What is today known as one of the leading multinational corporations in the manufacture of optical and imaging electronics, began with a group of friends in Japan. Canon Inc.'s origins date back to 1933, when gynecologist Takeshi Mitarai worked with technician friends Goro Yoshida, Saburo Uchida, and Takeo Maeda to develop 35-mm cameras. Together they founded the venture Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory in Roppongi, Minato-ku, Japan. Following the industry standard set by Germany’s Leica 35-mm camera, Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory developed The Kwanon, named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy.The Kwanon was the prototype for Japan’s first-ever 35-mm camera with a focal-plane-based shutter, the shutter being placed right in front of the photographic film strip.
In 1937, Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory incorporated under the name Precision Optical Industry Company, Ltd. During World War II, all of Japan’s economy was devoted to supporting the military effort. Because of this, Precision Optical Industry Company was forced to discontinue production of its 35-mm cameras. The company almost didn’t survive, but thanks to Mitarai’s dutiful attention to properly managing the company’s resources and finances, Precision Optical lasted through the economic devastation of post-war Japan. In 1947, the company changed its name to Canon Camera Company, Inc.
One of the things that allowed Canon to survive the post-war era was the foothold the company gained into the U.S. market through Mitarai's move to convince the Allied occupation forces to adopt Precision Optical cameras and bring them back to America. By 1955, Canon was opening its first international office in New York City, Canon USA, Inc. Two years later, the company established Canon Europa with a headquarters in Geneva. Today, Canon has regional headquarters in America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
In 1959, Canon introduced the Reflex Zoom 8, the world’s first 8-mm movie camera with a built-in zoom lens. By 1963, the company had tripled in size. Canon expanded into the production of other electronics like calculators, photocopiers, and other business machines, leading to the 1969 decision to drop the Camera Company from its name and go simply by Canon Inc.
Canon faltered financially in the early 1970s due to failing to differentiate itself from its competitors in its marketing. But Canon turned that around in 1976 when it introduced the AE-1, the world’s first 35-mm camera with an embedded microprocessor system for automatic focus and setting exposure length. Canon achieved another first in the advertising campaign for the AE-1, which included TV commercials featuring star tennis player John Newcombe. This was the first time a 35-mm camera was advertised on television. The gamble paid off. By 1981, the AE-1 had become “the Chevrolet of the 35-mm market,” as reported by Fortune.
Canon's commitment to investing in research is one the consistent aspects of the company that keeps it going strong. The company is consistently one of the top 3 companies to receive U.S. patents each year. It has also ranked as one of the top electronics manufacturers in the world since the end of the 70's. After falling to the number two camera position globally in 1985 when Minolta’s introduced the Maxxum, Canon regained its number one spot by launching the EOS-1 autofocus SLR in 1987. Thus began the Canon Electro-Optical System, a series of autofocus single-lens reflex cameras. Canon was one of the few camera manufacturers to successfully transition from film to digital, introducing its first digital SLR camera in the EOS DCS 3 in 1995. Today the EOS series spans from entry-level consumer camera models to high-end professional camera models.
Canon’s history is definitely an advantage for the company. That advantage has manifested itself in multiple ways. The company has developed a glowing reputation for quality. Canon remains the preferred brand for a majority of professional photographers. For entry-level photographers, the EOS line of DSLR cameras and PowerShot line of point-and-shoot camera are known for being user-friendly and affordable.
Because of their popularity, Canon cameras are widely supported. That means finding repair and replacement parts shouldn’t be a problem. Canon also stocks a wide variety of accessories. The brand is particularly beloved for its top-of-the-line lenses, especially the L-series of luxury lenses. All of its EOS lenses have autofocus because Canon installs autofocus motors into the lenses themselves. Nikon, Canon’s biggest competitor, only has this feature in its AF-S lenses.
One last perk is that because the Canon brand extends into other electronics besides cameras and camcorders, Canon cameras that are Wi-Fi enabled have the added benefit of being able to connect with Canon wireless printers.
Unique among major camera makers, GoPro, Inc. is an American company that produces action cameras, its own mobile apps, and video-editing software. Nick Woodman, a surfer, skier, and racer, felt motivated to created GoPro after a 2002 surfing trip to Australia and Indonesia.
