Conglomerates or Camera Companies?


In the corporate world, diversification is a way of life. As multinational conglomerates like PepsiCo can tell you, spreading out business over multiple sectors protects a company from economic shocks to any one industry, and opens up access to more markets.  A quick peek at SEC filings for some of the most prominent camera manufacturers reveals that many of them have made a strong effort to put this concept into practice, and you might be surprised at how small a role consumer photography plays in their annual sales.

olympusFor some, this isn’t exactly surprising. Sony didn’t make big moves into the photography industry until 2006 when they acquired a number of technological assets from Konica Minolta, so it makes sense that digital imaging makes up less than 8% of their annual business.

For others, it’s less intuitive. For example, Olympus’ primary breadwinner, by a wide margin, is its medical systems business, followed by information and communication. Consumer imaging systems, on the other hand, brought in just 15.1% of their net sales during the fiscal year 2011-12. That’s even more than Fujifilm, for whom consumer imaging, which includes film and photographic chemicals as well as digital systems, comprises only 13.3% of their business.  Then there’s Ricoh (formerly Pentax Ricoh) whose digital cameras (8.23% of net sales) play such a small role in their corporate portfolio that they are listed under the business segment “Other” in their quarterly reports. For Ricoh, office hardware and industrial level printing are much higher priorities.

Even Canon, the heavyweight in the market, makes a lot more money off of printers, scanners, and copying machines than cameras and lenses. Their entire imaging systems division – which includes camcorders, calculators, and industrial imaging systems in addition to consumer camera systems – comprises barely 40% of their business.

A few big names still rely on camera sales for most of their business. In particular, Nikon relies on consumer photography for 74.4% of its annual income and, unsurprisingly, Leica’s focus is almost entirely on their photo gear, with a small sporting optics business on the side. There’s also plenty of niche companies like Lomography or Lensbaby based solely on lines of photo gear. Still, it seems odd that we should have to talk about these cases as the exceptions rather than the norm.


To be clear, this isn’t a complaint. There’s no inherent reason that a larger company would produce lower quality products or would show less dedication to their cameras and lenses. Often times it probably helps. It’s easy to imagine that a company’s consumer optics have benefited from the inclusion of technologies developed for medical or industrial imaging, and more diversified companies are better able to weather tough times.

A more full understanding of the business practices of companies like Canon or Fujifilm gives better perspective on their actions and announcements. Olympus is a great example of this. Consider, for example, their partnership with Sony beginning in 2012. From the viewpoint of a photo gear-head, this event heralds cooperation on some new camera or lens line.

To be fair, something like that is happening and  that’s the way I described the event when I mentioned it in another article. But, if you asked the companies themselves, the partnership was built around the prospect of cooperation in the medical imaging field more than consumer imaging. That makes a lot of sense when you acknowledge Olympus as a medical imaging company that also makes cameras, rather than the other way around. In another example, Olympus admitted massive accounting fraud in 2011, to the tune billions of dollars, but it was almost unrelated to their consumer electronics division.

Sometimes it’s easy to get tunnel vision when dealing with the companies that make products we use frequently – in this case those that make the cameras, lenses, flashes, and other tools that photographers rely on. It’s easy to assume that’s all they do, especially when their other businesses target industrial or government customers rather than everyday consumers. The reality, it turns out, is quite to the contrary.

Image credits: Photographs by Canon, Olympus, Andrew Xu

  • 3Diamonds

    It’s worth noting that Nikon is owned by the Mitsubishi Group.

  • Teun

    Not really ‘owned’. The Mitsubishi group is more or less a group of autonomous companies, which uses the group to facilitate communications and co√∂perations. The stakeholders of Nikon still have got a lot more to decide than the Mitsubishi group. So it would make sense for this article to view Nikon as a seperate entity.

  • superduckz

    The word Yamaha is a good example. Some people instinctively think “motorcycle” others might go with audio equipment or musical instruments. Others go with Marine engines. Our office is filled with high end Canon copiers/printers/scanners and even high end plotters and the cost of just one of these might completely set a pro photographer up for business.

  • 3Diamonds

    I stand corrected, thanks for the info!

  • gochugogi

    I had a Yamaha tennis racket!

  • markz

    Diversification has its benefits both technologically and financially, as an example Canon’s origin is in photography but its diversification not only allowed synergy (in it’s true sense not in boss buzz word bingo sense) between similar but different technology but also give the company a financial buffer when inventing/developing/ and marketing not just new products but whole markets and technologies.

    Leica while highly focused on cameras (having split i from its medical and surveying equipment devisions the mid 90’sat what must seem to some an in auspicious time) was without both the internal technological synergy or buffer ended up being both slow in adopting digital and economically extremely conservative when they did.

    of course there are probably many contrary examples, which no doubt other posters will remind us that due to drive or lack of have run counter to the above examples – Nikon comes to mind came late to diversification outside of “analog” optical tech but were large enough and determined enough to know they couldn’t let Canon maintain its virtual monopoly in Pro/Prosumer digital so managed to get in early and slog it out to play catch up circa 2000 to 2007

    (or at least that’s my 2am insomnia driven opinion)

  • markz

    add ROV’s and UAV’s for Yamaha (who are one of the oldest builders of commercial/non military ROV’s with their RMAX crop dusting helicopters)

  • superduckz

    I forgot all about the sporting goods. I used to have a pair of Yamaha Snow Ski’s

  • Shane Godfrey

    Leica also works with large contractors looking near perfect optics. My friend’s dad goes over there a few times a year to work on some sort of helmet that has a crazy lens that can see people hundreds of meters away. Each lens is somewhere around 30k and leica is the only company that can make glass precise enough for it.

  • radiancedeluxe

    God bless Nippon Kogaku, K.K.

  • whatever_dude

    I wonder how relevant this really is. Each division within a large conglomerate is run fairly independently, isn’t it? I mean, the GE train division probably doesn’t spend much time talking to the finance sector. I wonder how these companies coordinate such disparate industries–whose job is it to monitor synergy?

  • ikdjkefjk

    i guess you mena zeiss……

  • nomics

    there is no money in producing cameras

  • Eugene Chok

    when i heard yamaha i went straight to keyboards as in musical keyboards

  • dudeinabox

    They also make Tuna Fish, now that’s diversification!

  • AliNoorani

    1. I remember once reading somewhere on how the bigger the producers are, the less loyal they are to costumers. Compare Sony, Canon and Nikon in how they support their products through time. With Sony you get a dozen models every now and then, only to be replaced with incompatible new ones in a short time, Canon has been somewhat steady in this regards. You can use all your EF lenses on your EOS cameras. Nikon is the top here, take a 50-year-old lens and mount it on.
    Sony is focused on mass production and mass marketing of a very wide range of products and enters every market it can get its hands on, but it’s different with the other two. Of course, as said above, it can translate into being more vulnerable to market tensions.
    I’m not saying it’s totally true, but it has a point

    2. The whole thing seems reasonable. Consumer imaging products are never a sure thing. People might always stop buying cameras due to economic pressure or lack of interest (i.e. deciding to go with camera phones) but industries don’t purchase for fun. They need devices and they will buy them. Scanners are much less likely to go out of business/be hit in the market than camcorders

  • Ken Elliott

    Samsung, Sony and Panasonic could decide to dump photography completely. The photo division has to compete with all the other divisions for capital, manufacturing and R&D resources. Nikon and Leica have no choice but to make photography work or they die. Examples: Sony NEWS workstations are no longer produced, Canon FD lens mount is gone, but Nikon and Leica still work with lenses made decades ago.

    These are not good examples, but I like to buy cameras from camera companies, and motorcycles from motorcycle companies.