Monday, 1 October 2018

Canon EOS 300D: In the Past, People Used to Dream About the Future

Let's have a look at the Canon EOS 300D, a digital SLR from 2003. If the 300D was a human being it would now be fifteen years old. That's just over two dog years, or seven dogs stretched in a line. Honey badgers can in theory live for over twenty years in captivity, but to this day no-one has successfully captured a honey badger. Many people have tried. They left behind a trail of corpses and severed limbs; the few trappers who returned with their bodies intact were mentally broken.

The 300D was the first digital SLR aimed at the consumer market.* It was technically sound and a big success, but for reasons I will explain later on it left something of a sour taste in the mouth and is nowadays if not exactly damned then at least celebrated only begrudgingly. It's a bit of a plastic antique and has no real used value, and like all those Ford Escorts from the 1980s it will eventually be very rare because no-one cared enough to preserve it, but at the moment used 300ds are still widely available on eBay. I briefly owned one ages ago as a backup but never really used it or even liked it, but I was recently seized by nostalgia and decided to pick one up and try it out again.

* The Kodak DCS 315 (1998) was sold at a lower price point than Kodak's other cameras but was still $5,000+; the Fuji S1 Pro (2000) was also cheaper than the competition but still sold for $3,500 or so.

A Mercedes 300D. Oh yes. Ordinarily I blur out the numberplates but this car has had an interesting history - it seems to have been a wedding car and was, until recently, in Scotland! I wonder how it got to London?

Back in 2003 it was notable for its combination of excellent image quality and keen price, hovering around $1,000 at a time when high-end amateur gear such as the Canon 10D and Nikon D100 sold for about $1,400, vs $5,000 for a Nikon D1x and $8,000 for a Canon 1Ds. Only a couple of years earlier Kodak's DCS models had sold for $15,000+; the digital SLR market was still very new and exciting in 2003. The 300D sparked off a boom in digital SLR sales that lasted until the smartphone revolution of the late 2000s - from 2003 until 2008 the digital SLR market tripled in size, then peaked, then entered a rapid decline. Fewer digital cameras are sold nowadays than in 2003, although the SLR market has managed to stabilise.

A 300D, front

But oh, while it lasted! To own a digital SLR in the 2000s! It was like owning a film SLR in the 1960s. If you were a woman, you were a woman of style; you were Audrey Hepburn taking behind-the-scenes snapshots of Gregory Peck on the set of Roman Holiday, even though you were only on a weekend break to Rome via EasyJet. If you were a man you were David Bailey and David Hamilton rolled into one, a high-rolling debonair grown-up with a big watch and a big camera that made girls take off their clothes. I imagine that some people even used the 300D as an image-making tool, rather than as a lifestyle accessory. I wonder what happened to them.


The 300D retailed for around $1,000 with a kit lens, a hundred dollars less without. Objectively it wasn't cheap (the 300V film SLR, launched concurrently, was half the price). However this was 2003 and everybody had six credit cards. If you were already £12,000 in debt an extra few hundred pounds wasn't going to make much difference. Besides which your house would be worth £1,000 more in about fourteen days, so what did it matter? NB I apologise for switching into sterling there. I'm British, but most of the reference materials I can find quote prices in dollars, and as always a straight dollar-pound exchange rate swap doesn't tell the whole story.

Versus the slightly larger but much heavier 10D. My 10D has seen better days. Note the rear command wheel, top-mounted LCD, and PC sync socket (the 300D doesn't have one). I've put masking tape over the 10D's irritatingly bright self-timer light.

For a few months the 300D had the field to itself. Nikon responded a year later with the D70, which was slightly more expensive but slightly classier. By the end of the decade you could pick up a pretty capable digital SLR in Argos for £250 or so whereas ten years earlier you would have had to visit a camera store in a major city. By the 2010s the digital SLR market resembled the film SLR market of the 1990s; flooded with different models at different price points that were more or less equally capable. One thing they couldn't do was upload photographs instantly to Facebook or Instagram, which is where the smartphone came in handy, and even the smallest digital SLR didn't fit into the back pocket of a pair of jeans.

