A detailed report on the Nikon prototype cameras exhibition at the Nikon Museum in Tokyo

This is an update to my previous post regarding the exhibition of Nikon prototype cameras held at the Nikon Museum in Tokyo for the 100th anniversary of the company: Richard Haw posted a detailed report from the exhibition on this website - for more pictures and additional coverage, please visit the original post here:

The journey starts with this prototype of the Nikon I. It is basically a copy of the popular Contax rangefinder camera that has been out for more than a decade before this camera was conceived. It merged the innovative Contax body and the reliable cloth shutter of the Leica rangefinder cameras. Notice that it has a shorter rangefinder base, a small decision that made a big impact when shooting with the camera as your finger will not cover the rangefinder window by accident. You trade-in accuracy for usability and for most cases, this small detail change meant the difference between getting the shot or missing it. Also notice that the lens mount and internal mechanism is missing.

Now, this would have been an interesting camera if it was mass produced. I have an L39 fit Nikkor lens here and this made me wish that this went into production

The Nikon S3 is supposed to be the cheaper alternative to the Nikon SP. The Nikon SP was the most advanced rangefinder camera in it’s day because of the awesome viewfinder. It was expensive and complicated to manufacture as a result so the Nikon S3 was made to deal with this problem. Notice that the prototype had a different viewfinder from the full production model of the Nikon S3.

The next camera is the prototype for the Nikon F, the legendary camera that would make Nikon the dominant camera company. The legendary Nikon F is the sole camera that was responsible for making the SLR camera the dominant camera format in the coming years up until the present when the mirrorless cameras came to challenge the status quo.

Notice that the prototype had a contour finder built-in to the body. This clever idea  was dropped during production because simplicity means reliability (and also higher profits). Also notice that the lens mount is totally different, we are so used to seeing the Nikon F with the venerable F-mount (Fuketa mount). Check out the prototype lens, too!

This late prototype is looking very much like the production model of the Nikon F. Notice that the silhouette has been greatly refined and simplified. The engineers were inspired by Bauhaus philosophy and 3 simple shapes were combined to form the silhouette of the camera – square, triangle and circle. This combination will stay for the decades to come as the de facto silhouette of the SLR.

Nikon also developed a half-frame version of the Nikon F. This format was practical for a number of purposes, mainly for portability (the Olympus Pen F), sports, policing and the military. Just imagine using a motor drive with this thing!

Now, this is what I call innovation! I am interested to see how that rewind mechanism is fitted to this prototype but I am not allowed to step beyond the line. It also has a complex parallax-correction system. This is probably why it didn’t saw production.

These would have been amazing if they were sold. Imagine, having a zoom finder in one of your rangefinder cameras! This would have been very useful for telephoto lenses like the 13.5cm line of lenses. It is also greats because your viewfinder not cluttered with all those frame lines unlike that of the Nikon SP. This is the closest that we can get to having a real Nikon SP2.

If this camera went into production, this would have given Leica another black-eye or it would have driven it out of business! That TTL metering gimmick is 9 years ahead of it’s time because the Leica M5 is the first Leica camera with TTL metering and it came out in 1971. It is also interesting that it came with a bayonet mount.

I love Nikkormats (Nikomat here in Japan) because they are a joy to shoot with due to the of the exposure meter window found on top of the camera. I can now check my exposure without the need to peek into the viewfinder. Notice that the light meter was installed on the exterior on this prototype. It may have been used as a “proof of concept” for the body and the complicated shutter dial mechanism on the base of the mount. I hate fixing the Nikkormat FT cameras because of the complicated shutter selection mechanism and the overly-complicated viewfinder. A big price to pay for the joy of using and owning one for cheap since I got all of my Nikkormats as junk cameras.

Here is the prototype of one of my favourite cameras, the Nikkormat EL. The prototype is very similar to the production model.

The Nikon F was a best-seller for the company so it made no sense to disconnect from the design too much. The Nikon F2 is just an evolution of the Nikon F but the changes made to the design were significant; it modernised the Nikon F design.

Here is another prototype of the Nikon F2, this time with a photomic head. This one looks a lot like the production model except for a few details written on the card.

An interesting prototype of the EE (Electronic Eye) system for the Nikon F2. This may be just a dummy for all we know. The production variant is just as bulky.

A very interesting and significant prototype! This is a true glimpse to the future and what is going to be considered Nikon’s future tech at the time, the legendary Nikon F3!

