Phase One A/S Merges Mamiya, Leaf

mamiya 645DF
Whether Mamiya Leaf is combing for efficiency or clinging together for survival is yet to be seen

Phase One A/S announced today that Mamiya Imaging and Leaf Imaging would be merged into Mamiya Leaf Imaging. The merged company will enter into a licensing agreement with Kodak, which likely means their sensors and image processing will be under the hood of the merged brand.

Whether medium format is merging to optimize service and support as the company claims in their press release, or if the companies are clinging together for survival in the face of rapidly improving DSLR competitors, remains to be seen. Right now it’s all sunshine and lollipops from Phase One. From the press release:

“We’re pleased to be part of this effort. The combination of products brings together the best in medium format photography delivered with service and options to expand the capabilities of professional photographers,” says Henrik Hakonsson, President of Phase One.

The real question is will photographers feel compelled to purchase an 80-megapixel Mamiya Phase One combination which, at over $40,000, is more than the cost of a shiny new BMW sedan. Compare that to Nikon’s new D4, which is just under $6,000.

Megapixels, Shemgapixels

This is where I have to remind people that comparing cameras by their megapixel rating is like my wife picking a new car because she likes the color. The number of megapixels has very little to do with the quality of the final image. Color, tone and sharpness will have far more sway over the quality of the final image, one of the reasons the highest rated cameras are all over the road when it comes to the megapixel rating of the sensor.

The difference in megapixels does effect the resolution of the final image, but even that is a geometric comparison and not a linear scale. In order to really notice a difference in resolution, you have to nearly double the chip size. Doubling the chip size quadruples the number of megapixels.

That’s why comparing the Canon T3i to the Nikon D5100 just on megapixels would be a mistake. While the T3i boasts a 17.9-megapixel chip and the D5100 a 16.1-megapixel chip, the difference is meaningless. Overall the D5100 is generally considered the superior camera.

Which brings us back to megapixels in the digital age and the continued quest of medium format to stay relevant in a camera market where DSLRs are producing incredible quality at a price point that’s a fraction of what you’d pay for a medium format camera.

Another factor impacting the debate is the march of software. In the old days of digital photography, like five or ten years ago, trying to scale low-resolution bitmap images, like JPEGs, was quite hard and most often the blow ups looked like doody.

Today software is much better at scaling JPEG images and you can, for all intents and purposes, scale them indefinitely with little loss in quality.

It should be interesting to see if medium format can find a way to stay relevant in the digital market, or we’ll see the medium format camera go the way of Kodak.

Kodak Hunts For Gallery Buyer

kodak logo
Kodak is seeking a buyer for their online image storage business

Several news outlets are reporting on a story in the Wall Street Journal that Eastman Kodak is seeking a buyer for their Kodak Gallery, the photo sharing arm of their digital camera business.

While this sale will probably be a routine transition for most customers, it does point up that one of the dark sides of online photo sharing sites is that the hosting site controls your images and can use them and transfer them in ways you may not have imagined.

The ability of online image galleries to do that comes from the Terms of Service, or ToS. You should really read those instead of just clicking through. If you do, you may be amazed at how many rights you are actually granting the host company.

Back in July, Twitpic prompted user backlash when they modified their ToS to claim ownership of the images posted there. The old ToS:

“You may not grant permission to photographic agencies, photographic libraries, media organizations, news organizations, entertainment organizations, media libraries, or media agencies to retrieve from Twitpic for distribution, license, or any other use, content you have uploaded to Twitpic.”

In other words, Twitpic said you couldn’t sell your own images! After virulent and vocal push-back from users, Twitpic modified their ToS:

“You retain all ownership rights to Content uploaded to Twitpic. However, by submitting Content to Twitpic, you hereby grant Twitpic a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and Twitpic’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.”

Even though you retain ownership, Twitpic reserves the right to sell your images to news agencies.  WENN signed a deal with Twitpics to buy celebrity photos uploaded to the site. Your pictures, their sale. Nice deal, huh?  And that’s nothing compared to what can happen if the company ended up going out of business.

In a bankruptcy sale the situation becomes even more difficult. Then the images in an online image sharing site become just another company asset and the bankruptcy trustee has the ability to modify the terms on which company assets are sold and distributed. So the ToS you clicked through might not offer much protection if the company goes bankrupt. The court and trustee could theoretically grant full ownership to the new buyers as part of the sale.

As far as I know there haven’t been any court cases involving the use of images obtained in a bankruptcy trial, but it’s only a matter of time. That’s why it’s a good idea to read those terms of service and think carefully about the images you store online.

If Kodak doesn’t find a buyer for Gallery and goes out of business, we may get our first test case sooner than most of us realize.

Will Film Follow Kodak To The Grave?

Is filmed doomed to the same fate as Kodak?

It’s been a rough month for film. Kodak had to shush rumors about a possible bankruptcy and offer a red-faced explanation about why they’re hiring a law firm specializing in helping big corporations going out of business.

