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Building up a clearer picture

Merlin John is bowled over by Japan on an Epson press trip to see where the future of photography is heading.

If you haven't already done so, get ready to bury your 35mm film camera. Its death knells get louder by the day. Instead of paying to process 36 pictures, many of which you will trash, now you can edit your photos in your camera so that you only end up with the good ones. No need for rolls of film, and you can print the pictures you really want on your home PC, in the high street or via the Internet. Processing and printing costs are slashed at a stroke.

Japanese technology company Epson is leading a concerted assault on all the reasons that have so far stopped you crossing the digital photography divide. But first I have to declare an interest - although a fascination would be a more accurate description. The interest to be declared is that last month Epson UK organised a trip to the Seiko Epson Corporation, a $10 billion company renowned for timing, accuracy and miniaturisation, in Japan for a group of 26 UK technology journalists.

The fascination? Well it's not the result of any inducements - although Japanese hospitality is unforgettable. No, the fascination is with a culture of such ingenuity and classy engineering to change our everyday habits. The Sony Walkman was just the start.

Epson wants control of all aspects of imaging - input by scanners and digital cameras; and output by a wide range of inkjet and laser printers, proofers and projectors. By controlling printer head, inks and paper, it now guarantees the "lightfastness" (permanence) of your prints for 10 years, something no other manufacturer does. And this is just the beginning. This isn't hype. Epson's products speak for themselves, which is why it now has 34 per cent of the UK printer market. With its Stylus Photo printers, it finally broke the stranglehold of rivals Canon and Hewlett Packard and now dominates the UK inkjet market.

There are lot of other inkjet printers out there, many of them pefectly adequate, so what makes Epson different? The answer is simple - its "bubblejet" rivals heat up the ink to spray it on to the print area, while Epson has its own, better system, called Micro Piezo. Since its introduction in 1993 it has proved more accurate for the cost.

Micro Piezo? They did explain it on a visit to Epson's plant in Matsumoto, but the average reader simply doesn't need to know the exotic technicalities - a bit like you don't need to know about the night out with the geishas of Kyoto, or the pre-Karaoke feast of grasshoppers and bee larvae at the Suma lakeside hotel, or Tokyo's astonishing revue of the flying ladyboys (see pictures above).

All you need to know is there is now a generation of printers out there that can happily knock out your A4 black and white printing, while being capable of printing out quality snapshots and enlargements. The people at Epson know there's a lot to play for - 2 billion pictures are taken annually . One day it will mostly be digital, they hope.

The new generation of products, however, takes digital photography an important step forward, and is likely to widen Epson's market lead. The new models are the Photo Stylus 870 and 1270 (see page 26), and they use improved inks and media. These new machines are faster and quieter, more accurate and can handle rolls of paper for your photographic prints. The larger printer can even produce high-quality A3 posters, ideal for schools and colleges. And both printers have improved software for image enhancement and manipulation. Next comes a machine (875 DC - modelled on the 870) that can accept all the popular memory cards used in digital cameras for pain-free printing without having to hook up your camera to the PC for a lengthy transfer.

You don't need a degree to guess what future developments will be. Epson and its rivals are now purposefully demolishing the concerns that hold people back from digital photography - quality, permanence and ease of use. Watch this space.

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