I popped along to Goop, a new pop-up shop in Notting Hill. It's the physical version of Gwyneth Paltrow's website. It hasn't officially opened yet - they were still fitting it out.
I was tempted to go in and ask if I they had something that would make me smell like Gwyneth Paltrow's vagina, but the exclusion order is still in force and there was a small but slight risk she might have been in the store, so I stayed more than twenty feet away at all times.

Nowadays people wonder if the digital SLR has a future. Do you have any idea? I don't. If you do, there's a game you can play. Write your ideas down on a sheet of paper, then wait ten years, then read them back. If you were correct, congratulate yourself. I have played this game myself. Sitting next to my keyboard I have a piece of paper from 2008. It has just one thing written on it. "Aspect of locust". I was not correct. "Aspect of locust".

What does Gwyneth Paltrow's vagina smell like? In the village of Ano Vouves, on the island of Crete, there is an olive tree that is at least two thousand years old. It is the spitting image of Buzz Osborne from The Melvins.
When I think of Gwyneth Paltrow's vagina I imagine that I am standing next to this tree. It is indescribably ancient, with a subtle scent of... I can't describe smells with words. It smells of the dry wind, of men and women who challenged the Gods. They live on in my imagination. 
Like this tree, Gwyneth Paltrow's vagina fills me with a sweet sadness; I am reminded of my own mortality, but a voice tells me that it's okay, we will all go together.

There's something else I want to say. I'm going to digress here. Let me finish. Way back in the past I remember viddying some pop music on the television. A man with orange hair and wild eyes was shouting about how he could be wrong, he could be right / he could be black, he could be white / he could be right, he could be wrong / he could be white, he could be black. I was struck by the way he deliberately got the rhyme wrong, as if he wanted to provoke us.

It was of course John Lydon of Public Image Limited and the song was "Rise" and he did indeed want to provoke us, but I was a kid back then and I didn't know any of that because the internet didn't exist and there was no other way to find out. It was entirely possible to live through the whole of the 1980s without meeting a single person who owned a Public Image Limited record. I shudder to think how it must have been in the 1800s, when peasants couldn't read. The upper classes must have seemed like supergods to the working man.

"Rise" haunted me for years, but when I finally got on the internet in the mid-1990s I worked it out in no time, and for a brief moment it felt as if a little hazy area of my brain had been fixed. Ditto Red Box's "For America", which burned itself into my brain back in 1986 and left me mystified until the mid-1990s. Two mysteries from the distant past solved by the internet.

But the internet doesn't know everything, and there was one mystery that haunted me for ages until quite recently, when by chance I stumbled on the answer. See, there used to be a band from Scotland called Finitribe. They might still exist; the band was a kind of ad-hoc arrangement. Their career paralleled that of The Shamen, but whereas The Shamen were briefly a major chart act Finitribe were in the same commercial league as Cud and The Pale. Less popular than Cud; more popular than The Pale; objectively not popular. You remember The Pale. "Butterfly", that was their song. You must remember.

Finitribe began as an angry indie band with a political bent, then they discovered Ecstasy and became a rave band; they were for a short time even on the same record label as The Shamen, who presumably ate up the label's promotional budget. Their commercial high water mark was An Unexpected Groovy Treat (1992) which failed to chart but people seem to remember it fondly. Lead single "Forevergreen" spent a week in the chart at number 51.

The band followed Treat with the excellent, mostly instrumental, utterly underrated europop album Sheigra (1994), which had a promotional budget of nothing but sounded as if it cost a fortune to record. The album's two singles managed to chart in the top hundred but the album itself flopped. Imagine Jam and Spoon or Grace but with a bloke singing with a slight Scottish accent. On a musical level there was absolutely no reason why Finitribe should have sold fewer records than Dr Alban or Undercover. They weren't fat or ugly. Perhaps the problem was that they came from Scotland, which is far away. I don't know.

