Readers could be forgiven for thinking that most cameras come either from Japan or Germany. While Japan is responsible for majority of camera production, a lot of low end Japanese cameras are now produced in countries like China, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. The Japanese tend to produce all important components at their factories in Japan; these components are then assembled at low cost assembly centres like China or Vietnam.
Germany used to be the original home of the photography industry with names like Exakta, Contax, Zeiss and Leica. Post the Second World War, however, the German industry found it very difficult to compete with the Japanese. Labour cost in Germany is also extremely high and as a general rule, German companies were shy to manufacture their products abroad. Today, the only German company that produces cameras is Leica. With its high pricing, Leica has been able to absorb high German labour cost. The likes of Zeiss and Schneider have become designers who design high quality lenses and earn royalties by licensing their production to companies like Cosina or Samsung. Were Germany and Japan the only significant manufacturers of cameras? The answer is no. There were several other countries that also attempted camera manufacture. Notable was the original USSR or the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, the Russians managed to retrieve designs, drawings and machinery from German companies located in the eastern part of Germany and facilities were set up in cities like Leningrad and Kiev. Russian cameras came under the brands of Lomo, Kiev and Zenith. Russian cameras had a reputation for being bulky and heavy and were available in western countries for throw-away prices.
Switzerland also used to be the centre for production of Alpa cameras. Alpa SLRs were produced with high quality standards and were made by a company called Pignons in western Switzerland close to the French border. Since the cameras were virtually hand built, they were very expensive. Eventually in the mid 70’s, the Alpa brand name was licensed to Chinon of Japan which made cameras like ALPA SI 2000.
The Rectaflex brand name may not be known to many of our readers. Rectaflex was an Italian company that made cameras soon after the Second World War. Rectaflex cameras were manufactured in Rome and later on in Liechtenstein. Rectaflex, however, did not survive very long but their cameras are still remembered for the bayonet mount which was very similar to Nikon’s F mount. The United Kingdom also had two manufacturers namely, The Wray Optical Works which produced the Wrayflex SLRs and Corfield which produced the Perryflex range of cameras. Corfield ceased camera production in 1962.
Finally, China had its own company called Shanghai General Camera Factory which produced SLR cameras under the Seagull name. In earlier days, these cameras used to be inspired by Minolta models. Versions of the Seagull are still to be seen in China.
India sadly does not have any camera industry worth the name. Also, no Japanese company has opted to produce out of India perhaps because of our obsolete labour laws. An opportunity missed?
H. S. Billimoria