Whatever Happened to Photo CD?

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For several years I took the message of Photo CD to photo labs and creative professionals in 16 countries for Eastman Kodak Company, as a consultant and trainer. My message was that Kodak's scanning system -- comprising a Sun Sparc minicomputer, a CD writer, and a Kodak-manufactured scanner -- was a great way for photographers to build archives of scanned images, and for publishing professionals to access those images and make them ready for print.

I spread that message not just because it was part of my job (I did get paid to do it, after all), but also because I believed then and now in Kodak's Photo CD product -- it's an excellent method for getting images from film to digital format easily and inexpensively, with consistent quality and almost infinite usability.

The trouble is, not everyone agreed with me, and today hardly anyone talks about Photo CD. That's a pity.

What It Is
The Photo CD is a CD-ROM with special encoding, making the discs proprietary in format but readable on Macintosh, Windows, and Unix systems. One can criticize Kodak for choosing to take the proprietary route, but that approach also made it possible for the company to maintain a control over the format that has kept it from being corrupted by modification and hijacked by other firms.

From the date of its invention to the present, the Kodak Photo CD remains an archival disc containing images in five or six resolutions, which are accessible by hundreds of applications across all platforms.

There are more than 140 Photo CD producers in the United States, and about as many more around the world. The companies that have the Photo CD system are primarily photo processing labs -- and that's the first mistake Kodak may have made in selling the technology in the first place.

Scan This
I say "may have made" because I am not sure it was a mistake. Kodak's logic was sound and has proved wise over the years. Kodak figured that scanning at the source was a good idea, and sent its very effective sales force out to sell the Photo CD Imaging Workstation (dubbed PIW) to the companies that had already bought Kodak photographic processing equipment and materials. These potential customers were the companies processing the film, and they had the best opportunity to introduce digital images early in the process.

The graphic arts market -- unaccustomed to buying services from photo processing labs -- thought this was inappropriate, and in many cases saw it as a threat to its traditional role of being the source for scanned images. Back in 1993, Kodak was really rocking the boat!

The single greatest reason for this boat rocking was the price of making a Photo CD scan. Even in its early days, a single Photo CD image was priced at about $3, whereas the graphics arts industry's suppliers often charged 100 times as much. The threat to traditional scanning was stupefying, and concerned parties in the graphic arts industry did their best to denigrate the Photo CD and the photographic labs that were fast becoming their competitors.

Ironically, Photo CD ultimately wasn't the real competition. The graphics arts industry was on a collision course with the desktop publishing revolution, and scanning was well on its way to becoming a cottage industry anyway. Kodak's system was just one of many chinks in the armor of conventional scanning.

Beating the Drum
There were and still are many detractors of Photo CD scans. I can list dozens of often-legitimate concerns about Photo CD image quality, and I am certainly baiting the letter-writers by even writing this story. But, hear me out.

With imaging sources moving away from drum scanners with their decades-old vacuum tube technology, Photo CD was a bellwether technology, showing the way into the future of scanning. Today the number of drum scanners is dwindling, and only a few manufacturers remain in that segment of the industry. Excellent CCD (charge-coupled device) chips and the flatbed scanners that use them have largely taken the place of the drum scanners of the 1980s and earlier.

And, like all of our imaging technologies, Kodak improved the Photo CD system several times. This caused the quality of Photo CD scans to improve dramatically, though it also prompted owners of the systems to cry out that Kodak was extorting them out of huge sums to upgrade their systems. The unpleasant reality was that the original Photo CD system was probably something like "Version 0.9." The company went to market with a nearly complete system and then improved it over time, at significant expense to the system owners. I remember an $11,000 upgrade to the system that finally brought it to the point of being as good as the original claims made by Kodak -- thanks largely to a faster processing unit and a larger, 17-inch monitor.

What Kodak did right with Photo CD was to make a consistent scanning technology of commercial quality that can deliver a large number of scans in a shift, and at a price that is quite affordable to the consumer of digital images. Today a Photo CD scan from 35mm film costs about $1 per image, and making a disc takes less than 24 hours at most labs without rush charges.

Another thing Kodak did right was work with key players such as Adobe Systems to ensure there was a path to get images from the proprietary Photo CD to the consumer's computer screen. Adobe Photoshop 2.0 introduced plug-ins for Photo CD, and the plug-ins have improved with every Photoshop version. I would estimate that more than 200 software applications have included support for Photo CD images since invention of the technology.

Missed Opportunities
What the folks at Kodak did wrong was keep the Photo CD Image Pac format out of the hands of image writers. I understand perfectly why they did this, but I still disagree with their reasoning. If the Image Pac had become a publicly available format and we had been allowed to encode images in this format, then the format would be a dominant one today. Instead, it's one of the many also-ran image formats supported by Photoshop and other applications.

