Where Are They Now?
My first real camera was a Zenit E; I then went on to Yashica and Contax before my first Nikon in 1990. Friends had 35mm SLRs from Pentax, Praktica, and Olympus among others. Other brands which were around included Minolta, Ricoh, Mamiya, Miranda, and Konica. If my memory serves, the ‘Big Five’ were Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Minolta.
Take a look around now. It’s not just that 35mm SLRs have all but vanished: Nikon still makes the F6 in limited numbers (but I very much doubt there will ever be an F7), Canon is still selling the EOS-1v but probably just because there are still some in the warehouse, and – much to my surprise – it appears Zenit are still making 35mm SLRs, though I haven't seen one for sale in the UK for decades. Even more surprising, so is Vivitar.
What has really struck me, though, is how few companies still make digital SLRs. As far as I can see, it’s down to Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Sigma. Some might count Sony’s ‘SLRs’ as well, though these are actually SLTs. Olympus does still market its E-5 SLR, but it’s absent from many of the major dealers’ listings and I’m dubious as to whether there'll ever be an E-6.
I’m not an industry expert but it’s not hard to think of some reasons why so many companies have ceased trading or exited the SLR market. In no particular order:
1: higher development costs: digital SLRs are packed full of sensors and circuitry whereas traditional 35mm SLRs were much simpler (and contained quite a lot of empty space! So there are simply more components to develop or to source.
2: shorter product cycles: as noted before, the Nikon F3 was produced, with only minor changes, from 1980 to 2001, and the FM2 for almost as long. These days new models in the ‘enthusiast’ category come along virtually on an annual basis and even the pro cameras only last 2–3 years before at least a minor upgrade.
3: globalisation: nearly all cameras are now made somewhere in East Asia. Hard for European factories to compete in this market.
4: brand consolidation: big fish swallow little fish.
And being an old cynic, I could say there’s at least one other reason why some of these brands have disappeared or downsized...
5: some of them were crap.
This, of course does not apply to names like Contax, Leica and Topcon... I’ll leave you to work out for yourself which names in the list below it does apply to.
Of course there’s another major factor in play here: the seismic shift from film to digital. 20 years ago almost all of us used film; now almost no-one does. Some manufacturers didn’t see this coming, or didn’t get on board early enough.
I’ve occasionally claimed, with some justification, that the digital revolution really began with the Nikon D1. For press photographers, in particular, there’s a strong case that this was the first really usable camera – and it bore a comforting resemblance to the F5 35mm SLR. In the following few years, the majority of digital cameras looked either like a 35mm compact or a 35mm SLR, and used many common components like shutters, pentaprisms and mirror assemblies – as well, of course, as using the same lenses.
And we still see one strong legacy effect in the fact that many cameras, including all those Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sigma and Sony SLRs, have a default image format that has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as a standard 35mm frame. The Four Thirds consortium set out to challenge this and arguably they succeeded. Many would argue that 4:3 is a more pleasing or more ‘natural’ shape for an image than 3:2. Against that, there’s the smaller size of Four Thirds sensors, which is a slight handicap in areas like dynamic range and high ISO image quality.
A few years ago, Olympus offered several Four Thirds SLRs, and Panasonic also made a couple; now there’s just the lonely E-5. But Four Thirds is alive and well, albeit under the slightly different monicker of Micro Four Thirds. Micro Four Thirds uses the same size sensor but in a mirrorless body, relying on an electronic viewfinder and/or rear screen viewing. Olympus’ OM-D models look similar to its classic OM series 35mm SLRs, but they’re mirrorless cameras, not SLRs.
Mirrorless (aka Compact System) cameras are now available in a range of formats:
1” sensor (CX in Nikon jargon): Nikon 1 series, Pentax Q
Micro Four Thirds: Panasonic, Olympus
APS: Fujifilm, Samsung, Sony NEX, Canon (EOS M), Leica
Full-frame: Sony A
That makes the mirrorless marketplace look a bit more crowded than the traditional DSLR one. (BTW it does seem odd using the term ‘traditional’ for a product that has really only been around for 15 years, but of course what sets DSLRs aside from their mirrorless rivals is the mirror and pentaprism, and that technology is considerably more venerable).
However, this is slightly misleading as SLRs are still selling in pretty large numbers – and there may be fewer manufacturers in the market but they tend to have more models on offer. At least that’s true for the big two, Nikon and Canon. Nikon has at least 7 current DSLRs, and that’s without counting variants (e.g. D800/D800E) or older models which remain on sale even though they’ve been supplanted: for example you can still find the D5100 and D5200 on sale alongside the recently-released D5300. Nikon even continues to list the D90 and D300s (and actually, they’re still darn good cameras). Canon lists 11 current models, Pentax 7 and Sigma just 2.
Conclusions? Heck, I think I’m more confused at the end of this review than I was at the start. There may be far fewer brand-names to choose from in the SLR market, but there’s still a genuine choice, and all of them are excellent cameras. As I’ve suggested earlier, you couldn’t say that about every 35mm SLR that was around, say, 30 years ago. And as photographers now we have an even wider genuine choice with the increasing diversity and ever-advancing quality of mirrorless models.
For nerds like me, here’s a list of all the names I can remember or have been able to trace of 35mm SLRs, starting with what we used to call the ‘Big Five’. I’m quite sure this list is neither exhaustive nor definitive, but it gives at least an impression of the number of names that used to be around. I’ve commented where I can.
Nikon – still making SLRs, and a 35mm SLR too!
Canon – still making SLRs, and still selling a 35mm SLR
Olympus – still making cameras, including some of the best mirrorless cameras around, but its last remaining SLR looks like a lame duck
Minolta – pulled out of camera business in 2008, sold its SLR business to Sony
Pentax – still making SLRs
Zenit – yes, apparently they are still making 35mm SLRs, or just selling off massive backlogs of old stock
Praktica – still making cameras, but all fairly low-end digital now
Contax – ceased making cameras in 2005
Yashica – ended up in same stable as Contax and also ceased in 2005
Ricoh – acquired Pentax, increasingly sells all its cameras under the Pentax brand
Mamiya – always more of a medium format specialist, still makes 645 digital and Leaf backs
Miranda – made its last SLR in 1978
Cosina – used to make 35mm SLRs for many other brands as well as some under its own name. Still makes lenses and a few cameras, but not SLRs.
Konica – merged with Minolta (see above) in 2003
Vivitar – still makes (or at least sells) a 35mm SLR, as well as lenses and compact cameras
Voigtlander – made at least one 35mm SLR. Now part of Cosina and brand still used on rangefinder cameras
Leica – better known for rangefinders but made R-series SLRs until 2009.
Fuji/Fujica – perversely, now uses the name Fujifilm on its digital cameras. The X-Pro and XE models are some of the best mirrorless cameras around. Used to make digital SLRs – I had a less than wonderful experience with the S3.
Zeiss Ikon/Contaflex – forerunners of Contax
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