If you ride the special express train 126 miles northwest from Tokyo, you'll
find yourself in Nagano Prefecture...
If you ride the special express train 126 miles northwest from Tokyo, you'll find yourself in Nagano Prefecture near beautiful, blue Lake Suwa, noted for its hot springs, spas, large swan- and turtle-shaped tour boats, and one of the highest geysers in the world. The lake is recovering nicely from industrial pollution. When I first visited years ago, much of the blue was green algae, thanks to many manufacturing plants, including photographic ones, pouring effluences into the lake.
I enjoyed overnight stays at a tiny Japanese ryokan (inn), with open raised daises surrounding a small pool in which carp swam lazily until summoned to be dinner. In the evening, engineers from the nearby Yashica, Cosina, Chinon or Olympus manufacturing plants dropped by for carp sashimi (and horse sashimi, for which the region is also known), and to watch Japanese baseball on TV. There would be plenty of time to discuss cameras and lenses the next day at the factories.
Gone is the ryokan, replaced by a multistoried hotel. Gone, too, are the Yashica, Olympus, and Chinon factories: to Asia or oblivion. But not Cosina, which remains one of the few camera and lensmakers, manufacturing exclusively in Japan.
Those of you who read my last column had a brief introduction to Cosina. For others, let me quickly explain that Cosina builds cameras and lenses to which well-known brand-name camera makers affix their names. In the mid-1970s, three companies had sensationally small, well-selling 35mm rangefinder cameras-the Konica Auto SX3, Minolta Hi-matic 7sII, and Vivitar 35ES -hardly lookalikes. But under the differing cosmetics beat the heart and innards of the same Cosina camera. The lenses-a 38mm f/1.8 Hexanon, 40mm f/1.7 Rokkor, and 40mm f/1.7 Vivitar-were all the same fine, four-group, six-element optic.
When the APS (Advanced Photo System) was introduced to the world in 1996 by the system developing companies (Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Minolta and Nikon), they offered to sell APS manufacturing licenses to all other manufacturers. There was a mad scramble by many to be licensed and get on the market first, but not by Cosina. Its president, Hirofumi Kobayashi, ignored APS completely, thereby saving Cosina vast amounts of money, time, and effort on a loser.
Cosina also makes 35mm SLR lenses. But how did this company manage to create inexpensive autofocus optics such as the 100mm Macro, 19-35mm, and 100-400mm lenses that are sold under the Phoenix and Vivitar brands?
"Usually we first design the very best possible lens, regardless of glass price," explains Kobayashi. "Then we try to substitute less expensive elements wherever possible without noticeably affecting quality. We stop when we have lowered production costs sufficiently, but have retained quality, and where the difference from our original lens will be negligible to the user." Kobayashi has gained something of a triumph with his 19-35mm f/3.5-4.5 lens, sold under the Phoenix, Promaster, Ritz Quantaray, Tokina, Tamron, and Vivitar labels, all at the same time.
But perhaps Cosina was best known for its 35mm SLR camera bodies: inexpensive center-the-needle TTL metering, flashless, basic. Cosina later switched from viewfinder centering needle to green-red LEDs, and in time exchanged its all-mechanical metal blade focal plane shutter (1 to 1/2000 sec, X-sync) for an electronic one with aperture-priority autoexposure. While the cameras lacked many features of the posh brand-name SLRs, the Cosinas had metal-alloy body castings and excellent all-glass prism finders.