Going to Cologne for photokina
neumarket in the rain

photokina - the small p is part of the trade-mark - is huge, and tiring, and more worthwhile than you can easily imagine: the biggest photo trade fair in the world. Fewer and fewer magazines bother to report it in detail, on the grounds that the information is on the internet long before they can get into print. Well, that's true enough, though some have vastly longer lead times than others. What you tend to miss, though, is the considered overview of the show that the magazines used to give. We'll be aiming to give that when the show is over, but right now, here's a really radical idea: why not go to Cologne in September and see for yourself?

Heumarkt in the Rain

The weather at photokina in late September or very early October (in 2010, September 21 to 26) is incredibly variable. We've had warm sun for the whole show and miserable rain for the whole show. This was in 2008, when it was split about 50/50.

 

At the show you can see all the newest and most interesting kit, including things you never dreamed existed, and (better still) you can ignore the stuff that doesn't interest you. We don't spend much time looking at mobile 'phones, for example. There's even the chance of a bargain on the last day of the show as manufacturers sell off their floor samples in order to avoid having to ship them home, though this rarely includes high-end cameras and lenses from top-flight manufacturers. The small Chinese factories who are looking for people to brand their goods are much more likely to sell off their tripods and monoculars and... well, just about everything, really. They'd probably be open to offers for some of their junior staff.

 

Aisle

 

There are eleven halls at the Cologne Messe, but not all of them are used for photokina. On the other hand, most of them are on two levels, so that effectively at photokina 2008 there were 13 halls; one or two were however only half occupied. The scene on the right is astonishingly uncrowded: on the busy Saturday before the end of the show, you can sometimes hardly move.





pig album

Because it's so vast, and because it is, after all, primarily a trade show, you need to plan things carefully before you go.

The first thing you need to know is that you can either ignore some of the halls altogether, or walk through them very quickly indeed, unless you are passionately interested in (for example) photo albums, picture frames or cinema lighting - though there is far less cine around (the kina bit of photokina) than there used to be.

 

Pig Album

 

No, not an album for putting pigs in, silly... But there is normally at least one hall devoted to photo albums and frames.

 

Also, some halls are devoted to just one or two manufacturers, or substantially so, and others contain photo exhibitions rather than manufacturers' stands.. You can often get around these pretty quickly too, returning to the exhibitions later if you have time. In 2008, for example, Halle 3.2 contained only Canon and Panasonic while Halle 1 was a gallery and meeting place. This still left 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2, 6, 9, 10.1 and 10.2.

stretchmaster

 

Even in the halls where there is much to interest you, there may still be products which, although fascinating, are not anything you are likely to want to keep at home - or even to have the space for, always assuming you could afford them. How about a huge scanning copy camera the size of a full-grown billiard table? Or a canvas-stretching machine? Or an automated mount cutter? Or back projection equipment?

Conversely, of course, there are always things that are unexpectedly useful, or clever, or just plain weird: the Gorillapod, for example, with its three octopus-like legs which can double as arms and twist around things. In the days when Shutterbug covered the show fully, we each used to do one article that was just called 'Weird Stuff'.

Canvas stretching machine

 

Well, someone's got to do it, and if you've ever struggled with stretching pliers you'll appreciate why anyone with many canvases to stretch would buy this (www.canvasmaster.net).

couple timer

 

 

Couple Timer

 

As far as we recall, this was on the Fuji stand, but we never did figure out exactly what a couple timer might be for (look at the writing on the big pink heart). The young lady in the pink dress, lower centre, looks as if she is banging her head against the wall, but is actually looking in a (pink) cupboard.There are certainly fewer scantily clad young ladies about than there used to be. A few years ago, Agfa caused a mild frisson by body-painting nudes on their stand. The object was to show how good their colour films were...

 

Artisan and Artist straps

 

The Japanese firm of Artisan and Artist (www.aaa1.co.jp) make some of the finest camera straps in the world: most of our cameras are fitted with them. They seem insanely expensive, until you see the quality and realize that they are easily worth the money. The main question for most of us, of course, is whether we've got the money.

