Looking back at Digicams

Many lucky people will have found electronic gizmos under the Christmas tree this year and quite a few of those will have been cameras.

It’s amazing to think how quickly the digital revolution has taken hold and changed the whole face of photography. In a few short years, a number of photographic heavyweights, such as Agfa and Minolta, have bitten the dust through their failure to adapt quickly enough.

The December/January issue of local photo magazine Camera and Image got me thinking about how quickly this has all happened. Reprinted in the magazine is an August 1981 article by John Holusha, which appeared in the now-defunct Creative Photography magazine, and which talked of the coming digital revolution.

Holusha believed that, by the middle of decade, there would be “all-electronic still and movie cameras that will produce instant, mistake-free pictures without the bother and expense of film”.

He imagined that, by Christmas 1986, photographers would be taking their annual Christmas snapshots on electronic cameras and previewing the results on a screen before deciding whether to delete or save them on a magnetic tape cassette inside the camera.

He thought that the price of the new digitals would be comparable to that of the better 35mm SLR cameras which, at that time, were on sale for R350 and up. Instamatic film cameras were priced from R12.50 and Holusha reckoned that digitals could not possibly be that cheap in the foreseeable future.

I was interested to know how well Holusha had done with his predictions and asked Google to tell all it knew about the history of digital photography. There were, predictably enough, plenty of sites to choose from and a fair variance in the facts and figures quoted.

I eventually ended-up at www.digicamhistory.com, which has a pretty authoritative aura about it. It has entries going all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci and camera obscuras, which were the ancestors of the modern camera.

In 1980, a year before Holusha’s article was published, Sony had marketed the first colour video camera which captured images using a CCD chip similar to the ones used later in digital still cameras. The same month that Holusha’s article appeared, Sony unveiled its Mavica camera which was a television camera which could save still pictures onto a disc. The pics could then be viewed on TV sets with an appropriate viewing unit.

There is some disagreement about whether that Mavica was actually marketed before 1986, when Canon launched its RC-701 at a price of $27000. This included all the kit needed to take pictures, play them back, print them and transmit them over telephone lines.

Also launched that year was the improved Sony Mavica MVC-A7AF and, in the following year, USA Today newspaper began using the 600000-pixel Canon RC 760 to cover news events. The first digital picture printed in the paper that year was taken by Tom Dillon.

So, it seems that Holusha was pretty much spot on when he predicted that 1986 would be an important year, but the technology did take a bit longer than he expected to get well and truly into the hands of consumers.

Photoshop 1 appeared in 1990, proving that were enough digital cameras already around to warrant its introduction. New cameras were launched thick and fast from then on, including 1992’s Logitech Fotoman, which recorded images on a chip 495 x 366 pixels in size, and was the first digital camera I ever saw.

My first digital camera, a great little Olympus point and shoot, arrived in 2001 and is still in use, as far as I know. In 2003, Canon launched the first digital SLR camera priced at less than $1000 and, so, I bought one. It, too, also soldiers on in other hands.

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