The Rotoloni Report 5: More Nikon Prototypes

Earlier this year I visited Robert at his home and we had an extensive conversation about Nikon rangefinder prototypes.  I was particularly interested in the Nikon SP2 and SPX as they are fascinating examples of cameras that showed a direction Nippon Kogaku did not continue in.  But as usually happens when I visit Robert, he went above and beyond with information, giving me a whole CD worth of rare Nikon prototype images way beyond those two rangefinders.

Robert Rotoloni with three black Nikon S2s from his collection.

After seeing the huge amount of information that he had, I knew I had to create a Nikon prototypes post.  As I began that article, I realized that there was way more than one single article should contain, so I decided to split it up into two parts, the first would entirely be devoted to rangefinders, and a second to everything else.

The first part, and the fourth in my Rotoloni Report series was posted in April and included a dizzying number of never before seen images of rare Nikon rangefinder prototypes.  Of the images that have appeared online and in print before, many in my article were higher resolution versions.  That article proved to be very popular and continues to generate views months after it was posted.

This schematic of the Nikon F hangs on a wall in Nikon’s Tokyo headquarters.

At the end of that article, I promised to bring you a part two, and true to my word, here are the rest of the prototypes from that discussion, covering everything from the original Nikon Reflex prototype with the in body optical viewfinder, all the way to some crazy Nikon APS cameras that never saw the light of day.

Nikon Reflex Prototype

The Nikon F was not the first Japanese SLR, nor did it have many firsts in it’s design.  Most of it’s key features such as the interchangeable pentaprism viewfinder, instant return mirror, metal focal plane shutter, and motor drive coupling had been implemented on various cameras before it.

Joe Ehrenreich was Nippon Kogaku’s primary supplier in the US and demanded Nikon Fs faster than they could be produced.

Yet, the Nikon F changed the world of photography by meeting nearly every requirement a professional photographer expected from a 35mm SLR.  Almost over night, demand for Nippon Kogaku’s new reflex cameras went through the roof.  The small Ohi factory where it was produced could not keep up with demand and orders started piling up from importers like Joseph Ehrenreich in the US.  Things got so bad that Nippon Kogaku had to reduce capacity for their rangefinder line, eventually discontinuing the format altogether in the early 1960s.

It’s easy to assume that Masahiko Fuketa and his team knew exactly what they wanted in their new SLR the moment it first hit the drawing board, but like with most new products, the camera that would eventually be called the Nikon F went through various revisions.

When it was in development, the new camera was simply known as the Nikon Reflex camera as the name “Nikon F” was not applied to the camera until around the time of it’s release.  It is thought that some influence to the camera’s design was taken from the East German KW Praktina as the two cameras share a number of similarities.

The images below show prototype T-1307-1 on display, and from these pictures we can see several differences from the final design.

Probably the most glaring feature of this camera that never made it to production is the body mounted optical viewfinder.  It is thought that Fuketa took a great deal of inspiration for his new camera from the KW Praktina, which if true, makes sense as that camera had the same feature.  Having an in body viewfinder like this was thought to make SLRs more appealing to photographers used to rangefinders as it offered a quick and easy way to frame a moving subject without any viewfinder blackout from the reflex mirror.

Despite the advancements of pentaprisms and brighter SLR viewing screens, looking through an SLR viewfinder will always be darker than a rangefinder.  If you wanted to shoot a fast sequence of photographs using zone focus, a reflex viewfinder only slows you down, so by having this feature meant the photographer could more quickly frame their image without having to use the reflex finder.

Images of the Nikon F prototype are pretty common online, but they almost always show the front, never the back.  Above, we can see the back of the camera, with a good look at the viewfinder window for the optical finder.  It’s hard to see, but the round window looks identical to that of the one used on the Nikon S2, and knowing that the Nikon Reflex shared many parts with the earlier rangefinders, this is likely a shared part.

It is not clear what the switch next to the optical viewfinder does.

