DIGITAL STILL CAMERAS
Will cameras of the future use discs, chips or tape, or will
film outlast them all? Rick Maybury looks at some recent developments in still
The first blurred, out of focus pictures came back from the
chemists almost exactly two hundred years ago. The chemists in question were
Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphrey Davey who, towards the end of the eighteenth
century, figured out the basic principles of photography. They managed to
record shapes and outlines on paper coated with a solution of silver chloride,
after it had been exposed to light.
Surprisingly little has changed in two centuries; there’s
been a few tweaks to the chemical processes along the way, but even the most
sophisticated still cameras are basically little more than a light-proof box
with a lens and mechanical shutter at one end, and a light-sensitive film at
Things happen slowly in the photographic industry but
fifteen years ago, in August 1981 to be precise, Sony dropped a bombshell that
shattered the cosy, conservative world of still photography. They put flesh on
the bones of an idea that had been around for a while, namely a convenient way
of recording still images electronically, rather than as patterns of light on
photographic film. It was Mavica -- short for magnetic video camera -- the
first prototypes were just a little larger than a normal film cameras and could
record up to 50 still colour picture on a tiny magnetic disc.
Still video photography has many obvious attractions.
There’s no need to wait for films to be developed, magnetic discs are cheap and
re-useable, pictures can be viewed immediately on a monitor or TV, images are
more easily stored and transported -- near instantaneously by phone-line to
anywhere in the world if necessary --
and there are no negatives to get lost or scratched.
The concept was quickly refined, Sony launched their first
Mavica camera in Japan in 1983 though the high price meant it was only of
interest to specialist users, who could bear the cost and accept low resolution
as a trade-off against speed. Furthermore at that time many of the applications
that make use of electronically stored images, were still under development or
just a twinkle in a computer software designers eye.
Much of the early work on still video photography, from the
mid 1980s onwards, was carried out by camera manufacturers, rather than
consumer electronics companies; they were more interested in moving video and
the emergent camcorder market. Camera manufacturers clearly perceived a threat
to their core business, and decided to hedge their bets. Ironically Kodak, who
had most to loose from any assault on the traditional photographic market,
remained largely aloof to electronic imaging -- in the early days at least -- now they’re big players in the market
with a range of consumer and top-end digital cameras. Initially however, they
lamely attempted to cash in on the ‘disc’ kudos (CD was also just taking off at
this time) with their ill-fated disc camera format, and more recently with
Photo CD, which also has failed to capture the public imagination. The recent
launch of the Advanced Photo System (HE XX) can be seen as yet another attempt
to defend film, this one has industry backing, and stands a very good chance of
Canon were the first to launch a low-cost ‘consumer’ still
video camera (SVC) in 1988. The £500 RC-251 or ‘Ion’ as it was known in the UK,
(Xap-Shot in Japan, Q-Pic in the US), used a 2-inch still video floppy disc to
record up to 50 images, stored as analogue information, that could be played
back on an ordinary TV. However, by far the most significant announcements that
year were prototype digital still cameras from Fuji and Toshiba, that used
solid-state memory cards. No moving parts, no magnetic discs, just a thin
plastic card containing several megabytes (and several hundred pounds) worth of
dynamic RAM (DRAM) chips. The memory card was jointly developed by the two
companies, and it has subsequently evolved into the industry-standard PCMCIA or
‘PC Card’. This is now the preferred storage medium for the latest digital
still cameras, though there appears to be little, if any standardisation in the
way data is organised; it’s unlikely that cards used to store images on one
make of camera, will work in another.
First generation disc SVCs suffered from two fundamental
problems. Firstly picture quality was pretty dire, and second, there was no
easy way of making a hard copy or print from the recording, we’ll return to
that issue later on. Even later ‘high-band’ still cameras could only resolve as
much detail as a domestic camcorder, and that was providing the image contained
no movement. In short, several hundred pounds worth of technology produced
pictures that were inferior to those from an Instamatic camera costing less
than ten pounds.
The computer and publishing revolutions came along at just
the right time; still video photography fulfils a need for those who want to be
able to get colour images into computers, onto documents or from place to place
quickly, bypassing the processing and handling delays of conventional film
photography. The target market for this kind equipment focused on specialist
users, including news photographers, publishing companies, estate agents,
multimedia authors, security and law-enforcement organisations.
