It's No Longer Just Photoshop Anymore as the Image Manipulation Market Comes of Age
by Don Sutherland
When it comes to working on photos, you can look at the computer in two different ways. It can be a liberating force, by simplifying so many things, getting them done better, and making a great game of them in the process. Or it can be a restricting force, an anchor confining your movements in the seas of opportunity.
The trend away from the computer showed up first in cameras and printers. Some camera companies like Olympus and Sony offered wireless downloads to printers. Some companies like HP, Lexar, and Epson offered printers with memory-card readers built-in, which also kept the computer out of the loop.
Devices like these didn't eliminate the need for computer downloads—eventually—but they could postpone the need, and make the computer less of a tyrant.
Today, options abound as does opportunity. Output systems now in use include dye-sublimation, inkjet, Indigo, and photosensitive paper. The printing-systems people certainly think there's a mass market a-making for quick digital pix.
The ubiquity of these services should make digital cameras, themselves, real mass-market products.
In Camera Editing
As handy and as beneficial as these services are, however, they provide prints the way the camera made them. The color saturation and hue, the sharpening, the overall contrast of each scene, all are received as each software development team wrote them.
Some camera companies boast of the fine looks their products inject into their pictures. Olympus calls their formula TruePic, and Fuji has won accolades for the vivid colors of its Super CCD. Epson offers a standard they call Print Image Matching, adopted by many of the majors. PIM aims to synchronize printers with camera color files. What you shoot is what you get, goes the thinking, and PIM has been well-received for its efforts. But does every commercial output device speak its language?
And speaking of those output devices: they have their own preferences too, for hue and saturation and contrast and sharpening. Are their defaults what customers want? Do their defaults respect the cameras' settings?
Both camera and printer are robots, after all, each set to its own defaults. The best we could say about pairing them together is that the results would be unpredictable. And they're subject to change daily.
To go truly bigtime, digital photography needs a service base equaling that of film. But like film, the price one pays for service includes control. The user loses it. The color and contrast and sharpness of prints are determined by forces outside the end-user's wishes and, maybe, acceptance.
The Digital Darkroom
Photographers using film labs face most of these same issues, and that hardly prevented the processing business from getting a toehold. But digital photographers have something new: an accessible, simplified darkroom installed on their PCs. A lot of people who hated film darkrooms love using image editors. That's where they straighten their prints. Or shuffle the colors. Or press the "quick fix" button offered by everything from Photoshop down, showing its best guess for the perfect picture.
The wonders of software are well-known by now. Customers for retail lab services, therefore, may be more discerning and demanding than customers before the digital age, because digital tech does reputed wonders, and everyone knows it.
Some people will always want processing services, just as they want single-use film cameras now. Even the modest effort of printing their own is beyond their photographic aspirations. Given time, some of these may expand their horizons, taking-up digital retouch with an ardor they'd never have felt in the past. They'll enter the existing photography markets and enlarge 'em, first making corrections and then making greeting cards, then websites. Any photography task that takes 15 minutes or less—short enough to squeeze between TV shows—probably stands a good chance of success.