. Whilst the designers of the newer generation of Leica copies were aiming at improvements to bring them into line with modern expectations, the size and appearance of these cameras often owed more to practical and economic choices than to Barnack's philosophies of design and compactness.

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Two Leica Idiosyncracies Which Don't affect Copy Status

Why do screw mount Leicas have three windows and two eyepieces? Briefly, it has to do with rangefinder design of 1930s, the fact that it was a “bolt-on” addition to an existing body with largely fixed positioning of components and controls and Barnack's desire to keep everything within the size envelope of the original which was designed to fit into a coat pocket (when coats in Germany were coats). In any case, the viewfinder combined with rangefinder hadn't been invented yet and the first 35 mm camera to feature this was the Contax II released by arch-rival Zeiss in 1936 (the roll film Welta Weltur may have been earlier, 1935 is suggested).

But there was an advantage in separate windows too. Initially, the Leica rangefinder magnification was 1x and this was increased to 1.5x by the Leica III. Camera viewfinders often have a magnification of less than 1x to give a full image of the scene and this obviously applies to the combined rangefinder too. Rangefinder accuracy is a product of the base length and magnification and therefore the relatively short base of the Leica rangefinder was less of a disadvantage compared to the combined viewfinder/rangefinder and long base length in models such as the Contax II and its Nikon copy. Also, for some subjects, the 1.5 magnification just makes it easier to focus. However, there is no getting around the fact that the Zeiss system was superior and Leitz was slow to react, waiting until it released the new generation M3 in 1954.

Canon and Minolta were already making optical system improvements in the late 1940s, most of the other makers did in the five years after the M3 release.

The other thing is the Leica bottom loading unitary body shell. Leitz was adamant that this produced the strongest body and ensured the film plane remained within specification. The design certainly has the strength to take knocks and falls dished out by professionals, the film plane argument perhaps less of an issue considering the number of successful cameras with opening backs. Even Leitz realised that it had to improve film loading and its solution was the opening flap of the M3 which had marginal impact on body integrity but also, only a small improvement on convenience and speed of loading. Only Nicca (and hence Yashica) copied this idea, most of the copy makers that survived into the late 1950s eventually adopting the swing back. Collectors' references still consider these to be Leica copies rather than “inspired by”, “Leica-like”, etc.

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The Japanese Copy Makers

The first Japanese 35 mm camera and sort of Leica copy was the Seiki Kōgaku (Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory) made “Kwanon” which appeared as a prototype in 1934 and was released as the “Hansa Canon” in 1936 with lens and optical system designed and made by the Imperial Japanese Navy sponsored Nippon Kōgaku, the future Nikon Corporation. “Hansa”, dropped from subsequent models, was a trademarked brand name used by the camera's distributor, Omiya Shashin Yohin Co., Ltd. (meaning Omiya Photo Supply). Both the camera maker and distributor had key roles in the birth of Nicca. Seiki Kōgaku became “Canon Camera Company” in 1947. The earlier models sought to be different from Leica because of patent concerns and it wasn't until after the War that Canon initially more or less met Leica specs for what is considered a true Leica copy, particularly in regards to mount. By then, pre-War German patents had effectively been extinguished.

In 1937, future Yashica lens maker, and eventually acquisition, Tomioka (perhaps in association with Sankyō Kōgaku - Camera-wiki.org), produced several prototypes (Lausar and Baika) of what looked like a rangefinderless Leica copy complete with 5 cm Leitz Elmar-like collapsible lens and focal plane shutter but it wouldn't qualify for the purist definition because it used 127 format roll film (the 35 mm type re-wind knob was in fact a dummy for appearance sake). Also, the small diameter spindles would have created film flatness issues which would have been difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, Riken Kōgaku Kōgyō, the future Ricoh, announced a very similar 127 model, the Riken No.1, in 1938 and sold it as the Gokoku in 1939 and 1940 and followed it up with a revised model called the Ricohl. There were European examples of 127 versions too.

The next was the 1940 Leotax made by Shōwa Kōgaku. It looked more like a Leica than the Canon but to avoid patent issues, the rangefinder was not initially coupled and it and the following iterations used viewfinders and rangefinders with odd window arrangements and mechanisms until after the War. Leotax Original and typical example of first three Special models:

(Left image, Ryosuke Mori & KCM Library, right image Camera Collectors' News December 1978)

Whilst Shōwa Kōgaku also sourced its standard lenses from Fujita (the Letana Anastigmat fitted during the War), Konishiroku (the later Konica) and Fuji Photo Film, its main supplier of lenses was Tōkyō Kōgaku (translated as Tokyo Optical Company), maker of the later Topcon SLR and War-time supplier of optical products to the Imperial Japanese Army.

Approaching the War in the Pacific, quality German cameras became difficult to obtain and in 1941, the company that became Nicca, Kōgaku Seiki-sha, was given a military order to develop a faithful Leica copy with the first example being delivered in 1942. Aside from Canon, which developed its own unique features and style, and the Nikon, if considering interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras rather than just Leica copies, Leotax and Nicca cameras are generally considered to be the best of the rest. However, perhaps the Minolta 35 introduced by Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō in 1947 should also be in the mix.

The Minolta 35 seems to be ignored by some commentators, perhaps because by some definitions it is on the margins of what is considered to be a true Leica copy. As noted further above, it never did match the 24 x 36 mm Leica format despite claims by some illustrious sources that at least the last version, the 1958 Model IIB, was compliant. It's not the prettiest or the most petite so it would hardly endear itself to Barnack fans. Nevertheless, it was a better mousetrap with combined viewfinder & rangefinder already (i.e., single eye piece) like the just released (October 1946) Canon S-II, 7 years before the Leica M3. It featured a hinged back door (rare at this time and probably the first on a Leica copy, if it can be called that, just beating the Italian Sonne IV), the first self-timer on a Japanese camera and an early form of hot shoe flash synchronisation utilising the accessory shoe central pressure ball (replaced by a plug socket on the back of the 1951 Model E and later variants). Model II example from maybe 1954:

Circa 1949 (according to Sugiyama, some claim 1952 or 1953), there was a brief appearance by the Look camera made by Nittō Seikō. This has the appearance of a Leica copy, and is sometimes referred to as one, but it doesn't qualify based on our earlier considerations. In fact it probably has more in common with the 1950 German Voigtländer Prominent usually credited as the first interchangeable lens 35 mm leaf shutter rangefinder camera. The shutter is behind the lens but it isn't at the focal plane. The interchangeable lens mount is not LTM (only the standard lens was ever offered). The focusing mount is actually fixed to the body and the lens screws into that, much like the Minolta A series cameras with interchangeable lenses from a few years later. Rather than Leica's lever operated rangefinder coupling, the Look uses an external geared connection to one of the otherwise “normal” looking rangefinder windows.

(Detail from larger web image)

The camera designer was a Mr Chatani whose claim to fame was that he later invented the metal focal plane type shutter that was the forerunner of the Copal Square. Apart from being a technical design curiosity, the Look is not a significant model, however interestingly, although at least some were fitted with a Lunar lens, most of the few found examples, including the one above, feature Rokkor lenses made by Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō (Minolta) (same f/2.8 45 mm lens as fitted to the Minolta 35 but in a unique mount). The Look also features an accessory shoe with central round pressure ball somewhat similar to the early Minolta 35 hot shoe type except that its one curved corner is mirror reversed. It's not known if this one incorporates a flash sync or not. Whether a coincidence or not, they both have a front plate for the lens mount. Nevertheless, whilst some of the design elements seem familiar, the lens is the only known connection.

It was also around this time that the first Muley was made. Along with the early Chiyoca, their claim to fame was that they were the only two Japanese made Leica Standard copies (i.e., without rangefinder housing). Only one example is known to still exist of the Muley Standard type with virtually no information about it other than can be gleaned from the camera itself (dating based on the “Made in Occupied Japan” on the base plate). Sugiyama also features a slightly later Leica IIIc/IIIf rangefinder copy version, presumably die cast, with opening back. No other example or documentation is known to exist. It is very unlikely that there were any significant numbers made.

The just mentioned Reise made Chiyoca first appeared circa 1951 as a viewfinder only model, then later with rangefinder and finally with a name change to Chiyotax (later produced as the Alta by a different company). The production volumes were very low but there are some interesting connections linking several of the copy makers (next paragraph). Then followed the Tanack (1952), Melcon (1955) and Honor (1956) cameras, the first two with opening backs, the Honor with removable back. Apart from the backs, they were faithful Leica copies but some of the later models did things differently, e.g. both the Tanack SD and the Melcon II copied the Nikon but used Leica lens mounts and the Honor SD was a copy of the Canon L1 as were the Tanack V3 and VP. The Tanack was unusual in that its small maker offered a range of Tanar lenses that seemed to be made in-house.

