FILMLESS BY 2005?
THE VIEW OF ONE OF THE UK'S LEADING PHOTOGRAPHIC CHAINS
by John Henshall
THE FUTURE OF CONSUMER PHOTOGRAPHY
We round off our fourth year of John Henshall's Chip Shop and move boldly into our fifth with some opinions which may not be to everyone's liking. What follows is not for those of a nervous disposition. For once, the views are not mine but those of one of the country's leading high street photographic chains, based on a two year study of trends in photography, both wet and dry.
When consumer digital imaging catches on it will have a major effect on the present source of every big photographic material manufacturers' wealth - the sale of film. That could be sooner than most people think, for reasons which Jessops' Keith Norman explains:
"We are photographic retailers, driven into digital imaging by market forces. Over the last five to seven years we have seen a steady decline in interest and spending on consumer photography. The interest seems to have waned almost in direct proportion to the increase in computer technology. We were left with the situation where we had seventy photographic shops throughout the UK, a shrinking customer base, a shrinking interest in the technology in which we had invested so heavily. So what do we do? We had no knowledge of computers, no knowledge of digital imaging in the company. I was asked by the managing director to investigate the whole subject of digital imaging to see where it would hold relevance for Jessops. That was two years ago.
So, with the demise of photography as we knew it, it was obvious that we were going to have to look to the future to start to grow our business into the next century. Digital imaging was getting all the press, everyone was showing interest in computer technology; how great it was, all the things it could do, and this was the death of photography as we knew it. It was obvious from companies like Kodak, who were investing - still are - megamillions of dollars in digital technology that, if we didn't get on the digital bandwagon, in five - ten - fifteen - twenty years time we would be old-fashioned stores. We would still have shelves filled with papers and chemicals all covered in dust and cobwebs, while the computer store next door was selling all these computer peripherals like cameras, which we felt are our domain."
So Jessops set up a digital imaging centre as an experimental test-bed in one of their shops in Scotland, using it to find out what customers wanted. They tried out digital imaging services, such as digital restoration and the scanning and output of customers' images.
"This gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the first generation of digital cameras and scanners which were then coming onto the market - with varying degrees of success because there is a lot of curiosity out there. But, in terms of actual people in the high street spending money on imaging, it was a slow start. Things are now definitely picking up to a high degree. We now sell a range of Elonex PCs, input devices, image manipulation software and output devices. We have gone for the option of being able to supply the complete solution.
Photokina '96 was an absolute revelation as regards imaging technology. If you believed the hype there and looked round the stands you would think that silver halide was dead and buried.
At Jessops we felt pretty smug and secure that our technology would last for a long time. Over the last eighteen months of the digital imaging project that I have been involved in, I have brought closer to 'now' my estimate of how long it will be before there are only digital cameras in the consumer market. I'm not talking about the hobbyist photographer, I'm talking about the everyday snap-shotter.
Sony have a new digital camera coming out next spring called the CyberShot. As small as a compact camera, the unique thing about it is that there is no wire connection to the PC. If you take a Kodak DC50 with a large PCMCIA card full of images, it can take an hour or more to download all those images. With the Sony CyberShot, using the infra red port on the computer, it takes two minutes to download what would take a Kodak an hour and a half.
What's going to happen is you'll go into your photostore, the shop assistant will immediately bring up thumbnails of your images on the screen and you'll say, 'I'll have two of that, three of that, miss out the next two, give me an enlargement of that and a set of place mats from the other ones.' There will be no environmentally unfriendly chemicals, no twenty percent of stores taken up with the technology of silver halide printing. The prints will print instantly - if you don't want them printed, they'll be put on the Internet for you, or whatever you want. That is coming and it's coming now - very, very fast. At the end of the day we are in the business of making our customers happy and they're certainly not happy with the products and services we can offer them now.
Thirty five mil' technology has been developed almost as far as it could go. The changes in the cameras that were coming out were really an extra couple of knobs for a couple of hundred pounds and people aren't fools, they just stopped buying them. They also took away the mystique of photography. Whereas, before, you had to know about f-stops and ASA ratings, with autofocus cameras you just point and shoot and you are assured of as good technically - from an exposure and focus point of view - as a professional photographer who has been in there all his life. (I'm not talking about composition or anything like that.)
We went through a phase whereby every day we would see people trundling in barrows full of darkroom equipment, SLRs and lenses and saying, 'Do you want all this? I want a zoom compact.' Not just at Jessops, not just in the UK, but Europe and worldwide - the market stagnated and started to shrink.
Young people coming up are no longer prepared to spend hours in darkrooms with smelly chemicals. They want images on screen, they want them to work for them now, in colour. I don't blame them. I'm a die-hard, black-and-white, anorak-clad photographer. I've been really forced into this, but I'm at the stage of selling my darkroom equipment because this is fun. It's exciting and new. It's like learning photography over again.
I think film will die out in terms of home users and commercial applications, but it will always remain as an art form. People are still using photographic processes that really went out of fashion at the end of the last century.
In terms of consumer imaging and commercial imaging, I used to think it would be 2020 or something like that. I wouldn't be surprised if it's 2005 - you won't be able to buy a 35mm compact camera anymore, it will be digital. It may be even sooner than that, the speed it's moving."
This article first appeared as "John Henshall's Chip Shop" in "The Photographer" magazine
December 1996-January 1997 (combined issue).
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