The direction taken by Photo CD is changing. Will it flourish?
by John Henshall.

The Pro Photo Imaging Worksion with its 5 x 4 scanner and dye sublimation printer.

Photo CD is going professional - the Pro Photo Imaging Workstation with its 5 x 4 scanner and dye sublimation printer.

The first pro labs now have Professional Photo CD installed, bringing PCD to every format up to 4x5 inches.

Professional Photo CD was an afterthought, however, when Kodak were persuaded that PCD was a system with great professional potential. In desktop publishing, Photo CD really has caught on: there is no doubt about Photo CD's capabilities as a professional tool.

The high precision carrier system of the scanner.

The high precision carrier system of the scanner.

Photo CD was conceived and subsidised as an amateur tool, neatly linking the best of silver halide to state-of-the-art digital. Yet there is no evidence that Photo CD is capturing the public's imagination and revolutionising the way amateurs view their photographs.

So is Photo CD as it was originally conceived dying? Worse still, is it already as good as dead?

Last year I ruined the family holiday by having to fly back to London from Bordeaux on business. Children do not understand the meaning of the word recession.

So our holiday this year was in a Romany caravan in the Dordogne, pulled by a beautiful white cart horse named Boule de Neige - Snowball.A family holiday in the Dordogne. It was my daughter Annelies' idea, her way of ensuring that I would be far away from 'phones and electricity.Thank you, Annelies. I never realised that following a cart horse's bottom around the French countryside could be so much fun - apart from regular emissions of wind and a substance good for gardens. I bought a simple Fuji DL-35 camera for my nine year old daughter, Martien, and an even more simple Minolta Memory Maker for my six year old son, Johnny. Yes, cameras which use film! To say that they were excited and delighted is putting it mildly. Annelies, twelve, has been a photographer since she was given a Brownie 127 by an antique market stallholder in Bath at the age of three. She now uses an Olympus AF-1 Twin.

Back home, I announced that I would be taking Martien's and Johnny's films in for processing and Photo CD. "I don't want Photo CD," asserted Martien firmly, "I want prints, so I can show them to my friends at school." Johnny was more enthusiastic, "I'm going to have my pictures on computer. Yeah!" but needed reassurance that he would also have prints - something which would be under his control.

I took Martien's film into Dixons' Richmond, Surrey, high street store where I asked for a Photo CD and 7 x 5 inch glossy prints. "Do we still do Photo CD?" asked the assistant of one of her colleagues. "I don't think so," he replied. "Yes, we do", offered a third, "only we send them to Color Care now, not Kodak." I was told that the service should take about two days.

Johnny's film went almost next door, to Boots, who have a thriving in-store minilab. It was the day after the August Bank Holiday and they were in the middle of a lunch time rush for their one hour service, busily explaining to disgruntled clients, who had to return to work, why the one hour service was taking seventy five minutes.

Yes, they did "do" Photo CDs. After a hunt for the pad - "we don't get much call for this service yet, it's so new" - it took three assistants to figure out how to fill in the Kodak form. Meanwhile, their D+P queue was growing.

Annelies finished her film after the holiday. She was keen to have a Photo CD. "It's neater and easier to store. You don't need thick photo albums." But she also wanted prints to show to her friends. I took her film into Teddington Photo Centre, a Kodak mini-lab. They were not fazed by my request, having had "quite a few" requests for Photo CD. Perhaps the residents of Teddington are more technologically advanced than those of Richmond? Teddington Photo Centre even had a Photo CD mobile dangling from the ceiling. Their Photo CD work is sent to Photo Services in Aylesbury. Do they, in turn, send the work to Kodak's Wimbledon laboratory, I wondered?

Johnny's PCD came back first. We collected it from Boots on 11 September. Total service time: eleven days. The Photo CD shows a "made" date of 3 September. The prints were 6x4 glossy, not 7x5 as ordered. For the disc and 37 exposures transferred, the total charge was £21.98. Johnny was delighted with his prints, though at first indifferent about his Photo CD.

A shot, taken at Gavaudun by Johnny Henshall, aged 6.

This shot, taken at Gavaudun was taken by Johnny Henshall - aged 6.

Martien's, taken into Dixons, took longer. After four days I telephoned Dixons and was told that the order was ready. But then the assistant, Yasmin, noticed that there was no Photo CD - just prints and the negatives. The lab had not read the instructions. So, on 6 September Dixons sent it back to Color Care. We collected the Photo CD on 18 September. Total service time: eighteen days. This Photo CD shows a "made" date of 15 September. Again, the prints were 6x4 glossy, not 7x5 as ordered. For the disc and 35 exposures transferred, the charge was £9.98. You have to add to this the cost and considerable inconvenience of repeated telephone calls. We were not charged the £4.49 D+P charge, possibly because of the mistake. Had we, the total charge would have been only £14.47. Without the very helpful Yasmin to monitor progress, this order would have been a nightmare.

