History, according to a popular truism, is written by the victors. And so it is in the world of cameras. Our victors? Nikon, Canon, Leica, etc. Info on those manufacturers still operating today is plentiful, and we hear of their accomplishments on any and every photography website. But what about the losers? What about the manufacturers who are long gone and forgotten by the average photo geek?
There are too many of these “losers” to name, and most of them, it’s true, lost for good reason. They didn’t offer anything special, didn’t advance the field. But there’s one long lost brand that actually was quite fantastic in its day, a company that did much to push camera tech forward, and today we’re talking about their very best camera – it’s the RE Super from Topcon.
The RE Super and the company that built it wasn’t always a forgotten relic. At one point in time it seemed the brand was destined for greatness. Tokyo Kogaku, the brand from which the Topcon name was born in much the way Nikon sprouted from Nippon Kogaku, reigned as one of the top Japanese camera and lens manufacturers. They were famous for their razor sharp Topcor lenses made in Leica Thread Mount, and for their early efforts in the Japanese SLR arena (they in fact created an SLR camera before Nikon or Canon had done so). Things went from “pretty good” to “pretty freaking fantastic” for Tokyo Kogaku when they entered a contest to see who could manufacture the official combat camera of the United States Military – and won.
Tokyo Kogaku’s winning camera was officially introduced in 1963 as the Topcon RE Super in Japan, and as the Beseler Topcon Super D in the US, as Charles Beseler Company (of enlarger fame) was established as Tokyo Kogaku’s U.S. distributor. It was quickly adopted by the U.S. Navy as their official combat camera until production finally ceased in 1971. Throughout its lifetime, the Topcon built a legendary reputation among hardcore shooters as a beautiful, bulletproof camera with lenses that could go toe-to-toe with the best from Dresden and Wetzlar.
Spend a few moments with an RE Super today, and you’ll probably agree with those old-school pros. For starters, The RE Super looks stunning and jewel-like, even among its contemporary vintage cameras. It’s got a streamlined design featuring clean, minimalistic lines, a beautiful chrome finish, and a dead-simple control layout. It’s a large and heavy camera, but it fills out its lines as beautifully as a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
And if the RE Super looks good, it feels even better. It may sound like unnecessary hyperbole, but the RE Super may just be the best-feeling 35mm camera I’ve ever used. It beats out both thread mount and M-mount Leicas, old-school Contax rangefinders, any of my Nikons, you name it. The sheer quality found on the RE Super is second-to-none, and for someone unfamiliar with the brand ’til I’d laid my hands on one, this was an extremely pleasant surprise.
Every feature of the RE Super is machined to perfection. The shutter speed dial, clicks into its detents with firm fluidity, and the ASA dial found within it spins and clicks into each ASA setting with ease. The interchangeable prism slides in and out smoothly for waist level viewing (a la the Nikon F), and the prism itself is as clean and clear as any of its competitors. Its depth-of-field preview lever is conveniently placed for left-hand operation, its shutter button depresses with one of the most perfectly weighted actions on any camera, and its film advance could embarrass both the famous Leica M and Nikon F3 advances in a smoothness contest. Hell, even the backdoor release and meter switch get their own levers flush mounted with the bottom of the camera.
And not only are these features well-machined, they’re thoughtfully placed. For example, the shutter button can be found on the front face for your middle finger to operate, leaving your index finger free to dedicate itself to the shutter speed dial. The rewind lever also spins upwards upon rewind, allowing even large hands to clear the height of the prism and avoid bumping it while rewinding. Neat.
The spec sheet is about standard for a professional SLR from the 1960s. It’s got the same-as-the-rest horizontally-traveling silk shutter capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second, plus bulb mode for long exposures, depth-of-field preview, a self-timer, and interchangeable focusing screens and prisms. This sounds pretty ho-hum until we get to a truly special feature of the RE Super – its light meter.
