Rokkin’ lenses

LIFE ad December 1963 for Rokkor lenses and Minoltas

Toronto. By 1963, the Japanese Optical industry was a tsunami roaring across the Western world. No longer viewed as copy cats of German technology, Japan was rightfully recognized as a serious contender for high quality optical products.

A December 6, 1963 advertisement in LIFE (p 91) was typical of the new view of Japan and its products.  Minolta touted that “these lenses [Rokkor]  are one reason you get better pictures with Minolta cameras“. Just over six years earlier I bought my first good 35mm camera – a Minolta Super A with an f/1.8 Rokkor lens. I was blown away with that lens’s clarity and quality. The camera used a behind the lens leaf shutter and had a small contingent of alternative lenses – all Rokkor lenses. The biggest selling point to me: it was a fraction of the price of an equivalent German camera in 1957.

Quietly, I was impressed by the quality of both the photographs it took and the care taken in its manufacture. About a year later I bought a high end German camera made in Dresden (Russian at the time) – an Exakta VX IIa. The lenses by Steinheil and Angenieux were well made but the camera was a disappointment in its construction. It went back to Toronto to fix a pressure plate that scratched the film and returned with the same plate now polished and bright – no flat black coating (like the original had) was ever added.

The mirror return failed and thereafter I had to take off the lens and set the mirror by hand. The lens mount eventually failed and I had to manually spread the tiny slots to make the camera hold lenses steady once again. Interior stops shredded over time. Gears were thin, not robust like the Leicas of the day. About 15 years later, I bought a Leica M4 which was exceptionally well built, but even today I remember the little Minolta and how well it was made and worked. The Rokkor lens put to rest my own view of Japanese vs. German quality.

My thanks to George Dunbar for passing along this bit of history.

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