Topcon RE Super
The Best Kept Secret of Classic Cameras
[Article from Click Magazine, 2000]
Through-the-lens metering has long been taken for granted on SLR cameras, yet the pioneer is virtually unknown in the UK, even by classic camera collectors and dealers. The very first production camera with a TTL meter, the Topcon RE Super, was exhibited at Photokina in 1962 and was in production until 1977.
Topcon's design placed the meter on the back of the mirror. A grid pattern etched in the reflective surface allowed 5% of light to pass through to the CDS cell behind. International patents prevented other camera makers from using this 'bottom solution', which had the advantage of working undisturbed with interchangeable viewfinders and screens.
The Alpa 9D followed with TTL metering soon after, as did the better-known Pentax Spotmatic. These cameras, however, unlike the RE Super, provided only 'stop down' metering where the lens had to be stopped down to the taking aperture for the reading. All used a centre-needle system, coupled to the shutter dial.
Other manufacturers eventually adopted full-aperture metering, which required the aperture ring to be coupled as well, and the camera body and meter to be pre-indexed with the maximum aperture of the lens in use. It took Nikon another 14 years to introduce its AI system which did this automatically, but the Topcon, amazingly ahead of its time, had the equivalent feature from the outset.
There was more to the RE Super than innovative design. Built mostly from machined metal parts, installed with screws in threaded holes, and film-wind, shutter-cocking and mirror-control gears and levers made of steel to withstand continuous operation with a motor drive, its ruggedness and reliability were at least the equal of other makes. The US Navy adopted the Besler Topcon Super D (as the RE Super was badged for the American market) as their official camera, for general use on-shore, on-ship and by navy pilots for photo-reconnaissance, often of Russian aircraft in flight. A custom "Navy" Super D model had, inter alia, a focusing click-stop on infinity on the telephoto lens. With its unmatched range of accessories for laboratory and other special applications, Topcon was also chosen by the American police and other government departments.
Another area of reliability was the metering system, usually a weak point, which had a simple non-adjustable electrical circuit with a rugged mechanical system of tiny chains and pulleys to respond to aperture, shutter speed and film speed settings. The needle match was achieved by rotating the body of the galvanometer itself, with a gradual shift between a sensitive portion of the CDS cell at low light level to a different portion for bright light - all done without any switching.
In 1972, an upgraded model, the Super DM, incorporated mirror and shutter release locks, but the basic design held good to the end.
Against their better judgement, Topcon retained the outdated Exacta bayonet mount on the RE Super which they had used on their original SLR, the model R. The small throat diameter was a serious limitation, but somehow the optical designers were able to work around it and offer an f1.4 standard lens and a full range of others from 20mm to 500mm, and even had prototypes of a 7mm Fisheye, a 1000mm telephoto and a 35mm f/1.8, with no vignetting. The ribbed, rubber focusing bands were a distinctive feature. Their most notable lens, unique for its time, was a 300mm f/2.8, which was bought by many professional Nikon-owners as well and used with an adaptor. Another was the 50mm f1.4 GN, which (this was before the days of thyristor flash guns) could be set with a flash guide number and would adjust aperture for the subject distance as it was focused. The unusual front-mounted shutter release was a legacy from Exacta and the model R.
The Topcon Optical Company still manufactures medical and scientific instruments, but stopped making cameras in the late 1970's, sales being poor owing to poor marketing and intense competition, principally from Nikon. Strangely, the only countries in which the RE Super had sold in any quantity were Finland, Italy and the USA, and hardly at all in its native Japan.
Topcon and Tails
To me, as a young schoolboy, expensive cameras were like film stars, unobtainable objects only to be worshipped through plate-glass and studied reverentially in brochures and test reports. The fast lenses with their huge front elements were potent symbols and coveted like the Crown Jewels. The futuristic Topcon had a special allure, but in 1963, the £160 price was beyond the pocket money even of Richie Rich. And it was never to be seen in a British show window.
At the time of life when other men buy restored E-Types and Meccano No.10 sets, I looked wistfully but fruitlessly through many old-camera shops and dealers' lists. Then dawned the day of the Internet. A search on "Topcon" found in seconds what a lifetime of looking never would. Of two Topcon camera websites, one was exclusively for the RE Super! The author, an enthusiast in Arizona, had himself used no other cameras for 35 years. He was to sell me a surplus Super D from his large private collection, complete with that glorious 58mm F1.4 lens.
When I opened the package last Christmas day, and finally beheld the Topcon 'in the metal', my life felt fulfilled. Still in perfect working order, and with its still-modern styling it was hard to believe that the camera was 37 years old. A passing resemblance to the Practica led me to think it would be as tinny, but in contrast it felt as solid and precise as a Contarex.
More surprising was the usability of the pioneering TTL meter. With other cameras, getting the needle to settle in the centre is like wrestling with a swan, yet on the Topcon the action is positive and immediate, and readings from reflected sunlight through to low twilight, at the very limit of the meter's range, were remarkably consistent.
Lens performance, inevitably, is modest at full aperture but from f2.8 downwards the resolution and contrast compare to the best modern optics. The Topcon RE Super was worth the wait.