Focus on Imaging 2011

Every March in the UK, the “biggest annual imaging trade show in Europe” rolls into the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. I’ve never had reason to attend because despite it’s “biggest” billing, very little groundbreaking camera technology ever debuts at Focus, with all the big announcements and displays reserved for the bi-annual Photokina in Germany, and CliQ in America – the recent rebranding exercise of the Photo Marketing Association (PMA).

Yet that changed last year when I switched tacks to move into the wedding industry, and indeed almost 40% of the trade visitors to Focus are from the wedding or portrait industry. Focus was an ideal opportunity to view products first hand and meet potential suppliers, many of whom are based outside of the UK.

The big talking point this year was Canon’s announcement that it was pulling out of this year’s Focus on Imaging, barely two weeks before the start of the exhibition. Needless to say this spawned a huge amount of debate on the Internet, with views ranging from Canon diehards who felt greatly disappointed, through to pragmatists who cited trade shows as being an expensive and loss making sideline.

Panasonic was one of the beneficiaries of Canon's withdrawal, with their stand taking over some of the space left vacant by Canon's late absence.

Officially, the decision was made after Canon made a review of its marketing activities for the year, and decided not to attend the show in 2011. Yet it seems curious to make such a decision that close to the show when no doubt deposits will have been paid and lost, and resources must already have been spent on stand production. There certainly is a case for suggesting that there is more going on here than is at first apparent. Canon’s statement to fans that they would still be respresented by the various retailers at the show will be of little consolation to many of their customers.

Canon stated that they would still be represented by retailers such as Calumet at the trade show. Here seen rather ironically proclaiming "Canon Refurbished"!

A photo trade show wouldn’t be a photo trade show without the usual long telephotos on display for members of the public to get their 15s with optical royalty. Canon has made their reputation on this in the past, but in their absence it fell to Nikon – unusually for them – to have the long telephotos on display.

Nikon telephotos on display at Focus on Imaging 2011, with the Canon equivalents conspicuous by their absence.

Arguably the biggest beneficiary of Canon's withdrawal, Nikon were very visible at the show with free bags, and posters everywhere proudly proclaiming "I am Focus on Imaging". Perhaps I'm too sensitive to these things but I thought it was a subtle, if merely co-incidental, comment about a rival company who very clearly weren't (at) Focus on Imaging.

Of course when it comes to big telephotos, Sigma have a showstopper themselves in the very exotic and very expensive APO 200-500mm f2.8 EX DG lens, that comes equipped with its own carry handle and even its own Li-on battery to power the focusing motor – it has that much glass to move! The lens was on show this year, in what I reckoned was exactly the same spot as it was last year!

They don't come much bigger, or heavier, or more expensive...

Of course if long telephotos are an essential ingredient of photo trade shows, so too are the models and the photogaphers that gather around them throughout the day. I managed to visit Focus on Monday this year, when it’s a little less crowded, so the photos below will have a little less oomph to them, but last year when I went on the Sunday the scenes were nothing short of chaos.

Scrum time - boys will be boys!

I have great sympathy for the girls (yes, girls; strangely enough I didn’t see any male models) that sign up for these shows. It’s hard enough being the subject for one photographer under the guise of a “workshop”, nevermind having to look at as many of the cameras pointed towards you as possible, just to keep the punters happy. Not to mention that you have to look good doing it, and more importantly pretend that you’re enjoying it.

"So as I was saying, if you see how the light hits the model this way..."

While the big camera manufacturers avoid unveiling new cameras at Focus, it does however present an opportunity for some of the other manufacturers to unveil new products. Last year for example Doug Murdoch, one of the co-founders of Think Tank Photo, was on hand to show the company’s Retrospective Lens Changers, which I took an instant liking to and went on to order the moment the product hit the shelves.

The first product that caught my eye this year was the Linhof 3D Micro, first debuted at Photokina 2010. At a retail of £675 + VAT, this represents a much cheaper alternative to the Arca-Swiss Cube C1. In fact, at that price it is even cheaper than the Photo Clam version of the Cube, the Multiplex. It’s also smaller and lighter, and manufactured to the standards you would expect from Linhof. If there’s one drawback to the head, it’s that it runs a proprietary Linhof quick release system, so those using the Arca system will need to jury rig an adaptor or carry different plates.

