An Olympus Standard Prototype Rangefinder Camera from 1937 has fetched a price of 54,000 Euros (three times higher than its starting price of 18,000 euros) during the 31th Westlicht Camera Auction in Vienna (Austria) held on June 10, 2017.
Front diagonal left view of the Olympus Standard, a prototype rangefinder camera manufactured in 1937 by Takachiho (predecessor of Olympus) and designed by Sakurai Eiichi.
Only ten units (numbers 101-110) were made and just three are known to currently exist.
Though it wasn´t mass produced, this Olympus Standard is a hugely interesting camera both from a historical viewpoint and as a photographic tool, since it was one of the first attempts of the Japanese photographic industry to create a top-notch system camera able to compete in the international market ruled by German firms at the time.
And to properly attain it, Takachiho created this prototype concept rangefinder camera, very compact and light (with dimensions of 80 x 150 x 35 mm and a weight of 700 g) for its 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film and which is strongly inspired by the best of mid thirties German photographic industry, id est:
a) The 1936 Zeiss Ikon Contax II 35 mm format rangefinder contours and combined rangefinder and viewfinder viewing system featuring a great separation between the coupled viewfinder and rangefinder and the RF window and enabling a much more comfortable and accurate focusing than the Leicas II (Model D), Leica III (Model F) and Leica IIIA (Model G) of the period.
b) A retractable and very compact Takatiho Tokyo 65 mm f/3.5 lens greatly based on Max Berek´s Leitz Elmar 50 mm f/3.5.
c) An utterly mechanical horizontal travelling focal plane shutter emulating the one featured by the Leica III (Model F) and Leica III A (Model G) 24 x 36 mm format camera.
Therefore, this prototype camera amazingly proves that Olympus was the first to conceive this kind of concept camera merging the foremost values of 35 mm format Zeiss Ikon Contax II and Leitz screwmount Leicas nine years before the designing of the 24 x 32 mm format Nikon I rangefinder camera by Nippon Kogaku in September of 1946 (which would be launched into market in March 1948), likewise strongly inspired by the best traits of the Contax II and screwmount Leicas of mid thirties.
But there´s a hallmark pivotal factor that increases even more the fascination and unique charm oozed by this camera: the choice of 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film, whose aim was to beat the image quality delivered by the 24 x 36 mm Contax II, Leica II, Leica III and Leica IIIA German rangefinder cameras, taking advantage of the larger negative surface.
Front top view of the Olympus Standard Prototype from 1937, a breakthrough camera for the time, going far beyond Goro Yoshida´s Kwanon camera from 1934 (the first Japanese 35 mm rangefinder camera) and the also 24 x 36 mm format Hansa Canon from 1936.
The Takatiho Tokyo Zuiko 65 mm f/3.5 standard lens appears collapsed, which provides the camera with remarkable small size, compactness, ease of transport and steady possibility of shooting handheld, particularly if we bear in mind its 4 x 5 cm format far larger negative size than 24 x 36 mm format cameras.
Front view of the 4 elements in 3 groups chrome Takatiho Tokyo Zuiko 65 mm f/3.5, the standard lens coupled to the Olympus Standard mirrorless with rangefinder camera, and whose optical scheme would be applied ten years later as a fixed 7,5 cm f/3.5 lens for the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) medium format Mamiya Six IV folding camera (manufactured between 1947 and 1953).
The iris diaphragm adjustment can be seen surrounding the black bezel.
Thanks to its 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film, the 65 mm f/3.5 lens (roughly equivalent to a 50 mm lens in a 24 x 36 mm format) would have enabled the photographers to make creative photography with good selective focus, because the larger size of emulsion makes that the f/3.5 lens of the Olympus Standard renders a shallower depth of field (approximately equivalent to f/2.5 in 35 mm format) at the widest aperture than an f/3.5 lens designed for a 24 x 36 mm camera.
