It was the year of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, iTunes, the final Concorde flight, and the invasion of Iraq. George W. Bush was President, and Tony Blair Prime Minister, whilst Serena beat Venus at Wimbledon and the Devils won the Stanley Cup. In cinemas "Matrix Reloaded," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Finding Nemo," and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" first aired. But what happened during 2003 in the photographic world?
The millennium dawned and camera manufactures woke up to the digital future. Nikon led the charge and 2003 saw it release its fourth DSLR in the shape of the D2H. This was a pro-spec camera specifically targeted at sports photographers with a relatively low 4.1 MP resolution, but an 8 fps shooting rate; the D2X released the following year was 12MP. As with all the early Nikon DSLRs, it had an APS-C sensor which had been sourced from Sony. However the D2H was their first to us a Nikon sensor and is a reminder that they have long had sensor design and fabrication facilities. It demonstrated Nikon's rapid R&D, moving on from the cumbersome D1 models with better AF, better battery life (Li-Ion), and iTTL flash, however it suffered from a slower flash sync speed and some IR contamination. Nikon also released one film SLR — the F75 — however all film camera development would cease in 2006 so this really was one of the last models.
Whilst Canon had been second to market in terms of a DSLR, it wasn't sitting back on its haunches, launching the pro-spec 1D in 2001 with an APS-H 4 MP sensor which was succeeded by the 1Ds in 2002 sporting a full frame (FF) 11 MP variant. By 2003, Canon was in a brief hiatus and released the prosumer APS-C 6.3 MP 10D at $2000 (about $3000 today). It has the dubious claim of being the last APS-C model prior to the release of EF-S lenses and so was incompatible with them.
These early cameras highlight the key market both companies wooed: journalists and particularly sports photographers. Continuous shooting speed was critical and the 8 fps of the D2H and 1D was a design target. It is also the reason that lower resolution APS-C and APS-H sensors were chosen as they enabled faster readout and greater lens reach, whilst also being cheaper to manufacture. However Canon realized the importance of FF sensors in terms of image quality and historic lens support. From the beginning their dual strategy of APS-H and FF targeted both these markets. It wasn't until Nikon released the D300 and D3 in 2007 that they followed suit.
Whilst Canon's range of APS-C cameras could mount EF lenses, the design of the body meant that lens elements could be mounted closer to the sensor, so leading to the implementation of EF-S lenses. The release of the EF-S mount in 2003 was therefore a landmark as it allowed greater flexibility in lens design for both wide angle optics, as well as making smaller, lighter, and cheaper lenses. This improvement however meant that FF cameras could not mount EF-S lenses. Nikon eventually settled on APS-C and FF models (the so-called DX and FX lines) with lenses designed for the image circle of each sensor. However FX lenses could be mounted on DX cameras and vice versa. This meant either a crop factor was applied or an image crop occurred, however they were entirely interchangeable.
All of which goes to show both how lens mounts evolved over time and how important they are to the design and flexibility of any individual system. Canon has never been afraid to improve (or break) their system in the search of better performance.
Meanwhile, Pentax managed to release its last SLR and first full DSLR in the form of the *ist and *istD. The *ist was everything you would expect from the last film designed camera and marked the handover to digital. The *istD was essentially the same body housing a 6.1 MP APS-C sensor, the same used by Nikon's D100. The lightest and smallest DSLR of its time (a remarkable 650 g), it was well received and showed that Pentax had managed to hit the mark with its first model. A thoroughly deserving (and competitive) entry in to the digital market and one Pentax fans would have been relieved to see.
Olympus had a relatively long heritage of developing digital compact cameras, dating to 1993's VC-1000 which was to be followed shortly after by their consumer oriented Camedia line. The cash cow was digital compact cameras and they embraced it with vigor. With the demise of the OM line they needed to consider their digital strategy and this they pursued with Kodak in the form of the Four Thirds system which was designed from the ground up to be digital and highly compact. It was the direct precursor of Micro Four Thirds (which removed the mirrorbox from the specification) and is arguably the foundation of all mirrorless products today.
