The illustrations are shots of Old Sarum in Wiltshire taken with a Canon 350D. They having nothing to do with the subject of the article and are included only to break up the text.
At the end of the article I have included a list of useful references, although I gleaned some of the information from eBay auctions, and also from websites that I did not jot down at the time. Vomit on me, baby, yeah yeah yeah.
By the late 1980s, traditional photographic film was beginning to look old-hat, at least in the field of photojournalism. Television news crews had transitioned from film to videotape during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but newspaper photographers continued to use crinky old polyester because there was no viable alternative. One possible future was the "still video camera", which emerged in the early-to-mid 1980s from Sony, Nikon, and Canon. These devices were essentially video camcorders that recorded individual still images rather than moving video. The resolution was just enough for newsprint, at a pinch, but the cameras were useless for TIME magazine or the National Geographic or Vogue etc. Furthermore, the images still had to be digitised at some point, and although I am not an expert on the subject, I imagine that picture archiving would have been problematic. Still video cameras died a death, although there are still some samples on the internet here and there.
By the end of the 1980s there was a burning desire for a device that could emulate a film camera, without the cost and time of processing and scanning, that could integrate with computer-based desktop publishing systems, and that could create digital images for instant transmission across the world. Kodak had demoed a 1.4mp sensor in 1986, and the company was ideally placed to turn this chip into a camera system, but no-one at Kodak knew how to build digital SLR bodies. At the same time, Nikon and Canon were beginning to realise that their work on still video cameras was leading nowhere. Kodak had no experience of building professional SLR bodies, and thus it came to pass that the first digital SLR, the Kodak DCS of 1990, was a Kodak digital module strapped to the bottom of a a Nikon F3. It was an interesting, successful example of a trans-Pacific, US/Japanese joint venture, in a field which is nowadays dominated by Japan.
Over the next eight years Kodak had the pro digital SLR market almost to itself. A few other digital SLR systems were released during the 1990s - the Fuji/Nikon E2 of 1994, and the Minolta RD-175/Agfa Actioncam of 1996 - but they sold poorly. They were too expensive for amateur hobbyists, and too bulky, fiddly, and limited for the professional market. Kodak's cameras were also expensive, and bulky, but they were based on camera bodies that photojournalists were familiar with, from familiar names, with extensive product support. They had quirks, but they were known quirks that could be worked around. As time went on, Kodak ironed out the quirks, and the later DCS models are still slick by modern standards.
Unfortunately for Kodak, the competition eventually caught up. Kodak is a good example of a company that created and pioneered a new market, but found itself out-competed by wilier, more aggressive companies that came slightly later to the game, and could avoid all of the mistakes that Kodak had made. It is a particularly tragic example, because the companies that eventually beat Kodak had once been Kodak's partners.
I suspect that Kodak was not overly upset at this. The company's professional digital SLRs were never profitable. An analysis of the company's business model is beyond the scope of this blog, but in 1999 the company still made a lot of money from sales of traditional film, and lost money on every digital camera it sold; since then the company's profits and share price have wobbled up and down, and it now appears to make most of its money by selling off bits of itself, and aggressively litigating against companies that tread on the digital patents it amassed during the 1990s. Nowadays Kodak produces a range of anonymous compact digital cameras that are positioned slightly above the low-end. It was the best-selling digital camera company in the US in 2005, and is still in the top five. The company's sensors are used in a few high-end medium format bodies. There are however no longer any Kodak digital SLRs, and I cannot see the company ever returning to the professional digital SLR market. The most recent company to try and break into the pro digital market is Sony, with their hot-off-the-presses DSLR-A900, and it will be interesting to see how they fare.
The DCS / DCS 200
The earliest Kodak DCS cameras were essentially Nikon film SLRs fitted with removable, Kodak-designed digital modules that hung below the camera, looking like large motor drive units. Today, these early DCS cameras resemble scientific instruments from a bygone age. Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, Kodak's website still has downloadable firmware and instruction manuals for most of them, even though they were discontinued a decade ago. I like to think that there are little newspapers and university departments and research laboratories here and there that still have a DCS 460M knocking about somewhere in a cupboard somewhere, somewhere.