The other major blunder Kodak made was to stop making the Photo CD system. The company might argue that it didn't stop making it, but simply stopped bundling it as a complete workstation. This is true, but by unbundling it, they also took the momentum away from the Photo CD workstation and made it difficult for the companies that bought the original systems to buy new ones to supplement their existing systems.

This was a blunder because the Photo CD system has been an overwhelming success, to its buyers if not Kodak itself. The companies that own PIW systems make so many Photo CD discs that they are bursting at the seams. Sales of blank Photo CD discs -- and Kodak is the only manufacturer of these (some say) overpriced blank discs -- have grown tremendously in the years since 1992 -- by 30 percent per year according to one Kodak source.

I know that some of the labs that have these systems could use more to keep up with demand, and have moved to scanning around the clock to compensate for the demand. I buy at least one Photo CD disc every month, and continue to rely on these discs for use as a source of digital images. Why? It's simple:

  • Photo CD images are inexpensive. I pay $1 to $2 per image, depending on the job and my needs.
  • The product delivers excellent image quality.
  • Photo CD images are easy to archive and find. I can locate any image on my 100 or so archive discs in a matter of minutes. I certainly cannot find my original film in as little time.
  • Each Photo CD images come in five resolutions (six if you buy the more expensive Pro scans). I have my choice of teensy weensy to really large, and all are contained on a single disc.
  • Photo CD images are consistent, and rigorously straight and square. The system forces the film to be perfectly aligned as it makes each scan. They have the same starting point every time, and they are frame-accurate.

Special Attention
If I have a single image that requires more personal attention, I can always get out the original film and scan it on my Nikon or Heidelberg scanner. I have this technology so that I can concentrate on the difficult images, or those requiring more than a Photo CD can deliver.

And there we have another point: How much can Photo CD deliver? The low-cost Photo CD Master discs have 18MB images on them, and there is another, better Photo CD disc: Called the Pro Photo CD, it contains images scanned on a high-resolution scanner at a higher price. I estimate a national average of about $10 per Pro scan. The Pro scanner, also known as the 4050 or 4055, can scan film up to 4x5 inches in size, and it makes a 72MB file of each image (96 MB when converted to CMYK). This is more than adequate for most graphic arts applications, and the quality is markedly better than the 35mm Photo CD scanner.

My wife, Ashala, is a graphic designer who produces an impressive volume of publications and commercial printing. One of her annual projects is the Visitor's Guide for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. In the 2000 edition of that publication, a majority of the images come from Photo CD discs produced by our favorite lab in San Francisco. Originally designated as the source for position-only images for the guide, the Photo CD disc became the source for the final scans when a Photo CD image won an informal shoot-out with a Crosfield drum scanner. I have seen such direct comparisons before, and I can tell you that the Crosfield is a more capable scanner under most circumstances. In this case, however, the image from the Photo CD system was chosen by the photographer (known to be a discriminating critic) over the more expensive drum scanning process. It might have gone the other way, but it didn't. And the images from the Pro Photo CD cost only $9 apiece, compared to more than $50 each for scans from the drum scanner.

Moving On
So, what happened to Photo CD? Why is it not the dominant scanning process today?

It's alive and well at more than 140 U.S. photo labs, and Kodak is reaping the rewards of having invented a terrific technology back in 1992 by selling more and more blank discs, though not more systems.

Kodak joined up with Microsoft and Live Picture a few years back to introduce a newer, consumer-oriented file format called FlashPix for writable CDs. Though it has some nice qualities, it failed to catch on in a big way because it left the commercial component out of the picture. There was no strong effort to make FlashPix useful to the creative professional or the serious professional photographer. And I am one who believes that the creative professional drives these trends. Without acceptance from this market, FlashPix was doomed.

The latest effort by Kodak to make a photo disc format is Picture CD, a new, consumer-oriented image disc created in cahoots with Intel. It's possible with Picture CD, as with Photo CD, to take your film to a processing lab and get back photo prints and a CD. What isn't possible is for the Picture CD to match the quality and diversity of the original Photo CD Image Pac. FlashPix couldn't do it, and Picture CD probably won't either, because both are formats aimed at consumers, who typically don't care about the finer points of image quality.

Also, Picture CD is Wintel-centric in at least one respect. It uses JPEG images, which can be viewed on nearly any system, but the viewer and Web software provided on the disc run only under Windows. Creative Professionals are not lining up to use this new format, and it's possible that Intel and Kodak knew this would be the case going in. Maybe that's okay with them for this format.

Special Delivery
I know I will continue to use Photo CD as a scanning technology. I profit from its many features, and enjoy the ability to use these images for almost any application. The scanner snob in me has access to a pair of very fine scanners for those images that need more attention. But for the majority of images, I send my unprocessed film to the lab, I receive a shiny new Photo CD by Federal Express a few days later, and I am always pleased with the results.

Maybe you should give it a try, too.

Read more by Brian Lawler.

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