Modern’s Top 47 Cameras from 1979 is the first of these lists I’ve published that originally appeared after I was born, so I’ve officially entered into an era in which I am older than the list itself!
Much like the rapid changes in camera technology in the late 1950s when photographers abandoned rangefinders in favor of SLRs and “electric eyes” started to appear on dozens of new models, the late 1970s saw the dawning age of fully automated SLRs and point and shoot cameras.
What was considered state of the art in 1974 was already outdated by 1979 and if camera makers wanted to keep filling their pockets with money from new camera purchases, they had to get on board and embrace new technology.
The very first sentence of this list from the December 1979 issue of Modern Photography plainly states that this year’s list starts off with a strong emphasis on fully automatic 35mm SLRs. Rangefinders, medium format TLRs, and professional cameras all take a back seat to models like the Canon A-1, Chinon CE-4 Memotron, Nikon FE, Olympus OM-2N and Pentax ME. The first non automatic camera makes it’s appearance on the 22nd page, suggesting how important this segment was in 1979.
Unlike Modern’s previous top 47 lists, I have experience with many of these models, either featuring reviews on this site, or having used them in some capacity some point in my life. Looking through the list, I can attest to using 19 of these models.
Of the ones that I haven’t played with, there’s a mix of ones made by Hasselblad and Bronica that I would still love to own, and some head scratchers like the Kodak Colorburst 300, Kodak’s ill-conceived attempt at creating their own cartridge based instant film camera. Another curious inclusion is the Topcon RE 300, which on paper seems like a decent electronic SLR made with a Copal Square shutter, but using the incredibly antiquated (for the time) Exakta lens mount, and a body not even built by Tokyo Kogaku since the company was on the verge of exiting the 35mm camera market. I’ll acknowledge Modern’s editors wouldn’t have had a crystal ball that could have told them Topcon cameras would disappear from the market less than a year later, but they had to have seen the writing on the wall, and to suggest this model was worthy of a “best of” nomination just seems weird.
Strangely absent from this list were auto focusing point and shoot models like the Canon AF35M or Konica C35 AF which for the time would have been considered cutting edge and still had quality 4 and 5 element lenses that would have compared favorably to other cameras on this list. Perhaps they would appear on the 1980 list…
As is the case of any year end list of the top anything of any product, I don’t exactly agree with all 47 models here, as I’m sure people reading this article over 40 years ago didn’t agree with either, but it’s still a fun way to reflect back on models we consider vintage today, at a time when they were brand new.
And not that it has anything to do with cameras, but here is the video for The Smashing Pumpkins’s 1979.
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2020.