A couple of weeks ago, I went through my small collection of vintage Mac magazines and did a bit of cataloguing, to have an idea of exactly which magazines I have, and which era they cover. While I was reordering the stack of MacUser UK, the 11 June 1993 issue caught my attention. It featured a group test of six digital cameras and — being mid-1993 — I was curious to read about digital camera technology of the time. The article is rather interesting; digital photography was something new and with exciting possibilities, and the introduction really sets the tone:
In the publishing house of the future, designers will be able, from their desktop computer, to direct a photographic shoot on the other side of town or the other side of the world. When the picture is taken, it will be transferred almost instantaneously to their office, where it will be possible to fit the image into a page and output it to film ready for printing in about the same time as it takes to develop a roll of film.
For photographers and designers alike the digital link plus powerful image manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop will open up new possibilities for creativity. But the trend towards digital technology won’t necessarily be driven by photographers. Commercial photographers aren’t going to easily give up their thousands of years of collective experience in manipulating silver halide film and embrace computers overnight.
The push to go digital will come from the organisations that commission photographers — publishers, advertisers and marketeers — who are now technology savvy after a decade in which their businesses were radically transformed by desktop publishing. For them, being supplied with images as computer data promises to both drive down the cost of using traditional methods of photography, while at the same time greatly improving the efficiency with which they can produce pages.
(Source: Tim Carrigan, “Snap Happy” — MacUser UK Vol. 9 No. 12, 11 June 1993)
The feature covers six digital systems, and only two of them can be considered ‘consumer’ models: the Logitech Fotoman and the Canon Ion RC 560. The other four are high-end, professional systems, which basically could be used only in a studio setting, given their bulk (and their price). Reading about these professional systems, it is evident how, at this particular juncture, digital photography was more awkward and cumbersome than film photography. There are some interesting facts regarding one of the cameras tested, the Hasselblad DB 4000. The caption under a photo of the camera reads: Hasselblad DB 4000 – The DB 4000 has a much larger than normal camera film back, because its huge CCD runs so hot that it requires its own cooling system and a large heat sink. And at a certain point, there’s this other bit in the article:
To run the camera, you need a Mac II — preferably a Quadra — with over 30 MB of RAM. The camera connects to the Mac over a SCSI link, but as it uses differential SCSI-2, it requires its own SCSI board and a huge SCSI switching box. The back is also connected to a camera unit (any of the latest range of Hasselblad bodies can be used) for flash synchronisation, and to a controller box, which links to the rather cumbersome colour wheel that is attached to the lens.
The DB 4000 ships with its own standalone software. This gets the job done, but the process is too complicated and this could be a problem for computer-illiterate photographers. At the beginning of a session of work, you need to upload several megabytes of calibration data to the camera back. Ideally, this should be done after the back has been powered up for some time and its temperature has stabilised, since any change in temperature will require fresh calibration.
The other camera systems in the test are:
- The Arca Swiss Imaging System, “The only monorail camera reviewed in the tests, it’s essentially a digital back for a standard bellow camera. While there are advantages to using a monorail camera for studio pack photography, the low resolution of the Arca system is appropriate for only small subject matter.” The camera had a resolution of 768×576 pixel in 24-bit colour, in fact. — Connection: “The Arca is connected to the Mac via a NuBus card which is essentially a high-resolution video capture card. This means that a Mac II is required. However, because the Arca has a file size of only 1.2 MB, a Centris with 8 MB of RAM would be adequate. The camera itself is a straightforward Arca Swiss, 5″ by 4″ rail camera which has full movement through every plane. The main difference is the back which houses the CCD and its own on-board microprocessor.”
- The JVC TK-F7300, “While its minimalist video camera-like design places it worlds apart from a traditional still camera, the JVC TK-F7300 was the big surprise of the group, as its unique multi-shoot image method produces a higher resolution than any of the other cameras.” Indeed, the JVC was capable of producing a resolution of 4416×3456 pixel; not bad for the time, and not bad considering it cost ‘only’ £5,750, less than half the price of the Arca system. You can see its tech specs, along with a small photo of the camera, at this page. — Connection: “The camera connects to the Mac via a TrueVision NuVista+ card, an expensive piece of kit that will add another £4,000 onto the £8,000 for the camera and lens. From the camera, the video signal is sent to the NuVista card, which then drives a second multi-sync screen on which you get a live preview of the image you are shooting. The camera is linked to the computer via a serial connection and it also requires its own mains power.”
- The Kodak DCS 200, “The most versatile of the cameras, the Kodak DCS 200 has its own 200 MB internal hard disk, allowing you to use it both for studio and location work.” — Camera body and connection: “The Kodak-manufactured component of the DCS 200 is the digital back which houses the CCD, special imaging and compression silicon, a 200 MB hard disk, and six AA batteries for power. The back unit is connected to a standard Nikon body — the fully automatic N8008 camera — which takes standard Nikon lenses. […] The camera connects to the Mac via a standard SCSI cable. The software provided with the camera is an excellent Photoshop plug-in which allows you to look at the entire content of a disk quickly in either colour or black and white, and then acquire the ones you want directly into Photoshop.”
- The Canon Ion RC 560, “While it looks like something out of a sci-fi novel, especially with its 2″ video floppy disk, its low resolution puts it out of contention for professional applications.” Yes, you read that right, video floppy disk. You can see an image of this particular floppy in this interesting article that covers the older, but more advanced Canon RC 760 and the rare Nikon QV-1000C, which both used this kind of floppy to record still images. You can see a few images of the Ion RC 560/570 at this page or at the Canon camera museum.
- The Logitech FotoMan, “Obviously designed for the photographic illiterate, the FotoMan is a simple point-and-click device. There are simply no other buttons to press — but as it shoots in only low-resolution black and white, its applications in commercial photography are negligible.” Here’s an image of the FotoMan in all its glory.
The article also included a very interesting box outlining the costs involved, at the time, in the two methods of photo processing. The digital way was already cost-effective, at around half the cost of traditional film photography:
On the other hand, in 1993, the costs involved in setting up a digital system were definitely higher. Just look how expensive was the equipment and think that today — unless we’re talking very high-end systems — the total cost would be a fraction of that:
By revisiting this 19-year old feature, I hope I’ve been able to give you an idea of how digital photography and high-end digital system were at that time, the work and the costs involved to shoot digitally. As you can see, digital photography has come a long long way by now.
(All the quoted material and the images are taken from: Tim Carrigan, “Snap Happy” — MacUser UK Vol. 9 No. 12, 11 June 1993; the photo at the beginning is by Ian McKinnell)