DCS stood for "Digital Camera System", nightmare stabbing juice. The name was introduced with the Kodak DCS of 1990. It was based around the ageing but very tough Nikon F3, combined with Kodak's digital module, a 1.3Mp device that was available in colour (as the DC3) or monochrome (the DM3). I'm not sure why Kodak decided to use the Nikon F3, and not the contemporary Nikon F4; whatever the reason, the upshot was that the original DCS was and remains the only manual-focus-only digital SLR ever sold to the public. Eventually there was a digital version of the F4, but it was a special edition produced by Nikon for NASA use, in tiny tiny limited numbers. I am not sure if the NASA F4's sensor was made by Kodak, or not. The camera was not part of the DCS series and falls outside the scope of this article. I mention Kodak's NASA connection much later.
The original DCS set the pattern for Kodak's first wave of digital SLRs, in the sense that it was a stock Nikon F3 film SLR with a removable digital module. The Nikon F3 could be transformed back into a 35mm film SLR by fitting a replacement film back; this was a feature that continued with subsequent DCS models until the DCS 520 of 1998, and was briefly revived by Leica in 2005 with the Digital Modul R, which could be used to convert the Leica R8 and R9 film SLRs into ten-megapixel digital models. I cannot think of another 35mm format digital back, although digital backs are common in the medium-format world. In the first years of the twenty-first century a company called Silicon Film came up with some press releases that promised a digital imaging module the same size and shape as a 35mm film canister, that could theoretically have been used to convert any old 35mm film camera to digital, but it turned out that the whole idea was vapourware, spurious nonsense, barmy old cack of the highest order.
The original DCS was more svelte than later models, because the batteries, storage system, and LCD screen were contained in a separate digital storage unit that had to be lugged around. The storage unit resembled the kind of portable tape recorder used by roving television journalists in the 1960s. There are lots of pictures of the DCS on the internet, but no anecdotes or image samples. I get the impression it was more a headline-grabbing proof-of-concept than a viable product.
The DCS - later known, unofficially, as the DCS 100, to differentiate it from subsequent models - sold for £15,000 in 1992, back when £15,000 was still a fair amount of money. Not enough to buy a house, but enough to buy a tonne of Laserdiscs and a huge 32" Sony Trinitron television. More pertinently, it would have bought and processed a heck of a lot of 35mm film. But then again, professional photographers chewed through 35mm like elephants gorging on tasty pasta, and for high-volume shooters the DCS's high cost would have been immaterial. And it could do things that a film camera could not do (there was an optional modem), but I digress.
In common with Kodak's other early DCS cameras, the DCS 200 used Kodak's own special version of the TIFF image format, that had to be uncompressed and developed with Kodak software. The JPG standard was still very new in 1991, although there was apparently an optional JPG encoder board for the DCS.
Kodak followed the DCS in 1991 with the DCS 200, a 1.5Mp model with integral storage and no LCD screen. It was a self-contained unit based on the semi-pro Nikon F-801s, with a chunky digital module that hung beneath the camera, doubling its height. The digital model held the batteries, the sensor, and an 80Mb internal SCSI hard drive. The resulting camera was a bit of a behemoth, but it was easier to carry around than the DCS and its storage module.
Nonetheless in most respects the DCS 200 was less capable than the original DCS. Whereas the DCS had a 200Mb hard drive, and in its most advanced form could fire bursts of twenty-four images at 3.5 frames per second, the DCS 200's 80Mb hard drive stored only fifty images, and the camera had a frame rate of 2.5 seconds per frame. The was no graphical LCD preview screen at all. Furthermore, the DCS 200 produced 8-bit files with very little exposure latitude.
In its favour, the DCS 200 was half the price of the original DCS, at around £7,000. I imagine it was also a semi-prototype product; the internet has almost nothing about it, and the combination of a fifty-image limit and ponderous speed would make it impractical for press use. In theory it might have been useful for eBay product shots, but remember that it came out in 1992. eBay didn't exist then, and the internet was generally text-based. In 1992 the graphical internet as you know it today was called the WorldWideWeb, and it ran on a few NeXT machines at CERN, and there was no pornography as far as I can tell. The May 1992 Playboy Playmate was the sweet-faced, physically impressive Vickie Smith, I wonder what happened to her?