He wanted to take high-quality action shots of him and his friends surfing. Woodman tried attaching a 35-mm camera to the palm of his hand to capture the action, but wasn’t able to get close enough. Woodman also found that many other amateur photographers couldn’t afford the equipment they needed to get the quality of action photos they wanted.
Woodman came up with a belt that would allow the photographer to attach the camera to their body as a solution. Borrowing $200,000 from father, $30,000 and a sewing machine for the camera straps from his mother, and raising about $10,000 more in initial capital by selling bead-and-shell necklaces he bought from Bali with his future wife Jill from his 1971 Volkswagen van, Woodman started “GoPro”. Woodman got the name from his desire for a camera system that could enable amateur photographers to capture professional-level close-up footage.
GoPro sold its first product in 2004. It was a 35-mm film camera developed by Hotax, a Chinese company. The camera was modified to include Woodman’s camera strap design, some modifications of the housing, and GoPro’s official logo. The rebranded camera was dubbed the GoPro HERO. Woodman initially continued to sell his products from his VW van. GoPro’s first major sale was to a Japanese company that order 100 of the cameras at an action sports tradeshow in 2004. Sales doubled every year afterwards.
The company would go on to introduce compact digital models of the GoPro HERO, starting in 2006. They eventually were Wi-Fi enabled, recorded to microSD cards, could be controlled by remote, and had waterproof housing available. The company bought CineForm in 2011, acquiring CineForm 444 video codec software for compressing and decompressing digital video. GoPro incorporated the video codec into its 3D Hero System.
In 2012, GoPro managed to sell 2.3 million units. Woodman was now a billionaire. The company went public in 2014, ending its first day on the stock market valued at $31.34 a share. In 2015, the company partnered with the NHL to have its products used to enhance the viewing experience during their hockey games. GoPro formed another partnership with Periscope in January 2016 for live streaming. In February of the same year, the company purchased start-ups Stupeflix and Vemory for a reported $105 million. GoPro acquired the companies to utilize their Replay and Splice video editing tools.
Thanks to weak sales, multiple workforce cuts, and the failure of its entertainment division, a share of GoPro stock had fallen to a value of $4.81 by March 26, 2018. The company introduced its own quadcopter drone named KARMA in October 2016. However, the drone was discontinued in January 2018.
Still, those setbacks haven’t stopped GoPro from continuing to advance its HERO line of action cameras. The GoPro HERO6, released on September 28, 2017, supports recording in 4K high efficiency video coding (HEVC) video, can be set up to upload recorded footage to the cloud automatically, is waterproof, and has 5 GHz Wi-Fi and voice controls. The company went on to release an entry-level version of the camera in 2018. In November 2017, the company unveiled the GoPro Fusion, an omnidirectional camera with the capability to record 360-degree footage in up to 5.2K resolution.
As unique from other major camera brands as the company’s history, GoPro’s main advantage comes from the camera’s ability to capture high-quality images and videos from unique first-person perspectives. Because the company knows its cameras will be used in a variety of intense—and often extreme—scenarios, GoPro HERO cameras are built sturdier than just about any other action camera on the market. They’re mountable on just about anything, and their ulta-wide-angle fisheye lenses give photographers the option to shoot extremely close to the subject, even in confided spaces.
The second biggest player in the world of digital photography next to Canon, Nikon is itself also a multinational consumer-electronics corporation headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. However, Nikon Corporation’s history goes even further back than Canon’s. The company was founded on June 25, 1917 as Nippon K?gaku K?gy? Kabushikigaisha, which is Japanese for “Japan Optical Industries Company, Ltd.” Nikon formed as a result of three of Japan’s top manufacturers of optical equipment merging together to form one company with a fully-fledged line of optical products. Over its first 60 years, the company built its name as a manufacturer of optical lenses and other equipment for use in cameras.
World War I didn’t have much effect on the fledgling company. In fact, Nippon K?gaku benefited from the Japanese government adopting the postwar policy of promoting the importation of foreign technology to advance its domestic industry. The company saw expansion through the 1920s and 1930s, introducing its Nikkor brand of lenses in 1932. During World War II, the company focused its operations on making optical equipment for the Japanese military, particularly for bombing and navigation.