Added to that was CreativeCow pointing out that ARRI, Panavision and Aaton have all ceased production of film movie cameras, shifting their design and production focus to digital. Those companies will still produce special orders for film cameras, but will no longer manufacture production film cameras.

Following the trend away from film in Hollywood, FilmCraft, a commercial film photo lab in Detroit, closed their doors, leaving Astro in Chicago as the sole film lab in the entire midwest. With theaters switching over to digital projection as fast as the screens can be converted, even the market for distributing film prints to theaters is on death watch.

The moves in the film world could have a roll up effect on photography, as movie production and distribution are the last big corporate markets for film. What’s left in the photography film market? Disposable plastic film cameras at the drug store, an ever decreasing handful of hobbyists still shooting film, and certain specialty markets like x-ray film. You even have to hunt at big box retail stores like Walmart to find a display of roll film.

We’re now in the long trailing tail of film. How long Fuji and AgfaPhoto will continue to make photographic film is anyone’s guess. Every year that ticks by sees their market diminish.  Economics will win out in the end.

It may still be a hobby for a handful of photographers, but it may not be a hobby you’ll be able to indulge in much longer.

Is Kodak Dead?

Dead company walking

Kodak moved quickly to swat down rumors of bankruptcy last week, though they didn’t provide a particularly good explanation for why a company in obvious financial distress retained Jones Day, a law firm specializing in corporate bankruptcy.

Kodak was founded in 1888 and quickly captured the photography market with a combination of mass production, extensive R&D, and a reputation for quality. Their motto “You push the button, we do the rest” brought photography out of the realm of scientists and chemists and put cameras in the hands of anyone who could afford the processing.

The 131 year old company has been struggling for some time and it really comes as little surprise to those of us in the photography business. Kodak stopped making their flagship Kodachrome 64 in 2009, after previously phasing out other speeds in previous years. On December 30, 2010, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, developed the final roll of Kodachrome, bringing to a close the product that dominated the photography market since 1935.

Although not unexpected, Kodak’s passing will mark the end of an era for many in photography. The days when seeing the big yellow and red sign in a foreign country meant you count on finding film in date, fresh batteries and other photography supplies you could count on, even far from home.

Kodak was killed off by a variety of factors, not just digital photography. In 1948, just a few days before Thanksgiving, Edwin Land offered consumers a the first instant cameras. Why wait for processing when you could get pictures on the spot?

In the 1980’s Japan’s Fuji started selling rolls of film way below what Kodak was use to charging. Fuji’s willingness to cut prices was popular with growing discount retailers like Walmart.

Then there was Kodak’s bizarre purchase of Sterling Drug in 1988. Instead of investing in R&D, Kodak was investing in M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) in fields they didn’t understand.

The digital photography trend finished off what Fuji started. Kodak was never able to rationalize the transition to lower margin digital cameras when so much of their profit came from their film business.

I remember Kodak sponsoring seminars in Hollywood to promote movie production on film in the mid-2000’s, right up until RED fielded their first RED One in 2007. While other companies were working hard to put big sensors behind quality glass, Kodak was still promoting film.

That seems bizarre considering Kodak had big sensor technology before many other companies in digital photography. We may never know why we didn’t see the Kodak One instead of the RED One or the Kodak big chip DSLR instead of the Canon 5D.

What do you think, is Kodak dead or can they reinvent themselves?

Is Digital Medium Format Worth It?

sensor size chart
A comparison of digital sensor sizes - Wikipedia

In the not too distant past, you didn’t think about shooting a portrait with a 35mm camera.  You had your Hasselblad or Mamiya 645.  Weddings could go either way, I carried a 35mm and a Yashika Mat.  For some of the formal shots I’d even drag out my old Bush Pressman 4×5.

Today a medium format camera with a digital back will set you back nearly as much as a nice car.

The Mamiya RZ33 kit is a modern medium format digital camera.  The camera, digital back and lens run an eye-popping $18,000.  For that you get an imaging chip that’s 48 x 36.  Compare that to a full frame 35mm chip available in the Canon 5D MKII which is 24 x 36.  The 5D with a lens is closer to $3,200.  That’s nearly a $15,000 price difference just to gain another 24mm on the vertical of the imaging chip.

Why So Expensive?

That’s largely related to the physics of building the chips.  When you double the area of a chip it reduces the number that pass Q/A because of bad pixels.  Even a small increase in sensor size significantly increases the number of failures.

Add to that the limited number of companies building chips that size, mainly for space technology and remote sensing applications, where they are considered “low cost” imaging sensors.

There just isn’t enough demand in the digital imaging market to make large scale production for photography a workable reality.

Is It Worth It?

Some people think so, but I’m not convinced.  The pictures I’ve seen from Canon 5D MKIIs and even my Canon 7D rival anything I ever shot on any of my old medium and large format film cameras.  Certainly there’s a difference, but the question is whether the difference is enough to justify the cost differential?

If you have the money, go for it.  I’ve seen some amazing work from RZ33’s and the Phase One 645DF, but I’m not convinced you couldn’t get almost as good from your 5D and you could buy six of them for the same money.