Three other things worth mentioning on the back of the camera is some sort of sliding switch in the same location as the prism release button on the finished camera, which could perform the same function, or perhaps is somehow related to the optical viewfinder.  Also, it’s not obvious in images of the front of the camera, but from this angle, you can clearly see the prototype has a stepped plate, giving more room for the optical viewfinder.  Finally, the rewind knob is a simple knob without any of the accessory flash contacts seen on the finished copy.  Was the inclusion of flash support something not originally intended for the camera, or was this mock up just too early in the design to have something to show?

The presence of an A/R collar around the shutter release suggests the small lever on the front of the camera does something else.

On the front of the camera, there is a small lever in front of the shutter release, above the self timer whose function is unknown.  The two most likely guesses are a mirror lock up lever, or perhaps a film transport Advance/Rewind lever as seen on some other Japanese rangefinders of the era.  If you look carefully at the top plate in the gallery above however, you can clearly see the letter “R” stamped into the top plate right in front of the shutter release exactly where it appears on the finished camera suggesting this lever does something else.

Details that remained on the finished camera from this prototype are the Nikon F bayonet mount and lens release button, self timer, depth of field preview button, flash sync ports, shutter speed dial, shutter release, and film advance lever.

No images have ever been seen of the bottom of the camera or the inside of the film compartment, but considering these were largely taken from the Nikon SP, likely looked pretty similar to the finished product.

Nikon F Half Frame

At the time the Nikon F was being released, a resurgence in popularity of 35mm “half frame” cameras was rising in Japan.  Despite a massive improvement to Japan’s economy after the war, by 1959, film was still quite expensive, so half frame cameras were seen as a viable option for economizing film photography.

In August 1960, Nippon Kogaku would release a half frame version of the Nikon S3 rangefinder, called the Nikon S3M.  A grand total of 195 S3Ms were ever made, making them quite rare, but it seems that Nippon Kogaku also saw a potential need for a half frame SLR as this prototype suggests.

Unlike the S3M however, it does not appear the half frame Nikon F was ever officially put into production as the included placard in the previous image suggests it may have been a special purpose camera for professional use.

F2 Prototype

The runaway success of the Nikon F was both a blessing and a curse.  It’s continued popularity meant that demand was so high, that it impeded Nippon Kogaku’s ability to work on other projects.  As mentioned above, future development of Nikon rangefinders was scrapped to increase capacity for the F, and when the company decided they wanted a more economical SLR to sell to amateurs, they had to outsource production of what would become the Nikkorex to Mamiya.

The Nikon F was in production for nearly a decade before work would begin on it’s successor.  Unlike with the development of the original camera, it was not necessary to come up with an all new camera from the ground up.  Nippon Kogaku already knew what people expected from their cameras, so there wasn’t as much to change the second time around.

At a quick glance, the three images of Nikon F2 prototype, T-10370-1 don’t appear to be much different from the finished version.  The biggest changes are all on the prism.  The most obvious is in the typeface of “Nikon” on the front of the pentaprism.  Using the same skinny font as the original Nikon F rather than the bolder, squared corners of the finished DP-1 Photomic finder, this is clearly an earlier version.

Other changes include:

  • A larger illumination window exists on the top of the prism, possibly to allow more light for the metering readout in the prism.
  • This window does not appear on any production F2 prisms.

    What looks to be the external meter readout on an angled edge near the front of the prism.  Although it’s not entirely clear what this window does, if you zoom into the second image in the gallery above, you’ll see a row of stripes or hash marks like you might see on a meter.

  • A small wheel on the side of the pentaprism, below the angled meter readout.  It is unknown what this wheel does.
  • Some kind of circular lever on the back of the pentaprism, above and to the right of the eye piece.  Perhaps this is a battery check switch as there’s no button in the location of the finished finder.
  • Shutter speeds indicated on the top dial rather than ASA film speeds like on the finished version.  It is not obvious how ASA film speeds would have been set for this finder, but I actually would have preferred if shutter speeds were indicated here, like on other metered SLRs.

Looking at the rest of the camera, the only other changes I see are some sort of switch on the back edge of the top plate, to the left of the viewfinder release button whose function is not clear.  It could be some kind of film transport indicator, or possibly even a battery check light as it looks similar to the one that appears on the Minolta XE-7.

This switch looks like a battery check light.

