R.I.P.: Minolta Cameras (1929-2006)

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Last week, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Nikon abandoned the manufacture of film cameras (though Nikon will continue to make its flagship F6 film camera for professional photographers) and will instead manufacture only digital cameras. Or that film and photographic paper manufacturers Ilford and Agfa had each gone bankrupt. Or about Leica’s financial woes. But news today that Konica Minolta will abandon the manufacture all types of cameras, selling its camera division to Sony, surprised and saddened me.

Long ago, the major brands of 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras for professionals photographers were Nikon, Canon, and Minolta, in that order. From my UPI days long ago, I knew many Vietnam War photojournalists who carried Minolta SR-7s or SRT-101s. Though the Hasselblad camera company is proud that its medium-format cameras were carried by astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo space missions, Minoltas were the first cameras American astronauts carried into space, during the Mercury missions of the early 1960s.

However, Minolta made a strategic business error between 1976 and 1999 when it abandoned manufacturing cameras for professional photographers. Minolta sold 100 times as many consumer camera than professional cameras and made a much larger profit margin on each consumer camera than it did on each professional camera. The company’s executives decided that abandoning the professional market and focusing on the consumer market would be much more lucrative.

What they forgot is that most consumers like to buy less expensive models of renowned brands, and renown in the camera business comes from professional usage. About the time when Minolta abandoned the professional market, the Harvard Business School published a case study about a similar business decision by the Hanson ski boot company. Once Hanson stopped manufacturing ski boots for racers, its consumer boot business evaporated and within three years Hanson went bankrupt.

Minolta didn’t fare that badly. It moreover achieved a variety of technological advantages over Nikon, Canon, and Olympus, such as the world’s first auto-focus SLRs and later patenting digital cameras with gyroscopically-stabilized image sensors (thus making any lense be the equivalent of gyroscopically-stabilized). But its consumer market sales eventually eroded. Plus by then, no matter how it tried, Minolta could no longer gain a foothold with professionals. A new generation of professional photographers associated the company as only a consumer camera manufacturer, despite its able technology and history.

A 2003 merger with Konica didn’t help. Konica Minolta lost more than 47 billion yen (US$408 million) in 2005.

On April 1st, Konica Minolta will revert to being mainly a manufactgurer of photocopiers. A company press release said it has reached an agreement with Sony to jointly develop digital SLR cameras starting in July, and that Sony said these will be compatible with Maxxum/Dynax lense mount, “so that the current Maxxum/Dynax users will be able to continue to use them with Sony’s digital SLR cameras.”

So, this posting is my eulogy for Minolta. I’m sad because every Minolta camera I’ve had since the 1960s still works and has served me well. My father gave me a SRT-101 (first camera pictured above) when I was in high school. In 1974, while studying professional photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I purchased a XK (second camera pictured), the last of Minolta’s original line of professional cameras, and used it for a quarter century. I replaced it with a Maxxum 9 (third camera pictured) in 1999 when Minolta tried to reënter the professional market. And I’m amazed at how well-engineered and practical the digital Maxxum 7D (last camera pictured above) I bought last year is.

Based upon my professional XM’s longevity, my film and digital Maxxums will probably last me the rest of my life. I hope that I can find lenses and brand access for them in future decades. My late father used to tell me about automobiles he’d driven, before World War II, called Cords, Nashes, and Studebakers. I’ll likewise soon be telling people about an antique brand known as Minolta.

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