An ancient rivalry … and its contemporary effects

If you have not heard photographers complain about how some camera manufacturers’ (typically: the competition’s) control rings turn ‘the wrong way’, you’re either new to photo discussions, or have hung out only with photographers who never manually focus. My first encounter with this ‘debate’ was back in 2004 (or so) when I shoved my Canon 10D in the hands of a Nikon shooter, only to have derision and scorn heaped at my gear, simply because some rings ‘turn the wrong way’…

This is typically also a discussion that people who spend their time using legacy lenses on modern cameras are well familiar with, and I bet most readers have at least once wondered how come the photo industry has managed to produce interchangeable lens cameras for ≈100 years and has still not got it’s **it together.

The photographic industry of today is to a significant degree defined by two companies and the cameras and lenses that they introduced almost 100 years ago. Let me try to illustrate how the situation we are in today is the product of history.

Act I: The Leica

The Ernst Leitz company of Wetzlar (Germany), which at that stage already was established in the optical industry, was the first company to come up with the idea of using 35 mm film in compact-sized still cameras. 35 mm film was back then then used in motion picture cameras and was hence cheap. More importantly, 35 mm film allowed for smaller cameras. While folding cameras had been ‘pocket-sized’ for some time, this miniaturisation led to a minor revolution.

That camera, the Leica (Leitz camera), became an instant icon, and many competitors set out to develop their own similar products.

Act II: The Contax

One of those competitors was Zeiss (more precisely Zeiss Ikon) – a company with an even longer history in the photographic industry. The designers at Zeiss Ikon were seriously impressed by some of the key concepts of the Leica and shamelessly copied as much as they could, but – as detailed here – the engineers at Zeiss Ikon also thought that the Leica had a distinct shortcoming and wanted to improve on that. So instead of having a rangefinder relying on interpreting the short motion range of the LTM mount’s rangefinder cam, Zeiss Ikon designed the Contax’s rangefinder coupling to interpret rotational motion (given that the rangefinder optically worked by rotating a mirror, this seemed entirely fitting). But to make the mechanical coupling of the mount and rangefinder as simple as possible, the people at Zeiss Ikon decided that the focusing motion should be the reverse of what Leica had used. While Leica had gone first, it cannot be said to have been a real industry standard, so they likely did not think it would be such an issue. For good measure, they also reversed the rotational direction of the lens’ aperture rings.


So at this stage we have two massively influential cameras on the market that have their scales reversed. The situation can be illustrated as follows (if you would be looking at the camera-and-lens combo as you would when it is hanging by its strap, resting on your belly):

Aperture ring•••8••5,6••4••••••4••5,6••8•••
Focusing ring•••3••5••10••∞∞••10••5••3•••
Directions of aperture and focus rings in 1930s Leica and Contax lenses

In effect both parties had become committed to their own way, and neither was willing to accommodate the other, because in doing so they would have inconvenienced their loyal customers. Hence neither party was going to change their approach. However this also meant that other lens makers would – if they desired to offer their lenses for these systems – feel they needed to copy the orientation of these systems in order to not be seen as ‘wrong way’

Act III: Network effects

But quality cameras would not long remain the prerogative of the German camera industry. First Allied bombs pretty much destroyed the German camera industry, and afterward a big part of what was still intact was loaded onto trains and taken by the Soviets as reparations.

At the same time the Japanese Optics industries which no longer could rely on lucrative contracts from the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had to find new work for their designers and factories and decided that Camera markets were going to return to the growth trajectory that the war had so rudely interrupted.

Not yet being the optomechanical powerhouse it is today, the Japanese optical companies largely decided to start their quest for gaining a foothold by a) offering their interchangeable lenses for those Leicas and Contax’ that had survived the war (and those that were slowly again being manufactured) as well as b) offering their cameras based on those same designs, in many cases making 1:1 copies of Leicas and Contax’. As most German Patents had been voided as punishment for Nazi Germany’s role in starting the whole shebang, this was not even illegal.

But that meant that when Nikon decided that they not only wanted to produce lenses but also cameras, they decided to make their rangefinder based on the Contax (but better), and Canon decided largely similarly, but went with Leicas. And when Canon, Nikon (And many other Japanese Companies) later decided to move from rangefinders to SLRm they again knew that many of their future customers were also current customers, so changing rotation direction was not an easy choice to make…

Hence, not only did WW2 not manage to overcome the old rivalry, but postwar reconstruction cemented the division and made it global…

Act IV: the ‘Schlamassel’

Side note: I was born in Austria and – from an early age – picked up a lot of those idioms that, while originally Yiddish, had become common idioms in Austria. Schlamassel translates roughly to “unfortunate mess”.

Interestingly, that was not the end of that. Otherwise we’d have a photographic equipment world divided into two distinct ways. On the contrary, as many manufacturers would be torn between the inertia of their own tradition and by the demands of the standards of the mount for which they were intent on manufacturing lenses for. As a result, you would also have lenses with Leica-style focus rings, but Contax-style aperture rings (and vice versa)

Thus for instance, Zeiss has manufactured lenses with
Contax-style focus rings and Contax-style aperture rings (e.g. for Contax/Kiev systems)
• Leica-style focus rings and Contax-style aperture rings (e.g. for Contax/Yashica, Icarex, Praktica B systems)
Contax-style focus rings and Leica-style aperture rings (e.g. For Nikon F systems)
Leica-style focus rings and Leica-style aperture rings (e.g. for Exakta, LTM, Leica M and m42 systems)

So, if you thought that there’s one right way and one wrong way, I’m here to tell you that there are also two, variously half-wrong ways.

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