Konica Minolta Plans to Drop Sales of Film, Digital Cameras

A used Minolta Maxxum camera at a store in Cambridge, Mass. The majority of cameras sold to consumers are digital, many with wireless connections.
A used Minolta Maxxum camera at a store in Cambridge, Mass. The majority of cameras sold to consumers are digital, many with wireless connections. (By J.b. Reed -- Bloomberg News)
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Photography icon Konica Minolta Group is shuttering its camera business.

The Japanese company, which introduced its first camera and silver-halide film paper in 1903, cited a photographic film market that "is shrinking astonishingly by the surge of the worldwide digitization." After March 1, Konica plans to phase out worldwide sales of its film and digital cameras.

Konica's announcement comes a week after Nikon Corp. said it would phase out most of its film-camera business to focus on marketing digital cameras, which now make up the vast majority of camera sales to consumers.

In the past two decades, consumer photography has blossomed with easy-to-use technologies, such as cell-phone cameras, home printers and services like online photo finishing. That progress came, however, at the expense of darkrooms and rolls of film. The newest generation of cameras has wireless connections that allow pictures to be uploaded directly to the Internet and panoramic editing that stitches together several shots.

"Film is in its twilight. You don't see the volume to support three big businesses," said Christopher Chute, an analyst with the research firm IDC. "Twenty years ago we'd spend a couple hundred dollars on a Nikon film camera -- now we'll spend on a couple hundred dollars on a digital camera."

At its height in the 1980s, film photography accounted for 80 billion to 90 billion prints per year, Chute said. Last year, 101 billion prints were made worldwide, 60 percent of which were digital photos, he said.

One of Konica Minolta's rivals, Olympus Imaging America Inc., yesterday said it would continue its film camera business for as long as possible. "Film will be over soon, [but] we're going to be the last company in it," said Stewart Muller, executive vice president of Olympus, which makes about 40 percent of film cameras sold in the United States. Digital makes up 95 percent of the company's sales, and that's growing, he said. "But there will be people who hang on for some time."

A representative of Eastman Kodak Co., the Rochester, N.Y., company that in 1900 introduced the Brownie, the first consumer camera, declined to comment on Konica's announcement. Rival Fuji Photo Film Co. acknowledged in a statement that the "unexpectedly rapid shift toward digitalization has greatly reduced demand for films and photographic products," but said it would continue to produce silver-halide products.

With the transition from film comes the end of the solitary creative process in the dim, reddish light of darkrooms, said Kenny Irby, founder of the Poynter Institute's photojournalism program. "What's lost is a romantic experience in a dark room."

Instead, newspapers, magazines and many artists use computer software, such as Photoshop, to do what liquid baths of nitrate and fixer solutions used to do, he said. "The professional market had already made this transition [to digital], so this is the death knell of film in the amateur market."

Konica and Minolta, which merged in 2003, have sold 13.5 million cameras since 1985, when the popular Maxxum/Dynax line was launched. Konica plans to continue making that line of digital cameras, but they are to be sold by Sony Corp. In April, Sony plans to take over the service and repair for Konica cameras.

"In a changing world, profits for camera and photo businesses worsened in recent years," Konica said in its statement, "and it became necessary to drastically reform business structure for the further growth of Konica Minolta."

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