Opinion

Debate: Will digital cameras supersede film photography?

Arlene Martin and Will Garside
Digital cameras have already attracted droves of devotees - but are their celluloid counterparts ready for retirement? The arguments are far from black and white

Will Garside - Sceptic

I must say that the digital camera revolution has passed me by. I take the occasional snap at christenings, weddings and drunken parties, but I wasn't one of the four million Europeans who rushed out to buy a digital camera last year. For me, the idea that it's all made cheaper and easier by these devices is a myth. For a start, you need a PC with suitable hard drive storage space and printer - and even then the end result is poor in comparison with the high street processing lab and comes in more expensive.

In the vertical markets, digital photography has a useful role. However, if, as many analysts believe, digital photography will replace film cameras, I would insist that the video camera will eclipse both.

Even with Kodak predicting that more than half of its revenues will be generated from digital imaging by 2005, the number of new players entering the market will see the old guard's dominance start to wane. If you consider that Kodak's share price has fallen by nearly half, this could be an indication that the financial markets have also not bought into the digital imaging revolution either.

Arlene Martin - Convert

There's no longer the need for a PC to view images captured by a digital camera - many can be connected quite simply to a TV and the images viewed from there. Moreover, many digital camera and printer manufacturers are producing equipment that bypasses the need for a PC altogether - you just remove the SmartMedia or CompactFlash and pop it into a suitably enabled printer. In this day and age, when over 60% of the population has easy access to a PC, storing images on a hard drive is hardly a monumental problem.

You claim that it is expensive to produce a photo of inferior quality. You are obviously unfamiliar with the photo quality colour inkjet printers that are on the market, the 3+ megapixel cameras that have been hitting the shelves since January and the fact that many printers include software with printing templates that makes for the most efficient use of photo quality paper. The first two advances are making it increasingly difficult to distinguish, with the naked eye, between an image taken with a digital camera and one taken with a 35mm camera.

One of the unsung joys of digital photography is that users can exercise a tremendous amount of control over the whole image creation process, from capture right through to processing, image manipulation and printing. With this flexibility comes a reduction in the total expenditure - there's no rushing back to the processing lab because the images are not correctly exposed.

You reckon that Kodak's share price falling by 45 per cent indicates that "financial markets have not bought into the digital imaging revolution either." Your interpretation of events is negligent. It is the very existence of digital photography that puts well-established revenue streams generated by the film business in a rather precarious position. And unless the Kodaks, Agfas and Fuji Photos reinvent themselves, they are going to find it hard to survive in the digital age.

The September unveiling of an advanced CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semi-conductor) sensor by Foveon at the Photokina trade show in Cologne illustrates my point. Capable of producing an unprecedented 16.8-megapixel resolution, Foveon's new CMOS chip has yet to come to market. But when it does, I've no doubt that it will herald the beginning of the end for silver-halide film since CMOS chips, unlike CCDs (charged coupled devices) are much cheaper to mass produce, as they can be made using standard chip-making equipment.

According to the latest research by InfoTrends, revenue generated from the sales of digital cameras in North America is expected to exceed that of film by as much as 10 per cent by the end of this year. By 2002, the number of digital camera unit sales is expected to exceed that of film, growing from $6.7 million to $42 million by 2005. In terms of the UK market, the digital camera industry enjoyed a 74 per cent growth last year and expects to achieve a growth of 75 per cent by the end of this year. In other words, between 1.3 and two million digital camera units will be sold by the end of 2000.

In reply to your point about camcorders - they may well eclipse still photography equipment in the future, though there is a long way to go before they become as accessible or convenient as today's digital cameras. Either way, the writing's on the wall for film.

Will Garside - Sceptic

OK, I admit that I love technology, but at this point in time, digital imaging is still an inferior process in terms of cost and quality.

New advances like the CMOS sensor by Foveon means that even though you can capture higher resolution images, you still have problems storing them, since images captured from a 16.8-megapixel camera would quickly fill a 8Mb memory card and result in only handful of snaps. And you still can't output to paper without using traditional photographic technology. Film is around 9600 dpi; the only method of printing this quality is by traditional darkroom processing. In low light conditions, or for ultra-high definition pack shots, film is superior.

In terms of cost, bulk photographic processing is between 3-5p a photograph including paper. And if you need your film in a hurry, your high street chain will do a dozen rolls of film in less than two hours. I agree that digital photography will eventually eclipse analogue - but that is a long way away.

