Canon, Leica, Nikon, Sony. Anyone who's spent time behind the lens is familiar with the modern juggernauts of photography. But decades ago, in the heyday of film, the field was much different. Here, we take a trip down memory lane with the brands that haven't made it to the present day in anything close to their original form, but are still worth remembering (and even buying from) today.
Founded in 1920 in Germany, Rollei hit the scene with an unusual first camera, the triple-lensed stereo Hedioscop, in 1921. In 1928, Rollei introduced the very first twin-lens reflex roll-film camera, the Rolleiflex, birthing an entire new species of camera still prized by collectors today for its all-in-one format that makes it a (fairly) affordable entry to the world big, beautiful 6x6 centimeter medium format negatives. In 1966, Rollei introduced the Rollei 35 which is, to this day, one of the smallest fully-manual 35mm cameras ever made. Despite changing hands several times and moving production from Germany to Singapore, Rollei continued producing film cameras well into the new millennium. In 2014, its then-parent company DHW Fototechnik became insolvent, and sold off the Rollei name.
This Japanese brand, founded in 1945, cut its teeth producing parts for electronics companies and clock makers before launching its first self-made camera in 1953: the medium-format Pigeonflex TLR. Yashica's adventures in medium format cameras culminated with the Yashica-Mat 124g, in production up to the 1970s, still sought after for its great value compared to competing cameras like the Rollieflex TLR which can go for twice as much. In 1973, Yashica began producing cameras under the "Contax" name, licensed to it by Carl Zeiss. In 1984, Yashica was acquired in full by Kyocera, which eventually spun down camera production in 2005. The Yashica name has since been sold to a Hong Kong-based branding company, but the contemporary (and horrific) modern-day products that bear the name have no relation to the stalwart brand that used to be.
Founded in Osaka Japan in 1928, Minolta got its start making various SLRs and rangefinders, one of which — the Minolta Hi-Matic — made it into space. In 1972, Minolta entered into an agreement with Leica, giving rise to a series of jointly produced cameras, the first of which was produced in Osaka and released in the Japanese market as the Minolta CL. The arguable pinnacle of the partnership, the Minolta CLE which introduced through-the-lens metering and sported Leica M lenses, was introduced in 1980. Five years later, the Minolta Maxxum 7000 Alpha Mount Camera would become the first autofocus 35mm SLR with an in-camera motor. This camera was eventually found to infringe on patents held by Honeywell, which put Minolta on the back foot and lead to eventual merger with fellow Japanese brand Konica. In 2005, Sony and now Konica Minolta teamed up on a new line of DSLRs until, a year later, Konica Minolta transferred its portion of the project assets to Sony and withdrew from camera-making altogether.
Over its lifespan, the USSR produced a whole host of camera brands which, relatively unrestrained by western notions of intellectual property, were able to borrow extensively from the competition. While Soviet cameras are typically not known for their fit and finish or consistent quality control, they are generally built to take a beating and to be easily serviceable by the end user. The first Soviet-made camera was the "FED" series of rangefinder cameras, mass-produced from 1934 into the 1990s (with a break during World War II). Another Soviet standout is the Kiev 88, playfully referred to as the "Hasselbladski," produced in the Arsenal factory in Ukraine, and is the spitting image of the much pricier (and more reliable) Hasselblad 1600 F. Another class, the zone-focusing, auto-exposure point-and-shoot Lomo LCA was initially released in 1984, and is still in production to this day (in slightly updated form) as Lomography's LC-A+.
Olympus may not yet be forgotten, but it certainly is gone. After 84 years, Olympus sold off its camera division in 2019. Founded in 1919, the Japanese company started its camera journey with the Semi-Olympus I and first "Zuiko" branded lens in 1936. The company would go on to produce numerous tiny point-and-shoots that remain cult favorites to this day, like the battery-free Olympus Trip 35 with its selenium light meter, and the tiny clamshell Olympus XA2. Its line of pro-grade SLRs, the OM series, are among the smallest 35mm SLRs ever made. With the advent of the digital age, Olympus threw its weight behind the Micro-Four Thirds crop sensor, producing a family of remarkably small mirrorless cameras in its OM-D line before ultimately exiting the camera business in 2019.