Snap happy

Whether once a year or every day, we all love taking pictures. But how we’re snapping and the technology we are using is rapidly changing. Windows says cheese and gets this tricky issue firmly in its viewfinder.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  November 9, 2003

Is film dead?|~||~||~|Film photography is dead and digital is the future. Pretty soon, everyone from occasional snappers to enthusiastic amateurs and die-hard professionals will be using digital cameras. At least that’s what many of the experts are saying. Is this true or is there more to it? In this feature we’ll look at this issue and how digital photography is creeping into new form factors, such as mobile phones, and influencing the design of PCs.

There is no doubt that digital technology has made great inroads into the film market. Digital camera sales in Western Europe more than doubled during 2002, with eight million units shipped. Analyst firm IDC claims this will reach 16 million units by 2004. But does this mean that digital is better than film?

HP clearly thinks so. Carly Fiorina, HP CEO, says “No longer is digital photography almost as good as traditional. Digital photography is now better by a lot. And it is also a simple, more rewarding experience.”

You only have to look at print outs of pictures snapped by digital cameras to see that the quality is often very good indeed. In fact, digital imaging in general has improved at an astonishing rate. Windows attended HP’s Colour Olympics event in Athens, which focused heavily on digital imaging solutions, and was impressed. HP’s digital reproductions of old masters were startlingly close to the quality of the originals.

Digital camera technology has certainly turned up plenty of innovations in the last few years. HP unveiled one such advance in Athens called digital flash (also known as adaptive lighting technology). It is designed to even out the light in pictures with pronounced light and dark areas. The technology is used on HP’s new Photosmart 945 camera (reviewed on Page 28). It uses processing power to manipulate pictures in the camera after they have been shot. Traditionally, resolution has been the main measure of the quality of a camera, and indeed it is very important, but HP was also keen to point out that other factors play an important role. We’ve already seen how technology within the camera can enhance pictures and, of course, the lens plays a key role. The megapixel rating is almost always at the top of the camera buyer’s shortlist of desirable features, but the smart buyer doesn’t stop there. Lens, zoom and the technology employed within the camera are at least as important.

There are some exceptionally good digital cameras on the market and prices have been falling. They are set to fall even more dramatically with the release of Canon’s 300D, which at $1,000, is half the price of most digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. This will have a knock on effect through each segment in the market, so consumers can look forward to cheaper cameras in the coming months.

Most professional snappers are sticking to film though. Commercial advertising photographer, Hussain Jian, explains, “The main problem with digital cameras is that the technology is not improving fast enough to take over from film. It is limited in creative situations. With digital the creative side comes on the PC with editing software, whereas with film you can make more creative adjustments to give artistic effects when you are shooting. With digital, the adjustments tend to be very technical. You can do much more in terms of contrast, colour and dimension with film photography and lights than you can with digital.”

||**||Going overground|~||~||~|This is something of a common consensus among professional photographers, who will often use a digital camera to take a preparatory shot, because it can quickly be viewed on the LCD screen, but will then use a film camera to take the final shot. Film pictures still have technically better quality and can be blown up infinitely, unlike digital shots, which are limited by camera resolution. Blow these up too much and you will, literally, see the very dots they are made of.

However, most of the digital cameras being bought in the Middle East today are snapped up by hobbyists and enthusiasts rather than professionals. Wael Hamadeh, a semi-professional fine art photographer agrees that this section of the market is better disposed to digital cameras. “When you are starting out as a hobbyist, a digital camera is a good option as it is relatively inexpensive and it allows you to play around with shots. But in the professional arena getting digital cameras that are as good as medium format analogue (film) cameras you need to spend a whole lot more money.”

Digital cameras are selling faster than analogue cameras in this segment but not everything has gone to plan for digital. Prem Bhatia, partner of Quick Photo, a one-stop shop for developing photos from both film and ‘digital film’, says, “Digital cameras have got much more popular in the last six months, but I have spoken to people who have bought digital cameras and then gone back to analogue. These aren’t professional users. Some amateur photographers these days are aiming for very high quality and they realise when they buy digital that the quality isn’t quite as good as analogue. Analogue cameras have good shadow, whereas with digital you don’t get shadow, you get noise.”

Moving away from the quality issue, ease of use and convenience are traditional strong points in favour of the digital camera. After all, if your digital camera has an LCD screen (and most do) you can view a shot immediately after you have taken it. If you don’t like it you can delete it. With film, the time consuming development process has to be tackled and we’ve all taken rolls of film back from the developers only to discover there is only a handful of pictures that we like.

On the other hand, it is hard to dispute how convenient disposable film cameras are. They are super-cheap, take good quality pictures and involve absolutely no maintenance. Despite the rapidly falling prices of digital cameras, it is hard to ever envisage a credible digital alternative to the disposable.

Following on from HP’s assertion that digital photography is now better than film is the claim from HP that digital cameras are going mainstream. Film photography has traditionally occupied most of the mainstream sector, which excludes professionals and enthusiasts. It is made up of snappers who typically use a camera a couple of times a year on special occasions and keep their photos in a shoebox. Dirck Halstead, famed war photographer and publisher of the respected website The Digital Journalist made an appearance in Athens and claimed that the ‘shoebox’ consumer was moving towards digital.

||**||Sharing not printing|~||~||~|There is certainty plenty of evidence to back this up, not least that many high street photo labs are reporting a drop off in film development revenue. Halstead claims that the immediacy of digital cameras has hooked a whole new generation of snappers.
So, how popular will digital cameras become? Some have suggested that they might become as ubiquitous as mobile phones are today. Others believe they will hit a low ceiling in the same way that PDAs have. The PDA market is now fairly stagnant as just about everyone who wants a PDA has one.

