View Full Version : Why were leaf shutters cheaper?
In the classic heyday of rangefinders in the 1950s and 1960s focal plane shuttered cameras with interchangeable lenses always commanded premium prices compared to fixed lens rangefinders with leaf shutters, which represented the low end of the market.
Yet when I look at the interior of a leaf shutter it seems much more complex (like a watch) than simple focal plane shutters such as those found in screwmount Leicas. And the mounting of the shutter around the fixed lens seems much more complicated than the design needed for an interchangeable lens.
Are my perceptions incorrect? Or perhaps the camera manufacturers could buy the leaf shutters at low prices from companies such as Compur and Copal ... perhaps they achieved economies of scale because they supplied many different camera makers?
I'm not sure it had a lot to do with 'simpler' versus 'more complex', prof. I think it had more to do with the demand for interchangeable lenses.
The leaf shutters required that either a manufacturer design a between-the-lens that had replaceable front elements - which was a design compromise that was tried and didn't do very well; or they had to put the entire lens in front of the shutter, which left out the possibility of retrofocal designs that protruded into the camera body.
On the mechanical side, the cloth focal plane shutter was much more hardy - it seemed to handle being exposed to the elements much better than the leaf shutter - witness the problems we have today trying to resurrect the older fixed-lens rangefinders, which are often plagued with sticky shutters - and they were exposed less often than the replaceable lens leaf-shutter designs.
Then too, with the advent of SLRs, a way had to be made to hold the shutter open while focusing - something that was never a problem for the rangefinder. This was also tried - and also failed in the marketplace (SLRs with leaf shutters, that is).
As to why the leaf shutter lived in the lower ranges of the price ranges - it may have been partially due to perception. Leica used a focal plane shutter, and Leica was the Holy Grail - so it must be the best, right? Thus, demanding a higher price. Psychology?
Also, consider that the camera makers had literally 50 years experience making leaf shutters - the designs hardly changed since the early days of film and even back to nearly Fox Talbot's day. So, the machinery was fully amortized, the designers paid off, the patents expired. Cheap to make, well understood, easy to maintain. Focal plane shutters were new, required new methods, new material investments, new designs. Thus, more costly.
I dunno, my 2 cents anyway.
Thank you for your thoughtful response Bill. I think you are on to something with your comments about Leica being the "Holy Grail" and the psychology and prestige of having interchangeable lenses (which focal plane shutters easily allowed). Also, I think you are correct in stating that the leaf shutters were "fully amortized." But I still think the high-end leaf shutters look more complex from a design and engineering standpoint than the focal plane shutters.
The only limitation of the leaf shutters is the top speed. The circular motion of its opening and closing is ideal for distribution and off set of motion leading to minimal camera shake. In the right application they still are the preferred design, think Hasselblad or other MF cameras for portrait photography. I just think that with the introduction of the SLR and the desire of the camera companies to make 35mm cameras that can "do everything" no limitations were allowed.
And is there a better example of "fully amortized" technology today than the CV Bessa rangefinders. Surely that little body design was fully paid for by Nikon (FM 10), Olympus (OM 10), Contax (G Series), now Rollei and every other company who contracted Cosina to supply them with a light tight box. Cosina developed a bright rangefinder, threw it on top and called it a Voigtlander. Also, think of Leica and Hasselblad. There is not a lot of RD $ being used to update and "improve" their technology. The difference with these products is that they charge for their "perfection."
My next "Mini-Review" is on the Kodak Retina IIIS. There are some advantages to Compur and other leaflet shutters. But the killer is the limitations in lens availability. The lack of retrofocus design wide-angles was not considered a limitation in the Retina S-Series as the RF and SLR used the same lenses. The Telephoto lenses could not focus close as the "light cone" had to squeeze through the shutter, very close to the rear element. The 135 goes to 14'. But, the all-metal shutter is not subject to burn-through that the focal plane shutters of the day were, and they can flash sync at any speed. They do not distort fast moving objects as happens with a focal plane shutter; ie the travelling slit. More to come.
Interesting question, and I really don't know the answer. I would speculate that it had more to do with lens design and changability. I read somewhere that putting a shutter between lens elements makes for easier design. A plus of focal plane shutters was higher speed, with the two curtain winning out. It would make more marketing sense to charge more for a higher shutter speed, even if it didn't cost that much more. Then there was the cost of making several lenses that could fit one body and focus correctly.
Waiting for someone who is sure of the correct answer...
Perhaps it had more to do with the overall package than what shutter it has. If you are going to make an SLR, you need a moving mirror and a penta prizim. There is also the need for a quick change mount of some kind which entails a linkage for controlling the apeture of the lens to allow wide open focusing and metering but stopping down in sync with the shutter for the exposure. Then there is the DOF preview and mirror lockup mechanisims. I can see how all that can offset a higher cost shutter. I wonder if by using the high strenght light weight materials which allowed the FP shutters to flash sync beyond 1/250 second, (up from 1/30 - 1/60) a leaf shutter could not get up into the 1/2000 second range.
Light fall-off at the edges versus consistency with horizontal or vertical focal plane shutter as a better selling point for focal plane...?
I dunno, just a guess.
I'm not sure that the question is right. A Rolleiflex cost just as much as a Leica (176GBP for a 2.8f against 168GBP for an M3 with an Elmar in 1965) and the Hasselblad was much dearer.
Focal plane shutters became associated with expensive cameras because, if you wanted lens interchangeability, the focal plane mechanism was simpler to engineer. I'm only guessing but I imagine that the unit profit was a lot greater for the focal plane equipped cameras than those with leaf shutters.
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