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Digital photography hits the mainstream

Just as PCs changed the way we think about documents, digital cameras are changing the way we think about images.

Instant gratification is intoxicating. There’s something magical about taking a photo, then turning a dial or pushing a button to see it displayed on the camera’s monitor. You screwed up? Snap the picture again. A keeper? As a nugget of data it’s ready for e-mailing, printing, or importation into an image editor, where the fun really begins.

That immediate payback is one of the main reasons why digital photography is a hot technology in an otherwise tepid consumer IT industry. Once dominated by inveterate gearheads who actually understand what pixelization and chromatic aberration mean, digital photography has gone mainstream, embracing just about everyone who takes pictures at work and at play. Professionals covering trade shows and shooting products for print catalogs and online auctions; amateurs immortalizing Florida sunsets and Little League home runs; parents e-mailing snapshots of baby to relatives and sticking copies on the fridge; all have come to appreciate the advantages of marrying the camera to the computer. Instant gratification, yes, but also enhanced control and creativity, and scads of time and money saved on film purchasing and processing.

Digital photography has suffered the same growing pains as PCs, PDAs, cell phones, and other electronic innovations that have long since entered the mainstream: Early adopters fumbling with maddeningly inefficient devices served as guinea pigs for manufacturers exploring uncharted territory. This spring’s wave of new digital offerings from Sony, Kodak, Olympus, Canon, and other camera makers suggests that the industry has achieved a new level of maturity, in marketing as well as technological prowess. Browse online and offline outlets and you’ll find a wide array of cameras at different price points, with a multiplicity of features geared to the perceived needs of point-and-shoot, accomplished amateur (aka prosumer), and professional photographers.

Digital cameras are rapidly displacing film in commercial applications where speed is crucial. And consumers have warmed up to reasonably priced digicams that are as simple to use as their trusty 35mm point-and-shoots–and much simpler to transfer images to a computer for e-mailing, printing or uploading to photo-finishing services.

According to InfoTrends Research Group, a PC imaging market research and consulting firm based in Boston, low-end digicams captured 21 percent of the worldwide camera market last year. By 2006, digital cameras will account for 63 percent of global camera sales, reaping manufacturers $9.9 billion, InfoTrends estimates.

No wonder peddlers of everything from inkjet cartridges to online backup services are salivating over potential megaprofits in digital imaging.

Focus on the bottom line

The technology’s adoption by business is the most convincing evidence that a digital sea change is underway in photography. Digital cameras have already proven themselves superior to traditional film cameras in applications in which time is the enemy. In publishing, for example, editors responsible for feeding pictures to Web sites around the clock can’t afford to wait for technicians to develop, print, and scan 35mm prints. They insist upon express delivery over the Net, and in response, increasing numbers of photojournalists have gone digital, toting top-notch single lens reflex (SLR) cameras from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Fuji to news conferences and sporting events.

“Most of my clients demand digital,” says Scott Audette, a Lakeland, Fla.-based freelance photographer who works on contract for the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team and covers other local sporting events as a stringer for the Associated Press (AP). “The deadline at AP is, ‘We need to see a picture as soon as possible, ideally within an hour and a half of the time the event starts.'”

The race begins as soon as Audette starts shooting, capturing up to eight frames per second with a Canon EOS-1D that also boasts 4.1-mexapixel resolution, fast autofocus, and interchangeable lenses. During Lightning games he uploads photos to the team’s Web site, tinkering with them first in Adobe Photoshop on a Mac laptop. From remote locations, Audette hooks up a PCS phone to his Mac to send images to AP bureaus in New York City or Washington, D.C.

Audette paid $5,000 apiece for his two Canon EOS-1Ds last winter, but he figures he’s already recouped that up-front expense; shooting 35mm, he was spending more than $6,000 a month on film and processing for Lightning games alone. “Expensewise, [digital] makes sense,” he says. “It’s changed the way I do business.”