On the other hand, engineer and designer Sakurai Eiichi did his best to imitate the Zeiss Ikon Contax II with a system of interchangeable lenses screwed to the front of the focusing helical, which is attached to the body, doesn´t come off and is driven by a tab, as well as boasting infinity lock, while very oddly, the distance scale is fixed and the depth of field indications (between f/3.5 and f/22) are placed on the rotating part.
Aerial top view of the 4 x 5 cm format Olympus Standard, on whose top panel are visible from left to right (as seen in the image) the advance knob simultaneously advancing the film and winding the shutter, its base surrounded by the exposure counter, the threaded socket for shutter release cable, the small shutter release button combined with a two-position selector (used to load film and to disconnect the film advance from the shutter operation) marked T and I and just beside the little arrow is the shutter speed selector with B, 1/20 s, 1/30 s, 1/50 s, 1/100 s, 1/200 s and 1/500 s positions.
The serial number 107 corresponding to this camera (which was announced in the Asahi Camera magazine of November 1937) is engraved just before the hotshoe and the top plate left end is engraved Olympus Standard in cursive script.
It bears a great resemblance to the Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 designed by Max Berek and other standard LTM mount lenses for 24 x 36 mm format is apparent, including the small focusing lever with infinity catch (visible on top right of the image), though unlike the German lens (in which the depth of field scale is around the distance scale) it has the distance scale surrounding the depth of field scale.
Detail of the windows of the rangefinder (the smallest one, located on far left top front of the camera) and the viewfinder (the biggest one, placed in the middle top front area of the camera) with the Olympus Tokyo logo handcraftedly engraved with pantograph between them.
The Olympus Standard created by Sakurai Eichii was an extraordinary brainstorm prototype of non folding 4 x 5 cm format rangefinder system camera fed with larger than 24 x 36 mm format film and enabling the use of a wide range of interchangeable attachable lenses: the Zuiko 50 mm f/4.5, the Zuiko 65 mm f/2, the Zuiko 65 mm f/2.7, the Zuiko 135 mm f/4.5 and the Zuiko 135 mm f/6.3, so it envisaged and anticipated in thirty-one years the future breed of non folding medium format rangefinder cameras using larger than 35 mm format film and interchangeable lenses that started with the Fujica G690 (1968) and Fujica G690BL (1969), followed by the Fujica GL690 Professional (January 1974), Fujica GM670 (1974), Mamiya 6 (1989), Mamiya 7 (1995) and Zenza Bronica 645 RF (2000).
But the 4 x 5 cm format Olympus Standard couldn´t be mass produced and the project was ditched because of some important reasons:
a) It was exceedingly difficult to solve film flatness problems brought about by the slim spools for 127 film, which rolled tightly. This became a conundrum, since this aspect was of paramount importance to get a very good image quality and in 1937 the firm hadn´t the adequate film tensioners, to such an extent that the very good optical performance of the Zuiko lenses made by Takachiho Seisakushu was very often hampered by the bad 127 roll flatness inside the body of the camera, resulting in a so so image quality in practice.
b) Frequent film spacing problems.
c) Lack of high reliability of the horizontal travelling focal plane shutter, particularly regarding the coupling of the auto-stop advance to it.
d) A very high production cost of the lenses for 4 x 5 cm format, something impossible to avoid if they wanted to compete against the reference-class lenses like the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/1.5 and Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 (designed by Ludwig Bertele and used on the Contax II) and the Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 (used on the Leica II Model D and Leica III Model F) of the 24 x 36 mm format German rangefinder cameras.
e) In 1937 the firm hadn´t got enough economical, technical and machinery resources to guarantee a consistent uniformity of high optomechanical quality in every batch on churning out lenses for 4 x 5 cm format, so major differences in performance among them would have been inevitable for customers.
