- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

Some months ago, I wrote a column on the coming of digital photography and its advantages over film no cost for film or processing, you see your picture on the camera's little screen right away, readily available software like Photoshop or its easier-to-use imitators lets you do your own darkroom work on a computer, and so on. The main drawback to digital has been that it didn't produce a very good picture.
A couple of interesting things have been going on, at least if you care about cameras. The first is that the quality of pictures has so improved that digital cameras are being routinely used in a lot of commercial and high-volume markets. They seem to be boring their way into the market through a lot of niches that grow in number. For example:
The educated and technically unfrightened. I just got back from a week of scuba diving in the Caribbean. Digicams, as we say, were much in evidence. People who can afford dive trips are not a trivial market. The things do not seem to be particularly boy toys or geek gadgets. Women had them too. The boat's rental cameras were digital, because pictures could be easily downloaded to the boat's laptop and burned onto a compact disc for the diver. No messy processing.
Realtors, seldom inspired photographers, can shoot the property, see what they have and easily upload the photos to the listing site.
Journalism. Computer User, the free publication found in boxes around Washington, (May 2002) cites the professional sports photographer for the Associated Press who uses high-end (we're talking $5,000) digicams because his editors want photos right now. He shoots, edits on a laptop at half-time, and sends the photos to his markets by modem. Film doesn't come close.
A lot of product photography has gone digital. Newspapers use it because they have tight deadlines and don't have to wait for the reporter to come back to the office and develop film. Again, modems.
And at the very high end, enormously expensive digital studio cameras are being used.
Film isn't dead by a long shot. It does things that digital isn't good enough for, just yet. It has better resolution, better color. But every drop in price, every improvement in quality and both of these march rapidly along increases the share of the photography market that is vulnerable to digital.
The second interesting thing, or at any rate that looks as if it will be interesting, is an apparently much-improved photo sensor from a company in Santa Clara, Calif., called Foveon Inc. (www.foveon.com) I discovered it in an article by James Mathewson in the same issue of Computer User that set me off on this piece in the first place.
Fair warning: I'm getting a bit ahead of my evidence here to report something that looks to be good. I haven't seen pictures taken using Foveon's chip, just talked to people who know of it and read reviews in the technical press. So don't squander your children's college funds on Foveon stock quite yet.
But it could change things big time.
How it works: In your ordinary digital camera, the sensor chip consists of rows and rows of tiny light sensors. These are called "pixels," for "picture elements." Each one responds to light of one of the three primary colors red, green or blue. These are then manipulated by the circuitry to produce a pretty good image. The more pixels, the better.
Companies have been scrambling to put more pixels on a chip, which is why your new camera is old technology about three days after you buy it. (Well, maybe not quite that fast, but it seems that way.) Foveon, which is backed by National Semiconductor, had a better idea.
Light of different colors penetrates silicon, of which chips are made, to different depths. Instead of having a color assigned to each pixel, a Foveon pixel determines the color by how deeply light penetrates. This, says the company (and, more importantly, those who have seen the results) much increases both resolution and color fidelity. Pricey cameras using the chip should be out later this year, followed by the usual trickle-down into affordable models.
"As good as film" is a phrase both overused and deceptive. As good as what film, for what purpose? Digicams are in fact better for some purposes, worse for others. But when digital becomes good enough for a particular use, its other advantages pull the market away from film. And it's happening fast now.


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