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Cameras That Don't Take Pictures?



Digital Deal

Cameras That Don't Take Pictures?

By Don Sutherland

January 2001

Right now, you're probably asking yourself, "Cameras that don't take pictures? What's the Digital Dude been sniffing today? Cameras that don't take pictures aren't cutting-edge high-tech like the D.D. normally covers. Cameras that don't take pictures are as old as photography itself. Cameras that don't take pictures (hereafter, CTDTP) are those that sit in the closet between Thanksgiving and Christmas, then till next Thanksgiving again. Why would the D.D. remind us of these, the very banes of our existence? The ones that have five years of holidays all on one roll? CTDTPs deny us the sale of consumables (which is what they now call film) and processing. What does the D.D. know about CTDTPs that we don't already, and aren't any too eager to be reminded of?"

What the D.D. knows about CTDTPs is that they are cutting-edge and high-tech instruments, and that there are all kinds of consumables that go with them. And if anything, they're promoting photography in a unique, and definitely new-fangled way.

You remember promotion? It's something the major manufacturers did, to enthuse the masses about photography. They encouraged photo clubs, published "house organs" specifically for their customers, ran contests all the time, sent speakers to photo societies and clubs. They spent lavish sums on that kind of promotion which, unfortunately, delivers a return that is hard to pin-down. If it can't be specific, it doesn't exist at least as far as the accountants are concerned. It can't be quantified, so maybe that budget would be better spent on a corporate jet.

Happily for all, the digital age has become its own self-promotion. The "rebirth of photography" has quickly transformed from axiom to clich. We read, from all corners of the business, that photography is growing on both the film and digicam fronts. The Internet and its on-line services have themselves enthused the public, and ignited a whole new view of photography. Who needs the camera companies to promote photography, when AOL is so happy to do so? Or the jillions and gazillions of photo.com Websites that are urging people to "join their communities" (a.k.a. photo clubs) and "share photos" (each member of the club enthuses the next). Talks by famous photographers, industry reps, financial analysts? You'll find em all on the Web, all spreading photography like wildfire.

It was back in early December that I read some news on one of these sites, www.photochannel.com. It described a camera introduced in Japan by Canon, with a Canon bubblejet printer built in. Now that, I thought, is a camera that consumes plenty of consumables, but may never, ever, not even once, take a picture.

Is there life beyond input?
It's not all that likely, but it is entirely possible that this new Canon could be used as a photo printer only. I say it's not that likely, as someone who needed a photo printer probably would buy a dedicated desktop model. However, you factor in someone who gives such a gift to someone who already has a PowerShot Pro, and you have an idea of how just one half of the camera/printer combo could enter service even as the other half lies fallow.

Our advance information doesn't specify whether the printer side of the Canon camera can accommodate memory cards only of its own camera, only of Canon cameras, or of any camera using the same memory-card format. Barring the first possibility, it's entirely possible that this could be a CTDTP.

The first camera with built-in printer to reach our shores was the provocative Olympus C-211, which "prints" onto Polaroid Type 500 film. This gives us a new technical definition of "printer," since practically every printer back to Gutenberg printed by applying some substance (e.g. ink) to the printed surface. The only substance contacting the Polaroid film inside the C-211 is light. The signal received from the CCD is projected on the film, by a thingie that acts like a scanner in reverse. We in the industry have seen comparable systems for making prints in labs, but not with a portable camera attached.

It's impossible to assess how the Canon and Olympus products will fare against each other, because we haven't had a chance to use the Canon for a basis of assessment. It is possible, however, to assess how the Olympus camera compares with the Polaroid camera. Essentially, it perfects it.

It retains all the features that made the original Polaroid the big hit it's been for the past half-century. It gives its users, and their friends, the same old wonder and delight of watching their pictures fade-up from nowhere. The Polaroid made picture-taking that much more of a social experience, bringing the photographic process out from the sidelines, and into the center of festive activity. This was so well appreciated that two generations of Polaroid users have forgiven the system's limitations.

The major limitation involved getting duplicate Polaroid prints. Each camera print being essentially "the original," without a negative, you had either to settle for second-generation optical copies, or reshoot each subject as many times as you thought you'd need another original. If there were twenty people at the party and you insisted all should have their own print, you could make quite a pest of yourself.

In the C-211, the "original" resides on a SmartMedia card. You can shoot once, and simply make twenty prints to hand out. And if there are folks who'd like to see the pix, but are too far away for a handout, the image on the memory card can be uploaded to a "photo sharing" site, like any other digital image. The camera files can be transferred to the computer, and the memory card reformatted for new pictures. If you want to print the earlier pix on Polaroid film any time in the future, presumably it's easy to copy the files back to a SmartMedia card, stick it in the C-211, and let er rip.

The C-211 might not be completely a CTDTP, because obviously it's taking its own pictures. However, in the little scenario of the past few paragraphs, we've seen a reasonably acceptable hypothesis of how this camera does 20X more work as a printer than it does as a camera. This redesignates it a CTDTPS (Camera That Doesn't Take Pictures, Semi).

The collision between an Olympus digital camera and a Polaroid printer produces a charming result, simply because something old blends with something new, and they both come out the better for it. Technically, the marriage of a digicam to a BJ printer produces bedfellows that are equally interesting, and could quite likely share the self-generating, self-fulfilling character of the Olympus. For is it impossible that in the midst of a printing session, something else comes up that the photographer would like to shoot? Don't you just love it, when the product is self-promoting?

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