Canon Inc. and Nikon Corp., the world’s two biggest makers of high-end cameras, may be missing out on the industry’s biggest technology shift since film rolls became obsolete.
The two Tokyo-based companies use mirrors in all cameras with interchangeable lenses, a technique Sony Corp. is shifting away from. As a result, Canon and Nikon’s combined share of the Japanese market has fallen by 35 percent, while Sony’s share has doubled, according to estimates at research firm BCN Inc.
Panasonic Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. are also leaving out mirrors to reduce the size and cost of cameras, with Japanese consumers being among the earliest adopters. Canon and Nikon, under pressure from smartphones in the low-end market, may further undermine their lead in the $6.5 billion market because mirrorless cameras are lighter and take good enough pictures for most photographers, analysts said.
“Mirrorless cameras are a threat,” said David Rubenstein, a Tokyo-based analyst at MF Global FXA Securities Ltd., who has “neutral” ratings on Canon and Nikon shares. “If the western geographies follow the same pattern as Asia, then it will be negative for Nikon and Canon.”
In traditional high-end models known as single-lens-reflex cameras, mirrors allow photographers to look through an optical viewfinder instead of a liquid-crystal display. Compared with an LCD, the viewfinder helps users see a more accurate representation of the images they shoot, avoid time lags between shots and conserve battery life.
In mirrorless SLRs, first introduced by Panasonic Corp. in 2008, electronic sensors send the data directly to the LCD screen. That allows camera makers such as Sony and Panasonic to skip mirrors, prisms and the optical viewfinder.
The technology may be the biggest “paradigm shift” in the SLR industry in six decades, Mizuho Securities Equity Research analyst Ryosuke Katsura wrote last year.
For example, Hoya Corp.’s new Pentax Q weighs 200 grams and its body is smaller than an Apple Inc. iPhone 4 in terms of width and height. By comparison, Canon’s entry level EOS Rebel T3 weighs 495 grams.
“It’s like the difference between automatic and manual transmission in cars,” said Kumio Yamada, a freelance photographer who periodically showcases his work at personal exhibitions. “There is a tug of war going on between traditional camera makers and consumer electronics companies. As camera specialists, Canon and Nikon need to better show what distinguishes their products or they’ll have a difficult time.”
Canon and Nikon, which began making SLRs in the late 1950s, are starting to lose their edge in Japan, home to the world’s five largest makers of SLRs. Mirrorless cameras accounted for 40.5 percent of SLR sales in the country in July, surging from 5 percent in early 2009, according to BCN.
Globally, sales of mirrorless cameras surged fivefold to 2.1 million units in 2010, and their share of the overall SLR market may climb to 23 percent in 2011 from 16 percent, according to Macquarie Group Ltd. estimates last month.
Sony, Japan’s largest exporter of consumer electronics, said last month industry shipments will probably reach 13 million worldwide in three years. The NEX series introduced last year helped Sony’s share in the worldwide SLR market rise to about 15 percent in the year ended March 31 from 10 percent a year earlier, said Hirofumi Otsuru, a Tokyo-based spokesman.
Sony now plans to release its NEX-5N this week, while South Korea’s Samsung Electronics plans to begin sales of its NX200 next month. Panasonic brought out its G3 in July and Olympus started offering its PEN E-PL3 last week. Fujifilm Holdings Corp., which only makes compact cameras, has said it’s considering offering a mirrorless SLR.
Nikon has completed development of a next-generation camera and is considering when it will reveal the product, said Sayaka Suzuki, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman. She declined to say whether the company will introduce a mirrorless model.
Mirrorless cameras have yet to catch on outside of Japan, allowing Canon to hang on to an estimated 45 percent share of the global market for SLRs. Nikon accounts for about 30 percent, according to researcher IDC.
The new types of cameras aren’t as popular in Europe and the U.S. because “the big camera makers still haven’t entered market” and “the number of products is too small to draw consumers,” Ichiro Takagi, president of Sony’s imaging & sound business group, told reporters in Tokyo last month. “A new market is being created.”
Mirrors are still lucrative. Canon earned 114.8 billion yen ($1.5 billion) in profit by selling 5.9 million traditional SLRs last year, four times the profit it made from compact cameras, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. estimates last month. Nikon earned more from SLRs and lenses last fiscal year than with any other product, according to Nomura.
“We acknowledge the importance of making SLRs smaller and lighter to expand the market,” said Takafumi Hongo, a Tokyo-based spokesman for Canon. “We plan to continue addressing this issue with or without the use of a mirror.”
Canon, the maker of EOS cameras, forecasts SLR camera sales will rise 24 percent this year, helping offset the fallout from the factory disruptions caused by Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. SLRs accounted for 65 percent of Canon’s total camera revenue last year, the company said in February.
Canon and Nikon’s reliance on SLRs may increase as compact cameras, whose shipments jumped 10-fold in the past decade, face mounting competition from mobile-phone cameras. Shipments will likely begin shrinking in 2014, according to estimates by research firm IHS iSuppli.
“In the long run, Canon and Nikon will have to enter the market,” said Hideki Yasuda, a Tokyo-based analyst at Ace Securities Co. in Tokyo. “Still, it won’t be too late for them to enter the market after mirrorless cameras become a global trend.”