Japanese camera makers reassess size and simplicity

November 13th, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

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Depending on your perspective, the digital camera market is either mind-bogglingly fascinating or mind-numbingly boring. Every day, legions of dedicated shutterbugs pore over spec sheets and review sites, blogging breathlessly about the latest features and innovations, while almost everyone else yawns at camera makers’ constant leapfrogging and just wants to aim and fire.

Nikon, Canon and other major Japanese players have long been locked in a struggle for supremacy in both the D-SLR and point-and-shoot realm, but as the holiday shopping season draws closer the imaging market is changing in significant ways. One of the most interesting trends is the growing middle ground between these two main categories.

Olympus and Panasonic have both released hybrid models using their Micro Four-Thirds system to bridge the gap between the versatility and image quality of D-SLRs with the convenient size of a pocket camera. Both utilize a larger sensor than their point-and-shoot brethren while also offering the option to switch lenses.

This week Ricoh entered the ring with a small unit that offers detachable lens-and-sensor units that load like game cartridges. None of these cameras can boast a D-SLR’s image quality or ability to shoot action or low-light, but they’re close enough that, for some users, the ability to shove it in your jacket outweighs the extra depth, sharpness and action-stopping abilities of their larger cousins.

Their introduction, however, may have an significant effect on future buying patterns. Professionals and those seeking pro-level image quality will continue to buy or upgrade to D-SLRs, but for the iPhone generation, the ability to pull your camera out of your jeans has its own appeal. More importantly, the ability to share — instantly — will soon be a determining factor for many people. With services like Flickr and Posterous offering instantaneous publishing capabilities, consumers will soon demand this function in their cameras. After all, they already have it in their phones, don’t they? With 8-megapixel smartphones already on the market, perhaps this is the direction camera makers will have to go to remain relevant.

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