Predictably analogue disc cameras are now reaching the end
of their development phase as still video photography follows AV technology
into the digital domain. Recent advances in digital video processing for TV and
video have directly benefited video photography. One of the most important
areas of developments has been data compression. The first digital cameras
could only record 10 or so colour images on hugely expensive 16 megabyte memory
The cost of microchip memory has fallen dramatically but it
is still a determining factor in the cost of still video cameras. However, data
compression has resulted in vastly more efficient use of memory resources.
Standards have emerged the key one being JPEG, devised and overseen by the
Joint Photographic Experts Group, part of the International Standards
Association (ISO). The degree of compression is such that the most recent
digital still video cameras can compress up to 100 colour images into just 2
megabytes of microchip memory. JPEG compression makes use of the fact that the
human eye is less sensitive to small changes in colour or hue, than it is to
brightness. However, it’s a ‘lossy’ system and detail is sacrificed in order to
reduce the amount of stored data, fortunately it’s an open-ended technology and
there’s continual improvements in image quality.
Picture performance is being helped further by a move away
from camera recording systems based around NTSC and PAL colour video formats.
They were designed for moving video and perform badly when trying to resolve a
still picture containing movement, (this is due to differences between the two
fields that make up a frame of video information). The trend now is towards
computer type display systems, which are better suited to digital processing;
cameras can be easily fitted with converters that change the output to a TV
Still video photography is now entering a period of change
as new low-cost digital still cameras reach the shops. Until now the market has
consisted of a handful of top-end cameras manufacturers with expensive disc and
card-based SVC equipment, aimed at news-gatherers and professional
photographers. However, the emphasis is shifting, back to affordable
Doubtless prices will fall from the £700 to £1000 being
asked for recently launched digital cameras, there’s rumours of a sub-£200 in
time for Christmas, so could this spell the end of the film camera? Almost
certainly not, at least not in the foreseeable future. Apart from quality and
cost issues there remains the fundamental difficulty in getting images onto
paper. Obviously that’s not a problem for those who simply want to get still
colour images into a computer or onto a TV screen, but for the product to
succeed in the consumer market that’s not enough.
Whatever the technical merits and convenience of
electronically recorded images they exist only as transitory pictures on a
television and monitor screens. Photographic prints are tactile, you can see
and hold several at once, they can be circulated amongst friends and family,
carried in a pocket, enlarged and hung on a wall or stuck in an album. High
quality colour video printers are available, but they’re expensive, and unlikely
to become a viable consumer product for some considerable time. It is possible
high street photo shops will offer a colour printing service but using the best
existing technology video prints will still cost several times as much as
photographic prints. The most successful ‘dry’ system uses a complex
dye-sublimation process; over the counter prints are likely to cost between
£1.00 and £2.00 each, and unless someone comes up with an entirely new process
it’s likely to stay that way.
Still video photography has come a very long way in a
comparatively short time, with more advances in the past fifteen years than
chemical photography has experienced in two hundred years. The view from inside
the photographic industry has changed dramatically in that short time. An
unshakeable belief that silver halide photography will last for ever, and see
off any new upstarts has given way to grudging acceptance in some quarters, and
enthusiasm in others. Listen hard and you might even catch an occasional
whisper, that electronic imaging may one day prevail.
BOX COPY 1
DIGITAL CAMERA ROLL-CALL
The Apple QuickTake 150 digital still camera costs £400 and
is designed to work with both Apple Mac and Windows PCs. It can store up to 32
standard or 16 high quality images; the camera comes with Photo Flash and
QuickTake file management and archiving software, plus all necessary interface
Stop Press! Canon, leading innovators in SVC technology are
due to launch a new PCMCIA card-based camera in April. It’s called the
PowerShot 600 and will sell for around £800. The camera can also store audio
captions (11 seconds per picture) and will be shipped with PhotoImpact 3.0
software for Windows 95 PCs.
It’s in the shops now, the Casio QV-10 has an rrp of £800
but it sells from around £600. Pictures
are stored on a built-in 2 megabyte memory that holds up to 96 images. It’s the
first to have a built-in LCD screen, for instant on the spot viewing of single
or multiple exposures.
Chinon have two compact digital still cameras, the ES3000,
and the recently launched (in the US) ES1000, which will be selling for less
than US $500. This is a card-based system, that can stores 8 pictures on its
built-in memory, and up to 128 on a 16 megabyte flash RAM. The outfit includes
hardware and software interfaces for PCs and Apple Macs
‘Maybe one day but nothing at the moment’
Big Blue recently showed a new palmtop computer with a
built-in digital camera. The PC110 weighs 600 grams; the package also includes
a cellular phone. It has just gone on sale in Japan, no plans have been
announced for Europe or the UK.
