Time was that the only people who always carried cameras around with them were dedicated photographers. Since the near-universal incorporation of camera functions in cell phones, all that of course has changed. But with the palm-sized dimensions of today's digital cameras, compact devices are increasingly likely to find a place in a person's pocket.
The vast majority of digital cameras sold in Japan - and indeed the world - are compact models. According to Chris Chute of American market research-firm International Data Corporation (IDC), almost 10 million compacts were shipped to dealers in Japan in 2009 - compared with about 1 million single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. But now that the market has become almost saturated, manufacturers are having to dream up unique selling points and ingenious functions to differentiate their products from those of their competitors.
The cutting edge
Canon believes its new Smart Flash Exposure (FE) function will help it maintain its place as the world's leading compact digital camera maker: the company had a global market share of 43 percent last year. This function improves image quality by automatically controlling flash illumination, shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed. "Smart FE reduces the shadows that can fall on a subject's face when shooting outside in fine weather," notes Canon's Richard Berger. "It brightens strongly backlit subjects, and when shooting at close range it makes possible bright backgrounds without blown-out highlights."
While face recognition is becoming a standard for compacts, Pentax has addressed this trend for pet owners in Japan. Its new retro SLR-styled Optio I-10 (¥20,000) and rugged Optio W90 (¥30,000) can recognize the faces of up to three registered cats or dogs - the only animals it works for - and automatically takes a snapshot the moment the pet turns to the camera. "It's notoriously difficult to take pictures of pets' faces when they move," comments Pentax's Yusuke Shimizu. "They look straight at the camera only momentarily." The W90 is equipped with a macro mode unique to compact digitals that allows it to work like a microscope. "The function allows users to photograph things such as insects, the veins of leaves and clothing fibers," Shimizu says. "It can be used as a work tool for taking detailed close-ups or by families on excursions."
Dog turns the tables
Among Nikon's eight new models in its spring 2010 range is the world's first camera with a miniature built-in projector. The Coolpix S1000pj (¥40,000) is all about fun. It enables photographs taken at parties or on vacation to be instantly beamed onto flat surfaces once the lights are dimmed. "We concentrate on the basic performance of a camera as a tool for taking photographs, and that is based on the expertise we've accumulated over many years, says Nikon's Sayaka Suzuki. "Cameras should be able to respond quickly so important moments aren't missed."
Sony's DSC-TX7 and DSC-HX5V models (both retailing at around ¥45,000) are the only compact digital cameras on the market that can record high-definition video, which they do using Advanced Video Coding High Definition (AVCHD). "The high quality AVCHD recordings can be played back on compatible Blu-ray disc players," notes Sony's Hirofumi Otsuru. Regarding the firm's product range, he adds, "Our models differ from those of our competitors' in terms of their new high-quality shooting features, such as our swing panorama feature." One novel function is seen in the company's Party-shot IPT-DS1, which comes with a dock that allows it to turn and tilt the camera to detect faces, compose the frame and shoot automatically. It is therefore ideal for taking photos at events like parties and festive occasions.
Ricoh's new GXR model's interchangeable unit system is unprecedented for a digital compact, in that the user can physically switch lenses. With the body retailing for about ¥50,000 and lenses ranging from ¥30,000 to ¥75,000, the GXR requires a greater outlay than other compacts. The company has a distinct fan base, as the company's Tomohiro Noguchi explains: "We provide tools for experienced photographers rather than following the whims of fashion. Our high-quality cameras are popular among professionals and serious amateurs who normally use SLRs. They use them as a second camera that they can carry at all times."
Given the ubiquitous presence of digital camera functions in cell phones, fears had grown among industry observers that this would pose a threat to compact digital sales. But that has certainly not proved to be the case. "The ongoing argument has proven fruitless," says IDC's Chute. "Mobile phone cameras have become a staple of people's lives across the world, yet we still see robust camera sales. Consumers generally value different devices for their capability to do one job really well."
Skyward magazine - July 2010