Digital photography in 1991 (and beyond)

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: A trip down memory lane, looking back at the state of digital photography in 1991.
Written by Janice Chen, Inactive

In 1991, I hadn't yet gotten my hands on a digital camera. I was just transitioning from my first real job out of college as assistant copy editor for Computer Shopper magazine (which was closer in size to a phone book than a magazine at the time), moving over to the content editing side as an assistant editor. I ran the magazine's software section, editing such long-lost gems as the Unix Notes column by our very own Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols. Little did I know that someday I would come back to serve as editor in chief of that dearly departed publication, before becoming EIC at CNET after the company acquired ZDNet and Computer Shopper in 2000. But I digress.

I'd cut my PC teeth on a Mac SE as an English major at Cornell University (see Chris Dawson's recent post for a glimpse of that time), and after a brief dalliance with an Apple IIe, had bought a Zeos 386SX for home and worked on a Gateway clone in the office. We used XyWrite for DOS to write and edit our articles, MCI Mail to email with our freelancers (but non-industry friends had yet to get online) and communicated with our readers via ZiffNet forums (the precursor to ZDNet) on CompuServe or Prodigy online services. We only typed in "win" at the C: prompt to run Windows 3.0 if we wanted to play Solitaire or Reversi (and then Minesweeper when Win 3.11 came along in '92). At that point, I'd never dreamed of plugging a camera into any of those computers much less taking any photographs without film.

Though the CCD sensor was invented in 1969 and the first digital camera was created by Kodak's Steven Sasson in 1975, in 1991, digital cameras were a long way off from being the ubiquitous gadgets toted around today. Shooting with film was still far from extinction. To put things in perspective, note that 1991 was the year that Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Minolta, and Nikon started jointly developing the 24mm Advanced Photo System (APS) film format, which would be officially launched in 1996.  A last-ditch effort breathe new life into consumer film photography before it was eclipsed by nascent digital technologies, the APS format gave rise to the Canon Elph line of ultracompact cameras (which of course would go on to dominate the digital point-and-shoot category for years), as well as the APS-C image sensor format used in many digital SLRs today. The magnetic or optical information exchange (IX) layer of APS film provided the ability to record auxiliary information (such as date, time, caption, and exposure data), a precursor to metadata associated with a digital image file.

1991 was also the year Kodak started development on the Photo CD, a system for digitizing and storing photo negatives or transparencies on a CD-ROM (comprising a Kodak scanner with a CD writer and Sun Sparc minicomputer). Launched in 1992, the Photo CD could hold 100 photos and gained some initial traction with professional photographers by offering a cheaper, high-quality alternative to pricey drum scans. Consumer adoption was also promising at first, but the proprietary file format of Photo CDs was eventually surpassed by the growing popularity of the industry-standard JPEG format, which allowed for smaller file sizes with similar image quality. Kodak eventually abandoned the format without publishing the technical specifications, leaving photographers who'd embraced Photo CDs in the lurch (though a third party was able to reverse engineer the format, enabling various open source decoders).

Having said all that that, 1991 was a significant year on the actual digital camera front as well. It was then that Kodak launched its Professional Digital Camera System (DCS) -- effectively the first digital SLR to be sold commercially. The Kodak DCS 100 (as the camera was later dubbed to distinguish it from subsequent models) consisted of a digital camera back (available in both color and monochrome versions) mounted on a Nikon F3 SLR body. It had a resolution of 1.3 megapixels and came with a 200MB hard drive that could store roughly 160 uncompressed images (or 600 using an optional JPEG compression board). The hard drive and batteries were stored in a separate Digital Storage Unit (tethered to the camera by cable) that also included a monochrome LCD for viewing images. The combined unit was so large that a nylon hip pack and huge hard case were included in the $20,000 price tag (which incidentally represented a year's salary for me at the time). The DCS was aimed at photojournalists since the camera (which used a SCSI interface to connect to a computer) could drastically reduce the transmission time for sending photos back to the newsroom.

Though it only sold 987 units, the Kodak DCS was listed among Popular Science magazine's "Best of What's New" for 1991, which purported to be "The Year's 100 Greatest Achievements in Science and Technology." When you consider that the Burnes of Boston Showbox frame (a decidedly low-tech precursor to the digital photo frame that let you store 40 snapshots in a pullout drawer, advancing the photo displayed in the frame when you opened and closed the drawer) was also one of the 100 greatest science and technology achievements PopSci picked that year, it's a wonder that only three years later we'd be seeing one of the first consumer-oriented digital cameras, the Apple QuickTake 100, a 1-pound, 0.3-megapixel point-and-shoot launched in May 1994 for $749.

My own first extensive hands-on experience using a digital camera would have to wait almost four years after that, until early 1998, when I had the chance to review a Nikon Coolpix 900, having returned to Computer Shopper magazine after stints at WindowsUser magazine and Windows Magazine (and a year off to travel the world in between). The Coolpix 900 was a 1.25-megapixel point-and-shoot with a 2-inch LCD, a 3x optical zoom (38-115mm), and a funky swiveling body design (priced at $899 in 1998). It was the experience with that camera that inspired me to get my own digital camera toward the end of that year, at a time when few people I knew outside the tech industry had them. I eventually settled on a Fujifilm MX-500, which sold for $400 to $500 at the time. I liked the 1.3-megapixel MX-500 because of its relatively compact size and the fact that it used SmartMedia memory cards rather than CompactFlash since I was wrongly convinced that SmartMedia would eclipse the bulkier CompactFlash. I even had a SmartMedia/floppy disk adapter to transfer my photos to my PC. The camera's LCD was just 1.8 inches, but since we hadn't yet gotten used to the idea of using LCDs as viewfinders, the postage-stamp sized display didn't phase me. I used the optical viewfinder anyway, which was protected by a nice sliding lens cover when not in use.

Nostalgia makes me wish I'd held on to that first camera love of mine. At the time, it was more of a novelty than anything else (a $500 novelty, sure, but a novelty nevertheless). I'd whip it out at parties and pass it around for immediate snapshot gratification (sort of a glorified Polaroid), but I never bothered to do much more with the photos -- which I still have on a backup drive 13 years later -- since they looked better on the tiny LCD or on a PC than they ever did printed out.

What was your first digital camera? Post a Talkback comment and let me know.

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