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?

Go For a Photo Walk

photo walk pictures
Photographers gather and check gear for a photo walk.

One of the biggest mistakes people new to photography make is not being involved in their profession. That includes memberships in professional organizations, like PPA, and being involved with local photography groups, meet-ups, and events.

Some of you may chaff at that idea, thinking it’s nothing but a bunch of old ladies with point-and-shoot cameras and you’d be wrong. The WorldWide Photowalk was this weekend and at one of the local walks, which drew about 20 people, a quarter were working professionals from around the area and half made some part of their living from photography.

There was equipment of every manufacturer. Cameras by Nikon, Canon and one Sony Alpha, flash units by Sunpak, Canon and Quantum, lenses that ranged from kits lenses to Zeiss primes. We had a great time and I got to mingle with some really good shooters.

Another option to consider is going on paid photography tours, especially if you’re visiting a strange city for the first time. Hiring a local photographer to serve as a guide can insure that you’re not missing lesser known photogenic parts of the city. Besides, most of the locals will know your walk organizer and you can borrow some of that credibility. Even experienced hunters hire a guide when hunting in a new area, so don’t discount the idea of paying a guide.

Walks, meet-ups and group TFP (Time For Prints) shoots are all ways to meeting other photographers, pick up shooting tips and get your name out there. I came back with a stack of business cards after a two hour photo walk, including ideas for new paying projects. It turned out to be a wise investment of my time.

Helping to organize photo walks and TFP shoots is always appreciated, and organizing one of your own is great advertising.

So grab your gear and get going!

Lighting a White Background

photography studio
The advantage to this background is it will never tear - By Missvain

For portraits, it’s not unusual for photographers to employ a white background. After getting their Canon 5D MK II, it’s inevitably one of the first one or two backgrounds most photographers purchase.

You might think it’s easy to light a white background, or wonder if you need to light it at all. You will need to light it and it may be harder than you imagine. Once your subject gets four to six feet from the background, the light from the key falls off in a hurry. At six feet there can be a whole stop difference between your subject and the background. At a stop under the background is not going to be white, it’s going to be a flat gray “vampire background” that sucks the life right out of your portrait.

Situations like these are why incident light meters and flash slaves were made. You’ll want a softbox or umbrella on each side, positioned four to five feet off each side of your background, usually off camera behind the subject. Use a flag or white panel to keep the background flash from highlighting and outlining your subject. That will not be a pleasing look.

Adjust your flash power until the background is a stop lighter than your subject. That will give you that nice pure white glow without blowing back on your subject. In the video Gavin Hoey suggests two stops, but in my experience one is enough unless you have a lot of flaws and wrinkles in the background you’re trying to hide.

Take your light meter and check the back of the subject, just to make sure you’re not getting highlight from the background. The meter check behind the subject should not be any higher than in front. If it is, move the lights or your subject farther away.

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.

Insurance For Photographers

Fireman's Insurance building in Newark
Fireman's Insurance building in Newark - by Jim.henderson

I was on location last week when it dawned me that I was carrying about $2,500 worth of gear, and that’s just what I had hanging around my neck and in my vest.  Most of the expensive stuff was at home.

At home a disaster would likely be covered by our homeowners insurance and, in some cases, if it was taken out of the car.  But if the insurance company gets wind I was on a paying job, they’re not going to pay on a homeowner’s policy, no matter what.

That doesn’t even begin to cover liability.  If you break or damage something while on the job, or, even worse, hurt someone.

Types of Coverage

For photographers you’re looking at three basic types of insurance:

– Equipment

– E&O

– Liability

Equipment coverage replaces your gear if it’s lost or stolen.  E&O is Errors & Omissions and it covers you from being sued for negligence in providing professional services.  Even if the suit is frivolous, unless you have $10,000 or more laying around to pay a legal bill, the cost of defense can be crippling.

Liability is probably the most neglected and the one that can really save your bacon.  Knock over that priceless antique vase in someone’s home, accidentally push another photographer down the stairs outside a courtroom, or have a model trip over the background paper and you could be looking at a staggering bill for damages.  Many localities require liability insurance before they will issue a permit for film or photography sets in urban areas.

Other liability coverage you’ll want is coverage for leased equipment.

Where To Get It

One stop for most of you will be WEVA.  Members have access to their insurance pool where you can obtain all the coverage you need.

PPA offers coverage through third parties and there are companies like the Chubb Group.  Fortunately today there are far more options for photographers to obtain insurance than the days before the internet.