Detail of the shutter speed dial and the shutter release button of the 4 x 5 cm format Olympus Standard rangefinder camera on the right top panel, under which there´s a horizontally running focal-plane cloth shutter inspired by the one present in the Leica III and Leica IIIa 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder cameras. This was a high decision, because the adoption of a metallic vertical travelling shutter based on the one featured by the Contax II ( made up of more than 700 components and very complex, on changing the size of the slit and the trajectory of the curtains to adjust speed ) would have skyrocketed production cost and the development of the project even more.
f) The great technical difficulty for the time of developing a horizontal running focal-plane shutter emulating the Leitz ones featured by the 24 x 36 mm format Leica III and Leica IIIA for a much bigger 4 x 5 cm format on 127 mm film, which brought about significant changes in the dimensions of the two gear trains deployed in the shutter, the opening and closing curtain, the closing curtain release lever, the opening curtain release lever, the opening curtain pawl, the closing curtain pawl, the opening take-up spool, the closing take-up spool,the speed of transmission of movement of the film advance knob to the top of the sprocket drum, the speed of rotation transmission of the sprocket drum to the take-up drums of the blinds, the transferrance of motion to wheels, pin rotations and drivings and to the lower gear train, the coupling to drums of blinds, the tensioning of the springs in rollers, the disengagement of pins to liberate the lower gear train and enable the blinds freedom to move, the connection of the short rods to the timing mechanism, the precision of accurate slot on which works the connecting rod and many more things.
Therefore, the mechanical subassemblies to guarantee a Leica style flawless and consistent through decades operation of the cloth focal plane shutter and film advance mechanism for a 4 x 5 cm format non folding ragefinder camera ( an incredibly avant-garde concept in 1937) like the Olympus Standard would have meant in practice (along with the extremely difficult task of designing and producing small and light lenses of different focal lengths standardized for 4 x 5 cm format and yielding better image quality — not only in terms of sharpness and resolving power but specially in overall quality and feeling — than the best Carl Zeiss Jena and Leitz lenses for 24 x 36 mm format) a tremendously expensive venture in both manufacturing and I + D which would have resulted in a risk of bankcruptcy for the firm on trying to set up assembly-line production aimed at the photographic market.
g) The soaring design and production cost which would have meant to create a rangefinder (by far the most expensive component of an RF camera) for the 4 x 5 cm format Olympus Standard camera similar to
the one boasted by the Contax II with a huge separation between the coupled viewfinder and rangefinder, each one being on top far left and far right of the camera front, with an exceedingly large rangefinder base of 90 mm, a magnification of around 0.75x, and attaining an effective baselength of 67.5 mm, even superior to the one sported by the Leica M3).
Therefore, Takachicho Seisakusho had to build a good rangefinder for this prototype,
but with a much shorter distance between the coupled VF and RF and so, far from getting the Contax II superb accuracy on focusing even at the widest apertures, and this would have been particularly critical when focusing a 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film RF camera whose lenses would deliver a shallower depth of field with the same apertures than the Contax or Leica cameras using a much smaller 24 x 36 mm film format.
h) The Second Sino-Japanese War had just broken out and military optical requirements and orders became top priority when tackling opportunities to make this niche of products profitable, in addition to the fact that the Olympus Standard camera was a complex machine and more time, strenuous effort and further invested wherewithal would have been unavoidable for Takachiho Seisakusho firm if trying to catch up with the top-notch Leica and Zeiss Ikon German photographic cameras and lenses in the series production sphere where they were playing first fiddle at that time.
Back view of the Olympus Standard 4 x 5 cm format prototype, in which can be seen another of its most distinctive traits: the location of the eyepiece of the distance meter and viewfinder on middle top, instead of on left top which is the usual thing in rangefinder cameras.
Moreover, the 4 x 5 cm format Olympus Standard prototype boasted a very good viewing system for the time, encompassing a viewfinder coupled to the rangefinder (whose small window, approximately half the size of the viewfinder window, is located on left top front area of the camera), which meant an advantage over the screwmount Leicas of the time, masterpieces of precision with exceedingly small size and low weight along a fabulous and highly reliable horizontal travelling mechanical shutter with rubberized silk curtains and a whispering noise on pressing the shutter release button, but featuring independent windows for framing and focusing, until the launching into market of the Leica M3 in 1954 with coupled viewfinder and rangefinder.