After the war, Nippon K?gaku K?gy? Kabushikigaisha returned to making products for consumers. Those products included eyeglasses, binoculars, and microscopes. While Nikon predates Canon as a company, it actually didn’t get into the camera market until after Canon. The first Nikon-branded camera, the Nikon I, was released in 1948. “Nikon” was seemingly a combination of the Nippon in Nippon K?gaku and Ikon, which was the German company ZEISS’s brand of camera. As Japanese cameras gained more notoriety internationally, so did the Nikon brand. Nikon cameras developed a reputation for being high quality and Nikkor lenses became the preferred choice among photojournalists covering the Korean War.
A large part of that success was a result of Nippon K?gaku developing the very first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. The rangefinder cameras of the 1940s and early 1950s required a lens for the film and another for the viewer. They involved the photographer using the rangefinder to measure the distance between the camera and the subject and take photographs in sharp focus. With an SLR camera, the photographer could see exactly what the camera would capture through a mirror that reflected the image from the lens to a viewing screen. The Nikon F series of SLR camera was introduced in 1959 and was a best-seller that helped make Nippon K?gaku profitable before the end of the 1960s.
Another benefit for Nippon K?gaku is being a member of the Mitsubishi Group, an autonomous group of Japanese multinational companies that share the Mitsubishi trademark. The group is descended from the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, a powerful Japanese conglomerate that the U.S. broke up after World War II. Despite the zaibatsu being broken up, the former member companies still engage in limited business cooperation with each other. those ties provided Nippon K?gaku with added credit and exporting resources.
While Canon expanded into manufacturing other office-related equipment like copiers and calculators, Nippon K?gaku kept its main focus on cameras. The company reflected this by renaming itself Nikon Corporation after its camera brand in 1988. The company continued to be at the forefront of SLR photography, popularizing camera features like interchangeable lenses, viewfinders, integrated light metering for determining proper exposure, and the use of electronic strobe flashguns instead of expendable flashbulbs.
In the 1990s, Nikon maintained its reputation for making fantastic cameras. 1989’s Nikon F-801 autofocus SLR was awarded the Camera Grand Prix in Japan, as well as the European Camera of the Year Award. In 1991, Nikon was selected by NASA to be the first digital SLR on its Space Shuttle with the Nikon NASA F4.
Decline of the semiconductor industry hurt the company financially in the late 1990s, having invested heavily in that market. But Nikon would manage to regain ground in the 2000s. The Nikon D1 was one of the first digital cameras to have an image quality good enough for professional photographers to adopt in place of a film SLR camera. Sales of its Coolpix line of compact cameras, introduced in 1997, also took off as the popularity of digital photography among consumers grew.
By the start of the 2000s, Nikon had expanded into international markets with subsidiaries in China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Taiwan, Singapore, Hungry, and the Czech Republic. With management changes in 2005 and the introduction of new camera designs like the Nikon D3 and Nikon 2700 full-frame cameras, Nikon also reaffirmed its reputation as an innovator with professionals in the field of photography. Its latest models are known for their low-light performance, their speed, and their ergonomics.
That high quality in low light comes from Nikon’s high-end SLRs including full-frame sensors. At the same time, Nikon edges out its top competitor Canon when it comes to offering low-priced DSLRs. An example is the Nikon D3300 at around $500. You would have to go a few years back to find a similarly-priced Canon. Nikon DSLRs have a reputation for excellent image quality with some of the sharpest digital images.
Another advantage is that because Nikon’s current F mount range of lenses dates back further than Canon’s—1959 vs 1987— so if you’re into vintage lenses, Nikon has got the greater selection.
For most of the company’s history, the Panasonic Corporation was actually known as the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company in its native Japan. Headquartered in Kadoma, Osaka, Japan, the multinational electronics corporation began as a simple lightbulb socket vendor.
After spending a few years working in an Osaka light bulb factory, 23-year-old K?nosuke Matsushita founded Matsushita Denki Sangy? Kabushiki-gaisha, or the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, Ltd. Matsushita started the company with his wife Mumeno Iue and his brother-in-law Toshio Iue in 1918. The company produced duplex light bulb sockets for Japanese consumers. Matsushita kept his small company going by keeping prices low, creating goodwill with the public.
