There is a good chance that, if you ask a non-photographer to name a well-known camera manufacturer, they will say “Nikon”. Nikon, along with its great rival, Canon, has for many years been seen as the name the professionals use—a brand to be respected. The fact is, though, that the Nikon brand has only really emerged since the 1960’s.

The company itself, however, can trace its history back to 1917, and the merger of three well-known Japanese manufacturers of optical equipment to form a new company, Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushikigaisha. The name translates into English as Japan Optical Industries Company.

Initially, the company’s focus was to manufacture lenses for other businesses for use in binoculars, microscopes and telescopes. As their reputation for quality optics grew, the company started to develop their own microscopes. By the early 1920s, they sported an extensive range of optical equipment, using their growing knowledge of modern optical manufacturing techniques to branch out into the rapidly expanding market for camera lenses. The name Nikkor, a contraction of the company’s full name, was registered in 1932 as a trademark for their new range of camera lenses.

history of nikon - nikon cameraNikon is a global brand, but they came from humble beginnings

Image by Takashi Hososhima via Flickr

The Second World War saw Japan Optical quickly expanding due to the high demand for quality optics from the Japanese military—items such as periscopes and lenses for reconnaissance cameras. By the end of the war, the company had 19 factories and a workforce of 23,000.

Their first camera was produced in 1948, the Nikon 1. As was the trend in those days, the camera was an interchangeable-lens rangefinder, similar to Leicas of the day, but with a slightly smaller image size of 24mmx32mm. The 1940s was also the decade that we first saw the Nikon name. It came about when Japan Optical and the Ikon brand from Zeiss lenses were merged. Due to trademark disputes, earlier cameras were known as Nikkors, but once the legalities were worked out, the name we all know today was used.

history of nikon - old nikon cameraThe Nikon S2 from 1955

Image by s58y via Flickr

Nikon were a successful, if not outstanding, company in the 1950’s, expanding their catalogue of rangefinder cameras with well-made-but-not-particularly-revolutionary apparatus. Their reputation for quality optics, however, continued to grow. It was towards the end of the 1950s that Nikon produced the camera that turned them into a global brand—the Nikon F. The F was an SLR, which in itself was not a new concept. But Nikon’s F was beautifully engineered and incredibly rugged, giving it an enviable reputation for reliability.

It was this reliability that endeared it to the world’s photojournalists, who with the war in Vietnam need such a camera. Many of the world’s best known photographers cut their teeth in that war using the Nikon F. The Nikon F range went through six incarnations all the way into the new millennium—the last professional Nikon film camera being the F6. The F series also saw the rise of the Nikon F-Mount, a bayonet mount for attaching lenses to cameras. It was so far ahead of its time that it is still used in a very similar form on today’s digital SLRs, most of which can accept lenses designed for the original Nikon F.

history of nikon - nikon cameraSimple and rugged, the camera that made Nikon

Image by Arne List via Flickr

The digital revolution caught Nikon a little off guard. A conservative company, they were slow to capitalise on the rapidly growing digital market, especially in the professional arena. This is where Canon, for the first few years of the new millennium, stole a march on them, particularly in the sports, journalism and wildlife genres, where Canon’s white lenses became the norm. The technology from Canon’s pro DSLRs also filtered down to its consumer level cameras, giving them a significant market share over Nikon.

Realising that it was losing ground, Nikon had a major management reorganisation. One of the first acts of this new management was to start development of the new pro DLSR, the Nikon D3. Released in 2007, initial reports were concerned with its low pixel count compared to its rival, the Canon 1D mk3. However, once in the field, the image quality and low light capabilities were found to be superb, and many of the professionals who went to Canon returned to Nikon.

Nikon quickly followed up on the D3 with the D700; a full frame camera with the same sensor as the D3, but with a price aimed at the serious enthusiast photographer. The success of the D3/700 allowed Nikon, like Canon, to filter technology down to consumer-level cameras. Today, both companies have roughly similar shares of the DLSR market.

history of nikon - several camerasThe Nikon D1 was left behind by Canon. The D3 marked Nikon’s return

Image by Jerry Liu via Flickr

Despite this, Nikon were again slow to realise the impact of mirrorless cameras on the market and companies like Olympus and Fuji quickly gained the upper hand in this arena. Nikon’s first mirrorless system camera, the Nikon 1, was not well-received, although subsequent models have done better.

history of nikon - cameraNikon 1, their first mirrorless camera

Image by Aleksey Gnilenkov via Flickr

Today, Nikon is an iconic brand in photography, built on a reputation of quality optics and well-engineered cameras. With continued innovation, this solid reputation should continue for the decades ahead.