Business / Corporate

Nikon to debut first full-frame mirrorless camera as SLR leaders face threat of changing technology

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Camera buffs and those involved in the camera industry around the world are anxiously awaiting Aug. 23, when Nikon Corp. will debut a camera model representing one of the most drastic changes in the firm’s 101-year history.

Nikon, which along with Canon Inc. has long dominated the global high-end camera market, has put a countdown clock on its website ahead of the big event. The product? A next-generation, full-frame mirrorless camera with a new lens mount.

The release comes as Nikon and Canon — which have controlled the camera market with their single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras for years — are being threatened by the emergence of mirrorless cameras, experts say.

Nikon’s new mirrorless camera is likely to be a key indicator of whether the firm — one of the most prestigious camera-makers in history — can survive in the digital age, they say.

“Now you cannot stop the industry shift from single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras to mirrorless cameras,” said Ichiro Michikoshi, chief executive analyst at Tokyo-based marketing research firm BCN Inc. “Nikon has maintained a large share of the SLR market. How it will transform itself is a focus of attention.”

An SLR camera features a prism and mirror, allowing users to see what they’re shooting in real time through an optical viewfinder. When the user releases the shutter, the mirror quickly moves and allows light to reach film or a digital sensor.

Digital mirrorless cameras are simpler and function more like video cameras. The technology eliminates the moving mirror, and instead shows the image through an electronic viewfinder.

The response of that viewfinder is slightly slower than that of the SLR system, but without moving mirrors and related components mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lens systems can be much smaller and lighter than their SLR counterparts.

Plus, electronic viewfinder response times have significant improved recently, helping to make mirrorless cameras more popular and eroding the SLR market, experts say.

Among major makers of mirrorless cameras are Sony Corp., Fuji Film Corp. and Panasonic Corp.

Nikon and Canon had long been reluctant to release fully-featured mirrorless cameras, apparently fearing the impact on their own still-profitable digital SLR lineups.

But faced with the growing popularity of mirrorless cameras, the two camera giants now see no alternative but to produce their own high-end mirrorless cameras, Michikoshi said.

In fact, sales of mirrorless cameras are still growing in Japan despite fierce competition from explosive growth in the market for camera-equipped smartphones.

According to the Camera & Imaging Products Association, total shipments of mirrorless cameras in Japan grew by 11.5 percent to ¥15.65 billion during the January-June period from the same period last year, while those of digital SLRs fell by 20.8 percent to ¥13.78 billion.

Nikon’s imaging business segment has almost halved over the past four years, from ¥685.4 billion in the fiscal year that ended in March 2014 to ¥360.7 billion in March this year, mainly because of a drastic drop in sales of smaller, point-and-shoot cameras that compete with smartphones.

This drastic shrinkage of the whole camera market has presented no other option for Nikon and Canon but to enter the still-growing mirrorless markets, experts say.

Experts say all SLRs could eventually be replaced with mirrorless cameras given the technology’s potential to advance further.

For example, electronic viewfinders on mirrorless cameras can magnify a certain part of an image or indicate the exposure levels in real-time.

Advanced models of Sony’s mirrorless cameras can even automatically track and focus on the eye of a moving person while the user monitors the image through the viewfinder.

“Now, many people take photos with a smartphone or compact digital camera. They are digital-natives,” Michikoshi said.

Such people are likely to prefer mirrorless cameras because they offer many digital functions similar to smartphones, he said.

In March this year, Canon released a mirrorless model of its Kiss series for the first time. The release was shocking for Japan’s camera industry because Kiss is the country’s most popular digital SLR brand, mainly targeted at photography beginners. Canon is also rumored to be preparing the release of a high-end mirrorless camera of its own.

But the upcoming release of Nikon’s full-fledged mirrorless camera will have a particularly symbolic meaning for the industry, because Nikon has been supported by enthusiastic SLR fans and has maintained its F-Mount lens mount since 1959.

The F-Mount used for SLRs has not changed its basic size and form for nearly 60 years, even though all of Nikon’s rivals have replaced their mounts at least once as they’ve moved to adapt to new technologies.

For Nikon users, the decades-old consistency of the F-Mount has been a symbol of Nikon’s traditions and quality. But the firm has finally decided to develop a new mount that will fit the smaller body of a new mirrorless camera.

“We are preparing for the next 100 years by leaping into a new dimension,” Nikon declared in a teaser video for the new product, the details of which remain veiled in darkness in the video.

“This new mount is Nikon’s response to the challenge of the future,” Nikon said.

Whether or not Nikon’s shift and the new mirrorless model will be a success is yet to be seen. But the drastically changing business environment will soon force major camera-makers like Nikon and Canon to make critical decisions, Michikoshi predicted.

“The market will keep shrinking and you can’t stop it. So camera-makers will have to make a decision by choosing from two options: to survive as a luxurious, high-end brand like Leica or to fight against smartphones and erode some of the mass market,” he said.

To do that, camera-makers will need to offer better photography solutions than those of smartphones, such as features related to photo-processing and communications using images, Michikoshi added.