The DCS 400 / DCS 1/3/5
Kodak's next digital SLR model was the DCS 420 of 1994, an altogether more mature product. It resembled the DCS 200, but used removable PCMCIA cards for storage rather than a built-in hard drive. It was also a 1.5Mp model, but this time it produced 12-bit files with more exposure latitude than the DCS 200. In common with the DCS 200, the crop factor was 2.6x. This meant that a 50mm normal lens became a semi-telephoto 130mm portrait lens. In those days Nikon's widest conventional lens was a 15mm model, which became 39mm on the DCS 420, which still wasn't very wide. The other major limitation of the DCS 420, also in common with Kodak's early cameras, was that it was relatively sensitive to the infra-red end of the spectrum, and tended to produce images with a magenta colour cast.
Nonetheless the DCS 420 was slicker than the DCS 200. It could take a five-image burst at 2fps. Kodak made a modified version for the Associated Press, which was sold as the NC2000/2000e, with a larger (but lower-resolution) sensor and a slightly faster, twelve-shot burst mode. The 420 and the NC2000 sold relatively well, and pop up on eBay every so often. There is one good anecdote about the NC2000e on the internet, by a man called Eamon Hickey. His name reminds me... reminds me... of a song... "glass of animal juice"? Nonetheless these early models are antiques nowadays, and offer nothing over e.g a second-hand Nikon D40.
The 420 was followed but not replaced by the 460, which was released in 1995. This was a 6Mp model with a 1.3x crop factor. It cost £25,000 at the time, still a fair sum today. Not enough to buy a house, but etc. 6Mp was an extraordinarily high resolution for 1995. The only other 6Mp digital SLR on the market at the time was Kodak's own DCS 1, which was essentially a DCS 460 based on a Canon EOS-1N body. As far as I can tell, the first professional digital SLR to improve upon the DCS 460's resolution was the Canon 1DS of 2002, an 11Mp model, although the Fuji S2 Pro of around the same vintage as the 1DS had a native resolution of 6.1mp.
The combination of low crop factor and high resolution meant that the DCS 460 was several years ahead of its time, although in most other respects - ease-of-use, size, weight - the 3mp, 4Mp professional models of 2002 were greatly superior. The DCS 1 and DCS 460 would in theory be useful today as backup bodies, if they were smaller, and had screens, and if spare batteries were cheaply available, and they used CompactFlash cards. The early Kodak DCS models used laptop-style batteries that were supposed to be recharged whilst inside the camera, that are impossible to remove without undoing screws (check the manual!). Nowadays the batteries are hard to find, and I imagine after all this time most of them will have run flat. Kodak's digital SLRs used PCMCIA cards, which are also scarce and expensive. In theory the DCS cameras will accept a CompactFlash-PC Card adapter, but from what I have read the results are very erratic, and the cameras only work with older, lower-capacity CompactFlash cards.
In addition to the DCS 1, Kodak also produced the Canon-bodied DCS 3 and DCS 5, which were essentially the same as the NC2000 and DCS 420 respectively, but with EOS-1N bodies.
Most of the aforementioned were available with monochrome sensors. In theory, the monochrome sensors should have had a higher apparent resolution than the colour sensors, because the image data did not have to undergo colour filtration and Bayer interpolation, but I am not entirely sure of this, and there is very little information about the early monochrome DCS cameras on the internet, and no image samples. There were also monochrome infrared versions; these were monochrome models without the sensor's built-in infrared filter. The very last of Kodak's monochrome models was the 6Mp 760M of 2002, of which less than a hundred are produced. It remains an intriguing camera today. With a 6Mp sensor using non-interpolated single-pixel mapping the 760 should produce "Foveon-esque" monochrome images with the equivalent resolution of a conventional 10-12Mp camera, but again there is very little about this camera on the internet, and no full-sized image samples.
It's also worth mentioning that the early DCS cameras did not have anti-aliasing filters, which was both a blessing and a curse; it meant that the images were nice and sharp, but they were also susceptible to colour moire patterns. Moire can be dealt with in software, and a few cameras today leave out the anti-aliasing filter entirely, notably Sigma's SLR range, and also the Leica R8.
