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Photography has been with us for over 100 years, and like an old proverb, its so familiar that we often lose sight of the meaning of the parts of the phrase or in this case, the steps of the process. In the case of photography, the elements have been defined de facto as a byproduct of the technology of the time. As a result, we have difficulty in understanding how the process of photography might change as a result of the introduction of new technologies. Many of us have been asking what the impact of digital photography will be upon the consumer photographic experience. I propose, in this article, an analysis that may offer some insight.
There are several important questions that prognostics are trying to dowse.
First is the question relating to the acceptance of the use of a digital camera as a replacement for a film camera?
Second and foremost is the issue of if, how and how many prints will be made if digital cameras do become the preferred capture device?
Third, is the issue of defining the form for digital cameras, for example, whether they will be predominantly in cell phones or as independent devices?
In past speeches and articles, I have described the camera as a tool, similar to hammer, where different designs fit different uses. Underwater photography has unique requirements that are considerably different from point-and-shoot vacation snapshots.
No one will argue that vertical markets with unique designs will continue to exist. The Holy Grail however has long been the simple vacation or party camera used by consumers principally because of the enormous volume of film purchased and prints that are made and therefore the total dollars that they represent. However, in the long term, for an itinerant camera designer like myself, the fun just might be in these niche vertical markets where different aspects of digital imaging can be exploited. I have included in this essay, at its end, some comments about vertical market development in the digital camera industry.
Prior to the advent of the digital camera, the most recent ground-shaking event in the photo industry was the success of the disposable or single-use camera. Prior to its success, manufacturers and pundits within the industry stated with absolute certainty that consumers would never move backwards in quality. They were clearly wrong. Some aspect of the convenience of disposables, possibly the spontaneity with which they can be purchased, or the low risk they represent for loss or damage, or maybe just because they’re cheap – created a compelling attraction that overwhelmed the liability of poorer image quality as a result of the use of a cheap plastic lens and often a missing flash.
For the purpose of this article, I am therefore focusing upon the snap-shot industry. Let me begin by separating the consumer photographic experience into four somewhat independent behaviors. For the moment, I will refer to them as: Capture, Review, Share and Archive. However, as my analysis proceeds, I will change these names to reflect what I really believe is going on within the human psyche. In the end, the success of digital imaging in this industry will rest with whether the compelling attractors of a digital system outweigh the detractors and thus, consumers vote with their wallets to buy them.
I have mused in the past that if one had an empty camera (with no film – and no sensor) that it would still serve an important function in society. We often indicate to our associates that we wish to honor them, and the shared moment, though the taking of their picture. In many cases, in fact, the subject of the photo will never actually see the picture and has no way of knowing if there is film in the camera. Yet, the subject understands the gesture of honoring both the moment and their presence through the request to take their picture. As further evidence, consider that if you asked one person in a group to be photographed while intentionally excluding a second, the un-photographed would feel some offense at being left out.
Therefore, the act of capture is really a combination of two principal behaviors: first the desire to actually have this picture for a future purpose and second, to honor the people and event that are being captured. I therefore rename this behavior: “Capture and honor.”
Newer digital cameras have the advantage of not necessarily requiring a mechanical shutter. They clearly don’t need a film advance motor and finally, with higher dynamic range sensors, they may not need a flash. While all of these contribute to simpler, more reliable and lower power (longer battery life) cameras, they also inadvertently contribute to the lack of noise or light indicating that a picture has been taken. This can be problematic in several ways. First, it’s hard to know if you took the picture, especially in a noisy environment. Worse, it’s hard for the subject to know that it’s ok to move.
However, there may be several more subtle issues at hand. We have already seen some backlash by consumers, companies and government agencies who are concerned about voyeuristic or secret photography taken with some of the newer cell-phone cameras. Manufacturers are already adding “clicks” to make it more obvious when a photo is taken.
I would add that the process of “honoring” is ritually culminated with the symbolic click and flash that closes the process. People have been conditioned to this through years of photographic experience and may find the newer process unsettling as a result.
To the process of capture, the issue of whether the captured image resides upon film or within some electronic ether is irrelevant. The more important issue becomes the availability of “room” within the camera for lots of pictures. For film cameras, there is an inexhaustible supply of film that is ubiquitous throughout the world. For digital it’s not so simple.
