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John Swainston: Photokina wrap-up

pkina-dinkusWalking the halls through the week, It’s hard for a single person to gain perspective. Hundreds of exhibitors, more than a dozen halls, countless products and categories. What does it all mean? What’s important? What’s not? What’s ready to create an opportunity this Christmas season? What’s over the horizon a little while?

John Swainston reports from Photokina.
John Swainston reports from Photokina.

After 40 years plus of this one hopes that the excitement of the new is moderated by the reality that first showings very often may not become real businesses for 5-10 years. The balance between keeping up with change, and ensuring there’s a consistent return for the business is important. It’s vital that when a retailer stocks and presents a new category to a constantly re-educated consumer, it is relevant and compelling.

Next week we’ll present the first of three important and exclusive PhotoCounter interviews held at Photokina. The first is with Rainer Schorcht, chairman of the supervisory board of Europe’s largest specialist photo retailer network, Ringfoto. In the interview Rainer outlines how Ringfoto has not only constantly evolved over more than six decades, but is seeing good growth against an overall photo category industry decline.

In the second interview I talk to Reiner Fageth, technology head of Europe’s largest commercial and consumer photofinisher, CEWE – a company that’s not only seen the bottom of the decline in print, but exactly as predicted over five years ago, is now seeing increases in volumes and average selling prices – by lifting quality, simplifying processes for consumers and remaining relevant to an Apple iPhone- and Samsung Galaxy-populated photographic world. In the final interview I talk to Ron Kubara, global head of PR and worldwide strategy for Noritsu. Now Noritsu is offering new generation silver halide solutions through to a series of new 8 and 12 inch ‘QSS Smart’ inkjet solutions. New pearlescent materials also are expanding the offerings for consumers, along with some surprising flat-fold onsite photo book possibilities. For all of these, you’ll have to wait a week or so, so keep a look out for the PhotoCounter newsletter. These are comprehensive, wide-ranging discussions that are directly relevant to retailers in Australia and New Zealand and beyond.

Hangin' at Das Buzzenhalle! (Pic: John Swainston)
Hangin’ at Das Buzzenhalle! (Pic: John Swainston)

DSLR, mirrorless and premium compacts
PhotoCounter’s Press day report on consumer and pro full frame, mirrorless and APS-C cameras can be found here. To that one must add both the excellent Olympus OMD E-M1 and the new generation Pen camera.

The Olympus Pen display (Pic: John  Swainston)
The Olympus Pen display (Pic: John Swainston)

Once again 4K is present in the Olympus E-M1 offering (and much easier to do well with mirrorless than with DSLR). Possibly the most impressive suggestive sell was the beautifully arranged simulated store display window for the new Olympus Pen E-PL8. Retailers merchandising this class of camera would do well to consider something as subtle if they want to fully exploit this continuing line of excellent wider appeal premium cameras in compact form.

Over at Canon there was another demonstration of a prototype 120MP full-frame EOS. No indication was given at to whether such a product was even planned. I was particularly impressed by it’s low light performance – the live display demo showed a superbly graduated tonal range in the live ancient book setting in low-lux.

The importance of cameras such as the premium Canon G-series compacts, the new Panasonic LX-10 and the continuing strength of Sony’s RX series is evident. The entire emphasis of the new entry level Nikon D3400 was connectivity. Connected cameras are a journey that’s now in its thirteenth year. In my opinion it’s still much harder than consumers expect it to be, when shared pictures from premium smartphones are so good and so easy. In a world where your data from your FitBit or Garmin sports watch is moved through your phone app and shared with you or a social peer group, uploading photos from your dedicated camera has to be much smarter and simpler.

All camera companies offered new lenses. These were covered by separate articles earlier last week. New Art Series lenses from Sigma and the new long-zoom 150-600mm G2 from Tamron confirm that space previously reserved for the camera brands is now inhabited by superb and even superior offerings from third party manufacturers.

Manual but in the market:
Manual, but in the market: Laowi wide angle lenses from China increase the options for both retailers and their customers. (Pic: John Swainsdton)

The world of adaptors is growing, building on Novoflex and their Canon-to-Sony and now Micro 4/3 offerings. Sigma showed a new adaptor-converter system that promises to be a game changer too, though not fully commercialised at this time. There were many new brands from China, including Anhui Changgeng Optics (Laowi), with super wide optics. That they provided no electronic linkage for ease of use, does not draw away from the fact that optically, they are now in the market. As Korean optics company Samyang has proved, at a value price, enthusiasts and even some professionals will now look to their excellent super-wide offerings to fill gaps left by camera makers. Maxxum’s Glen Ward confirmed to PhotoCounter the solid growth of Samyang, something not picked up by industry statistics at retail.

