On January 19, 2006, Konica Minolta announced that it was leaving the camera and photo business and that it would sell a portion of its SLR camera business to Sony as part of its move to pull completely out of the business of selling cameras and photographic film.
Relying heavily on imported German technology, Nichi-Doku turned out their first product, a bellows camera called the Nifcalette, in March 1929. By 1937, the company reorganized as Chiyoda Kogaku Seikō, K.K. (Chiyoda Optics and Fine Engineering, Ltd.) and built the first Japanese-made twin-lens reflex camera, the Minoltaflex based on the German Rolleiflex.
In 1950, Minolta developed a planetarium projector, the first-ever made in Japan, beginning the company's connection to astronomical optics. John Glenn took a Minolta Hi-Matic rangefinder 35 mm camera aboard the spacecraft Friendship 7 in 1962, and in 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon with a Minolta Space Meter aboard.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Minolta competed in the medium-format rollfilm camera market with the excellent Autocord series of TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras. Marketed at a time when other indifferent copies of the Rolleiflex TLR design were flooding the market, the Autocords soon acquired an enviable reputation for the high quality of their Rokkor optics.
From the late 1950s through the 1980s, Minolta was arguably the most innovative camera manufacturer - the first Japanese manufacturer to introduce a bayonet lens mount rather than a screw mount, the first manufacturer to introduce TTL metering with full aperture, and the first manufacturer to introduce multi-mode metering. They also introduced the first commercially-successful autofocus SLR line with the Maxxum series.
In 1972, Minolta drew up a formal cooperation agreement with Leitz. Leitz desperately needed expertise in camera body electronics, and Minolta felt that they could learn from Leitz's undoubted optical expertise. Tangible results of this cooperation were the Leica CL/Minolta CL, an affordable rangefinder camera to supplement the Leica M range. The Leica CL was built by Minolta, to Leica specifications. Other results were the Leica R3, which was in fact the Minolta XE-1 with a Leica lens mount, viewfinder and spot light metering system.
Others regard the XM (XK in the Americas, X-1 in Japan), a rugged camera designed for the serious amateur and professional photographer dating from 1972, to be the quintessential Minolta. The XM / XK /X-1 Motor(the motorized version) may well be the most collectible Japanese 35 mm camera - in September 2004 an XM Motor of 1976 was sold for €2566, approximately 200% of its price back in 1976.
Minolta continued to offer 35mm MF SLR cameras in its X370, X-570, and X-700 from 1981, but slowly repositioned its cameras to appeal to a broader market. Minolta decided to abandon the high level of design and parts specification of its earlier XD/XE line. The new amateur-level X-570, X-700, and related models offered additional program and metering features designed to appeal to newer photographers, at a lower cost. The advanced vertical metal shutter design of the older cameras was rejected in favor of a cheaper horizontal cloth-curtain shutter, reducing flash sync to a very slow 1/60th second. Further cost savings were made internally, where some operating components were changed from metal to plastic. As Minolta's autofocus Maxxums were proving successful, Minolta invested fewer resources in its manual focus line as time progressed.
Minolta was quick to enter the highly competitive 35mm compact camera market in the 1980s. Transitioning from older rangefinder designs to 'point-and-shoot' (P&S)electronic, autofocus/autowind cameras was applauded by most camera buyers, but decried by those who missed the old Minolta quality. Minolta, like other major manufacturers faced with low-cost competition from elsewhere in Asia, found it difficult to build quality P&S cameras at a cost the consumer was willing to pay, and was forced to offshore production, gradually redesigning successive cameras to reduce cost and maintain profit margins.
Minolta purchased the patent rights to auto-focus lens technology from Leica Camera in the 1970s.In 1985, Minolta introduced a new line of autofocus (AF) SLR cameras. In North America, they used the name 'Maxxum', in Europe the cameras were called 'Dynax' and in Japan they were named 'Alpha'. They were Minolta's first line of automatic focus SLR cameras, and in fact the first commercially successful autofocus SLRs the world had seen.
With the Maxxum line, the heavy-duty metal bodies of earlier Minoltas were abandoned in favor of lighter and less expensive plastics. The Maxxum 7000, the most popular of the new Maxxums, introduced the innovation of arrow buttons for setting aperture and shutter speed, rather than a shutter speed dial on the body and an aperture ring on the lens. That way, the only control necessary on the lens is the manual focus ring (plus the zoom ring in the case of zoom lenses).
The Maxxum 7000 had two 8-bit CPUs and six integrated circuits. A circuit on the lens relayed aperture information to the camera body, and the motor for autofocus was contained within the camera body. An LCD showed aperture, shutter speed and film frame count. The 7000 had TTL phase-detection focusing and metering, autoexposure and predictive autofocus. All Maxxum cameras use the Minolta 'A' autofocus lens mount, and earlier manual-focus Minolta MC and MD lenses are incompatible with the new AF cameras.
Unfortunately for Minolta, its autofocus design was found to infringe on the patents of Honeywell, a U.S. corporation. After protracted litigation, Minolta in 1991 was ordered to pay Honeywell damages, penalties, trial costs and other expenses in a final amount of 127.6 million dollars (source: NY Times).
