|A New Direction Emerges at
by Jim McGee
Upon returning from PMA last year I wrote a column The Ground Shifting Beneath Our Feet to describe the changes that were shaking the photo industry to its core. This year PMA went to Las Vegas. Along with a new city PMA saw a new direction emerging from last year's confusion. What follows are some of the trends from the show floor.
It's time for digital to mature
But while digital cameras have indeed gotten much better in the last two years many consumers are less than thrilled with their purchases. In fact many are down right disgusted.
Fuji even released a white paper based on a two year study that found consumers want digital prints to be "as easy, convenient and affordable as traditional retail film developing." The only surprise was that it took Fuji two years of study to figure that one out.
Though we live in a computerized world a large part of the population is less than computer literate - a fact that is easy for us to forget. Our reader polls show that you, our readers, are a pretty savvy bunch when it comes to technology. That's not surprising since we're an online publication. But much of the general public either isn't particularly computer literate or they only know how to use applications specific to their jobs.
They buy a digital camera and they have to hook up a card reader and/or install camera software and/or install software to edit their images and then send those images to their printer. But more often than not when those images come out of the printer they look pretty bad. Weird color casts, poor exposures, severe red eye, and other problems are the result rather than the wonderful images they were promised. It's true that you can correct all these things by setting up the color profile on your printer, getting the printer's driver fine tuned, and using Photoshop or any one of the dozens of image editors out there. But the average person doesn't know how to do any of those things and have little desire to learn how. They want to press the button and get a photo. Period.
New printer designs have promised to take the computer out of the digital camera picture (no pun intended). But they have shortcomings as well. These printers rely on "standards" for color control. But is your camera PIM or EXIF? Is your printer PIM or EXIF? If either or both comply with one of these standards do they comply with the same standard? If so how difficult are they to use? In many cases these "simple" solutions are incredibly frustrating.
Among the non-technical folks who make up the bulk of the marketplace digital has gotten the reputation for being expensive, confusing, and for producing poor quality prints. Film has the reputation of being easy to use and for producing good quality prints.
It's no longer enough for digital to be new and cool. Already some consumers have retired their digital cameras to a drawer. Digital must now deliver on its promises or risk a consumer backlash that will rock the industry.
Manufacturers realize this and much of what was new this year is aimed at making digital cameras easier to use, and printing less onerous.
year of the kiosk
PMA 2003 could have been called "the year of the kiosk". It seemed that everyone was offering ATM-like self-service photo kiosks designed to easily create 4-inch digital prints direct from your memory cards. Of course everyone has a slightly different take on this idea.
Some machines are dirt simple while some allow the user to do basic touch-ups such as lightening or darkening an image. Some even allow users to do more advanced functions such as red-eye reduction on their photos and even color correction. These machines have varying degrees of intelligence built in and some are able to make intelligent decisions about print quality. Some are even able to create CDs containing the images from your memory card.
More importantly a number of the dye-sub kiosks apply a protective coating to the prints that resists moisture and finger prints. This makes them look and feel like "real photos".
These kiosks are important for a couple of reasons. From the consumer's point of view they take the computer completely out of the digital camera picture. No more fighting with printers, balky card readers, and camera drivers that don't work with some version of Windows. Consumers get mini-lab quality prints quickly, easily, and at the same cost as prints from film.
From the photo retailers point of view they're a bargain. Depending on options they're priced in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. They take the stress out of creating digital prints, are cheap to operate, and make it easier to sell digital cameras to consumers who have become leery of the technology. Best of all they don't require an expensive, skilled lab operator, as they are self-service. Some are even designed to be stand alone units that can be plopped down in the middle of a mall.
But the best solution to the printing problem I saw wasn't a kiosk at all. Kodak has a new docking station printer. This tiny dye-sub printer/docking station accepts Kodak 600/6000 series digital cameras. Just plop the camera onto the docking station and the LCD goes into "printer" mode and allows you to pick what images you want to print. Out pop sharp four-inch dye sub prints complete with a protective coating. The cost is about fifty cents per print (including paper and dye cartridge). The cost of the docking station printer will be around $200. It's a nice compact solution that will save on the trips to the mall for printing and it couldn't be easier to use.