Medium Format 
In the professional camera field one must mention the important medium format additions. At 100 megapixels the Phase One IQ-1 is a new entry-level iteration of their top-performance medium format system cameras. L&P’s Richard Williamson also highlighted two important new lenses from Phase One, a Schneider Kreuznach 150mm LS f/2.8 IF and a 45mm LS f/3.5. ‘This reaffirms Phase One’s continuing investment in superior new optics to match the leading performance of Phase One’s image capture systems, including an updated release of Capture One software,’ Richard told us.
hasselblad_dsc09321Apart from the new high performance square format 75-megapixel Hasselblad prototype V1D, it was hands-on with the new Mirrorless Hasselblad X1D, with 51 megapixels and only marginally bulkier than a Nikon D810 DSLR.

Over at Fuji was the progressive growth of the XT system and its own mirrorless offering, the Fujifilm GFX. With a 43.8 x 32.9mm sensor, but without the bulk, this moderately-priced camera was for me the standout new announcement. On both Fujifilm and Hasselblad stands the crowds were 5 or 6 deep. It seems there are many European consumers that want to experience something new, other than DSLR photography. As Phil Askey, founder of DPReview tweeted, when comparing two images, one taken on a Canon EOS 5 Mk III with a 50mm f1.4 lens vs the new Apple iPhone 7+, ‘It’s the difference between small pixels and tiny pixels’. Guess which picture was appreciably better? Yes, as you hoped! Here we are referring to the physical size of the individual picture elements (pixels) rather than the number of pixels.

With medium format, it’s the difference between larger pixels and DSLR or mirrorless ‘small pixels’. There is a visible, significant difference. This continues to be really important in commercial advertising photography, some wedding, scientific work and landscape work. In the background, the Pentax 645, continues to be the benchmark value leader with a quality level and range of lenses that serve the needs of most serious professional and serious amateur image makers. It continues to represent great value.

All examples from all makers produced images that were glorious. You pays your money and you make your choice!

Almost every new camera on the floor of the exhibit halls featured 4K video recording in various frame rates. For this season’s consumers it’s vital they be shown the benefit and importance of a new ‘Works with GoPro’ program that only Lexar and SanDisk currently offer. Of particular note was a new MicroSD card reader combo with up-speeded new cards from Lexar, which adds to their existing Apple Lightning option with USB Type-C for Android phones.

lexar-hp-633x-microsd-256gb-card-reader_smlOf particular note was Lexar’s new 256GB MicroSD card and reader with a 90MB/Sec read-transfer rate, offering two-way communication with a smartphone. This is a vital part of the next-gen video imaging capture environment. Over at SanDisk it was the first prototype 1TB SD card! Sounds like overkill? Well with 8K Extra HD video capture less than 3 years away for consumer and pro video, 360-degree VR capture here now, and Panasonic’s upcoming (6K) GH5 less than 6 months away, the required storage needs of the video shooter go up by a further factor of 4. For the 20 years or so that memory cards have been around, it’s been a constant replacement game.

This is a really strong opportunity for specialist retailers to sell the benefits of performance that will result in an absence of dropped frames and great stills grabs from tomorrow’s top performing 4-8K cameras.

One of the top-performing KickStarter fund-raisers over recent years has been American maker, Peak Design. This direct-to-consumer KickStarter model is an important means to gain direct consumer feedback, and obviously helps fund start-ups. It sits less well for established retailers.

Ryan Dulon (Peak Design) and Eamon Drew (Blonde Robot).

Peak Design’s new everyday backpack, tote and sling add to their successful $5M KickStarter campaign from 2015. Peak Design’s Ryan Dulon told PhotoCounter that a ‘combination of innovation, security and capability beyond just being a photo bag’, had led to success. Australian distributor Blonde Robot’s Eamon Drew concurred when we reviewed these new bags at the show.

Over at brand category leader Lowepro, there was strong emphasis on drone bags with the Lowepro DroneGuard series, a category Lowepro launched last year and which now has more than five offerings. Tim Grimmer, Lowepro’s global brand director, told us that the Lowepro drone development team was over in Hawaii last week participating in the Drone Speed Racing Championships as individuals.

Investment in new lines, colours and textures, moving away from sole reliance on traditional fabrics, was clear at Lowepro. The soft floppy shoulder/tote bag offered by Tenba certainly was drawing crowds. TNS-Connect’s Adam Wilson, distributor for Lowepro, echoed that trend, ‘The materials are lighter and more contemporary today, because what’s inside the bag is also very different. There are a lot more devices than just cameras that have to be catered for.’ And full device systems travel bags from many makers suggests photo retailers can further leverage their business by offering broader travel solutions in their bag ranges.