The 420 / 460 / DCS 1 / 3 / 5 models were the last of Kodak's early digital SLR range. They are all antiques. From this point onwards Kodak's digital SLRs underwent a complete overhaul, and set the pattern for all subsequent digital SLRs. The swirly-swirl in a cup of coffee is mirrored in the eye of a hurricane; the ant has six legs, and so does the entire world.
The DCS 500 / 600 / 700
There were two basic strands of Kodak's second batch of DCS cameras. The Kodak DCS 520 / 560 models of 1998 were based on the chunky, professional Canon EOS-1N film SLR, but unlike the earlier DCS cameras the digital module was physically integrated with the film camera. The DCS 520 / 560 were the first digital SLRs to have LCD preview screens, small 1.8" TFT designs that complemented a smaller monochrome text LCD on the back panel. Even today the cameras do not look obviously old-fashioned, although they are relatively large and heavy, about a third taller than a modern Canon 1D. The DCS 520 / 560 still look very serious and professional. They project authority, and are the kind of cameras that might help you bluff your way past a security guard. They have an integral portrait grip, although it is thin and small, and does not travel the full width of the camera. The DCS 520 / 560 were also sold by Canon, as the EOS D-2000 and D-6000 respectively.
Once again I digress. The DCS 520 was a two-megapixel model aimed at sports photographers, with a burst rate of 3.5fps for twelve images, whereas the 560 was aimed at studio photographers, with a high-resolution 6Mp sensor. It had a 1.3x crop factor. The cameras had some quirky features that were generally left out of subsequent designs; they could record short voice memos, they had built-in games of Pong, and they also had intervalvometers, for periodic shooting. The combined infrared / anti-aliasing filter was removable, and could be replaced with a plain infrared filter, giving a sharper image at the expense of increased moire. The 520 is relatively well-documented on the internet. It is modern enough to have been reviewed by Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Review, and the samples I have seen are on a par with images from modern digital SLRs, sized down, although the reviews pointed out relatively high noise levels. Apropros of nothing, here are some photographs of the DCS 520's internal gubbins.
The 520 / 560 were Kodak's final Canon-based SLRs. I get the impression that Kodak was much closer to Nikon than it was to Canon; I also get the impression that Nikon was more willing to work with other companies than Canon. It is perhaps notable that Kodak's later, Nikon-compatible 14n / SLR/n used a body supplied by Nikon, whereas Kodak had to use a Sigma body with a reverse-engineered Canon mount for the Canon-compatible SLR/c.
Kodak's followed the 520 / 560 with the DCS 620 / 660 in 1999; essentially the same cameras as the 520 / 560, but based around a Nikon F5 body. The 620 was complemented in 2000 with the 620x, a high-sensitivity model with a base ISO of 400, going up to ISO 6400. It had the same sensor as the 520 / 620, but a different colour filter array that sapped less light, and the software had a high-ISO noise reduction algorithm. From the samples I have seen, the images were still usable for photojournalistic applications at ISO 3200 and not a total dead loss even at ISO 6400. This is impressive even today, and was unique in 2000. The 620x cost $10,495 at the time, and it was apparently a solid success. It was replaced a year later by the similar 720X, which had a slightly faster burst rate of 4.5fps. The other major difference was that the 620x had a white balance sensor mounted on the handgrip, whereas the 720x did away with the sensor, and calculated automatic white balance entirely from the image.
There was a 6Mp DCS 760 as well, which used the same sensor as the DCS 560 / 660, with the body of the 720x. This constant reuse of sensors is a feature of the DCS range. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Kodak's sensor division was unwilling to develop sensors specifically for Kodak's camera division, because Kodak's camera divison did not sell enough cameras to justify the expense; as a consequence, the camera division had a limited choice of sensors, that were not specifically tailored to the company's cameras. I surmise.
The DCS 720x / 760 were the last of Kodak's DCS cameras. Used as a pair, with the 720x for low-light sports and the 760 for everything else, the 700-series would be capable enough for most photographic applications today, if you could find them in working condition with all the accessories. Having said that, most modern digital SLRs will do almost everything that the 720x/760 could do, in one body, for less money.