"Brand New", from Sheigra.

The band's final album, Sleazy Listening (1998), was a kind of dark trip-hop thing that I didn't like at the time but eventually warmed to. It didn't chart anywhere and that was that for Finitribe.

In my opinion Sheigra was their masterpiece, but the song I remember most fondly is Groovy Treat's "Forevergreen". There were a bunch of remixes but I prefer the album version. The "Forevermost Excellent" mix is pretty good but feels like a different song. The record company made a video but spent no money on it and used a curiously understated remix that doesn't capture the flavour of the original.

Groovy Treat hasn't aged well. The sampled speech fragments and boomy drums were fashionable at the time - Ministry and Front Line Assembly mined the same musical seam - but the idea of peppering a song with clips of speech from cartoons and films has yet to come back into fashion. The lyrics are for the most part ecstacy-fuelled stream-of-consciousness nonsense, but "Forevergreen" is an exception. It has a theme. It's about something. Like all the best dance songs it has a sad undercurrent lurking beneath the surface, because if life was perfect there would be no dancing, no nightclubs; people would just sit around peaking at home.

Kraftwerk's music had an undercurrent. Their flat descriptions of motorways, neon lights, computerised dating and pocket calculators left their songs open to interpretation. Were they in favour of automation, or against it? Were they sincere, or ironic? Why did it all sound so lonely? "Forevergreen" has some of Kraftwerk's ambiguity. The minimalist lyrics paint a rosy picture of a clean bright future filled with maglev trains and underwater cities while simultaneously implying that the inhabitants would end up living in what amounts to a giant gated community while the rest of us look on. "Forevergreen" doesn't achieve the same level of wistful sadness as Donald Fagen's "IGY" or Opus III's "It's a Fine Day" but for a dance track from 1992 it's surprisingly thoughtful.

What really makes the song, however, is the choice of samples. It's the only song on the album where the samples fit the theme and don't sound silly, and this is where the internet came to my rescue yet again. I always wondered where the samples came from, but the song is so obscure - the samples are so obscure - that no-one on the internet knew. Until now! It seems that the Internet Archive has recently uploaded the back catalogue of British sci-fi magazine Interzone.

Issue 52 of Interzone, dated October 1991, has a review of Central TV's "Viewpoint 91: Japan Dreaming" by Wendy Bradley. I learn that the programme "took as its theme the idea that the only country which still believes in the bright future of golden age science fiction is Japan". I also learn that this is where most of the samples used in "Forevergreen" come from, including the opening narration by Lindsay Duncan ("in the past people used to dream about the future") and some puffery by a chap called Sheridan Tatsuno, who talked about "Teletopia, Technopolis, Marianopolis, Aquatopia, Seatopia, Aeropolis, Alice City, Motopia, Geofront, Lunar Space, [and] Lunar Hotels", all of which were ambitious Japanese construction projects that had been mooted in the late 1980s.

The first digital SLR I owned was a Canon D30, the three-megapixel model before the model before the 300D. I was drawn to the Canon EOS system by its flexibility - it's easy to adapt other lenses to work with EOS cameras.
All of the images of London in this post were taken with an 300D using an Olympus OM 24mm f/2 as above. The 300D has a 1.6x crop factor so a 24mm lens becomes a kind of 38mm, making the entire system akin to an old 1970s rangefinder compact a la the Konica C35, Ricoh 500G, Vivitar 35EE etc.

In fact most of the lyrics of the song - about linear expresses and fuzzy logic - were directly inspired by the programme. Sadly it's not available on Youtube and Central TV no longer exists. The BFI claims to have a copy on VHS but I imagine that it's unplayable by now. It's one of countless little documentaries that was broadcast once, archived, and will probably never see the light of day again. The programme appears to have been inspired by Sheridan Tatsuno's Created in Japan, a book about Japanese innovation that was published in 1990. Just for fun I bought a copy.