Kodak’s are now into digital still photography in a big way
with two ‘consumer’ models (DC 40 and DC50) and two professional systems
(DCS460 -- based on Nikon N90 and DCS465 multi-format camera back), all using
PCMCIA memory cards for storage and transferral to PCs. Prices start at just under £1000 rising to more than
‘Nothing in the near future’
Minolta have recently launched the RD175 professional
digital SVC system, it costs around £8000. It’s an SLR style camera with 3-CCD
image sensors giving a total of 1.75 million pixels. Data is stored on PCMCIA
cards, each one holds up to 119 images, depending on memory size. Versions with
PC and Apple Mac software are available.
Currently marketing two digital SVC cameras, E2 and E2S
based around top-end SLR cameras, costing £11,300, plus VAT. Differences centre
on image acquisition speed, 1 frame per second and 3 frames per second
respectively. Up to 84 images can be stored on a 15 megabyte PCMCIA card.
Sony are currently marketing a high-performance disc-based
SVC in the UK called the MVR5350P. It’s an SLR style design and it uses the
2-inch SVC video floppy to store images. It’s aimed at the professional market
and costs in the region of £3500.
BOX COPY 2
IS THIS THE END OF THE ALBUM?
Still video camera manufacturers like to paint a rosy
picture of a print-less future, the end of shoeboxes full of negs and dusty
photograph albums in the attic. It’s all very well downloading digital images
into computers, and squirting them around the Internet, but how are you going
to get a photograph of the kids to Aunt Doris in Canada, who doesn’t own a PC and can’t even figure how to set the
timer on her video, let alone surf the information superhighway? Are you going
to lug a PC and monitor down the pub to show your mates your holiday snaps?
Long term storage could be difficult too, especially for those without a PC;
memory cards are far too expensive for archiving. What’s going to happen when
-- as inevitably it will -- SVC formats become obsolete and the equipment no
longer exists to replay discs or cards? At least if a photographic film format
goes down the tube, prints and negatives can still be easily copied.
Of course none of this would matter if there was an
inexpensive way of producing colour prints from still video cameras, but there
isn’t, at least not yet. The cheapest video printers now sell for a little
under £1000. Prints cost around 80 pence each, and the quality is not that
good. Reckon on spending at least £3000 for anything worthwhile.
BOX COPY 3
STILL VIDEO FORMATS WE HAVE LOVED
Sony set the still video ball rolling with the Mavica, which
could store up to 50 analogue images on a ‘Mavipak’ miniature floppy disc.
Cameras went into production a year later but were only ever sold in Japan.
Sony’s disc concept was developed by several other
manufacturers, including Konica, Minolta and most famously Canon, who launched
their RC-701 camera system in August 1986. The camera resembled a conventional
SLR and used the now standardised 2-inch SVC (still video camera) floppy disc.
Canon announced the RC-250, later to become known as the
Ion, the first domestic SVC camera, selling later that year for £500. Fuji
demonstrated a prototype digital camera called the DS-1P. This revolutionary
camera used a 16 megabyte memory card -- developed jointly with Toshiba -- that
could store up to 10 colour
The launch of the King Jim DaVinci, a black and white still
video camera with a built-in thermal printer. A few were sold in Japan but it
disappeared without trace.
Kodak try to bridge the gap between silver halide and
digital imaging with Photo CD; although it hasn’t been a big hit as a domestic
photo archiving system, it has been reasonably successful in the publishing
BOX COPY 4
Rock-solid still-frame or ‘snapshot’ recording is a common
feature on the latest digital video cassette (DVC) camcorders. Picture quality
on these machines is outstanding, most of them are capable of resolving between
450 to 500-lines, which is actually better than most analogue and digital still
video cameras. Size needn’t be an issue, the new JVC GR-DV1 is not much larger
than a pocket dictating machine, and unlike most still video cameras that have
optical viewfinders (manufacturers favour weasel terms like ‘real-image’), it
has a built-in LCD viewfinder, so you can replay images on the spot. Mini DVC
cassettes can store several thousand still pictures, with accompanying voice
captions or commentaries, and tapes cost a fraction of the price of memory
cards, which have to be re-used in order to make economic sense.
The downside is the relatively high cost of DVC camcorders
at the moment, and most of them are too large to be of use as convenient
go-anywhere still cameras. The GR-DV1 is an exception, though, and it is due to
go on sale this Summer for just under £1800. If other manufacturers follow suit
and develop sub-compact machines, and the price comes down to less than £1000,
say, then digital camcorders might just take a slice of the action at the top
of the still video market.
R. Maybury 1996 2102