The DCS 300
There was a second, short-lived DCS strand, the DCS 315 / 330 of 1998 and 1999. These were based on a contemporary Nikon Pronea APS SLR. You might not remember APS. It was a miniature film format, smaller than 35mm, that was briefly popular in the mid 1990s. It was developed by Kodak and died a death in the late 1990s, although the APS name lives on, because most digital cameras use an APS-sized sensor. The DCS 315 used a 1.5Mp sensor with a 2.6x crop factor, whereas the DCS 330 had a 3Mp sensor with a 1.9x crop factor. They were aimed at the advanced amateur and semi-pro market, and were therefore distant ancestors of the Canon 10D / Nikon D70. Unfortunately they were priced at around £5,000, and were far too expensive for hobbyists (who instead went for the Nikon Coolpix 950). Professionals shunned them in favour of Kodak's full-sized DCS models. Nowadays the 315 / 330 look grotty and cheap, and they are probably the least desirable of Kodak's vintage range; not functional enough to be useful, not vintage enough to have sentimental value. The DCS 330 entered the marketplace just in time to compete with the Nikon D1, and therein lies Kodak's nemesis.
By 1999, Kodak's Nikon-based digital SLRs were competing with actual Nikon digital SLRs, which made for some fascinating test reports (this one compares the high-ISO, high-speed, low-res 720X with the high-speed, slightly higher-res Nikon D1H; this one compares the high-res 760 with the slightly lower-res Nikon D1X). In general the Nikon D1 and its derivations were smaller, cheaper, lighter, more practical, and had a higher resolution than any of Kodak's 2Mp photojournalist models. Kodak still had a few unique selling points. The 620X had unbeatable high-ISO performance, and the 560 / 660 / 760 had resolution. Kodak's PhotoDesk image management software was highly regarded, and the company released regular firmware updates for their older cameras, and provided extensive support. In general however it was to no avail; for whatever reason, Kodak could not bring their prices down to match those of Nikon, although they tried, several times. By 2002, the 5Mp Nikon D1X had eroded away the resolution advantage of Kodak's 6Mp models, whilst managing a faster burst rate, in a smaller body, for less money. Cameras from Canon and Fuji were selling well at the advanced amateur end of the market, and by the time Canon released their own professional digital SLR, the Canon 1D of 2001, Kodak had decided to leave the professional photojournalist market. The company still had ambitions in the studio photography market, with the medium format DCS 645 Pro Back, and one further DCS SLR.
The DCS 14n / SLR/n / SLR/c
There was a brief postscript, in the form of the Kodak DCS 14n, and its sequels, the Pro SLR/N and SLR/C. These really deserve a separate article of their own. They were 14Mp models with an imaging sensor the same size as a 35mm film frame. On paper the cameras were very impressive, with a higher spec than the market-leading Canon 1Ds, but in practice they were plagued with problems, and did not sell very well. The main issues were excessive noise at moderate ISO values; smeary noise reduction that could not be turned off; uncomfortable ergonomics; moire patterning on account of the lack of an anti-aliasing filter; and ponderously slow camera operation. The latter-day DCS was announced in 2002, did not reach the market until 2003, was substantially revised in 2004, and was discontinued in 2005 having never reached a satisfactory state. The sensor was made by a company called FillFactory, and the bodies were suppled by Nikon and Sigma, with Kodak writing the software. I suspect that the 14n was an attempt to cheaply produce a camera that would nonetheless outperform the current state-of-the-art. In practice the end result was an interesting failure.
Kodak's DCS series is mostly forgotten nowadays. The cameras were revolutionary, but not iconic. They sold in relatively small quantities, and do not often turn up very often on the used market, and even then they are usually missing vital accessories, or are sold "as is". Looking back, it is odd that the company did not develop its own camera body; Kodak could have at least hired the expertise, but it did not happen. In theory Kodak should be king of the hill, because it is one of the few camera manufacturers that also produces its own sensors, but in practice the company never seemed to advance beyond the DCS 520 template that had been set in 1998. The high-ISO 620X / 720X models were clever, and remained class-leading in that one narrow field for a few years thereafter, and the company seemed to have the NASA market sewn up, but apart from that, the competition's cameras were generally smaller, cheaper, more functional, and more practical. And they became more so as time went on.
Today the early Kodak DCS models are hard to value. They are like old supercomputers from the past; impractical and difficult to keep running, yet their former grandeur still commands a certain respect. The early models are too quirky to use regularly as practical tools, and even on a good day they offer nothing over modern cameras. The later, post-DCS 520 models are still practical, but they make no financial sense as tools, and are not really valuable as antiques, because they do not have emotional resonance. Certain cameras have value far beyond their practical worth, because they were used by famous photographic artists, or they captured images that people remember. In constrat, the Kodak DCS models were purely functional tools for photojournalists who needed to transmit photographs of footballers, soldiers, politicians and celebrities quickly across the world. Their very brief heyday coincided with a period of relative world peace, a time when newspapers were turning their back on war photography, and there are no DCS Don McCullins. September 11, 2001, was photographed with the Nikon D1x and D1, and the Canon D30, and a thousand point-and-shoots. The dirty little wars and genocides of the 1990s were not recorded; or, if they were, the pictures were not published in the mainstream press. Besides, when I think of iconic news images of the last twenty years or so, I think of video footage, a field that Kodak has ignored entirely.
For some good samples of the cameras in action, a gentleman on Flickr called Claude.lim pointed me to a Korean Kodak DCS users' group; mostly shots (of a high standard) taken with the post-DCS 520 cameras, but also a few with the 400 models, e.g. the DCS 460.
The most comprehensive general source on the Kodak DCS range is Photography in Malaysia's thorough series of articles on the DCS. I don't know who runs the site, but he is a gem. John Henshall's "Chip Shop" has several reviews of the early DCS models, which are extremely enlightening because they were written when the cameras were new, for a British audience, and give prices in pounds. NikonWeb has an interesting article on the DCS 420, with samples, written from the point of view of a modern-day collector of old cameras.
Eamon Hickey has an entertaining essay about using the Associated Press NC2000e, essentially a Kodak DCS 420 with a slightly different sensor. Digicam History and Apphotnum were useful for contemporary context. Gisle Hannemyr does a good job of selling the Kodak 460. And indeed he did, because he sold his on eBay shortly afterwards.
This page here, from Japan, has some interesting shots of a DCS 420 being pulled apart, including photographs of the sensor.
Charles Dickinson's thesis, "An Evaluation of the Current State of Digital Photography" (1999) is an interesting round-up of early digital cameras, and has some photographs that compare the DCS 460 with 35mm film. Earth Observation Magazine has an article from 1995 about the infrared versions of the DCS 200 / 420.
Grafika.cz has some samples from the DCS 560. Shutterbug.net has a thorough article on the DCS 520 / Canon D2000. The website of Newton Camera Brackets has some large photographs of the DCS 520, and its batteries and PCMCIA sockets.
The later DCS 315 / 330 / 520 / 620 / 720 cameras are relatively well-documented, with reviews at Digital Photography Review and Steve's Digicams amongst others. Indeed, the Kodak DCS 520 article was one of Digital Photography Review's very first evaluations, and it is handy that they still post the sample images. The 14n / SLR/n / SLR/c are extensively documented at most of the leading photography review websites.
Unrelated to the DCS is this article about Bill Biggart, a photojournalist who was killed by debris from the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001; his last shots were taken with a Canon D30 which was also destroyed, although the CompactFlash card and the images survived.
It would be interesting to know how the people of Kodak felt about the DCS range. The company knew that film would not last forever, and that digital was the future, but at the same time the DCS cameras seem a little bit half-hearted to me. Where were the advertising campaigns, the television commercials? Why are they completely forgotten nowadays?
The 420 / 520 / 620 / 720 and the 460 / 560 / 660 / 760 appeared to use variations of the same sensor. It would be interesting to know how the sensors differed, and why Kodak continued to use such a venerable design.
The DCS 200 apparently produced 8-bit files. My theory is that this was a conscious choice in order to keep the file size low, and that the camera had a 12-bit sensor, but I cannot tell.
It would be interesting to know more about the manufacturing process, particularly the economics of combining film SLR bodies with digital modules. Was it cheaper, or more expensive, that using a custom-designed SLR body? The photograph in the article of a DCS 520's gubbins implies that there was a fair amount of wasted space, e.g. the film canister compartment looks to be hollow.
Ultimately, and most puzzlingly, why did Kodak not design an SLR body of their own? Was it not possible to simply license the Nikon-mount, and produce a Kodak body in-house?