Clearly, as the cost of memory cards continue to decline on a Mbyte/dollar basis it becomes more practical to consider the digital camera memory card in the same way we consider memory for our laptop computer. We configure the camera (or the computer) when we purchase it, with as much memory as we can afford. And, even for my 6.2 Mega Pixel camera, a 1 Gbyte compact flash card allows me to shoot for a week without limitation.
There is, however, a second order effect when considering this issue. Professional photographers have long understood that one simple key to great photography is to take lots of pictures. We all intuitively understand that special moments that can’t necessarily be anticipated contribute importantly to the composition and thus the quality of a photo.
Probably one of the most important assets of digital photography is its ability to free the photographer to take lots of shots with the anticipation of throwing most away at no cost. However, even my 1Gbyte card starts to look a bit limited when I truly embrace this concept. In summary, however, I will admit that for most purposes, adequately sized memory cards at reasonable prices are available for most photographers in most situations.
Some of today’s digital cameras are often deficient in their ability to turn on quickly or fire rapidly successive shots. These are also important parts of a system needed to free the photographer to take more pictures.
In summary, my belief is that with a click and a flash, rapid fire and fast turn-on and finally a monster sized memory card, digital cameras will easily win the battle of which device is preferable when considering only the capture portion of the behavior pattern associated with the consumer photographic experience.
Recently, cell phone cameras have become quite popular. They have virtually taken over Japan and there are numerous offerings in both the US and Europe. Originally, I predicted that the cell-phone camera would have a dramatic effect on the industry. I felt this way because of the willingness of cell phone service providers to subsidize the cost of the hardware if there was additional service revenue available through transmission or printing.
Historically, I’ve not been a fan of “combo” products. In general, each of the portions is deficient in its respective category. This is true for cell phones with cameras. The phone is a bit bigger than competitive models and the camera is lower resolution and usually doesn’t have a flash or sophistication in optics.
However, all that said, the subsidy of the cost, combined with the convenience of having to carry only a single battery, display and buttons (which are shared) makes it more compelling. If we look back to the success of single use cameras, we find an important parallel where the features of the camera and quality of the picture were sacrificed for convenience. Personally, I find this argument quite compelling. I believe therefore, that the cell phone camera will be the disposable camera of the twenty first century and will completely change the habits associated with casual consumer photography.
I have intentionally avoided the question of resolution since it has no bearing when taking the photo. I’ll cover it later even though it’s often the first consideration by many who are buying a digital camera.
I can remember going to the US Virgin islands with my wife, and her relatives. During the trip, they took hundreds of film photos. And, they felt compelled to process the photos there, on the island for us to share. It is in some ways bizarre that we would actually be sitting on a beach, looking at photos of us sitting on a beach. (Well, not that bizarre)
Many of us have personally experienced the need in either ourselves or our family to rush to a one-hour lab to process pictures for an event for which the coals are still warm. And, the final and best example is the Polaroid camera.
While some can argue that this is a sign of a need for “instant gratification,” I see it differently. I believe that what we are really doing is a process of “objectification.” By observing ourselves in the event, and taking on the roll of an observer, allows us to re-classify the event in our minds in a more tangible way. It sort of anchors the event into reality by giving us a bird’s eye view.
Therefore, I rename this behavior: “Review and Objectification.”
The small display on the back of a digital camera has often become the tool of objectification. The earliest digital cameras introduced by Casio in Japan had no ability to off-load the images. The only method of use was to look at the small display after capture and then to discard the images. These were quite successful in their day.
Again, I often hear people suggest that the value of the display on a digital camera is to allow the user to discard bad shots. And, while I feel that this is sometimes practical, the large memory cards make this unnecessary unless the photographer is truly bored. Rather, the use as a tool for objectification may be more compelling for these displays.
As well, the potential for improving this image through increasing the size of the display or using a higher resolution micro-display or even a television if it’s handy can only serve to aid in this process of objectification.
In conclusion, for the purposes of “Review and Objectification,” I would offer that the inclusion of a larger display (bigger than is currently there) would be desirable. With rechargeable batteries like in your cell phone, I see no problem with supporting the load of a larger display. The camera would charge while we slept.