So was Olympus visionary in its maiden release of the E-1 in 2003 or blithely stupid in pursuing an entirely different strategy to everyone else? The Four Thirds crop factor is 2.0x, with the image sensor about the same size as 110 film; it has 30% less area than APS-C. This brings advantages of reach and speed, alongside cost as well as body size and weight. Olympus envisaged pro news and sports shooters as being the main beneficiaries and the E-1 was built to the highest specification using a 5 MP Kodak sensor. Dust and weather sealed, it incorporated the first ever dust removal system (Supersonic Wave Filter). However its frame rate and AF was uncompetitive when compared to Nikon and Canon. Yet again, however, we see the importance of digital to the development of lens mounts with Olympus starting a new system from scratch.
Fuji's dalliance with Nikon continued beyond their collaboration on the E2 and E3, with a prosumer range of Finepix S Pro DSLRs initially based around the Nikon F60, but using a Fuji sensor and electronics. The Super CCD sensor was Fuji produced, using a hexagonal tesselation to increase the resolution. It's a reminder that from the very beginning Fuji has been involved in chip fabrication, which continues to this day with the X-Trans sensor. Both produce exceptional color, but require proprietary algorithms to get the best out of them. However the main 2003 product was the GX645AF, a medium format AF film camera also sold as the Hasselblad H1 and a thoroughly modern update to medium format. By the end of the 2000s both these product lines would end — Fuji would have to reinvent itself.
Minolta was going through tough times behind the scenes. By 2003 it was close to the final merger with Konica whilst also in discussion with Sony about jointly developing its digital strategy. Its Maxxum SLRs were still popular and it released the 3, an entirely consumer oriented auto SLR. Like other manufacturers it also plied a healthy trade in compact cameras. The year was particularly notable for the release of the DiMAGE A1 which introduced the world's first anti-shake system using a 2-axis IBIS integrated in to a 5.2 MP bridge camera. The camera wasn't successful, but the technology ground breaking.
Leica at this point was gearing up for the release of its first digital M in 2006; 2002 saw it release the last iterative development of the film M in the form of the M7 which would finally cease production in 2018. The MP was then released in 2003, a gorgeous, stripped back, M rangefinder that took the camera right back to its M3 origins, or perhaps less sympathetically, "a showy version of the M6 Classic". That is to say, a mechanical camera with a light meter.
As ever, global news continued to break and this kept photographers busy. For a long and lingering look through 2003, take a peek at Time's retrospective for the US, while PA Images provide a well-rounded view of the UK.
World Press Photo for 2003 went to Eric Grigorian for his heart wrenching photo of a child squatting beside the soon-to-be grave of his father. A 6.5 earthquake hit northern Iran killing at least 300 people. The boy is hugging his fathers trousers, volunteers digging graves in the background: it's an image that speaks to the present in terms of the loss of loved ones and the need for burial. However it also looks to the future — what happened to the boy and his family? Grief is so often hidden that it requires photographers to be witness to the events around them.
On a similar note, Don Bartletti of the LA Times won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for his work on migration from South America to the USA, a recurring topic. Again, Bartletti is a witness of long distance migration, a trek he actively participates in. The images taken from moving trains are arresting for their immediacy and the sheer sense of danger. He also drags the shutter very effectively to portray motion. This is an essay showing the lengths people will go to in their search for a better life.
The final selection is from the Time 100 Most Influential Images of All Time titled "The Hooded Man." A haunting image of torture in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, that did significant damage to the reputation of the US Army. The image is influential not so much in and of itself, because there were thousands taken by the soldiers involved and this was less explicit than others, but rather because it is unusual for there to be so much photographic evidence. This clearly shows the social transition to digital photography and the desire to share the images widely, something we take for granted now. It also witnesses — and can help explain — why it happened, something psychologist Phil Zimbardo explores.
So where does this all leave 2003? Both technically and socially the world had inextricably shifted to digital. Whilst smartphones weren't "a thing," the mindset for digital photography — sharing — was entrenched. It enabled journalists to file imagery quickly for fast news as much as it allowed friends to distribute photos between themselves. The world became a smaller place and "The Hooded Man" is one manifestation of that. However it was Canon that hit its stride in offering FF and APS-C DSLRs, something that Nikon was going to have to play catch up with. That early misstep is something it is still trying to recover from.