A battle is breaking out in the digital SLR camera market with the traditional digital SLR camera players such as Nikon, Canon and Olympus set to come under pressure from Sony, which this week launched a low cost, richly featured digital SLR Camera that will appeal to the millions of Australians who love shooting pictures.

While Nikon, Canon and Pentax are strong in the professional camera market they do not have the brand status that Sony has. In a recent Readers Digest survey Sony appeared sixth in the list of all the country’s most trusted brands, the highest ranking for any CE brand. According to Reader’s Digest, once a brand wins a consumer’s trust, they are likely to become loyal purchasers, something that Sony is banking on to win this digital SLR race. Also helping Sony is the fact that they are #2 in the Digital Camera market in Australia and many Sony customers who have purchased point and shoot digital camera’s could well upgrade to a Sony DSLR Camera.

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In the fierce fight for first place in the digital camera market Sony have delivered a sophisticated 10.2 megapixel camera with built-in image stabilisation that is designed to appeal to upper-end consumers and enthusiasts who prefer customisable features over point-and-shoot models.

“We’ve evaluated the market and have determined there is a strong demand for SLRs,” says James Neal, director of digital imaging products at Sony. “By placing the camera at entry level to the enthusiast and professional market, we think the A100 represents a great opportunity for Sony and our customers.” A great opportunity indeed. While Sony currently holds second place in digital camera sales both worldwide and in Australia, industry analysts say that the market is quickly maturing.

In 2005, U.S. point-and-shoot camera sales reached $6 billion. By the end of 2006, that number is expected to drop to $5.8 billion. And by 2009, sales will have fallen even further still to $3.3 billion, according to technology research firm InfoTrends. Though the digital SLR market is far smaller, it is still growing. Sales in 2005 were $950 million and are expected to rise to $1.3 billion by year’s end. That trend is expected to slow as hardware prices drop, but the segment will still see continued growth: 2009 sales are forecast at $1.8 billion.
“GFK Australia is forecasting 22 percent DSLR growth for this year, so we think capturing 10 percent of the market share in 12 months is achievable. We will also be aiming for 20 percent of the market share within two years,” said Sony’s Marcus Cornish.

Sony is hardly the first company to notice the trend. Other firmly entrenched camera companies like Canon, Nikon and Olympus–which respectively hold first, second and third place in SLR global market share–have already built strong customer bases.

And that customer base is key to profits. Even as point-and-shoot and SLR camera prices drop, SLR users will continue to buy expensive accessories. And once they have made the initial investment in the camera, customers tend to upgrade to the same brand to keep using all their add-ons. “People who buy SLRs are the most attractive kind of digital camera user,” says Christopher Chute, digital imaging analyst from IDC. “Vendors make a ton of money off these things.”

Sony won’t find it too difficult to break into the market; the company got a lucky break back in January. Konica Minolta, a well-respected digital SLR manufacturer, announced it was bowing out of the photography industry all together and it turned its SLR business over to Sony. Since Konica Minolta cameras will be interchangeable with the new Sony accessories, the company already has a sizable built-in consumer base.

“It’s a group of consumers Sony can go after right away,” says Ed Lee, digital imaging analyst from InfoTrends. The company’s strategy of first aiming at the mid and low ranges of the SLR market–first-time SLR buyers and advanced amateurs–is an “extremely savvy” approach to entering the market, since more than 80% of all SLR sales are $1,000 and under, Chute says.
Canon, “the 1,000-pound gorilla in the SLR market,” uses a top-down approach to its SLR market strategy. “I definitely see this as a threat to Canon’s SLR business,” Chute says. “On a worldwide scale, as far as point-and-shoot camera market share, Sony and Canon are neck and neck. Add in SLR sales, and Sony could give them a run for the money.”

Sony’s Carl Rose said the company’s three areas of growth this year would be high definition, audio and digital imaging, with the new alpha clearly set to head up the latter category.

Sony is targeting the camera at first-time DSLR buyers and Konica Minolta SLR camera owners. The latter group will find the new alpha particularly appealing as it uses the same lens mount as Konica Minolta traditional film SLR cameras – thus the Sony alpha is compatible with existing Konica Minolta lenses.

The alpha A100 is a 10.2 megapixel digital SLR camera, featuring a new CCD (image sensor) and new image processor, bionz, which Sony claims allows three frames per second shooting. Sony’s Super Steady Shot (a CCD-shift anti-shake platform) has also had an upgrade. It is actually inside the alpha body (as opposed to in the lenses), so it can work on all lenses. Apart from delivering image stabilization, Sony claims Super Steady Shot also works to remove any dust from the CCD, by shaking when the camera power is switched off. An additional dust reduction measure is the anti-static (dust resistant) coating over the image sensor.

Sony’s Toru Shiono said the new Super Steady Shot also features “An improved corrective frequency range, including improved correctiveness in the low frequency range, meaning the camera can compensate for any shaking in low light conditions.”

Other smart features of the alpha include the Eyestart Auto Focusing System, which detects when an eye is looking through the viewfinder and focuses automatically. The alpha also claims a high writing speed, whereby the camera can record as many continuous advance shots as the memory card capacity. Mr Shiono said competitor models with a similar shooting speed can record only 14 shots.

A feature that will appeal to the snap-happy is Sony’s new Stamina Long Lithium-ion battery. Mr Shiono claims the battery can take up to 750 shots with one charge, compared to the 450 shots capable from competitor batteries.

Sony is also launching a range of lenses to work with the new DSLR system, including a top-end line by Carl Zeiss and G Lens, as well as a number of Sony lenses. The company gave the new alpha to professional photographer, Brent Williams, to test out. He said, “One of the more exciting features of the camera, from a professional perspective, is the Carl Zeiss lens. These lenses are like the holy grail of photography.”

An alpha accessories range is also available, including products such as bags, cases and adapters.

The camera ships with a compact flash adapter and supports memory stick pro duo media.

A100B (body only) $1499
A100KB (body + 18-70mm lens) $1749
A100WB (body + 18-70mm and 75-300mm lenses) $1999

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