 

The point about its being a trade show, though, is very important. The exhibitors are basically there to sell inside the trade, to dealers and to each other. Even the press can get quite short shrift, and private individuals have to be prepared for the possibility that sometimes they will be ignored completely. Fortunately the fortress mentality of walled-off stands which arose in the 1990s has pretty much died out, and many of the most interesting stands - certainly those that are likely to have much appeal to photographers, rather than just to dealers - are set up with at least as much of an eye to the private visitor as to anyone else. Many have three sections: public, dealers and press.

With others, the manufacturer's stand and the 'public' stand, where you can see the products, are separated. For example, there's no public Cosina stand, but Voigtländer and Zeiss Ikon products can be seen at the appropriate stands. Access to dealer and press areas is normally very firmly policed, though with varying degrees of tact according to whom the manufacturer has hired for the purpose. At the first photokina after reunification, it was a standing joke that the Volkspolizei and Stasi of the former East Germany seemed to have found new jobs.

red seagull dlr

 

One way to be taken reasonably seriously is to avoid looking like an amateur: in particular, not carrying a camera bag and a monster DSLR with a foot-long lens on the front. Dealers (the people the stand-holders really want to see) almost never carry cameras, because that's not why they're there. It's also a good idea to carry a small backpack in which to put brochures, and not to pick up brochures on everything. The free carrier bags handed out by so many manufacturers soon become very heavy; the handles cut into your hands; and if you're overburdened with them, again, you may not be taken too seriously.

 

                                                     big lens

 

Likewise, don't waste manufacturers' time in idle chit-chat, or by asking obvious questions. If you are genuinely interested in a particular manufacturers' products, do a bit of research beforehand - visit their website - and have intelligent questions ready.

As well as the latest gear (and plenty of old favourites) you will also see prototypes, 'funnies', specials and one-offs. Sometimes these are no more than eye-catchers; sometimes they are there to test interest; and sometimes they are, well, Chinese. It may seem harsh to criticise someone for not speaking English when we don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese, but when they're at an international trade show in Germany and don't speak German or English (or indeed French) you do sometimes wonder what they're doing there.

 

holga

Holgas

Remember that photokina isn't just for 'serious' cameras: it's for the whole photographic business, including toy cameras, Holgas, mobile phones, batteries and battery chargers...

The point about Chinese raises another important question: do you need to be able to speak German? The answer is 'No, not really'. Almost all stands have at least one English speaker, though French-speaking manufacturers are always delighted to speak in their own language (and will give you special treatment accordingly) and you really only need German when you are trying to worm out of a German manufacturer which of his products are ganz neu (entirely new) and which have been in the catalogue for a while. This normally matters only to the press.

monocular sale

Of course if you do speak Cantonese you may be better placed to pick up bargains at the end of the show. No-one is supposed to sell from the stand throughout the show, but a few people do, and at the end, as already noted, it's astonishing what you can pick up.

You can even (especially with Chinese manufacturers) indicate to them somewhere near the beginning of the show that you wish to buy something at the end. You'll pay more than if they're desperately trying to get rid of it at the end, but in all likelihood, you'll still only be paying cost price or less. This is how we bought a computer trolley from an American manufacturer and our Wonderful Dry Cabinet (that's really its name) from a Chinese manufacturer.

Don't get us wrong about the Chinese, incidentally. There are some truly excellent Chinese manufacturers (including the makers of the Wonderful Dry Cabinet), and they have no monopoly on being sullen and unhelpful. One Italian woman in particular never bothered to look up from her newspaper, no matter how many people were clustered around the stand.

Language is of course only one of the practicalities of photokina. Another is the price of admission. In 2008 day tickets were 28€ at the ticket office, or 21€ if ordered in advance (www.photokina-cologne.com); two-day tickets were 47€/35€; and a ticket for the whole show was 79€/59€. There was also a weekend day ticket at 16€/12€, good only for Saturday or Sunday. Then there was a catalogue at 19€. Check 2010 prices on the 'net. A ticket does, however, entitle you to free transport on Cologne's buses, trams and urban trains inside the area of the Rhein-Sieg Transport Authority, though not on those German Railway trains that require the payment of a supplement.

You'll almost certainly need transport, too. The chances of finding somewhere to stay within walking distance of the halls are slender unless you book at least a year in advance. Besides, with the amount of walking you are likely to be doing inside the hall, you don't want a long walk at the beginning and end of the day. If you can find a double room in an hotel for under 100€ you'll be doing well, though private rooms can often be found for significantly less, again provided you book well in advance (there is a link for this on www.photokina-cologne.com). Many people stay as far away as Bonn, which is an easy train-ride away.

 

messe station

Deutz/Messe Station

The tram/ train/ underground system really is pretty comprehensive, and clean, and safe.

One last consideration is what else there is to do in Cologne. We take it as read that for a photographer, few attractions are going to top photokina, but there may be spouses who are less than entranced by the prospect of several days at the show. Well, next time we're there, we're planning on trying the Claudius Thermal Baths (36C, www.claudius-therme.de) for the first time: until now, we've been too busy covering the show in detail to have any time. Fed by a thermal spring, they're pretty much in central Cologne, and according to one report (we've never even looked for them) they are 20 minutes' walk from the main station (Hauptbahnhof). We hope, indeed, to add them to our spa coverage on our associated site, www.semiadventuroustraveller.com.

Apart from the spa, there are several world-class museums and art galleries, numerous shops at all levels - we can't give much advice on these, as we're not really interested in Shopping with a capital S - and of course there are several very fine churches including the Dom, the magnificent cathedral that is almost as much a defining symbol for Cologne as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris or the Tower of Big Ben for London. You can see its spires in the picture at the beginning of this module. Check www.koeln.de/cologne-tourist-information for further details.

dixie devils

Cologne was very heavily damaged in World War Two, so many of the 'mediaeval' buildings you see in the old quarter (around Fischmarkt, for example) were reconstructed from the whole cloth. But many of them are still very attractive.

Fischmarkt is also the site of a lot of bars and clubs where the salarymen at the trade fairs - for there are endless trade fairs in Cologne - traditionally go to relax. Some are very touristy but others are patronized by the locals. This area can be somewhat noisy at night, but it is perfectly safe.

THE BOTTOM LINE

To return to the fair itself, there is more to see than you can readily imagine, and it's one of those things that every keen photographer should go to at least once. Even if you don't think of yourself as a gear-head, photokina is a great source for ideas. As well as the exhibitions that are dotted throughout the halls, there are the manufacturers' pictures taken with their equipment; obviously to flatter it, but equally, showing what can be done with it in the right hands.

pixpen

Pixpen

 

 

 

It's a nice product, and they're nice people: it's no more than a ball-point pen with a hollow tube in which you can insert your own rolled-up photograph, but it makes you smile - and you can't ask a lot more from an inexpensive product than that. Pixpen normally exhibits in the American 'pavilion' in a single hall, but there are many other excellent American products (such as Op/Tech USA, www.optechusa.com) scattered around in other halls.

lomography

Lomography

Yes, it's a trade show, but there's passion there as well. We don't practice Lomography (taking huge numbers of film pictures with a cheap and technically less than brilliant camera) but we can see its appeal and even though Lomography is clearly a commercial undertaking, its representatives appear to be having fun; and once again, that's what photography is about for most of us. Check out www.lomography.com.

 

SHOW REVIEW

After the show is over, we shall as soon as possible try to get a review up about who was there, how the show felt, and what the people were like. We shall not be giving a blow-by-blow account of what was new, because we'll just link to the manufacturers' sites for that. Rather, we'll adopt the same approach as we've used here, though with rather more detail and more pictures of our favourite manufacturers' stands, such as Alpa (www.alpa.ch), Lastolite (www.lastolite.com), Leica (www.leica-camera.com) and Zeiss (www.zeiss.de), and maybe even a few 'head shots' of the people behind the products, such as Guy Gerard of Bergger (www.bergger.com). What do you think of this as an idea? Contact us and let us know!

roger, minox

 

For more details about the Messe (the Halls) in general go to www.koelnmesse.com, and for information on photokina 2010 go to www.photokina-cologne.com. The tourist office for Cologne is at www.koeln.de/cologne-tourist-information. Maybe we'll see you there...

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© 2010 Roger W. Hicks