Digital has also largely supplanted film in corporate-event photography, a business that thrives on instant gratification. Digital Photos Inc. in Chicago specializes in impromptu portraiture at trade shows, conventions, new-product promotions, company picnics, and other events. Employing a technique called green-screen–identical to the blue-screen method used for TV weather maps–the five-year-old company conjures up amusing montages that transport eventgoers to a palm-fringed beach, or the African veldt. There’s no waiting to see the finished product; onsite PCs tethered to digital cameras by Firewire connections can produce a 5-by-7 image ready for printing in seconds.

“You couldn’t do what I do without a digital camera,” says company President Lauren Major. “People want it, and they want it quickly. You don’t have the luxury of [time] when you’re doing corporate events.” The company also posts its playful images to clients’ Web sites, and creates e-mailable slide shows for replay on a PC or laptop.

Other burgeoning commercial applications for digicams include real estate, product photography, and insurance adjusting.

For Realtors and their clients, digital photography is the biggest time saver since the invention of the fax machine. Preparing photos of properties for multiple listing services, newspaper ads, and highlight sheets is a snap with a $300 digicam; and e-mailing pictures to prospective buyers effectively weeds out undesirable houses. The virtual tour is an increasingly popular marketing tool on Realtor Web sites; a series of digital images stitched together treats Web visitors to moving, seamless panoramas of a home’s setting and interior layout.

Aware that nothing stimulates sales like a picture, Web auctioneers such as eBay Inc. and uBid.com digitally snap thousands of products per day for display online as low-resolution JPEG files. And insurance adjusters pack digicams on their way to car crashes and storm-damaged homes, the better to expedite claims and streamline record keeping.

Digicams for the rest of us

Following a standard pattern in consumer electronics, performance that once could be found only in the priciest professional cameras is steadily filtering down to the prosumer and consumer markets. A year ago a 3-megapixel camera with optical zoom and several flash settings cost over $700; today you can buy a comparable model for about $500, bringing digicams rivaling the image quality of the typical point-and-shoot 35mm camera within reach of Joe Consumer.

The beauty of digital for casual photographers is the medium’s immediacy. One-hour film processing can’t compete with a photo displayed instantly on the camera’s LCD monitor. In minutes more, that image can take tangible form as an inkjet print. And within half an hour Mom and Dad and cousin Bette can be looking at the same picture on their computer screens. “That ability to communicate so instantly is really now a part of our daily lives,” says Michelle Slaughter, an InfoTrends market research analyst. “Consumers have immediate access to viewing their photos, and sharing them through e-mail at home or at work.”

More technically adept amateurs find that digital gives them the freedom to experiment (no more anxiety over wasted film) and more control over the result with image-editing software. For shutterbugs who take hundreds of photos per year, digital also offers an elegant image storage and retrieval system. Data files saved on a hard drive, Zip disks, or CDs take up less space and are much easier to rummage through than shoe boxes stuffed with 35mm prints or slides. Jeremy McCreary, “an avid amateur with a passion for nature, science, and digital photography,” burns his photos onto CDs and assembles HTML-based, annotated “e-scrapbooks” for storing locally or posting on the Web.

“To my mind, the ability to enjoy your photos depends critically on your ability to retrieve them at will,” McCreary writes in an article on his digicam Web site entitled “Why I Went Digital.”

The current crop of multimegapixel consumer cameras lets users tailor image quality to the situation; last winter’s trip to Maui may merit archival-quality prints, while Rover’s Frisbee acrobatics deserve only low-res e-mail attachments. And improved image capturing makes digital practicable for shooting fast-moving or poorly lit subjects–not digicam fortes until recently. Cameras with burst capability, for instance, keep shooting as long as the shutter is depressed, holding the image sequence in SDRAM until the action stops. Many new digital cameras can also mimic a camcorder, capturing short movie clips.