Michael Diehl, HP’s vice president and general manager of the consumer category imaging and printing group, EMEA sheds some light, “On the analogue camera side there is higher penetration than mobiles. You might argue that with digitals you won’t have penetration by consumer but by household. Everyone in a household might own a mobile but the family might share a camera. The penetration rate of analogue cameras (in the US and western Europe) is way above 80% and in a few years digital cameras will be there.”
Herbert Kock, HP vice president and general manager of international sales in the imaging and printing group, EMEA adds, “I strongly think digital cameras will go into the mass market, as soon as it becomes easy for consumers to share and print photos. Photo printing is only one element, photo finishing at the supermarket is also important. Retailers have machines where you can go with a flash memory card and develop photos. When you enter the mass market, the PC plays only a small role.”

This last point is a radical idea. Traditionally digital camera users have almost exclusively been PC and photo printer owners. Companies such as HP reckon that in the near future many digital camera owners won’t own a PC, or even have access to one. There are already digital developers on the high street (though there are many more film developers). These are effectively high performance printers that can print out snaps you take to the shop on a CD or on flash memory. The main benefits of this process over film developing is that it is faster and, because you can view digital shots before printing, you can print out only the pictures you choose.

We’ve seen how owning a digital camera is no longer tied to owning a PC. For one thing many photo printers can print directly from memory cards, bypassing the PC entirely. Taking things a step further, it is possible to do without the printer. These days there is a wider variety of ways to show off snaps than printing them out. Pictures can be shown to friends on a camera, on a PC, sent by e-mail, posted on a web site, or sent by MMS using a mobile phone. The speed with which pictures can be shared has increased and so taking snaps is also becoming less tied to special events such as birthdays and holidays. Nowadays digital camera users tend to take pictures more frequently but tend to keep less for posterity.

This fits in perfectly with cameras being built into mobile phones and PDAs. These are designed for capturing a moment, which can then quickly be shared. These cameras tend to be low resolution but as technology improves combination devices could squeeze the market share of traditional digital cameras.

||**||All in a name|~||~||~|Amr Banaja, Kodak marketing manager for the Middle East, North Africa and French Territories says, “Digital camera sales have already overtaken the sales of film cameras in parts of Europe and the USA, but digital cameras have competition as well from digital camera phones. In less then a year we will see digital camera phones providing 2 megapixel pictures, which are sure to cannibalise normal digital camera sales. Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and other mobile phone brands will probably be the leaders in digital cameras in the near future. I would not be surprised if, in three years, mobile phones combine PDA, digital camera and phone technology in one device. We’ll find entrants to this arena such as Dell or even IBM.”

Digital is a monster that is sure to gobble up most of the mainstream market. This makes sense when you realise that the form factor of cameras is changing rapidly and unlikely seeming devices such as mobiles, now often carry cameras. When you throw digital developers into the mix and drop PC ownership as a prerequisite for having a digital camera, then the field is wide open.

As the prices of digital cameras fall they will force more expensive consumer film cameras out of the mainstream market. On the other hand, the immediacy of digital is probably not enough to persuade the most occasional and frugal of photographers to spend more than $100 on a digital, rather than $10 on the least expensive film camera. Banaja continues, “I see film and digital photography coexisting for many years to come, but with digital definitely dominating in the near future. It’s sort of like cassettes and CDs coexisting today.” Windows can envisage a time in the not too distant future where film photography will largely be confined to the professional and budget segments of the market.

A significant announcement in Athens is that HP is blurring the boundaries between its PC arm and its printing wing. Some new HP desktops and Pavilion notebooks will be branded Photosmart. These models will have photo friendly components, such as flash memory card readers and even camera docks built-in.

This seems at first glance to be a strange selling point for a PC or notebook, surely there are many more components of a PC that deserve attention over and above photo friendly features? François Leblanc, HP’s marketing director for the personal systems group consumer EMEA says, “I agree, you need to be competitive at a certain price point. It’s important that we are competitive on PC basics and provide the right feature set. At the same time we can help consumers who are choosing a PC and are interested in digital photography. If a digital photography interested customer is weighing up two similar PCs and the difference is the digital photography readiness, he will choose that model. As digital photography is becoming more popular it will drive PC adoption.”

Other PC manufacturers, such as Dell and Packard Bell, also recognise that digital photography is driving PC sales and that users may upgrade a PC to get a model that is better suited to their hobby. Stelios Symeonides, business development manager consumer markets of InterFrontiers (regional development business unit for Packard Bell) says, “Digital photography will be important for consumer business but will not be the only driver of PC sales. Packard Bell believes in digital convergence. The PC will be the brain at the centre of the home linking together electronic appliances to provide a solution for the digital era.”

With the development of photosmart PCs and notebooks we are arguably seeing one of the beginnings in a general shift in PCs from spare room dwelling devices to becoming the hub of digital entertainment in the home. HP’s Media Centre PC, which doubles as DVD player, TV and Hi-Fi, is already blazing this trail in the USA. The PC is based on a specialised Microsoft operating system.

As we’ve seen, digital cameras are bringing about great changes, not just on the photography world but also in the PC and printing arenas. Digital photography itself will change a lot in the next few years with other types of camera such as those on mobile phones eating into, as well as complementing, the traditional digital camera market. We recommend that you watch out for mobile phones boasting ever more powerful camera functions in the near future.

But film is still alive and kicking. We predict that it will be around for many years to come. Its low cost and low maintenance nature appeals to the most basic of snappers and its superior creative qualities mean it is still number one at the professional end. Whatever you decide is best for you, film or digital, Windows wishes you some very happy snapping.||**||

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