Japanese Domination of the Camera Market

After World War II, Japanese companies began to compete very effectively in the international camera market. At the top end of the professional camera market, Rolleiflex and other European companies, including Sweden’s Hasselblad and Austria’s Voigtlander, maintained their supremacy. For example, Voigtlander introduced the zoom lens, widely used in motion-picture photography since the 1930s, for still photography in 1958. However, Japanese companies made serious in-roads into the lower end of the professional camera market. Nippon Kogaku launched its first camera, the Nikon I rangefinder 35 mm camera, in 1948. Exceeding a million units in sales, its Nikon F SLR camera of 1959 was the first commercially successful SLR model. In 1953, Nikon was also the first maker to produce a camera with motorized drive, but motorized drives were uncommon until the 1960s. Another Japanese company, Olympus, produced the first compact SLR camera, the Olympus Trip, in 1968. Twenty years later, sales of the Olympus Trip reached 10 million.

Even the smallest SLR cameras could not be described as pocket-size, so there was a gap in the market between low-performance cartridge cameras that were small and lightweight and the bulkier SLR cameras. In the late 1970s, this gap was filled by the introduction of fully automatic, compact 35 mm cameras. These cameras improved in the early 1980s as a result of the development of auto-focus lenses. As cameras gained more electronic functions, their styling reflected this transition by becoming increasingly high tech. The harder lines of the older metal-bodied mechanical SLR cameras gave way to the sleek lines of plastic-bodied electronic compact and SLR cameras.

The serious image of the camera was only challenged by the modern equivalents of the Brownie. Eastman Kodak had continued to periodically reinvent the simple “point and press” camera. The cheap Kodak Instamatic camera of 1963 used easy-to-load film cartridges and achieved sales of 50 million units by 1970. Its successor, a pocket-size model introduced in 1972, was equally successful. In 1982, a new Kodak format, the film disc, was launched. Single-use disposable cameras followed in the late 1980s. Kodak’s colorful Fun Saver disposable cameras achieved dramatic market penetration, reaching sales of 50 million units by 1995. In the United States, single-use cameras accounted for 75 percent of annual camera sales. In keeping with environmental concerns, Eastman Kodak recovers more than 80 percent by weight of the materials in disposable cameras by reuse or recycling.