Electronic Design

Mike Collette: Merging Film And Digital Tech For Superior Pictures

When Mike Collette visits a few of the national parks this fall, he'll be bringing his work with him. As president of Better Light Inc., a digital-imaging technology company he founded 15 years ago, he will shoot breathtaking landscapes on regular film. But he'll be able to preserve them digitally using his company's main product, the digital scanning back.

An engineer with a passion for photography, Collette has carved out a dream job for himself developing the technology and seeing it deployed in the real world.

"We've developed a pretty tremendous reputation in our industry," says Collette, who lists New York City's Museum of Modern Art and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as some the top purchasers of his digital scanning backs.

The digital scanning-back industry isn't huge, with only a few direct competitors since instant-capture digital cameras pose a bigger threat. But photographers and museum curators who need optimum still-life photography or high-resolution reproductions of a collection are some of his best customers.

Unlike instant-capture digital cameras, scanning backs take time to scan an image, requiring continuous lighting and a still setting. Collette became interested in developing them when he was researching linear sensors as a biotech instrumentation engineer for Beckman Coulter. Fascinated by working with tools like image sensors and linear photo detector arrays, he began working on his own film scanner in his spare time.

During a round of cutbacks, Collette's position at Beckman was terminated and he took another job there that involved little more than paper-pushing. After two months, he knew it was time to move on.

"It was the last push I needed to say, 'Okay, it's now or never,'" Collette says, and so he turned a spare bedroom into his new workshop. There, he spent the next two years tinkering. The times were trying, but Collette persevered. When he finally developed the first prototype, a medical imaging company named Dicomed contracted him as an exclusive provider of digital scanning backs.

Second-generation scanning backs followed, which he produced and distributed with the help of a company called Calumed. At that point, Collette could no longer run the business as a sole proprietorship. He incorporated Better Light in California in 1998 with two other former Beckman engineers as employees.

The next generation of digital backs, the Super Model line, was picked up by a company with even more clout: Eastman Kodak. And though the three contracts have since been terminated, largely due to overstock at the companies, Collette is now content to manufacture and market his products to customers around the world.

"From the beginning, I've treated this more like a lifestyle than a business," he says. "I've never approached it with a go-go-go attitude."

Since Kodak has discontinued one of the processors he uses, Collette says he'll let the business slowly unwind, if that is indeed the next path this dream job will take him down.

"Now it's just like every turn of this project since 1992," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm ready for it." In the meantime, he'll use the fruits of his labor to capture images of his travels, a freedom he's always enjoyed by being his own boss.

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