COVER

PHOTOGRAPHY’S MARCH OF TIME

CAMERAS ARE RACING TO THE FUTURE

RIC DOLPHIN April 24 1989
COVER

PHOTOGRAPHY’S MARCH OF TIME

CAMERAS ARE RACING TO THE FUTURE

RIC DOLPHIN April 24 1989

PHOTOGRAPHY’S MARCH OF TIME

COVER

CAMERAS ARE RACING TO THE FUTURE

When George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., introduced the mass-produced camera for amateurs in 1888, his advertising slogan was “You press the button; we do the rest.” The $25 Kodak camera was a leather-covered wooden box with a fixed-focus lens and a shutter release capable of producing only the most basic of black-and-white photographs. The user clicked off his 100 snaps, then mailed the whole camera to Kodak’s processing laboratories— with another $10—and received the processed snapshots together with the reloaded camera about a month later. Largely because of Eastman’s ingenuity, photography became a form of expression and a medium of record for anyone who could afford it. Now, about 80 per cent of people in the developed world own a camera.

Yet while the principle of a box with a lens and a button remains, 101 years of technological advancement have made modern cameras soÿ & phisticated tools, which, in % the words of a current Nikon I brochure, are “attuned to f what you need, how you § think.” °

In the modern world of electronic flash, automatic focus, high-speed color film, infrared sensors and computerized light-metering, Eastman’s quest for a simple-to-use device remains the ultimate goal of the amateur-directed photography industry. And in the past decade, progress in technology—including the introduction of a video camera that takes still pictures and stores them on computer disks—has brought the camera to a level at which the push of a button by even the most technologically untutored person can produce a photograph of professional quality, though not necessarily of artistic merit. “Technologically, cameras have probably come as far as they can,” said Donald Long, publisher and editor of Toronto-based PhotoVideo magazine.

“From this point on, any changes will be more a matter of design.”

Nikon Corp.’s top-of-the-line F4, which went on sale in Canada for $2,600 last December, contains some of the most advanced technology. The black-bodied camera features three built-in microcomputers and 200 focusing sensor elements. The system can perform such marvels as adjusting the exposure according to

the intensity of light in five different segments of the frame, as well as anticipating where a moving object will be—and focusing—in the split second between when the photographer presses the shutter button and when the shutter opens. An optional flash unit can send out near-infrared beams of light, directing one of the camera’s computers to set the focus— even in complete darkness. A built-in highspeed motor drive automatically advances the film at varying speeds up to a maximum of 5.7 frames per second.

Cameras such as the F4 are geared to the professional and belong to a type known as single-lens reflex (SLR). Invented by the Germans in the 1920s and perfected by the Japa-

nese in the 1970s, SLRs employ a system of prisms and mirrors that enables the photographer to see through the viewfinder exactly what the lens sees.

Few hobbyist photographers who want to capture baby smiles or a family holiday are interested in so much optical purity. By far the more popular camera now is the range-finder variety, in which the viewfinder, operating independently of the lens, approximates what will eventually appear in the photograph. Of the 8.4 million Japanese cameras exported into North America in 1987, only 18 per cent were SLRs; most of the others were range-finders, casually known as point-and-shoot, compact or “idiot-proof” cameras.

Costing from $200 to $400, compacts— roughly half the size of an SLR—have in the past five years become almost foolproof. Most operate on recently developed lithium batteries, which last for as many as 30 rolls of film, and include such standard features as automatic focusing and film advance, built-in flashes that function automatically in low light, and socalled DX coding, which allows sensors to read a

code on a cassette of film and set the film speed.

In another development, the Olympus Infinity Twin uses an electronically operated mirror to switch, at the push of a button, between a 35-mm wide-angle lens and a 70-mm telephoto. And Canon’s recently introduced Prima Shot, like the F4, uses a near-infrared beam to set the focus and also has a detachable wireless remote control that allows the photographer to include himself in his pictures. Said Michael Hayward, the manager at Henry’s, a large Toronto camera store: “These are not really things that are going to make you a great photographer—but they’ll keep you from screwing up.”

Experts now predict that the most signifi-

cant advances in the future will take place in the area of film technology. Film quality is measured in a unit called a detective quantum efficiency (DQE) level: a 100-per-cent DQE level means that the film can record a perfect image even in complete darkness. Although still a long way from such perfection, the DQE level of the best films has risen to five per cent from three per cent in the past two years alone. Chemists have achieved that advance by manipulating the light-sensitive silver-halide crys-

tals that number as many as 19 billion in one square inch of film. In 1982, scientists at Kodak’s laboratory in Rochester managed to change the shape of the crystals from pointed to tabular. That made them more efficient collectors of light. Said Geoffrey Oliver, vicepresident and general manager of Kodak Canada Inc.’s photographic products group: “This enabled us to make faster, sharper and finergrained films.”

