Revived Chinon goes retro with digital camera that looks like movie camera

SUWA, Nagano Prefecture–An optical equipment maker here that went under in the 1990s but was later brought back to life under a former company director plans to revive the popular brand with a retro-style digital camera aimed at photography buffs.

On the outside, Chinon Corp.’s Bellami HD-1 looks remarkably similar to the vertical 8mm film cameras that were popular in the 1970s.

The company started to accept advance orders for the new product March 7, with sales to start March 22.

With the Bellami HD-1, photos are taken by pulling a trigger while looking through a viewfinder, as if the user is shooting old-fashioned 8mm film. Motion pictures can be shot in “Full High Vision,” the top high definition format, and still images can also be taken.

Aimed at professionals, the new camera cannot autofocus. Users will have to focus manually, as well as adjust shutter speeds and the aperture setting. The camera features a D mount for lenses, which was used on 8mm film cameras.

Though beginner-type features have been omitted, the Bellami HD-1 has a light sensitivity that can capture mountain ridges and distant faint lights in the darkness that cannot be seen by human eyes.

It also has a larger depth of field (DOF)–the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a photo that appear in sharp focus.

The high sensitivity and the increased DOF make it possible for users to snap a wide variety of images.

“But the users will not be able to do so unless they have photography skills,” said one of the engineers who developed the new camera.

Chinon’s predecessor, Chinon Industries Inc., which was founded in 1948, obtained solid fan support for its products over the years. It developed hits such as “Direct Sound,” an 8mm film camera with a microphone, and “Bellami,” a camera that has a casement door-like lens cover. At its peak, the company had an overseas factory and more than 2,000 employees.

However, it lagged behind other makers in developing digital cameras. As a result, its business performance deteriorated in the 1990s. It was taken over by U.S.-based Eastman Kodak Co. in 1997.

Before the takeover, Masazumi Chino, 57, who resigned as a director of Chinon Industries, founded a new company, ImageLink Inc., with engineers of Chinon Industries. At that time, Chino, who is married to the daughter of Chinon Industries’ founder, pledged to develop a camera under the Chinon label again.

In 2005, Chino bought back the trademark rights of Chinon from Kodak. To take over the Chinon brand, he changed the name of the assets management company of Chinon Industries to Chinon.

ImageLink and Chinon then accumulated funds for developing a new camera by producing toy cameras or manufacturing products for other firms under original equipment manufacturer (OEM) contracts.

Seeking to develop a product unlike any of the major camera makers, Chino decided to develop a camera for professionals. After repeated trial productions, the Bellami HD-1 was born.

The new camera will be priced at 85,000 yen (about $836) per unit, excluding tax. Chinon aims to sell 6,000 units a year.

While anxious over whether it will sell well, Chino has confidence in its originality and quality.

“The camera will be accepted by former users of Chinon (Industries) products,” he said.

GATHERING LOCAL TECHNOLOGIES

In developing the product, Chino had one purpose. That was “utilizing local technologies.”

Factories to manufacture yarn-making machines used to dominate the Suwa area in Nagano Prefecture as the sericulture industry was prosperous there. Those factories later developed to makers of electric products or precision instruments, giving the area the nickname “Switzerland of the East” in the post-war years.

The leading maker among them was Suwa Seikosha Co. (current Seiko Epson Corp.). However, many of those makers fell into a business slump due to the higher appreciation of the Japanese yen. Some went bankrupt, while others moved their factories overseas.

According to statistics of the Nagano prefectural government, the annual shipments of manufacturing products from the Suwa area is now about half of the peak marked in 1991.

Meanwhile, neither Chinon nor ImageLink have factories. The two firms specialize in designing, development and sales promotion. In developing the Bellami HD-1, they procured key parts, such as the lens and the electronic viewfinder, from companies in Nagano Prefecture.

During product development, Chino understood the reality that the Japanese manufacturing industry has weakened. Domestic parts makers would not even offer samples when they learned the small production scale for Chinon’s new product.

Overseas parts makers were more receptive.

“It is said that Japanese manufacturing companies have to open the way to their futures with technological developments. But information, parts and molds are gathering in overseas manufacturing companies,” Chino said.

Despite such circumstances, he succeeded in procuring key parts from local areas and appreciated the power of Nagano Prefecture’s manufacturing industry.

Still dependent on overseas companies for many parts, Chino said he hopes that his two firms will prosper alongside local companies.

The Bellami HD-1 will be sold through Chinon’s website (http://chinon.jp/bellami) and at some household electronic appliance stores.

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