COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

The imaging revolution

The transformation of the photo industry was evident at the Photo Marketing Association's annual trade show held last week in Las Vegas. The PMA show, which in the past has catered to photographic retailers and film processors, now reflects the movement from analog to digital photography, from film to memory chips.

The major exhibitors this year were digital camera manufacturers, software companies and printer manufacturers rather than the mini-labs, chemical products and processing equipment of past years.

While there were products for conventional photo processors and photo shops, such as kiosks to produce images from a customer's memory card, they're mostly stopgap measures that will hardly delay the inevitable: the shifting of services provided by the photo lab to the home where images can be created less expensively, more conveniently and in many cases, better.

End users are being empowered to take more control of the creation of images with little need to rely on outside services. It was sad to see Kodak at their press conference trying to convince themselves and their dealers that they can still control all aspects from taking the image to making the print. Having spent the early part of my career working for Polaroid, it was equally sad to see Polaroid as one of the major casualties. Since their bankruptcy, their name is being licensed to the highest bidder for an assortment of mediocre products, having little relationship to the innovation the name once stood for.

The innovative new technologies and products are now coming from companies like Canon, Olympus, Epson, Picasa, Adobe and Jasc. These companies are bringing technologies to the home to do everything from creating the image, improving it, printing it, sharing it and storing it. One of the clear trends is finding ways to do much of this without the need to master the computer, and in some cases to avoid it altogether.

Here's a roundup of some of the more interesting new products at this year's PMA.

Digital cameras

  • Pentax (www.pentaxusa.com) introduced their latest tiny Altoid container-sized camera, the Optio S4i. It now has a larger 1.8-inch LCD monitor, a charging cradle, 4 megapixels and a 3X optical zoom. This is the smallest full-featured camera available. About $400.

  • Canon (NYSE: CAJ, www.canonusa.com) expanded their Elph series of ultra-compact cameras with new 4 and 5 megabyte pocketable cameras clad in ceramic/steel housings. $400 to $500. The Elph cameras are noted for their compact size, solid construction and for taking excellent images.

  • Olympus (OTC: OLYOY, www.olympusamerica.com) and Canon each introduced 8 megapixel cameras, the C-8080 and Pro-Digital, to compete with Sony's recently introduced DSC-F828. These large lens cameras all have similar L-shaped form factors with large aperture, high-ratio zoom lenses on smaller bodies and are priced at about $1,000.

  • Nikon (www.nikonusa.com) introduced their D70 digital SLR to compete with the very successful Canon EOS 300D. The D70 will cost $999 for the body and $1,299 with a new 18-70 mm zoom lens.

  • Leica introduced the Digilux 2, a 5 megapixel camera hoping to appeal to Leica fans with big budgets. It resembles Leica's form factor, construction and materials, sporting a huge 2.5 inch LCD screen and a f2.0 Leica 3X zoom. $1,800.

    Printers

  • The Epson Stylus Photo RX600 is like a darkroom for the home. It views, scans, copies and creates 5,760 x 1,440 dpi borderless prints. It has software that restores faded images and slides. You can plug in your camera, insert your memory card or use an optional Bluetooth adapter to print your images from your camera or phone without the need for a computer. $349.

  • The Epson PictureMate makes lab-quality 4x6 inch prints using Epson's archival ink-jet print technology for 29 cents per print, about half the price of prints from competitive products. Designed to be used without a computer, it can crop, add borders, perform color correction and create wallet-sized images. $199.

  • Canon introduced their i9900 desktop photo inkjet printer for 13 x 19-inch prints with 4,800 x 2,400 dpi resolution. Available in May for a suggested list price $499.

    Software

    There were lots of software products designed to help you organize, enhance and share digital images. Two of the best products I saw were Jasc Photo Album 5 (www.jasc.com) at $50 (available in March) and Picasa (www.lifescapeinc.com) at $29. Jasc has a rich feature set while Picasa is easy to use with a terrific interface with some innovative features, including its timeline feature. While experts use Adobe Photoshop to enhance images, it can take hours and extensive training to use. Jasc and Picasa use very sophisticated image analyses and algorithms to improve images with a single click.

    These huge advances in digital cameras, photo printers and software provide both amateur and professional photographers with the ability to do much more at home and rely less on the traditional photo industry. Kodak, look out!


    Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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