The Topcon RE Super was a real contender for the professional market in the early 1960s. This beast of a camera has a sense of quality and features that stand above the majority of other contenders of that period. And while the camera body is something to admire, the lenses within this system are at another level still.
Tokyo Kogaku built this camera to try and break the dominance held by Nikon in the Single Lens Reflex (SLR) market. While there was a Topcon SLR released before the Nikon F, the RE Super was its key weapon to break this dominance which Nikon took from 1959 for decades. This is very evident by the build, with precision machined parts, solid materials and an innovation which was a first for a SLR.
The Topcon RE Super was the first SLR with Through-The-Lens (TTL) metering. This was achieved with patterned cuts in the mirror allowing light through to the meter. That innovation and the build quality was how they even beat Nikon to a U.S. military contract.
The quality itself is not surprising considering the Topcor lenses were and are well known for the optical quality made for the Leica Screw Mount. Needless to say, this is what professionals really are after, quality glass, and this system has it in spades. The Topcor lenses are sought after to this day. In fact, I have even used the Topcor 58mm f/3.5 RE Macro Auto lens for the photographs of the camera itself in this review (apart the one of the lens itself).
There is a real sense of calm when I have a camera which functions smoothly. The film advance motion on the RE Super feels like butter. Sometimes, like on a Leica M3, I find myself winding on without film just to feel it. It also creates a sense of eagerness to use it too, knowing the quality of the results I will get.
While it is a big camera, it is very comfortable and has a feeling that you get with jewellery (albeit very big jewellery!). Not the same expensive type as, say a Leica, but something that just feels right.RELATED: You may also be interested in related SLR reviews of the Nikon F, Nikon F2, Nikon F3, and Nikon FM2n. Ok, I have needed to branch out from Nikon SLRs for a while now.
I was really excited to receive this camera. While it is not as well known as the big hitters of the time like Nikon and Leica, it was a camera that gave them a run for their money. Being someone that appreciates photography history, I really enjoy cameras that broke new ground.
Tōkyō Kōgaku Kikai K.K. (東京光学機械㈱was formed in 1932 by the merger of two other companies in Japan. The name translates to Tokyo Optical Company Limited but was eventually called Topcon. It was merged from Seikōsha, from its measurement instruments branch, and Katsuma Kōgaku Kikai Seisakush. Hattori Tokei-ten owned the company until 1947.
It initially started as an optical company, similar to Nikon’s start. Interestingly the two companies have quite a few parallels. Tōkyō Kōgaku was a supplier to the Imperial Japanese Army, while Nikon was the supplier to the Navy.
The first lens from Tōkyō Kōgaku was a triplet in 1933 called the Slate. From there it made a number of different lenses, many times for other camera brands. It also made specialty purpose lenses for the Japanese military until 1945.
It was about then the first LTM lenses were made, most well known for the Leotax camera, a Japanese Leica clone.
The first camera that Topcon produced was in 1937, call the Lord. They followed this up in 1938 with the Minion, a 4x5cm folding camera using 127 film. They did not tackle the 35mm market until in 1948, with the Minion 35. It is with the camera that followed the Minion 35 that the name Topcon was first used in 1953, the Topcon 35. The Topcor name followed the following year on lenses.
In 1957 Tōkyō Kōgaku created their first SLR, which was two years before Nikon’s famous release of the Nikon F. Like Nikon, it soon focused primarily on the 35mm SLR market.
The Topcon RE Super was introduced in 1963. It brought with it an innovation which up to this point had eluded other manufacturers. Through-The-Lens (TTL) metering was not possible beforehand. Nikon would only have metering with what many considered an overbearing attachment on top. This brought the metering into the camera by allowing light to pass through the mirror to the light meter.
Aimed at professionals they made the RE Super a systems camera just like the Nikon F series. The viewfinder prism can be replaced, it takes a motor drive and there are options on focusing screens. The workmanship was applauded, not just because of the materials used, but also the design.
Topcon utilised the Exakta mount turned upside down. This was also where it was somewhat limited. While this was great in the workmanship it allowed, it did limit the size of it. It is too narrow for extra wide lenses. This in no way impacted the quality of the lenses though, and they did release a 20mm lens, which is wide enough for most people. The Topcor lenses are considered some of the best lenses produced for any camera in that period.
To testify to the quality, Tōkyō Kōgaku applied to provide the Topcon RE Super to the United State military and won the contract for official combat cameras. This camera was built to withstand a lot of punishment while maintaining functionality.
Tōkyō Kōgaku also provided the camera to the reseller Beseler who sold it as the Beseler Super D in the United States. In Australia and New Zealand it was sold with the Hanimex branding. The Topcon RE Super was manufactured until 1971.
