Historically, Nikon is the oldest of the three companies, with Nippon Kogaku (Japan Optics) being founded during 1917. The Nikkor brand of lenses was first designed during 1932. Then, during 1946, the first camera with the Nikon brand appeared. Nikon’s major contribution to the world of photography was the invention of the single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, which was introduced to the world during 1959.
Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, founded during 1933, was the origin of Canon. One year later, the founders introduced Japan’s first 35mm camera, which was a design “clone” of the famous German Leica 35mm camera. Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory became Canon Camera Company, Inc. during 1946. Canon is credited with the first digital camera, as we define it today: a camera with a microprocessor to focus and set exposure time, automatically. The AE-1 camera was announced to the world during 1976.
Sony is the youngster in this crowd, having been founded during 1946. While Nikon and Canon are famous for their early development of modern optics and inventing historic “first” cameras, Sony Corporation is one of very few companies, of any type, that can claim to have virtually invented an entire industry. Within the first 50 years of its existence, Sony introduced the transistor radio, Trinitron television, Betamax VCR, Walkman portable cassette player, compact disc and other iconic consumer electronics products.
As the Nikon/Canon camera battle raged, Sony became the most recognized brand in general electronics products. It came late to the camera competition and digital photography revolution. Because of its pioneering of electronics technology, it developed the world's first commercial color video camera to utilize a completely solid-state image sensor, a charge-coupled-device, or CCD, which has become a common sensor in many digital cameras. Then, during August 1981, came the Sony Mavica electronic still camera, the first commercial model; however, it was not the digital camera of today, but a video camera that recorded freeze-frames.
Sony introduced its actual first digital camera, the Mavica FD series, during 1997. It used floppy disks to store images. Sony became a major player in the digital photography market during 2005 with the introduction of the Alpha 100, the company’s first DSLR. From this first camera, Sony developed its unique fixed-mirror Alpha series of cameras, including the A55, A65, A900 and A77, and the A57 and A99, new for 2012. Sony also beat Nikon and Canon to a new market segment when Sony introduced its NEX system of ultra-compact, mirror-less, or Four Thirds, APS-C bodies and lenses.
According to statistics from 2011, Canon is the world’s largest camera manufacturer with 19 percent of the market. Sony is second with 17.9 percent, and Nikon third with 16.9 percent. For just the portion of the market for cameras with interchangeable lenses, or single-lens-reflex cameras, Canon dominates with 44.5 percent, with Nikon at 29.8 percent and Sony, 11.9%.
Nikon being the oldest, Canon being #1 and Sony being the electronics giant are not necessarily the only reasons you should consider one company’s camera over another. Photography “culture,” camera technology and photographic creativity are equal, or even more important, factors when choosing a camera model. These are explored in other articles in this series.
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Photograph by Photography Talk member Durjoy Roy