Summing It Up

Summing It Up

Everyone's photokina 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 From the consumer's point of view, when your state of the art equipment is grievously outdated (and has almost no trade-in value) after about 18 months, it comes hard.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 trade.

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 with digital.

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.