The long tail in action. The next date was September 2018. There will probably never be another date after that. There comes a point when the signal becomes indistinguishable from the cosmic background radiation. At that point the signal dies; it dies forever.

Mine was originally owned by the Royal Military College of Science, which no longer exists! The book is very dry. I can't laugh at its predictions of the future because they're all reasonable in the context of the late 1980s. People assumed back then that the internet would be a much more limited thing, and that it would be corporate-run just like television; there was a peculiar obsession with videophones; the timeline was about a decade too optimistic; the thought of a single device that could electronically translate and read books and make mobile phone calls - rather than lots of individual devices - eluded them but then again it wasn't until the late 2000s that smartphones could do everything so I can't blame them.

There's a chapter about HDTV, the Japanese high-def television standard that predated modern high-def TV. Look, I haven't read the book yet, I've only skimmed through it. If I ever break my legs and need to spend ages lying down recuperating I'll go through it and let you know. Until then, my legs are fine. Seven years in dog years. I'm actually reading Roadside Picnic for a reason that will hopefully become apparent in the near future.

The samples are the reason "Forevergreen" sticks with me. Firstly because Finitribe actually bothered to make them fit the song. Secondly because the sequencing fits the music - Tatsuno's list of construction projects at first sounds like a triumphant roll-call, but his voice is bathed in reverb, as if we were listening to an old radio in an empty warehouse. The lady narrator has the same treatment, as if we were standing in the dead Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line while a robot PA delivers pre-recorded announcements to an audience of corpses.

"Now being built / Millennium Tower out at sea in Tokyo bay / soon to be followed by Aeropolis, another tower city six thousand feet tall / whose inhabitants will commute vertically by elevator / through the clouds"

Above it all is the historical irony. Japan's economy did very well in the 1980s. The country's excellent performance meant that the Japanese Yen rose in value against the dollar, which hurt exports but gave Japanese firms greater purchasing power abroad. This made it attractive for Japanese businesses to buy up real estate in the United States, which they did - much to the alarm of commentators in the US, who felt that Japan was taking over the world. It was a buying spree on a par with China's modern-day investments in Canada and Australia. Ultimately a combination of higher domestic interest rates and a general worldwide recession in the early 1990s put the kibosh on Japan's speculative foreign investments, but it wasn't immediately apparent that Japan's recession would drag on as long as it did.

At home the price of land in Tokyo skyrocketed, which is why there were so many plans for gigantic tower blocks. They made economic sense because the cost of constructing the building was a pittance compared to the value of the land. Why not make them huge? A few of the projects mentioned in "Forevergreen" were even going to be built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, among them Millennium Tower, which was proposed in 1989. Teletopia was an ambitious plan to turn Japan into a digital hub, perhaps to compensate for Japan's weakness in the IT sector. Teletopia involved transforming the artificial island of Odaiba, in Tokyo Bay, into a silicon village - a Technopolis - but it fell through and the island ended up mostly deserted. Geofront and the Alice City project were attempts to bypass real estate prices by building giant cities underground. Judging by the lack of internet coverage I have to assume that they went nowhere.

When Sheridan Tatsuno wrote his book Japan was doing well, but by the time "Forevergreen" was released the economy had entered a recession that would drag on for years. Teletopia, Seatopia, Geofront and so forth were cancelled, as was a 1996 Tokyo Expo designed to show them off. Tokyo's waterfront underwent extensive redevelopment in the 1980s, but following a major earthquake in 1995 that killed over six thousand people Japan's appetite for building huge skyscrapers on reclaimed land diminished and remains at a low ebb. Japan had suffered small recessions in the 1980s and perhaps the markets assumed that things would get back to normal in short order, but in the end Japan's economy never regained the air of invincibility it once had.

Nowadays when people think of giant skyscrapers they probably think of China and the Middle East. The ten tallest buildings in the world, as of 2018, are in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States, and China; but mostly China, because the list is dominated by China. Does this mean that China's economy is sound? Does possession of the majority of the world's tallest buildings mean that China is doing well? Are the people of China happy, and if not, what's the point of all those skyscrapers? I imagine it makes China's politicians feel good. Most of them are men. I'm a man, and I like the thought of owning the most toys, the biggest toys. But women enjoy owning handbags, so they're just as bad. We're all bad.