Finally, the last change is in the design of the self-timer lever, which does not include the intermediate marks for variable length of the self timer, as appeared on the finished model.

The Nikon F2 would make it’s debut with most of the other changes seen here.  With a hinged back, better support for automatic exposure, and a faster 1/2000 shutter speed, the F2 would remain a reliable workhorse from 1971 to 1980.

F3 Mockups

When Nippon Kogaku released the Nikon F2, it offered quite a number of improvements over the original model, but as a whole, the changes were more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Both the original F and F2 have approximately the same size body with similar ergonomics.  The fully mechanical titanium focal plane shutter was similar, and even the manner in which the two cameras metered, required an external prism.

When it was time to make a successor, the F3 required an almost complete re-design.  For the first time ever, a Nikon F-series SLR would have an electronic shutter, a smaller body with greater use of lightweight non-metal materials, and a host of other changes, so it’s no surprise to think that the camera went through a number of revisions.

If you’ve ever wondered what the F3 might have looked like without it’s small handgrip on the front left side, these two prototype images from about 1977 show an early F3 with a flat front.  Is this some kind of hybrid Nikon FE with additional features?  It’s hard to tell without a sense of scale, but it’s definitely a pro-level camera, as exhibited by the F2-style flash connector around the rewind knob, multiple exposure lever next to the film advance lever, and what looks to be a mirror lockup switch at the base of the lens mount to the right of the self-timer.

I have no idea what that red button below the depth of field preview button does, or if you look closely in the second image, between the rewind knob and prism, looks to be some kind of top mounted meter readout, suggesting an in body TTL meter was always planned for this camera.

These next two mock-ups are clearly not finished cameras as they do not have anything inside of the lens mount, but show the more modern block Nikon logo, a hole for where the self timer LED appears, and on the second image, the first appearance of the final model’s hand grip.

Many people think the Nikon F-501 to be the company’s first auto focus SLR, but it was actually the Nikon F3 AF.

These images are the only four F3 prototypes, and sadly, nothing showing a better look at the top plate or anything around back, but I have to image there are more changes there too.

One final F3 related image is of a cutaway of the F3 AF, showing the massive amount of electronics that went into that camera in order to accomplish automatic focus.  When it was released in April 1983, the idea of autofocus in a Nikon SLR was still quite a ways away, so this was clearly a proof of concept of sorts.  The world would have to wait until 1986 for the F-501/N2020 to be released, and 1988 before the professional F4 would offer the same feature, giving Nippon Kogaku ample time to refine and further develop the technology.

Sadly, I don’t have any other images of the F3AF in it’s development, but that’s probably because most of the changes would be internal, and not as exciting to see as a completely new camera.

F4 Mockups

Speaking of a completely new camera, if the F3 was a big change from the F2, the F4 was an even bigger change from the F3.

For the Nikon F4, I have two galleries, the first showing several wooden mock ups of the eventual F4’s more distinctly rounded body, and the second showing some technical prototypes that may have been based of actual working samples.

I have no idea if this is true, but I would have to guess that while a new camera was being developed, separate groups of people likely worked on the internal mechanics and others on the cosmetics.  If true, my guess is that the cosmetics guys and gals worked with clay and wooden blocks to create the various curves and design of what would eventually become the final camera.

In the gallery above we have what are clearly wooden models with various design details from the finished camera already in tact.  The raised platform to the side of the lens mount where the AE and AF lock buttons would be are there in all four images, with actual buttons appearing in the fourth one.

Most of the curves and locations for various dials and switches are in the correct positions, suggesting that input from the designers was settled on early in the process.  In the third image, we see a couple mockups for what look to be eye level and precision waist level finders.  Also note that the later italicized Nikon logo is already present, as is the location of the red stripe on the hand grip of the fourth image.

These next three images show two distinctly different prototypes.  The first one possibly being built on the body of the F3, and the final one looking very much like a finished F4.

The layout of controls in this area of the F4 prototype clearly were built on the body of an F3.

What I find most interesting about the first prototype, is that although it’s clearly a more squared off body, you can already see the electrical contact points from the revised Nikon F lens mount in the reflection of reflex mirror.  The base plate of the camera is thicker than on the F3, likely to house the various electronics for the film advance motor.