- Cheaper, smaller, faster, more capacity
While most camera manufacturers still deserve a trip to the woodshed and a few lashes from a stout stick for this insult, the folks in the memory industry have been hard at work. Memory prices continue to fall and in response to cameras with ever increasing mega pixel counts the write speed of memory keeps increasing. Lexar introduced new 40X compact flash cards as well as new 2 gigabyte and 4 gigabyte compact flash cards (though there are some compatibility issues).
Falling memory prices, greater speed, and greater capacity all work toward making digital cameras more usable in the real world.
Among the major players that leaves only Minolta without a digital SLR. I was told that Minolta had "no comment" on this issue even before I asked. Evidently it's a touchy subject - as well it should be. Minolta is conspicuous by its absence from the digital SLR group.
Too many cameras
Bigger LCDs and better viewing
Other improvements include better viewing angles so the screen doesn't appear to blank out if you're not viewing it directly and screens that still look good in bright sunlight.
Resolution is no longer the hot ticket in the point and shoot market. These cameras are primarily used to produce four inch prints and the majority of them now have plenty of resolution to do that job well. The big news in this category will be light weight, ease of use, and easy viewing.
Really big LCDs
Speaking of Piezography, they were showcasing a new line of inks that will work in Canon printers. Up until now you could only use fine art black and white inks in Epson printers. This is big news for Canon owners.
Film's alive and kickin'
Nikon, Pentax, Minolta and Canon introduced SLRs, Leica was showing a new all manual M-series camera and new quick winders for both current and past M-series cameras, and a number of companies introduced new point and shoot cameras.
Nikon rolled out the N75 that will sit comfortably between the N65 and N80. It is a camera for the person who wants more than entry level features but still wants a reasonable priced, lightweight SLR. Canon introduced the Rebel G II. It will be aimed squarely at mass market, big box retailers such as Walmart. Pentax is targeting those same mass market retailers with the *ist.
That's not a misprint, the *ist may have an odd name but it's targeted at the same lucrative market as the Rebel G II which is to say the lightweight entry level SLR market. Also vying for the entry level SLR dollar will be the new Minolta Maxxum 3. Expect all the Maxxum and *ist to be sold in kit form with a standard zoom in the 28-80mm range while the Rebel will be sold in a kit with a 35-80mm lens which strikes us as an odd choice.
On the film front Fuji finally admitted to the worst kept secret in the industry. Velvia 100f will be available in the next few weeks. Now we can finally write about it and get some samples (soon we hope). This new film is based on the same technology that gives Provia 100f and 400f their fine grain. Velvia 50 will continue to be available unchanged. Astia has also been updated to Astia 100f and Fujicolor Superia 400 and Superia 1600 have been updated with Fuji's 4th color layer and finer grain. Finally FP-100C (color), FP-100B, and FP3000B (both black & white) instant films will now be available in the U.S. previously they have only been available to U.S. photographers through the gray market.
Both Fuji and Kodak announced they are expanding and updating their line of one-time use cameras.
There are new lenses from just about every OEM and aftermarket manufacturer. Some aimed at film and some aimed at digital. Check out the New Page for more details on lenses for your camera system.
Odds and ends
One of the neatest things I found at the show wasn't some big high-ticket item though. It was a little filter holder from the folks at Op/Tech. Priced at just a couple of bucks and designed for those times when you just want to carry a couple of filters this little carrier is so simple as to be beautiful. Another great idea from these folks is the Hood Hat. You can never get the lens cover on when the lens shade is in place. The hood hat is a little neoprene hood that slips securely over the lens shade. They're two simple inexpensive items that solve little problems in the field.
For more cool items from PMA check out our Innovation Awards in this issue.
A time for optimism
Perhaps the biggest news this year was the feeling of optimism on the show floor. Last year a feeling of uncertainty was everywhere and hung like a cloud over PMA Orlando. That same feeling was still in the air at Photokina and PhotoExpo last fall.
But at PMA 2003 things felt different - more upbeat. That might seem amazing with the threat of war so near, $2 per gallon gas prices on the Vegas strip, and the city breaking a 70 year record for rainfall during the show. But it seemed that almost everyone I spoke with felt the worst was past and are looking forward to a better year in 2003.
Lets hope they're right.