is different. We look for what interests us; we discover different things
by accident; we see (to a considerable extent) what we want to see.
Admittedly, we are also helped or hindered by the manufacturers'
willingness to tell us what's new: there should not be any need
for investigative journalism when you are offering free publicity to
anyone with a new product worth writing about, but there are still a
few who, on being asked what's new, hand you (stone-faced) a CD-ROM
and say, "It's all on there." In that case, why are
they at photokina? And why do they think we're there? To pick
up CDs? Hardly! For instance, Linhof should be profoundly grateful to
Bob Solomon of HP Marketing, their US importers; without him, their
stand was about as welcoming as Alcatraz.
This year, there was no denying the predominance of digital equipment.
For devotees of silver halide, pickings were slim--though what
there was, was well worth seeing, as we hope you will see from our coverage.
What intrigued us, though, was the widely disparate reports we heard
from different exhibitors. Almost everyone in the silver halide market,
whether they were selling equipment or materials, told the same story:
visitor numbers down, visitor "quality" (defined as "people
with money in their pockets") well up. Result: good business.
Among those in the digital market, there were two very different reactions.
Those selling consumables, especially ink jet papers, were happy, for
much the same reason as the silver halide people. Those selling hardware--scanners,
printers, and, above all, cameras--were much more inclined to bemoan
indifferent sales and poor profits.
The simple truth seems to be this. With the very short life of digital
hardware, "upgrade fatigue" seems to be setting in. From
the consumer's point of view, when your state of the art equipment
is grievously outdated (and has almost no trade-in value) after about
18 months, it comes hard. Combine this with cutthroat competition from
the manufacturers, much of it under the intellectually disputable "first
to market" theory (the first to market with a new product is assumed
to enjoy a disproportionate advantage) and you have a surfeit of sellers
at very low margins chasing a dearth of buyers with a disinclination
to part with their money. There is also a premium on getting a product
out quickly, rather than on getting it right.
When it comes to traditional silver halide cameras and lenses, on the
other hand, the buyer can afford to wait until something he really,
really wants comes along, secure in the knowledge that his 4- or 5-year-old
(or even 10- or 20- or 30-year-old) camera(s) and lens(es) will not
deliver results that are significantly inferior to something much newer--especially
if the camera is loaded with state of the art film. And provided the
halide camera is of decent quality, it will still have a significant
trade-in value when the time finally comes to change it. With older,
top-quality cameras (mechanical Nikons, Hasselblads, Gandolfis, and
the like) it may even be worth more than it cost new. Now there is something
to provoke a bitter laugh from digital users!
The other thing we heard again and again is that the traditional mom-and-pop
camera store has all but vanished. The margins just aren't there
any more. Low-end digital sells through the cheapest channels available,
the big chains, often with poorly trained (or untrained) sales assistants.
It is substantially the same market as mass-market consumer electronics,
or point-and-shoot cameras: stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap.
By contrast, high-end digital equipment and the vast majority of halide
equipment and materials are sold either mail-order or through highly
focused dealers with well-trained staff. To take a West Coast example,
Freestyle in Hollywood has just invested in a massive new distribution
center in Santa Fe Springs. They are concentrating principally on silver
halide, with a strong emphasis on schools, and they report a land-office
What most people don't realize is that all current projections
suggest that while digital photography is going to grow far faster than
traditional halide photography, this is not necessarily at the expense
of halide: overall, halide is set to grow, too, though more slowly,
and with more emphasis on the hobby/craft market and less emphasis on
"heavy users" such as police forces and the military who
increasingly switch to digital.
In other words, it doesn't matter where your interests lie. If
you are into digital, you will be ever better served by desperately
competing manufacturers: the fact that they don't make a decent
profit (or any profit at all, in some cases) from digital photography
is not your problem, except in the unlikely event that they go bust
and cease to support your camera. And if you are into halide, your choice
of first-class cameras will continue to widen, because there is more
room at the top of the market than the bottom, where halide competes
For investment, therefore, buy an Alpa or a Gandolfi or a Voigtländer
or a Wica, and until you cash in your investment you'll have a
camera that is second to none in the results it produces. But if you're
into cutting-edge digital, and don't mind writing off a good-sized
wedge of cash every time you upgrade, you're well served there,
too. Either way, we'd say this: if you can get to photokina 2004,
do, and if you can't, then get to one (or more) of the domestic
US shows where you can get your hands on the kit and judge for yourself
what will best suit you. And, of course, keep reading Shutterbug, because
we'll do our best to keep you up to date with what's new
and what's best, without ever forgetting that "newest"
and "best" may or may not be synonymous.