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Digital Camera History

Ever been curious about digital camera history?

For many, digital photography means consumer digital cameras, and that means from about the late 1990s onwards.

But it wasn't always so. Here, Norman Breslow takes us through the early days of digital imaging. And when I say early . . .

digital photography tutorial - focus on the details

Digital Camera History - Digital Photography Before Digital Cameras
by Norman Breslow
Part One (Disclaimer)

The ability to make a digital photograph is dependent on a number of component parts being available.

These components, in no particular order, include:
  • a computer,
  • a graphics board capable of displaying many different colors at the same time,
  • computer monitors capable of displaying enough colors to show a photographic quality image,
  • a means for getting an image into a computer in a form the graphics board and monitor can recognize and display,
  • computer programs capable of making adjustments to the image and coordinating the various components of the digital photography system,
  • a means for getting the digital image out of the computer.
Almost all of these factors were in place and available to the public by 1988. However, the quality of these various component parts were inadequate to produce a photographic image that approached the quality of a standard "wet" photograph made with film and chemicals by a competent professional photographer.

Regardless of the low quality, a computer photograph could be made, and improvements over time have made today's digital photographs superior to those made by wet photography. Or at least superior when made by those who have the various skills necessary to make a high quality digital photograph.

Digital Camera History - The TARGA Graphics Boards

In this first part of "Digital Photography Before Digital Cameras", I want to concentrate on the graphics board.
TARGA 3100 graphics board
The earliest home computers designed for business use could only display a very limited number of colors/grays.

By the early 1990's, most graphics cards and most monitors could display 8 or 16 colors or shades of gray.

Hardly enough to create a photographic looking image, but enough to make bar and pie charts and graphs for use by businesses, and for making cartoon looking graphics.

However, beginning in 1984, the telephone company AT&T began developing, in their Graphics Software Laboratory, which was known as AT&T GSL, a number of graphic boards for use with the IBM PC and Macintosh II series of computers.

These boards, marketed under the name Truevision, were capable of displaying a large number of colors/grays. In 1988 this division of AT&T was bought by its managers. The graphics boards they marketed at that time were called TARGA boards. TARGA was an acronym which stood for Truevision Advanced Raster Graphics Adapter, a technical but descriptive term for those graphics boards.

The TARGA-M8 board could simultaneously display on a monitor 256 shades of gray OR 256 colors out of a total palette of 16,777,216 colors (24 bit color), but not both grayscale and colors simultaneously.

The 256 grayscale would be enough to produce a grayscale photographic image, but the 256 colors were not enough to produce a decent color photograph.

the differences that 256 colours makes to an image
Digital Camera History.
An illustration of the effect of reduced colours. On the left the original image, on the right the same image but with reduced colours.

The TARGA-24 board could simultaneously display a whopping 16,777,216 colors (24 bit), which is the standard number of displayable colors for today's computers.

The jump from the 16 color images displayed with the standard graphics boards of the day to those which could display 16,777,216 colors was astounding.

There were some problems with both of these boards.
  • First, computer monitors were not up to the task of handling the large numbers of grays and colors, nor could they handle the electronic frequencies the boards needed to operate at.
  • Second, being able to display and manipulate that many colors did nothing to solve an existing problem of how to get an image into the computer in the first place. Digital cameras and scanners were about as rare as hen's teeth, and extremely expensive. (More about these factors in a later part.)
While it was technically possible to have a digital image inside your computer, it was not very practical, except for governments, universities, very large businesses, and very rich hobbyists who could afford the high cost of the low quality components that were available.

The TARGA-M8 did have the ability to easily video grab an image from a B&W video camera, but video grabbing a color image would only capture 256 colors, far to few to create a continuous tone color photograph. The TARGA-24 did not have any video grabbing capabilities.

The TARGA-16 graphics board was capable of simultaneously displaying 32,768 colors (15 bit color). This board was the one of choice by those early digital photography enthusiasts, because in addition to simultaneously displaying a lot of colors, it included a means to get an image containing all 32,768 colors into the computer.

representation of 15 bit colour Digital Camera History.
A represention of the 32,768 colours possible using 15 bit colour

The TARGA-16 had a built-in video grabbing capability. A color image either from a video tape, or from a live television picture, or from a live image sent into the graphics board by a video camera, could be grabbed and digitized with the click of a mouse when using appropriate software.

But what software was needed? Digital camera history continues . . . »»» (coming soon!)

Digital Camera History - disclaimer:

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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