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Trends at PMA 2004
More Evolutionary than Revolutionary
by Jim McGee

Call 2004 "the year of the continuing trends". There was little in Vegas this year that was truly new, revolutionary or bleeding edge.

And you know what? That's a good thing. Bleeding edge technology tends to be quirky and not fully developed. While we're captivated by its promise we're frustrated by its foibles. All of the technologies that now make up digital photography are growing up. For many of these technologies the focus now is on ease of use and reliability for both experienced photographers as well as for the soccer moms. Don't laugh. Soccer moms buy a lot more cameras than serious photographers.

Solving the Mini-Lab Problem - Fast, Easy Prints from 
Digital or Film
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. Two years ago I had dinner and drinks with a group of these folks. They were under great pressure to offer digital services from their customers. But the digital solutions at the time were expensive, often quirky, often had compatibility and reliability problems and required trained operators who required higher salaries to operate them.

Today mini-lab processors include digital processing. Put in a memory card and the operator can print directly to photo paper as they would from film all from the same operator station. These machines include easy to use tools to automatically adjust exposure and remove redeye.

Self-service photo kiosks have improved as well. Offering ease of use, quick turnaround, sophisticated tools for image correction and even the ability to burn CDs. Particularly impressive was a new film kiosk from Kodak. The technology was originally developed by Applied Science Fiction (now owned by Kodak). Drop your film into a slot and the machine develops the film, color corrects your images, removes red-eye, creates your prints, and scans your negatives. You get a photo CD with your scanned images and your 4" or 5x7" prints. What you don't get is your negatives, which are destroyed in the process. But most consumers don't save their negatives anyway. The machine is about the size of an ATM and is impressive in its simplicity and ease of use.

Dropping prices on wide carriage printers, better color profiles, and the longer print life of papers and inks also mean it's getting easier for labs catering to professionals to do large digital prints in-house. A real convenience for wedding and portrait photographers and potentially a real money maker for the labs.

The Trend Toward Better and Bigger LCDs 
Last year we honored Kodak with an Innovation Award for their use of a larger LCD screen on their cameras. The rest of the industry took notice. There have been significant improvements in LCD screens on new cameras introduced at PMA. These include better viewing angles, higher resolutions, better color and contrast and larger sizes. These improved LCDs are finding their way onto everything from basic point and shoot cameras to digital SLRs.

The other trend growing out of bigger LCDs is onboard help for digital cameras. The bigger screen areas make it practical to include a help function within the cameras menus. The help was pretty primitive on most cameras, but as screen sizes continue to grow expect the help features to become more sophisticated.

There are Too Many Consumer Cameras 
I pity any journalist or camera buyer who has consumer digital cameras as their job. The sheer number of new cameras on display was positively overwhelming. Frankly many overlap each other, even within the same line, and often it is nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other. Even in the booths marketing folks often misidentified their own cameras!

I wondered what effect this was having on the consumer. Every person I asked said consumers loved the variety - but I wonder. There is such a thing as too many choices. My guess is that the herd will thin out. Three years from now I expect many of the players in the consumer digital market to be gone, not because their cameras were any worse than the competition, but because there is only so much room in the marketplace.

If you find yourself looking for a camera in this market look for a couple of important features:

  • Lens quality is more important than resolution. I'd rather have a 4.0 megapixel camera with a high quality glass lens than a 6.0 megapixel with a cheap lens. 
  • Did I say high quality glass? The lens should have a wide aperture and a wide optical zoom range. In-camera digital zoom sucks. You can do a better job in PhotoShop. 
  • The ability to override the camera's settings. 
  • The ability to spot focus. 
  • A good quality flash. 
  • EXIF compatibility to save headaches when creating prints.