Detail of the T and I selector used to film loading and to disconnect the film advance from the shutter operation.
When the photographer sets it on the T position, the coupling mechanism is disengaged and the film is freely wound until the number I appears in the red window, after which the exposure counter is manually reset to zero and the selector is switched to the I position for normal operation, with the further possibility of using the same selector for T exposures, which explains the T and I indications.
Near back view of the Olympus Standard shutter release button surrounded by the T and I selector, with the shutter speed dial on the left and the big advance knob on the right (with the exposure counter around it at its base) simultaneously advancing the film and winding the shutter.
The lack of swivelling mirror inherent to mirrorless with rangefinder cameras made possible to shoot handeld at slow and very slow shutter speeds without trepidation.
Aerial view of the Olympus Standard top panel right area, showing from left to right: the shutter speed dial, the T and I selector with the shutter release button on it, the threaded socket for cable release and the large advance knob to both advancing the film and winding the shutter.
Minimalist approach reduced to the essential for a complete control of decisions by the photographer, in a photographic tool which was devised from scratch as a professional camera.
Image showing the 4 x 5 cm format mirrorless with rangefinder camera Olympus Standard in lying position revealing from left to right: the chrome key to open the back of the camera (which is removable in the same way as the bottom plate), the small plate under the camera center (whose mission is to work as a support after sliding it forward), and the threaded socket for tripod.
Beautiful Olympus Standard logo handcraftedly engraved with pantograph on top left panel of the camera with a painstaking level of accuracy and prowess for the time accomplished by a Takachiho employee in 1937.
The legendary maestro Jim McKeown, one of the greatest experts in the world on cameras, lenses and accesories of different formats and periods.
His monumental work McKeown´s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras is the most comprenhensive book ever made on this scope and a must for any lover of photography history and collector, featuring lavish technical and historical information on nothing less than 40,000 cameras from the earliest years to the present and an exceedingly comprehensive assortment of 10,000 photographs being very useful for the identification of the myriad of photographic devices displayed.
Here he appears holding the 4 x 5 cm format Olympus Standard rangefinder camera, which he defined as the most interesting one on sale during the 31th Westlicht Camera Auction.
Jim McKeow starts opening the back of the camera by turning the key located under the bottom plate.
His deftness is awesome after more than fifty years devoted to the thorough study of all kind of cameras, lenses and accessories encompasing a figure of over 200,000 photographic devices.
Now, half of the back has already been drawn and the aluminium removable pressure plate to get maximum feasible flatness of 127 films inside the camera is revealed.
And then, he slides forward the small plate in the middle area under the camera, leaving it in its supporting position,
subsequently also removing the bottom plate.
Detail of the aluminium removable pressure plate covering the 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film opening located within the camera.
On the right there´s an inserted metallic thin take-up spool (with its slit) for 127 film, whose sturdy receptor under it featuring a wide base (in the same way as the other one placed inside the film chamber on far left of the camera) clearly reveals the great importance attached to both the precision of the film spools inside their chambers and the flatness of the extended 127 mm roll.
After sliding the aluminium removable pressure plate out, the film gate for 4 x 5 cm format on 127 roll and the horizontal travelling focal plane shutter appear.
It´s a riveting sight summing up the camera philosophy with the 4 x 5 cm format as a raison d´être, with an aspect ratio identical to the much bigger size of 4 x 5 " (10 x 12 cm) large format cameras.
To build a camera like this with non leaf shutter lenses was a tremendous technical challenge in 1937, because it needed a stratospheric level of accuracy which had to be built inside the Olympus Standard, particularly at the highest 1/500 speed, and it made absolutely pivotal to keep the synchronization of the two curtains of the horizontally running focal-plane cloth shutter exceedingly precise, something virtually impossible to attain for a 4 x 5 cm format camera.
As a matter of fact, the best focal-plane horizontal running shutters for 24 x 36 mm format screwmount Leicas incepted by the mechanical geniuses Oskar Barnack for the Leica II in 1932, Leica III in 1933 and Leica IIIA in 1935 and the focal-plane shutter with non rotating shutter speed dial of the Leica IV Prototype brainstormed by Willi Stein in 1934, though being mechanical masterpieces of reliability and miniaturized precision, weren´t very accurate at the highest 1/500 s and 1/1000 s, because with this kind of shutters the image is made through a slit which is created between the first and second curtain, unlike conceptual ofsspring of this camera which would appear almost sixty years later like the fabulous medium format Mamiya 7 rangefinder with individual leaf shutters for each of its lenses.
To design and manufacture a hypothetical Mamiya 7 from early nineties, with a horizontally travelling focal-plane shutter would have been something of extreme technical difficulty and very expensive, with a virtually impossible to fulfill any economies of scale to launch it into the photographic market in 1995.
Jim McKeown verifying the 4 x 5 cm format of the Olympus Standard rangefinder prototype camera with a ruler.
The choice of 4 x 5 cm format instead of the 24 x 36 mm one for the Olympus Standard prototype camera greatly based on the Zeiss Ikon Contax II and the screwmount Leitz Leicas of the period was something absolutely unique and amazing in a non folding rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses made 80 years ago, and unfolding a thorough research for selecting the most suitable film format and aspect ratio, having specially in mind the illustrated magazines and above all the commonly used 8 x 10 " (20 x 25 cm) photographic papers
Regarding this exotic prototype, it seems that the aim was to get maximum image quality feasible taking advantage of the 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film ( featuring a bigger surface than the 24 x 36 mm format film used by Contax II and Leitz screwmount Leica rangefinder cameras) in combination with first-rate lenses, so production cost was very high, there were some significant technical hitches to solve and the whole project entailed great difficulty to mass produce it, so it was abandoned.
But it´s still amazing that Olympus tried to go ahead with this absolutely breakthrough camera for mid thirties, selecting a 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film, eleven years before th launching into market by Nippon Kogaku of the Nikon I with 24 x 32 mm format and aspect ratio 1.33 on 35 mm film, mainly because of economical reasons after the Second World War, since the photographers could get 40 frames on a 36 exposures film, while in 1949 Nippon Kogaku introduced its Nikon M featuring 24 x 34 mm format on 35 mm film.
It seems that both Takachiho Seisakusho with its Olympus Standard and Nippon Kogaku with its Nikon I and Nikon M did their best to match the aspect ratio of the widespread 8 x 10 " (20 x 25 cm) printing papers, though from 1952 with the Nikon S, Nippon Kogaku was bound to accept the 24 x 36 mm negative size as a consequence of the huge versatility of the Barnack format with 3:2 aspect ratio for a very comprehensive range of photographic genres, and because unlike the 4 x 5 cm, 24 x 32 mm and 24 x 34 mm formats, it didn´t interfere with the machine mounting of Kodachrome colour slides, who had already become highly popular worldwide.
The sensational recent discovery of this Olympus Standard prototype rangefinder camera in an attic of New Zealand 80 years after its manufacture in 1937 does substantiate that Olympus had been working very hard since mid thirties striving after begetting an amazing system camera boasting interchangeable top class lenses, stunning compactness and 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film as a core able to compete and even beat the cream of the crop of the German photographic industry, then by far the reference-class world benchmark in terms of opto-mechanical quality and reliability, epitomized by 35 mm format rangefinder cameras like the Leica II (Model D), Leica III (Model F), Leica IIIA ( Model G), and Zeiss Ikon Contax II; the 35 mm format reflex cameras Ihagee Kine Exakta Version 1 Round Magnifier and Ihagee Kine Exakta Version 2 Rectangular Magnifier; and the medium format folding rangefinder cameras with fixed lens like the 6 x 4.5 cm Ikonta A 520, Super Ikonta A 530 and Super Ikonta A 531; the 6 x 6 cm format Ikonta B 520/16, Super Ikonta B 530/16 and Super Ikonta B 532/16; and 6 x 9 cm format Ikonta C 520/2, Super Ikonta C 530/2, Super Ikonta C 531/2 and 6.5 x 11 cm format Super Ikonta D 530/15.