As we shall see on the Nicca page, there was a link between the origins of Nicca and the company that became Canon. In a similar way, the designers and founders of Reise (Chiyoca and Chiyotax), Tanaka (Tanack) and Meguro (Melcon) seem to have been early employees of the company that became Nicca. Also, Genji Kumagai, a key player in the establishment of Nicca, left the company in 1948 (according to Camera-wiki.org, according to author Peter Dechert, see the Nicca page, he remained there as President until, he claims, 1959 but that doesn't fit with an interview Genji Kumagai gave in the 1970s) and is later thought to be responsible for the design of the 1956 Honor S1 as well as the earlier Ichicon 35 on which the Honor S1 was based and the related Jeicy. There is a gulf in volume produced between these more recent, really boutique, makers and the Nicca and Leotax cameras.

Of the early Leica copy makers, only the older and more prolific Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō (Minolta) and Shōwa Kōgaku (Leotax) made other camera types (apart from the Leotax Leica copies, Shōwa Kōgaku made various versions of the Semi Leotax 4.5 x 6 cm folder from 1940 until 1955, the little known Baby Leotax 3 x 4 cm folder during the War years and the very short-lived Gemflex subminiature pseudo TLR released in 1949).

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Nippon Kōgaku (the future Nikon)

Whilst the Nippon Kōgaku made Nikon rangefinders are not Leica copies per se, the company had a very important role in the category. For the record, the 1948 Nikon I copied the Contax II look and bayonet lens mount but also used the Leica cloth focal plane shutter type and modified Leica style rangefinder. Although the Nikons would eventually prove themselves as highly desirable and successful professional level cameras, Nippon Kōgaku's greatest contribution was its Nikkor lenses, also first used exclusively on the early Canon cameras (pre-LTM and also early LTM) before Canon developed its own Serenar, later renamed Canon, series. In addition to the early Canon lenses and its own S mount (based on the Contax mount) lenses introduced in 1948, Nippon Kōgaku made Nikkor lenses in Contax mount and starting in 1946 already, LTM lenses for the general market. The 5 cm lenses were also adopted as standard equipment on both the Nicca (most post-War models) and, with one budget spec'd exception, the Melcon models.

The Nikkor lenses debut on the world stage is generally credited to starting with American Life magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan. Whilst Duncan was on assignment in Japan in June 1950, Japanese photographer Jun Miki, a Life stringer, took a casual available light portrait of him with a Nikkor 85 mm f/2 lens mounted on his Leica camera. Duncan was so impressed that he and another Life photographer, Horace Bristol, met with Nippon Kōgaku. The result was that they replaced their personal lenses with Nikkors. When the Korean War started, Duncan used a brace of Leica IIIc cameras also fitted with Nikkors. The higher contrast of the Nikkors yielded noticeably better newsprint output than the comparable Leica lenses. Helped by a feature article in the New York Times, this caused a sensation amongst photographers. Whether they were better or not overall, they certainly worked better for the medium. On the other hand, their quality was undeniable and for the majority of people, the Nikkors simply outperformed their German counterparts in terms of price/performance ratio.

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The End of the Japanese Copies

Although it would take a few years yet to play out fully, by the mid-1950s, the Nikkors signaled the beginning of the end of the world-wide dominance of the German photographic industry and the beginning of the rise of the Japanese with other well regarded Japanese lenses starting to be reognised as well. Rather than copying the game changing Leica M3 released in 1954 (apart from adopting some of its features for their LTM bodies), the Japanese began to accelerate the changeover of leadership through a new found enthusiasm for developing the SLR from a niche product to mainstream mainstay of both professionals and photography enthusiasts alike. There was also the increasing competence of fixed lens leaf shutter rangefinder cameras at the bottom end, many of them with superior combined viewfinders/rangefinders and easier to use features such as opening backs for film loading. By the start of the 1960s, most of the Leica copy makers had exited the market, or were about to, the specialised and highly developed Canon 7s remaining until 1968.

In 1959, into the now very difficult interchangeable lens rangefinder marketplace stepped Yashica with its Nicca based YE and YF models. In 1960, it too departed for the SLR world.

