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Creative destruction--through a lens.

Disruptive new technologies are rarely incremental in their impact. They can spin things completely around or even bury them. Ask the employees at Kodak, one of America's legendary companies and the long-time manufacturer and manager of American photography. The 125-year-old institution was tipped over by digital photography--technology that captured images in files rather than on film--and is only just beginning to crawl out from under the remains of its collapse. It will emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year, limiting itself to commercial printing and imagery as well as touch sensor solutions.

Ironically, the first recorded attempt to build a digital camera was in Rochester, N.Y., in 1975 by an Eastman Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson. At that time, Kodak had an almost 90% share of all photographic film sales in the United States. Yet even though the movement from the silver particles of film to digital began in its labs, Kodak stuck with its legacy business model, which was eventually picked up and dropped on its head by digital.

To appreciate just how far digital imaging has carried us from the world of roll film and paper to phones and the cloud, let's revisit 1975, when film was the medium and there were no files--just negatives, slides, and prints.


If you were an amateur photographer in 1975, your camera was likely a 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex) or a rangefinder. Both were heavy enough to require a wide canvas or leather neck strap. The basic difference between the cameras was how you looked through them. With an SLR, you saw through the lens via a tilted mirror, while the rangefinder had a window that provided a parallel view of what the lens saw. The SLR had a focus ring on the lens that could be twisted to make the fuzzy image sharp, or you could line up two separated images into one with the rangefinder.

Film, typically 35mm, was available in color or black-and-white for prints or color slides. You bought it in either 24- or 36-frame rolls. Once loaded, you shot the whole roll before moving onto the next one. The films were available in different speeds, so you had to commit ahead of time to either low-light film that would produce grainier images or the slower, high-resolution films for brighter light or flash situations. Remember those old photographs of professionals with three or more cameras hanging around their necks--each camera probably had film with a different speed.

You could buy a fixed-focus camera with an automatic aperture, but most people chose flexibility by using cameras that had built-in light meters and the choice of shutter speeds for different situations. You would adjust the F-stop (lens opening) and shutter speed before focusing each picture. And even then, you wouldn't know how the photo had come out for days, a week, or more! Or you could develop your own film and print the negatives, which many people did. Even the smallest camera stores carried chemicals and equipment for creating your prints on the same day you shot them. You could outfit a home darkroom with a basic Vivitar, Omega, or Durst enlarger, trays, chemicals, paper, and other supplies for less than $100.

The process involved an interesting reversal. Instead of a camera that registered lighted images it saw through a lens, the darkroom enlarger projected light through the negative and lens onto photographic paper in an easel below. You did this in a darkened room (or closet), with only a small amber-filtered safelight that produced a frequency of light the paper was blind to. Three trays of chemicals sat along-side the enlarger, each with an unpleasant smelling mixture that you prepared from concentrates at very specific temperatures. A timer stood nearby to measure the exposure of the paper to the enlarger's lighted negative, and a magnifier let you focus the grains of the projected image before you put a sheet of paper in the easel below.

Developing black-and-white photos was a step-by-step process. (Color photos were more complex and involved very finicky tolerances.) The first step to developing a black-and-white print was to put the paper in a developer bath. You could watch the image appear on the paper while poking it with rubber-tipped tongs. Then you transferred it to an acetic acid bath. It would only be in there for a few seconds before you transferred it to the fixative tray. It would be in the tray for a few minutes as the fix stopped the development, and then it went into a tub for a half-hour wash in circulating water. The final step was to pin it up on a line to air dry.

This process was pretty complicated, moderately time consuming, and definitely accompanied by a moderate learning curve.


Now consider the camera you reach for these days when the first snow starts falling or one of the kids does something cute. Your phone, right? Do you need to load the right kind of film, check the F-stop, or even focus the thing? No. And the time lag between touching the shutter and seeing the photo? That's about 0.5 seconds. And then sending a copy to the aunts and uncles via e-mail or posting it on Facebook? Two minutes, maybe. And where was the camera when you needed it? In your pocket? Is it any wonder that Kodachrome and the family SLR just couldn't compete in this segment of the market?

Consider the camera on the new iPhone 5s. It's just one of several accessories for the phone, but think about what it can do. The basic lens is a five-element, fast f/2.2, with a protective sapphire crystal lens cover. There's a True Tone flash that adjusts the color temperature to different conditions, and it has both autofocus and tap-to-focus. To get the best shot, you can use a burst mode that takes 10 photos per second, and then you can select the one with best exposure or focus. Actually, the camera will place a dot beneath the one it senses is best, but you have the final choice. There's a panorama mode to take wide angle photos automatically, and much more. It's no surprise that phone cameras like the iPhones are eliminating small-format digital point-and-shoot cameras.

With digital, you can shoot in black-and-white or color with just a tap of a button--or you can do both simultaneously. The color selections are available through processing apps applied later. Framing, captioning, exotic photo effects (like solarization or posterizing), conversion to line drawings, paintings, cartoons, and comic book coloring are available in the app stores for iOS and Android. What once took photo retouchers, graphic artists, and Photoshop jockeys hours is now available with a swipe and a tap. Actually, if you're into doing the work yourself, there's a lightweight version of Adobe PhotoShop Touch for $10 that's designed for smartphone cameras and tablets.

How Kodak missed this juggernaut the first time around is still a mystery, but they're now back and contributing again.

By Michael Castelluccio, Editor
COPYRIGHT 2013 Institute of Management Accountants
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Title Annotation:TECH FORUM; Eastman Kodak Co. company profile
Author:Castelluccio, Michael
Publication:Strategic Finance
Article Type:Company overview
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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