Trends: The Personal Imaging Revolution

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My earliest experience with a digital camera was on a discount cruise. Bound from Miami to the Bahamas and back again, the boat trip was so frugal that our on-board entertainment consisted exclusively of a marching band and a choir, both from the same high school. To me, it may as well have been the freakin' Love Boat. I might have looked like just another idiot in Bermuda shorts and a sun burn, but I took great pleasure in knowing that I was the only guy on board the ship capturing 640-by-480-pixel images with the first full-color digital camera priced under $10,000, Apple's QuickTake 100.

Sure, I had to dash back to my cabin every 16 pictures to download images via a slow serial connection, and my gray-scale PowerBook had too little memory to open so much as a single image. But who cared? This was 1994, a time when only the rich could afford desk-bound, flat-page scanners, yet I was armed with a device that let me set sail and scan the world.

As fortune would have it, I haven't developed so much as a single roll of film since. It wasn't that the QuickTake was so phenomenal -- in truth, its poor framing and gummy focus made for some pretty rotten pictures. But the simple fact that I never again had to go all the way to a photo lab was reason enough for me. I took the pictures, I reviewed my shots, and once I purchased some more RAM, I learned from my mistakes immediately. How could I help but be entranced?

It seems I wasn't the only one. Despite the fact that 35mm film continues to offer better image quality -- and may well for a few years to come -- the immediacy and flexibility digital photography affords have attracted buyers in droves. U.S. shipments of digital cameras doubled from 1997 to 1998, and tripled from 1998 to 1999.

Film cameras remain substantially more popular, but if current trends continue, you'll have a hard time finding a consumer film camera by the end of this decade. Olympus, the best-selling camera vendor worldwide, claims that thanks to its higher prices -- a new digital camera costs on average $494 compared with less than $100 for a film camera -- the company expects to earn more next year from its digital cameras than from its film models. As companies devote more research, brain share, and marketing to capturing digital images, the infrastructure for consumer-grade film will wither and die.

Even now, with film still a viable option, people can't resist the urge to digitize. With scanner prices dropping below $100 -- in some cases $30 or less after rebates--desktop scanners are becoming standard equipment in dens and basements across the country. Last year, consumer scanner sales reached 8.3 million units, compared with a scant 1 million just three years earlier.

Only a few consumer-grade scanners can capture the full resolution of film, and almost none do a decent job of scanning 35mm slides. But for most folks, quality is quite beside the point. The attraction of electronic imaging is that it permits us to capture and share photographs without constraint. We can routinely scan and e-mail wedding photos, vacation snapshots, and birth announcements in full, brilliant color for a fraction of the amount it would have cost to snail-mail a few black-and-white photocopies ten years ago.

Who cares if the image exhibits compression artifacts or measures the size of a postage stamp? For the first time in our lives, we can communicate visually to anyone, anywhere on the planet with the event still fresh and vibrant in our minds. With a simple JPEG file, we share an intimate vision of ourselves that often transcends the spoken or written word. By sharing what I see, I show who I am.

Electronic imaging ensures that no experience in our lives escapes our ability to convey it to others. Recently, when I e-mailed a sonogram of what promises to be my first son, the infinite potential of consumer imaging struck me. Here was a picture captured at great expense inside a human body, stored in who knows what format on what proprietary system. But because the doctor was able to print the image on photographic paper, I could scan it into my system and deliver it to friends and family just as if I had taken it myself.

Imaging pundits might argue that we don't always make the best use of the technology, and undoubtedly they're right. A few years back, I met with an appraiser who was assessing the value of my house for a refinance. Taking an interest in her digital camera, I learned that despite the fact that she had a Zip drive and plenty of disks, she threw away her electronic files immediately after printing them. She kept an extra printout of every home, and she could just scan it if she needed more copies.

A person who prefers a filing cabinet of second-generation printouts to a tidy handful of first-generation disks is clearly daft. Still, my appraiser's storage technique might not be much worse than my own. Magnetic media has an estimated half life of just 10 years. So unlike film, which ages but remains at least partially viable for decades, every Jaz, SyJet, and Orb in my office may end up wiped clean by the time my unborn son reaches adulthood. The only sure way to guarantee the survival of our electronic images is to save them (and in a few years resave them) to more permanent media such as CD-ROM. Fortunately, a digital image that does survive into the distant future promises to look every bit as good then as it does today.

A more common concern I hear potential purchasers of digital cameras voice is how to print the pictures. Like digital cameras, color printers have also leapt forward in quality and affordability. For about $300, you can purchase a dye-sublimation device that prints 4-by-5-inch photos that look for all the world like photo lab prints. For larger-format work, a $500 inkjet device can render tabloid-size photographs with a degree of detail that will make your jaw drop (see Reviews, this issue.) And with a color printer and a digital camera or scanner at your disposal, there's no end to the projects you can make.

The personal imaging revolution is by no means over. Companies have a ways to go before they're through improving image quality, refining color accuracy, or introducing technologies that inspire our pocketbooks and imaginations. But the most fundamental rewards of digital imaging have already decorated our desktops. In the time it takes to blink, you can digitize an image in a format that's ready to print, post, or save for future use. No chemicals, no go-between -- nothing stands between you and the perfect photograph but some free storage space and a set of functioning batteries. The world is truly your oyster; what you see is yours to keep.

DEKE McCLELLAND is the author of books including Real World Digital Photography (Peachpit Press, 1999).

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