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Rise of the Digital Camera



Technological innovation has played a pivotal role in shaping the development of modern digital cameras. Here I take a look back at this history of Digital Cameras and my interaction with these devices....

Brief History

The history of photography is an interesting story on its own. If you want to read about that by all means please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_photography

Things really started getting interesting with photography in the 1800's. Here critical innovations in optics and chemistry combined to produce the first cameras and pictures.

Later in history after many decades of expensive chemical film cameras, digital cameras started to emerge to a mass market in the late 1990's. Advances made in lithography techniques in the semiconductor sector and other innovations from consumer electronics merged to produce increasingly affordable film free digital cameras.

My Interest In Photography

I took two photography classes in High School. This is where my interest in photography started. My father gave me a nice 35MM canon with a 50mm lens to which I immediately added a filter/ protection. I shot on AGFA 100, 200 and 400 speed black and white film which I subsequently developed by hand in a dark room: the sharp negatives were printed using a device that resembles a slide projector facing down. The exposed paper was then processed in smelly mildly toxic developing chemicals under a special red light dark room. A final wash through water they were then set to dry. This process was time consuming, costly, materially expensive and wasteful. Only the most devoted of people could set something like this up at home. It became clear to me why quality photography was limited to professionals.

During this Era (circa 2000) my father purchased his first digital Camera: a Sony Mavica that records to 3.5inch 1.44mb hard disks. Its images were VGA only and disk could store about 20 photos. Wow

A few years later I purchased my first digital camera a Sony P93 5.1mp unit from Bestbuy for ~$300 I still have it and it still works. It uses AA NiMH so no strange proprietary lithium to wear out.

A few year later I got a Canon A590IS  8.0mp as a Christmas present. It also uses AA NiMH :) A few years ago I decided to get a rugged camera after having damaged my Canon A590IS in a hiking drop event (ultimately repaired) After doing a fair amount of research I settled on the mixed review Pentax W90. While it has great macro and is very rugged, the image quality and lack of image stabilization was is a let down. If was from this that I started my deeper research into cameras.

In late 2011 I purchased a Canon S95 (on sale) after conducting a dozen or so hours of research. It was highly ranked and well reviewed. Made in Japan not China, and fetching an extreme price for a point and shoot, it is Canon's elite point and shoot. Many professional photographers use it as their pocket friendly alternative. It is fantastic but far from perfect.

In 2012 Meg gave me an SX40 for my birthday :) The superzoom I always wanted!

In 2013 I started operating a smartphone for the first time (Galaxy Note II on Verizon) and it has changed the way I view photography in ways I never imagined. Being able to edit on the fly and having a decently good camera that is always with you really reinforces that old photography wisdom "the best camera is the one you have with you". 


Problems For Designers

The truth is that all cameras are plagued with challenges that are never fully resolved. The core problems camera designers have to address is a balance between cost, size, and optical performance of the lens assembly and sensor.

Most point and shoot cameras and cell phone cameras employ small sensors and plastic optics. These are cheap and light and produce correspondingly poor quality images, especially when used in low light conditions. Think of almost any cheap point and shoot or phone camera.

State of the art DSLR cameras with exotic multicoated optics and full frame 35mm sensors capture stunningly high quality images and video at the expense of being complicated, costly, heavy, hard to use and bulky. Think of a Nikon D90. In order to get the performance out of these Bodies, a photographer also has to lug around a handful of heavy costly lenses. At this point we are taking about many thousands of dollars of investment in gear.

Intermediate designs strike a better balance but retain some of the weaknesses of larger cameras. The Sony NEX-5N for example has an fairly large image sensor and the e-mount lenses for it are good. With a 16mm pancake it can fit in the pocket of most garments: with the 18-55mm it becomes awkwardly large and pocket prohibitive. At something near $1000 with two lenses its also at an intermediate price point. Lower end DSLR cameras that perform better (Nikon D300s ect) can be had for the same or less $ at the expense of far less sleek (far more bulky).

That phrase "The best camera is the camera you have with you" really speaks to the prolific popularity of using cell phones and point and shoots to capture images and video. Youtube and Facebook is full of homespun content from these devices.

With a camera more often then not if you are a careful shopper you get what you pay for. Quality optics are only cheap if you get a good deal on gently used. .

In general a point and shoot camera will almost always outperform a cell phone because of the physical advantages it has in lens size, component quality and sensor size. This is changing as products like the iPhone 4S integrate better optics and better sensors ; but so is the point and shoot marketplace. For ~$200 a point at shoot will almost always yield better images than the camera included on a smartphone.

More interesting stuff to come.

Light field cameras that allow for post focusing for example are just about to hit prime time with Lytro, the first major paradigm shift in photographic technology after digital imaging sensors went mainstream. 

Full 1080P HD is becoming increasingly normal, even on low end cameras.

Larger sensors and better optics are starting to trickle down and innovations push the state of the art farther forward.

Companies like RED are setting new bars in an industry that is undergoing very interesting change (digital cinema). 3D features will become more widely available by virtue of software improvements and really interesting lens technology.

If you want to see a really interesting article about photography and one that largely informed and inspired this post check out the following:

http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/2/2663464/camera-buyers-guide

Another equally interesting article of a similar type can be found at:

http://www.canonrumors.com/tech-articles/all-about-lens-coatings/

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