Consuming Images

When Janet Reno staged the armed raid to seize little Elian in the darkness of a Miami morning, it wasn't the television images that defined the event. It was a single photograph – an armed soldier with his weapon pointed in the direction of a frightened child – that we all remember.

Yes, we now live in a video-saturated world, but it's hard to top the power of a single image of a "decisive moment" – that split second that captures the essence of a human drama. Over time, these signature images become icons that trigger our memories. Just look back over the past century and see how many momentous historical events are defined by a single photograph.

The same applies to the personal images that document our lives. Even with the maze of image-making technologies now available on the mass market, most of us still prefer a few well-made photographs over all else.

If you doubt this, trying sitting through a few hours of a friend's unedited home video. The experience can cause one to rue the day that the recording time of videocassettes was extended from minutes to hours.

Even with all the hoopla in recent years over electronic imaging, most of our personal still photographs are still made on film. According to the photo industry, sales of conventional, nondisposable still cameras were up 12 percent last year to 18 million units and film sales through mass channels in the United States rose about 7 percent to more than a billion rolls.


But change is in the air. Digital photography is now growing much faster than film. Last year, digital camera sales rose 91 percent to 2.1 million units in the U.S., says the Photo Marketing Association. Sales of inkjet printers used for digital photos was up 30 percent last year, reports International Data Corp., the market research firm.

Predictions are that amateur photographers in North America will print out more than 5 billion photographs at home this year. That number, predicts InfoTrends Research Group, will explode to 26 billion within the next four years.

At the rate we're going, digital photography – the electronic cousin of home video – might just turn out to be the killer app when it comes to recording personal images.

Behind this phenomenon are some dramatic improvements in key imaging technologies:


–The image quality of digital cameras is now good enough for serious photography. At the same time, cameras have gotten much cheaper. It was only a couple of years back when these cameras broke the 1 megapixel barrier. Now, we're at full-featured 3.3-plus megapixel cameras for well under $1,000. As the specs continue to improve, prices are falling just as fast. This is reminiscent of the period in the late 1970s when professional video cameras improved so rapidly that a unit was almost obsolete by the time the buyer received delivery.

–Storage media is increasing in capacity and going down in cost. Only a year or so ago, a major hidden cost of digital cameras was "digital film." Flash media was much more expensive than it is today and the digital photographer could easily spend more on memory than the camera itself. Not only is flash memory getting cheaper, but new options, such as IBM's 340 MB Microdrive, are available for digital cameras.

Casio recently introduced its QV-3000EXplus digital camera, a 3.34 megapixel device that includes a 340 MB IBM Microdrive for less than $1,000. IBM's tiny hard drive is the size of compact flash, weighs less than one AA battery and can hold 200 times more data than a floppy disk. That means this new Casio camera can store 245 images at 2,048 x 1,536 pixels on a single piece of media. As neat as this sounds, there are reports that IBM will increase the capacity of its Microdrives to 1 GB by year’s end.


–Home printing is getting better, cheaper and archival. Inexpensive photo-quality inkjet printers have been with us a while. But fade- and water-resistant digital prints that rival the longevity of commercial photos are new. This spring, Epson introduced three new Stylus Photo models, priced from $299 to $499, that use six-color archival photo inks and paper. When loaded with the highest quality paper and ink combination, Wilhelm Research predicts images made on these new printers can last up to 25 years without fading.

Users can print 8x10-inch digital images on Epson's Premium Glossy Photo Paper for about $1.25 – estimating both ink and paper costs – in about 2 minutes. An 11x14-inch print costs about $2.89 and takes about 4 minutes to print.

These new developments, coupled with the power of the Internet to easily and quickly move electronic images via e-mail, has placed the public acceptance of digital photography on a fast track. It's the one electronic imaging technology that could give home video a serious run for the money.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.