Where the film advance lever would be on the F3 is a EV compensation dial, and next to it the shutter speed dial which if you look really closely, has a mark for a 1/4000 shutter speed.

Perhaps most interesting about this prototype is the inclusion of a standard hot shoe above what should be the manual rewind crank.  Perhaps Nippon Kogaku considered completely motorized film rewind on the F4, before deciding to go back to a manual crank which also exists on the Nikon F5.

The second prototype is less interesting apart from it being gray in color, which to my knowledge, was never offered on the finished camera.  This one looks much closer to the finished F4, with most changes being cosmetic in shape to the various dials and switches.

F5 Mockups

All I have for the F5 are a variety of clay or wooden mock-ups, probably from the design stage.  Three of the four show a general shape of what would become the even more rounded F5, along with a distinct location for the top LCD display screen.

The fourth picture is the most interesting, and although still looks to be made of wood, has some strong resemblances to the finished camera.  Instead of an actual LCD screen, we have what is likely a sticker.  The manual rewind crank and viewfinder mounted hot shoe are both visible, as is a printed “F5” on the right front side of the camera.

Nikkormat Prototype

When the Nikon F first went on sale in 1959, it changed the photographic world forever.  The camera became an immediate best seller and Nippon Kogaku struggled to keep up with demand.  In an effort to maximize their ability to produce as many cameras as possible, labor and space for the Nikon rangefinder was dramatically reduced, quickly ending Nippon Kogaku’s ability to keep making rangefinders.

As great of a seller as the Nikon F was, it was also very expensive, and had limited appeal behind professional photographers who could afford it.  The company was well aware that there was a large market of untapped customers who would be interested in a “lesser Nikon” that wouldn’t cost as much.

In 1960, Nippon Kogaku would release their first consumer level SLR, the Nikkorex 35, but instead of building it themselves, they outsourced it to Mamiya of Japan.  The camera had a fixed Nikkor lens, and had markings suggesting it was made by Nippon Kogaku, but it was a Mamiya through and through.

A couple of years later, work began on a proper mid-level camera that would be built by Nippon Kogaku themselves.  This camera, which would eventually be called the Nikomat in Japan and Nikkormat everywhere else, would support the Nikon F’s full range of lenses, but lose the interchangeable viewfinder and motor drive.  In their place, new features like a coupled CdS exposure meter, a vertically traveling metal blade shutter, and all new ergonomics would help Nippon Kogaku test the waters for future Nikon F development.

Around the time when the Nikomat was in production, SLRs with in-body CdS meters were common, but many of them, like the Minolta SR-7, Konica Auto-Reflex, and Canon FX had body mounted meters which were located on the front of the camera.  When the Nikomat/Nikkormat made it’s debut in 1965, it was one of the first SLRs to have Through the Lens, or TTL metering in which the meter is inside of the camera and takes a reading through the lens, not only making for a more accurate reading, but also being able to take into account any filters that are attached to the lens.

Body mounted CdS meters were common during this camera’s development.

The prototype above of a Nikomat with a body mounted CdS meter clearly shows that development of the camera was well on it’s way before the decision was made to include a TTL meter instead.  The placard next to the third picture indicates this prototype is from 1964, and apart from missing strap lugs and the different typeface to the ‘Nikomat’ logo, the camera doesn’t look any different from the production camera.

When it was released, the production camera was called the Nikomat/Nikkormat FT.  The ‘T’ most certainly refers to the TTL meter, as it was common back then for companies to add the letter ‘T’ to models equipped with such a feature.  The Minolta SR-T, Konica Autoreflex T, and Yashica TL-Super are examples of this, so Nippon Kogaku likely followed the trend calling it the FT.  I wonder though, had a non-TTL metered Nikomat been released, would it have been called the Nikomat F, or perhaps even just Nikomat without any sub-model designation?  Who knows!

Nikomat EL 

With the success of Nippon Kogaku’s Nikomat/Nikkormat line-up, the demands of SLR photographers continued to increase into the 1970s with more modern features like automatic exposure and electronic shutters.  As they typically did, Nippon Kogaku took notice of emerging technologies, and rather than be first to market with them in their professional cameras, offered them first on their mid range models.