The current state of digital photography means that its film equivalent - SmartMedia and CompactFlash - although re-usable is incredibly expensive. Home printing is slow and requires both additional equipment and a good deal of the user's very valuable time. Compare the initial capital outlay, which can be a £30 compact camera and a couple of rolls of film against a £1,000 computer plus a £200 printer and a £200 digital camera, expensive inks and specialist printing paper. For the average user who takes the occasional snap, shelling out the best part of £1,500 is not an option - and digital cameras aren't the easiest devices to learn to use. Until these issues are addressed, digital photography will not replace film.

God bless the enthusiast who wants to touch-up photos and create their own images! Even businesses that use digital photography for their websites are benefiting from low-cost digital capture, but if digital photography is going to challenge analogue in the mass market, it needs to be able to solve the issues of high-cost, poor quality and ease of use.

Regarding the rise of the camcorder, consider that the technology in a digital camera is essentially a CCD for taking an image, linked to a processor for compressing that image, which in turn is linked to memory for storing it. The leap to a video camera is very small - just add a larger capacity storage medium and a processor capable of quickly compressing images and you have a camcorder. Many digital camera manufacturers are already producing video cams.

If the question is whether Kodak's current fortunes are terminal, I doubt it. Their brand is strong and their government and academic portfolios are both lucrative. Did they get into the Internet late? Yes. Are they behind in producing stills/video hybrid devices? Yes. Will their new Internet ventures revive their fortunes, like the rest of the business online? This is anyone's guess.

Arlene Martin - Convert

You appear to forget that film photography is around 150 years old in comparison with digital photography's mere 12 years. I'm not afraid to admit that digital photography has strides to make, but the industry is still in its infancy. It certainly won't take digital photography 150 years to reach the stage where film photography is now.

I agree that higher resolutions present a storage problem, but CompactFlash Type II and IBM's MicroDrive super-compact hard disk offer adequate solutions. The MicroDrive is capable of storing up to 340Mb of image data. Many 3+megapixel digital cameras provide support for such storage devices, and some manufacturers even include them in the purchase price of the camera. Like any new technology, these devices are costly, but like RAM, prices are falling all the time.

Good old 35mm film produces an image consisting of anything between 20 and 36 megapixels while the new CMOS chip is capable of nearly 17 - hardly an impossible gap to close. Rather than requiring the traditional photographic printing process, high resolution images - whether generated by film or digital camera - can be printed using one of a number of digital photo labs that have became available in the last two years. You'll find that even the purist photographer will choose these services over traditional darkroom printing processes because they offer better quality, as the scanning technology offered by these machines produces better images. Incidentally, the proliferation in mini-lab and kiosk-based digital print services signifies an attempt by the industry to extend the market beyond that of the enthusiast.

As for digital camera technology providing an inferior process in terms of cost, that depends on the user. For those in the business of creating images (and let's not forget that these businesses will have access to computers and printers anyway), it is far more cost-effective to spend £1,000 on a high-end digital camera and another £350 on storage than it is to spend an ongoing fortune on film and processing costs. For example, the average photographer/photojournalist will shoot 12 rolls of film in order to generate one image for publication; and each film has to be processed first just to find one or two good shots. Moreover, digital cameras really can save time - images can be emailed direct to a newspaper's picture desk without any processing latency.

If a business is online or in the process of moving online and relies heavily on up-to-date images, it becomes more commercially viable to have product images in digital format rather than to spend time and money scanning images before these can be placed on the Web. Businesses can have their film digitised at the point of processing, but at a premium that increases the cost of the average film to £12 (including processing and printing).

Many people take pictures only occasionally and so use their film camera three or two times a year. You state that for these users the initial outlay is prohibitive and go on to argue that digital cameras are not easy to use. Interestingly enough, a recent study conducted by Lyra Research, Inc. discovered that digital camera usage has led to a decline in conventional camera usage by as much as 60 per cent, with five per cent of the respondents discovering that they used their digital models much more than they did film and 35 per cent finding that their conventional camera taking habits remained the same. These findings suggest that digital cameras are in fact straightforward to use.

But by far the most persuasive argument for the demise of film-based photography brought about by digital cameras is that users can engage in cheap photography. As to the fortunes of Kodak et al., this will depend on their reaction to the loss of their film business.

Arlene Martin and Will Garside

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This was first published in October 2000

 

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