Nikon  –  Vintage Camera Brand

Nikon Brand Overview

Nikon logo

Founded: 1917 — Tokyo, Empire of Japan
(modern day Japan)
Currently: Nikon Corporation

Nikon Brand History

Nikon is a Tokyo-based multinational company originally founded in 1917 as Nippon Kogaku Tokyo K.K. (Japan Optical Industries Corporation) with the merging of three smaller firms. It has since become one of the world’s largest optical manufacturers and a worldwide leader in the camera industry.

During the early 20th century, the majority of precision optics had to be imported to Japan from abroad (mostly Germany) so one of the company’s primary ambitions was to be able to manufacture high quality optics at home in Japan. To help achieve this goal, a team of eight German optical engineers was brought to Japan in 1921 to help the company develop lenses. One of the German engineers, Heinrich Acht, eventually became a department head and helped lay the foundation for much of Nikon’s lens technology. The company began producing high quality camera lenses, including those used on the earliest Canon cameras. When World War II began, the company began manufacturing things like binoculars, periscopes, and bomb sights for the Imperial Japanese military. Nikon is also famous for making the massive 15 meter long rangefinder used on the battleship Yamato, the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

After the Second World War, the company resumed its production of consumer optics and debuted a 35mm rangefinder camera in 1946, dubbed the Nikon I. ‘Nikon’ is a combination of the Japanese word Nippon (meaning ‘Japan’) and the German brand Zeiss Ikon, implying that the company was the Japanese equivalent of the German powerhouse. The Nikon I was heavily based on competing German rangefinders by Contax and Leica and featured a combination of the former’s body with the latter’s cloth shutter assembly. The company’s Nikkor-branded lenses that accompanied the Nikon I soon gained immense popularity abroad after renowned Japanese photojournalist Jun Miki introduced them to American LIFE magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan who found them to be as good as or better than many German lenses. Duncan then went on to mount Nikkor lenses onto his Leica bodies and produce some of the most iconic images of the Korean War.

Some years later in 1959, the venerable Nikon F was born and its popularity amongst professional photographers prompted a mass migration of photojournalists from rangefinders to SLRs with Japanese ones in particular. The F set many of the standards for professional-grade SLRs such as a wide variety of interchangeable parts like lenses, backs, and viewfinders as well the use of electronic flashes and advanced light metering systems. In 1971, Nikon began its long, storied relationship with NASA when it supplied a heavily modified Nikon F for use on Apollo 15. Nikon collaborated with NASA in 1987 to produce one of the world’s first fully digital cameras: the Nikon NASA F4 for use on numerous Space Shuttle missions and continues providing NASA with space-ready cameras today.

The company officially changed its name to Nikon Corporation in 1988 and began producing digital cameras in the mid ’90s. As film camera sales began to decline and digital camera sales rose in the early 2000s, Nikon introduced the hugely successful D series of digital SLRs which continue to be popular amongst both amateur and professional photographers.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of Nikon cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), p 126, 495-508.

“Corporate History,” Nikon Corporation,

“Anytar Lens,” Nikon Corporation,

“Vol. 12. Special titanium Nikon cameras and NASA cameras,” Nikon Corporation,

“Vintage Nikon Cameras,” Collectors Weekly,

“Nikon,” Wikipedia,

“Jun Miki,” Wikipedia,

“David Douglas Duncan,” Wikipedia,

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