Saturday, January 24, 2009

The History of Digital Photography

The road to digital was paved by innovative advancements in analog technology, and because some of the analog systems of the 1980s resembled the processes of today's digital cameras there has been some misinterpretation as when digital photography actually began. The answer is a bit ambiguous because digital photography as we know it is not the advancement of one technology, but the merge of a number of ideas and processes that did not fully solidify until the late 1980s.

The first concept that must be credited was produced by Kodak in 1975. Known most commonly as the Digital Camera Prototype, this beast of a machine was capable of capturing 100x100 pixel, monochrome images onto blank cassette tapes. Now, to be clear, the camera used analog processes to produce a final image, and therefore is not the world's first digital camera. However, many of the ideas used here allowed others to gain insight into how digital photography could be taken into fruition.

By 1981, analog systems had come a long way. Enter the Sony Mavica: a state-of-the-art magnetic video camera that could capture 50 still images at 570x490 pixels. The images were recorded onto 2" video floppy disks, which resembled computer diskettes. The video floppy was adopted by other key players like Canon and Panasonic and used until the early 1990's in products like the Canon Xapshot. Again, however, despite similarities in usage and design, these were not yet digital cameras. The recording process was entirely analog, but the ideas and concepts provided further insight into purely digital systems.

By 1988, Fuji had made great strides in their pursuit of a digital photographic solution, and unveiled the Fuji DS-1P. This beauty is regarded by many as the first true digital camera. It recorded images onto SRAM memory cards produced by Toshiba, but was unfortunately never marketed in the United States. By now, the gates had been opened though, and the road to modern digital technology had undoubtedly begun.

Finally, in 1990, after fifteen years of analog and digital advancements, the world was introduced to the Logitech Fotoman, also know as the Dycam Model 1. It was the first digital camera to be marketed, and is rightfully the first consumer digital camera. It was capable of capturing 284x376 pixel stills onto an internal memory chip. As a pioneer camera of sorts, one can only expect there to be disadvantages. The meager resolution was one thing, but the other limitation was that it could only capture monochrome images.

By 1994, Apple Computers entered the digital photography game with the Apple Quicktake 100. The line of Quicktake cameras utilized technology built by Kodak and Fuji to achieve a 640x480 pixel image at 24-bit color. Advancements here included: the ability to choose between 320x240 and 640x480 resolution, an included close-up lens adapter, and a "trash button" that would clear the camera's internal memory. There was still no way to preview images on the camera body itself, but an included serial cable made transfer to the computer convenient. The camera retailed for $749.00 US.

Now, don't be fooled by this modern looking unit. The camera is actually a film SLR - Nikon F90X, but by 1995, the pro-market had made leaps and bounds in the digital world as well. The revolutionary "film back" allowed a standard film camera to be modified into a high-end digital camera by replacing the back door with one that captured digital stills. Produced by Kodak, the line started in 1991 with the Kodak DCS100 (1.3mp camera back) and by 1995, had grown to the DCS460, a 6.2mp interface that cost over $35,000 (although they were later cleared out at $2500).

The return of the Sony Mavica in the late 1990's was now fully digital, unlike it's same-name predecessor of the early 1980's. The series initially recorded directly onto 3.5" floppy disks before the Memorystick was released. A floppy-disk adapter was later used after the Memorystick release, and eventually the camera wrote directly to the proprietary memory card. This was the first digital camera I personally used, although it belonged to a friend. I remember wanting one, but not having the spare $500 to get it - I was 16 years old.

The turn of the millennium gave way to some stunning advancements in the field. The Contax N Digital was the world's first digital SLR with a full-frame (35mm film sized) sensor. It recorded 6mp stills at 3fps onto Compact Flash cards and Microdrives. It recorded jpg, tif, and RAW file types, and used a sensor designed by Philips. Contax began producing photographic hardware in the mid-1930s, but shorthly after the digital revolution, it announced that it would no longer be producing cameras (April 12, 2005 to be exact).

In 2004, Nikon set a new standard in digital photography with the announcement of the Nikon D2X. With 12.4mp resolution and up to 8fps shooting speed, this baby was geared for the photo professional. The camera was fast, accurate and delivered georgeous images. I first shot with the D2X in 2005, and was blown away by the perfect skintones, refined contrasts, and blazing speed that it delivered every time. Although now almost half-a-decade old, it is still better than the majority of cameras currently on the shelf.

2008 marked the unveiling of something truely special - the Hasselblad H3DII-50. A camera that most will only dream of shooting, this 50mp powerhouse can shoot images up to 8176×6132 pixels large, and uses a 645 format sensor. The size of the sensor, the quality of the lenses, and the impressive history of this brand attracts only the most finicky of professionals that demand the best for what they do. With a pricetag around $40,000 US, the best is what you'd expect, and I haven't heard of anyone being disappointed. I want one.

Throughout 2009, we're going to see some new players gaining strength. RED, for instance, has introduced an impressive modular system to the world of digital photography meaning that cameras can now be pieced together based on the user's needs, and further modified/upgraded on a more selective basis. The merge of pro-photo and pro-video gear will continue, with more products designed to compete with cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II.

Personally, I find it ironic that digital photography began with a process of extracting still images from high-end video cameras, and has run, full-circle, to the point where video can now be created using high-end photographic systems. I suppose the ouroboros effect is true. What will the future bring? Only time and a few PMA events will tell.
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