After the 4-digit Maxxum i line which included the 3000i, 5000i, 7000i and 8000i came the 1-digit Maxxum xi line, followed by the 3-digit si line, the 1-digit line without letters (Alpha/Dynax/Maxxum 3, 4, 5, 7, 9), and finally, the Maxxum 50 (Dynax 40) and Maxxum 70 (Dynax 60).
In an effort to strengthen market share and acquire additional assets in film, film cameras and optical equipment, Minolta merged with another long-time Japanese camera manufacturer, Konica Ltd., in 2003. The new corporation was called Konica-Minolta Ltd.
Until Konica-Minolta announced their withdrawal plan in 2006, K-M made Maxxum/Dynax digital and film-based cameras (retaining the different names in the different markets), improving the design while maintaining the basic concepts. The Maxxum 4 is a low-priced 35mm SLR with an A-type bayonet mount, built-in flash, autoexposure, predictive autofocus, electronically controlled vertical-traverse focal plane shutter, through-the-lens (TTL) phase-detection focusing and metering. In advertising literature, Minolta claimed that the Maxxum 4 was the most compact 35 mm AF SLR, and the second fastest at autofocusing, while the Maxxum 5 was the fastest at autofocusing. These cameras were, however, intended for the consumer end of the market.
Minolta made one last attempt to enter the serious amateur and professional market with the Maxxum (Dynax) 9 in 1998, followed by the Maxxum 7 in 2000, which used a full LCD readout on the rear of the camera. Though well received by the photographic press, the 7 and 9 did not sell to expectation or achieve any significant breakthrough with their intended customer base, who had largely gravitated to Canon or Nikon brands. All of these cameras were eventually discontinued in favor of the less-expensive Maxxum 50 and 70, which were sold under the Minolta name until 2006, when Konica-Minota ceased production of all film cameras.
Minolta has a line of digital point and shoot cameras to compete in the digital photography market. Their DiMage line includes digital cameras and imaging software as well as film scanners.
Minolta created a new category of 'ZSLR' or fixed zoom-lens SLR-type cameras with the introduction of the DiMage 7. Designed for use by people familiar with 35mm single-lens-reflex or SLR cameras, without the added cost or complication of interchangeable lenses or optical reflex viewfinders, the DiMage incorporated many of the features of a higher level film camera with the simplicity of smaller compact digicams. The camera had a traditional zoom ring and focus ring on the lens barrel, and was equipped with an electronic (EVF) viewfinder rather than the direct optical reflex view of an SLR. It added other features such as a histogram and the cameras were compatible with Minolta's flashes for modern film SLRs.
However, the DiMage 7 (including the DiMAGE A1, A2, and A200) and similar 'ZSLR' cameras were not really adequate substitutes for professional SLR cameras, and initially there were many reports of slow autofocus speed and various malfunctions (this has surfaced where a Sony-designed CCD chip would malfunction, rendering the camera useless. Minolta, however, issued a CCD alert and fixed faulty units free of charge; after Konica Minolta's withdrawal from the photo business, Sony has taken over the CCD alert). Minolta later innovated in this line by being the first manufacturer to integrate a mechanical anti-shake system (Minolta's Anti-Shake is based inside the camera body as opposed to the camera lens - common with Canon EF and Nikon AF lenses).
In January 2002 Minolta again created a new category of camera, introducing the Minolta Dimage X, an ultra compact digital with a 3x folded zoom lens. With the folded approach, no moving parts of the lens are external to the camera. Instead a 45 degree mirror bounces light to a conventional zoom lens safely tucked inside the camera body. Fast startup times are one potential benefit of this design (since nothing needs to extend), but slow focus and shutter lag times marred the advantage of this innovation.
Although Minolta had launched the first digital SLR system as early as 1995, the RD-175 – a 1.75 megapixel camera based on the Maxxum 500si – this camera was never successful and in 1998, this camera was superseded by the RD3000, a 3 megapixel SLR based on the lens mount of the Vectis APS SLR camera line, which was equally unsuccessful and short-lived.
While Minolta was the inventor of the modern integrated AF SLR, it took Konica-Minolta a long time to enter the digital SLR market, a delay that may have proved fatal. K-M was the last of the large camera manufacturers to launch a digital SLR camera (Maxxum/Dynax 5D and 7D) using the 35 mm AF-mount. Popular with many owners, the DSLR cameras appeared to suffer from a lack of marketing and promotion, certainly in comparison to the "two majors" Nikon and Canon. During July 2005, K-M and Sony negotiated on a joint-development of a new line of DSLR cameras, where it was believed that Konica-Minolta and Sony would market their DSLR line to the masses (much like the joint-marketing and development of Pentax and Samsung K10/GX10 DSLRs).
On January 19, 2006, K-M announced that all DSLR production would continue under Sony's management; DSLR camera assets were transferred to Sony during the Konica-Minolta withdrawal phase until March 31, 2006, where technical support for these cameras (primarily Konica-Minolta's other digital cameras) was assumed by Sony, who announced the first Konica-Minolta-based Sony SLR - the Alpha A100 - on June 5 2006.