In 1972, the company would release the Nikomat/Nikkormat EL, Nippon Kogaku’s first camera with an electronic shutter and first model built in house by them with automatic exposure.  Built using the chassis and body of the mechanical Nikomat, the shutter was step less and offered speeds from 4 to 1/1000 seconds with a 1/125 second flash sync.

The prototype above shows an early version of what would become the EL.  Here simply labeled a ‘Nikomat’, perhaps the EL name hadn’t been designed yet, this prototype has quite a few differences from the model that would eventually be released.

Perhaps the most obvious is the completely different shape to the pentaprism.  Featuring a taller peak and trapezoid body coverings on the side, the prism is clearly different.

This self-timer lever is very interesting as it’s a fold down design which never appeared on any other Nikon camera.

The self-timer lever is a unique design that looks like it folds flat into the body when not in use.  Nippon Kogaku would never release a camera with a lever like this, so I’m not exactly sure how it would work, but it seems unnecessarily complicated to me.

A few other changes I noticed is what looks to be a depth of field preview lever, instead of a button, the shutter speed selector only goes down to 1 second, instead of 4 seconds like on the finished model, and there appears to be what looks like a battery check button to the bottom right of the rewind lever.  The finished camera would have this button on the back plate of the camera, but sadly, I do not have an image of the back of this prototype to be sure.

The one thing I am very curious to know about is if this prototype has the battery in the EL’s location at the base of the mirror box.  I wonder if perhaps an early version of the camera had a battery compartment on the bottom of the camera, or if it was always there.

Otherwise, this Nikomat EL prototype looks to be pretty close to a finished model.

Nikon F-701 AF

Why wasn’t there ever a Nikon F-701?

Nikon made an F-301, F-401, F-501, F-601, and an F-801, so it seems pretty odd that there was never an F-701…or was there?

It seems that at one time, a model with that name was in the works, possibly as the predecessor to the F-401 as the placards suggest.  From these mock-ups it seems they never got very far though as every one of these is nothing more than a wood or clay design concept which puts into question the 1987 date as that was the year the F-401 actually came out, so for something this early in the design stage, these are likely a bit older than that.

In each of the examples below, we see a completely different body design, most with some kind of in-body flash which likely predates Nikon’s use of a pop-up flash.

Most them have the words “Automatic”, with samples F and H saying “Full Automatic” which suggests that these cameras lacked any manual features.  The F-401, when it was released, was a fully automatic camera, but it did have the option of manually selecting both shutter speeds and f/stops via two separate dials on the top plate.

It’s really hard to speculate what features an eventual F-701 might have had, but if the numbering system is any indicator, a model called the 701 would likely have to have been at least a mid-level model, with features at least comparable to the F-501.

Nikon MDX

Most of the prototypes in this article are of cameras that would eventually make it into production, but this next one that is commonly called the Nikon MDX hints at a camera that the company would never produce, at least nowhere near it’s prototype form.

While talking to Robert, he admitted to knowing very little about this camera.  He had said that most people see it as a predecessor to the F-301, but that camera would not debut until 1985, and from this looks of it, this camera is much older.

The first clue to the camera’s age is in the typeface of the Nikon logo.  Earlier in this article, we see a Nikon F3 with the same “classic” thin typeface for the Nikon logo.  We know the F3 made it’s debut in 1980, so this early prototype was probably from 1977 to 1978 which I believe is when the MDX was created.

The MDX is clearly an attempt to introduce an electronic motor drive into Nikon SLRs.

The letters “MD” clearly suggest the signature feature of this camera is the Motor Drive.  A ring around the shutter release has letters C, S, and L for ‘Continuous’, ‘Single’, and ‘Locked’ drive modes.  You’ll also notice no film advance or rewind levers on the camera, plus it’s rather tall top plate suggest that additional room was needed for the electronic parts inside to make the motors work.

The time frame of the late 70s would have lined up with many camera makers experimenting with built in motor drives in 35mm SLRs.  Nippon Kogaku had released both the Nikkormat ELW and Nikon EL2 with the accessory AW-1 electric motor drive, Olympus had a variant of the OM-2 called the MD that supported it also, and many other companies were following suit.

