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Digital photography in 1991 (photos)

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: A walk through digital cameras over the years, all the way back to 1991.

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Topic: Hardware
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1 of 11 Janice Chen/ZDNet

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.

See the accompanying story: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Digital photography in 1991


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2 of 11 Janice Chen/ZDNet

In 1991, 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).

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The Kodak DCS 100's 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. 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.

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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. 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.

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The APS format gave rise to the Canon Elph line of ultracompact cameras (which 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.

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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).

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Only three years after the 1.3-megapixel Kodak DCS 100 was launched (with a $20,000 price tag), came 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.

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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. 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).

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10 of 11 Janice Chen/ZDNet

Experience with the Nikon Coolpix 900 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. The camera's LCD was just 1.8 inches.

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I even had a SmartMedia/floppy disk adapter to transfer my photos to my PC.

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