Panasonic's digital SLR coming in July

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (Panasonic) will launch its first digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera next month in Japan, with other regions to follow soon after, the company said Wednesday.

The DMC-L1 is the result of a year-long joint-development program with Olympus Corp. and is one of several DSLR cameras due to hit this market this year.

Single-lens reflex cameras use a mirror placed between the lens and the film or image sensor to project the image to the camera's viewfinder. The mirror moves out of the way when the picture is taken. They typically support interchangeable lenses and are preferred by professional and serious amateur photographers over the compact point-and-shoot models that dominate the digital camera market.

The DMC-L1 camera is based around a new image sensor developed by Panasonic and Olympus. The Live MOS sensor is capable of sending a live image so that the user can frame the picture on the camera's LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor. Typically DSLRs require the use of an optical viewfinder for framing and image composition. This is in common with analog film cameras and preferred by professionals, but not as easy to use for many amateur photographers.

The camera first appeared at the Photo Marketing Association's 2006 trade fair in February, so the main specifications are already known.

The sensor will be able to capture 7.5-megapixel image resolution pictures and the rear display is a 2.5-inch LCD screen. There's also a dust reduction system that uses supersonic vibration to shake dust off the image sensor. In DSLR cameras dust can get inside the camera when the lens is changed and that can affect image quality.

The "Four Thirds System" lens mount is used on the camera. The mount, which is the socket into which lenses plug into, represents at attempt by Olympus, Panasonic, Eastman Kodak Co., Fuji Photo Film Co, Sanyo Electric Co. and Sigma to create a standard image sensor and lens mount.

Camera makers each typically use a proprietary lens mount common through all their models. This means that photographers don't have to go through the expense of replacing a lens when they upgrade a camera. But it does effectively lock a photographer into cameras from a specific manufacturer as replacing a number of lenses is often an expensive proposition.

Fierce competition in the point-and-shoot compact camera market has pushed Panasonic and others to develop DSLRs, which are typically more expensive and have higher profit margins. But the launch of several new DSLRs is expected to increase competition and push down DSLR prices making the cameras slightly less lucrative.

The planned July 22 launch of the DMC-L1 in Japan will immediately serve to put pressure on Sony, which is planning to launch its first DSLR camera a day earlier on July 21.

The DMC-L1 will ship in the U.S. a little later, in September, priced at US$1,999. Plans for Europe and elsewhere weren't immediately available.

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Martyn Williams

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