Tōkyō Kōgaku continued manufacturing SLRs until 1980 but never scaled the heights of the Topcon RE Super again. After 1980 they continued manufacturing other cameras like the Horseman for Komamura. In 1989 they officially took the name K.K. Topcon, which is still in operation today but not related to photography.
Cosina manufactured some Topcor branded 50mm f/1.4 lenses in the early 2000s in Nikon F and M42 mounts as tribute to the quality of this lens. It was also the basis for the Nokton design lens.
The Topcon RE Super is a professional 35mm SLR camera manufactured between 1963 to 1971. It is a systems camera, meaning you can change the pentaprism viewfinder, focusing screen, lenses and attach a motor drive. It is a large camera at 821g body only.
Lenses are mounted via an Exakta mount which is upside down compared to the Exakta cameras. The lenses between the systems can be mounted, but only the Topcon RE lenses will provide any of the metering functions.
The shape of the camera is very austere with minimal curves, but it is obvious there has been a lot put into the design. On the front of the camera, apart from the mount, is the shutter release button, self-timer and the depth of preview lever.
The shutter release button being on the front works well to allow the index finger to depress it, while allowing the fore finger to operate the shutter speed dial on the top. The depth of preview lever is machined metal with ridges to allow easy use.
While at the front, with the lens off, the mirror attracts attention. It has a criss-crossed pattern across it. These are slits in the mirror allowing 7% of the light to pass through to a CdS meter. The Topcon RE Super was the first camera released with in-camera TTL metering. It beat Pentax to it by one year. All other SLRs relied on metering prisms to be attached to the top of the camera, if metering was even an option.
The metering is average weighted across the whole scene. While the meter is coupled, the camera operation is fully mechanical, so can be operated even if the meter is non-functional or has a flat battery.
The top of the camera is all business. On the right side is the film advance lever, engineered to enable a smooth action. Next to it is the shutter speed selector, which also allows selection of the film speed. Both of these are well machined and have a high quality feel to them. Film speed selection ranges from ISO 25 – 1600. Shutter speeds range from 1 to 1/1000 second and Bulb.
The frame number is just in front of the film advance lever. Next to the shutter speed knob is a little metallic knob for steading the camera with your fore finger while depressing the shutter release button with your index finger.On the other side is the film rewind, which pops up for easier rewinding. Next to it is a little window which displays the external exposure meter match needle, which replicates the in-viewfinder meter match needle.
The eye level pentaprism viewfinder can be removed. The focusing screen can also be changed, with the standard one being a ground glass with a fresnel lens giving a bright view. It also has a spilt image rangefinder spot.
The exposure meter is represented by what is called a T-indicator. A fixed V shape is at the bottom of the viewfinder representing half stops at either end from the centre. The idea is to adjust until the centre column of the T is right in the middle of the V shape.
At the bottom of the camera it is actually quite busy. There is an on/off switch for the meter, a battery compartment for the now banned 1.35v mercury PX-13 batteries, the rewind release button, the motor drive connector and the tripod mount screw ring. One of the probably unnecessary but beautiful items is the back opening button. It is machined with grooves and with a twist pops the back open, rather than a regular button.
Once open, film can be loaded through the back. The shutter curtains are also visible. The shutter itself is focal plane shutter which is internally coupled to the exposure meter.
Flash is catered for by a flash socket on the left side of the camera.
The Topcor RE Auto range of lenses, that were natively available on the RE mount, were from a 20mm f/4 through to a 500mm f/5.6. A zoom with 87-205mm and 3 macro specific (without focusing rings) were made. While it is a respectable range of about 18 lenses, it is dwarfed by the range of Nikkors available for the Nikon system. Part of that is driven by the Exakta type mount which limits the diameter of the rear element, which in turn limited the wide angle lens option to 20mm.
The Topcor lenses were very much respected, especially a few which are considered gems. For the purposes of this article I will write about only the ones that I have in my set.
Topcor 58mm 1:1.4 RE Auto
The Topcor 58mm f/1.4 RE Auto lens was provided with the RE Super as one of the standard kit options. And what a lens this is. Big front element with a single layer of coating, smooth rubberised focusing ring and with a beefy metal lens hood.
Constructed with 7 elements in 5 groups as a modified planer design, it is considered the first Nokton lens by many. It has a beautiful bokeh at up to f/2 from its 6 blades. Sharpness though is where is it really shines with hardly any fall off from f/4 onwards.
Closest focus distance is 45cm. Contrast is slightly muted compared to modern lenses, though the image can still pop off the negative. Colours are on warm side and lines are very straight, as expected on a standard focal length lens.
Topcor 3.5cm 1:2.8 RE Auto
Going a bit wider, the Topcor 3.5cm f/2.8 RE Auto is an excellent wide angle lens. Known to be extremely sharp (and it is). Constructed with 7 elements in 5 groups and with 6 blades. Closest focus distance is 23cm.
While the 58mm gets a lot of attention, this lens offers a lot, especially when a bit more space is required. Horizons are kept nice and straight by this lens, with the verticals veering inwards a bit as expected on a wide angle when not exactly straight in the plane of focus.
Sharpness from f/4 onwards is razor sharp across the whole frame. Very little vignetting across the whole aperture range to be found too. With the consistent single layer coating across the lens range, it also tends to be on the warm side. This does make contrast a little muted as well.
Topcor 10cm 1:2.8 RE Auto
On the telephoto side, the Topcor 10cm f/2.8 RE Auto is like a cult lens, especially for users adapting it to digital. As a portrait lens it is considered the perfect mix of sharpness and out of focus areas, with the right amount of “pop”.
It is constructed with 5 elements in 3 groups, with a single layer of coating. Six blades make up the diaphragm. A lens hood should be used (if you have one), as contrast can be a little lower, though this does lend itself to portraits. Flair can be an issue without the lens hood.
Topcor 13.5cm 1:3.5 RE Auto
The Topcor 13.5cm f/3.5 RE Auto is a longer telephoto lens. Constructed with 4 elements in 3 groups, it has 6 blades. Closest focusing distance is 1.5m. Built-in is a really long retractable lens hood which is neatly out of the way when not in use.
Topcor 58mm 1:3.5 RE Macro Auto
When you need to get to the details, the Topcor 58mm f/3.5 RE Macro Auto lens is a great choice. It has a 1:2 maximum magnification ratio, achieved at the closest focusing distance, but can easily be made to 1:1 with an extension tube. Minimum focusing distance is 25.4cm but the closest working distance is 13cm. The optical formular for this lens is similar to a Xenotar which is designed to give almost no distortion and with no focus or light fall off.
Constructed with 5 elements in 4 groups and 6 blades. Performance at infinity rivals many standard lenses. It does not have a lens hood as it is not required, due to the fact the front element is very recessed.
This is an exceptional macro lens which has been used to take all photos of the Topcon RE Super and lenses (with exception of itself, where the standard lens was used) in this article. A Panasonic GX7 with an Exakta adapter was used for these.
I bought the Topcon RE Super and the full set of lenses above (minus the 135mm which I got later) through a posting from a friend online, who put me in contact with the seller, a camera store in the U.S. Having come from someone known in the online group and I could trust the evaluation, I was really keen to have it shipped to my home. In fact, when they told me the price, it was such a great buy I could not get them to take my money fast enough.
This meant that I pretty much bought into the Topcon system in almost one go. I eagerly waited for it to arrive as I had heard a lot about some of these lenses. When it got here, I opened it up and was really surprised on how big it is. I knew it was big, but this is one decently sized camera. Also surprised as they had included the macro, which I was kicking myself for having not ordered and some accessories like a teleconverter and extension rings. All for free!
When I held it though, it is really surprising on how comfortable it is. Like most people that first see this camera, I thought it would be really boxy and hard to get my hands around. Not at all, and therein lies the genius design. As I use the camera, I feel more and more comfortable with the index finger on the shutter release and freeing up the fore finger to adjust the shutter speed.
The view finder is beautiful to look through. Bright and clear, which is obviously helped by the f/1.4 lens on the camera. The meter’s T-indicator is a little strange initially, though it works very well. The hardest bit was to remember which direction to adjust the shutter speed to the metering.
The instruction manual does recommend that you adjust via the aperture, as the aperture ring turns the same way as the meter indicator. Unfortunately I work the other way where I like to set the aperture and adjust shutter speed to adjust the exposure.
The lenses also struck me as well made. Holding the 58mm f/1.4 I was in love. All that glass at the front, it alone got me. Guess I like shiny new toys!
I inserted a battery, a replacement for the mercury battery, but at 1.5v rather than the 1.35v it was designed for. Trying it out a few times against a hand held meter, I felt it was quite close. So soon afterwards, I just started to rely on it and stopped taking the hand held with me. Only complaint on the meter is that it is very easy to forget to turn it off. Killed the first battery by forgetting.
Using the camera in field was a pleasure. It just works, and what is better, it gets out of the way of you working. I loaded my bag with some Ilford FP4 Plus rolls and over a period of a few weeks shot this mainly during lunch breaks and weekends. The resulting negatives returned from the lab really looked good, and when scanned confirmed that.
