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Digital photography – evolution, not revolution

The seeds of digital photography were planted when electronics first appeared in cameras.

Digital sensors were an evolution in camera technology and not the revolution that many argue.

In the mid-1930s, the first hint of what was to be arrived when Zeiss Ikon fitted its 35mm Contflex twin-lens reflex camera with a selenium meter.

Kodak took it one step further with the Kodak Super Six 20 by adding automatic exposure. By the early 1960s, trap needle autoexposure was common.

In the meantime, Edwin Land introduced his Polaroid film, and that technological feat made it possible for the photographer to see his photograph within a minute or two.

Back on the film side, cadmium sulfide meters replaced selenium meters, and they were replaced by silicon cells. Pentax tried gallium arsenic diodes, but that didn't last, and the industry settled on silicon.

Autofocus arrived in the late 1970s with Konica's 35 AF (which stood for AutoFocus). It was clunky, but it worked most of the time. Others copied the approach. The industry has always been about copying what works.

The first autofocus lenses for single-lens reflex cameras was clunky and slow and focused what appeared in the center of the screen, usually indicated by two brackets.

However, it proved that autofocus was viable. Autofocus improved, and before long we had autofocus "points," which grew from a handful to now more than 100. In-camera meters went from centerweighted to averaging to "evaluative" and "matrix."

Unknown to most of us, Kodak developed the first digital camera in the mid-1970s – about two decades before the first consumer digital cameras hit the market.

In the late 1980s, Fujifilm offered the first digital camera for sale, and very few people noticed. More models arrived in the 1990s. Those early cameras were laughable by today's standards. The resolution was less than one megapixel – much less – and could only record a handful of black and white photos. By the mid-1990s, things had improved but not much.

It took another six to eight years before the technology reached 2-MP, and the images were much improved. Those cameras, however, still had their limits. They performed very poorly in low light, and most were of the point-and-shoot variety. They suffered from shutter lag. That is, when you pressed the shutter release, the camera first focused on the subject and then took the photo. Some cameras didn't have an LCD screen, and those that did were from 2.0-2.5 inches.

Start-up time for many digital cameras was measured in seconds, but it still showed what might be possible.

Several camera makers were very late to adopt digital technology, while others disappeared from the scene.

Konica and Minolta merged, and the merged entity was sold to Sony. Kyocera made a couple of Contax-branded cameras, including the first full-frame SLR, before withdrawing entirely from the photography market. It seems as if it took Pentax forever to have any kind of digital camera on the market. Pentax eventually merged with Ricoh.

Ironically, Canon – one of the leaders in the adoption of digital imaging into their product line – was the last major camera maker to join in the mirroless interchangeable lens segment.

Early on, most digital cameras used CCDs (charge coupled devices) to capture the image and convert the light into electronic signals. Over time, the industry has moved to CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor), which Canon has used in its DSLRs from the beginning.

There have been a few notable "firsts."

  • Fujifilm lays claim to selling the first digital camera, the FUJIX-DS-X in 1989, which was based on the FUJIX DS-1P that it created in 1988.
  • The next consumer digital camera was Logitech's Fotoman in 1991. It was a rebadged version of the Dycam Model 1. Logitech also marketed a handheld photo scanner, the Scanman.
  • Olympus was the first camera maker to shift entirely to digital, exiting the film camera business in a then-bold move. It committed to the Four Thirds half-frame sensor, which is still in play today as the Micro Four Thirds format.
  • Canon wasn't the first to produce a full-frame digital SLR. That went to Kyocera's Contax N digital. However, Canon made the biggest splash with the EOS 1DS. It was and still is one of the most-expensive full-frame DSLRs available. Nikon took years to develop a full-frame competitor.
  • Epson developed the first digital rangefinder in cooperation with Cosina in 2004 before it eventually withdrew entirely from the digital camera segment. It still makes highly regarded printers and scanners.
  • Panasonic developed the first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, using the new Micro Four Thirds half-frame format. The sensor has the same half-frame dimensions as the Four Thirds format.

By the early 2010s, the smartphone camera replaced the digital point and shoot – and for some people, it's their only camera.

One thing is for sure. There will be more technology, not less. In recent years, the market has seen improvements in low-light abilities, better electronic viewfinders and the integration of high definition movie features. In fact, some of the movie features are so good that some people are now using their digital cameras as movie cameras – not still cameras.

What does the future hold? Maybe the "kit" lens will be a better optic. Widespread adoption of 4K video? Perhaps, your camera will automatically send telemetry back to the camera maker, which will use the data to better understand how we use our cameras. Of course, this raises privacy concerns.

Perhaps, future cameras will have an onboard assistant that will suggest or maybe set certain settings or will enable certain features based on your voice commands.

Maybe that ever-elusive digital back for film cameras will finally be created.

With digital cameras, the future is nearly limitless, as technology continues to evolve.