At multi-category Vanguard, celebrating its 30th anniversary, a key feature was the expansion of traditional shoulder, backpack and rolling products in the new Alta Rise bag line and Alta Action Tripod bag series. The well-thought-through series of three tripod bags work in harmony with the backpack or Rolling series.

Sometimes it’s just not practical to attach the tripod directly to straps on the bag. More protection is needed. Over at Manfrotto the new Pro Light 3N1 Backpack emphasised the need for more than a sole-function bag. The company went to great pains to reference that its flexible design layout made it equally suitable for pro DSLR’s, video capture such as Canon Cinema EOS devices, 3D imaging or Drone applications.

One noticeable trend: There were far fewer Chinese bag brands in evidence this year. In fact I didn’t find many small vendors in any category around the outer edges of the show. Unlike CES in Las Vegas there were really quite few of the contract manufacturers, suggesting that EU patent and copyright laws have kept out many smaller makers who, in the past, tried to promote their copies of major brands at such shows.

Everywhere tripods were on show, and that was a lot of places, the theme was Travel. Gitzo has for decades been the peak of the mountain. But that has always required big dollars. The products are excellent. But 180-degree folding designs from more recent makers like 3-Legged Thing, Benro, Me-Photo, and established players like Slik and Velbon were a key trend.

Have tripod. Will travel. (Pic: John Swainston).
Have tripod. Will travel. (Pic: John Swainston).

Manfrotto offered solutions in all shapes and sizes as brand leader and took out the TIPA Tripod award with their Stativ 190Go. All makers meet the criteria of now offering something short enough folded to go in a carry-on bag, but with the stability and flexibility that’s needed to cope with multi-use applications for both stills and video. I carried a carbon fibre full-length 3-section tripod to Photokina for an exhibition project. It required me to use a larger case that I checked. My final-night shoot of the amazing Cologne Dom cathedral required exposures of 25 seconds when using ISO 50 at f11. No lens stabilisation system can meet that criterion. I paid thousands of dollars to get to the destination; the tripod was supporting $6000 worth of camera and lens. Retail needs to rethink tripods in this changed market as a value proposition. It’s not about no-name brands and sub-$100 price points and margins. It’s about demonstrating the benefits of travel convenience, safety and the result. For that an investment in a few hundred dollars is a small price for the moment properly captured.

Photo printing
Three major players caught my eye: Epson, Fujifilm and Noritsu. Epson was showing everything from single station inkjet systems right up to high volume systems with 12-inch paper, especially suited to panorama prints from smartphones. We previously reported on the multi-printer Epson systems developments from IPSFinding solid solutions to job queues and workflow is their specialised skill. It’s encouraging to see an Australian company able to be the centre of operational excellence in such a competitive environment.

Fujifilm had a number of dry solutions based around inkjet. But what impressed me was its focus in Europe on the multiple offerings a retailer can now provide combining kiosk, local and specialised remote print. It showed the Fujifilm Instax converter that scans an Instax print and converts it to digital file form. The millennials have really taken to instant print to view and share physically. This Instax reader/scanner seems to turn the value of print on its head. It enables the recipient to share that instant print in social media, enabling posting to a wider audience. More broadly Fujifilm were a standout exhibitor for all the ideas of framed storytelling via Instax print, different ways to display the products and even scanned photo books with text describing the scanned Instax prints.

qss-3801Noritsu had a new high-performance 640dpi traditional silver halide output printer, QSS-3801G capable of 1480 6×4 prints/hour. Taking roughly 1.5M square metres of space, it’s capable of high volumes and suits those who are servicing the growing film volumes once again emerging in some markets. The image quality of samples was superb.

The two new Noritsu QSS Smart DR 8 and DR 12 (8- and 12-inch) paper printers, combined with some new workflow software for kiosks, and pearlescent papers, all combine to suggest that retailers beyond traditional photo shops (newsagents in areas without photo stores, pharmacists, instant print service providers, event photographers and the like) – will have a really good opportunity to engage with those seeking print services for their panorama phone images, as well as output for conventional photographs.

It was interesting that CEWE and Noritsu both claimed that the NFC capabilities of Android phones had not proved a viable technology in European photofinishing. There were numerous makers with remote Bluetooth connections, next-gen selfie-sticks (that were hard to find this time through – two years ago, dozens on show).

The hand-held gimbal which comes in the GoPro Karma drone package.
The hand-held gimbal which comes in the GoPro Karma drone package.