These prototypes are almost identical to the production cameras. I suspect that these two cameras were made to test the materials that they will eventually use and for finalising any problems with the electronics inside. The Nikon EM uses a polycarbonate body like that of the Canon AE-1. If Canon can get away with using plastic, surely Nikon can,too!

The Nikon MDX. This camera is a testbed for the cameras that would in later during the ’80s like the F-301 and F-501 series of cameras. It resembled nothing in Nikon’s lineup so I would consider this to be a very important prototype.

This prototype Nikon F-301 resembles the production model save for a few minor details like the height of the top-left panel. Notice that the grip is different as well as the position of the tripod socket.

Now, here is a late prototype for the Nikon F-301. Again, this is probably made to test out the materials that Nikon is going to eventually use for production.

Here is an early prototype of the Nikon F3. Notice that the shape and format is different from the production model. It actually reminds me of the original Nikon FM camera. You can also see some electronic bits hanging outside the camera. Amazing how the general foundation for the Nikon F3  was already laid out this early.

Another prototype but this time the electronic bits were not exposed anymore.

Here is the Nikon F3 after it received a facelift from Giorgetto Giugiaro. Giugiaro added a red stripe to the Nikon F3 because he designed Ferrari supercars. It gave the Nikon F3 a little bit of sex appeal and all Nikon cameras ever since inherited this red accent. Notice the “F2” labels on the prototype, these were stuck there as some sort of gag by one of the engineers. The Nikon F3 is also the first Nikon SLR to have a grip of some sort. Nikon did the right thing by having Giugiaro design it’s cameras, this was something that was never done before in the camera industry. This is one of the reasons why the Nikon F3 felt good in my hands and is so intuitive to use. I love the Nikon F3, it is a masterpiece!

Just look at this beauty! I love how angular it looks, very masculine! The Nikon F4 would serve as the template from which successive Nikon film SLRs will be base on and many of it’s influences carry on to the present. This is a very important camera, a real classic.

After being redesigned by Giugiaro, this prototype now resembles the Nikon F4 everyone is familiar with. Notice that it is missing the engraved name an some minor details that are present in the production model.

This entry was posted in Other Nikon stuff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Andrew

    We have come a long way from when Pros used to spend $5,000 on a camera like the Nikon D3 to the $1,250 D7500 which is packed with Pro features.

    • T.I.M

      I can tell you never held a Nikon pro camera in your hands.

      • Andrew

        Well, at the heart of Nikon’s professional D500 and D5 cameras is the Metering System to set exposure and white balance and yes, the D7500 inherits the same pro Metering System. The D7500 also gets the same excellent 20 MP image sensor of the D500. Having so much of the D500 features, the addition of the full weather sealing of the D7500 all combined puts this camera in a professional class. I remember the days when Nikon introduced the D4 and kept its 16 MP full frame sensor close to its chest by introducing it in the Df camera only – at a price of $2,749.

        If certain ergonomics and handling preferences are the basis for classifying a camera as professional, then go for it.

        • T.I.M

          No offence but the D7500 is a piece of junk, not the D7200 successor but closer to the D3200.
          Wheather sealing? Of course it’s all made with plastic!
          Right now Nikon offert only 4 pro cameras:
          D5, D500, D810, F6

          • Ushanas Trivedi

            Let your findings be derived from logics rather than emotional expectations. Differentiating features of D7xxx series over D5xxx & D3xxx series have been controls & button layout, features like AF motor, built-in flash as commander, Bracketing, Multiple exposure, time lapse video etc. This is still consistent with D7500 too. They certainly have downgraded certain specs like single card slot, bottom contacts for battery grip & compatibility with old manual lenses. But if you see on other side, D7500 will rival with Canon 80D & all these features are also grossly missing in 80D. Would you term, Canon 80D equivalent to Canon rebels. I think no. On the contrary D7500 is even more capable than 80D due to 4K video 8 fps, deeper buffer etc. I have used D7000, D7100 & now D750 and I would have also liked if Nikon had continued these missing features on D7500. But I can understand where Nikon is coming from. Back in time when D400 was missing D7xxx was top of the line DX model but now with D500 around, D7500 has to take little brother’s role. If you think objectively, D7500 is still the most capable camera in its price range.

