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Digital Camera History TARGA boards

Digital Camera History TARGA boards - what's a TARGA board you may ask?

On the previous digital camera history page Norman Breslow went through some of the difficulties facing the pioneers of digital photograhy.

Here the story continues with more detail on the technology available to the early digital photographer (especially TARGA boards), and some eye-watering price tags . . .

Digital Photography Before Digital Cameras by Norman Breslow Part One - continued (page 1 here) Disclaimer

The appropriate software was TIPS, which stood for Truevision Image Processing Software, and was sold by AT&T GSL and later by Truevision. This software, in addition to allowing video grabbing, also was a rudimentary image editing program.
It was possible to lighten and darken the image, to rotate the image 90 degrees, to make some adjustments to the colors that made up the image, to merge two images, etc. A different version of TIPS was needed for the different TARGA boards.

Digital Camera History TARGA boards - some eye-watering prices
The version for the TARGA-M8 cost $995, for the TARGA-16 $1,250, and for the TARGA-24 $1,250. Hefty prices for a program which could best be described as anemic by today's standards, although these prices did decline over the years.

Although anemic, some of the effects allowed the digital photographer to do things that were impossible or impracticable to do in wet photography.

For example, it was possible to distort a selected section of an image, and to change colors in one area but leave the colors unchanged in other areas, or move portions of an image to a different position.

But other features which are standard today, such as a sharpening filter, were not available in TIPS. Additionally, the graphics board, the software, and the IBM or Macintosh computers, were painfully slow. As an example, it took about 20 minutes to rotate a video grabbed image 90 degrees.

Digital Camera History TARGA boards - file size
For a variety of reasons, including the very limited amount of RAM (memory) available to manipulate the image, and the impracticality of getting an image out of a computer, the TARGA file format had a resolution of only 72 dots per inch. The maximum size of the file created by video grabbing with the TARGA-16 was 512 pixels wide by 482 pixels high, which was less than half a megabyte image file. Your cell phone camera probably has an image made up by a lot more pixels.

Another reason the TARGA-16 was the graphics board of choice (besides the color video grabbing ability and the high number of simultaneously useable colors) was that it "only" cost $2,995 (in 1988 dollars), compared to the $3,995 for the TARGA-24.

Most photographers realized that the additional colors of the TARGA-24 would be better for making photographic looking images, but if there was no practical way to get those colors into the computer, then the additional colors were less than useless.

At this point we had a video display board capable of displaying 32,768 colors, and software capable of digitizing a video image and capable of making rudimentary adjustments and changes to the digitized image. Consider the TARGA-16 graphics board and TIPS software and a color video tape camera as the first practical digital photography outfit.

All of the TARGA boards displayed a rapidly flickering image on the standard computer monitors sold for non-digital photography purposes. The image flickered so fast that it was not viewable. The solution to this problem was to buy one of the few monitors which used long persistence phosphors, which eliminated the flickering problem.

However, these monitors were costly, about $1,200 if memory serves me correctly, and were not useful for other computer tasks, such as word processing. Scrolling a screen full of text with a long persistence phosphor monitor caused the image to "ghost" for a while- the previous screen view and the new screen view looked like a double exposure. Very annoying. So two separate monitors were needed, one for digital photography, and one for more routine computer tasks.

Digital Camera History TARGA boards - quality
The quality of the video grabbed image was low. When compared to a wet photograph of the same scene, there was no comparison. The image file was "fuzzy", and needed a lot of sharpening. The 72 dpi resolution of the image when displayed on the monitor showed a lot of "jaggies", which are rough edges, especially in curved lines and edges. And there was the problem of "banding". These were blotchy areas where there weren't enough graduations of color to make a smooth transition from one area of a scene to another. Banding is similar to a lightly posterized image you can make with your image editing software.

Banding was not a problem with the TARGA-24, but without video grabbing abilities and its higher cost, most early digital photographers opted for the TARGA-16. (I will not discuss the frustration encountered when trying to get the TARGA board to work with my IBM PC computer and long persistence monitor.)

Since there was no practical way to get the image off of my computer monitor and onto a piece of paper, all I had to show for my time and money and efforts was an image that didn't want to look like the type of photograph I was used to making, displayed on my long persistence phosphor monitor.

Digital Camera History TARGA boards - patience testing!
After spending a year or so trying different techniques to make the image look more photographic, including buying some of the few third party programs which began to appear that manipulated TARGA images, I gave up trying to make a digital photograph that looked like a wet photograph. I decided if the image didn't want to look like what I thought a photograph should look like, then I'd help it look like what I thought it wanted to look like - a painting.

I knew that someday it would be possible to make a digital photograph that looked at least as good as a wet photograph, but I didn't know how long that would take, so I played with creating my own non-photographic looking images, and I spent a lot of time experimenting and experimenting.

I used a poor quality video grabbed image as a starting off point, and TIPS and some third party programs to use the capabilities of the computer to create images that either couldn't be created in wet photography, or not created easily.

An early digital image creation by Norman Breslow

I made the digital photograph accompanying this part (see above) in 1989 with a TARGA-16 board, a low end color video tape camera, and TIPS software. I used TIPS to generate a "brick wall" background with a click of the mouse, (something that amazed me at the time), then merged a video grabbed image of the building with the "wall", trying to make it look like someone painted a mural on the wall. Then I played with the spray paint function of TIPS to create some graffiti. (The spray paint function amazed me, too.) Just learning and playing, is all. Norman Breslow, 1/2010

Yes, digital photography did exist before there were digital cameras. I am attempting to give an overview of the very early days of digital photography, and not write a book on the subject.

I will not go into great detail, but just hit the "high spots" and concentrate on products which were of practical value to the early digital photographer. This will be helpful for your understanding of the problems involved, and how far digital photography has come in the past 25 years.

I will omit discussing various products because they were of no practical value. For example, when I mention that there were no practical methods for getting a digital image into or out of a computer, I am emphasizing the Practical- Ya see, by 1990 Kodak did have a B&W thermal (dye sub) printer they sold for $18,000, and a color version for $25,000, both in 1990 dollars. You figure in the inflation factor.

The prices of these printers were (and still would be) so high that the equipment was not of practical value for the digital photography enthusiast, and so products that weren't practical are not being mentioned, or glossed over when mentioned.

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