While the Digital Imaging Revolution is having various effects on a variety of sectors within the Imaging Industry, the next most promising change will very likely be the Photo Finishing Revolution.
Digital Photography is already moving full steam ahead, coming up with cheaper and cheaper digital cameras to fill the demand of the ever-growing consumer market. So the next logical industry to join the digital bandwagon is most likely to be the supporting photo finishing industry.
But the problem is that major players in this field like Fuji, Konica and Noritsu have already invested a lot of time and money into the design and manufacture of the existing optical/chemical minilabs. And so, rather than reinventing the wheel, they took a short cut by modifying the time-proven optical/chemical mechanism to take in the new digital medium of image storage.
While the mechanical and chemical parts of the new breed of minilabs are basically unaltered, printing stage is totally replaced with a laser exposure unit. The concept is pretty simple. In the traditional optical/chemical minilabs, the image from the negative is projected to the photosensitive paper, thus exposing it. The exposed photosensitive paper then undergoes chemical developing, which fixes the image permanently onto the paper. In the laser/chemical minilabs, information from the digital image is sent to the laser print head, which then “draws” the image onto the photosensitive paper with the lasers, thus exposing it. This laser unit consist of three lasers, red, green and blue, which are the primary colours that make up the entire spectrum of visible light. The result is an image similar to the conventional photo paper.
By maintaining the chemical and mechanical parts, the manufacturers save a lot of money by not having to redesign a whole new printing method just to cater for a new branch of the existing market, which during that time of its design, was still considered very small. So they can sell new minilabs with relatively old technology, and still make a lot of money doing it.
While the general public thinks that this is the only method of printing the digital images that they have been accumulating in their memory cards all along, this is far from the truth. There are at least three other methods of digital image output. Sadly, the photo finishing big players actively promote none of them, so we can hardly blame the general public for not knowing that they have other options to output their images on paper.
The three other image-printing technologies currently available are thermal (dye-sub), laser (toner) and ink-jet.
For the thermal technology (dye-sub), the image printing method is similar to that of a fax machine. Instead of using only black, the image is formed using three separate colours. Unlike the fax machine, the image is formed by selectively heating a transfer film, not directly on the medium (photo paper). Once the image formation is complete, the image transfer film is then pressed against the medium to transfer the image via heat, pressure, or both. The advantage of this method of printing is that the printer itself can be made very small, thus making the printer highly portable. The newer models coming off the shelves are battery-powered, thus making it even more mobile.
The laser (toner) technology is a direct descendant of the colour laser printer. In fact, it can be said that the laser photo printer is nothing more than a regular colour laser printer that has undergone slight tweaking to improve the colour tone-ability output to that of photographic quality. Currently, there is no commercially available laser photo printer in the market. And even if we were to adapt the “office variety” of colour laser printer for photographic use, there still is the problem of the medium on which to print.
The advantage of the laser (toner) print is that it can be printed on virtually any medium. In fact, it was actually designed right from the very beginning to print on plain paper. The disadvantage is also the fact that it was designed to print on plain paper. The rollers and drum in the printer have a limit on the thickness and stiffness of the medium on which to print on. The general rule of thumb is that it can print only up to 160gsm paper. Anything above that will stress the rollers and drum (read – shorter lifespan). So this means that there will be no purpose-designed laser (toner) photo printer in the near future. But while there isn’t a commercially available laser photo printer in the market today, this doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t suitable for future development.
The third, and currently also the last, of the “non-conventional” photo printer is the ink-jet technology. This technology is also the most matured in the photo printing market of the three discussed. While the ink-jet photo printing has been around since the dawn of digital photography about a decade ago, it wasn’t until the last few years that it actually took off. Currently, ink-jet photo printers range from the humble desktop A4 size right up to seven feet across, printing on roll medium.
Quality-wise, it can match the images that are produced via the conventional optical/chemical photo print, and surpassing the laser/chemical print by a wide margin. The only drawback for this otherwise fine technology is that the printing speed just can’t match the chemical process.
Another interesting issue to note is that the world is currently undergoing pressure from all sides to make sure that all industries are environmentally friendly. And the first thing to go in the photo finishing industry will be the disposal of waste chemicals. It will become more and more expensive to dispose of the waste chemicals legally, thus making the prospect of a conventional chemical development process a less attractive business activity. So it is safe to say that the conventional method of chemical process will be on the way out quite soon. A new breed of the dry-process minilabs will replace the existing chemical process minilab in the near future.
Let’s take a peek to see what the future has in store for us – Back in late 2002, in Cologne Germany, at the Photo Kina exhibition, minilab manufacturer veteran Noritsu Koki joined hands with ink-jet photo printer veteran Epson Seiko to develop what will be the first of the new breed of dry-process minilabs. The introduction of this new concept changed the way people in the photo finishing industry think. This minilab was named Noritsu dDP-411. The difference between the conventional chemical process minilab and the prototype on display there was that images were printed using photo ink-jet technology on non-photosensitive ink-jet photo paper. The biggest advantage of the prototype is that there are no problems of waste disposal… unless you include disposal of the used ink cartridges.
Noritsu designed and built the overall machine, while Epson supplied the ink-jet printing system. Not surprisingly, it is the same printing system that is currently available in its top range of printers, using a seven-colour, pigment ink system. Since this is not a product review of the Noritsu dDP-411, I’ll not go into details about the minilab itself.
By the middle of 2003, the first shipment of these new minilabs went out to their new owners. So it’s safe to say that in a matter of a few years’ time, these new dry-process minilabs will overshadow the sale of the conventional chemical process minilabs. And that’s only the ink-jet technology. What about the other two technologies? What about other newer, yet to be announced technologies? When will the other manufacturers be announcing new minilabs that uses the thermal, laser or other newer printing technology in the near future?