Following the exploits of digital cameras in space, the history of digital photography moves back to Earth here. This page covers the history of consumer digital cameras – the ones we are all familiar with.
A new era in photography began on August 25, 1981 when Sony unveiled a prototype of the company's first still video camera, the Mavica (Magnetic Video Camera).
It recorded analog images on two-inch floppy disks (memory sticks hadn't been invented back then!) and played them back on a TV set or Video monitor.
NB: The ‘Mavica' name comes from Magnetic video camera.
The Mavica was not a digital camera, but a still analog version of the video cameras of the time.
The difference between still video images and digital images is a bit like the difference between analog vinyl LP records and today's digital music.
The analog version is a physical representation of music; while the digital version is an encoding of the music.
Various companies produced still video cameras throughout the ‘80s. In 1988 Fuji marketed the first consumer all –digital camera, the DS-1P. In 1990 Dycam marketed the first consumer digital camera sold in the United States, the Dycam Model 1 (also sold by Logitech as the Fotoman).
Storing images on floppy disks was an important development because it meant that, the number of photographs that could be stored was, effectively, limitless. If you filled the floppy disk up with photographs you just inserted a new blank disc.
The capacity of these blank disks was less than 1MB. Back in 1981, and with a Mavica, you could store about 25 photographs on one disk.
NB: A high quality photograph from today's digital cameras is easily 1mb. At best you'd only be able to store one photograph on a floppy disk! Thankfully, the memory card has been invented since then, capable of storing hundreds of digital photos.
From this point forward the history of digital photography is one of improvement rather than new development, with the possible exception of the Foveon X3 image sensor.
To get good quality photographic prints the resolution had to be improved. To get a good quality snapshot print you need to have at least 2 megapixels, and ideally 3MP. (have a look at my table showing how many megapixels are needed for good quality digital photography).
So, although Sony were first through the door of the digital photography party, their first digital camera was limited in both its use and popularity.
For consumers, the history of digital photography springs to life with the introduction of 2 and 3 megapixel cameras.
Nikon were first past the post on this one, introducing two 2 megapixel cameras at the start of 1999. One camera had a zoom lens (the “Coolpix 950”, shown here), the other (“Coolpix 700”) had a fixed focal length.
NB: Kodak had already introduced “professional” digital cameras with 6 megapixels before 1999, but their camera could hardly be considered one for the consumer – it weighed 3.75 pounds and had all the style of a house-brick!
In 2002 Foveon started producing a new image sensor. The reason why this is an advance is that up until this point digital camera sensors have recorded only one type of light at a given location.
Individual ‘photosites' (these are the pixels of the sensor) collect information about either red or green or blue light.
The difference with the Foveon sensor is that it collects information about Red, green and blue light at every photosite. The image below illustrates the difference:
The next significant step in the history of digital photography is the introduction of the digital SLR.
Digital SLRs had been available up until now, but they were strictly for the professionals. Costly and heavy they were never going to become mainstream. Canon changed all that in August of 2003.
In the summer of 2003 Britain was recording its hottest day ever (101.3 degrees at Faversham in Kent) and the lights went out on 50 million North Americans – the result of a massive power outage. Canon was launching the Digital Rebel.
This camera is of huge significance in the history of digital photography because it was the first affordable digital SLR.
Suddenly keen amateurs with film SLRs, who had built up a lens collection, could just take their lenses from their old film cameras and attach them to the new Canon. The camera also offered fast response times unlike the compact cameras up until this point.
What was the first digital camera you owned? Spend a moment to tell us about it.
When did you buy it? What brand? Megapixels? . . . ? Anything great about it? Anything poor? (Go on, get it off your chest!)
Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...
RICOH RDC 300Z
In 1998, I was working for a Government Department, coordinating a newsletter to be circulated to 'stakeholders'. I was able to convince my Supervisor …
Vivitar Not rated yet
Small and compact which was great at the time but when you compare the pictures take by it and my current Nikon D40x there really is no competition. …
Olympus C1400-L 1.4mpx fixed zoom lens DSLR Not rated yet
The fixed lens DSLR no longer exists as a category of digital camera but in the late nineties this type of camera was quite popular. Mine was a 1997 …
Nikon Coolpix L4 Not rated yet
Learn powerful photography techniques! Purchased 2006 for $90. Very so-so images! Slow shutter-response and boot time, only 4 megapixels! …
Olympus D-100 Not rated yet
Great point and shoot camera. At that time 3 megapixels was a lot for a digital camera. Took good pictures, compact size. Did not come with rechargeable …
Sony Mavica 2.1 mp Not rated yet
I loved/still love this camera. It saves to memory stick and floppy...it was easy to share pics and upload. I have had many cameras since but still …
Kodak DC200 Not rated yet
This was one of the best you could buy for the money (400 bucks) in 1998. We bought it as an xmas gift for the family, so we could get away from film. …
Get help using your camera with the complete Digital SLR Guide