Remember back in the 1980s when we were all afraid of being eclipsed by Japan? They started out with a higher average IQ. They added a superior education, work ethic, and devotion to craftsmanship. Nippon’s best and brightest went into engineering and product design while ours went into law and financial chicanery.
We thought our world domination was coming to an end in 1989 when the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center. How could we compete with a country where everyone was good at his or her job? Where the crime rate was negligible and therefore expenses for security, police, and prisons were minimal? Then the Japanese economy stumbled and we relaxed. Apparently fat dumb and happy was a fine recipe for economic growth.
As I unboxed a Canon 5D Mark II today, it occurred to me that perhaps our 1980s Japanophobia was justified. It just took longer for the U.S. to fade than we thought it would. The Japanese unemployment rate is less than 4 percent right now and they probably don’t play around with the statistics as much as we do, excluding “discouraged” workers (our rate is 12.5 percent when measured semi-honestly (source)).
What did those Canon engineers manage to accomplish with the 5D Mark II? The camera costs $2700, less than its predecessor did when introduced almost four years ago. The old camera was the best low-light tool on the market for most of its life; the new one has useful performance at ISO 25,000. Resolution is up from 13 megapixels to 21, comparable to the most expensive professional Canon body. The battery lasts longer, the motor drive is faster, the weather sealing is better, the viewfinder is more accurate (98 percent coverage). A lot of extra software goes into making the best possible JPEGs, with more attention to capturing scenes with high dynamic range, face recognition for autofocus, and a database of optical performance for all of the Canon lenses so that light fall-off in the corners is automatically corrected.
In the department of “just because we can”, the engineers threw in the capability of capturing 1080p HDTV video. My friends who work with professional studio equipment say that the Canon 5D Mark II produces quality comparable to $50,000 TV station cameras.
I reflected on the 15 or so Canon bodies that I’ve purchased since 1994. All performed flawlessly from the time that they were removed from the box until they were given away. All of the people to whom I’ve given Canon bodies are still using them with no problems. These are machines with motors, springs, electronics, etc. that are subject to vibration, impact, dust, water, and the other hazards of modern life.
Let’s be honest with ourselves and ask if there is an American company that could produce anything competitive to the Canon 5D. Keep in mind that Canon makes the CMOS sensor in its own fab. Canon writes the software itself. Canon designs and makes the lenses. An American company is lucky if it can handle a challenge in one domain; everything else needs to be contracted out.
What about Japan? How deep is their technological prowess? If they didn’t have Canon they’d have to supply us with cameras from Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony.