Evaluation of the best selling film cameras of all time has to start with a guess. Logically, the candidates should be so obvious that their names are etched in our minds, and accordingly the big sellers can be expected to be humble and quite unexciting models.
Clearly, some of the best selling film cameras have been those with the longest production runs, so I have taken care to differentiate between distinctly different models that shared a common name. For example, a Zorki 4, which is in my list, is a different camera to its similar successor, the Zorki 4k.
In addition, determination of the best selling cameras is not necessary a matter of sequencing volumes. It should be recognised that the world of say the 1930s was a very different place to the 1980s. In the earlier period there was less disposable income, less leisure time, more trade barriers, and a smaller population. The sale of 1 million cameras in 1930 would have been a far more significant accomplishment that the sale of 1 million cameras in 1980. I haven’t attempted to get into any complicated maths, but used this fact to differentiate between close rivals on a simple volume basis.
Here are my conclusions, in reverse order, and starting with the tenth biggest selling camera.
10. The Canon Canonet (first version)
Introduced in January 1961 and produced until about mid 1963, the Canonet was the first of a series of mid-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 run, a million Canonets had been sold.
The success of this camera was down to the fact it offered simple, high quality photography while offering creative user control – where required.
9. The Canon AE-1
The Canon AE-1, a 35mm SLR, was introduced in 1976, and produced until 1984. Over 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 met with such success because it marked a revolution, rather than an evolution, in camera design. Like the Canonet, it made SLR cameras accessible to those who demanded quality performance without the need for technical knowledge.
8. A Kodak Box Brownie
The first and original Kodak Box Brownie camera was introduced in 1900, and there appears to be general agreement that Brownie cameras were produced for about 70 years.
There were approximately 125 different variations of the Brownie, and these were clearly all distinctly different cameras. For example, the different film formats alone used by members of the Brownie family included 110, 117, 120, 116, 122, 124, 125, 130, 127 and 620 sizes.
The claimed number of Brownies sold varies from 100,000 to 250,000 in a year. For want of easy maths, I’ve taken the average of these two extremes, multiplied by 70 (years) and divided by 125 (camera models). The result is the average model probably sold just a bit less than 1 million units. I have no doubt that some models sold much better than others, but sadly there isn’t a method of quantifying this. However, given the time period in which the Brownie gained its popularity, I have no hesitation is placing it above the Canon AE-1.
The success of the Brownie was largely down to extreme simplicity, low cost (1$ at inception in the USA), and mass-market appeal.
7. A Kodak Instamatic
The Kodak Instamatic was an inexpensive point-and-shoot, which used a 126 film-cartridge, and cameras bearing 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 cut-off point in order to qualify available sales data. Briefly, the name endured beyond 1970, but the design of the camera started to change significantly.
Although estimates of the number of units sold vary, I’m going with Kodak’s own assessment that some 50 million Instamatic cameras had been produced by 1970.
During the period up to 1970, there were – by my reckoning – some 47 different Instamatic models (and I’ve excluded those made specifically for export to single countries). Simple maths therefore suggests that each model could have accounted for just over 1 million sales, although some were undoubtedly more popular than others?
Unlike the Brownie, a measure of the Kodak Instamatic’s success was that the name “Instamatic” became a generic term. Additionally, the Kodak achieved its sales against greater competition, as many other manufactures successfully sold Instamatic type cameras (e.g. Agfa, Ilford, etc), and on that basis, I have ranked the Kodak Instamatic at number 5 in my list.
Just 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, due to it being the first model exported to the West in large numbers.
Produced between 1956 and 1973, the number of cameras made is claimed to be a very precise 1,715,677.
The appeal of the Zorki 4 seems 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 until 1966: a twenty-seven year period.
The basic C3 model underwent minor revisions throughout its life. The number of shutter speeds was lowered from ten to seven to five. An accessory shoe was added. The exposure reminder dial on the back of the camera was removed. There was a variant featuring colour-coded exposure controls (the Colormatic). A second-generation of C3s had an improved lens and more comfortable controls. There where three variants on the basic C3 (the Matchmatic, Golden Shield, and C33), but these were introduced towards the end of the production run, so can effectively be ignored.
About 2 million units of the Argus C3 (and its variants) are been estimated to have been sold.
The success of the Argus C3 was that it brought quality optics and solid mechanics to the masses, where these features had previously only been available to the wealthy elite.
4. The Pentax K1000
The Pentax K1000, a wholly mechanical SLR, was introduced in 1976, and largely hand assembled in Japan. In 1978, production moved to Hong Kong, and then to China in 1990. The Chinese cameras implemented minor changes to reduce production costs. The meter components were changed, the metal in the wind shaft was downgraded from steel, and plastic was substituted for the original aluminium top and bottom plates and film rewind assembly. The “Asahi” name and “AOCo” logo were also removed from the penta-prism cover. The first and last K1000s were nevertheless the same camera. Production ceased in 1997, giving the K1000 a twenty-one year production run.
It is claimed that the Pentax K1000 sold over three million units.
Like all good cameras, the success of the K1000 is down to its simplicity. It has found fortune amongst photography students, since its operation depends on knowledge of the general principles of photography.
3. The Zenit E
The Zenit E was a mass-produced, very simple, 35mm SLR camera, produced between 1965 and 1982. The 17-year production amassed a precisely documented 3,334,540 units. The camera was also sold as the Prinzflex 500E by the UK high street camera shop Dixons.
Once again, simplicity and affordability created a winner.
2. The Olympus Trip 35
The Olympus Trip 35, a simple yet effective point and shoot, was introduced in 1967 and discontinued in 1984 after a 17-year production run. Although the Trip was subject to very minor changes during its life (e.g. the 1978 change of the shutter button from silver metal to black plastic), it essential ended the same as it had started.
The manufacturers claim that over ten million units were sold (and that’s evidence enough for me).
The Trip was so successful because it was simple to use, yet capable of producing excellent results. It was compact and portable, and lent itself to being carried on excursions. It was quite simply, a very good camera.
1. A Kodak disposable camera
Disposable cameras in various forms have existed 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 made available overseas the following year, and it is rumoured that production targets were somewhere between three and four million (a year). Kodak where soon hot on Fujifilm’s heels with their own disposable cameras.
By 1989 a veritable “disposable camera craze” was said to be taking place. Disposable cameras sold in the United States climbed from 3 million in 1988, to 9 million in 1990, to 21.5 million in 1992, (citation Della Keyser).
Who was making and selling what is totally unclear (so I’ve assumed Kodak to have dominated), but there has been nothing that can compete with these levels of sales over a sustained period. More than that, today the disposable camera remains popular.
It’s a somewhat disappointing conclusion, for anyone who collects or appreciates finer cameras, to find that the most successful version is little more than a film in a box, but it’s obviously what appeals to Joe Public. Simplicity and affordability have always been the cornerstones of a successful camera design.