TOKYO—The exodus of Japan's top manufacturers from film to digital cameras is nearly over, leaving film lovers astonished at the speed of the transition.
Three major Japanese camera makers either have halted production of film cameras this year or have sharply reduced output to change their focus almost entirely to digital.
Unlike film cameras, which have been in use for more than a century, digital cameras take and store images without the need for film, allowing photographers to see the images instantly and send them in e-mails.
Three weeks ago, Canon, the world's largest camera maker, said it would stop developing new models using film. Canon President Tsuneji Uchida said it didn't make economic sense to develop and sell new film cameras in a shrinking market, while demand for digital booms.
Earlier in the year, Konica Minolta Holdings said it would stop making film cameras, lenses and even film, then announced it was making a full retreat even from the digital photo business and selling its assets to rival Sony.
In another announcement that stunned the industry, Nikon, a world leader in high-quality camera products, said in January that it would stop making most models of film cameras to focus solely on digital. Nikon now makes only two film cameras, the F6 for professionals and the FM10 for beginners.
What happened next became known as the "Nikon shock." Panicked by the end of an era, photographers snapped up most remaining models of Nikon single lens-reflex film cameras. At Bic Camera, a popular store in Tokyo, most models of the Nikon single-lens reflex cameras that were doomed to go out of production sold out within three days, salesman Nirihiro Nomura said.
"The shift from film to digital was way faster than we expected," said Kakushi Kiuchi, an executive in charge of professional photography for Fuji Film at Photo Imaging Expo in Tokyo.
Worldwide sales of Japanese digital cameras overtook film cameras in 2002, when 24.6 million digital cameras were sold, outpacing the 23.7 million film cameras, according to the Camera & Imaging Products Association, a Japanese trade group.
Digital camera sales have skyrocketed since then. Last year, Japanese makers sold 70.2 million digital cameras, snagging 92.3 percent of the market, leaving 7 percent of the market for film cameras, the group said.
The development of quality digital single lens-reflex cameras has further eroded the market for film cameras. Sales of digital SLRs surged 53 percent last year.
In most point-and-shoot digital cameras, an annoying shutter lag occurs between when one presses the button and the camera records the image. Photos of children playing or athletes running don't capture the right moment. The new digital single-lens reflex cameras don't have shutter lag, allowing photographers to see the exact image that's being exposed.
Canon and Nikon monopolize 80 percent of the digital SLR market, but competition is about to heat up.
Matsushita, which sells in much of the world under the Panasonic brand, is launching its first digital single lens-reflex camera, the Lumix DMC-L1, this week using technology from Olympus and Leica, the prestigious German camera maker.
Sony, which was the first to market a digital camera in 1981, announced this month that it would begin selling a digital SLR camera, the Alpha 100, the result of its buyout of Konica Minolta assets.
Yasushi Idei, an executive with Kodak Japan, a branch of the leading U.S. photography company, said his company would remain focused on digital printing and software technology and simpler digital cameras rather than the more complex digital single lens-reflex cameras.
"The camera and film industry has been neglecting its duty of researching needs of consumers for such a long time," he said, adding that some companies have pushed highly technical features, such as stabilization functions, that aren't necessarily what users want.
Camera makers in South Korea are eyeing the global market, particularly Samsung, which hopes to be one of the world's big three camera companies by next year, along with Canon and Nikon. South Korean manufacturers keep sales figures a secret.
Some photographers claim that film still has a leg up on digital because it captures subtle color variations better. They suggest that the sunset of film still isn't here yet.
"We cannot forget that photography is painting with light. It's not painting with pixels," said Steve Gardner, a commercial shooter and photography instructor, referring to the digital dots that make up an electronic image.
Kazumasa Nakamura, who sells secondhand cameras at Lemon, a major vendor of photographic products, said computers were changing so fast that years from now it might be impossible to process old memory chips containing photos. He also said the ease and technology of digital cameras reduced the tension and seriousness needed to capture the moment for a high-quality photograph.
Professional photographer Shin Sawano agreed that film will remain around, at least for now. "Sometimes we touch up digital pictures too much, which will reduce the energy of the photo itself. When you spend a certain amount of time to take one shot, you can tell from the picture," Sawano said.
But some vendors said the dominance of digital was only increasing.
"These days, middle- and high-class amateur photographers finally have started to shift to digital SLR cameras. You can change film exposure for each photo, you don't spend for film and you don't need to process the photos. Film cameras are really disappearing from the market now," Nakamura said.
(Doi is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent in Tokyo.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-CAMERAS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060621 JAPAN CAMERAS
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