In 1927, The company expanded to producing bicycle lamps. Matsushita had worked in a bicycle shop as a young boy to help support his family. The bike lamps were the first product the company marketed under its Nationalbrand name. By 1934, the company was also producing dry batteries, electric motors, and electric heaters.
Like many Japanese companies during World War II, the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company ramped up its production for the war effort. Matsushita’s partnership with the Japanese government as a top producer of electronics was a major benefit for Matsushita in the years leading up to World War II. To assist the government in its armament program, The Matsushita Electric Industrial Company was granted manufacturing plants in other Asian countries under Japanese control, such as Korea and Taiwan.
For his support of the Japanese war effort, the U.S. occupational forces wanted Matsushita to resign his post, but the labor unions threatened to strike if he was made to do so. Wanting to preserve the peace, the occupation forces allowed Matsushita to remain president of his company. The Matsushita Electric Industrial Company turned its focus to consumer appliances and radios, like high-quality FM receivers. It also took its bicycle lamps a step further and began producing whole bicycles.
Matsushita traveled to the United States in 1961, establishing relationships with American dealers. The Matsushita Electric Industrial Company began manufacturing its own television sets for U.S. consumers under the brand name Panasonic. In 1971, the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company expanded the Panasonic brand into Europe. Outside of America, the company continued to use its National brand from the 1950s to the 1970s, producing electronics like television sets, VCRs, stereo receivers, and shortwave radios. In the U.S., these products were marketed under the brand names Panasonic, Curtis Mathes, Emerson, and Technics.
These products brought rapid growth to The Matsushita Electric Industrial Company. As a result, the company was able to open plants around the world. Kunio Nakamura, who became president of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company in 2000, reorganized the company’s operation into four segments. Those business segments are AVC Networks, Home Appliances, Industrial Equipment, and Components and Devices.
The company officially changed its name to Panasonic Corporation on October 1, 2008 to match to it international Panasonic brand. In 2009, Panasonic bought competitor and former subcontractor Sonya, an electronics company founded by Konosuke Matsushita’s own brother-in-law Toshio Iue.
Panasonic’s brand of camera is Lumix, and they range from compact point-and-shoots to DSLRs. The first models released by Panasonic were the Lumix DMC-LC5 and Lumix DMC-F7 compact camera in 2001. A majority of Lumix cameras use Panasonic’s own Venus Engine as their image processor. The Venus Engine has been update throughout the years to match advances in digital image processing.
A perk of Lumix cameras is that every model has optical stabilization. Many models also have intelligent ISO, which allows the camera to raise its sensor’s sensitivity when motion is detected. This allows the camera to have faster shutter speeds.
Panasonic is also a pioneering company when it comes to mirrorless cameras. Its G series mirrorless camera differs from Sony’s in that it utilizes Micro Four Thirds sensor technology. This combines an interchangeable lens, a large image sensor, and a compact point-and-shoot size.
Another advantage of Panasonic Lumix cameras is their video. Panasonic offered the ability to shoot video in 4K resolution with the LZ1000 before any other company. Now several of its mirrorless cameras have 4K video capability. The cameras don’t come cheap as a result, but Panasonic tries to make the cost by giving the camera a smaller body and quicker burst speed.
It’s likely that “camera company” isn’t the first thing you identify Sony as being. Aside from being a leading manufacturer of both consumer electronics and professional electronics, this multinational conglomerate with its headquarters in K?nan, Minato, Tokyo is also involved in entertainment, gaming, financial services, and other fields. The Sony Corporation is both the parent company of the Sony Group and the group’s electronics division. The Sony Group has four operating components through which it does business, the first being electronics. That includes products like video games, semiconductors, TVs, network services, and cameras. The other three are motion pictures, music, and financial services. As such, other members of the Sony Group include: Sony Pictures, Sony Music, Sony Interactive Entertainment, and Sony Financial Holdings. In 2017, Sony was ranked 105th in the Fortune Global 500. It’s interesting then that such an expansive global corporation has such humble beginnings in post-World War II Japan.
