A long long time ago, and far away—not only before digital but before the era of the point-and-shoot—the SLR ruled. If you wanted a "serious" camera in 1965 or 1970 or 1975 or 1980, you bought a 35mm SLR. If you were prosperous (or ambitious) it said "Nikon" on it, and if you were in college, you accessorized it with a wide, colorfully embroidered strap. The cameras were good ones, sturdy and versatile, and the camera dealers were happy, because your SLR purchase led quite naturally to other purchases—mainly, a flash, and more lenses. But the lens the camera came with was a 50mm. Usually it was a "slow" 50mm, meaning it had a maximum aperture setting of ƒ/2 or ƒ/1.9 or ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/1.7. A generation earlier, these had been not slow but fast: when the Leica Summicron was first introduced, it was not a slow lens. It supplanted Leica's versions of the Zeiss Tessar-types, the fastest of which was ƒ/2.8.
Then, in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, that situation began to change. That was the era of the ascendancy of the zoom lens—and of autofocus. Prior to roughly the mid-1980s everyone understood that zooms were for geeks, wannabes, and tyros. Innocent, airheaded amateur gearheads bought zooms. But there were a lot of them. (My first serious lens was a Konica Varifocal, an early tour-de-force of optical engineering that was also so big and heavy that it made every shot—not every shoot, every shot—a major production.) And, as more and more people bought them, zooms got better and better. It was when the Zeiss Contax 35–70mm ƒ/3.4 came along (anyone know when that was?) that I first heard the claim that a zoom was as good as the equivalent primes. (It was, too, or at least, it had its own charm—sweet lens.)
No one has really written about this (what I mean is, it is not received wisdom), but the parallel ascendancy of AF was important to the ascendancy of the zoom. Minolta was the first to implement AF widely, and rightly reaps the credit (except perhaps among blinkered Leicaphiles who feel that Leitz's dead-end experiments with Correfot somehow give it primacy here. Not. And for those who will say it was Honeywell, its part was in the technical development—I'm talking about public acceptance, in real products). But it was really Nikon—in those days indisputably #1 amongst camera manufacturers where serious 35mm photography was concerned—which tipped the scales in favor of it. When Nikon went to AF, it made AF respectable.
But I digress. What I was going to say is that zooms you had to focus yourself were inconvenient: instead of focus-and-shoot, you suddenly had to zoom, focus, and shoot. The coming of autoexposure a decade earlier had reduced the number of operations you had to make before shooting; this was a step in the other direction. The way around this inconvenience in the '70s and '80s was the so-called "one touch" (or "push-pull") zoom*, which had a broad single control ring that controlled both zooming (by moving it in and out) and focusing (by twisting it). These meant that, with practice, you could perform both functions reasonably quickly. It also meant that you couldn't set either focal length or focus on the lens and have it stay there, an early example of the camera getting in the way instead of getting out of the way. Autofocus to the rescue! With AF, all you had to do was zoom, and the camera, more or less, focused itself. AF helped make zooms tenable from an operability standpoint.
Yet another parallel development that was important to the change was the adoption of bright viewing screens. Simple ground-glass screens were easy to focus on, but dark. Changing from an ƒ/1.7 50mm lens, say, to an ƒ/3.4 or slower zoom made the viewfinder image intolerably dim. Various parties innovated brighter screens, but there was usually a rough trade-off between ease of focus—what is sometimes called focus "snap"—and brightness. AF made it possible to use brighter screens to offset the modest maximum apertures of zooms without paying a price in focusability. With many of today's cameras, it's just not very easy to focus even fast lenses manually—even those that don't have the "tunnelvision" problem of reduced-sized digital formats.
I can't really say when it was that what we now call the "kit zoom"—then perhaps more commonly called a "normal" or "standard" zoom—replaced the 50mm (which had in the meantime transmogrified from "slow" to "fast" because it was much faster than the zoom) as the lens most cameras came with. I sort of wasn't paying attention. It happened before the digital era, though–sometime in the 1990s, I'd guess, although I can't really pinpoint it much better than that.
I'm going to digress again, if you'll pardon me. Where I live, between 95% and 98% of all automobiles sold are equipped with automatic transmissions. When asked to speculate as to why this is, most people will say it's because automatic gear changers are just as good and more convenient than manual ones. They think this conclusion is not only correct, but obvious. Nonsense, I say—I think it's because driving students aren't required to know how to drive manual transmissions, so most people aren't familiar with them. If they are familiar with them, they have an unpleasant memory of an alarming failed attempt to get a manual-transmission car started moving in first gear! I believe that in places in the world where citizens have to learn how to drive a stick shift as part of driver training, manual transmissions are more popular than they are here. (Which country has the best driver training in the world? Finland, I think? I wonder if Finns are required to know how to drive a stick shift in order to get their driver's licenses, and, if so, what the percentage of manual vs. automatic is in new-car purchases there.)
The situation is similar with regards to slow zooms and fast primes. It's quite possible to be an enthusiastic amateur photographer these days and never have used a fast single-focal-length lens. If cameras were still sold with fastish prime normals as standard kit, lots of people would still use zooms—but the percentage of people who use primes would be higher than it is, I think.
Well, now, this is already too long for a blog post, and I haven't even gotten around to my subject yet. I'll meander onward in the next post. (Hey, it's Saturday, right?) Longtime readers already know where I'm going with this, so it shouldn't be any hardship to have to wait.
Mike*The lenticular equivalent of shag carpeting, mullet haircuts, and AMC Matadors and Javelins.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.