Let’s Get ‘em Printing Again

Let’s Get ‘em Printing Again


One of the main topics that has come to the fore in the imaging industry of late is getting consumers to make more prints from their digital camera images. Anyone who shoots with a digital camera almost by necessity shoots more photos than when they worked with a film camera. They happily blast away in full knowledge that they can delete or ignore the dogs later and, if an when they get around to it, can make prints using their home printer, a kiosk or some online experience. Or do they? There are some rather amazing numbers being bandied about, such as billions of digicam exposures (where do they get these figures?) and only millions of prints resulting from same. The print/shot ratio seems to be about the old rate of consumers making enlargements (not regular prints) from their negatives, around 6%. That might have been fine in the old days when D&P rang the register and the 8×10 trade was gravy, but as a base print fulfillment from digicams it’s not going to make up for the cash flow the “old” photofinishing game used to tally.

Fear Factor

How to educate the consumer about the necessity of making prints is the challenge. One way, it seems, is putting the old fear into them about digital media. As one industry spokesman told me, any print made today will outlast any hard drive on which that image file resides today. That’s a fairly scary thought, especially if we start broadcasting it as a way to get folks to bring their cards down to the mall for a set of images. It sends a mixed signal. On the one hand it sure would drive me to make prints from digital files of my most precious memories; on the other it makes me feel less than comfortable about jumping on the bandwagon that the industry is currently carting through town – the digital camera and attendant joys of digital photography.

To get my head straight about that message I talked with a number of folks who should know better at the show and no one seemed to disagree with any great passion, like it was ludicrous to even utter the thought. I did get the “it’s always wise to back up” answer a few times, which made me feel even less steady about the idea that digital files made today will always be there for generations to come. I did talk with folks involved with the PASS initiative, and they assured me that at least when it came to JPEG file formats there is work being done to make shots done today always available tomorrow, even with generations of upgrades and changes. But their concern is with the file format itself, not the media on which the file is stored.

Old Tech to New Tech

But I take this whole debate about compatibility and possible obsolescence and degeneration of storage material with a grain of salt. As I write this one of my night and weekend projects is converting my old videotapes to DVD. I recognize that videotape is a fragile medium at best and that DVDs will also allow me to share the videos with more people more easily and help me clear out some space in my closet. In other words, I accept that the new tech is better and I am willing to spend the time insuring that it will last longer, at least by extension, than those old tapes. But the number of tapes I have is finite, or at least countable; I can’t say the same with my still image files. I have ZIPs (thankfully no SyQuest) that I am doing the same with – indeed, anything on tape (read magnetic media) is getting a new generation of copies on optical media.

I and others are going to have to accept that somewhere down the road we will have to take some rainy day (or month) and spend time copying even today’s CDs and DVDs over to whatever new storage media comes down the pike, and will have to do so when the transition from the old to the new takes place. My question is whether we are educating the consumer sufficiently so that they too will be prepared to do the same. And that education has to be ongoing, as this work might fall on future generations, much like our current national debt. Perhaps we don’t want to let this cat out of the bag too soon for fear of losing consumer confidence about the whole digital thing, but just as the message about videotape is finally getting through so will the message about any form of image storage now and in the future.

Pushing Print Permanence

But I digress. The reason that many people advise making prints is that inkjet prints are simpler to make and more permanent than, in many cases, photographic prints (dye-based projection, that is.) With recent advances in ink and paper technology from companies such as Epson and HP we now see the potential, given proper storage, of digital prints lasting more than 100 years. Even snapshot-size prints, according to Wilhelm Research, from portable printers like the popular and relatively diminutive PictureMate from Epson can last three generations or more. And most of the newer printers don’t even require the intermediary of the computer to make very good-looking prints.

Every company we know in the business is doing everything they can to improve the stability of their ink and paper combos. Think the megapixel horserace is competitive? You should check out what’s happening in the “archival race” to see rivals going at it tooth and nail.

This is very good for the consumer. It’s as if produce companies battled it out to see whose veggies were more organic, or carmakers fighting over whose automobile got the most gas mileage (dream on). Improving products for the good of the consumer is rare enough, and I’m not sure we’re making a big enough fuss about all the great strides the printer and paper and ink makers are making in creating more stable and long-lasting products. We should, as an industry, be shouting this from the rooftops and bragging about how as a whole we care about those precious memories and are actually putting our R&D money where our mouth is.

But this improvement is becoming the cause of another tussle between companies about whose products and whose testing methods really are

reliable. Epson’s Dano Steinhardt released a white paper on testing methods earlier this year, and in essence fired a whiff of grapeshot across Kodak’s bow. The need for creating standards remains in this field, and Steinhardt’s paper is simultaneously educational and confrontational. It expresses to me the frustration many of us feel about this matter, and one hopes that this will stir enough debate to get things moving in the right direction.

Just as with any dispute within the industry it’s better if we become our own “police” of matters and deliver a consistent message to the consumer about what we have to offer. We can agree to disagree but decisions should be made inside our house so we can come out the front door with a united front. The fact remains that the new paradigm in printing can offer stable, long-lasting images, and this is what the consumer needs to know and hear from us.

What about the other printing options? There sure were plenty of kiosks on view at the show, and many solutions that allow for ‘consumer done’ or lab-linked finishing. Even pictures from camera phones, which I think still have a long way to go in terms of quality, is getting a big boost with wireless printers and removable flashcards from phones. And there were plenty of “third-party” paper companies showing their goods at PMA, a testament to greater options and increased interest in the home printing market.

Indeed, users now have more choices for paper surface and weights than ever were available in even the halcyon days of darkroom photography. I can attest to the burgeoning of home printing based on the submissions we get every month for our reader contests in Shutterbug. In the past we’d get photographic prints and slides with a sprinkling of inkjet prints. Now the shift is almost 90/10 in favor of inkjet prints. Home printing has also sparked a renewed interest in photography as a creative endeavor and hobby, as folks now have more control of just how they want their final image to look. And no one needs to tell you about how scrapbooking has caught on and how that drives printer, paper and ink business as well.

Just Print It!

In sum, we have a real opportunity here to both raise the awareness of photography as memory keeper, hobby and creative endeavor and to bring back the ever-shrinking “photofinishing” side of the business. Now that printing from digital files is finally getting easier and inkjet prints are potentially more lasting than our “old” way of making prints from film, it’s time for the big push on making prints to begin. So let’s all get out the message, get our act together and get everyone thinking about “prints” once again. It’s good for the consumer, and the industry, which is a nice, and all-too rare confluence of interests.