12 Weeks of Christmas: 6 of the Greatest Digital Camera Firsts

12 Weeks of Christmas: 6 of the Greatest Digital Camera Firsts

Digital cameras are so pervasive in photography that it is difficult to remember a time when it was only possible to shoot on film. Yet as pervasive they are with the market is only about 30 years young, what are the six greatest "firsts" that we have seen in that time?

As we saw on the 8th Day of Christmas, the demise of the digital camera market — as we know it — is nigh. What that also showed was the extraordinary, and inexorable, rise in sales of the digital camera from the start of the millennium. With over 1.5B sold annually (when we count smartphones), they are now ubiquitous, with the film sector miniscule in comparison. This week, instead of six geese a laying, we have six of the greatest firsts ushered in by the digital era. However, in this installment we go double bubble and, alongside the six greatest firsts, I introduce the accompanying defining device that marked a sea change in the acceptance of the technology.

1. Digital Camera: Sony Mavica and Fuji DS-1P

The plaudits for the invention of the digital camera generally go to Steve Sasson whilst he was working at Kodak in 1975. His creation was an 8 pound beast that strapped together a Super 8 camera, 0.01MP CCD, and digital tape recorder, taking 23 seconds to record an image. However it was the 1981 Sony Mavica that became the first still video camera to hit production. It's CCD produced 0.3MP analogue images that were recorded to a video floppy (VF disk). So whilst it was an analogue camera, it is considered to have ushered in the digital era. 

It was Fuji's 1988 Fujix DS-1P that is considered the first truly digital camera (and breakthrough device). It was fully digital, saving it's images from a 2/3" CCD to a memory card. Fuji took a massive R&D step, developing (with Toshiba) a 2MB memory card to record the 0.4MP images to. The entire camera system was comprised of the camera itself, and then the memory card, card reader, and Digital Audio Tape drive. It was a huge investment at $20,000, equivalent to about $40,000 today.

2. Digital Phone Camera: Sharp J-SH04 and Apple iPhone 1

It's trite, obvious, and over-hyped but you can't deny the momentous change that the camera phone has wrought on photography. In one fell swoop, a (literally) pocketable camera was made available to the phone gorging masses. In fact, the camera phone gives you a camera for no extra space — genuinely two for one. The phone that made it to market first was the Sharp J-SH04​​​ in 2000 offering a fairly paltry 0.1MP resolution and — frankly — very poor image quality. You can't fault the direction of travel and, by 2003, they formed a significant proportion of sales in comparison to dedicated cameras. 

The defining moment has to be the release of the original iPhone in 2007 which incorporated a 2MP camera. The marketing clout and sheer hype that Apple brought to bear elevated it above everything else, with what was considered a good camera. If you haven't seen the live on-stage demonstration by Steve Jobs then watch the full one hour and twenty minutes. It is pure theatrical magic and, incredibly, Jobs doesn't start the product launch until about 30 minutes. Marketing doesn't get better than this. And then read how it all nearly came crashing down.

3. Mirrorless: Epson RD1 and Panasonic Lumix G1

Last year heralded the tenth anniversary since the release of the pivotal Panasonic Lumix G1, however it wasn't the first mirrorless camera to market. That glory goes to the 2004 Epson RD1, a 6MP APS-C model that used a Leica M-mount on its rangefinder body, pre-empting Leica's M8 by some two years. Epson is not a manufacturer known for its cameras, although it was co-developed with — and manufactured by — Cosina. Whilst a niche product, it received some considerable praise from photographers for carving a new direction, something which we are more familiar hearing about with the Fuji X-series. However little was made of the potential of the mirrorless format and it wasn't until the G1 landed in 2008 that change really began to occur. As Fstoppers' Wasim Ahmad outlines, the G1 not only launched the Micro Four Thirds system but also a completely new way of designing cameras. It suffered from the slow contrast-based autofocus and poor battery life that beset early systems, but otherwise handled itself with aplomb. DP Review praised the new design, along with the excellent image quality. It really was the beginning of a new era.