But extracting pictures from the camera is still a stumbling block for consumers who have little experience with computer peripherals, image-editing software, and Web uploads. “People take pictures and they go, ‘Now what?'” observes Dannee Saylor, vice president of Steve’s Digicams, a popular Web site that reviews digital cameras. USB card readers bundled with memory cards; camera docks that transfer photos to a PC at the touch of a button; more powerful yet intuitive image browsers bundled with cameras; all constitute attempts to shorten what industry insiders call the “chain of pain.”

“I believe the manufacturers have recognized that they need to make the ability to move the images from the camera to the computer for manipulation much easier for the end user,” Saylor says.

A growing pixel empire

The broad acceptance of digital photography represents a golden opportunity not only for camera manufacturers but also for producers of related products and services such as memory cards, image-editing software, CD burners, photographic paper, printers, ink cartridges, and photofinishing.

Roughly 73 percent of digital-camera owners print photos themselves, according to an InfoTrends study last fall. Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina says she would love the company’s market-leading inkjet printers to become as commonplace in the home as big-screen TVs and bread makers. She sees printers–along with other digital-imaging products such as inkjet cartridges and flatbed scanners–as a key component of HP’s drive to regain market momentum after its merger with Compaq. Epson and Canon are also aggressively marketing inkjet printers to digital photographers. Many of these products can print photos directly from a memory card.

Having locked up the professional image editing market with Photoshop, Adobe Systems has set its sights on business generalists and hobbyists with Photoshop Elements, a simpler application with an intuitive, visual interface designed to facilitate printing, posting images to the Web, and ordering prints online. Apple threw its hat into the imaging ring in January, unveiling iPhoto at Macworld under banners that quipped, “Shoot like Ansel. Organize like Martha.” CEO Steve Jobs is betting that the consumer-level application, available as a free download, will give tens of thousands of budding Ansel Stewarts a reason to invest in an iMac or an OS X upgrade.

Other software vendors are exploiting niches in image browsing (Camera Bits, ACDSee); green-screen (Express Digital, TriPrism); and virtual tours (Visual Tours).

Web finishing

One barrier to entry for many consumers is the cost of building an entire digital darkroom (see sidebar). Once you have the camera, you need a PC with the appropriate software, a suitable printer, a CD burner, and other accessories. One way for users to spread some of the cost out is to use a Web photo finisher until they can afford the printer.

Last year a number of online photofinishers either crashed to earth (PhotoPoint, Zing) or were acquired (Ofoto, Snapfish), dramatically shrinking an industry that was born to serve digital photographers. But the shakeout has strengthened the survivors and put them on the path to profitability as their potential customer base steadily grows.

Emeryville, Calif.-based Ofoto Inc. has seen its revenues swell 12 percent per month since being swallowed by Eastman Kodak Co. last summer. President James Joaquin expects that trend to continue as Kodak’s marketing attracts more and more consumers, including women who have become more comfortable with digital cameras and the Internet. He says there’s room in an expanding marketplace for both Web photofinishing–which offers high-quality prints and efficient distribution to friends and relatives–and home printing. “The vast majority of Ofoto customers who print online with us also print at home,” he says. “My belief is that consumers will use different printing methods in different situations.”

Going with the digital flow

Digital has established itself as the way photographs will be taken, edited, and distributed in the future. Top-of-the-line digital SLRs will soon surpass the best film cameras in image quality, hastening the day when gelatin-coated rolls of plastic join glass plates in museums. Camera prices will continue to come down, removing the last obstacle to almost universal use in business and the home. Integration of digital photography with other technologies will become ever more seamless; Panasonic has released a tiny, wearable music player that also takes digital photos, and HP’s research labs are trying to incorporate image sensors into cell phones.

Above all, the Internet will provide a conduit for the instant, global dissemination of more photographs than Ansel Adams could have ever dreamed of. Mindful of the success of the one-hour photo concept in 35mm film processing, Kodak is experimenting with Web-enabled printing kiosks in retail stores such as Rite Aid drug and Wal-Mart. Shoppers would be able to upload their images to Ofoto, watch their finished prints emerge from the machine, then toss them into a checkout cart along with the paper towels and mouthwash.

What could be more mainstream than that?

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