Charles Dickens had it right:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .”
This famous single sentence was written in 1859, only 20 years or so after the invention of photography. It is as relevant now as it was then, alas.
I entered the camera industry in 1973, when it was apparently stable and simple (relatively), not knowing that half a lifetime later it would be a mosh pit.
Hats off to Japanese makers for being so creative today in the “pure camera” arena, especially in DSLRs and compact mirrorless cameras. And this is despite some of them ignoring Microvision’s 2004 photokina attempt to sell them the mirrorless concept in all its glory. It took a while, but they finally caught on (without which they might already be vanquished).
But our industry now is not just about cameras; it is about storytelling, image capture, manipulation, storage and display. Putting last first, I continue to be amazed by the usefulness and quality of HDTV sets as viewing platforms. My local Costco recently offered a 55-inch 4K Smart HDTV for only $550 or so.
Despite that big-screen value, most images today are viewed on handheld devices such as smartphones, which is where most images are captured anyway, right?
Total Immersion: 360º
So let’s look at some of the hot topics of today, starting with the horribly misnamed 360º cameras. Their image capture should be quoted in radians, not degrees, but most people would certainly not recognize a radian.
The creator of such cameras was IPIX, which I helped more than a decade ago, more like two decades, in fact. It started life as Omniview, but its “360º”-capable cameras in those days had to make do with VGA sensors—which of course created a huge stumbling block. (From memory their IP was sold to Sony and is now used by Ricoh in their Theta line.)
The biggest negative with ultrawide-angle lenses is that they “throw near subjects into the far distance,” while using front lens elements that are all-but hemispherical and thus at great risk of physical damage. But their biggest assets is that the image can be zoomed into and around, allowing for immersive, total image capture and exploration!
Today’s Buzz: Drones
But 360º cameras pale into insignificance in the consciousness of the masses relative to the ubiquity of news and rumblings (grumblings?) about drones.
While nobody was looking, Chinese maker DJI marched into the U.S. market and soon staked out a 70% market share by some accounts.
Even action camera king GoPro took a while to realize they were giving away an important market opportunity. So they hustled into a drone program with Karma. Fascinatingly, this word is defined as (in Hinduism and Buddhism): “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.” This might spell out GoPro’s arc of life in a nutshell, as they (successfully, so far) face stiff competition, especially from el-cheapo action camera knockoffs from traditionally creative (hah!) China.
Some such copies are visually almost perfect, at fractions of the GoPro prices. GoPro’s terrific name recognition (especially in the USA) should offer a bulwark against most market share erosion. But I think they could benefit from JVs with smartphone makers for the latter to offer ruggedized models; most smartphones are fragile wimps.
Through the Lens
Lens makers are facing a bright future. Innovative tech is being seen in glass for all types of cameras, from compacts and action cams to DSLRs and mirrorless. The badly named Internet of Things (IoT) is creating huge opportunities for lens makers, too. And let’s hope traditional camera/lens makers are smart enough to supply product to the car industry. So many more cameras, beyond back-up cameras, will be needed in future cars and trucks—especially autonomous ones (horrid thought!).
More controversial might be the future of VR, virtual reality, imaging. As if actual reality isn’t daunting enough! Early experience showed that some users experienced vertigo and/or nausea while using VR viewers. This was because the eyes and the inner ears’ balance canals were sending conflicting signals to the user’s brain. VR makers are amazingly confident that VR is the future though. We shall see (or imagine we see).
One cannot regard the imaging industry without marveling at the resurgence of instant (print) photography. When Kodak attempted to circumvent Polaroid’s patents decades ago, they created a system that had the incoming light rays enter the print from the backside. This in turn meant that cameras using such film would not need a mirror in the light path (or need two).
After Kodak paid off Polaroid, the eventual winner seems to be Fujifilm, as their Instax film/camera system continues to prosper. And there are a growing number of creative “joiners”: there’s the retro, throwback MiNT; Prynt; the Impossible Project with a full line of cameras and film; and, of course, Lomography, which always seems to have the beat on all things retro for today’s modern imaging consumer.
Now, venerable Leica is climbing aboard with its fashion-conscious Sofort instant camera. Who knew?
Of course, we must mention ZINK in there, too, right? The Zero Ink technology, which is found is several of today’s instant photo systems, is a full-color printing system that eliminates the need for ink cartridges, toners or ribbons. All the color required for printing an image is embedded in the ZINK paper itself.
So now we bravely march together into 2017. Reality awaits—despite whoever is now president. Grim reality perhaps.