25 years of digital photography: From ugly to fantastic

25 years of digital photography: From ugly to fantastic

When I got my Nikon Z9 at the end of December 2021, I was a little worried. Would it live up to the hype? Would it be the camera that Nikon had promised (and many Nikon users had been waiting for)?

Immediately on the first day my worries were asked, and over the course of the following week, the more I learned, the more I liked it. It resulted in a long, mostly glowing, article. And as I continue to use it, I continue to be impressed. It made me think of this digital photography journey I have been on for the past 25 years. It has gone from ugly to cool.

In 1996, my boss at the newspaper in Rochester, NY, returned from a photojournalism conference where he had been told, “digital photography is the future.” So he went out and bought one, a state-of-the-art digital camera, the Kodak NC2000e (“News Camera for the new millennium”). Kodak started its life as a Nikon N90s and then turned it into a digital camera (ala Frankenstein). Since I was the computer geek on the staff, he handed it to me and said, “See what this can do.”

The results were not good looking.

It recorded 1.3 megapixel images (1280 x 1024 pixels!) On a removable hard drive. There were four ISO choices, 200, 400, 800 and 1600, but 800 was so noisy that it could hardly be used. 1600 was good for laughs. With white balance, even if you were careful, the images tended to have a magenta cast.

The battery was built-in, so if it died while you were out (an almost daily occurrence) you had to plug it into a portable, but heavy, external battery. You got all this for the low, low price of only $ 15,000. Oh, and there was no LCD to review photos. Shoot and pray. After all, it revolutionized newspaper photography.

The latest digital for 1996, Kodak News Camera 2000e (improved!). 1.3 megapixel, no LCD, very limited ISO, questionable color and non-removable battery for only $ 15,000.

Before digital cameras, before you could submit a photo for publication, the film had to be processed and a print made (or eventually the film scanned to digital). Remove film, and you remove the need for processing. No more frantically watching minutes tick off the deadline waiting for the film to be finished. Stop traveling with portable processing kits to turn hotel bathrooms into darkrooms.

Simply removing the small hard drive from the camera and connecting it to a computer meant you could “process” your photos anywhere, anytime, and then transfer them to the paper. Even if you did not travel, it meant that you could stay longer at an event because you did not have to take time to process the film when you returned.

Burr Lewis, staff photographer at Gannett Rochester Newspapers, in the print lab in 1990. This was the nicest darkroom I ever worked in, and it was state of the art for its time.

Sure, the quality was not good, but neither was reproduction in most magazines. In the spring of the following year, 1997, our magazine became one of the largest in the United States to make a total digital conversion (and the only magazine to publish two cameras to each photographer). Fortunately, the price had dropped to only $ 13,000.

In an attempt to make the change as successful as possible, each photographer received not only these two cameras, but a kit with zoom lens with fast aperture (at 1.3 MP you did not have the luxury of cropping, you had to frame tightly). Since it was not realistic to go over 800 ISO, each person also received a lighting kit, and the staff shared two larger powerful kits. This is because every indoor high school sport we played must be lit. We were on the verge of digital photography, and it was challenging.

Covering professional sports, indoors or outdoors with the NC2000e was a challenge at best because we could not use flash. Low shutter speeds, fast apertures, a lot of noise and questionable color. The picture at the top of this story, like this one, was taken with that camera.

However, the photographers did not have to take digital photographs. Each employee was allowed to keep a film camera and said that if they could not do the job digitally, to go ahead and film. And you know what? After six months, no one recorded a film again. Despite all the challenges – the low resolution, the poor high ISO performance, the slow frame rate (2 frames per second!) And overall poor quality – the convenience and speed of getting images surpassed anything else.

In mid-1999, the major camera manufacturers began building their own digital cameras, from scratch. Instead of a Frankenstein-type camera, we got the Nikon D1. It recorded 2.7 megapixel images on removable CF cards, had a rear LCD, a frame rate of 4.5 fps, 200-1600 (with 1600 actually useful) and a removable battery among many other great (currently) features. About eighteen months later, Nikon released new versions with more advanced features (D1X and D1H), and the race went on, mainly between Nikon and Canon. Kodak was left in the dust and is now a case study at business schools.

Since I got the first D1 in the beginning of 2000, I have now photographed (and taught) a total of 52 different Nikon digital SLR cameras and mirrorless cameras. Many were step-by-step upgrades of an existing design, but some, like the D3 and now the Z9, were groundbreaking in their features and image quality.

Here’s a quick comparison of the first Nikon digital camera I’ve used, the D1, and the latest, the Z9. Purchasing power today at $ 5,000 in 1999 dollars would equate to over $ 8300.
When I filmed the Chiefs / Steelers game with the Z9 last weekend, I used the Wide-Area AF (L) area mode on the Z9. Here is part of a sequence of 28 frames where Travis Kelce makes a catch and runs in for a touchdown. I used the Nikkor 200-400mm f / 4 lens and zoomed out as he ran towards me. Nikon’s NX Studio software can show me where the autofocus system is focused in each frame, and in these 18 frames from that cut it shows that it is first on his body, but then quickly switches to his eye and stayed there even when he was filling the frame from the waist up. A friend sent me a sequence of 81 frames from an NBA game taken with the Z9, by a player on a quick break, and he’s sharp in every frame. This latest generation autofocus system is pretty amazing.

So what does the future hold? Honestly, I have no idea. I always remember back to the days when we first got 6-megapixel and then 12-megapixel cameras. Each time, we thought we had died and gone to heaven. And honestly, who needs more than 12 megapixels? But, as we all now know, if we can get more resolution while still having good high ISO (low light performance), then we’ll take it. And autofocus that can catch the eye of a person or animal moving fast, even if they are not a big part of the picture? Yes thank you!

I just know that whatever the future holds, I look forward to it. I just hope that in twenty-five years (assuming I’m still there) I’ll look back on 2022 and say, ‘Oh yeah, we thought we were fine then, but now …’


About the author: Reed Hoffmann is a photographer and photo instructor who has been in the photography business for decades and who has used every Nikon DSLR (and taught most of them). The views expressed in this article are those of the author only. Join Hoffmann’s latest workshops here. You can also find more of Hoffmann’s work and writing on his website, Facebook, Instagramand Twitter. This article was also published here.


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