And they couldn´t go beyond the prototype stage because of a number of economical and technical factors along with the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, which deviated most of the resources towards it.
But it seems clear that in 1937 Yamashita Takeshi (founder of the company) and Sakurai Eiichi (Olympus chief optical designer and engineer in mid and late thirties and forties, as well as being a great photographer who would win twenty-eight years later the Prize of the Japanese Photographic Society) pined for building a non folding rangefinder camera with possibility of attaching it lenses of different focal lengths, and which got the upper hand as to image quality, use quickness, light volume and weight for its format, lack of vibration when shooting handheld and almost imperceptible noise on pressing the shutter release button.
In addition, both of them had perfectly grasped the highly significant advantages of a non reflex system camera to design top-notch lenses without any compromise in quality and second to none levels of sharpness, resolving power, very high uniformity of performance between center and borders at every aperture, etc, since the back elements of this kind of non retrofocus objectives don´t need to save the upward swivelling path of any mirror movement, so much more pure optical designs can be created, particularly within the sphere of wideangle and standard lenses.
And they had acquired units of the aforementioned top-notch German photographic cameras and painstakingly studied them, with minute attention to every detail, in addition to deeply analyze the optical schemes of the best German lenses designed by Ludwig Bertele and Max Berek, focusing helicals, mechanical construction, tolerances, types of glasses used, kinds of rangefinders and their effective baselengths, etc, striving after drawing the best features of them for their Olympus Standard Prototypes, and finally opting for a camera merging the most remarkable traits of the 35 mm format Leitz and Zeiss Ikon rangefinder cameras and lenses in symbiosis with a bigger 4 x 5 cm format on 127 film.
And albeit they couldn´t attain series production and launch it into market, the mere fact that Takachiho firm (predecessor of Olympus) dared to have a go at this virtually impossible for the time 4 x 5 cm concept camera with interchangeable lenses project featuring a good rangefinder, built by them in Tokyo and with their exceedingly limited means in 1937 (fulfilling almost every stage through mere handcrafted manufacture parameters, knowledge, an Askania optical bench for testing with collimators, extensive manual work, a very short catalogue of optical glasses available, milling machines, lathes and broadly speaking industrial equipment under the stringent quality standards of the German photographic industry, as well as designing and producing lenses by means of intensive calculation of ray tracing with abacus, table of logarithms and thousands of trial and error hours) was truly an impressive accomplishment.
As a matter of fact, it conceptually pioneered a lineage of non folding and compact rangefinder cameras with interchangeable lenses and using bigger than 24 x 36 mm format which would be born thirty-one years later with the Fujica G690 in 1968 and would have its performance pinnacle with the Mamiya 7 II in synergy with the formidable 10 elements in 6 groups Mamiya 43 mm f/4.5 ultrawide angle lens (equivalent to a 21 mm lens in 35 mm format and inspired by Ludwig Bertele´s original ten element Zeiss Biogon for 9 x 12 cm large format cameras), a true wideangle design with which the Japanese managed to beat the extraordinary 8 element Biogon 38 mm f/4.5 of the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 (6 x 6 cm) Hasselblad SWC in terms of sharpness and lack of distortion on the corners, with maximum values of 0.04%, which meant a new step in this scope even beyond the Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 21 mm f/2.8 for the Contax/Yashica system (a stunning retrofocus superwideangle design with which the optical pundit Carl-Heinz Schuster managed to get a performance in sharpness equal to the best symmetric types).
Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza