I am very interested in the history of cameras. Unfortunately there seems to be very limited resources on it.

Recently I have been trying to determine how and why the German camera industry lost out to the Japanese. Are there any good references available?


3 Answers 3


Here's a very detailed article in German about this: http://www.klassik-cameras.de/WestdeutscheSLR.html

The main factors seem to have been:

  • Arrogance; failure to take the competition from Japan serious enough.
  • Not paying enough attention to what the market demanded
  • Really stupid strategic decisions

Specifically, Zeiss (which bought Voigtländer in 1956) tried to protect its premium line Contarex (which was technically top notch, but very expensive and failure-prone) from in-house "cannibalization" from cheaper and simpler product lines by failing to fully develop or witholding features from them, e.g. the Contaflex, Bessaflex and Voigtländer 132 (a prototype that had TTL metering a year before anyone else). So they fell behind on the developing mass market, believing that the Japanese could not compete on quality and would soon lose their edge in labor cost to rising wages, but that was more than offset by economies of scale.


Price of course (and quality), but read about David Douglas Duncan http://www.google.com/search?q=duncan+korea+war+nikon

Until that time, while Japan was rebuilding (post WWII), Japanese imports including cameras were considered toy junk. After that time, Life Magazine photographers (including Duncan) used only Nikon. At that time, it is not too much to say that the Life photographers were worshiped as gods by a lot of other photographers, and this alone greatly enhanced the reputation of Japanese cameras. We still saw Leitz and Rollifex and Contraflex etc for awhile, but we also started seeing Yashica and other Japanese imports (Yashica was a very good and inexpensive Rolliflex).

See for example http://leicaphilia.com/tag/david-douglas-duncan/


There's a country song that was popular a few years ago named, "There Ain't No Future in the Past."

Like a lot of manufacturers that have fallen from a perch atop an industry that they seemed destined to dominate forever, the post-WWII German camera industry forgot that what the market demanded in the past does not necessarily indicate what the market will want in the future. Like Kodak, for too long they concentrated on protecting the turf they had already won which was increasingly becoming irrelevant instead of predicting changes in the demands of the marketplace and defining the future of photography.

The same thing happened to American automobile makers centered around Detroit, Michigan in the 1970s and '80s. It happened to American television makers who were supplanted by the Japanese. The Japanese television makers then let themselves become upended by the Chinese and Koreans.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this, but the price is also a big factor here, those country being able to have much cheaper products (and the legacy makers, proud of their product and with a higher paid workforce, were often unwilling or just unable to follow that route) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 18:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree that they were unable or even unwilling to to follow that route had they understood that such a course was what it would have taken to remain the world's leader in their industry. Instead, I think they assumed that their name and the associated high cost would allow them to continue to be perceived as "the best" and they felt that lowering prices would have led to a reduction in the perceived quality of their products. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 1:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.