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Digital photokina-Show Me the Money!



Don Sutherland

Digital photokina-Show Me the Money!

Megapixel Barriers Were Broken & Features Exploded in Cologne...But Will It Be Enough to Turn the Tide?

The bouncing ball that everyone's been watching has been the consumer market, wondering when it would drop into the pocket on the far corner there, the one labeled digital. Maybe it's time someone started making money in digital photography. And maybe the way is to mass-merchandise digicams, blister-pack, card and rack 'em, maybe even sell single-use models. Why shouldn't there be stalls at the big theme parks, where you could rent high-resolution digicams by the day?

A year ago we reported that the industry thinks the digicam game will take off when the 3x zoom leagues reach sweet-point pricing at two bills. That's when entry-level digicams, feature for feature and buck for buck, should match entry-level filmcams, to which they add the extra fun, functionality, fashionability, and sex appeal of being digital. That's when their unit sales are supposed to equal filmcams. But, oh yeah, they probably also gotta offer something like "film quality" pictures.

"Film quality" pictures. Their definition has been flexible. We were told digicams delivered "film quality" pictures back in the VGA days, when "high resolution" was 640x480. Today we do 5-megapixels. Is that "film quality," too?

There may be some distance between what "film quality" actually is, and what the public accepts as such. Presumably, enough of the public accepted VGA to help digital cameras limp up to the level of XGA. That's film quality, you know.

Intriguing but moot? Labeled DMC-FZ1, this Panasonic Lumix sports a Zeiss lens of 4.6-55.2mm. That's a 12x range, folks. Although there's a logic to coupling this optical system with a 2.1-megapixel imager, some might wonder if such a high-performance zoom doesn't call for more pixels. Evidently it's not for us to know, as Panasonic in Secaucus says they have no plans to bring this model into the U.S. [Photo by Don Sutherland.]

How much "quality" any customer needs depends on what he intends to do with the picture. If it's to send as an e-mail attachment, film has way too much "quality." It has to be dumbed-down to fit in the bandwidth, meaning that for this application, a VGA digicam in 1996 was arguably better than a filmcam.

So what are the expectations today, 2002/2003, out there in customerland? Can we say with assurance they'll find 3-megapixel cameras "film quality?" For printing 4x6s? They probably will.

I've always assumed that the ubiquity of home printers would change the market's relationship with photo enlargements. Not everyone agrees, but those broad-platen inkjets seem to cry out for 8x10 sheets. So I've hedged my bet, and placed 4-megapixels as the point of parity with "film quality."

Whether it's 3-megapixels or 4 that wins the official public "film quality" stamp of approval, the fact is we ain't there yet. Not long before the photokina show, Olympus announced a 4-megapixel camera with 3x zoom for $499. That's a great price, but it ain't two bills.

Performance on a Joyride

If the recent photokina in Cologne is an example, the industry has mixed feelings about reaching that sweetpoint. As always, there were trends downward in price, and plenty of new models for the chump-change market. But the trumpets were flaring and the hearts were throbbing in other realms of development. For example, what if we keep the same prices, and pour on more performance?

Nobody's told me about any formal schemes, but this kind of strategy could make sense. We probably all agree that before digicam sales equal film, digicam convenience must too. The last gap in that procession is the processing lab. You and I know that for the past two years, there were plenty of places Joe and Jane Foto could drop off their memory cards, and have prints made by "film processing machines." But for some reason, the word's only starting to get around. Even last June, an on-line article from the respected British publication The Economist magazine declared digicam output to be a bottleneck, without mentioning the rise of the d-labs. At the photokina show we've been watching that trend since the mid-1990s, and certainly saw that it was ready to ship in 2000.

Now you see it. The pocket-sized Fujifilm FinePix M603, with its 2x optical zoom, looks like an entry-level model but includes VGA-quality video at 30 fps, similar to the more elaborate S602 already shipping in the States. Fuji USA declares no intention of bringing this model into the country, however. [Photo by Don Sutherland.]

If The Economist doesn't know about it, no matter how widely observed, maybe investors don't know about it either. Maybe an informational trickle-up is required, before all these d-labs and kiosks we keep talking about, installing, and using, get noticed. Until the world awakes from that dreamless slumber in which it's difficult to make prints, it makes sense to pour camera design into better features and higher performance as opposed to lower prices. The $200 3x-zoom digicam will make the most sense when the 1-hour digital minilab is on every street corner, in every lobby, at all the airports. It's all technically possible, but while we're waiting, let's make some headlines with camera design.

Even before photokina, the mid-range digicam had already evolved into the most technically sophisticated picture-taking device ever offered. Fully automatic in operation, the best models also provided forms of fine-tuning for each individual picture, and/or the personal tastes of each individual user, far in excess of the most advanced cameras of the past. At its best, 35mm still offers the bigger blow-up sizes, and that remains important. But the digital exclusives are now so many, and so useful, that there's a legitimate trade-off between the two technologies. At that huge photo show in Cologne, Germany, the world's largest and probably the longest-running, additional performance poured on to a point that some observers might think, theoretically at least, that "film quality" is no longer the standard. Maybe "digital quality" is.

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