There were two devices that stood out. GoPro’s hand gimbal, derived from its Karma drone, makes for the smoothest walking video experience on a smart phone one can imagine. It’s nothing short of excellent. The hand goes exactly where it needs to and it gives extraordinary stability and smoothness in operation.

Every tripod maker had some kind of selfie-stick, Bluetooth control and the like. Joby had a POV device which was both a hand grip, a stand for your phone on a desk for viewing and had two more modes. No stabilising, but a much better picture-taking experience. Shoulderpod’s Spanish ‘creator and co-architect’, Ana Maria Vicens showed a phenomenally well-styled system approach. You add the bits you want, and it starts at €29, to €129, depending on what you want. It includes lighting mounts, mic holders and more. It’s styling is based on screw-in wooden grip barrels. Different! It takes more than just technology to make a viable product. Design and user experience are still vitally important.

There were a number of drone makers exhibiting in the special Drone Hall (‘Das Buzzenhalle’?), complete with secure netting. Interestingly only DJI and GoPro showed working drones, the rest were static with impressive pre-recorded video footage. If you wanted to you could go to the Demo site and see how easy the DJI Phantom experience was, with the proximity sensors in the Series 4 design avoiding the obstacle course, while also showing how major directional movements did not upset the fluidity of motion 4K video.

Regulations in Australia are now clearer and both working pros and serious amateurs will be embracing this technology for both business and hobbies. It’s an eco-system, it’s not a box. Gain knowledge and expertise and it’s a viable business with a huge consumable long tail (props and batteries and new cases/bags. Not to mention spare parts!) Try to just sell it as a box and it will be a low margin, non-performing category. Click and Collect will work, so long as you merchandise the accessories and have in-store staff who speak ‘Drone’.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
Photokina offered a two-day Digility Conference 2016 on the Thursday and Friday, with leading speakers from the category. In many cases these companies and individuals were unknown to this writer. Attendance was modest, but it signals that Photokina is embracing the transition from fixed images and 2-D Video to the virtual world that carries across to gaming.

Jim Malcolm, VUZE. (We interviewed Jim as executive director, The Imaging Alliance, back in August.
Jim Malcolm, Vuze – pic by John Swainston. (We interviewed Jim as executive director, The Imaging Alliance, back in August.)

One of the most interesting new stands showed the VUZE VR Kit, using HumanEyes technology. Jim Malcolm, GM for North America and newly arrived at Vuze, but formerly one of the founders of the Ricoh Theta program, demonstrated the system which includes a 3D camera with 8 lenses, software for your computer, a tripod stand and VR Headset for viewing. It provides spherical video resolution at 4K and 30fps motion. You can live preview, you can manage footage on the camera and when viewed it gives you a 100 degree view. It reminded me of the old ViewMaster 3D experience, and was pixelated and with some flare during head movement. But it really did impress and was very immersive.

I viewed an augmented reality flight experience, as well, which responded to head tilts for directional control. It’s early days but this has huge possibilities, for content creators, gamers and event photographers. Nikon’s three KeyMission offerings have a much more finished appearance and speak, as does the Ricoh Theta, to a shared world of ‘ultra view’, that works superbly with social media in a virtual Facebook plug-in. Both approaches will find different markets. A wedding photographer would be well advised to wear Nikon’s KeyMission 360 device and live stream it. It’s a game changer if you choose it to be. As before, it’s all about content.
– John Swainston,
Köln, September 2016 




  1. Tony Quigley Tony Quigley September 28, 2016

    Some very interesting observations in there pertaining to an industry that technologically is almost unrecognisable from what it was a mere fifteen to twenty years ago. However the central message is that to survive and succeed you must stay relevant to the needs of the customer in this disruptive smart-phone world.
    A well written account John and I look forward to reading your three interviews. Although long retired from the business it is nice to keep with what’s happening from someone truly informed. Thank you.

  2. HarveyG HarveyG September 28, 2016

    Thank-you John, for a very comprehensive report. Like TQ I am retired from the industry which was such a major part of my life but I still eagerly await my weekly Photo Counter newsletter. It’s good to read that many industry players have moved forward with the trends and are continuing to recognize the need for product and service development relevant to the market.

  3. PG PG October 5, 2016

    Interesting seeing the Olympus display, with my daughter a few weeks ago we started looking for a bag to suit a Pen F with a 12-40 lens. We had tried in Oz but no luck, in Kyoto and Tokyo we searched the two big chains until shop 7 came up with a Golla bag that worked. Olympus had nothing, couldn’t even find a body case to suit. I would have thought that LowePro may have had something? In three weeks did not see a photo lab!!

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