In more recent times, there have been attempts to revive the LTM rangefinder with the bespoke Yasuhara T981 arriving at the end of 1998, or beginning of 1999, and Cosina releasing the first of its Voigtländer Bessa models in 1999. Rather than being copies, they were more a modern 35 mm rangefinder camera designed to take advantage of the vast stock of excellent LTM lenses available to rangefinder enthusiasts. Neither survived long, although the versions of the Bessa with Leica M mount were available for a few extra years. The reality is that the world had moved on and the digital era was just around the corner.

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The Comparison

Inevitably, comparisons are made between the Leica and its imitators. There are two separate issues at play. Firstly, there is the ideological, the whole original/pretender dichotomy, the iconic stature of the original, the cult following, the long list of eminent photographers using one, and equally on the negative side, the perception of a plaything of the wealthy, even back in the 1930s etc. Secondly, there are the actual cameras themselves.

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Icon

I have already mentioned that the Leica invented 35 mm still photography as we know it and it still influences design today. Digital cameras don't have to look like the the body is only there to separate the two film chambers - it's a natural and comfortable way to hold a camera. But it was more than just the camera. Back in the day, you couldn't go to your local store and buy a prepackaged cassette of 36 exposure film so Leitz introduced the reloadable film cassette which inspired Kodak to introduce their 135 format disposable cassettes in 1934. The humble accessory shoe was invented by Oscar Barnack for his 1913 Ur-Leica (“Ur”short for prototype) to mount his removable viewfinder, later rangefinder. Leitz was also at the forefront of offering and developing film loading tools, darkroom tools such as enlargers and developing tanks and slide projectors.

Leitz was also a lens maker and its principal lens designer, Max Berek, was responsible for designing the legendary, and much copied, collapsible Elmar (including its 5 element forebearers) and subsequent pre-War lenses that kept Leica at the forefront of 35 mm photography.

When we think of what Leitz introduced to the photographic world, we invariably think of Leica cameras with focal plane shutters and interchangeable lenses. The Leica I (model B) still featured the original design's fixed lens but replaced the focal plane shutter with a Compur leaf type - that was the basic template for the millions of 35 mm fixed lens viewfinder/rangefinder cameras produced from the 1940s until the digital age.

The Leica was a seismic shift in camera thinking and execution and the design brilliant for its purpose. However, to be successful, it had to be well engineered and built and so it was. The Ernst Leitz company had its origins in a mid-19th century business called the “Optisches Institut” (Optical Institute) focusing on microscope manufacture. By the end of the 19th century, Leitz was World renowned for its microscopes. In that context, the Leica was never going to be a launch by a brilliant but struggling upstart, or cheap - it had all the advantages of large pool of designers and engineers and a skilled labour force. The engineering challenges were understood and accommodated. Marketing and sales departments were in place. There was already a New York office. The company had standing, it was establishment.

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The Leica's Place

Although the Leica deserved and achieved widespread success, it turned the approach to photography upside down and was therefore slow to be accepted by many professional photographers used to larger formats and Leica use by them tended to ebb and flow, e.g. after gaining acceptance pre-War, much of WWII reporting reverted to press cameras but Leicas prevailed during the Korean conflict. The early adopters tended to be well heeled amateurs and members of the social set. Whilst Zeiss Ikon released the competing Contax models, the real battle for professional use was still with larger format cameras and then the SLR arrived with its ability to easily mount long focal length lenses to capture close ups of sport and animals in the wild and revolutionise news reporting. From that point forward, the Leica became more of a niche product but the film and subsequent digital M series cameras have managed to survive and even prosper. There is still much appeal for photographers but sales have also depended on it being a collectible status symbol.

There are many photographers, both past and present, professional and amateur, who have been absolutely passionate about their Leica and using its many attributes to the full. They couldn't care less about its bling value or the digital era's Hermes, Zagato or other editions. However, most are not average Joes, you still need deep pockets to buy an “ordinary” Leica. Many say something like, “you don't need lots of money, you can buy a 65 year old film camera, something like a IIIf and still experience the wonders of the camera and the Leica lenses”. Yep, but once you add a lens and a good chance of needing a clean, lubricate and adjust (CLA), you're starting to look at a $1,000 entry fee, at least in Australian dollar terms, at a time when you can find a decent usable film camera for $50 or thereabouts. You have to be a real enthusiast, with some spare change.

So whilst the Leica is without question iconic and one of the most important cameras of the 20th century, there is little doubt that it has always had an aura and social status, and hence price, which elevated it above the means of many an average photographer.

