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Consumer Digicams Turn 10



There are many acceptable ways of marking the beginnings of things. Depending on interpretation, for example, the typewriter was invented by 52 to 112 people at different times and places, before Sholes “invented the typewriter.” Langley flew a steam-powered airplane years before the Wrights took off, and before Bell had his telephone, Meucci had his teletrophone. So, for the sake of setting anniversaries and such, what should we consider the beginning of digital photography?

We might reasonably cite the early successful tests of CCDs in the 1970s, which proved their points. But from the standpoint of consumer products, they created no market.

We might reasonably cite the first digital camera ever offered for sale, shown behind doors at photokina in 1990 and shipping the next year as the Kodak DCS (1-megapixel, $25,000).

Also in 1991, the first digicam directed toward the consumer came out—the Logitech Fotoman (also sold as Dycam) which provided a monochrome CCD of 106,784 pixels in an array of 284 by 376 pixels—all for about $700. That’s what Canon’s Rebel XTi sells for, at its debut price at the photokina show, this month.

Those products from 15 years ago qualify as “firsts,” and as surprising as it may seem in retrospect, there was a market for them—just not much of one. At the 1994 photokina, a few more digicams were on exhibit—the Dycam Pixtura, the Apple QuickTake, and the Kodak DC40, all pretty much the same model made by Chinon. They stimulated a lot of speculation and debate, but not all that many sales.

They had non-zooming permanent lenses, and not enough features to fill a menu on a monitor—which they also didn’t have. They also sold for the price of today’s six-megapixel Pentax DSLR, and they gave not what you’d call much of a bang for the buck.

Then came 1996, and photokina was different. That was the show where everybody had a consumer-market digicam. They included not only traditional camera manufacturers like Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus, but also electronics manufacturers like Casio, Epson, and Sony.

Radical features such as live-view LCDs and pivoting lenses—permitting such heretofore unheard-of tricks as taking pictures of things behind the camera—were popping up everywhere.

Canon’s first PowerShot was offered with a cradle base, to facilitate connection to external devices, such as computers.

The first Nikon Coolpix models were designed more for multimedia communications than photojournalism—one actually had a base that acted as a PCMCIA card, and plugged directly into the slot of a laptop computer. Ricoh was offering a multimedia camera equipped for online transmission of images, at a time when the internet as we know it was imaginary.

Most of the cameras that year offered a mere VGA-quality picture—640x480 pixels. Many were indeed prophetic of today’s trends, such as Sony’s DKC-ID1 with its permanently-mounted 12x zoom. Still, they were bare-bones products.

Looking back on it, it’s hard to imagine what leap of faith led to the digital camera as we find it today. Today, even most entry-level models amount to the most precisely controllable, most extravagantly featured personal cameras since the day when George Eastman declared, “Let there be film.”

At the 1996 show, everyone was excited. Everyone became convinced it—that is, digital cameras catching-on—would happen somehow. Not because there were so many sales, but because there were so many sellers. Suddenly, everyone was in it, and those who would feed at their trough—the advertising departments of the media, say—knew money when they smelled it.

Today, with humility and gratitude, we discover that it took only ten years, a span that would surprise even the optimists of 1996, to bring us a 10MP Olympus DSLR for the same price as a Dycam.

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