No longer just a novelty, digital cameras have moved beyond their backwater niche into the mainstream business world. Companies both large and small, across all industry sectors, are using digital imaging to improve business processes, record inventory and create online marketing materials.
"[Digital cameras are for] anyone who needs an image for business purposes. It could be for a Web site, it could be for presentations, e-mailing images or documentation for insurance or smash repair," said Nick Buchner, marketing manager for Olympus distributor R. Gunz (Photographic).
For business the biggest bonus with digital cameras is the speed and convenience compared to conventional photo processing.
Stuart Poignand, marketing manager for the photo and video division of Canon Australia, is enthusiastic about the potential business applications of digital cameras. "The convenience of digital cameras allows them to digitally record a wide range of business activities, such as trade shows, new products, and business trips," said Poignand.
"They enhance communications by enabling Web sites to be easily updated, and add immediacy and colour to presentations. The cameras also boost staff communications, for example by recording a company's events, and enabling images to be downloaded and e-mailed to staff almost instantly.
"There's no time wasted for traditional film development. Product-based industries, such as real estate and automobiles, could also use digital cameras and post the images on the Internet."
David Finn, managing director of Kyocera, believes you can use a digital camera for any situation where you'd normally use a conventional camera.
"It depends on each individual's application, for example in New Zealand a chain of jewellery stores uses them to photograph pieces for insurance evaluations," Finn explained.
"It's easy and quick - you can take the photo and download immediately rather than take the photo, print and then scan. It can't make a cup of tea, but anything you'd use a camera for, you can use a digital camera for," Finn said.
In business, where time is money, the investment in digital photography can more than repay itself, according to Buchner at Gunz.
"The main advantage is time and convenience. You can snap a digital image and apply it to an application almost instantaneously. I had to do a presentation recently and 10 minutes before I didn't have an image of the product. I set it up, photographed it and downloaded it almost immediately. Try doing that with film and scanners," Buchner said.
"In business time is the major issue. The flexibility is there. Polaroids used to be used for industrial purposes, and I think digital is a fairly convincing replacement."
According to Canon's Poignand, the new breed of digital cameras enjoys several advantages over scanners.
"They are often the first and last step in the digital image recording process," Poignand said. "Whereas a scanner has to digitise an image that is taken with some other means, the digital camera is the original creator of that image.
"It is, therefore, faster and does away with the costs of film purchase, processing and scanning time. Admittedly, digital cameras cost more than low-cost scanners, but they offer more options and functionality than a scanner," Poignand said.
But there are times when traditional photography and a scanner are preferable and most camera makers agree film is still best for glossy print work.
Rychard Borysiewicz, national product manager computing and digital imaging for Ted's Camera Stores, said customers often need to be educated about what a digital camera can and cannot do.
"We find people are often confused about the output quality, because they're used to the 35mm camera," said Borysiewicz. "The biggest advantage is speed. That's why people go for a [digital] camera not a scanner. But if there's a quality issue they would go for the scanner, and we do sell a lot of scanners. A $14 throwaway will still give better results than a $3000 digital camera."
Borysiewicz said a great number of real estate agencies bought digital cameras when they first came on the market, but were forced back to traditional photography because their clients demanded better quality.
Kodak's Australia New Zealand regional manager, Julian Pinfold, is wary of the comparison.
"It would be a mistake to square off digital cameras against cameras and scanners. Any good small office needs both because they do different things."
So what should customers look for when buying a digital camera? Manufacturers say the shopping list should include a reputable brand name, a good warranty, rechargeable batteries, good memory, good download facilities, comfortable design, handling and usability and clear print output. "Check how it fits in your hand - it sounds simple, but it makes a huge difference. Ours are ergonomically designed," advised Kyocera's Finn.
Canon's Poignand warns against relying on pixel level as a sole indicator of picture quality.
"The camera's main function is to take photo-graphs, so customers should look at the image quality they will receive and its suitability for their application," Poignand said. "It is important to realise that the number of pixels only contributes to the final image quality and should never be the determining purchasing factor.
"Other factors include lens quality, the core quality and sensitivity of the image sensor (CCD), the quality and bit depth of digital signal processing algorithms and the amount of compression applied to the stored image."
Gunz's Buchner advises that flexibility is key.
"Don't limit yourself to the application you have today," Buchner said. "You might want small images for a Web site now but you might want high-quality images for a brochure later. You need to think through the uses in the short to medium term and not limit yourself.
"And if you need printed output then you should actually see the printed output, rather than just viewing the image on screen. That's where Olympus stakes its flag," Buchner said.
The quality of digital cameras has improved dramatically since hitting the market two to three years ago.
Borysiewicz from Ted's Camera Stores said resolution has been the main factor to advance consistently.
"Resolution has improved," said Borysiewicz. "Digitals are now starting to be more like a camera. When they first came out, they were point-and-shoot devices purely for the Internet. Now manufacturers are dropping that low range. There are now more manual features. Functionality is the biggest bonus, apart from physical pixel size."
Gunz's Buchner said the evolution of digital cameras has been following Moore's Law, where prices come down, and quality goes up.
