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Pixel power

Digital camera sales soared last year. And cameramakers hope to increase sales by making it easier to get images from a camera into a computer or printed out.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2001


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Following a trend to make digital cameras simpler to use, Panasonic’s Ipalm can transfer photos to a home computer or prepare an image for e-mail with the push of a button
ORLANDO -- Taking a digital photo may be easy, but for many new users it's no snap getting the picture out of the camera.

Those who buy digital cameras often end up returning them because of all the fuss that's involved. First, you have to connect your film-free camera to a computer, then figure out the often bewildering software to crop and adjust the images. Finally, you have to learn to print them at acceptable quality or e-mail them.

"It's too complicated for consumers," said Jim Esp, who works for the Genovese drugstore chain in New York.

Up to 80 percent of the tech support calls for digital photo products at Panasonic come from people who don't understand how to transfer photos to a computer or printer, says Mary Miceli, its consumer video division's product manager.

Going digital also is a challenge for photo retailers, who are trying to figure out what kind of equipment and services to offer consumers who no longer need traditional film handling.

And then there are the companies that make the cameras, which have heard the complaints and are worried about high return rates.

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Ricoh’s RDC-i700
Everyone, it seems, is trying to figure out how to master the red-hot digital photo market, which has evolved from its image as a gadget for geeks and photo professionals a few years ago to a mainstream technology the whole family can enjoy. If, that is, anyone in the family can figure it out.

So instead of just bragging about more pixel power, camera companies at the Photo Marketing Association International's trade show in Orlando last week also emphasized a back-to-basics movement in digital photography: new lower-price cameras that require one click for the photo and one or two to send the picture to a computer, printer or e-mail.

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Polaroid’s PhotoMax PDV 640
Retailers at the show tried to decipher the latest research on consumer trends and talked about how in-store photo processing can compete with Web processing sites such as those offered by Amazon.com, Kodak.com, Snapfish.com and Yahoo. Such sites allow users to store digital photos in online albums that friends and relatives can view over the Web and invite users to place online orders for store-quality prints of selected pictures.

The reason for the attention: Digital camera sales soared to 4.1-million last year, according to the marketing association, more than doubling 1999 sales, and the association is predicting sales of almost 6.9-million this year. On the trade show floor at the Orange County Convention Center, more than 300 of the 800-plus exhibitors had digital imaging products, with more than 100 of those showing digital cameras.

The Jackson, Mich., association (www.pmai.org) represents about 18,000 companies involved in processing, service or retailing of photo products and related goods.

Digital dreams
Cameras do more than take photos. These days they record audio and video, play music and even connect directly to the Internet. Here are some of the gadgets that caught our eye at the recent Photo Marketing Association International trade show.
Rather than offering new cutting-edge gadgets, this year's show had a "better, faster, cheaper" theme, said Andrew Johnson, principal digital imaging analyst for the Gartner Group research firm. In fact, a number of companies didn't introduce products, normally a hallmark of trade show gatherings.

But they did tout cameras that they say are easier to use, and less expensive to buy, for people who want to try digital photography but avoid the headaches.

Panasonic's $899 Ipalm camera is designed to be a point-and-click device, product manager Miceli said. After taking a picture, the user simply connects the camera to a Windows PC or a Mac and pushes a button to transfer it to the computer or automatically have it set up as an attachment to an e-mail message.

But not all the new models are as pricey as the Ipalm. Some good quality 2-megapixel cameras will cost less than $300 instead of the more common $800 to $1,000 range. The Fuji FinePix 2300 will have a $279 price tag when it hits the market in April.

"Camera manufacturers are starting to learn more about their market," said Grant Clauser, editor in chief of E-Gear magazine (www.e-gear.com). "For the past few years, the products were still focused on tech types and early adopters with a lot of emphasis on pro-type manual controls. This year marks the end of the pixel war."

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SiPix’s Pocket Printer A6
That means retargeting marketing pitches so that users don't think they need the latest, greatest and most expensive gear. Top of the line cameras, with high price tags and the most megapixels for sharper resolution, are aimed at serious photo enthusiasts and professionals. Cameras in the 2- to 3-megapixel range are fine for mostly family photography. And lower-range cameras, around 1 megapixel, are good for people who will be posting photos on Web sites, since those photos take up less valuable data space.

While digital's growth is substantial, it still made up only about 18.5 percent of camera sales last year, according to the marketing association. And though it said film sales seem to have plateaued, more than 1-billion rolls were sold last year and a similar number is expected this year.

"People are very happy with traditional photography," said Gary Pageau, the trade group's associate publisher. "It works very well for them."

Traditionalists could point to the popularity of one-use and instant cameras as proof that film isn't dead. About 3.9-million instant cameras were sold last year, slightly less than digital but almost double the previous year.

Others noted the growing popularity of scrapbook parties, where people gather to take old photos out of shoeboxes and create albums. They asked how people will keep and share their memories in the digital era.

Pageau said he doesn't think Web sites offering photo services have won much of the market yet, but more research is needed on trends: How much printing of digital photos are people doing? What influence will e-mail sharing have? Retailers wondered how to deal with customers who bring in digital camera disks instead of film to have prints made.

While there were few concrete answers for their concerns, the show had an upbeat message.

"More people are interested in photography because of digital," said Johnson of the Gartner Group.

* * *

- Contact Dave Gussow at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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