Those of Us at the Dawn of Digital Screwed Up a Generation of Photos

Like many 30-somethings, I came of age during a time when photography was transitioning from film to pixels. Entire years of my life were captured with early consumer and professional-grade digital cameras, and now I’m left feeling like that was a big mistake.

In the late 1990s, I moved from capturing memories on film to floppy disk. I bought a Sony Mavica FD-83 digital camera and pretty much dropped film entirely, capturing most of my memories at 0.8 megapixels or roughly 1,024x768. I could fit 6 or 7 pictures on a floppy disk and could often be found with a hip pack full of floppies on my waist at any given time.

I felt so cool. I felt so modern. 1,024x768 matched the resolution of my CRT monitors. Matching is great. A “mega” pixel sounded big, and so, 0.8 megapixels must have been good enough. My memories were accurately captured. I’m realizing now, as 4K and 5K monitors are standard, that I was so wrong. Most of my memories can’t even fill up half a screen without turning into a blocky, pixelated mess.

Transport yourself to 1999. Internet was primarily dial-up, where if your mom picked up the phone while you were browsing on America Online, you’d lose the connection. Most photography sites on the web didn’t even exist yet. Aside from consumer electronics magazines, there wasn’t really a place to turn to find out what a megapixel was, much less what that meant for printing and screen resolution. 4K monitors and televisions seemed like an insane idea. Even full HD (1,920x1,080) seemed insane when a flat, 17-inch CRT monitor at 1,024x768 seemed just peachy. How much better could it get?

By the time I went backpacking through Europe in 2004, I had upgraded from my Mavica, but my Sony Cybershot DSC-P8 was still only pushing 3.2 megapixels.

It’s in this environment that many of my generation entered digital. I bought the Digital Mavica for $800 in 1999 based primarily on seeing other people with Mavicas and the ease of copying files to the computer with a floppy disk. At that time, USB hadn't made its way into most computers and cameras yet, and a previous camera I tried, the Casio QV-10, required a terrible serial connection to the computer and very unreliable software to work. JPG and floppy disks were transformative when it came to workflow. Even if I had sprung for a $5,500 Nikon D1, also available at the time, I’d only be getting 2.7 megapixels. Much of my early professional work for newspapers was shot on a Nikon D2H, a 4.1 megapixel-body that seemed to look just fine on the toilet paper that passed for newsprint in those days, but whose images don’t really hold up on a 27” iMac with a 5K Retina display today.

Most of my professional work over my career has been shot with a 12-megapixel Nikon D700. That’s not enough to hold an 8K screen at full resolution. Even my main-squeeze Canon EOS 6D (and most other prosumer/professional cameras out there) can’t hold up at 8K resolution, which would need north of 30 megapixels. Am I repeating history by continuing to stick with such a “low-resolution” camera? Collectively, the cameras at the top of this post don't even equal the resolution of an older iPhone, but I shot so much work with them all.

By the time my kids dig through the digital shoebox of photos left behind after my death, they’ll only be able to witness my formative years at postage-stamp resolution on their 16K screens seamlessly integrated into their walls. It’s those days that I go through a batch of photos and print them all at 4x6, so there’s at least something around to document the era, but I’m still quite a few years behind on my printing.

What more could be done to ensure that photographs withstand the test of (resolution) time? These are the questions that keep me up as a photographer.

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86 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

"Even full HD (1,920x1,080) seemed insane when a flat, 17-inch CRT monitor at 1,024x768 seemed just peachy. How much better could it get?"

So true. I remember in 2005 how I thought 720p would be all the quality I would ever desire and 1,080p was total overkill.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I regret that so much of my professional video career was done at SD and 720p. I'll probably say the same about 1080 in a few years.

Jeremy Strange's picture

Very true. If you’re looking at images digitally it will always feel this way. Printing might be the only way to capitalise on the quality of your images. With that being said, Instagram in 2020 is still posting images that are 1080x1080

Greg Edwards's picture

and being viewed on screen with even lower resolution

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Isn't it interesting that those tiny pictures wouldn't make big prints back then and today most 20mp sensors generate images that for a good part don't make it past web size and social media use, same as where we started.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Interesting and also ironic

Marcus Joyce's picture

If only we had a deep ai to enhance and upscale images... If only

Matt Owen's picture

My thoughts exactly. Let the kids drop files onto the upsizer processor of the day and marvel at the 16K glory of Mavica JPGs.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I'm waiting for it.

Kenneth Wozniak's picture

Television police/CSI type shows would have you believe that technology has existed since the 1980's.

Michael Penn's picture

I don't have a 4,6 or 8k monitor and don't wish for one. I don't want a 30, 50, or 60+ mp camera. I began with film as a child in the late 70s and introduced digital photography into my work in the late 90s. Last year I grew tired of all this needing more crap and went back to using a 4mp Canon G2 from 2001. I love the color and have made hundreds of 8.5x11 prints. For almost 14 years I used the original 8mp Ricoh GRD and have a couple thousand prints on 11x17 to 17x22 paper.

Alex Herbert's picture

Bought a 32" 4K monitor last weekend. I was in Lightroom for ages thinking my images weren't loading properly because they were still pixelated. Then I realised that at 1:1 the image was too small for the screen, to 'zoom' in I had to go to at least 2:1.

Greg Edwards's picture

Interestingly though, 4k translates to roughly 8 megapixels. Make of that what you will.

I get your point though. I'm considering picking up a used Fuji X100 for a bit of fun.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I thought I didn't need Retina displays in everything until I did.

Dillan K's picture

Why would you regret a thing? Would you have been happier shooting with a large format film camera, because then you knew that the resolution would stand up? Do the best you can with the equipment you can afford.

Norman Rosenblum's picture

I wouldn't worry. Kids won't be that interested. OK Boomer?

Jeremy Strange's picture

I logged in just to downvote you

Deleted Account's picture

Me too!

Alex Herbert's picture

The centuries old feud between the Rosenblum and Rosenbalm clans rages on....

Deleted Account's picture

You know it!! LOL!!! ;-)

Greg Edwards's picture

Saying "OK Boomer" to a 30-something man doesn't quite add up.

Alex Herbert's picture

Yeah, usually just means the person saying it is a child who for 1, thinks 30something is old, and 2, doesn't actually understand what a generation is.

A Engel's picture

Ok, alphabet boi...

sam dasso's picture

My first digital camera was HP 1.2MP. It had better pictures than my Polaroid. My first "real" digital camera was SONY DSC-F828 with 8MP resolution. Still looks good on 4K TV screen. I guess pictures I shot with my Sony A7RII at 42MP will be good for 8K TV. I hope I live long enough to try my Sony A7RIV 60MP pictures on 16K TV.

M TW's picture

Wait you're 30 something and in high school you had 800 dollars to spend on a mavica digital camera? And you saw other people using those silly things????

At some point human vision will be a limiting factor and arguably it already is. Unless you are a pixel peeper todays cameras are generally good enough for 90% of photography uses.

Michael Penn's picture

"todays cameras are generally good enough for 90% of photography uses"

Since 2010

But of course there are too many egos that fall into that 10% exception.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm trying to guess his age too. ;-)

Greg Edwards's picture

"Unless you are a pixel peeper todays cameras are generally good enough for 90% of photography uses".

Not to mention photographers who rarely print anything and put it all online.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I worked a lot of hours scooping ice cream in Ice Cream World to afford that camera. You should have seen my forearms.

Jon The Baptist's picture

My wife and I have been ordering TONS of prints for the home the last two weeks. Filling up a bunch of repainted blank walls. Digging thru the personal vault to find any goodies we can.

We printed some 20x30’s off the D70s I had when we first met and they look amazing!

jim hughes's picture

I share your pain. But that's life. Back in the film days, i couldn't get into photography because learning means trial and error, and developing film was too slow and too expensive. And no one would ever have seen my work anyway. Today we have a lot of fake nostalgia for the film years but in reality it was a tight-@ssed and exclusive club that we couldn't join.

John Savidi's picture

Except it wasn't slow or expensive, it was still the norm and you could drop it off on pretty much every street corner, do your shopping then pick up your freshly processed rolls and print.
Sure, a one hour turn around was more expensive than the 2 day wait, but due to economies of scale it still wasn't going to break the bank, we all still had film cameras remember, expensive was the new breed of digital.
In 2007 I moved to Russia which was still lagging behind somewhat technology wise, as a result there were still processing labs everywhere, many of which were Pro.
I was paying the UK equivalent of 36p per roll without prints for processing, did make me a tad nostalgic.

jay holovacs's picture

I agree with you totally. Back in the 60s, getting a roll of 12 prints was about $6 (about $20) now. And you had little opportunity to experiment. You could take a shot or two, then wait till you got the film developed (if you were in a real rush you could skp the rest of the roll--but that was wasteful). as a kid I had to be very careful, a 35mm roll could ultimately cost me a couple weeks of allowance.(And don't forget the price of flashbulbs, needed for almost all indoor shots)

Trips were the one time to be extravagant. You might take 200-300 slides if you were really pushing it.

The concept of taking a few shots just on a whim..seeing the results immediately...at virtually zero individual picture cost...in almost any light...with a camera carried in your pocket.........No one saw that coming

Deleted Account's picture

I bought a Minolta Dimage 1500EX Zoom April 1999. Apx 1.5 mp A year later I got the Wide version. That was cheaper than just getting the lens module. They used the Digita OS that let you run scrips to do manual and it saved me a lot of time on some jewelry catalogs and brochures I was doing at the time.

Anyways, Those cameras allowed me to take many more photos than I would have with film for several reasons we all know. It doesn't bother me that is was low rez compared to today. I have more photos and memories than I would have had using film alone. I still used film for things I needed higher quality for until 2004 when I got a DSLR. I have no regrets and don't view it as a "screw up". ;-) Those were the times.

John Martin's picture

Hasselblad 500CM. Vericolor 160. 220 backs.
Hated digital. So much post work.

Mihnea Stoian's picture

At my house we strangely keep coming back to film. Just went to NYC for 3 days and took 1000 digital pictures, yet my wife couldn't wait to see the 90 or so I shot on film.
For commercial work, well, every 50 year old TV show looks horrible now, shot on those low-res tv cameras, but anything else would've added too much work to get it ready. We use the tools that help turnaround work fastest at the best acceptable quality and move on, I guess.

Greg Edwards's picture

You make a good point there RE TV shows. Even more recent television from the 90s and 00s before the jump to HD look dated. Movies shot on film however, that get remastered every now and then for new formats still look as fresh today as they did then.

super steel_'s picture

I had a hard time to transition to digital.was using F5's/coolscan4000/5000
D100/200/300 did not look good. but the D3 is when I jumped in.
I now feel the opposite. I prefer the look of digital to film. it was so much harder with film. very slow progress. the stress of hoping the film was fine for the wedding. running to buy film, then develop, then to scan and to edit in PS one at a time. my F5 cameras will not see film inside them again. I realize alot enjoy film and thats awesome. to each their own. for me it was more work then now.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

This headline was interesting, but after reading the article twice, I'm still not sure I understand your point.
Is it merely that you regret having been early to adopt an imperfect digital format?

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Pretty much - Most of my late high school and early college memories are captured at useless resolution, and those are things I want to remember!

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

I see, and I do understand.
In 2002, I used the still picture function of a Mini DV camera to take photos of my infant daughter. Just like your school era photos, those are in a lousy resolution with yucky colors to boot. Even worse is the condition of many old Ektachromes of my own childhood that my father had taken.
I found them after his death; most of them are faded and a lot of them are moldy due to bad storage. Oh...and some great old B&W photos printed on velvet stipple paper...try scanning those.
Oh well...life goes on.

Greg Edwards's picture

Here's a thought. "Retina" resolution, where the human eye cannot perceive any extra detail is widely accepted to be 300dpi, if viewed from about 2ft (heck, I can't even see the pixels on my iphone from a few inches, and that's 326dpi_.

I rough bit of maths and photoshop tell me that 8k at 300dpi works out at about a 30" monitor. So unless you're wanting a huge screen on your desk, or want to make huge prints (which viewed from a distance can be made larger at lower resolutions) I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest 8k will be the sensible limit for most of us.

Frank Kinser's picture

The only thing consistent is transition. An article like this could have been written a hundred years ago as well as one hundred years from now.

Eric Cleaver's picture

I don’t often sit around enjoying and appreciating photos on a 27” 4k monitor. That’s for editing. A 2ish megapixel image prints just fine at 8x10, and even 16x20 (at reasonable viewing distances). Given that the only time most people see others photos is printed or on the web, that’s a better criteria for judging technical sufficiency. Good news is that your old photos are largely fine by those standards!

Marc Librescu's picture

I bought an Olympus C-1000L in the late 1990s for $1,000. I didn’t use it much. It had a resolution of .85 mp. I bought and sold a succession of digital cameras in the years that followed. When I finally got around to selling the Olympus, I think I got $25 for it.

Charles Metivier's picture

Easy solution, buy a really old monitor and your back in business!

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

A printed 4x6 at 300 DPI is just north of 2 megapixels. If you have low-res photos worth sharing with your future kids, print them.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

My Mavica was only shooting .8 :( I made 4x6 prints off of it, but you could tell even back then.

Kenneth Wozniak's picture

A low-quality photo is better than no photo. :)

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