A Volvo 700. Perhaps the Mercedes was carried from Scotland to London inside the Volvo.

Japan's economy is still the third-largest in the world, but it's dwarfed by China. They didn't see that coming in the late 1980s. The alien space bats flapped their wings.

"The lead the way in computers, robotics, superconductors, and new materials"

But yes imma talking about the Canon 300D. It sparked off a boom in digital SLR sales. It was objectively a pretty good camera albeit with a slight air of naffness that it retains fifteen years later. The first problem is the body. The 300D was sold alongside the 10D, which was made of black-painted metal. I have one! It feels like a metal brick. Very tough. The 10D is a man's camera. In contrast the 300Ds is made of unpainted silver plastic with huge panel gaps and visible screw heads.

Why silver? The 300D was the digital cousin of the now-forgotten 300V film SLR, which had a silver body. The 300V in turn was a visual echo of the EOS 50 of the mid-1990s, which had a black-and-silver colour scheme that was supposed to look like a classic film camera of the AE-1 era. The 50 was made of silvery metal; by the time of the 300V the metal had been cost-reduced into plastic. Limited numbers of the late-run 300D were made of black plastic, which looked much better, and black seems to have been the default choice for the 350D, with silver as the option. Canon continued to use silver bodies for its cheaper digital SLRs for several years, stopping with the 450D of 2010 and then starting again last year with the 200D. I don't know why they bother.

Sitting next to a mid-1990s EOS 50e, which introduced Canon's the silver-and-black colour scheme. It sparked off a trend; Nikon followed with the silver-bodied F-60 a year or so later.

It has to be said that although the 300D looks grotty, it feels solid. My camera is presumably fourteen or fifteen years old, but is well-built and doesn't creak; the unpainted plastic has actually aged better than the painted 10D. The buttons feel cheap and are too small, and it's a shame Canon left out the command dial, but on the whole the physical interface makes sense and everything still works.

The camera has an arrangement of mirrors instead of a prism, but comparing the viewfinder with the 10D I can't see much difference. It has the same seven autofocus points as the 10D, illuminated with little dots. You select them by pressing the AF point selector button and winding the forefinger command wheel back and forth, which is one of the awkward consequences of not having a command dial on the back of the camera or a little joystick. The front command wheel feels sharp.

That brings us to the 300D's other problem. Some of its cost-saving measures were reasonable enough. The pentamirror, lack of a command dial, cheap-feeling buttons etc were understandable. The problem is that underneath the body the 300D had essentially the same imaging engine as the 10D. The same six-megapixel sensor allied to the same electronics. They both used the same generation of DIGIC processors, although at the time it wasn't called DIGIC. Canon was worried that photographers would stop buying the 10D, so they altered the 300D's firmware to remove a number of features.

An eleven-second exposure at ISO 100. It's clean and noise-free as you would expect, with no obvious stuck pixels. In the early days of digital SLRs Canon's sensors were generally better at long-duration exposures - multi-minutes rather than just eleven seconds - but the competition soon caught up.

A quarter of a second at ISO 3200, although at least with the 300D's custom firmware ISO 3200 appears to be a software creation, e.g. it's ISO 1600 underexposed by a stop, then boosted by a stop digitally. This might be why the 10D calls it "H" instead of "ISO 3200".
Under daylight the image is obviously grainy, with luminance noise, but it's not awful. I suspect that under artificial light it would be horrible.

The most obvious omission was ISO 3200, which was available on the 10D but not the 300D. Camera control of flash compensation was also removed, as was the ability to record RAW and JPEG files simultaneously, plus the custom functions menu, mirror lock up, and direct control of autofocus mode. In its stock form the 300D only activated AF servo tracking in the creative modes; the photographer couldn't turn it on otherwise. There was no technical justification for these changes. There were enough buttons on the camera to support the extra features.

