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.

No comments: