How 1995 Saw the Birth of the DSLR but Manufacturers Kept on Making Film Cameras

How 1995 Saw the Birth of the DSLR but Manufacturers Kept on Making Film Cameras

Bill Clinton was President, John Major was Prime Minister, the 49ers won the Super Bowl, and Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf were Wimbledon champions. It was the year that the Space Shuttle docked with the Mir Space Station, the World Trade Organization was formed, there was a serin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, OJ went on trial, the Oklahoma City Bombing took place, Windows95, Dolly the sheep was cloned, eBay went live, and Braveheart, Toy Story, Babe, and The Usual Suspects were released. But what happened in the photographic world?

Gear

Perhaps the single biggest moniker that can sum up the mid-90s is "digital first." Fuji had already ushered in the future in the form of the D1-SP in 1988, and the big guns started to play catchup, albeit slowly. Nikon partnered with Fuji, whilst Canon linked up with Kodak (the other early developer of digital). The race was on to produce the first DSLR and, as is often the case, both Nikon and Canon came to market at the same time. However these weren't DSLRs built from the ground up, but retrofitted SLRs.

Canon's first offering was the EOS-DCS3, which was really a rebranded Kodak, which was a butchered Canon EOS-1N. The 1N was Canon's top pro spec SLR released in 1994, to which the Kodak's NC2000e digital back was added. Initially a 6MP model, there were later 1.3MP and 1.5MP variants in 1.3x, 1.5x, and 2.6x crop factors respectively. It had a huge 16MB of RAM, to accompany the PCMCIA card slot and a SCSI connector. It's every bit the beast it looks, weighing in at a hefty 1.8 kg (body only).

Nikon came up with a completely different solution in the form of the E2, which strangely took the opposite approach to Canon. It used a hollowed out Fuji body, with Nikon electronics inside, not baring much resemblance to SLRs of the time. Both companies bore the development costs in producing the Nikon E2/Fujix DS-565 which looks uncannily bulky. Incorporating a 1.3 MP 2/3" sensor, it was able to deliver a 1.0x crop factor and so full compatibility with all F-mount lenses. The bulkiness is a result of Nikon's Reduction Optics System which cleverly captured the same field of view as a 35 mm sensor. However, because it delivered the same quantity of light, the camera's base ISO of 800 was equivalent to the 2/3" sensor base ISO of 50 meaning it had good low light performance, a boon for sports photographers.

After the digital behemoths, 1995 saw Canon release the EOS50, the second in their line of futuristic eye-controlled focus cameras that were first introduced with the semi-pro EOS5. The 50 also introduced E-TTL. Nikon meanwhile brought out the FM10 which looks like any other SLR of the time. And it was, except that it was manufactured by Cosina and based upon the CT-1 chassis. Even more remarkably... it is still available to purchase from Nikon today!

The other camera manufacturers continued to ride the wave of large camera sales, driven by the compact point-and-shoot market. Fuji had already dumped its SLR range in the late 1980s and plowed the furrow of developing its digital expertise in partnership with Nikon. In addition to the DS-565, it also released the enthusiast focused DS-220. As a $1,200 bridge camera (about $2500 today) it was a pricey purchase. One product of note was the Rensha Cardia Byu-n 16, a 16-lens multi-shot film camera that took a time lapse of 16 sub-frames spread across two 35mm frames. It's easy to forget how much we take for granted with digital, yet this type of multi-shot mode required its own camera!

Meanwhile, Pentax carried on with their K-mount autofocus SLRs releasing the Z-1p, Z-5p, and Z-70 in 1995. The Z-1p would be Pentax's top end AF camera for the next 6 years and was highly regarded for its features and value for money. A trait that has served Pentax well over the years, however users would have to wait until 2003 for their first DSLR.

So where does that leave Minolta and Olympus? Minolta released three Maxxum SLRs in the form of the 600si Classic, 500si Super, and 300si. These filled out Minolta's AF SLR lineup with middle of the range models. They were plastic, functional, consumer electronics designed to perform and sell well. On that basis they succeeded, even if they weren't "classic". Minolta users would have to wait until 2004 for their first DSLR; by that point they had been bought by Konica would would shortly be sold to Sony.

Olympus on the other hand were trying to dig themselves out of the AF hole they had gotten themselves into. They released the OM-3Ti — the system's swansong — built in limited numbers and arguably the best of the OM line. Olympus' first digital camera wouldn't arrive until 1996. the first DSLR until 2000, and the first DSLR system in 2003.

What is unusual about this history is how on earth camera manufacturers didn't see the digital juggernaut heading their way? Fuji led that charge in 1988, yet a DSLR wouldn't arrive until 1995 and a usable model until 1999. Nikon and Canon dragged their heels, Kodak imploded, and the remaining manufacturers bided their time living off compact camera sales. If today's camera market shows one thing it's that expertise in digital was critical to survival, yet back in the 1990s manufacturers needed to design and build DSLRs that nobody wanted to buy in order to lay the foundations for the digital transition. Maybe it was Sony that pitched this well: buy a manufacturer after the digital expertise had been acquired. If there is an analogy to be drawn here, then it would be with today's car market. We know the transition to electric is coming, but manufacturers are reticent to invest. Does that make Tesla an acquisition target?

Images

As ever, global news continued to break and this kept photographers busy. For a long and lingering look through 1995, take a peek at The Atlantic's retrospective for the US, while PA Images provide a well-rounded view of the UK.

The Pillars of Creation makes the cut for the Time 100 Most Influential Images of All Time and shows the Serpens constellation in the Eagle Nebula; elephant trunks of interstellar gas (molecular hydrogen) and dust are depicted in the early stages of forming a new star. The constellation is 5000-7000 light years away, with the left-most pillar about four light years long (that's 23 trillion miles!). Scientists Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen from Arizona State University created a composite of 32 images taken from four different cameras. These are recorded at the following wavelengths: 502 nanometers (oxygen), 657 nanometers (hydrogen), and 673 nanometers (sulfur) which were then re-mapped to blue, green, and red. It is a beautifully breathtaking image.

The World Press Photo of the Year was awarded to James Nachtwey for his disturbing image of a Hutu man at a hospital in Rwanda, having been mutilated by local militia. It viscerally brought to the attention of the world the realities of the Tutsi-Hutu animosity and the 1994 genocide.

Carol Guzy of the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography for her work on the Crisis in Haiti. With the focus of many photography competitions on individual images, Guzy's Pulitzer is a reminder of the importance of a portfolio of work. The images are equally shocking, inspiring, and sinister ranging from US intervention, the impact upon children, violence and ultimately death. News photography also doesn't hide from the fact that the photographer is a witness — Guzy was there and the risk would have been considerable.

Body images courtesy of Rama, Joe Ravi, and Morio via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons, and the Library of Congress and NASA, in the Public Domain..

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13 Comments

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Something is weird. I thought Nikon or Canon had something already out by 1991-1992. I remember articles in European magazines in 91 or 92. May be just prototypes.

You are correct. Kodak came out with the DCS100 in 1991. Was tethered to hardware if I remember correctly. Late 1993 I started using the Kodak DCS200 which could be shot non-tethered but there was no screen at the time. It was really the 1st usable digital camera for the studio. Nikon 8008s body with a 1.5 megapixel chip with a 2.5 focal factor. Could hold up to 50 images internally. Camera body was about $10,000.00 if I remember correctly. I did use it tethered to a computer to shoot catalog images. Photoshop 2.0 if I remember correctly.

barry cash's picture

The whole issue was and still is film vs digital better resolution?
How Kodak lost it’s way was a mind bender for sure.

Jim Bolen's picture

Flat out poor management. The perfect example of a company not changing with the times.

Sad truth of it was that Kodak themselves brought digital cameras to the market but did not know how to plan for the future with it. Ultimately their demise was from a self infected wound.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Self infected wound was pretty much Kodak's way of operating. Disc, digital, APS, helping Fuji grow, Polaroid... I guess I can't say it was a never ending story since they did close shop in the end.

Jason Catlin's picture

I agree and would add the words "selfish" and "arrogant" as well. I worked for Kodak from 97 - 03. Due to my responsibilities I interacted with the Kodak executive leadership team on a somewhat regular basis. The Kodak exec team knew EXACTLY what was going down and what the future looked like. And instead of demonstrating courage and leadership, they made short term decisions to try to protect as much of their personal retirement as they could before heading out the door. It's a shame because Kodak had many innovative digital products at that time starved for investment. These products were in market and growing but never got a chance because all the $$$ was spent propping up the film business.

Mutley Dastardly's picture

Minolta had a coöperation with Agfa and had a modified SLR-body with a digital back. For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minolta_RD-175 - i've seen two of those camera's at work.

Mike Smith's picture

Great catch - Ive not seen that before. Thanks for posting!

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

I think the Minolta RD-3000 came out after that or thereabouts, 1998-99, and had 2 CCD chips. I have a couple of Minolta Dimage 1500EX cameras and they used the same CCD chips, Sony W Fine, as the RD-3000. I have the entire Dimage 1500 set up. Both lenses, dedicated flash and remote cable. Too bad they only had the two lens / CCD modules for it. That's part of the reason I bought it and that you could write scripts for manual settings with its Digita OS. I paid $700 for the Zoom version April 1999 and $300 for the Wide version, body and all. Was cheaper than just the lens module. Not matter, I made more with them than I paid for them and still have them. ;-)

Here's a link to IR's take on the RD-3000

https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/R3K/R3KA.HTM

And the Dimage 1500 camera and lenses.

https://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/D15K/15KA.HTM

Michael L. McCray's picture

As a medical photographer in New York City and I got to play with Canon camera that used a 3.5 floppy disc as film sometimes in the late '80s. I do not know if it ever came to production. One of the doctors attached a non-dedicated flash and fried the camera, I did get some pretty low-resolution images around the city.

I was the photographer working on a digital imaging project of the retina. We went from capturing B&W images on a mainframe computer to a desktop computer with the Mega Vision processor. I posted a picture take on the screen which was 1mb in size a leap forward at the time.

Mega history link http://www.mega-vision.com/megavision_history.html

David Hutsell's picture

Interesting posts. I was involved in, and then led the practical application of digital photography at The Boeing Company. The Sony Mavica "Still Video" cameras were the first attempt at electronic photography. We were working on an USAF development project and the prime contractor, Northrup required us to use the Mavica for compatibility with their process. Dave Gurrea was their photo manager at the time. In 1990 Our Kodak rep came to us with some Rochester folks and demonstrated the DCS 100 camera system. We demonstrated them to our Aerodynamic Testing group (Wind Tunnel). We immediately bought two cameras and Kodak gave us an additional camera for flow visualization photography. That was our start and we never looked back.

Of course they kept making film cameras while continuing to develop the technology for better DSLRs. Imagine if Nikon had stopped making SLR and compact film cameras in 1999 when the hugely expensive 2.7mp D1 crop sensor DSLR was introduced. No more sales of F5, F6, F100 etc etc film cameras and the Nikkor lenses people bought for them too. How long do you think Nikon would have survived without the cash flow from their film camera business after abandoning their customers who shot film? I don’t think they would still be in business today if in 1999 they only had very expensive and low resolution digital cameras to sell. Like many companies, they surely needed the funds from a legacy technology business to invest in new technologies for the future. The same could be said for Canon and other camera companies.