It’s interesting to note that the only methods for currently satisfying the rapid objectification with film photography are either Polaroid or 1-hour mini-labs. This may be one of the most important conclusions of this article. If the sense of urgency for objectification is met by the display on the digital camera or viewing electronically on a television or LCD display, then the need for rapid film processing may no longer exist. Thus, other, slower but potentially more convenient methods of creating prints (like prints through the mail) may become dominant with the advent of digital cameras.
Currently, most retailers use their 1-hour mini-lab as a method to get consumers into their establishments (and possibly stay for an hour). I believe the average additional spending is close to $20 for each trip to the store to process film. The demise of the 1-hour photo service would have a dramatic impact on many retailers.
Some have likened the advent of digital photography to the promise of the paperless office. We all know that there are more trees dying today than before. However, I think the analogy may not apply to consumer photography where the only method to objectification and archiving was through paper printing. Even though digital imaging will clearly cause the capture of more images and the processing and creation of more variations of those images, I suspect that printing will actually decrease dramatically over the next five years.
Again, for the moment, I will defer on the issue of resolution. Most of the displays are limited to television or lower resolution and thus, the resolution of the image is, for the most part, irrelevant.
I have been in the photography field for a great many years now and I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a company talk about “sharing your photos with grandma.” Now that I’m finally approaching having my own grand children, I’m eager to find out whether I’m really that interested in being engulfed with their pictures. I’m sure that Grandma will be.
None the less, it’s clear that often, photos are duplicated and sent to loved ones. Clearly, digital photos can be quite a bit easier to send through email, if grandma is a techie. The saturation of the number of available techie grandmas, however, is only a matter of time.
Occasionally, an image is shared through public display. This can range from a refrigerator magnet to an honored spot on the mantel. Recently, a variety of products have been offered that make it possible to turn your TV or new plasma display into a picture frame for your favorite photos. While burning a picture of your kids into your $3,000 plasma display might not be that desirable, it does seem like this form of public display is both convenient and adequate, especially as the cost of these displays drops.
Again, the requirement for email and/or public display on a TV does not beg for especially high resolution. The most modern HDTVS are still only in the one to two mega-pixel region.
In the interim, however, prior to the proliferation of low cost plasma displays or their successors, large display prints are often desirable. And, while soft appearing prints might work for some portraits, the Grand Canyon doesn’t really look that good without a lot of pixels.
The issue of whether one’s ability to make large prints will affect the decision of which camera to use is interesting. On one hand, very few 8X10 prints are actually made. However, a photographer might be reluctant to preclude the ability to make an 8X10 through the choice of a camera, especially if it’s a feature of their current photographic system.
Today, this issue comes down to cost. It’s already possible to buy a damn good 6 mega-pixel camera for $2,000. Eventually those sensors and reasonable lenses will be found in less expensive varieties.
Finally, there’s Archiving
In my own family, my wife is the archivist. We have tens of enormous photo albums that have been reviewed infrequently. Yet there is a certain comfort in knowing that they are there, and as well, there is certainly enjoyment in the occasional review. It would seem that the process of archiving actually separates into two distinct behavior patters: creating the archive and viewing the archive.
I’ve heard it expressed that the archiving of photos in printed form carries a certain comfort that isn’t shared with electronic forms that may feel less physical and less secure. I know of very few people who actually duplicate their archives and store them at a secure and separate location. Yet there still exists an emotional connection to this, albeit false, sense of security associated with prints. My sense is that only a generational change will cause this behavior to change. The children of today, who are, for the most part more computer literate than their parents, may find that archiving on a CD (or DVD) is as comforting as the creation of an album. And, it has the remarkable advantage that all digital data carries: namely that even with the obsolescence of the media, it’s possible to copy the data, without loss, to the next media type. Try that with a conventional album.
The review of an archive can be both a personal or group experience. For group applications, clearly, the presentation of the archive on a screen of some sort is preferable so that the experience can be shared in unison. However, for the personal experience of reviewing an archive, it’s possible that holding and touching the photo carries with it, an emotional content that outweighs the reduced size. However, this may be moot, again, for generational changes.
The advent of the Cell Phone Camera is going to rapidly transition the simple snap-shot market to digital. This, in my opinion, is going to have a radical and rapid impact on the film processing, disposable camera manufacturing and retail industries that are currently dependent upon these current modes of photography for significant revenue and foot traffic.