Smaller, Lighter, Cheaper, Better, Faster 
The good news among the herd of digital cameras is that they continue to get better and offer more features and resolution - though we're now reaching the point of silliness with some of them. 4.0 megapixels is plenty of point and shoot resolution for creating four inch prints, 5x7's and even the occasional 8x10. Give me a serious photographer's point and shoot at 4.0 or 5.0 megapixels and a lower price point and I'd be happy. But while prices continue to trend downward. All the cameras that have the features serious photographers are looking for tend to come with higher resolutions and higher price points.

Expect Falling Memory Card Prices
For a long time Lexar and SanDisk were the only real players in the memory card market and I would expect they will continue to be the innovators at the high end of the memory card market. But at the low end a lot of people you've probably never heard of are jumping into the market. Memory cards have become a commodity; and in any commodity market prices fall precipitously and competition drives ever thinner margins. This is good news for you and I.  

Inkjets Keep Getting Better - Incrementally 
Looking at the prints from new inkjet printers, it's difficult to tell prints from new models from their predecessors. The improvements are incremental, especially in the 8.5x11 and 13x19 sizes. The real news is that HP is getting more serious about their photo quality printers. Their new line should give Epson and Canon something to think about.

Big Ink Jets are Now a Real Option 
Want to print poster sized images for gallery sales? Prices on 24 inch printers from Epson and HP now put those printers within the reach of the serious amateur. The cost of these printers is now in line with the cost of setting up a serious dark room provided you have the space to hold one of these monsters.

The results are stunning prints with life expectancies from 38 to over 100 years depending on the combination of papers and inks you choose. For those who've become jaded by claims of 200 year prints remember that just a few years ago a life expectancy of 25 years for a print was considered "normal".

Film's Not Dead 
There is a huge installed base of film cameras including everything from point and shoot cameras to F5s; and while film sales aren't growing film is still a huge cash cow for Kodak, Fuji and Agfa. Each in it's own way was assuring everyone that film isn't dead and that they will continue to support film. Kodak was announcing new professional color and black & white films. Fuji recently released new films of it's own and the market for one time use film cameras is actually growing.

Further proof that film isn't dead yet was the fact that both Canon and Minolta introduced new film SLRs!

As journalists we tend to talk a lot of about digital cameras because those are the new models we're seeing. The same holds true for advertising. You see more ads for digital because those are the new models. But if you're in the market for an SLR you should at least consider film. Film based SLRs are significantly cheaper than digital SLRs and film is not likely to become scarce anytime soon. If you keep that new SLR for five years before you're ready for something new you may find that you've saved a lot of money and that even better and cheaper digital SLRs will be available by the time you're ready to trade up. It's food for thought.

Invasion of the Geeks 
Programs like PhotoShop and Paint Shop have been well represented for some time at PMA, but this year from the smaller "back alley" booths around the edge of the convention center to the mega booths of the camera manufacturers software was center stage. There was software for recovering image files from damaged cards, there were Photoshop plug-ins, there were drivers to make your printer faster, there was workflow software, and software to automatically correct the mistakes in your images. The HP booth was crowded with PCs geared toward digital photographers and Gateway, a PC maker, is now selling a line of digital cameras. The Geeks have arrived.

Microsoft has even made its first appearance at PMA showcasing its new image editing software. "Microsoft?" you say. What were they doing at PMA and why are they focusing on a niche like image editing that is already dominated by Adobe?

The answer may lie in an interview Time Magazine conducted with Bill Gates recently (see Time March 8th, 2004). Gates was asked "What do we need before the experience of using a computer is really what it should be?"

In an answer seemingly unrelated to the question Gates in part muses "…Letting you organize your memories, making that easy to share, easy to go back to - we don't do that today. And yet now that digital photography's mainstream we're going to do that."

Gates hit an important bull's-eye. It's a subject that we've been calling attention to since the controversial column Digital's Dirty Little Secret was published over a year ago. The fact that most people just dump their digital images and their memories onto a hard drive where they're in danger of being lost. 

Let's just hope that if we put all of our memories into a Microsoft product it's a little more reliable than Windows has proven to be. In my experience another Microsoft product crashing, namely Windows, just might be the biggest threat to all those images on your hard drive.

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