Ionic Column: Dec. 1996
by David Parry
Oh de Cologne
The Photokina show takes place every second year, perhaps because "holy Cologne" would be unable to survive an annual shebang. The exhibition grounds pulsate year-round to trade shows of all types, but Photokina tops them all for sheer numbers. I had thought it was primarily a show for amateur photographers to indulge their techno-lust, but in fact it is much more like the computer shows such as the Data Show or CeBIT; the smaller vendors try to snare local distributors and dealers, the bigger ones make a PR statement. Since the exhibition grounds are huge, probably as big as those as Hanover, there is room for everything. And Photokina is probably one of the few shows that uses up more than half of the grounds.
Yours truly, the humble scribe on the Rhine, was chained down at a small booth run by a former acquaintance in Japan, busily demonstrating a video imager. Put less grandly, a video camera with a stage to hold film slides or cut film, and a light box to view bigger pieces of film or OHP gels. The competition? Fuji and Tamron, but if I say it myself, the Cabin product is more versatile. The problem with all three is that they are intended to capture your happy snaps on video or else display them on a TV screen. The only way to transfer them to your PC is use a TV-type capture card such as the Targa, or else a device such as the Snappy. In Japan I worked with a Targa card and a similar product from Matrox about five years ago, taking the image from a camcorder, and also using a somewhat similar microscope-like film-to-video imager from Tamron. In all cases it is noticeable that the quality has improved over the years, although not that dramatically.
Digital cameras such as the Sony Mavica have been around for a few years now, but the quality was mediocre and the prices were astronomical. A number of models were shown at Photokina, mainly from the Japanese or German manufacturers. Quality is much improved, although the limit seems to be 640 x 480 pixels for all but the most expensive models, and the pricing is competitive. I am not familiar with camera and camcorder pricing, and prices are not quoted at Photokina, but I get the impression that the prices match a cheap SLR or camcorder. It is hard to tell whether this kind of hardware turns up first in Japan or the USA, but I would expect sales of the low-end models to take off within a year.
Video and camera manufacturers alike see digital cameras as a great opportunity to sell another wave of cameras, in the same way that audiophiles bought CD players to replace or supplement cassette players a few years ago. The quality is not that good on a larger screen or when printed out, and certainly not as good as traditional photo-finishing. Another burgeoning market is for printers for these cameras. The challenge is to produce a video printer with good quality at a price that will entice the masses into buying one to sit by their TV sets. The relatively low resolution shows when the image is transferred to paper, and inkjet printers produce more acceptable images than color laser printers due to the slight blurring and mixing of the colors. The scalpel-like sharpness of the laser printer reveals the limitations of the original.
The great advantage of digital still images is that you can view the results immediately and subsequently edit them as desired. Do-it-yourself Soviet-style revisions of history are within the reach of anyone able to handle the likes of Adobe Photoshop. Edit out unwanted relatives or other excrescences, morph your own fair features with the person or object of your choice, step back in time by washing wrinkles away digitally. The camera never lies, but the video editor follows your commands faithfully.
Camera manufacturers are also looking at APS, the Advanced Photo System, which also goes by other names from makers such as Fuji and Kodak. It is an interesting concept that rethinks the small-format camera, which has been synonymous with 35mm cine film since the Leica appeared around 70 years ago. There were attempts from time to time to produce a film format that was not so wasteful of space, since a still camera does not require such huge perforations, and the aspect ratio is too long for optimum composition. Formats such as 6 x 7 (cm) were too big for anything but professional and advanced amateur use, 110 and the disk camera lacked quality and compactness, and all the other new formats died at birth.
Why will APS be the next big thing?
It is a fundamental rethink of the entire photographic process for traditional silver-halide optical film, allied to the electronic cameras of today. The plastic film cassette is physically a bit smaller and lighter than a 35 mm cassette, and incorporates a magnetic track to hold information from the camera about the exposure conditions which is utilized during processing to produce optimum results. It is also possible to change the format (even after processing, if I understood correctly), so that you can have a panoramic view if you prefer. The film remains in the cassette, so you have storage boxes instead of negative albums. The film never needs to be touched by the sweaty, grubby hands of homo photographiens.
The cameras for this system can be somewhat smaller, since the exposed area on the film is smaller, and the lenses can also be smaller due to the shorter focal length. The quality is as good as 35mm, and more consistent due to the closer interfacing with the camera and the photofinishing system. The only drawback, from my point of view, is that the only film available is for color prints, and no slide films are available. I lust after one of these new APS cameras from Fuji or Olympus which incorporate a fixed, wide-range zoom lens in an L-shaped SLR, as such a camera would be ideal for travel. But how long will it take until the film and processing facilities are widely available? Perhaps not so long; I was surprised to find that I had no problems getting my Fuji Velvia slide films processed in Kathmandu two years ago. E6 and C41 have indeed conquered the Third World.
