Black and white photo of two men carrying a large model of a camera

A Beginner’s Guide to Photokina

An introduction to one of the largest photography trade fairs in the world and how to get the most out of your visit as an end-consumer.

There is always a lot of September buzz just before Photokina – the comprehensive photography-related trade fair where many manufacturers unveil their recent developments. A unique characteristic of the fair is that it is also open to end-consumers throughout the week. However, if you’re not a seasoned industry professional and you have never been before, turning up at Photokina without knowing what to expect can be overwhelming!

What is Photokina?

Crowd walking up the stairs to enter the venue

The south entrance to Koelnmesse at Photokina 2012 (© Koelnmesse. Photographer: Thomas Klerx)

Photokina is one of the largest trade fairs representing the photography and related imaging industries; it takes place for about one week in September every two years. It is a German-based fair, with an international presence, jointly organised by Photoindustrie-Verband (an association of members with corporate interests in the industries) and Koelnmesse (a trade fair centre and organiser). Koelnmesse is also the name of the venue in Cologne, Germany, where the fair is held.

The first Photokina was created in May 1950 to give an overview of the latest photography technologies to trade visitors and the general public. That idea still prevails today. The ‘trade fair’ is unique in catering to trade industry visitors, professional photographers, as well as end-consumers.

Black and white photo of two men carrying a large model of a camera

Two men shouldering a giant Leica camera at Photokina in 1954. Possibly demonstrating the financial burden of owning the latest model? (photo: Koelnmesse)

What’s in it for the consumer?

Manufacturers of all sizes will be going all out to put on a great show. As well as catching up with the latest developments, one of the best reasons to visit is if you intend to buy new equipment in the near future, especially if it’s a more expensive investment that need careful consideration.

Hands-on with your dream gear – most exhibition stands have a wide range of products attached securely to the displays for you to freely handle. Manufacturers may have equipment for loan, so you can take them away for more in-depth try-outs. This is comparison-shopping at its best! It’s also an unusual opportunity to get your hands on many different products, including niche ones that are difficult to find in retail shops. You can even play with five-figure sum cameras, such as those from Leica and Hasselblad, without risking intimidation from snobby shop assistants.

Some things you might get your hands on:

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In-fair offers and discounts – manufacturers may have promotions and discount offers exclusive to the fair.

Product expertise – if you have specialised questions about a product, this is a good opportunity to address them. Since many exhibitors are manufacturers and the event is significant enough for companies to send more senior staff to attend, there is a good chance someone there will be able to answer those questions you wouldn’t normally get anywhere with by asking general retail shop assistants.

Listen and learn – there are numerous events, talks and workshops at the fair, hosted by individual manufacturers as well as the organisers. Check the Photokina website for organisers’ events, and individual manufacturers’ websites for their own programme.

Out and about – if you need a break from the crowded exhibition halls, there are satellite events and photography exhibitions around the city of Cologne to coincide with the fair. It’s also a good chance to get some fresh air and do some sightseeing! In the evening, you’re likely to find a concentration of photographers along the riverbank near the venue, set up with tripods for night shots of the Cologne Cathedral, the Hohenzollern Bridge and the Rhein River. The ‘love locks’ on the Bridge are also a common subject.

The Cologne cathedral set against the Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhein River

The Cologne hat trick photo opportunity: the cathedral set against the Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhein River (© Koelnmesse. Photographer: Rainer Gärtner)

Getting the most out of your visit

It’s going to be a long day! Prepare yourself before the fair to get the most out of your visit…

Prioritise – the event is massive and you won’t see everything in one go. Think about what you’d most like to see or do and what you’d like to get out of attending the fair.

Plan ahead – find out in which halls the exhibitors you want to visit are located, when the events and workshops you want to attend take place, etc. These may be separated across different halls and each hall can be vast. Doing a little research beforehand will help you to plan your route and get the most out of your time. If you have a smart phone, the Photokina App (for Android, iPhone and iPad) may help you to plan your visit.

It’ll probably take longer than you think – as well as the sheer size of the place, the amount of visitors and the time it could take just to get from A to B, beware there will be plenty of distractions along your route. Such as unusual equipments or displays… it’s difficult to resist a second glance at a camera or a lens sliced open like a Body Worlds exhibit, or stopping and smiling when you pass a live photo shoot using a big camera made of Lego bricks. With popular manufacturers, you may have to queue up just to receive their product brochures.

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Your feet will ache! – get a good night’s sleep, wear comfortable shoes and expect to do a lot of walking.

Leave your best gear at home – be mindful of theft and, if possible, leave your best camera at home. You can imagine what a rich picking ground it might be for thieves, with large crowds and photographers walking around with expensive DSLR cameras.

Pack light – don’t bring a heavy bag of stuff you don’t need. As you make your way around the fair and find yourself gradually weighed down by the brochures and freebies you’ve collected from different exhibitors’ stands, you’ll wish you had left at home what you didn’t need after all!

Which days to attend? – for consumer visitors, the highest attendance rate is on Saturday. ((Convincing facts and figures. Report 2012. Koelnmesse [PDF file, 6.9mb])) For trade visitors, it is on Thursday. The first and the last days (Tuesday and Sunday) are less crowded in comparison to the rest of the week. However, keep in mind that the later in the week you go, the more likely exhibitors would have of run out of giveaways, such as product brochures.

Avoid the flood gates – you might want to avoid the large crowds in the mornings all entering the fair at once. Buy your ticket online in advance and turn up a little after the opening time.

Large crowd waiting to enter the ticket gates at the venue

Looks like a crowd waiting for a department store to open on the first day of the Christmas sale. But no, it’s the start of a day at Photokina 2012! (© Koelnmesse. Photographer: Thomas Klerx)



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