Special Report: photokina
Trends On Diversity, Power, And Pride Of Workmanship

Education, it is said, is what is left after you have forgotten everything you learned at school. Spotting trends is somewhat the same. You have to study something closely; then try to ignore all the details; then make sense of what you remember.

On this basis, I saw three trends at photokina. The first is that the center of gravity of the whole business--sales as well as production--is moving to the east. The second is that this was the photokina of batteries. And the third is diversity.

For years, China has been growing as both a manufacturer and a market, but at last, there is a big enough bourgeoisie to buy significant quantities of high-end goods. The percentage of rich Chinese is tiny, but the population is so vast that they are extremely numerous in absolute terms. Alpa (www.badgergraphic.com) told me that China is their biggest single market. The cheapest Alpa is around $7500 and it is quite easy to top $10,000, depending on the lens and back you choose...

Fred Zhou, the Alpa importer, told me that there is a tremendous hunger in China for information about film cameras and processing, and that at the top of the market--he also imports Linhof, Gilde, and Bergger--there is very little interest in digital. Of course, low-end digital in China is making enormous strides, far faster than anyone expected, but this isn't the market that interested either him or us.

Harison lighting table.

We are also seeing innovation from China, rather than just (rather poor) copying.

Shen-Hao (www.shen-hao.com) showed a 5x12" panoramic camera, though it is hard to see how they can sell many at $2480 FOB Shanghai, and both 6x12 and 6x17cm rollfilm backs ($220 and $510 respectively, again FOB Shanghai). They also had cameras based on these backs, though the Fotoman (www.badgergraphic.com) 6x12 and 617 cameras, again made in China, were considerably better finished even in prototype form. I'll come back to these elsewhere in my reports.

Both Russia and India are making progress, though less rapidly than China. The quality control on cameras such as the Horizont and Zenit is far, far better than it used to be; fotoMagazin (published in Moscow) is one of the finest photo magazines in the world; and once again, Russia is a big market for high-end photo equipment.

India is mired in postcolonial protectionism though this is slowly improving: Harison (www.harisonphoto.com) of Amritsar is a typical example of a forward-looking company that is involved in both traditional mechanical engineering and electronics, with good continuous lighting and flash units, background paper holders, wall booms, tripods, single-use camera openers, and more. They are picking up more and more OEM work and probably represent the future of the subcontinent: remember that very high educational standards (for a Third World country) mean that when India does take off, it will do so spectacularly and may well catch up with the rich West a lot faster than China.

Thailand is an increasingly important manufacturer of photo goods--they make some superb studio flash units and other professional equipment. I have used Ekasilp flash (call: +662 4 57 01 23 or e-mail: ekasilp@idn.co.th) and been well impressed, and at this photokina they were showing newer, better, more powerful, and more efficient flashes, just like everyone else in that line of business.

Nearer home, Elektrona (www.elektrona.si) of Ljubljana in Slovenia had some brilliant new battery power packs for running studio flash away from the mains--someone should pick up this product--and of course Foma (www.foma.cz) of the Czech Republic is now about the biggest exclusive manufacturer of black and white film not to have experienced serious financial troubles. And the finest camera store I have ever visited, anywhere in the world, is Foto Skoda (www.fotoskoda.cz) in Prague.

Batteries: what can you say about them? Perhaps one should quote Catullus' immortal love poem: Nec sine te nec tecum possum vivere (neither without you nor with you can I live). They always go flat at the least convenient moment, in the same way that films run out and memory cards fill up. But we can't easily live without them unless we stick with classic mechanical cameras, which is one reason why I do exactly that. As long as I have a thumb, my film winds on, and as long as I can see, I can guess exposure and set the shutter speed and aperture, and of course focus.

There were however incredible numbers of battery manufacturers and distributors at the show--maybe two or three times as many as in previous years--and what was impressive was the ever-increasing capacity of rechargeables. The first AA rechargeables I bought, over 20 years ago, were 160 mAh. Today's have hit 2500 mAh. That's 2.5amp hours. With four of them you could run an old 6v motorcycle. Another trend was ultra-fast recharging, in as little as 15 minutes for the lower-capacity batteries.

Then again, a Nikon F (which I was using in the 1970s and 1980s, and still use sometimes today) didn't need any batteries at all, and I had selenium-cell Weston meters. You can't even see through the viewfinder of my current Nikon F70 unless it has batteries in, let alone meter or take pictures. Progress? Yes, but at a price.