Selecting the all-time best of anything is always a daunting task, and that’s especially true of cameras, which have undergone a seismic paradigm shift in moving from film to digital. It’s also a great way to start arguments, generate irate letters and e-mails, and tick off your buddies at various camera companies.
Despite these qualms and caveats, I have forged fearlessly ahead and selected a baker’s dozen plus one of stalwart candidates that span just over a century and herewith present them with pride, fully expecting to receive a few raspberries and tomatoes from fans of cameras I have wittingly and unwittingly omitted.
Many of the cameras on this list—and yours—can be found in the Adorama Used department. Visit and browse!
I have tried my level best to select those cameras that were real trendsetters or had the greatest influence on the development of the photographic industry as a whole, but keeping it down to a mere dozen inevitably entailed some hand-wringing compromises. Frankly, I had far too much fun doing this to ask you to take pity on this hapless writer, but I nevertheless extend my apologies in advance to lovers of the Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, Leica M3, Nikon D90, Canon AE-1, Konica C35AF and Autoreflex, and many other worthy machines that did not make my cruel cut.
Anyway, I sure hope you find this enjoyable and informative, and I do welcome your comments.
1. Kodak Brownie 1900. By offering a simple, competent, easy-to-use, daylight-loadable camera at the then-unprecedented price of $1.00 and putting a brilliantly-conceived marketing program behind it, Kodak was literally able to sell a camera to practically everybody, and they motivated millions to buy it. This was the camera that made the snapshot possible, created the photographic mass market, and exerted a profound influence on everything that came after it, even up to the digital point-and-shoot.
2. Leica I, Model A, 1925. This is the camera that really put 35mm photography on the map and created widespread interest in the upstart “miniature” format. Announced at the Leipzig Fair in 1925, it was the first high-quality 35mm camera to be mass produced, and a watershed design that defined and determined the direction photography was to take in the 20th century. It established the basic shape and control layout of 35mm cameras, and the viability of 35mm as a serious contender. The basic concept endured for over 35 years, during which time the Leica name was widely revered as “the best camera in the world.”
3. Kine Exakta I 1936. Made by Ihagee Kamerawerk, Steenbergen & Co. Dresden, Germany, it was the first widely distributed 35mm single-lens reflex camera and its basic design profoundly influenced the legions of 35mm SLRs that succeeded it. It was called the Kine Exakta because it used 35mm cine film, and despite its distinctive trapezoidal-shaped body, left-handed single-long-stroke film-advance lever, left-handed shutter release and flip-up waist-level viewfinder, it still has the unmistakable look and features of a modern 35mm SLR, except for an eye-level pentaprism, which didn't appear until the Exakta Varex.
4. Kodak Super Six-20 1938. The world’s first series-production auto-exposure (AE) still camera, the Super Six-20 folding roll film camera was nearly 20 years ahead of its time, but it exerted considerable influence on camera makers as a technological benchmark. With advances in electronics and metering technology, the concept of autoexposure took the photographic world by storm after WWII, and was ultimately developed into today’s sophisticated, through-the-lens, multi-pattern, multimode autoexposure systems. A strikingly handsome camera of futuristic post-deco clamshell design, the Super Six-20 produced eight 2-1/4x3-1/4 images per roll of 620 film.
5. Nikon F 1959. The legendary Nikon F was the first truly professional-caliber SLR, and was conceived, from its inception, as the basis for a high-quality professional SLR system. The Nikon F remained in production, with relatively minor changes, for nearly 14 years, and it established Nikon as the leading professional 35mm camera, a position not seriously challenged (by Canon) until the autofocus era. A handsome, rugged, and reliable camera of modular design, its removable pentaprism and external meter-coupling system allowed the Nikon F to be retrofitted with the latest advances in metering technology by upgrading the meter prism, and its F mount has endured, with some operational changes, even until the present digital era—a remarkable example of non-obsolescence.
6. Asahi Pentax K1000 1977. The Volkswagen Bug of 35mm SLRs and perhaps the most successful basic student SLR of all time, this simple, elegant, straightforward manual, match-needle SLR is basically a Pentax Spotmatic F with Pentax K-type bayonet mount. Competent and affordable, it was in production for over 20 years, first in Japan, later in China, was made in huge numbers, and still holds its value on the used market. Features include: Single-stroke film-wind lever, fixed eye-level pentaprism, cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus B, two-CDS-cell, through-the-lens, center-weighted meter reading off the screen at maximum aperture. Standard lens: 55mm f/2, 50mm f/2 or 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax. A fine-performing student/beginner camera, it was widely imitated and introduced millions to the joys of SLR photography.
7. Minolta Maxxum 7000 1985. The world’s first fully integrated autofocus SLR with the AF system built into the body, the Maxxum 7000 created a sensation when it was announced, and was a phenomenal sales success that catapulted Minolta into the technological forefront. A full-featured 35mm SLR, it used a passive AF system and autofocus motor that coupled to the focusing mounts in the AF lenses. It focused fairly rapidly, representing a considerable advance over previous AF systems, but is no match for today’s DSLRs. The Maxxum line provided the mechanical basis and lens mount that were developed into today’s advanced Sony Alpha DSLRs.
8. Sony Mavica 1981. The original Mavica was not really a digital camera. It was essentially a television camera that recorded TV-quality still images on two-inch magnetic floppy discs called Mavipaks. Its single-speed 1/60 sec shutter allowed it to freeze frames within the limits set by the twin-field interlace making up the complete frame. The Mavica of 1981 was an SLR with interchangeable lenses but the resolution of its 10x12mm CCD was only 570x490 pixels, lower than VGA. Nevertheless it implied a whole new world of imaging possibilities that were to be developed, by Sony and many others, with unflagging dedication and at an amazing pace. To quote from Sony’s original announcement: “The Mavica system…uses no photographic film and therefore does not require developing and printing processes, which are indispensable to conventional chemical photography. This new video still camera represents an epoch-making innovation...and a fundamental change in the concept and technology of photography.” For once, the PR guys got it right!
9. Kodak DCS 100 1991. The first digital SLR offered for sale to the public, the DCS 100 shows just how far digital imaging has progressed in 20 years. Basically a Nikon F3 incorporating a 1.4-megapixel Kodak CCD image sensor measuring 20.5x16.4mm, the DCS 100 required a heavy, bulky tethered monitor/control unit, and had a 200 MB SCSI hard drive on board. Its small CCD meant that a 28mm lens provided an angle of view equivalent to an 80mm lens on 35mm. The whole rig was carried around in a fairly large fitted suitcase, and it cost over $30.000. Despite these limitations, the DCS 100 and its successor the DCS 200 sparked sufficient technical interest and user-involvement to pave the way for the vastly improved digital SLRs of today.
10. Kodak DC 210 1998. The first “Megapixel resolution” digital camera selling for under $1000 ($899) it had a CCD sensor with an ISO rating of 140, point-and-shoot form factor, a 2X, 29-58mm equivalent wide-angle zoom lens, a 1.8-inch LCD panel that “could be turned on when in capture mode to preview pictures,” a small optical finder, and a built-in flash. It was powered by 4 AA cells, weighed in at a hefty 15.4 ounces with batteries, and used “removable storage media” aka Compact Flash cards. It wasn’t elegant, but it was capable of delivering photo-quality 4x6s or 5x7s sizes and decent 8x10s—the first popular digital compact camera that combined the basic point-and shoot performance parameters with the now-standard feature set. It is thus the lineal ancestor of today’s prodigious point-and-shoots.
11. Nikon D100 2002. The first digital SLR to score a resounding sales success among professional and serious enthusiast photographers, the D100 combined pro-level performance and features in an ergonomic body with built-in flash at a sufficiently moderate price (about $1,600) to attract many enthusiasts. The broad appeal of the D100 spurred other makers, notably Canon and Pentax, as well as a Nikon itself, to expand and redefine the emerging digital SLR mass market. The D100 featured a polycarbonate body similar to the 35mm Nikon N80, an APS-sized, 6.3-magapixel CCD sensor, shutter speeds from 30-1/4000 sec plus B, ISOs 100-1600, a 1.8-inch LCD monitor, continuous and single-servo AF, 3D multi-sensor balanced fill flash with Nikon-dedicated units, program, aperture- and shutter-priority plus manual metering modes, illuminated LCD info displays, and of course, a Nikon F-mount. The Nikon D100’s outstanding performance and relative affordability kept it among the top digital SLR contenders for over 3 years, and many are still in use.
12. Canon EOS Digital Rebel 2003. The first digital SLR with a retail price under $1000 (complete with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Canon EF-S lens), the Digital Rebel was the opening salvo in a trend that revolutionized the photo industry by moving the DSLR squarely into the mass-market arena. Featuring a 6-megapixel CMOS image sensor, an illuminated LCD control panel, a 1.8-inch TFT color LCD, and pushbutton controls on the back, it is truly a camera that redefined the DSLR breed and pointed the way to new directions in digital photography.
13. Apple iPhone 2008. The ubiquitous iPhone (the 3G is shown) has revolutionized the way we take, share, and perceive images and integrate them into our lives. Indeed, you can use these pocket-sized multi-function devices to e-mail, post your images to social networking sites, or send them to image printout and posting sites. Incorporating 3MP, 5MP, and soon 8MP cameras capable of shooting impressive still images and HD movies the iPhone and its ilk may be putting a crimp in point-and-shoot sales, but they’re also generating some fascinating accessories like a case that will print out iPhone images, DSLR lens adapters, and the Steadicam Smoothee. Savvy dealers will see the iPhone as an opportunity and a printout stream to tap into. They’d better, because these things are not going away, and they're getting better all the time!
14. Sony SLT Alpha-55 2010. The Sony A-55 is an interchangeable-lens camera that provides the basic functional equivalent of a DSLR but takes the concept to a whole new level by eliminating the flipping reflex mirror and optical finder, thus allowing multiple operations to be performed simultaneously rather than sequentially. Behind the lens is a proprietary Translucent Mirror that reflects the image up to the camera’s autofocus (AF) and auto-exposure (AE) sensors, providing accurate AF and AE information up to and even during the instant of exposure, a feat not possible with a conventional DSLR. The result is a moderately priced, broad-spectrum camera that can shoot bursts up to 10 frames-per-sec, capture full HD 1080p video movies at 30p or 60i complete with full-time phase-detection AF, and much more. This represents a key step in moving beyond the limitations set by the traditional mechanical and optical systems and is destined to yield a whole new generation of cameras with unprecedented capabilities.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Adorama ownership and management.