It all began with an electronics shop started by Masaru Ibuka in a Tokyo department store building in 1946. Ibuka was a defense contractor during World War II. After it ended, he began working in the war-torn department store as a radio repairman. He opened his shop with ¥190,000 as initial capital and 8 employees as his workforce. Ibuka was joined by Akio Morita, a former naval lieutenant and weapons researcher whom he had met during the war. In May of the same year that Ibuka opened the shop, he and Morita partnered to form the company T?ky? Ts?shin K?gy? (or TTK) with $500 worth of capital they borrowed.
Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo’s first product was a rice cooker, but its first major accomplishment was in building Japan’s first audio tape recorder in 1950. The company called the tape machine the Type-G. Its design was based on an American model Ibuka saw at the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. After learning how to properly market the Type-G, the tape recorder eventually started selling so well that Ibuka and Morita had to move their operations to a bigger building in Shinagawa.
The company began mass producing the TR-55 transistor radio in 1955. They branded the transistor radios with the name Sony, after the Latin word for sound, “sonus”. The radios proved to be popular both in Japan and in America, especially among teens in the 1950s and 1960s. In response to this rising popularity, TTK renamed itself the Sony Corporation in 1958. Sells of the TR-63 transistor radio were estimated to have jumped to 5 million units by 1968. The company also utilized its transistor to make other technology like videotape recorders and AM/FM radios in the early 60s.
In 1960, Akio Morita founded the Sony Corporation of America office in New York. Sony helped to establish Japan as a powerful exporter through the 1980s, as well as positively change Americans’ views towards products made in Japan thanks to Sony's production quality. By 1968, its engineers were on to developing new technology for color television.
Masaru Ibuka stepped down as president in 1971 and handed the position over to his co-founder Morita. Under Morita, Sony introduced the first VCR for consumers, the Betamax, in 1975. Sony enjoyed a short-term monopoly over the market by introducing its Betamax VCR first. But Betamax failed to catch on as an industry standard, losing the format war to VHS, which was incompatible with Sony’s VCR.
Undeterred, Morita next pushed the development of the Sony Walkman, a portable audio cassette player, in 1979. A global recession in the early 1980s caused electronic sales for Sony to drop. The company had no choice but to cut its prices and Sony’s profits plummeted. The role of president was passed to Norio Ohga, who had known Ibuka and Morita since they originally brought him into TTK to help make improvements to the Type-G tape recorder. As president, Norio pushed Sony to develop the Compact Disc (CD) through the 1970s and 1980s. He also led the development of the PlayStation video game console in the early 1990s.
Other major moves by Norio as Sony president was purchasing CBS Records in 1988 and Columbia Pictures in 1989, providing Sony with an even stronger media presence. Norio would go on to succeed Akio as CEO of Sony in 1989. Akio and Norio hoped to achieve a “convergence” of digital electronics, music, and film by means of the Internet. While this pursuit didn’t bring Sony the profits that the two had hoped for, it did lead to the development of technology in a number of different areas.
In the world of photography, Sony offers a wide variety of digital cameras. Its line of point-and-shoot cameras falls under the Cyber-shot name. Its digital single-lens reflex cameras are branded under the Alpha name.
Sony introduced the first Cyber-shot in 1996, at a time when digital cameras a relatively new thing. While Sony started with a solid 20 percent digital camera market share, that percentage fell to 9 percent by 2005 as more competition entered the market.Sony is currently the third largest camera manufacturer in the world, behind Canon and Nikon.
Mostly leaving the DSLR market to Canon and Nikon, where Sony really shines is in its mirrorless cameras. Sony is a pioneer of the technology, which appears to be the wave of the future when it comes to digital cameras. Their interchangeable lenses make them lighter, faster, and more compact. They’re particularly good for shooting action thanks to their superior image stabilization and autofocus system. While Canon and Nikon have dipped their feet into the mirrorless camera market, their lines don’t match Sony’s in terms of selection or quality. The Sony a7, the first full-frame mirrorless camera of its kind, is still widely considered to be the mirrorless camera of the most “professional” quality.
Sony’s other focus is on compact cameras. It’s RX-series is particularly of note as one of the most advanced point-and-shoots on the market thanks to its great resolution, coupled with its fit-in-your-pocket size.