As expected, the contrast was a little muted. This is as older lenses with single coating tend to be lower contrast than modern lenses. That is also what makes them so attractive though. I have bumped up the black a little in the photos in this article, as I believe the end image is what is important.
What really got me in the resultant images was the sharpness and the rendering. Especially when I started with some colour, Kodak Pro Image 100. While sharpness with all of the lenses (except the 135mm which I didn’t get a chance to use beforehand so cannot confirm) was spectacular, the clarity and micro-contrast is what is really impressive.
They sort of remind me of digital photos, but with the film look. I know this statement contradicts itself, so let me explain. The photos are very clean, just like you would expect from a DSLR rather than film. But at the same time they have this timeless rendering with the transition between focus and out of focus that can only be captured on film. The thing that gives it away is the grain.
When the lockdowns occurred it unfortunately impacted the ability to use a camera in the way that I had planned. So, it went onto the shelf for a little while until recently. But even now it has affected one of the photo genres I want to shoot this this camera, more specifically with specific the lenses.
I wanted to use the 58mm, 135mm and more specifically, the wonderful 100mm on street portraits. I long exhausted the patience at home, so the idea was to use this as a way to engage with people on the street. With the recent developments across the world, it is not the greatest idea to approach people and of course, like many, I now work from home.
Nevertheless, not to be stopped, I have still had a few opportunities to go out and shoot in Sydney for a little while now. First time out I went to the wonderfully named Woolloomooloo area of Sydney. My first shots there were with Kodak Pro Image 100 film. I have used this film quite a bit, it is high quality and can be stored in normal room temperature.
The results from that shoot and subsequent one to finish the film, were again very good. For such an early meter design I am constantly impressed with the how it gets the exposure so close to my expectations. Especially with a battery not designed for it.
The colours from the Topcor lenses were nice and well rendered. Though I did find they were lower in saturation from what I am used to from this film. They tend have a warm tint to them. Again, very sharp and very nice to look at.
From there I used a variety of films, including Fujifilm Neopan 400 and JCH Street Pan 400. Neopan 400 I used as it was my favourite black and white film in its day and I have a finite stock of it left. I felt this camera deserved a roll. The Street Pan I used especially with the thought that it is a quite a contrasty film which I wanted to see the effect using these lenses. It did not disappoint, the added natural contrast was a great fit.
For a few months I used it out and about including at an old cemetery and some older and cosmopolitan parts of Sydney. I really love using this camera (just in case you haven’t worked this out yet). It just works and I look forward to the results every time.
Part of the experience of using this camera is using the lenses. Each of them focuses really smooth and precise. The focus throw is just the right amount and the aperture ring clicks well into position making it easy to determine aperture setting changes.
There are a couple of things I would love to see different on this camera. Firstly, I’d like to see the aperture selection and the shutter speed selection in the viewfinder. Obviously this was not necessarily in all cameras back in the 60’s but it was there. As a top level made camera it is something I feel could have been included. It is where the Nikon does have an edge.
The other thing that went wrong may be more of a user error, but it did happen to me. One of the JCH Street Pan 400 films I loaded into the camera did not grab properly. I got to the 40thframe and then I was still able to shoot. Not only that, it was still winding on and the rewind crank was spinning when I advanced, so I knew it was winding on film. Feeling nervous I rewound the film out and assumed maybe the camera had a fault and was overlapping frames.
As it turned out, it seems the film leader did not catch properly when I loaded it. Somewhere along the way, it did catch, but meant I only really started capturing images halfway through. Head slapping moment, I can laugh about it now, and say I would have captured my best photographs ever on the missing frames. Well, no one can prove otherwise!
As you have guessed, I really do enjoy using the Topcon RE Super and more so enjoy the results from the Topcor RE Auto lenses. While initially I thought the camera was overly big and squarish, I found that the design was well thought out and it was very good to use. Apart from a slight glitch with film loading, which was probably my error, it worked flawlessly. Even with a modern battery the exposure readings have been very good.
If I was asked to recommend if someone should get this camera, I would have to say that it depends. For compact camera users, quite obviously it would not be a good fit. For people new to film photography or are in need of a really wide selection of lenses, then something like the Nikon or Pentax range might be better. If you are SLR person, enjoy quality construction and don’t find the lens selection limiting, then yes.
If you do take the plunge on this camera, I can guarantee you will be impressed.
Mike Eckman wrote a great review of the Topcon RE Super and came to some very similar conclusions. You can read it at Topcon RE Super (1963).
At Casual Photophile, Josh Solomon wrote a good short review in Topcon RE Super 35mm Film SLR Camera Review – The Greatest Loser.