The world of photofinishing is certainly dynamic! In the same month that Fujifilm is reported to be about to close off several film production lines (ProCounter world exclusive, January 17), the re-born Kodak Alaris says Ektachrome is coming back to life (CES, January 5).
The ABC even featured Brisbane’s intrepid Phil Gresham on radio last week talking about how people are dusting off film cameras to experience something more than smartphone photography, and that film is stronger than for many years!
But when you are the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of Europe’s leading photofinishing company, CEWE, all the changes in the industry and the decline of print in traditional business models is enough to keep one awake at night. PhotoCounter ‘s special correspondent John Swainston recently caught up with Dr Reiner Fageth (pictured right), Board member in charge of Technology and R&D at CEWE, which is headquartered in Oldenburg, Germany.
Dr Fageth has been one of the driving forces in photofinishing globally over the last 15 years. Here he gives PhotoCounter readers a unique perspective, and some ideas for your own future opportunities…
PhotoCounter: Despite the significant decline in cameras being sold, (from 120 million worldwide in 2010 to just a quarter of that today) and the number of prints people now make being a fraction of what it once was, CEWE has reported solid growth in recent years. How?
Reiner Fageth: Compared to camera makers we have a significant advantage: We are benefiting from the mobile phones, because through those phones we can deploy easy upload for images anywhere, and we have both mobile and desktop applications to support the easy use of those pictures the way customers want to use them.
There are big differences around the world. In the US, such applications start with uploading your files, often as a complete, unselected batch. That involves either getting them all printed or working with those images in an online application and only selecting the ones to print once they are all uploaded. In Europe, with the slight exception of the UK, files remain on your desktop or mobile device and the CEWE applications that reside on your device enable you to choose what you do with your pictures. Importantly, the same functionality is possible in the app either on the desktop or on your mobile device.
PC: Nine out of 10 images today originate on a mobile device – a tablet or a phone. What is CEWE’s experience?
RF: Well, people got used to transferring their images to central process labs when their compact digital camera was their major picture taking device. Today the process is either direct from the phone, or images transferred from their phone to their computer and the process of working with those pictures is unchanged. One in 4 of all images that we at CEWE print originates from a mobile phone. So yes, we are still not printing anything like the majority of people’s pictures, but it’s allowing us to grow again.
PC: Do you see mobile images as a good growth opportunity for photo retailers?
RF: Firstly, not every image taken is a candidate to be printed. Most images are purposed for social sharing, to post online, get feedback and interaction. So already there is a task to select those individual pictures suitable for something else. And over the past 10 years one of our major developmental areas of focus has been to make that as easy as possible – to search and find those special pictures simply and easily.
PC: What sort of things do you employ to do this selection?
RF: Of course we use metadata, we eliminate closed eyes, out of focus, etc… But we use heuristics, intelligent clustering and the histogram quality. When you combine all these things, our software then gives the user a first selection. Remember, in the old days of film, no pre-selection was possible. You printed everything, but most ended up in a shoebox.
PC: A decade ago photo book was a very small concept. Today around CEWE’s business we see hundreds of different ways to use photo books. How long do you think it will be before it really takes off for the masses?
RF: Actually I think technically it’s already there. We can even launch video files from QR codes embedded in printed images. No, with photo book the challenges are showing the various papers and finishes. Making that work easily and persuasively online is quite hard. That’s where CEWE works really hard with its retail partners to enable all those factors – finishes, gloss, UV coatings, and size and format options to be part of the retailer’s value-add. It’s really the attach point for the purchase.
PC: CEWE has 12 production facilities across Europe. Is that the secret to quick fulfilment, a recognised capability your company offers in this category?
RF: In fact quality of the whole experience is what our brand stands for, and speed of delivery, once a consumer has made the decision to go ahead, is vital to retain that positive emotion.
PC: A new offering from Epson at Photokina was a rapid print scanner with image enhancement on the fly. Does this offer a new channel for re-engagement with the public to print?
RF: The biggest fear a consumer has is handing over their only originals. We, and indeed many retailers, offer scanning services, even back in the analog days. But the real issue is the story in the pictures. Without metadata those analog prints have to be explained by the people in the pictures. So it’s a significant obstacle to market growth of any significance. In the end, the value in the pictures is the story, and very often the younger generation is called upon to go through those pictures after the real story-tellers aren’t with us any more.
PC: Another development showed at Photokina was Fujifilm’s Instax print scanner, for instant social sharing beyond the group one is with. Is this another way to collect those images in photo books?
RF: The younger generation is clearly responding to handing over an instant print. After all, Polaroid is also once again available and selling big numbers of cameras. We are seeing young people rediscovering film and the mystery of what type of image will emerge after an event or the moment is passed.
PC: You seem to be differentiating behaviours from story-telling and indicating that each of these available technologies suits particular user groups or the moments in people’s lives and how they want to share them with others?
RF: Yes, they really are distinctive, just like, in another situation, an image for a mug is different to the images you’d select for a calendar. Different moments, different social interaction, different photo products.
PC: In Your Photokina display you had a number of situational displays, in which photography would feature, parties, weddings, sport, graduation etc… Is this environment of photography something you think retailers could pay more attention to and perhaps less about technology?
RF: Absolutely! We had several of those situational rooms. The main purpose of course is to show that pictures can be used to decorate your home, brought together in book form, on your mobile phone case in metal, realised in black & white as fine art; you can even print on fabrics for personalised bags, pillows and the like or use a professional portrait to improve that Facebook or Linked-In profile. In other words photography is not what it was in your father’s day.
PC: Turning to technology there seems to be a sharp contrast between the companies that continue to stress megapixels and features, and those that are now focusing on the result, using technology but almost invisibly.
RF: Yes, I think companies like Fujifilm and Panasonic are making that picture result a key part of their message and it’s certainly our approach at CEWE. I am a technology guy, but very often the very best technology is seamless and apparently simple. For us it’s about emotion, by showing beautiful images and all the ways we can deliver them, rather than the message of early digital, which was (and for some still is) about megapixels and file size and frames per second. We are the original content-marketing business. The picture is our content. Great pictures are great content.
PC: With the emergence of a Real-View video, now VR and 360°, how compatible is that with a world of print?
RF: Directly, not much. Personally I think AR (Augmented Reality), blending your own situation with an augmented environment creates a great new opportunity for quality photography. I also think that 4K and 8K will drive up demand for large print. Once seen on the big screen in high res, the next step is to have it as a giant printed freeze frame, and that’s best done by print. Slideshows yes, on the electronic screen. But a single image, that’s going to be a canvas or other fine print.
PC: The pace of change seems to get ever faster. What’s the next big thing for photography, in your view?
RF: Well for the next five years, which is roughly as far as one can reasonably predict, story-telling will remain the major focus of growth. Of course we can implement refinement – we add gold and silver into a premium print and we create a new segment. Or we can develop new greeting card apps for sharing pictures while on holiday or at special life-journey moments. But the major tasks will be blending technology for better experiences with pictures. We have an App called My CEWE Travel, it’s a free app that makes for better conversations and shared posts socially. In the end some of it is free to ensure that the ultimate use of the picture is maximised for the consumer and able to provide the industry with a reasonable modest growth, drawn from an open operating environment, rather than the closed ones of Apple or Google.
© Copyright John Swainston, 2017.