Lens Rotation: A History

Early birds vs night owls, dog people vs cat people, Mars or Venus, ; there are two types of people in the world, those who divide groups into dichotomies, and those who don’t. In photography, the greatest division isn’t film vs. digital; colour vs. black and white; or full-frame vs. crop…or medium format. It’s likely not even something you think about when you’re planning, processing, or printing your photos.

Bear with me, and let’s try an experiment…pick-up your camera, and focus to infinity–or if you’ve only ever used auto-focus, attach a zoom lens and zoom to the farthest focal length.

The most controversial question is: does your lens focus backwards. And the answer to that depends on your cameras ancestry.

Wetzlar, Germany

In the early 20th century, Germany was the center of the optics world. The Carl Zeiss company had recently introduced the anastigmatic lens design, and by the 1930s, even Kodak had begun producing some of its cameras in Stuttgart with models being paired with glass from Jos Schneider Optische Werke. This is the backdrop which would eventually lead to two companies, exporting their designs and by extension, inverse focusing rotations.

Like so much of photography—including the eventual definition of “full frame” as 35mm–we begin in Wetzlar, Germany. Oskar Barnack had created the prototype Ur-Leica in 1913; and by the 1930s Ernst Leitz Optische Werke had standardized on the 39mm, or Leica, Thread Mount. Leica was world-renowned, and one of these Leicas made its way to Japan, where Goro Yoshida decided to do what any engineer would do with a precision mechanical tool: he took it apart.

I just disassembled the camera without any specific plan, but simply to take a look at each part. I found there were no special items like diamonds inside the camera. The parts were made from brass, aluminum, iron and rubber. I was surprised that when these inexpensive materials were put together into a camera, it demanded an exorbitant price. This made me angry.

Seemingly out of spite, he set to work creating and commercializing a Japanese-made copy, named after the Buddhist god of mercy. In February of 1936, Seiki-Kogaku released its first production model, which Yoshida’s brother-in-law Saburo Uchida had now Anglicized as Canon. Subsequent models would continue to mimic the Leica design, sharing the same 39mm screw-mount lenses as Leica, and naturally leading to similar lens ergonomics. Following World War II, Minolta followed-suit, releasing the Minolta-35 another Leica clone using the 39mm screw mount. Of course, by now, Leica was nearing the release of their M3 and the legendary M-mount they still use today; and the future would see Minolta and Leica jointly develop cameras like the Minolta CLE (or the Leica CL).


But heading back to 1930s Germany, and moving East to Dresden, we come to epicenter of the optical world. It’s here that Victor Hasselblad, at the age of 18, went to study the industry. Some of these companies are now lost to history, while others–such as Balda–copied by Japan’s Proud which would directly lead to the first Olympus camera–live with their influence on other companies. None of the Dresden companies may be quite as well known, and their influence felt, as Zeiss Ikon with its Contax rangefinder.

Zeiss Ikon, sharing a name with the optical works which infused it with funds, had been formed by the merger of four previously independent camera manufacturers. Its Contax camera was designed as a direct competitor to the successful Leica, and among other famous photos, captured the ally invasion from the beaches of Normandy. As with the early Leicas, Zeiss Ikon’s cameras were copied both domestically and abroad. Asahi’s Asahiflex was based on East German cameras, either the Reflex Corelle, Praktiflex, or some other Zeiss Ikon-inspired camera. Attempting to correct defeciencies with the viewfinder, they released the Pentaprism Asahiflex–or Pentax–camera based on the Contax D and its M42 screw mount.

Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushikigaisha would lean heavily on the designs of the Zeiss Ikon Contax when producing their first camera in 1948, replacing only the shutter mechanism with the less-complex mechanism from the Leica. Unfortunately, an unexplainable change in the design of the mount meant that lenses from one system longer than 50mm wouldn’t focus correctly on the other. Just as with Pentax, Nippon Kogaku would later take the name of its camera line, the Nikons, and by 1959 release its bayonet F-mount which would continue to be used in its single-lens-reflex cameras to the present day.

Coming closer to modern day, we come to one of the latest entrant to camera manufacturing–but by no means a new comer to the industry. In the 1970s, Fuji chose the M42 mount being used by Pentax and Yashica, although as technology was advancing and camera meetering systems wanted to be able to understand the current aperture of the lens, Fuji found itself needing to modernize quickly. By the end of the decade they’d moved to a new bayonet system, the “X” mount–unrelated to their eventual digital APS-C system. Fuji’s 35mm camera business would only last another 10 years before they shut it down. They began working with Nikon, jointly developing digital cameras such as the Nikon E2/Fujix DS-505 in 1995. In January 2000, they released the APS-C FinePix S1 Pro–again, unrelated to the later FinePix S1 digital camera from 2014–based on Nikon F60.

Two Worlds

There we go, how each of today’s major players can map themselves back to one of two brands in the 1930s, and how focus rotation has remained consistent the entire way. The first world of systems, descended from the initial Leica, included Canon and Sony–via their acquisition of Minolta’s camera line; but also includes other Western manufacturers such as Hasselblad and Arri. The second world, following the Zeiss Ikon and Contax cameras, includes Nikon, Pentax, and Fuji. Other than Fuji’s late entries, the broad commercialization of zoom lenses succeeded the influence on the copying company; but in almost all cases the lens zooms to higher focal lengths by rotating the same direction as they focus to infinity.

The prominent exception is the Minolta/Sony system. This generated so much confusion that even Sony would get confused at times, needing to add warnings included with certain lenses that the zoom-direction was reversed. The history also ignores Leica’s L-mount lenses, which follow the Panasonic pattern of zooming and the strange case of Sigma, which despite copying the M42 and K-mounts from Pentax, decided to follow Canon’s pattern for focus and zooming with its own SA-mount.

Now, this may not be important to you, or even something that you think about. It generally only becomes an issue if you are looking to switch systems or pick-up someone else’s camera, where years of muscle memory work against you. The good news is that most modern systems–those that focus by wire–will let you flip the focusing rotation; and most of the time, you’re probably going to be relying on autofocus anyway. Unfortunately, zoom lenses still tend to be mechanical meaning there’s no way of configuring them if they zoom “the wrong way” from what you’re used to.