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The Ground Shifting Beneath Our Feet at PMA
by Jim McGee

For those of you who aren't privy to the inner workings of the photo industry, The annual PMA convention is ground zero for changes and trends.

PMA is the Photo Marketing Association. Each year they host their annual convention and trade-show attended by folks from around the globe. Retailers place equipment orders, manufacturers showcase new gear, and photojournalists are there to take the pulse of the industry and suck up free coffee in the press room. The last few years that pulse has been indicating a radical shift in the industry. This year that shift was even more pronounced.

Everyone has known for some time that digital cameras will change the photo industry. This was the year when even a blind man would have to acknowledge the change is no longer part of some long range plan - the change is happening now. And that change will affect everyone from mini-lab owners to the point-and-shoot camera that Aunt Ethel uses at junior's next birthday party. So here are some thoughts from the trenches, or rather the show floor, at this year's PMA.

Is Film Dead? 
Absolutely not. This question comes up every year. Yet in the face of so many new digital cameras, the evidence that film will be around for a long time is still strong.

Usually photographers ask this question when they are thinking about buying a new camera. They have nightmare visions of dropping a large chunk of change on a camera only to find that film will no longer exist three years from now - turning their proud new purchase into an expensive paperweight.

Thankfully cameras are not computers and they don't turn into expensive paperweights every eighteen months. That market is so incredibly skewed that we have come to accept that a new computer at over $1,000 a pop is a required purchase every 18 months just to stay current. But even in that crazy marketplace people are beginning to balk at the recurring cost.

In photography there is an entrenched expectation that a camera should last years, not months. Photography after all is a hobby for most, and cameras are not perceived as a necessity. That means that while Canon and Nikon may sell relatively large numbers of digitals to pros, the average Rebel owner still thinks the $400 or $500 dollars they have tied up in a body and a couple of lenses is a lot of money. And that, friends, means this proverbial Rebel owner isn't likely to throw out their camera and upgrade just because a new whiz-bang model is available. And lets not forget the Rebel, N65, Maxxum 5 end of the market, is the lion's share of the photo marketplace.

There is a huge installed base of film cameras out there whose owners expect to be using them for a long time to come. That means the folks at Fuji, Kodak, and Agfa et al will be producing film for a long time to come. That's why we also saw new film cameras in this segment from Minolta and Nikon at this year's PMA show. That means you'll be able to buy film for a long time to come.

What will happen is digital SLRs will soon be able to compete with film SLRs for this lucrative end of the consumer SLR market. It's a few years away but its now obvious that $400 digital SLR outfits will be in a camera shop near you in the not too distant future.

The "Why" Factor 
Another important fact that many "experts" close to the industry have disregarded is the "why" factor. Many consumers look at digital, its associated costs and learning curve and ask "why"?

"Why switch, why learn, why spend. My pocket zoom with its 28-120mm lens works quite nicely for family and vacation shots. All I have to do to use it is press a button and I can buy film anywhere". And you know what. For their needs they're 100% right.

These folks aren't going to spend a dime on a new camera unless they have a compelling reason to do so. This end of the market will continue to drive demand for film as much or more than the SLR crowd.

Mainstream Digital and the One Hour Photo Lab 
Pity the poor mini-lab owner. The poor guy with the family owned camera shop that has a one-hour photo lab in the back. Pity even the production lab that handles the wedding and yearbook photographers.

Over drinks in the hotel lobby several of these folks lamented the state of affairs they find themselves in. They face growing pressure from their customers to add more and more support for digital. But the machines are expensive and they only make financial sense if you can run a lot of orders through them. Their fear is as this relatively new technology continues to improve they'll be left with machines that are outdated before they've paid for themselves. Meanwhile the big camera store chains and even a drug store chain or two are advertising digital prints in an hour. The ones who invest smartly will make a lot of money. The ones who don't may find themselves in bankruptcy court. Right now the difference between the smart path and the wrong path is not obvious.

Customers also push them for services to digitally touch up images from both the film and digital world. It's difficult to find people who are good in PhotoShop and when you do, you have to pay them more than other folks in the lab. All this would be OK they say if customers were willing to pay a fair rate for these services. But customers have unreasonable expectations of how easy these processes are based on magazine how-to articles that make this work look simple. After all, didn't the author in last month's issue do the same thing in just two pages?

Another pressure they face is to provide more and greater photo related services ranging from t-shirts and coffee mugs with your favorite photo to the creation of wall size inkjet prints. What do they keep in-house and what do they farm out? Once again it's not obvious. The only thing that does seem to be obvious is that they need to do something.

How People Use Cameras 
No matter what equipment these labs pick it will be increasingly easier for us to get one-hour prints from our digital cameras for the same or less than we're paying for prints from our film cameras. And they will be high quality  prints on true photo paper.

Virtually every maker of mini-lab equipment was showing better equipment to allow both labs and consumers to get prints directly from their memory cards. Two approaches are emerging. The first is that you drop off your memory card the same way you'd drop off a roll of film. A lab tech does color and contrast corrections when printing, the same as they do with film, which (hopefully) results in better prints. The second is a kiosk approach where you put both your memory card and your credit card into a machine. Out pop your prints and your credit card is lightened by a few dollars. But what you get on paper is exactly what you captured with your camera, mistakes and all.

While both of these options are already out there in large markets, look for both to become more widespread, easier to use, and less costly in the coming year.

Smaller, Cheaper, Better, Faster 
Digital cameras are still relatively expensive for the quality that they produce. Frankly film still works better for the average consumer - but the gap is closing fast.

I can buy a one-time use camera that has a relatively good lens for the price. Snap away at my kid's birthday party and for relatively little money have a stack of four inch prints. They'll be pretty good quality and I'll have them later that same day. By tomorrow I can have an 8x10 of my favorite photo from the party sitting on my desk. The quality won't be tremendous but it will be more than adequate for a large part of the population.

Or I can have the "instant" and "easy" images from my digital camera.

They're instant in that I can see them on that little LCD right away. But then I have to use one of several peripherals to download them into my computer. I have to open each in software that I only sort of understand. Play around with them to get them to look right, and then waste a lot of paper as I try to get what comes out of the printer to look like what I see on the screen. I can do an 8x10 on my printer too. But if I'm the average consumer who doesn't know the tricks to enlarging, sharpening, and color correcting an image the result will look far worse than the 8x10 from that disposable film camera.

But as camera and memory prices keep dropping and the average consumer becomes aware they can get one-hour digital prints, all that will change. That awareness that they can get digital prints as easily as film prints will drive the digital market even more than dropping prices.

This is Good for Us 
By us I mean the serious photographer. The very thing that is causing manufacturers and lab owners to drive up the stock price of Alka-Seltzer is a boon for us. It means we'll have more choices, more competition, and lower prices.

The ground may be moving beneath our feet folks, but if you think about it, this is all good stuff. The best strategy is to enjoy the ride, try out the new toys, and keep making great images - no matter what tool you choose do it with.

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