Japan's camera makers fight on in a smartphone world

More photos are being taken than ever before, just not with traditional cameras. Thanks to smartphone camera technology — and in particular the rise of the iPhone — mobile devices have become most people's go-to photo-taking device.

An attendee tries the Canon Inc. EOS 7D Mark II digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera during its unveiling in Tokyo, Japan.
Akio Kon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An attendee tries the Canon Inc. EOS 7D Mark II digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera during its unveiling in Tokyo, Japan.

While the change is great for smartphone makers such as South Korea's Samsung and the U.S.'s Apple, it has meant major sales declines for Japan's digital imaging companies like Canon and Nikon.

"Smartphones are killing cameras across the globe. There is nowhere to hide, no magic country where the market is stable," said Christopher Chute, research vice president at IDC, a global market intelligence firm. "That's been a huge problem for Japan."

Between 2013 and 2014 alone, point-and-shoot sales fell 30 percent, according to Ben Arnold, executive director and industry analyst at the NPD Group.

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Point-and-shoots, also known as fixed-lens cameras, were for many years the top item on people's electronics wish list. During the holidays, many stores featured the low-end cameras as their door-buster deals. For Japan's consumer electronics companies, those sales were critical.

Unfortunately, when stacked up against smartphones, these cameras didn't take much better photos. As a result, the ability to share and send photos has given mobile devices the edge.

"The market for a heavily discounted camera is growing smaller and smaller," Arnold said.

The high-end solution

Japan to recover strongly in 2015: JP Morgan
Japan to recover strongly in 2015: JP Morgan   

To combat these sales losses, digital camera makers have focused on their higher-end models, moving beyond the point-and-shoot cameras that were once their lifeblood in order to focus on premium fare including mirrorless and DSLR—or digital single-lens reflex—cameras.

Not every consumer wants an interchangeable lens camera, but nevertheless there is a strong audience of camera enthusiasts that gets a thrill out of having the latest technology.

"It's the doctors and lawyers who love this stuff," Chute said. "They never shot a roll of film in their life prior to 2003, but they value the ins and outs of the technology, and frankly they're the ones who can afford it."

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Interchangeable lens cameras come in two breeds—DSLR and mirrorless.

DSLR cameras are what most Americans think of when they imagine a high-end camera. They use mirrors to produce an image.

Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, remove this reflex-mechanism, which leaves a much more compact, lighter camera. As of October, only 12 percent of the digital cameras produced worldwide in 2014 were mirrorless cameras, according to Japan's Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA).

Despite being less popular globally, mirrorless cameras comprise as much as 50 percent of the Asian market, according to Sony Director of Digital Imaging Neal Manowitz.

"In Asia, smaller and lighter were attractive features for mirrorless," Manowitz told CNBC. He added that mirrorless cameras were becoming more popular in the U.S. because much of the industry's innovation has focused on that segment of the market.

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In 2013, Sony released its Alpha A7 series of mirrorless cameras, which feature full-frame picture taking and image stabilization. The company sells them on its site for anywhere from about $1,300 to $2,500.

In recent years a slew of other manufacturers, from industry giants Canon and Nikon to smaller companies like Olympus and Panasonic, have released new or updated mirrorless product lines.

Because they consumers use them with different lenses depending on the focal length they want, future product purchases are built in into the sale of one camera body.

"The interchangeable lens cameras absolutely do help the bottom line there," said Ed Lee, a group director at InfoTrends, a market research and consulting firm. "You can stick a $2,000 lens on a body that cost $500."

Another benefit from focusing on the higher-end models is that innovations in these cameras can easily trickle down to lower-priced models or help support other divisions.

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In Sony's case, Chute said the innovation in digital cameras help support its digital sensor business, which has applications for a wide range of technologies, including its smartphone division. And at Nikon, improving the sensors and lenses for its DSLR models eventually led advancements for its Coolpix point-and-shoot line.

"The technologies from higher-end DSLR cameras trickle down through the entire Nikon product line," said Steve Heiner, senior technical manger at Nikon.

The photo-sharing problem

But as lucrative as the high-end camera market can be, it doesn't mean much when nobody is buying your product. And where camera makers appear to be failing is in the exact technology that hurt them in the first place: mobile connectivity.

While many cameras now have the ability to connect to the Internet, only Nikon and Samsung have an Android-based camera platform that truly syncs the device with a smartphone for easy photo-sharing, Lee said.

With many companies continuing to produce cameras without such mobile-oriented technology, Chute predicts that some camera makers will continue to shrink their consumer-oriented digital imaging businesses.