Agfa showed a scanner that would be very useful for anyone needing to scan OHP gels or sheet film such as 4" x 5" or 8" x 10". A tray within the scanner holds the film so that the light is shone through it, instead of reflecting off the white cover. You can also scan 35 mm film, but the results could not compare with dedicated 35mm film scanners from Minolta or Fuji. The Agfa scanner also works in the normal way with paper, of course.
Photokina is primarily about imaging, not just photography, and I had no chance to see more than a very small fraction of what was on show. Apart from traditional photographic products, I also saw a great deal of computer-related equipment and items related to multimedia. The publishing and printing industries likewise straddle the old and the new, with compilations of photographs on CD-ROM, and the traditional print media appearing on the Web.
The Adobe saga
Back in the office, I have had a number of exasperating problems relating to software. First, the FrameMaker 5 saga. After much anguished faxing to the Adobe agent in Düsseldorf, I got an Adobe sampler that included a version of FrameMaker 5 for my use until the full upgrade arrived. It would not install, and I wondered if it was because it was the Windows 95 version. Another CD-ROM was sent, this supposedly being a pukka Windows 3.1 version, already tested on their own system, certified by a commissioner for oaths, the whole works. Alas, oaths there were in plenty when this too failed to run. I faxed away to Adobe technical support in Edinburgh, receiving a reply to the effect that I might have not enough memory or that other programs within Windows were causing problems. At the same time, I had the same problems trying to install a copy of the Corel Flow flowcharting program. The prime suspects were the screen saver and a possible anti-virus program.
Scorched earth, singed paint
What was lurking within Windows? I had recently installed some Internet-related utilities that I had downloaded from Compuserve, and I had a sneaking suspicion that an anti-virus program had installed itself on the sly. Windows installation programs have this happy knack of presenting you with a fait accompli once the disk has finished churning, and of covering their traces at the same time. I went into SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI on a full search and destroy mission, ran UNINSTALLER, looked at all the configuration files I could find.
Windows 3.1 squirrels its secrets away in the recesses of the INI files. SYSTEM.INI is the place for screen savers:
which I quickly commented out with a semi-colon.
WIN.INI had two lines that deserved close attention:
load=C:\CMOUSE\PCCMAIN.EXE nwpopup.exe HPWHRC.EXE
The first was the program that teaches my old Contour mouse new tricks such as chording of the buttons, and the second is a TSR-type spelling checker. The first appears to be harmless, the second was disabled. I think I also found an anti-virus program, which was deleted on the spot. Finally, I shifted the icons out of the Startup group, and managed to install Corel Flow.
But the scorched earth policy did not work with the FrameMaker full upgrade, once that arrived. I spent a happy hour or two after dark, trying all the installation options, desisting only when the paint started peeling off the walls under my verbal onslaught. Next morning I glared blearily at the installation screen, and decided to install FrameMaker on the network, since it was the one and only option I had not tried. Lo and behold, but it worked. But why?
However, I am in a new office and am no longer on a LAN. The question still remains as to why Windows is giving so much trouble, since I had the same problem when trying to install the communications software for ISDN under Windows. The installation begins, gets so far, then there is a crash and I am kicked off Windows. I am weary of defenestration.
Having installed and removed OS/2 Warp from my system, twice, I am left wondering if that has left stray files with non-DOS attributes on my disk, and these are causing the trouble. Did OS/2's own version of Windows overwrite something? Windows runs, but is skittish about accepting newcomers.
Probably the only way to be really sure is to nuke the hard disk and start again. Which I did, but I still have some problems with Windows and ISDN. The Windows files were copied en masse to drive D: and copied back again. A complete reinstallation might be better.
I have two 1 GB disks, and can just about fit everything onto one of them after trimming out the surplus. With a view to the future, I have acquired Partition Magic and System Commander. The former is preferable to the barbarities of FDISK, since I can change, add or delete partitions without losing data. But make backups anyway.
It is ideal for use with OS/2 if you need to add a partition to house the Dual Boot files. System Commander allows you to start up in different partitions and keep different operating systems on your disk without internecine warfare. The manual even warns about the destructive propensities of Windows 95 and newer versions of WIN/V. The two programs really ought to be combined.
What I am thinking of doing is combined operations with the two programs; a partition of its own for OS/2, and segregating it away from the DOS world with System Commander. I could run OS/2's own version of Windows, and anything that refused to run could live in another partition with the original Microsoft version. I am wondering if I can also run separate partitions for a Russified version of Windows and also for a version of DOS with EMS drivers for some of the older programs and games. As the manual carefully explains, DOS insists on starting up from drive C. Will it work, or do I need to keep alternative startup files, just as I do now?
Next month; legal brothels, white nights, ISDN, and greedware.
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