Evaluating the best-selling film cameras of all time must start with an assumption. Logically, candidates should be so obvious that their names are etched in our minds, and consequently great salespeople can be expected to be humble and rather boring role models.
Clearly, some of the best-selling film cameras have been those with the longest production runs, so I’ve taken it upon myself to differentiate between distinctly different models that share a common name. For example, a Zorki 4, which is on my list, is a different camera than its similar successor, the Zorki 4k.
Also, determining the best-selling cameras is not a question of volume sequencing. It must be recognized that, say, the 1930s was a very different place than the 1980s. In the previous period there was less disposable income, less free time, more trade barriers and a smaller population. The sale of 1 million cameras in 1930 would have been a much more significant achievement than the sale of 1 million cameras in 1980. I have not tried to get into any complicated math, but I used this fact to differentiate between close rivals on a simple basis of volume.
Here are my takeaways, in reverse order, and starting with the 10th best-selling camera.
10. Canon Canonet (first version)
Introduced in January 1961 and produced until mid-1963, the Canonet was the first in a series of middle-class rangefinder cameras produced by a company normally associated with high-end products.
It is well documented that at the end of a two and a half year production cycle, one million Canonets were sold.
The success of this camera is due to the fact that it offers simple, high-quality photographs while offering creative user control, when needed.
9. The Canon AE-1
The Canon AE-1, a 35mm SLR, was introduced in 1976 and was manufactured until 1984. In a relatively short production run of eight years, it is estimated to have sold over 1 million units.
The AE-1 was the first microprocessor-equipped SLR and it was so successful because it marked a revolution, rather than an evolution, in camera design. Like Canonet, it made SLR cameras accessible to those who demanded quality performance without the need for technical knowledge.
8. A box brownie from Kodak
The first and original Kodak Box Brownie camera was introduced in 1900, and there seems to be general agreement that Brownie cameras were made for about 70 years.
There were roughly 125 different variations of the Brownie, and these were clearly all distinctly different cameras. For example, the different film formats used by members of the Brownie family included sizes 110, 117, 120, 116, 122, 124, 125, 130, 127, and 620.
The declared number of Brownies sold ranges from 100,000 to 250,000 in a year. In the absence of simple math, I have taken the average of these two extremes, multiplied by 70 (years) and divided by 125 (camera models). The upshot is that the average model probably sold just under 1 million units. I have no doubt that some models sold much better than others, but sadly there is no method to quantify this. However, given the time period in which the Brownie gained popularity, I have no hesitation in placing it above the Canon AE-1.
The success of the Brownie was due in large part to extreme simplicity, low cost ($ 1 at startup in the US), and mass market appeal.
7. A Kodak Instamatic
The Kodak Instamatic was an inexpensive point-and-shoot unit, using a 126 film cartridge, and cameras with this name were produced between 1963 and 1970. Although 1970 did not mark the end of the Instamatic, I have used this date as a point. cutoff to qualify the available sales data. Briefly, the name lasted beyond 1970, but the design of the camera began to change significantly.
Although estimates of the number of units sold vary, I go with Kodak’s own assessment that in 1970 there had been about 50 million Instamatic cameras produced.
During the period up to 1970, there were, by my calculations, about 47 different Instamatic models (and I have excluded those made specifically for export to individual countries). So simple math suggests that each model could have accounted for a little over 1 million sales, although some were undoubtedly more popular than others.
Unlike the Brownie, a measure of Kodak Instamatic’s success was that the name “Instamatic” became a generic term. In addition, the Kodak achieved its sales in the face of increased competition, as many other manufacturers successfully sold Instamatic-type cameras (e.g. Agfa, Ilford, etc.), and on that basis, I have ranked the Kodak Instamatic in the number 5 on my list.
Like the Brownie, the key to the success of the Instamatic in all its variants was inexpensive simplicity and mass appeal.
6. The Zorki 4
The Zorki 4 was a simple mechanical rangefinder camera, and possibly the most popular of all Zorki cameras, as it was the first model to be exported to the West in large quantities.
Produced between 1956 and 1973, the number of cameras manufactured is claimed to be 1,715,677 very accurate.
The appeal of the Zorki 4 appears to have been its affordability coupled with its passing resemblance to a Leica.
5. The Argus C3
The Argus C3 was a low-priced rangefinder camera, produced from 1939 to 1966 – a span of twenty-seven years.
The base model C3 underwent minor revisions throughout its life. The number of shutter speeds was reduced from ten to seven to five. An accessory shoe was added. The exposure reminder dial on the back of the camera has been removed. There was a variant that featured color-coded exposure controls (the Colormatic). A second generation C3 had an improved lens and more comfortable controls. There were three variants on the base C3 (Matchmatic, Golden Shield, and C33), but these were introduced towards the end of production so they can be effectively ignored.
It is estimated that around 2 million units of the Argus C3 (and its variants) have been sold.
The success of the Argus C3 was that it brought quality optics and solid mechanics to the masses, where these features were previously only available to the wealthy elite.
4. The Pentax K1000
The Pentax K1000, a fully mechanical SLR, was introduced in 1976 and was largely assembled by hand in Japan. In 1978, production moved to Hong Kong and then to China in 1990. Chinese chambers implemented minor changes to reduce production costs. The meter components were changed, the metal in the wind shaft degraded from the steel, and the plastic was replaced by the original aluminum top and bottom plates and film rewind assembly. The “Asahi” name and “AOCo” logo were also removed from the pentaprism cover. However, the first and the last K1000 were the same camera. Production ceased in 1997, giving the K1000 a twenty-one-year run.
The Pentax K1000 is claimed to have sold more than three million units.
Like all good cameras, the success of the K1000 is due to its simplicity. It has found its fortune among photography students, since its operation depends on a knowledge of the general principles of photography.
3. The Zenit E
The Zenit E was a very simple, mass-produced 35mm SLR camera produced between 1965 and 1982. The 17-year production racked up 3,334,540 precisely documented units. The camera was also sold as Prinzflex 500E by UK camera store Dixons.
Once again, simplicity and affordability created a winner.
2. The journey to Olympus 35
The Olympus Trip 35, a simple but effective point-and-shoot, was introduced in 1967 and discontinued in 1984 after a 17-year production. Although the trip was subject to very minor changes during its lifetime (for example, the 1978 change of the shutter button from silver metal to black plastic), it essentially ended the way it had begun.
The manufacturers claim that more than ten million units were sold (and that is enough evidence for me).
The trip was so successful because it was easy to use, yet capable of producing excellent results. It was compact and portable, and it took time to take on excursions. It was just a very good camera.
1. A disposable Kodak camera
Disposable cameras in various forms have been around almost throughout the history of photography. Fujifilm was the first manufacturer to introduce the modern disposable camera (to the Japanese market) in 1986. The camera was marketed overseas the following year and production lenses are rumored to be between three and four million (per year). Kodak was soon on Fujifilm’s heels with its own disposable cameras.
In 1989 a veritable “disposable camera craze” was said to be taking place. Disposable cameras sold in the United States increased from 3 million in 1988, to 9 million in 1990, to 21.5 million in 1992 (quote from Della Keyser).
It’s unclear who made and sold what (so I assumed Kodak had dominated), but there has been nothing that can compete with these sales levels for an extended period. More than that, today the disposable camera is still popular.
It is a somewhat disappointing conclusion, for anyone who collects or appreciates the finest cameras, to find that the most successful version is little more than a movie in a box, but it is obviously what attracts Joe Public. Simplicity and affordability have always been the cornerstones of a successful camera design.