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FEATURE

 

DIGITAL STILL CAMERAS

 

HEAD

SNAP DECISIONS

 

INTRO

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 photography

 

COPY

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 the other. 

 

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 succeeding.   

 

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 cards.

 

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 display.    

 

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 consumer-oriented products.

 

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

 

APPLE

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 leads.

 

CANON

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.

 

CASIO

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

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

 

FUJI

‘Maybe one day but nothing at the moment’

 

IBM

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

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 £25,000.

 

PENTAX

‘Nothing in the near future’

 

MINOLTA

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.

 

NIKON

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

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

 

1981

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.

 

1986

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.

 

1988

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 images. 

 

1990

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.

 

1993

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 industry.

 

BOX COPY 4

DIGITAL VIDEO

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.   

 

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 2102

 

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