Lastolite's eye-catchingly named Hotrod Strips.

Also on display were a couple of new products from Lastolite, including two versions of the Hotrod Strip – essentially strip lights for speedlights (try saying that three times fast…). These come with standard 120cm lengths, but available with 30cm and 40cm widths. They are unfortunately of standard softbox construction with four rods and a ring, rather than the popup/collapsible products the company is synonymous with, such as with the popular Ezybox range of softboxes. Apparently bendy frames can only get you so far! Still, they are the only setup I know that offers striplighting potential for portable strobes and should be in stock imminently, with pricing around the £90 + VAT range.

The new Strobe Kits, standard on the right and with an Ezybox-style mounting ring on the left.

They also had a new Strobo kits designed to fit directly onto a flashguns. By utilising a magnetic system new attachments can be quickly and easily attached and detached. There is a large range of attachments available from colour correction gels to different sized honeycombs, down to more creative options. The kits include the adaptor, two honeycomb grids, a mask set and gels, and will retail for £100 + VAT.

Korean manufacturer Samyang attended Focus with their range of fast and niche prime lenses with budget price tags. Nikon D3, Samyang 35mm f1.4 lens at f1.4.

For some while the Korean manufacturer Samyang has been creating waves amongst amateur photographers with the introduction of affordable exotic glass, particularly after the introduction of their 85mm f1.4 lens and more recently with their 35mm f1.4 lens. They also offer an 8mm f3.5 full frame fisheye for crop sensors, and a 500mm f8 mirror lens. Samyang have clearly identified a segment of the market that could benefit from cheaper optics and that quartet of offerings should certainly garner some interest.

Holy Bokeh Batman! The out of focus rendering of the budget Samyang 85mm f1.4 lens is impressively smooth. Nikon D3, Samyang 85mm f1.4 at f1.4.

For instance f1.4 primes are notoriously expensive, and the 85mm offerings from Nikon or Canon cost in excess of £1000 each. Even Sigma’s 85mm f1.4 retails at about £750. In contrast, the Samyang 85mm lens retails at a shade over £200. There are of course sacrifices to be made, and the lens is manual focus only; and in the case of Canon users, aperture control will have to be via the lens aperture ring (Nikon users have the “luxury” of in camera aperture control if they wish). Still, for those of us without a spare grand or two sitting around in the bank, this presents a very affordable way of reach the heady heights of f1.4 and all that it brings with it – superb low light capabilities and stunningly narrow depth of field. I certainly thought bokeh was similarly impressive from the samples I did manage to shoot, while build quality was certainly reasonable.

The Samyang catalogue, in focus, at Focus. Nikon D3, Samyang 35mm f1.4 at f1.4.

Overall Focus was a worthwhile trip, and I’m sure it was a fine success for the organisers and exhibitors, despite the curious absence of Canon. That was a decision that doesn’t make sense to me from a PR standpoint, especially given how late in the day it was. That I am bringing it up again is not the joyful attempts of a Nikon user to rub salt in the wounds of Canon users disappointed at their absence, but a very real concern about a marketing decision which has left a sour taste in consumers’ mouths.

The back of a visitor's registration pass that listed exhibitors at the show, still displaying the name of missing camera giant Canon. While the show's program had no trace of Canon in the listing or on the floorplan, passes had been sent out by mail well before Canon's late withdrawal. Nikon D3, Sigma 85mm f1.4 HSM.

At the show I was briefly walking the floor with a friend who had his EOS 1D Mk IV hanging around his neck. He was approached by a couple of polite punters who looked a little like lost tourists.

“Excuse me,” they asked him. “We see that you’re a Canon user. Can you please tell us where the Canon stand is?”

I felt genuinely sorry for them and wondered if Canon had taken this into account when reviewing their “marketing activities”. Because good marketing it almost certainly wasn’t. Certainly at the late stage at which they made the decision they could have pushed ahead with 2011’s attendance before making a more graceful exit from 2012 if required.

Focus organiser Mary Walker said, “Focus is not about one company – it’s about the UK photographic industry.”

Indeed it is not, but at the same time one cannot help but wonder if Canon’s departure from Focus signifies that it has lost interest in the UK photographic industry.

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