Pro Printer Titans Clash in Vegas

What Is The Future Of Pro Printers?

One of the things I heard at almost every booth I visited at PMA was usually whispered. "People are less and less interested in printed photos. What can we do to encourage pro photographers and their customers to demand photographic prints?"

A wide range of vendors at PMA had answers. These ranged from "put photos in my junk jewelry" to "print on unusual media such as sheet plastic for shower curtains, tempered glass for cutting boards and flat rubber blanks for welcome mats" to "sell customers RIPed photo books of special events."

Pro printer makers featured displays of beautiful pro quality images on a variety of media from glossy to satin to matte paper to canvas. Some of the prints on canvas were of painted masterworks. The canvas surface combined with the ability of digital cameras and scanners to capture brushstrokes in fine detail created a kind of surreal real imagery that in the end was quite pleasing in itself. But no one is going to get rich and buy lots of printers making these kinds of prints.

From what I could tell, the demand for pro printers comes from wedding, event, portrait and environmental (mostly architectural) photographers. Each of these produces images that someone wants to hang up somewhere or keep forever in a nicely bound book. In addition, it appears that the amateur, special event photo book market continues to thrive. This market is based mostly on people uploading their images by way of the Internet to a commercial site. Then the customer lays out their images, page-by-page, in RIP-like fashion. Once layouts are completed, the customer pays for the book and it's printed and mailed to out. In the next section, I'll talk a bit about a massive and impressive system HP has built to allow large photo book businesses to produce amateur photo books as well as books for the professional photographic market.

While all of the above was in full bloom at PMA, the trade show also featured products designed to replace printed images. Digital picture frames were all the rage. My favorite was Kodak's new frames that produce very good color on relatively high res displays, can show movies as well as photos and can accept input through their built in WiFi links. Another digital "picture frame" that caught my eye was a small keychain device that held tens of images and displayed them in a slide show at the push of a button.

In addition to picture frames, I saw software packages from the likes of Corel and Nero designed to turn photos into compelling slide shows with great transitions that are synced with MP3 musical selections. These packages also produce DVDs so the images (some can handle high def images) can be viewed on a TV set. Also in evidence were memory card readers that can connect to a TV and display digital photos, as well as those network based image and sound streaming devices that seem to be everywhere today.

On one side, I heard arguments supporting producing traditional printed images from digital sources. On the other side, advocates lobbied for presenting digital images using non-traditional, non-printed methods. While I love digital presentation, including right on the LCD of a digital camera, I don't think printed images are going to disappear all that soon. Unlike the film vs. digital controversy where most people have chosen their favored weapon, print vs. direct digital is a battle still taking place on a field where both sides are fairly strong and can make a compelling case for their favored technologies.