The MDX is clearly a manual focus camera that supports what looks to be both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority automatic exposure.  The first Nikon SLR (excluding the Nikkorex Auto 35) with shutter priority AE was the Nikon FG from 1982, which required Nikkor Ai-S lenses to work, which debuted in 1980.  It’s not a stretch of the imagination for Nippon Kogaku to be working on a camera with electric motor drive and support for Shutter Priority AE and AiS lenses a couple of years prior to 1980.

What does this knob do?  No one knows!

The front of the camera has some interesting features like a knob near the 5 o’clock position around the lens mount that is not clear what it does.  No other Nikon SLR would have a control like this, so I can’t even guess what it might do.  There is also what looks to be a small square window to the left of the ‘N’ in ‘Nikon’ which might be some kind of daylight sensor, or perhaps a self timer LED like the Nikon F3 had.  We also see an PC flash sync port and a depth of field preview button in the usual location.

This blue button might have been some kind of backlight button like the one on the Nikon EM.

The rest of the camera’s features include a hot shoe, a +/- 2 EV dial, ASA film speed dial, battery check light, and on the back what looks to be a film transport indicator and possible shutter blind switch for blacking out the viewfinder for long exposures.  There is a blue button on the back of the camera as well, which could possibly be a momentary backlight compensation button, similar to the blue button on the Nikon EM.  But since the camera also has an EV compensation dial, this button could do something else entirely.

The Nikon MDX is probably best described as a concept camera, rather than a prototype, as it is clear that Nippon Kogaku was experimenting with more than one new technology that they would later incorporate into multiple later models, despite a camera like this never making it to production.

Nikon X4

This next camera is a wooden mock-up called the X4.  The camera has a compact and ergonomic design with a fairly substantial right hand grip on the front.  The fourth image in the gallery above shows it on display next to a little card saying this camera is from 1980 and is the predecessor to the F-301 and F-501.


There aren’t a lot of conclusions that can be drawn from this camera as it’s just a wooden model with a few stickers and part of an F-mount glued to it, but it has what is labeled an AE-lock button on the back, and the letters CSL around the shutter release, suggesting some form of auto exposure and a motor drive.

Considering this camera looks nothing like the MDX above, and is supposedly from 1980, is further evidence that the Nikon MDX is quite a bit older than the eventual F-301.

Nikon 6×7 SLR

Nippon Kogaku’s dominance in the 35mm SLR market came at the expense of their inability to compete in other market segments.

This Nikon 6×7 SLR is one example of a camera format that the company chose not to pursue.

Going back to 1946 right after World War II, the US Government identified Nippon Kogaku as a company that had the potential to make a consumer product they could sell to help boost Japan’s economy.  Of all the products Nippon Kogaku proposed building, one was a medium format TLR that never made it past a schematic.

With at least three lenses made for it, this camera likely would have been a complete system.

It seems that the idea of making a medium format camera was never fully off the table as in 1966 an unnamed 6×7 SLR was created.

From what we can see in these two images, the camera had an interchangeable lens mount that might have used a breech lock.

Of the three lenses in the image, there is a 210mm f/4 a 60mm f/4 and what is likely a standard ~80mm lens.  These all appear to be special lenses designed only for this system, as I found no evidence of Nippon Kogaku lenses with these specs made for the Bronica, or any other medium format system.

The width of the camera body, along with a film advance lever on the right suggests a focal plane shutter, as opposed to a leaf shutter seen on other medium format SLRs.

The existence of this model in 1966 suggests that Nippon Kogaku might have wanted to compete with Bronica, who they had been making lenses for since the original Bronica camera was released in 1958.  The Nikon 6×7 SLR never made it past the prototype stage however, as someone at Nippon Kogaku likely came to the (correct) conclusion that it was more profitable to continue producing 35mm SLRs and point and shoot cameras.

Nikon 16mm Subminiature (1957)

Another film format Nippon Kogaku was not known for was 16mm.

In the 1950s and 60s these compact subminiature models were very popular with models made by Minox, Minolta, Yashica and several other companies and it’s clear that Nippon Kogaku was considering entering the market with this 16mm prototype from 1957.