4. In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS): Minolta DiMage A1 and Olympus OM-D M1

IBIS came relatively late to the consumer camera party simply because it's expensive. Moving a whole film inside a camera body is mechanically complex, whilst in-lens stabilization will only stabilize the lens it is fitted in (and so you need it in every lens). Whilst the technology existed — at least in R&D — the fruits of stabilization's offerings couldn't be fully realized until the advent of the digital sensor. The first to bring a product to market was Minolta with the 2003 DiMage A1. This was actually a 5MP 28-300mm bridge camera that used a 2-axis IBIS system for about 3-stops improvement. DP Review marveled at the technology, but felt that image quality let the product down which goes to show that a product is more than just gadgetry.

The camera that blew the barn doors off the IBIS space race was the Olympus' 2012 OM-D M5 Mark 1 which was the first model to introduce 5-axis stabilization (roll, pitch, and yaw rotations, in addition to the x-axis and y-axis translations) offering up to 5-stops improvement. Interestingly, many of the reviews of the time saw it as an incremental change, however it preempted the move by both Sony and Nikon and is now something that is increasingly seen as a requirement for new camera bodies.

5. Android Camera (non-smartphone): Nikon CoolPix S800c and Zeiss ZX1

For major innovative pivots in photography you don't normally look to the big names in photography, but in this instance Nikon was the first to market in 2013 with an Android camera, the Coolpix S800c. This is remarkable when you think the first Android phone arrived in 2008 and it wasn't until Android 2 (Eclair) landed in 2009 that its popularity increased. Nikon were clearly keen on experimenting with their frankencamera which was essentially a beheaded S6300 that added a 3.5" screen and processor, along with Android 2.3. Whilst forward looking, it was pretty much dead-in-the-water when in arrived — DP Review weren't impressed with the poor battery life, slow start-up time, and outdated version of Android. In this incarnation it wasn't going to impress anyone. Whilst I've promoted the idea that the Android camera is the future of photography, the promised land hasn't arrived. Samsung came closest with the Galaxy NX, however these early commercial disasters have meant a dearth of products as manufacturers largely avoid the same mistakes.

In terms of a defining device in this category I'm going to plump for a vaporware camera that hasn't arrived yet in the form of the Zeiss ZX1, a product I touched upon in the AtoZ of Photography. We don't know for sure how the camera performs because it hasn't been released yet but it is at least a physical product. It Is a full-frame 37 MP camera with fixed f/2 35mm Distagon lens with an internal 512GB SSD and built-in Lightroom mobile for raw image editing. Is it actually designed from the ground-up to be an Android camera? Will it operate well as camera, whilst allowing access to the benefits of computational photography? We won't know until it is released, but until then the promise is something to get excited about!

6. Computational Photography: EyeApps ProHDR and Google Pixel 2

The power of multiple images is well known, from focus stacking, to star stacking, to HDR, to panoramas. Blending, merging, or combining images — computational photography — allows us to create something more than the sum of it's parts and the likes of Lightroom and Photoshop have long enabled us to do this. However it didn't take smartphone manufacturers long to realize that many of the deficiencies of their poor quality cameras could largely be hidden. Camera manufacturers have gone for bigger sensors and better optics, whilst smartphone manufacturers have built better software. Finding the first smartphone app that enabled real-time multi-shooting is a little hit-and-miss however ProHDR on iOS appears to be one of the earliest, dating to 2009. Was it the first? I don't know for sure so please drop a comment below if you know any that came before it.

The watershed product was undoubtedly Google's 2017 Pixel 2, upon which both The Verge and DP Review lavished great praise. Google stuck with a single camera setup as other manufacturers switched to two or more, yet it's software stack delivered fantastic results. Google has continued to add to the feature set, such as Night Sight, which demonstrates how far software can take you. 

With computational photography, the cat is firmly out of the camera bag. Can traditional manufacturers muster much resistance or does the photography future belong to Google, Samsung, and Apple?

Lead image a composite courtesy of Xavier Romero-Frias via Wikipedia and Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons. Body images used under Create Commons courtesy of Morio and Rama via Wikipedia and copyright Zeiss.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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