I imagine that most people who bought a 300D didn't notice or care about the firmware changes, but for everybody else it came across as a cynical piece of enforced market segmentation. It cast a pall over the 300D's reputation. To the company's credit, Canon didn't repeat the same trick with the next camera in the line, the 350D. In fact Canon has even added features to some cameras with firmware patches, instead of taking them away - notably the 5D MkII, which shipped with a simple automatic-exposure-only movie mode but was quickly patched into a decent video SLR. Good for Canon. Companies can change.

Luckily within a year a chap called Wasia - probably not his real name, and he might be a woman, I don't know - managed to port the essence of the 10D's firmware over to the 300D, and nowadays it's a simple matter to give the 300D an unofficial firmware hack that increases its functionality. I used a slightly more advanced hack by a bunch of chaps, or women, or a mixed bunch of men and women called The Undutchables, who might not be Dutch, might even be non-gendered. In theory this voids the warranty and also in theory the camera might bug out, but at this late stage in the game I don't think it matters.

As mentioned above the 10D and 300D have essentially the same imaging pathway, which is a good thing because Canon's sensor was excellent for the time and is still fine in good light. The 300D can do essentially noise-free long-duration exposures and isn't bad at ISO 1600, although not a patch on modern-day digital SLRs. The other thing that dates the 300D is relatively narrow dynamic range, exacerbated by an exposure system that pushes to the right slightly. It tends to blow out highlights while the shadows are relatively noisy. Shadow noise has a vague banding pattern, which is distracting. If you account for this and shoot in good light, or on a tripod, the 300D's image quality is no worse than any modern digital camera, it's just that the images are smaller.

The camera take Compact Flash cards. It apparently has issues with larger cards. I've tried 2gb and 4gb cards with no problems. Perhaps larger cards will flake out. I don't know. The 300D uses BP-511 batteries, which were shared with the D30, D60, 10D, and a couple of the G-series PowerShots. Replacements are still widely available although the supply will eventually dry up. In the UK you will have trouble getting them through the post.

The 300D has a large recess inside the mount for EF-S lenses; the 10D doesn't have this.

One thing I haven't mentioned. The 300D introduced the EF-S lens mount. EF-S lenses protrude slightly further back in the camera body and only cover an APS-C area. Canon still makes EF-S lenses, generally aimed at the lower end of the market. There are only a few wide-angle EF-S lenses, no fast EF-S primes, and Canon's only fast standard EF-S zoom hasn't been upgraded since it was launched way back in 2006. Other manufacturers have done more with the idea.

How many 300Ds did Canon sell? I can work it out with science. The serial number of Digital Photography Review's evaluation model, presumably from early in the run, was 0370023053. I have no idea of the history of mine, but the serial number is 1270441285. This means that Canon made just over nine hundred million 300Ds, which assuming an average sale price of $1,000 dollars must have netted the company almost a trillion dollars. If all those cameras were gathered together in one place they would weigh almost six hundred million kilograms - about the same as two entire carrier battle groups, including the personnel.

Unless of course the first few digits of the serial number mean something else, in which case, I dunno, a million? A couple of million? One and a half million? If mine is around the half-million mark, that sounds reasonable.

On the used market the 300D's price dropped quite quickly. It was replaced eighteen months later by the eight megapixel 350D, which was in general a better camera. The 350D had a smaller, cuter body and sold for slightly less. The 300D's depreciation curve on the used market was further depressed by the rapidly lowering prices of brand-new digital SLRs. Budget around £30 for a good one with a charger and battery. There was a vertical grip, which only worked with the 300D. If you want a good cheap dirt-cheap digital SLR I recommend the 350D instead, if only because it's smaller and lighter.

And that's the 300D. On my deathbed it will be said that I did not challenge the Gods; my reply will be that the ancient Greeks challenged the Gods not for fun, but so that they might live a peaceful life. Which I did, the end.