From the looks at the two images here, the body is all metal with nice curves and an attractive design.  We can see a full focusing lens, a wide range of shutter speeds from 1/2 to 1/500 with a 1/125 flash sync, and a film advance lever.  A small round hole between the taking and viewing windows might suggest a rangefinder as it’s unlikely this is a window for a meter.

This camera appears to be a complete model, suggesting that plans to release it were scrapped at the last minute.  Like with the 6×7 SLR above, the reason for it never being released is that it was probably determined not to be financially viable to complete in this market.

Nikon SP-20

Without a doubt, the most bizarre and intriguing prototype in this article is the Nikon SP20.  This is a camera that has made the rounds of Nikon fans for a while now, and it’s existence is well known, but despite it’s notoriety, very little actual facts are known about it.

A lot of guesses have been made about what the SP20 is, that it’s an early attempt at a premium APS camera, that it was a modern day take on a new Nikon rangefinder, or that it was some kind of concept SLR for medical use.

Figuring out the exact year this camera was made is a mystery.  It has a manually selectable 1/4000 top shutter speed, which puts it after 1983, the lens has Auto Focus which puts it after 1986, and the flash hot shoe has the locking hole at the top like the Nikon F90/N90 which puts it after 1992.

Based on the silver look of the camera, my best guess is this camera likely was made in the very late 1990s, maybe 1998 and 1999.  Although Nikon was not known for incorporating date codes in their serial numbers, the number 990126 on the lens could suggest it was made in 1999.

The name SP20 and the use of the early Nikon typeface from their rangefinder era, suggest this is a camera that might have celebrated some type of anniversary.  The Nikon SP was released in 1957, and the 20th anniversary of that camera was 1977, which doesn’t at all match up with the design of this camera.  Other legacy clues in the camera are the PC flash sync port and mechanical (looking) self timer lever.

The Nikon SP20 is perhaps the most interesting prototype here.  What was it and why don’t we know anything more about it?

At the turn of the century, Nikon was clearly in the mood for celebrating their history as in 2000 they would release the Nikon S3 2000 edition, a near identical re-release of the original S3.  They’d do it once again in 2005 with the Nikon SP 2005 camera, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that perhaps they also considered an all new rangefinder camera with some modern features like auto focus, auto exposure, and a modern shutter.

I am not sure who made this, but whoever it was seems to be as mystified with the SP20 as I am.

If this camera is a rangefinder like the two round holes on the front suggest, the base length is quite small, possibly equal to the Leica II’s 38mm length.  If so, then there likely was some pretty significant magnification going on within the viewfinder, but the lens says it supports Auto Focus too, so maybe the rangefinder function uses those smaller windows in some way.

The button near the 3 o’clock position around the lens looks like a release button which suggests this is an interchangeable lens camera.  It is hard to get an idea of scale looking at these images, but the diameter of the lens, combined with the overall size of the body suggest that this does not use the Nikon F-mount.  It’s also clearly not the Nikon rangefinder mount either, so what mount was it?  Was Nikon working on some kind of more compact bayonet mount?

The theory that this is an APS camera does not seem likely as the back of the camera has a rectangular preview window which allows you to see what kind of 35mm cassette was installed in the camera.  It’s location the right suggests that film transport was from right to left.

No official documentation exists for what the SP20 was, what features it would have hard or who it’s target market would be.  The Japanese language sheet to the right was put together by someone who clearly is just making as wild of guesses as I am, as a poor attempt at Google Translate did not reveal anything other than speculation by whoever wrote it.


Since we’re talking about wild concepts that may or may not use APS film here are some more concept cameras that definitely do use APS film and run the gamut from just a little weird, to flat out bizarre such as the alarm clock camera.

The selection of cameras in the first image look more like vending machine tchotchkes than cameras with some Nuvis prototypes in the second and third images looking closer to how we know APS cameras actually did look.  The variety in shape and colors with these cameras suggest that nothing was off the table in Nikon’s design department.

