Digital Revolution

Digital cameras have found their way into on-third of U.S. homes, and the reverberations are being felt far and wide

July 18, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

Amy Lambert stood on her toes and peered over the Towson crowd, watching the Independence Day parade advance toward her. Camera in hand, she waited for the perfect shot. Almost, almost ... now. Snap!

It was a keeper, she confirmed, previewing the picture with her 2-year-old son through a screen on the camera. But it didn't matter if it weren't: She could always delete it and try again.

"That's a good thing about having a digital camera," the Lutherville mom said. There's no waste of film and no disappointment when prints reveal a wayward finger blocking the shot.

Digital is transforming the way people take, develop and store pictures, as well as the way the photography industry does business. Just as computers killed the typewriter, the compact disc retired the cassette tape and copiers wiped out the carbon sheet, the quality and convenience of digital cameras is taking away the need -- and increasingly the want -- for film.

The reverberations are being felt far and wide.

Eastman Kodak Co., the Rochester, N.Y., film giant whose $1 Brownie model made photography accessible to the masses in 1900, has announced that it's getting out of the film camera trade after its stock fell 30 percent last year.

It is cutting its work force by 12,000 to 15,000 people over the next three years as it shifts focus to digital.

The Japanese camera manufacturer Nikon Corp. is considering downsizing its film camera production. Photofinishers are being forced out of business or shelling out thousands for equipment to develop digital images.

"We'll continue to manufacture film, I want to be very clear about that, film is a very good business, but yes, the film business is getting smaller," said Anthony J. Sanzio, a spokesman for Kodak. "We're going to devote more of our attention, more resources, to digital."

Sales up 33%

Digital cameras are now in more than a third of American households, about 41 million homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group based in Arlington, Va. Moreover, new technological devices often reach their second quarter of U.S. homes twice as fast as they reached their first quarter. Analysts expect that digital cameras will be in 50 percent or 60 percent of all households within three years.

Last year, digital camera sales were up 33 percent, enough to outsell film versions for the first time. And by 2008, InfoTrends Research Group predicts few film cameras will be sold.

Digital still has a long way to go to match its predecessor, though. Film cameras are in 90 percent of homes, according to Photo Marketing Association International - a saturation point achieved by televisions and telephones but few other appliances.

"There are millions of [film] cameras out there," said W. Burke Seim, president of Service Photo Supply in Baltimore's Charles Village. "People won't be throwing them away.

" Still, Seim has greatly pared his own supply of film and film cameras in favor of digital accessories, equipment and guides. Bookshelves in his shop, which he's in the process of moving to a larger location in Hampden, are lined with titles including Digital Photography for Dummies, Digital Camera Techniques, and Digital Photography Magazine.

A prototype digital camera was first developed by Kodak in 1976 but it wasn't until the late 1980s that consumers had even limited access to the technology from manufacturers including Sony Electronics Inc., Nikon and Canon Inc. Digital gained momentum in the mid-1990s after companies such as Kodak began aggressive marketing and creating simpler cameras.

As with many new technologies, as prices dropped and quality has improved, more traditional users embraced them. Early digital cameras were far inferior to film, often making an image look grainy or spotty - particulary when enlarged. Quality has improved since, with many affordable cameras able to tak shots that can be blown up without losing much detail, though the best-quality cameras are still pricey, costing thousands.

Many hobbyists, long comfortable with film, remain unconvinced of the need to switch. Frank Lippy, 80, of Towson, also snapping pictures at an Independence Day parade, said he doesn't "know that much about" digital and doesn't intend to learn, although he said his son is a digital whiz.

Amy Lambert's mother-in- law, Mary Smith of Lutherville, used to feel the same way, but then she caught the digital bug with a little help from Lambert. She's been using one for two months and already knows what she wants for Christmas: a photo printer.

"I don't know why I didn't get digital before. Maybe because I was older and too scared, I guess. You're used to what you have and think other things are too complex," Smith said.

Smith's camera has a digital memory card that can hold about 100 images. Most people will fill up a card - which typically costs between $20 and $80 depending on its capacity - then download the pictures to a computer, and reuse the card indefinitely.

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