Reflections in a Yellow Box: The Inevitable Fall of Kodak

Kodak’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy has inspired a swarm of commentators to blame the company’s management for failing to catch the digital wave, leading to a long decline and possible demise. Kodak’s management was indeed uninspired. But even with perfect hindsight, it’s hard to see what even brilliant managers could have done to reverse the course of history.

Kodak did not fail to see the digital revolution. It was an early pioneer in the development of the electronic light sensors at the heart of digital cameras. It was a pioneer in displays, inventing the organic LED. It knew many years ago that digital would replace film. But it is entirely possible to see the future and still not be able to do much about it.

Kodak’s fundamental problem was that its business was not photography, but the manufacture and processing of  film and photographic paper. After the Brownie years, it was not very big force in cameras and was never a serious player in professional equipment.

Furthermore, the economics of digital photography are radically different from film. A 32 gigabyte memory card costs less  than buying, developing, and printing two rolls of color negative film; it holds thousands of pictures and can be reused many, many times. Kodak’s business was built around the recurring revenue of film purchases, and there is nothing like that in the digital world.

It’s easy for critics to say that when the digital revolution began, Kodak should have moved swiftly to get out of film and into the new technology. But film wasn’t easily gotten out of. The film and paper businesses were immensely profitable. Even more significant, Kodak had a vast capital investment in manufacturing. In fact, for years a popular, if grim, form of entertainment in Kodak’s home of Rochester, N.Y., was watching the company blow up former Kodak Park film manufacturing buildings that it no longer had a use for. The inability to shed its vast investment in film manufacturing and processing probably made an eventual bankruptcy inevitable, and perhaps the most serious criticism of Kodak management is not facing the music sooner.

The biggest players in digital photography never were burdened with this sort of legacy. Nikon, Canon, and Olympus are optics specialists, and optics are optics, whether for digital cameras or film. Panasonic and Sony, of course, are huge diversified consumer electronics companies. Only the much smaller Fujifilm has its roots in the film business.

I hope Kodak can emerge from bankruptcy as a  viable business, stripped of its costly legacies. There’s still a business for film as a specialty product and people are still printing pictures, albeit in nowhere near the number they once did. But it will be a much smaller company.


The Sony NEX-C3 is an Amazing Camera

I recently attended Sony’s annual analyst day where they gave us their new NEX-C3 digital camera. The NEX-C3 fits into a category that the industry is calling mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras.

The only real difference between these cameras and DSLR’s are mirrors and a view finder. I was a big DSLR fan but I am now converted to the mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras.

I am more of a hobby photographer than a serious one but I can appreciate innovation in this category. I have owned many different types of cameras but I have to say this Sony NEX-C3 is the most amazing. Sony offers it at a competitive DSLR price of $599 including the 18-55 lens.

There are two features I want to highlight. One is more general and the other is unique to Sony and truly sets this camera apart from the pack.

Real Time Image Post Processing
One of the things I appreciate about using my smart phone as a camera is all the apps that allow for creative on the fly image post processing. I am capable of doing many of the same effects in Photoshop however I am to lazy to do it as often as i’d like.

The Sony NEX-C3 brings a number of on the fly image effect options. Because these cameras don’t have view finders you have to look through, you can see all your image effects in real time with the LCD screen. This way you can make sure you get the shot you want.

This is a feature a number of these cameras, point an shoots and now even DSLR’s are packing but Sony has created a very elegant and simple UI to access and use these on the fly effects.

Here are a few examples of the on the fly effects I thought were extremely useful.

Color Pop

Isolate R,G,B Or Yellow

Auto Panarama

The XMOR Advantage
One thing I learned that I found interesting was that megapixels are becoming less important in this category and instead the focus has turned to the image sensor.

The trend going forward is to pack the largest image sensor into the smallest package. Sony with this camera using their EXMOR image sensor has the lead in this race.

Although that is interesting, what is more interesting and in my opinion amazing is what a quality image sensor will get you. The sensor in the NEX-C3 is 13 times the area of the typical image sensor which results in delivering an exceptional combination of high resolution, high sensitivity and gorgeous, blurred backgrounds. Most other cameras in this category use a micro 4/3rds sensor and Sony’s is a bit larger.

Besides image quality the biggest thing you get is superior pictures in low light situations.

Capturing a quality image in low light, like dimly lit rooms or at night is notoriously difficult. It is something typically reserved for the pro’s.

This single experience of being able to use this camera to take amazing pictures in low light – without a flash or a tripod – is what blows me away.

Besides the EXMOR image sensor, Sony has also added some key software to help capture low light images.

The one in particular – that I am going to use like crazy – is a setting in the camera’s “Scene Mode” menu called Hand-Held Twilight Mode. This setting exists solely to take photos at night without a tripod.

What this setting does is take a burst of 6 images very quickly. The camera then blends all 6 images together to produce amazing photos at night without the need of a tripod. Below are a few examples all taken with no tripod.

Camera technology has come a long way. As I stated at the beginning these mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras have made a DSLR convert out of me.

The real question is when will this kind of image sensor technology be available in smart phones? As much as I like this camera i’d love to have many of the features in my smart phone.

This is an interesting category to watch. These cameras still pack a great deal more technology than a smart phone can and because of the size they pack a lot of technology in a very small package.