ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Eastman Kodak Co.'s 'idiot-proof' disc camera has taken the weekend shutterbug world by storm, and sent competitors scrambling to get into the picture.
Since its introduction a year ago, Kodak's four-model disc line has become the hottest development in the amateur camera business since the Instamatic in 1972 made picture-taking a virtual snap.
Now it's even easier, Kodak says, with the fail-safe disc making for better pictures in locations and situations that used to be inaccessible to the novice.
Eight million of the pocket-size cameras were sold in 1982, as buyers took advantage of the latest twist on George Eastman's prophetic slogan of a century ago: 'You press the button, we do the rest.'
Several other companies have come out with their own version of the camera or disc film, but Kodak is by far and away the leader in the market, photography professionals say.
'They control the industry now, because they introduced the system,' said Bill Clark, a reporter for the trade newspaper Photo Weekly.
And although Minolta Camera Co., Fuji Photo Film Co. and other manufacturers have introduced their own disc equipment, Kodak isn't too worried about the competition.
In fact, instead of cutting into Kodak's profits, the other versions of the disc are helping to put the company further in the black because they are designed to use Kodak film, the company's biggest profit-grabber.
'Keep in mind that the more cameras that are sold, the more film people will need to buy,' said Kodak spokesman Henry Kaska. 'We want to see more discs on the market.'
Kodak will even license its patent and provide technical information to 'responsible' manufacturers, said another Kodak spokesman, Timothy Elliott.
It's no mere fluke that Kodak got such a jump on its competitors in breaking into the highly-profitable disc market. The company spends $100 million a year on research and development, Elliott said.
Although that amount is not spent solely on the disc, it has produced the biggest return so far of any of Kodak's cameras, with twice as many sales as the pocket Instamatic and three times as many as the first Instamatic a decade ago.
'The customer doesn't care about the technological advances,' Elliott said. 'Consumers just want an easy way to take good pictures, and they can do that with the disc.'
For all the hoopla it caused, the film disc itself appears fairly unremarkable. It drops into the back of the camera and fits only one way, earning it the label 'idiot-proof.'
Once the film is loaded, the photographer needs only to choose a subject in the viewfinder and press the shutter release.
It sounds simple, but a lot of technology went into making things easy for the consumer, said Brad Paxton, a project coordinator.
Kodak scientists used the concept of 'photographic space' in developing the disc, imagining a topographical map of where most amateur photographs are taken.
They focused their attention primarily on the 'valleys' of that map, or the lower light situations -- such as under a tree -- which often produce photographs of poor quality and end up discouraging the picture-taker.
To avoid dark and blurry prints, the system needed a wide lens opening to minimize exposure problems, Paxton said. Other requirements were a fast shutter speed to reduce 'camera shake' and a flash small enough to recE:le quickly.
The researchers solved these needs with a large aperture, automatic flash (activated only when the camera decides it's needed) and a lens allowing the user to shoot as close as 18 inches from the subject.
In addition, the first three models introduced -- the Disc 4000, 6000 and 8000 -- were built to draw power from a lithium battery with enough energy to lift a car three feet off the ground. (The latest 3000 model uses a nine-volt alkaline.)
All these features made for a good camera, but the scientists still had to find a film for it.
That's where the disc came into the picture. The stiff sheet of film can be rotated around a center, eliminating the need for traditional roll film which must be 'floppy' enough to wind around cartridges.
So besides being easy, the disc produces prints as sharp as those shot by bigger, more complicated models, Elliott said. And the automatic flash enables users to take good pictures 'virtually anywhere.'
These two selling points were worked into Kodak's biggest advertising campaign ever, along with the claim that the disc camera's lens is 'near the theoretical limits of perfection.'
The disc models have fixed-focus capability from 4 feet to infinity, except for Disc 6000, which has a manual lens allowing shots as close as 18 inches. Many instamatics and cartridge cameras have offered fixed focus plastic lenses, but the disc lens is of glass and is said to be of higher quality.
There are two types of competitors bidding for a piece of the disc market. Some, known in the industry as 'Hong Kong ripoffs,' resemble the Kodak model but sell for much less. The other group will compete on the basis of equipment features.
Two of the first companies to announce their own disc formats after introduction of the Kodak line, Ansco Photo Optical Products Corp. and Continental Camera Corp., have only nicked the surface of Kodak's sales, Clark said.
Minolta, which brought out its disc camera in January, hopes to start out by capturing a modest 5 or 6 percent of the market, even though 'Minolta offers more features for the money,' according to company spokesman Rick Sammon.
Minolta's Disc 5 and Disc 7 list for $96.50 and $122.50, respectively, which puts them in the same range as Kodak's top-of-the-line models, the 6000 and 8000, at $92.95 and $150.95. (Kodak's 3000 and 4000 are priced at $56.95 and $71.95.)
Minolta's models enable the user to get within 16 inches of the subjct instead of 18. It also has a mirror set into the face of the camera, so a photographer can look in the mirror, press a remote control button and take a self-portrait.
While the Minolta model and a disc camera soon to be introduced by Konishiroku Photo Industries Co. of Japan will likely give Kodak more of a run for its money than the low-end discs, Kodak welcomes the higher quality cameras more than the cheaper brands.
'At least people who use the Minolta model won't become disillusioned with disc photography altogether,' Kaska noted.
The advent of the Kodak disc offered photographers a 'decision-free' way to take pictures. The coming years may see an even bigger breakthrough: a system for giving photo buffs a second chance at composing their snapshots.
At last October's Photokina, the international photography exposition in West Germany, Kodak demonstrated how a new video display unit will allow photographers to view their disc negatives on any TV screen.
The 'black box' will transform the negatives into slides, with the operator being able to view the images in rapid sequence or zoom in on a portion of the picture.
The device's real technological plus is its ability to encode the disc's magnetic core and allow the user to 'recompose' an already-taken photograph.
'If you have a kid and his parents in a picture and you decide you just want the kid, you can shift the unit until he's all you see on the screen, then encode the negative, take it to the printer, and get back a print in the new format you've chosen,' Kaska said.
The unit is too expensive and impractical for marketing right now, Kaska said, but Kodak is looking at market demand to determine whether the company can manufacture the box at a reasonable price for commercial sale in the near future.