Speaking Frankly: The Contrary Mind of Hirofumi Kobayashi

If you ride the special express train 126 miles northwest from Tokyo, you'll find yourself in Nagano Prefecture...

Speaking-Frankly-The-Contrary-Mind-of-Hirofumi-Kobayashi
Speaking-Frankly-The-Contrary-Mind-of-Hirofumi-Kobayashi

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.

The cameras were furnished with whatever lensmount was necessary: screw-thread, K-mount, Canon, Nikon or Olympus bayonet. As listed last column, and slightly expanded here, the major camera brands using one or more Cosina-made SLRs included Argus, Bauer, Canon, Exakta, Hanimex, Miranda, Nikon, Petri, Quantaray, Soligor, Vivitar.
(Yes, yes, yes, I know that Chinon and Ricoh also made basic SLRs for many companies, but we have reason right now to follow Cosina's ventures.)
Then came the digital onslaught. Virtually all Cosina-made 35mm film SLRs were obsolete antiques, not needed by the major-brand camera companies.

I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for Kobayashi. Just as he had made basic, inexpensive 35mm SLR camera bodies with various lensmounts, why not do the same for digital cameras?

"Look at the short life of digital SLRs and their continuously falling prices," rejoined Kobayashi. "Why should I get into that mess?"

Kobayashi had, as they say, other fish to fry. It would be a completely different camera and he would sell it directly; no more selling cameras only to other companies who would then put their own names on them. But what name should Cosina use? While Cosina had tried its own on cameras for the Japanese market, the Cosina name was not exactly considered the Rolls-Royce or Mercedes-Benz of cameradom.

But Kobayashi was indeed thinking of a camera system that could well be equated with top quality. Where could he find a prestigious readymade name he could purchase or adopt?

Voigtländer, founded in 1756, is the world's oldest name in cameras. Schering, a pharmaceutical company which owned most of Voigtländer's stock, sold its shares in 1956 to Zeiss; who then ceased making cameras in 1972 and sold Voigtländer to Rollei; which was acquired by lensmaker Schneider; who in 1992 ran into financial difficulties and transferred ownership of Voigtländer to a German wholesaler, Plusfoto; who, in 1997, sold the name to Ringfoto, a giant supplier of photo products to over 2,500 stores in Europe.

Got it?

What better name than Voigtländer? Kobayashi was licensed by Ringfoto to use the Voigtländer names for both camera models and lenses. APO-Lanthar, Bessa, Heliar, Nokton, Skopar, and Ultron could ride again.

Ringfoto, however, retains ownership of the names, and uses the Voigtländer in Europe as a brand name for some film and inexpensive cameras.

The first Cosina-made, Voigtländer-named, camera of 1999 was an odd bird indeed. Take a standard Cosina 35mm SLR body, remove the prism and mirror housing, retain the 1- to 1/2000-sec mechanical shutter, wind and rewind mechanism and red, green LEDs and centerweighted exposure system. Add a Leica-type screw-thread lensmount, and you have a Bessa L, ideal for mounting the new Voigtländer Superwide 15mm f/4.5 Heliar, or 25mm f/4 Skopar lens (which can be guess-focused). Shoe-mount viewfinders for these lenses were included. The internal body chassis of the Bessa L is an aluminum alloy casting, but external parts, including the swing open back, are plastic and a little tacky.

The lenses were something else. The Superwide 15mm f/4.5 Heliar and 25mm f/4 Skopar were magnificently mounted in ultrasmooth-operating black or chrome lensmounts with engraved figures. With no need to use complicated retrofocus optical designs to clear a rapid return mirror, the lenses were highly compact and spectacularly good, as was the later Ultra Wide 12mm f/5.6 Heliar, the widest lens in production, which was equal in focal length to the discontinued 12mm f/8 Zeiss Holigon, but not in price. The Holigon today costs you about $2,000; the Ultra Wide Heliar, $596!

Can you use these screw thread lenses on other cameras? Why, of course. Just attach an M-mount adapter and presto, they fit Leica M cameras.

No, Cosina did not hew to the same optical designs as the original Voigtländer lenses. The original Skopar was a four-element Tessar design, and the original Heliar had five elements. But like original Voigtländer lenses, Cosina's Voigtländer superfast lenses were Ultrons or Noktons, and its tele lenses were often APO-Lanthars.

The next year, Kobayashi created a Bessa R by adding a coupled rangefinder-viewfinder using optics quite similar to those on the Leica CL camera, but with four user-selected, projected, parallax-correcting frames for 35, 50, 75 and 90mm focal length lenses. An R2 with Leica M-type bayonet mount followed in 2002, and an R2A, and 3A in 2004, with electronic shutters and aperture priority autoexposure. Just for the fun of it, perhaps, Kobayashi reworked the R2 and produced the Voigtländer Bessa R2C (Contax) and Bessa R2S (Nikon) bayonet-mount rangefinder cameras, complete with the famous front finger-focusing wheels. A line of Contax-Nikon rangefinder bayonet mount Voigtländer lenses appeared.

With every ensuing model change, Kobayashi improved camera construction: metal castings replaced plastic parts, and the cosmetics became more elegant. A blizzard of Voigtländer lenses appeared: a 21mm f/3.5 Skopar, 35mm f/4 Skopar, 35mm f/1.2 Nokton, 40mm f/1.4 Nokton, 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, 75mm f/2.5 Heliar, 90mm f/3.5 APO-Lanthar, 28mm f/1.9 Ultron, 50mm f/1.7 Ultron, 50mm f/2.5 Skopar and a 50mm f/3.5 Heliar. Many available in both chrome and black mounts, and all were optically high-scoring, but with far lower prices than comparative Leica lenses.

Which are better? I'm not going there.

Cosina also made a variety of 35mm SLR Voigtländer lenses in Canon, Contax/Yashica, Minolta MD, Nikon AIS, Olympus OM, Pentax KA and screw-mounts.

In 1999, Rollei decided the world needed a Rollei 35mm rangefinder camera and introduced the Rollei 35RF plus Rollei-made, Zeiss-designed 40mm f/2.8 Rollei Sonnar and 80mm f/2.8 Rollei Planar lenses, with the promise of a 50mm Zeiss or Schneider lens to come. No sign of it yet, but the elegantly finished camera body contours and specs seemed familiar. Under the Rollei cosmetics beat the mechanical heart of a Voigtländer Besse R2.

The Voigtländer R2A and 3A weren't the only interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinder cameras introduced in 2004. After giving up camera production 34 years ago, Carl Zeiss proudly showed off the new Zeiss-Ikon 35mm rangefinder camera and a new set of seven Carl Zeiss ZM mount lenses, in both black and chrome, for it and any other M mount camera.

Zeiss made little secret that the camera body was the result of cooperation between Zeiss and Cosina. Five lenses were to be made by Cosina and two by Zeiss, but all would be Zeiss-designed. Internal camera specs are almost identical to the Cosina Voigtländer R2A; but the finder system was vastly improved,with the projected frames automatically set by the lenses, and, most important, the base of the rangefinder vastly increased to 70mm, improving its accuracy compared with the relatively short rangefinder base used on the Leica CL and Cosina'Voigtländer cameras. The increase in the rangefinder's base probably allows it to work even with 135mm lenses. The Cosina Voigtländers have a maximum focal length acceptance of 75mm or 90mm. The rangefinder base increase necessitated repositioning the rewind lever to the bottom of the Zeiss-Ikon. Many users of the camera report that its range-viewfinder equal to that of the M-Leica's.

Cosina's optical cooperation with Zeiss doesn't end with the ZM lenses. Cosina is starting a Zeiss-designed, Cosina-made, manual-focus 35mm SLR ZF series of lenses in Nikon mounts starting with 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 Planars.

Are Cosina, Zeiss, and Kobayashi soft in the head? Don't they realize the whole world's gone digital?

Has it?

Certainly, Cosina's attempts at selling Voigtländers through a U.S. distributor were disasters. Dealers thought they should do well, but the cameras in nearly all stores just sat on shelves. There was little sell-through. Only two sources in the U.S. are now official Voigtländer distributors: CameraQuest (www.cameraquest.com) and PhotoVillage (www.photovillage.com). (However, their enthusiasm, particularly CameraQuest's, can be catching.)

If you flip through the pages of Japanese Asahi or Nippon photo magazines, you'll be shocked at how much coverage the new Voigtländer and Zeiss photo equipment and other film cameras get. You may shake your head and figure such equipment must be a Japanese passion.

It is.

The prestige of German equipment names is part of the passion. The other part is a love of precision equipment. It's the difference between being attracted to an optical instrument and using a kitchen utensil.

Are we now passionless? Pretty much so, I think. Did we ever have it? Yes-once, opening a box containing a new camera and showing it off to our friends with awe was almost an act of worship. With today's digital SLRs, we'd probably tear open the box and get the camera working. We're just too practical to get passionate over a camera. Too bad. It made us feel good. I hope at least we can still be passionate about shooting pictures.

Apparently the Japanese can have their passion and practicality as well. And if Zeiss is going to all the trouble of creating cameras to get passionate over, there might be a sufficient segment of Europeans who get passionate over something proper.

Me? I love the convenience of digital, but I get a greater joy from my film cameras, and sometimes think that I get better pictures with them. Must be some Japanese in me.

And what of Hirofumi Kobayashi, who produced lowly 35mm SLRs and budget-priced substitute element lenses? He now has an exclusive monopoly creating optical masterpieces and classic cameras rivaling the best ever made. Prices are quite affordable and steady. Is he better off with his super selectivity of purchasers than the competing armies of digital camera manufacturers?

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