The final vestiges of consumer photography that still offer some print revenue may completely die out with the generational changes that are also occurring.
However, for this to occur, two things must still happen:
First, the cell phone cameras and their photo systems must meet and satisfy the four consumer behavior patterns outlined above.
Second, the cell phone industry service providers must continue to subsidize the cost of these cameras through a belief that may never be realized that transmission of photos represent a revenue opportunity that justifies their subsidy.
Addendum A - Vertical Markets
I have observed a few different vertical industries attempt at taking consumer digital cameras and making them into industrial or commercially targeted systems. The attraction was often the low prices that consumer products carried. However, the irony was that by the time the development was completed, the camera was most likely out of production and future models worked differently and were therefore unsuitable for the OEM application.
In the end, these forays into digital imaging server more to convince the vertical user that digital imaging is viable in their market than to offer a practical product solution. Then next phase of the market development is for the vertical user to find an experienced OEM camera designer who can produce a product that can persist for many years and be fit to the specific application. The prices will no-doubt be higher than similarly featured consumer cameras, but the cost justification will be better understood and the tolerance for a commercial solution is higher.
Therefore, we will soon be seeing digital cameras that are designed for specific vertical markets and carry price tags that are higher than consumer products, but whose design and availability are better tuned to the needs of commercial users.
Addendum B – Sensor wars
In 1995, my prior company was the first to build an 800k pixel CMOS sensor camera. Our goal was to reduce the cost of the moderate quality digital camera through the use of lower cost CMOS sensors. Over the last 9 years I’ve watched several companies enter and leave the CMOS sensor market and here are the basic underlying truths that I believe I’ve learned:
It’s very difficult to build a successful CMOS company that is fab-less. The reason is that much of the secret of building a good sensor is to modify the fab process to improve the quality. Unfortunately, the fab-less manufacturer is caught between several unattractive alternatives. First, they would like to run very small test runs, so that they don’t waste a lot of process cost. Unfortunately, the fab may have a minimum number of wafers per run. This results in making a lot of marginal sensors while they are trying to perfect the process. These will no-doubt need to be sold to customers who might not know the difference, or might – and there’s the rub.
CMOS sensors first were attractive to low-cost manufacturers as a way to further reduce the cost of the camera. This put enormous pressure on the sensor manufacturers to lower cost. The most obvious way to do this is to reduce the pixel size and resultantly, the die size. Unfortunately, reducing the pixel size reduces the signal to noise ratio (since there are less photons to count) and ensures that the camera doesn’t get any better in quality even though the basic CMOS process is being improved.
CCD sensors, while mature as a technology, were holding artificially high prices because there were a limited number of manufacturers and there was no competition. When CMOS established itself, CCD manufacturers responded by lowering their prices and selling on the basis of higher quality.
In the semiconductor industry, the real key to cost is yield. And, the key to yield is a combination of the size of the die and the quality of fab line. Since CCD manufacturers were originally mature and ran on older lines (because the volumes were stable) it seemed plausible that CMOS could dominate because it could be produced on the most modern equipment. Therefore, not counting the relative costs of the processes (which also gives CMOS an advantage), if the die sizes were equivalent, the cost of CMOS should be less. However, with increasing volume, it becomes rational to modernize CCD equipment and level the playing field again.
In the end, the shortcomings of CCDS – namely separate power supplies, high voltage clocks and various artifacts could be affected by modifications to the design or process. And the shortcomings of CMOS – namely lower dynamic range, lower signal to noise and different artifacts could also be affected by modifications to the design or process.
Japanese companies have controlled the high end of the digital camera market by principally controlling the source of high quality optics through patents and proprietary designs. One can build a damn good camera using either CMOS or CCD if you’re willing to make the device large enough so that you can capture enough photons.
Once the manufacturers stop changing the size of the sensor, and when the volumes are adequate, then and only then, will it be worthwhile to custom tool a set of lenses that will finally reduce the cost (and size) of a digital camera to be properly competitive with film cameras. We are soon approaching that day. 6 Mega-pixel sensors are clearly adequate for virtually all consumer level reproductions. The CMOS sensor in the Canon 10D is a perfect example. Next it’s necessary to shrink the optics and packaging while not shrinking the sensor any more.