Potential changes in film chemistry have caused some concern among officials of silver mines, because film manufacturers account for almost a third of silver consumption. But such advances provide both amateur and professional photographers with new possibilities. Extremely light-sensitive, or “fast,” films, including Kodak’s T-Max P3200 black-and-white, can take pictures by the light of a glowing cigarette, although the results have a relatively poor definition. On the other end of the scale, Kodak’s “slow” Ektar 25 color negative film delivers an image so sharp that it can capture the individual flecks of color in a human eye. And although those films are aimed at serious

SLR photographers, manufacturers have also been improving the color and definition quality of the medium-speed films in an effort to create a so-called universal film for the growing army of point-and-shoot camera users, who represent two-thirds of all amateur film buyers.

For its part, in two months, Fuji Photo Film Canada Inc. plans to launch Reala 100 ISO film, which uses a fourth layer of emulsion with socalled inhibitors to reduce the greening of skin

tones photographed in fluorescent light. And this month, Polaroid Corp., which since its inception in 1947 had made only instant film and cameras, entered the conventional film market with its OneFilm. It is a medium-range product that, according to Polaroid marketing vice-president Carl Yankkowski, “removes the confusion from buying film because it is the right film in bright light, in low light or indoors with a flash.”

For all the advances, cameras may be overtaken by the still-video camera, or SVC. Using digital electronics pioneered by Japan’s Sony Corp. in 1981, SVCs do not use film. Instead, electronic images, similar to those of video cameras, are stored on a two-inch erasable disk. No developing is required, and the images can be transmitted instantly to a television screen or printed on thermally sensitive paper. Because the images are stored electronically, they can also be transmitted by phone line. Several magazines at the Olympics in Seoul last September used the system to send pictures to their headquarters, with relatively poor results, and consumer versions of Sony’s Mavica

and Canon’s Zapshot SVCs will go on sale in Canada later this year.

But most experts say that SVCs do not pose an immediate threat to conventional cameras. For one thing, the camera alone will cost about $1,650. For another, the picture quality on screen looks like a stopped frame of a video cassette recording and in printed form it is notably indistinct. But as further technological advances—including new high-definition television and better laser printers—improve the image quality, industry observers say that the market will increase and that the prices will go down. Said Masara Shimada, a member of the Sony engineering team in Tokyo that developed the Mavica: “There is a very large market for instant photography, especially among the younger generation.” He added, “In Japan, the trend is to take pictures at parties and gatherings and pass them around later—not store them in albums but throw them away.” For his part, Tatsuo Yoshioka, assistant international sales manager for Nikon Corp., also in Tokyo, predicted that high-resolution SVC technology will take 10 years to rival the old. “One day,” he said, “you will be able to take your floppy disk to a machine at the photo developers, throw in a few coins and get prints in a couple of minutes.”

As the electronic advances of photography become less expensive and more refined, the average photographer’s quest for the perfect image will clearly become more rewarding. The computerization of images enables the stored information to be electronically enhanced and improved after the picture has been taken. That process has already been used in such motion pictures as Tron and The Last Starfighter, as well as in TV station identification graphics and commercials. In a recent commercial for Loto-Québec, Light and Motion Corp., a Toronto special-effects company, used computer-controlled photography to create the highly realistic illusion of an ocean liner sailing along a city street with streamers falling onto the people below. In reality, the ship was a four-foot-high model—and technicians added the streamers by a process of electronic composition.

Currently, such wizardry is far beyond the reach of the everyday photographer: the LotoQuébec commercial cost $100,000. But digital images and home computers will be able to take even an unflattering picture and, with a few adjustments on the keyboard, make the subject radiant. Video technology promises still further thrills beyond most people’s imagination. Said Charles Powell of Color Systems Technology in Los Angeles: “One of the main things I see in store for the year 2001 is that people will quite likely be able to create and manipulate their very own movies on their home computers. You may be able to take Clark Gable and put him into a film with Cher, then perhaps use a screenplay from yet another film—say Casablanca.” They’ll press the button; the customer will do the rest.

RIC DOLPHIN

TOM KOPPEL