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Put your virtual hands up if you own a Sony camera.
Quite a few of you I'm betting.
Now keep those hands up if you remember Minolta cameras. Hmmm, quite a lot less. The thing is, that at the beating heart of your amazing Sony Alpha is the DNA of a great camera company, long since past, Minolta.
Minolta was never a giant like Nikon and Canon, they would probably be regarded as a level down from the two behemoths yet, significant amounts of the technology, not only in your Sonys but also pretty much any other modern DSLR or mirrorless camera comes from the innovation of Minolta through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
Today we are going to look at how a failing film company lives on in one of the world’s most successful photographic brands.
Minolta: The Film Days
PASM is an acronym many of us know. It stands for Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. Despite its ubiquitousness on modern cameras, it has only been around for 40 years or so and it was Minolta that introduced it to the world.
The camera was the Minolta XD-7 (or XD-11 in the U.S.) and it was one of the best regarded and technologically advanced cameras of the time. Perhaps more than any other camera, it signaled, Minolta’s intent to innovate.
Another feature we take for granted today is autofocus and again it was Minolta that brought this to the photographic world. Although there had been autofocus before, these used specialized and expensive lenses with the autofocus function built into them. Here Minolta innovated and the Minolta 7000F integrated the autofocus into the camera body, leading to the lighter faster lenses we see today.
But that was not the only innovation of the 7000F. It also featured an integrated, motorized film advance into the camera body. Until then, cameras required an expensive and battery intensive attachment to power wind the film. The DNA of this Minolta innovation lives on in the continuous shooting modes that all digital cameras have today.
There is one other innovation that the 7000F introduced to the world, one that is still at the very heart of Sony cameras today, the A-mount system. It is the name that gave birth to the Sony Alpha system.
Minolta: Early Digital Days
Unlike some other big players in the photographic industry, Minolta was not caught unawares by the digital revolution. Indeed they launched their first digital camera way back in 1995, the 1.75mp Minolta RD-175. Not only was this a digital camera, but it was also a DLSR. It was not the first DSLR, that honor went to Kodak but it was the first DSLR that was hand portable and more importantly, affordable to the consumer market.
Even in the early days of digital, Minolta’s innovation could not be held back. Another feature commonly found on modern cameras is sensor based stabilization. This stems from Minolta’s Dimage A1, a 5mp bridge camera released in 2003.
Rather than use the more complex and expensive method of stabilizing elements within a lens, the A1 moved the camera sensor instead. Incidentally, the bridge camera is also a Minolta innovation, rising from the release of the DiMAGE 7.
Being one of the smaller camera companies, Minolta struggled financially, to keep up with the big players. In 2003, in an attempt to boost funds, they merged with the much larger film company, Konica, becoming Konica Minolta Ltd.
However, Minolta’s earlier failed attempts to capture a segment of the professional film camera market signaled its eventual downfall. Minolta’s digital cameras were mainly aimed at the consumer market at a time when the big digital players realized it would be the professional market that would drive initial demand.
The Arrival Of Sony.
By the early years of the millennium, Sony was a massive, global electronic brand manufacturing a diverse range of products from audio to televisions. Their relatively small digital camera business was, like Minolta, focussed on the consumer market.
They did, however, recognize the wealth of innovation and engineering talent that Konica Minolta still possessed and in 2006 created a new partnership with them. Six months later, Konica took the decision to leave the camera business altogether and sold it to Sony.
Sony had been looking to get into the DSLR market and Minolta was a perfect match and in particular Minolta’s technologically advanced Alpha mount.
Within a year, Sony had their first DLSR ready for the market, the Alpha A100. It was a 10.2mp camera, very much built around an older Minolta design and featuring many of Minolta’s innovations. These included in-camera stabilization and eye start autofocus.
The A100 was the launch pad. Sony’s vast wealth allowed them to create an ambitious roadmap of camera releases. This culminated in 2008 with the announcement of a full frame DSLR with the largest pixel count yet seen, 24.6mp, the Alpha 900.
It signalled Sony’s intent to play with the big boys.
Using Minolta’s base technologies and their own innovations, Sony continued with their ambitious plans, releasing a wealth of well-received products both in the DSLR and compact markets.
Realizing the potential of the emerging mirrorless market, Sony went all out on producing the world’s first full frame mirrorless camera, the Alpha 7. By now the fabled Minolta Alpha mount had been superseded by Sony’s own E-mount but, if you dig deep, you'll find a significant amount of the DNA of the Alpha 7 comes from the innovation of Minolta.
Perhaps the moral of this story is that not all photographic companies that fail, end up in the dustbin of history. While there might not be very much left of companies like Kodak or Bronica, the innovation of Minolta lives on deep inside one of the most successful photographic brands of the modern era.
As someone who was a rare Minolta professional user in the 1990’s that brings a warm glow to my heart.
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