We take TTL light metering for granted these days but before the Topcon RE Super, TTL metering didn’t exist. Sure, there were on-camera light meters, but they could not see what was happening through the lens. And for the budding SLR format, a light-meter that could accurately measure the light coming through any given lens was essential. The Topcon RE Super gave us the very first TTL light meter and arguably the most influential one.
Whereas later cameras and prisms incorporated the light meter in the prism assembly, the Topcon RE Super put the light meter in the actual body of the camera, more specifically, right behind the mirror. In a stroke of genius, Topcon made a series of engravings on the mirror which let a small amount of light through to a CdS metering cell. This proved to be a massive breakthrough in light meter technology, but a breakthrough that wasn’t easily replicated. In fact, it was so hard to replicate that it took seventeen years for the technique to be executed again by Nikon’s F3. Not bad, for a camera from 1963.
The imitation doesn’t stop there either; we can find echoes of the RE Super in other cameras as well. For example, the Minolta SRT-101 places its light meter on/off switch on the bottom plate of the camera, just like the RE Super. The Nikkormat series borrows the Re Super’s light meter preview window found on the top plate. And if we’re really stretching it, one could argue that the in-body light meter of the RE Super served as inspiration for the Nikon F3’s overall design.
Incredible though the RE Super is, Topcon shooters would argue that the camera isn’t even the main attraction. No, the reason why professionals chose Topcon was for their lenses. The Topcon RE Super’s standard lenses, the RE 58mm F/1.4 and F/1.8 still stand as some of the finest standard lenses ever made for SLRs, exhibiting incredible sharpness, a subtle, lowered contrast, pastel colors, and a precise rendering of details across the frame. Topcon die-hards often claim these lenses are every bit the equal to Leica and Zeiss, and after using them, I have to agree.
Galleries in this post were made on film using Fujifilm Superia 1600.
But as with all cameras there must be compromise, and the Topcon RE Super has one – the lens mount. Topcon decided very early on to imitate the Exakta mount used on the very first Exakta SLRs. This seems like a nice quirk considering the Exakta mount looks cool and has historical significance, but there’s a fatal flaw in its design – it’s too narrow. The narrow throat of the Exakta mount prevents any lens with a huge back element (fast lenses, super wide-angle lenses, fast super wide-angle lenses) from being mounted to the camera.
What does this mean for the average shooter? If you think variety is the spice of life and you like offbeat focal lengths, the Topcon system may not be for you. Topcon’s lens roster is puny compared to other Japanese SLR systems, and most of the fun-sounding lenses are rare enough to be expensive collector’s items. That said, if you’re a traditionalist and shoot the standard focal lengths, the Topcon system is hard to beat.
Overall, the Topcon RE Super is easily one of the greatest SLRs I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. It’s simply gorgeous, extremely well-built, and every bit the camera it once was in the 1960s. But that begs the question; why did a camera as great as the Topcon RE Super fall so far off everybody’s radar? Again, we reference the old truism – history is written by the victors.
Even though they had an incredible product, Topcon was out-marketed by crosstown rivals Nikon. The Nikon F far outstripped the RE Super in sales, especially in the blossoming U.S. enthusiast market, and in credibility due to Nikon’s masterful marketing campaigns. And to add insult to injury, the once-trailblazing Topcon mysteriously stopped innovating in the SLR realm in the 1970s (possibly due to poor sales of the RE Super) and fell quickly behind its competitors. This led to the company’s quiet and uneventful departure from photography in 1980. After that, its recession into the shadows of photographic history was unavoidable. Topcon might have won the battle, but Nikon won the war.
Today, it’s clear that the Topcon RE Super was on the wrong side of history. Almost nobody talks about Topcon save for a spattering of collectors, repairmen, and old professional shooters. But all the better for us, I say. Today, the RE Super is priced low compared to its old rival, making accessible to the average person a truly incredible camera. Will this change? Probably not. History’s already said its piece on the poor Topcon. One things for sure, though; the RE Super deserves one more shot, and a place in everybody’s camera collection.