          • Bob Thane

            Come on, you’re being facetious, right? In case you aren’t, or if people don’t realize that you are, the D7500 is NOT closer to the D3200 than the D7200.

            The only ways the D7500 is more similar to the D3200 is that it has one card slot, it won’t meter in the viewfinder with AI lenses, and it might not have an OEM battery grip. Maybe an issue for some people on here, and thus many tears will be shed online, but for most people none of that matters.

            In every other way, the D7500 is equally close to the D7200 and the D3200 (like the sensor), the same as the D7200 (like the ability to fine tune AF), or better than the D7500 (like AF, fps, 4k video, and rear lcd).

            Look, I wish it had two card slots and stuff too. But gaining 2 fps, having better AF, having 4k video, and having a tilting lcd is probably more useful for the majority of people interested in this camera.

            The DX pros are ecstatic about the D500. A few of them can’t afford it though, and the D7500 is a great mini D7500. If they see the D7500 as an unusable step down though, the D7200 isn’t going anywhere for the near future – if that’s the camera that’s ideal for you, you can still buy it. And it’s cheaper than the D7500 – win win.

  • T.I.M

    It’s missing the D7500 as a prototype!

  • Jonathan Zaharek

    I just went here last week! Great Show room.

  • Andrew

    My first Nikon camera was the N2020 (F501). It is great to see how Nikon cameras have evolved over the years.

  • Spy Black

    Always fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes development of any great product. My first camera was a used Nikon F Photomic, with the flip-up CDS cell on the prism, that I picked up at a pawn shop when I was 18. I had no idea what Nikon was, the camera just looked interesting to me, and it cost me $100. I still have it’s 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor S.

    Interesting to me, the 1960 half-frame prototype had what would become the standard self-timer lever on the F2, as well as the “Apollo” series Fs, one of which I happened to pick up, also used, after I destroyed my F body climbing a fence chasing a shot. Interesting that it would be that many years before the lever design surfaced in production.

    I still have my Apollo FTN that I picked up around ’76, as well as my F2SB I bought new around ’78.

    • T.I.M

      You make me feel younger!

  • An American in Canada

    Richard is the man. Thanks for the amazing write up!

  • Riley Escobar

    Two more weeks and I’ll be in Tokyo, can’t wait to visit the museum.

    • lucky you, send some pictures 🙂

      • Riley Escobar

        Will do if I spot anything that hasn’t been covered here.

  • Mehdi R
  • Eric Calabros

    I want to see the prototype of their upcoming large sensor mirrorless

  • Senor Magnifico
    • Allan

      Everybody wants smaller. Now we got it.

      (Is the picture actual size or is it enlarged?)

    • Allan


      Does it help you vote?

  • karayuschij

    Nothing new at Nikon… So they make news with old…

  • Michiel953

    Thanks Rick Ho; very informative article!

  • docnorth

    This F4 was indeed a revolutionary camera and is still dominating the design of (D)SLR’s, but was left almost 10 years without drastical improvements of its AF performance, although Nikon did so e.g. from F90 (I think N90 in USA) to F90x. Even my humble F70 combined with small lenses had faster AF (of cource F4 was much better with heavier lenses). About 1995 it could be the first time many professionals switched from Nikon to other brands not because Canon (or Minolta etc) gave them cash or privileges, but because F4 was left with the AF performance from 1988.

    • PhilK

      The F4 era was definitely the time when Canon really started stealing Nikon pro shooters.

      EOS was introduced in 1986, and the EOS-1 pro model in 1989. Even though the Canon’s were ‘plasticky’ and the EOS-1 gave up the interchangeable viewfinder, they were way lighter than the sledgehammer-like F4 and Nikon couldn’t touch the EOS’s all-electronically-controlled lenses and the AF system speed in general. (Including ultrasonic AF at a time when all the Nikon AF lenses were clunky screw-drive AF. It took Nikon 10 more years to start adding SWM AF to their lenses.)

      I had an F4 for a while, and while that camera was a real work of art and the penultimate analog-dial pro model, it was a brick and the AF was almost unusable especially in low light.

      By the time the F5 came out – greatly improved in many ways – they were already eating Canon’s dust I’m afraid.

  • PhilK

    SPX… woohooooo!!!

    TTL metering and giant lensmount. Now that looks sweeet for those days. Dang.

  • Oz Baz

    Pronea APS film SLR prototype?

  • Back to top