The Legendary 1958 Zunow Reflex

"But, now, we Zunow have persistently, elaborately, at last, completely solved all these problems; and this Zunow Single lens Reflex Camera is believed to be far superior than all other rangefinder system cameras." (Zunow Press Release Jan 1st 1958)

"Legendary" is much debased word, frequently applied to cameras that are merely expensive. Examples of outstanding mechanical & optical craftsmanship they may be, but the stuff of legends? Simply, untrue!

I believe that the Zunow Reflex is one of the very few cameras that can be truly classed as "legendary". Myths about this camera and its place in history have arisen because so few people have even seen, let alone, handled one. As a popular "mythology" is at the heart of all good legends, I think the term applies! Like the "Yeti", travellers tell of its existance, but search as you will, there is little hard evidence and no pictures are available. (other than a rather poor illustration from a pre-publicity leaflet) This all explains why the Zunow has become such a legend amongst SLR camera enthusiasts.

The starting point for my "journey of discovery" were two articles by Stephen Gandy and the owner of Pacific Rim Cameras. They tell of the origins of Teikoku Optical Industries (precursor to the Zunow Optical Industry Co ltd), its high quality Leica screw thread lenses and the anouncement of a "Super Fast" f1.1 lens in 1953. Both articles give quite a detailed specification of the Zunow camera, but alas, no pictures.

The photos* you see here are unique, the owner acceeded to my request not only to photograph the camera as a whole, but to show all the important details that make it so special. These pictures are probably as near as you are going to get to this particular camera in your lifetime. So you can, for the first time, see one of the "Holy Grails" of Camera Collectors and more to the point - if you have sufficient cash - you can even buy it. This is, undoubtedly, one of the most important "milestone" cameras of all time - the one that first spelt out to the photographic world, the Rangefinder era is over.

How Rare?

Certainly Zunow SLRs are very rare, they don't normally turn up at auction, or at your neighbourhood classic camera shop, most are sold privately through collector to collector contact. Stephen Gandy says "Perhaps Zunows are more common in Japan, but in the US where they were never officially imported, they are next to impossible to find".

However there is always one dissenting voice - especially when passing judgement on rarity! That well known expert on antique cameras, Peter Loy remarked to me "but not as rare as the French Malik SLR". I have to concur with that, for I can't find anything on the internet about the Malik, or anybody who knows anything about it, or has even seen one! Take it from me, the Zunow is rare, verging on the extremely rare. Stephen Gandy reckons that a "hand built assembly line achieved the blazingly fast production rate of eight cameras per day" and estimates a "few hundred" were built. Given the usual attrition rate of cameras in daily use compounded by the failure of the manufacturer a year after the product was launched, the Zunow survival figure is not going to be impressive.

It may look familiar, but that's because it set the style that others followed - in particular the Nikon F1. As Pacific Rim states "The camera was styled very conventionally, well, what would be conventionally after everyone else got their cameras to market" even simple details such as the Speed selector influenced others long afterwards "The other is the speed dial underneath the wind lever, a design which popped up on a much later, very popular camera, the Canon AE-1"

Design Concepts

The Shutter

This was the "piece de la resistance" of the whole design. Non rotating at a time when most other focal plane shutters were. "Once shutter is released, our shutter button never move until new shutter charge" However they did not deem this as important as latter day commentators have.

What they regarded as the "real" breakthrough was: "in-between speeds are possible to set depending on the actual light conditions and the subject matter to be shot" "This in-between system should be the greatest improvements ever made, we can assure you"

The Auto Diaphragm Mechanism

Most of the cameras of this era had a pre-set system which meant that a lever had to be moved to open up the aperture blades after the photograph had been taken. So Zunow made much of their "Wink Return" system. "This fundamental improvement is made to always safeguard the quick shooting prerequisite which is unavailable by any other single lens reflex system". This internal linkage was ahead of its time - for example, it took another two years for Topcon to modify their pre-select R with its external link into an internal link in the Automatic R of 1960. Some think the Minolta SR2 of 1958 had a similar system as the camera was labelled "automatic" but, in truth, the lens remained resolutely stopped down after the picture had been taken!

A System Camera?

If Zunow had been more financially secure, would they have provided effective competition for the Nikon F of 1959? The answer to that is conjectural, but the range of 6 lenses (4 automatic) announced with the camera was not the most impressive on record. The Exacta bayonet mount (Topcon used a derivative of this mount) & the Praktica/Pentax screw mounts had an infinitely wider choice available. Even lens makers like Sigma struggled to get their own mounts accepted by the market place in the 1990s, so doubtless Zunow (with all its lens making expertise) would have had an uphill battle. Zunow fully realised this weakness, for they supplied adapters for both the Exacta & Pentax mounts - but these lenses would have remained pre-set.

The Importance of the Zunow

Next Page - Zunow Specification

Footnote: (from Nikon's History Glossary)

ZUNOW 5cm f/1.1 This lens first appeared in 1953, developed by Mr. HAMANO, Michisaburo, who had come to Nippon Kogaku K.K. from the navy and would later move on to Teikoku Optical Industries (later Zunow).     The ZUNOW 5cm f/1.1 has five (5) groups and nine (9) lenses, with a Sonner-type M39 mount (39mm diameter, 1/26-inch thread screw) and Nikon "S" mount.

In 1955, Mr. KUNIMI, Kenji who had come from Nippon Kogaku K.K., and Mr. FUJIOKA, Yoshisato, who had come from Yashima Kogaku K.K., improved upon this design using new optical glass in a four (4)-group, nine (9)-lens structure. Subsequent revisions yielded the 5cm f/1.3 lens.

So Two Nikon designers leave for Zunow in the early fifties. One wonders if they moved back to Nikon to develop the F?

Sylvain Hasgard's French Translation of this page

Copyright Text: Paul Winter - Photographs: Richard Wheatley - 6th May 2005

Please note, reproduction of these unique photographs is not permitted without the express permission of Richard Wheatley