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The Japanese Competition

The origins of the Japanese copy makers featured on these pages couldn't be more starkly different. They weren't aiming to compete with Leica. Initially they were envisaged as Leica substitutes in a country that was aiming to be strategically independent. Apart from Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō (responsible for the post-War Minolta 35), they were mostly start-ups with access to few resources, although the early Seiki Kōgaku (Canon) turned to the Japanese Imperial Navy supported Nippon Kōgaku (Nikon) for its optical system expertise and lenses. Whilst a Leica could be pulled down, examined and copied, the skills, engineering and production methods had to be learnt on the go. In comparison to Leitz, the facilities and production tools would have been primitive and the scale tiny. Design was by trial and error and as confidence and resources grew, by the 1950s, innovations were being introduced which started to separate the copies from the original.

From humble beginnings, the Japanese cameras developed into good quality photographic tools, fit-for-purpose. They were competing in a tough market with lots of options and the SLR starting to emerge. There was no ability to charge premium Leica-like prices and therefore the quality of engineering and attention to detail couldn't possibly hope to match Leica levels, particularly in the case of the smaller makers like Nicca and Leotax. The niche makers even more so. But to the user, much of that is not visible, nor perhaps even material.

Except for Canon and Nippon Kōgaku with its hybrid Contax/Leica, the Japanese copy makers couldn't afford to, and didn't, offer a wide range of accessories. Neither could they offer the Leitz levels of support and factory service nor even anything more than any other Japanese camera maker of the day.

Even though the Japanese Leica copies look like Leicas, their worlds and market positions are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Well maybe not so much Canon and Nippon Kōgaku but the others were certainly not competitors of Leica. They were everyman's cameras whereas the Leica was the aspiration of both makers and buyers alike.

Part of the Leica legend are its lenses. Not every one has been stellar in ultimate resolution and other metrics but they have all been very good for their time, had a consistent look to their colour and rendering and have been exceptionally well engineered for smooth operating reliability and long life. For a little while, Nikkor lenses got people excited in terms of their resolution and rendering but it didn't take long for Leitz to rise to the challenge. Whilst Nicca used Nikkor lenses, professionals and well heeled amateurs during this period of Japanese ascendency were more interested in using the Nikkors on their Leica bodies than buying a Nicca. Leotax offered lenses from various makers, Tōkyō Kōgaku (Topcon), Konishiroku (Konica), Fuji Photo Film and even Olympus but while most of these seem to be well regarded, compared to Leica, there was limited choice in focal length and the consistency of “look” was certainly absent as was the Leitz attention to engineering.

However, leaving aside lenses and the other natural advantages of Leica, what are the real differences between operating a screw mount Leica body and a 1950's Japanese made copy? By all accounts, not a great deal if you are comparing like with like. Many Leica examples have been well used and need a CLA if they haven't had one in more recent times, many copies have been badly stored for many years and may also need a CLA. In fact copies seem to have fewer problems with their shutter curtain longevity and also their rangefinder prisms. Unfortunately, whilst both the original and copies would benefit from a CLA, the Leica one is often treated as a necessary expense of buying an old Leica whereas the copy is equally often begrudged one, not the least because people buying them don't often have the same wherewithal as those buying the more expensive camera, but sometimes just because the copy costs much less in the first place and a CLA will easily double the purchase price. In the real world, the Leica is much more likely to return the investment in a CLA than its copy.

There have been, and are, photographers that prefer the convenience of the later Canon rangefinders and those that believe some Nicca examples approach Leica quality. The Leotax, particularly prior to the die cast models, is perhaps less kindly considered in that regard but then again, it was probably more innovative than its immediate competitor. On internet forums, people who have good things to say about the copies usually also have experience of Leicas too, or still have both. Those that argue strongly on behalf of the Leica over the Japanese copies are usually doing it from an ideological perspective, not from user experience.

The Leica deserves to be revered and that is one of the reasons that it retains its high value for collectors. For the user, it shouldn't be a question of one or the other, there is no reason why bodies and lenses shouldn't be mixed and matched and appreciated simply for the final image the photographer captures. The experience is very similar, the differences are more nuances. The Japanese copies really did become very good and even though most did not survive beyond the 1950s, they were at the forefront of the Japanese revolution that eventually overtook Germany as the home of the leading photographic industry in the world and their history deserves to be told.

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