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Confined to professionals and top-end amateurs thus far, the market for digital single-lens reflex cameras is expected to explode this year with the release of more affordable models.

Camera makers expect sales of digital SLR cameras to more than double this year and even surpass peak unit sales of film SLR cameras in the next three years.

Digital SLR cameras have bigger image-capturing sensors than those of compact models and offer a broad array of interchangeable lenses, according to industry officials.

Nikon Corp. will release the D70 model Friday, with a Yodobashi Camera store in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward saying it had received about 600 advance orders as of Wednesday.

The suggested retail price for the camera body is set at 150,000 yen, though the product is expected to carry a price tag of around 120,000 yen.

“It’s the biggest number of preorders we have had for a camera, including digital compact and film models,” said Hisashi Watanabe, manager of the store’s digital camera floor.

“A high specification is one reason, and the price is affordable for consumers.”

For Nikon, which almost halves the professional market with Canon Inc., the latest model is by far the least pricey. The next-cheapest model costs around 200,000 yen.

Masaaki Asai, Nikon’s marketing manager, said the company is not only targeting film camera users, but is also aiming to lure users of digital compact cameras.

“As digital photography matures, a growing number of users want better quality by using SLR cameras,” Asai said.

With the introduction of entry-level models, camera makers estimate that the worldwide digital SLR camera market will jump to 2 million units this year from the 850,000 units sold last year.

Nikon even forecasts that sales of digital SLR cameras will expand to 5 million units over the next three years, surpassing peak sales of the film SLR cameras.

Ahead of its rival by six months, Canon is already enjoying heady demand for its EOS Kiss Digital, released in September, with production yet to catch up with backlog orders.

The firm sold 350,000 units during the first three months alone, contributing to its record earnings for 2003.

Canon is targeting sales of 1 million units for this year, with the product costing around 120,000 yen.

“In order to grab a large consumer base, we had to set the price at less than 150,000 yen, including lens,” said Taro Maruyama, a photo products marketing official at Canon.

The company started producing high-end digital SLR cameras 10 years ago. It almost exclusively targeted deadline-driven news photographers who wanted to bypass photo development.

As late as 1998, a professional model with resolution lower than today’s cell phone cameras was priced at nearly 2 million yen.

Prices have since fallen, thanks to falling production costs of key semiconductors. “This year is likely to be one of market explosion,” Canon’s Maruyama said.

Camera makers expect to be spared the cut-throat competition seen in the digital compact camera market, where they compete with noncamera players, including Sony Corp.

In the past two years, the average price of 3-megapixel digital cameras fell by more than 30 percent, according to GfK Marketing Services Japan Ltd.’s ACSISS-E3500 Data, which surveys 3,500 consumer electronics stores in Japan.

Producing SLR cameras requires higher-level optical technology, a hurdle against easy entry to the market, the camera makers said.

Meanwhile, smaller cam era firms are attempting to grab a bigger share.

Olympus Corp., which released the middle-end E-1 digital SLR camera in October, said it may introduce lower-price models soon.

The maker is aiming to capture a 30 percent share of the digital SLR camera market in the next three years.

It is a rather lofty goal, given its single-digit share standing at present. Yet Olympus is betting on the defection of loyal Nikon and Canon users.

Behind its confidence is a lens specially designed for its digital cameras. While offering compatible adapters for its film lenses, the company is suggesting users buy a digital-use lens for optimal performance.

Olympus hopes that promoting the digital lens will help level the playing field to compete with Nikon and Canon, which owe much to the vast number of maker-specific interchangeable lenses owned by film-camera users.

“If we compete on the extension of film cameras, we are bound by lens assets of consumers,” said Mitsuhiko Sano, an Olympus marketing official.

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