"The value has increased dramatically," he said.
"You continuously get more camera for less money. In the early days of digital cameras some companies did dumb things and told people to throw their old cameras away.
"But they were pretty crappy cameras and they didn't really live up to the promise. They've come a long way since then and people who were disappointed then would be surprised by the features. I urge people who had bad experiences with digital cameras to try again," Buchner said.
Borysiewicz predicts that digital photography will continue to change.
"The technology will change and improve," Borysiewicz said. "With the older [photographic] industry not much changes because it's based in physics and it's hard to remanufacture physics. With digitials it's all completely new, so a 10-year-old could wake up tomorrow and invent something new. Certainly it will get better and cheaper."
Kodak's Pinfold believes digital and hybrid technology will become increasingly ubiquitous.
"There will be more and more hybrid technology in photo finishing and labs will accept digital input and print," Pinfold said.
"It's irrelevant to a consumer what technology produced the image. Down the track digital cameras will be as much of a no-brainer as normal cameras are.
"In the future they will be so user-friendly you won't need to get involved with a computer at all, whereas scanners will always be a computer peripheral," Pinfold said.
As the quality improves and the costs decrease, digital photography will become commonplace in business and start penetrating the consumer market.
Gunz's Buchner says business is the major market for digital cameras at the moment.
"[Organisations of] all sizes from small to big," Buchner said. "Small organisations may do more themselves, but bigger organisations are used to farming out to a graphic artist. It's analogous to desktop publishing.
"Documenting runs right through all industries - for example an airline might want to photograph a defective engine.
"We see our market at the moment as very much on the business side, but digital is becoming more accessible to home consumers. It's evolving to the point where it's easy to get good quality prints, but it still needs to come down in price," Buchner said.
Kodak's Pinfold said about two thirds of digital cameras were business justified', if not strictly for business purposes.
"In our part of the world, it's mostly business. Between 60 and 70 per cent is business-justified," Pinfold said. "That's going to change because of price horizons. We're starting to see megapixel cameras retailing at about $499. That's the beginning of that horizon, and in the next 18 months it will move into the true mass market."
Canon's Poignand says it can be difficult to know what type of customer purchases a digital camera, but business is an important market.
"Anecdotal evidence suggests that, due to the increased digitisation of the multimedia age, increasing numbers of businesses are at least considering buying a digital camera.
"We always get many enquiries from businesses after the release of a new camera."
Based on the US figures, Poignand is confident the opportunities for growth are "enormous".
"A recent report showed that digital camera sales in the US soared last year, with sales of digital cameras eclipsing $US1 billion.
"The 1.8 million units sold in 1999 represented a 63 per cent increase in sales. We are now starting to see this upturn here in Australia, where the growth of the Internet and digital imaging is driving the demand for digital cameras."
Gunz's Buchner said there is huge potential for resellers to compete with camera shops for a slice of the action.
"The opportunity for resellers is to offer another product category to the customer. Resellers can make a good business out of it by being able to provide complete solutions and value adding. They can meet the imaging requirements of the customers and make a fair margin on the product."
Kodak's Pinfold added that the opportunities are set to explode as the digital camera market takes off.
"It's a growing market about to go into mass market hyper-drive," Pinfold said.
"It's not inconceivable that we'll have a digital camera in every home. There are specific opportunities because of the Internet. As they become less dependent on computer and printer and get more and more options, more and more people are going to want one."
Canon's Poignand points to a market for resellers to sell associated and follow-up products.
"The growing interest in digital cameras from consumers and businesses offers numerous opportunities for resellers. The camera can be sold as a vital component of the entire digital product spectrum, including PC, printer, and scanner. There are also follow-on opportunities for advanced image manipulation software and increased storage options for both the camera and computer.
Poignand continued: "Resellers can add value to the sale through product demonstrations and advice. Furthermore, being a high-tech item that is linked to the computer business and one that is offering continuous improvements in performance, there is always a clear upgrade path for consumers.
This provides for further revenue growth." According to camera manufacturers, all types of reseller are suitable to sell digital cameras.
"[A suitable reseller would be] one that is comfortable selling the range of imaging products currently on the market, particularly printers and scanners," Poignand said.
"But, because digital cameras are easy to use, a broad range of resellers can sell these products, particularly those who specialise in photography.
"The trick is bridging the gap between image-making technique and the camera's interface with computers," Poignand said.
Gunz's Buchner said retailers have the advantage of a physical shopfront where customers can look, touch and try, but other resellers such as integrators can find a market for digital cameras if it helps meet their customers' requirements.
As a retailer, Borysiewicz is often asked to help corporate customers decide whether or not to invest in digital photography.
"A brewer with quite a large budget came in looking at digital. But for what the company wanted to do, the quality wasn't there, so it chose a scanner," recalled Borysiewicz.
"Another time a car manufacturer came in wanting to record production processes for communication between branches, so digital was perfect."
For some customers a digital camera is the perfect solution, but for others it could be a costly mistake.
As with any sales business, the key to success is to listen to your customer and identify their needs.