No Comments

One of the technology news stories from Friday was the sale of the Pentax camera business to Ricoh. Hoya bought Pentax only in 2007 and is retaining Penatx's medical technology. While Pentax used to be a major player in the SLR and Medium Format camera markets, its fortunes have declined. It is now ranked 10th in world digital camera sales with only 1.5% of the market (and its sales continue to decline).

This is partly a reflection of the big changes in the wold camera markets. It used to be that cameras were the preserve of traditional camera companies. The technology embedded in film cameras, the lenses that were developed to match these, was specialised knowledge that just a few companies sustained. People bought Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Olympus or Pentax. That was basically the choice-set. Now digital cameras have become something technology companies are moving into.

This is perhaps exemplified by Sony purchasing the Minolta camera assets off Konica. Sony brings sensor-technology to the table (and its sensor division sells a lot of sensors to Nikon as well). And while technology companies have succeeded in making big inroads into the compact camera market, the SLR market is still dominated by Canon and Nikon. Minolta gave Sony the change to generate some market-share out of that mount. But other companies attempts to make SLRS (Samsung, Sigma, Fuji) have not gone down nearly as well.

Where does that leave Pentax? Well, timing is everything and the traditional SLR market is changing. SLR cameras are based on a mechanical, flipping mirror that exposes a sensor to the image. The mirror mechanism dictates that such cameras have to be a certain size to accommodate it. There have been two recent technology developments however that are potential game changers.

The first is the development of mirror-less cameras that use large sensors. SLR cameras traditionally were preferred over compacts because the much larger physical size of the sensor meant better image quality. Images would have 'less noise' and better colour range and fidelity. Now Panasonic, Olympus and Sony all have cameras that are mirror-less, have interchangeable lenses and large sensors.

The second development is the translucent mirror technology launched by Sony. Other companies are likely to have similar ideas in the pipeline. This 'SLT' technology means the camera can shoot at a much higher fps (as it's not limited by the mechanics of a mirror flipping up and down), and the camera can be made smaller. Sony has since shown little appetite for launching traditional SLR cameras.

The selling points of Pentax were the robust build of their SLR cameras and lenses. They incorporated weather-sealing into even their entry-level DSLR cameras. Nonetheless, the lack of market share has been a product of several factors.

First, the limited lens choice. While I have respect and affection for many of the Pentax L range of lenses, the fact is there's not a lot of them. The longest telephoto option is a 300mm F4 lens- there are no options to go longer or faster than this. This wasn't helped by a reputation for AF-tacking that was not on par with other systems.

Second, the lack of an upgrade path. As a keen photographer, what I like in a system is the option to go to a full-frame digital camera later (a full-frame DSLR uses a larger 24x36mm sensor rather than an APS-C 25.1*16.7mm sensor). I don't know if I want to exercise that option, but there may come a point in time when I want to. Pentax never provided that option.

So the Ricoh purchase might be good for the two companies. Ricoh has a good range of compacts, Pentax is a legacy brand in the SLR market and comes with a lot of SLR technology. A synergy is possible, but this seems to be discounted by the market.

After the Ricoh purchase, Ricoh shares actually dropped in value (0.2%). Hoya, who had got rid of the Pentax camera business (and kept the medical technology) saw its shares rise by 6% on the announcement and ended still up 4%. One still hopes for nostalgic reasons perhaps, that Pentax will recover some lost ground from this purchase.