Annelies' PCD came back to Teddington Photo Centre on 21 September. Total service time: seventeen days. Teddington Photo Centre's work is sent to Kodak's Wimbledon laboratory via Photo Services in Aylesbury. The assistant at Teddington told me that, although they are a Kodak mini lab, they were not allowed to send Photo CD work direct to Kodak. Someone even 'phoned to tell me that I had been incorrectly advised: the turnaround time for Photo CD was one month - but she 'phoned back the next day to say that the order would be ready in four days. 'They' were not, 'it' was: again someone failed to read the instructions and, instead of putting one of my films on a separate disc, added it to hers. Annelies was not impressed: she doesn't want one of her father's films on her disc. However, this was the only laboratory to supply glossy 7x5 prints as requested. The cost, for a new disc and 54 scans, was £17.10. Pro-rata, this works out at £12.84 for Annelies' 35 exposures. All prices include VAT.

Chateau Biron, by Annelies Henshall, aged 12.

Would this photogaph of Chateau Biron be out of place in a travel brochure? Probably not - yet it was taken by Annelies Henshall, 12 years old, on a compact camera using negative film and is reproduced from Photo CD.

By way of comparison, I posted my holiday films direct to Kodak's Wimbledon laboratory. They were ready in five days.

The high street stores and their intermediate laboratories were the main reasons why my family's Photo CDs became such an ordeal. Who wants to wait two or three weeks for their prints to come back on a Photo CD when they can have regular photographic prints inside an hour? Digital imaging is supposed to speed up photography, not slow it down. Digital imaging should make photography easier and cheaper, to entice users away from conventional methods.

Taking into account the shop assistants' time chasing up orders which go wrong and ringing customers back to advise them of progress, the high street stores must be making a loss on every order. Indeed, I would not be surprised if they dropped the Photo CD service altogether. But this might not be so bad as it first seems. Kodak should prepare pre-paid mailers, for sale in all the major stores, for sending orders direct to their laboratories in Wimbledon and Rugeley. This would speed up the service dramatically and cut out the middle men laboratories, time spent shunting orders around between them and the mistakes they make.

Worst of all, public awareness of Photo CD as a product or service is minimal. Getting discs made is far too much of a drama. This comes down to abysmal marketing. It might also come down to incorrect assumptions about how consumers want to view their snaps. Many snappers actually prefer thumbing through packets of en-prints in the office or pub, others enjoy the social event of leafing through a dog-eared family album curled up on the sofa together. Photo CD is another Kodak disc disaster in the making and rapid action is needed to prevent this superb technological development failing.

Once we got them all back, the PCDs were a big hit with the family. Gathered round the television, watching all our own images, was a hilarious social event. The 2x magnification facility gave me a great opportunity to teach a few basic lessons in framing and show how 'cropping in' close gives greater impact.

The Photo CD licence should have been given away to every hi-fi manufacturer in the far east. The logo should now be as familiar as Dolby or NiCam. Every new audio CD player, from hi-fi separate to integrated system, should be Photo CD compatible. No one buys Kodak hi-fi but they do buy Sony and Technics. That's where the chip needs to be: in every CD player, with a Scart socket on the back in addition to normal audio outputs, just waiting to be used, without a big deal. There is nothing to be gained from being protective and pretentious about Photo CD. It needs to reach the public before it is too late.

Professional use was an afterthought. The reality is that professionals have been quick to recognise the phenomenal facilities that PCD offers at bargain prices. One hundred 35mm transparencies transferred to Pro PCD would cost only £50 through the 'amateur' service, but double that or more at a pro lab. It's a little like the difference between machine printing and hand printing, though many professional users are satisfied with the 'amateur' service because digital colour correction and manipulation in programs such as EFIcolor Cachet can quickly rectify most mini-lab-type mistakes later. New software at present under development will make this even easier in the future.

Plans to introduce a 'two-tier' service - high quality individual digital equivalents of 'hand prints' for special work and sizes greater than 35mm, or machine-type bulk transfers of 35mm films and transparencies - should address the difference by bringing a choice of service to the professional. At the end of the day, only you can decide whether your pictures are printed to your liking. A Kodak Pro Photo CD. At Geneva airport recently, a colleague pointed out that PCD players were being heavily discounted in the duty free shop. When the Swiss offer a discount, you know there must be a problem! There must be warehouses full of unsold PCD players. Sell some of them to professional photographers for £95 each to get them started in digital imaging: domestic PCD players are ideal as 'electronic lightboxes' and, if nothing else, they could be used to play mood music audio CDs in the studio. Better still, why not put together a complete PCD countertop display package solution of PCD player, monitor and transfer of the photographers' portfolio onto disc all for a package price of £450. That should be most attractive to photographic studios.

If, after reading this, you have the impression that I am 'Frustrated of Brentford' you'd be right. Success in the amateur market is essential to the well being of Photo CD. Professional users will be the losers if PCD is allowed to wither, or to be priced out of everyday use.

Responsibility for Photo CD is shared by three divisions: consumer, graphics and professional imaging. The consumer side has failed, while the professional side has explored every possible application with imagination and drive. Kodak need to get their act together quickly now, making the whole of Photo CD the responsibility of just one of its divisions. I have no doubt which division I would entrust with the task of saving PCD. Let Photo CD really "go professional" before it is too late.

This review first appeared as "John Henshall's Chip Shop" in "The Photographer" November,1993.
This document is Copyright © 1996 John Henshall. All rights reserved.
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