Chapter 3: Digicams
From White Elephant To Landmark, In Ten Quick Years.
By Don Sutherland
TV cameras were the first electronic cameras to find widespread use, and a profound impact on the course of civilization. As equipment became more reliable and compact, remotes became less daunting. They say pictures of the earth from the moon changed the collective human psyche evermore. They say pictures from Viet Nam changed evermore our perception of modern warfare. These pictures arrived in most homes as television pictures.
Commercialized as it is, pandering and patronizing to its audience, TV is most widely discussed scornfully. Maybe such scorn is necessary, to counterbalance our awe. This particular form of electronic photography has contributed more than anyone can describe.
We may need to squint against such dazzle, but we know it's there. So when the proposal was first made to use TV as a still-photography medium, using cameras consistent with the budgets of businesses and even individuals, there was a great air of celebration. You too! could make a picture for your TV screen.
Phoning-in your photos.
The public had begun buying into personal camcorders a few years before, but Still Video served a different function. Unlike full-motion video, which is still difficult to transmit full-size/full-motion over domestic phone lines, SV pictures were made of modest quantities of electronic information. They could be "phoned in."
Newspaper editors had proved the great value of such things, across decades of Wirephotos. Now the same benefits could accrue for smaller companies with long-distance viewing needs. Oh well, nobody calls J.C. Penney a small company, but they were cited once or twice in the '80s as demonstrative of the wonders of SV. A buyer at Penney's HQ U.S.A. could see within hours, instead of days, what fabric patterns were new in, say, Asia.
The news industry itself performed tests of SV, the results sometimes making the front of such papers as USA Today. "Look at the five o'clock shadow on Jesse Jackson's chin," said one highly enthused supporter of the Sony Promavica camera, "you can see every hair."
You didn't have to have such deep pockets for the benefits of SV to rub-off. The professional-style cameras, interchangeable-lens SLRs made by both Sony and Canon, cost around eight-thousand mid-80s dollars. That was a lot for a still camera, but its supporters thought its price was justified. The examples they cited usually came down to the ability for an electronic image to be transmitted easily across long distances.
The people at Time-Life, among many in the lay media, were impressed. Life called SV "The Future" which would "do away with film." Time quoted a Wall Street analyist, who said words to the effect that SV would change photography forever.
What nobody seemed to be quoting was photographers, and people of that ilk who understood imaging technology. Nobody wanted to hear from them, spoilsports that they were, about how lousy the SV image was.
It wasn't the fault of Canon or Sony. It was more the fault of the FCC. They're the ones who established the NTSC video standard, and they established it with motion pictures in mind. In TV, movies have different technical requirements than still pictures do.
Part of the reason is that TV is itself not a still medium. The NTSC frame is made up of two fields, each on the screen for a sixtieth of a second. Rushing by at 30 frames per second, any blur from field to field is either invisible, or contributes to the sense of velocity. But freeze that interlaced frame and you find two separate images alternating rapidly. If the subject in the picture was not in motion, the interlaced fields don't have much effect. But if the subject moved quickly enough to be elsewhere in the next 1/60-sec. — and it doesn't have to move too fast for that to happen — it jumps and jitters back and forth until you get sick of it and turn it off. Many an NTSC frame shows people with two heads, two faces, waving arms and kicking legs.
It was really not a dignified way to portray the CEO.
The response by the SV industry was simple. Use only one of the two fields. This stopped the jitters, but it also reduced the already dubious resolution of NTSC by half. This was hardly the way to "do away with film."
Still, the transmissibility of SV caught a lot of imaginations. Casio, Fujifilm, Konica, Olympus, Minolta, and Nikon were among those who dabbled in SV cameras — although few went past the prototype or limited-production stage. Kodak jumped on the bandwagon, but never developed a camera. They concentrated entirely on SV players — and devices for transmitting SV photos over telephone lines.
Why it's a boast to "do away with film" has never been clarified. Is this somehow a virtue? Did we suddenly decide we hated film? Is the stuff simply no good? It was a dramatic statement to make, but why were people making it?