These next images show Nikon’s APS SLR Pronea line.  When it was released, the Pronea came in both dark gray and a pearl white body, but it seems that Nikon had a few other colors such as light blue and champagne considered as well.  The last two images show wooden mock ups of possible other designs for the camera.  While I’ll admit to never having used a Pronea, and don’t really want to, I think the body design they ended up going with was the best one of these potential alternatives.

Nikon Marine Camera

It is questionable as to whether or not this next one belongs in a Nikon Camera Prototypes article as this is neither a camera nor a prototype.  The Nikon Marine was an underwater enclosure for Nikon S2/S3/SP rangefinders that actually did make it to production.

According to Robert, these enclosures are incredibly rare as he’s only aware of two of them in the world.  He says that the Japanese Navy was likely who these were developed for, and it’s even plausible that they were never sold commercially.


While researching this article, I found a Japanese language page that offers a little more information on this enclosure saying four were built in the spring of 1956 for an underwater field test.  It goes on to say there was a commercialized Nikon Marine, which the above enclosure appears to be from, but exactly how many of these were made and who bought them is a mystery.


Even more confusing is how they couple to the camera.  The previous article says the enclosure only works with three lenses, the 3.5cm f/1.8, 3.5cm f/2.5, and the 2.8cm f/3.5 lenses.  The black knob above and to the right of the lens opening has what looks to be a focusing knob and aperture selector with 2.8cm 3.5 printed on it, suggesting this particular enclosure is setup for that lens.  But how were other lenses controlled?  Did that black knob come off and get replaced with different ones for different lenses?

There is no viewfinder opening on the enclosure, and from the drawing on the instruction manual, it appears that the only way to compose with this device is with a wire frame finder that attaches to the top.  I guess with the increased depth of field offered by the three lenses this thing supports, exact focusing wasn’t much of an issue.

The following two scans in Japanese seem to show how the enclosure works, but I both don’t understand Japanese, and the resolution on these is too low for Google Translate to understand them, so if anyone knows more about this enclosure or can translate these, please let me know!

The existence of this underwater enclosure perhaps foreshadows Nippon Kogaku’s interest in the Calypso, an underwater camera developed by a small French company that Nippon Kogaku would eventually acquire the rights to and develop as their own model which they called the Nikonos.

Fisheye-Nikkor 30mm f/4 Bronica

One more non camera related item that actually was produced, but in very low numbers is this lens.  The Fisheye-Nikkor 30mm f/4 lens for the Bronica SLR.  Earlier, I showed a 6×7 medium format SLR that Nippon Kogaku had considered building, but their success with 35mm SLRs meant that they had little capacity to concentrate on medium format cameras.

This is likely why Nippon Kogaku supplied lenses for Bronica, another Japanese company making medium format SLRs as lower cost alternatives to the Hasselblad.

This particular lens is very rare, and only a handful were made.  The most likely explanation is cost, as a slightly less wide, non-fisheye 40mm f/4 auto-Nikkor would replace it as the fastest Nikkor lens available.


While not exactly prototypes or mock-ups, cutaways of actual cameras give a glimpse into the inner working that are fascinating to some people, and who am I to deprive you all of some sliced up Nikons?!

Even More Prototypes?

For a company who has had as much success as Nikon, I am sure there are more prototypes, and even within the CD Robert gave me, there were a few single images of cameras like the Nikkor J, and an early mockup of the Nikon D3 that I did not include here as there simply wasn’t much to see or talk about.

Many of the cameras mentioned in this, and the first article, are either on display at Nikon headquarters, or the JCII museum in Japan, so the chances of new images of these cameras showing up someday are high.  If anyone reading this article has more images or more info about any Nikon prototypes and would like to share, please let me know!


  1. The earlier Nikon F4 prototypes are excellent. I wish they’d had gone with that design – boxier and more industrial. A little more classic. Maybe in a parallel universe!
    Great article

    1. I agree, the industry shift to curved ‘jelly bean’ shaped cameras with the F4 never appealed to me. Canon was a big offender of this as many of their cameras even today still look overly “plump”! 🙂

  2. Ayh have read the two scans. To answer your question, yes, the black knob on the watertight case is replaceable according to the lens in use. Ayh can post detailed translations if you request so.

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