Tuesday, January 24, 2006

End of the line for camera makers


This is a real tear-jerker. I remember how in the 1950s, getting into serious photography was a "rite of passage". And while there were all sorts of cameras, those that used 35mm film were the clear choice of photo enthusiasts and professionals alike.

It really felt like 35mm photography would be here forever. Originally created to take advantage of the low cost of 35mm movie film, 35mm cameras survived the rise and fall of Polaroid's instant pictures, Kodak's Instamatic format (size 126) which (despite the name) did not create instant pictures but only simplified loading the film, Kodak's Pocket format (size 110), Kodak's Disc format, the Advanced Photographic System (APS), and many other formats and innovations. Most of these were not really needed, but were created because market research showed that people took the most pictures in the first two years after getting a new camera. In other words, new formats were invented to help sell film, paper and chemicals -- and, of course, cameras.

And through it all, the skills we learned in our high school days (in the 1950s) about exposure compensation and darkroom work (dodging and burning, solarization etc.) were still valid and valuable -- until now.

But in just a few years, digital photography has decimated sales of film and traditional film cameras, and now after sustaining huge losses Konica-Minolta (the two companies merged just 3 years ago) has announced it is getting out of the twin businesses of making cameras (of all types!) and film, to concentrate on making photocopiers and its other "imaging businesses" that are still profitable. To see Konica-Minolta reduced to taking this action is a blow close to home, because back in the 1970s when our children were small and we took a lot of pictures, many of them were taken with our Minolta Hi-Matic F and our Konica C-35, little gems of rangefinder cameras that did everything well. So this announcement is a bit like hearing about the death of an auntie you were once close to, who spent her later years in "reduced circumstances" as the British say.

Oh, and I hear Nikon is also dropping almost all of its film cameras. Who's next? To borrow Alvin Toffler's phrase from Future Shock, the future has arrived awfully fast for some of these companies.

On the digital front at home, we recently got our second digital camera (a Canon 620) after our Fujifilm 2600Z (about 3 years old) suddenly lost its ability to focus. By today's standards the Fuji is obsolete, so it's not worth repairing. The Canon is vastly superior to the old Fuji -- some review sites call it simply one of the best digital cameras available -- yet it cost about the same as the Fuji did 3 years ago. I'm impressed by the Canon's solid feel, its even illumination on flash shots, its intelligent autofocus system that seeks out -- and marks on the screen -- the key objects it has decided to focus on, and the way it applies just enough processing to each picture that you could use it without retouching, but still have room to enhance it to your own taste. Oh, and the quality of the lens.

Still, in a sign of the times, although I got the Canon 620 at a rock-bottom price at a Boxing Day (December 26) Sale, I recently saw it advertised for $20 less than I paid for it just three weeks ago. I suppose in another three years it will be obsolete again. So although today's cameras are great bargains compared to camera prices in the 1960s and 1970s, over time today's cameras may cost us more than our 35mm cameras ever did.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Vegemite not emigrating

From Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Kraft assures Australians that Vegemite is staying put

Global food giant Kraft moved to assure Australians yesterday that production of the famous Vegemite savoury spread would not be shifted overseas...

Kraft this week announced it would move its biscuit manufacturing business from Melbourne to China...The announcement had sparked fears that Kraft's Vegemite would meet a similar fate.

First produced in 1922, the thick brown paste with a strong, salty flavour is regarded as an acquired taste and is accorded the same status in the Australian national psyche as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the United States.

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The Observer says:

Vegemite is a yeast extract, rich in natural glutamates that stimulate the "umami" or savory taste receptors on the tongue. Since it isn't synthetic like MSG, it doesn't contain the indigestible left-handed isomer that is thought to cause "Chinese restaurant syndrome" and may contribute to glaucoma in people who regularly eat foods containing MSG.

Personally, I find Vegemite to be too bland and prefer the original British product, Marmite, which is over 100 years old. They are both yeast extracts, but Vegemite is flavoured with malt, whereas Marmite is flavoured with carrots and onions. A little goes a long way: a teaspoon is enough to impart a rich, meaty flavour to a pot of homemade soup.

Marmite is made all around the world. Most Marmite sold in North America comes from the UK through the "official" wholesaler. But some Chinese groceries import Marmite from Hong Kong, and I get mine from the South African Sausage Company which imports it from Durban.

Although most Americans and many Canadians claim to dislike Marmite, they buy lots of ready-made snacks, soups, and meat products in which "yeast extract" is a prominent ingredient. Ironically, some of our popular brands of sliced roast beef are flavoured with "yeast extract" to make them taste meaty!