Sunday, May 5, 2013

Some Digital Camera History

The Nikon Coolpix 990

I should be called "Five Buck Freddie". Here's another $5 purchase at a yard sale yesterday, and this time it's digital (sorry!)

But it's "significant digital", and it works (mostly). Although there were earlier digital cameras on the market around the turn of the century, including two predecessors to this one (the 900 and the 950), the Nikon 990 was the best implementation of the design. At the time, it was pretty special, and people were even willing to pay $1000 for one of these! Remember, this was only a dozen years ago. It has a whopping 3.2 Mega-pixels on a 1/1.8" CCD sensor, a 3X optical zoom lens, and a 1.8" 110,000 dot LCD display. Best of all is the swivel body - a design which has never been duplicated by any other camera to my knowledge, which has escalated these Nikon 9** series cameras to "Cult Status" - what an honour!

Does it take decent pictures? Let's see...

Considering this was taken facing the sun, it's not bad. I would say typical of most digital cameras, even the very latest models. Yes, I'll stand by that statement, and why wouldn't it be true? In the year 2000, Nikon had only introduced three digital cameras - their first practical DSLR the D1, this one (the 990) and a little pocket model the 880. The 990 was called a "Pro-sumer" camera, the same as a mid-range DSLR is labelled today. It was considered "usable" by certain professionals, because really, SLR's were simply "not there" yet, being extremely costly, and not really built to best exploit the advantages of digital.

I think this camera is quite good, in spite of it's great age. In the late 90's and on into 2000, the Coolpix 9** series was absolutely revolutionary, because Nikon used it as a platform to introduce every imaginable digital feature possible, not the least of which was the incredibly clever swivelling body. So let's start with that. With this design, you can turn the "lens half" right around to the "control half" to compose self portraits - fairly common today with the articulated LCD, but only a dozen years ago, this was unheard of. Not only that, but the swivel covers a full 300 degrees, allowing extremely flexible, and therefore creative views for shooting. And with the camera set "straight on" frontwards or backwards, you could shoot waste-level, either in front of you or behind you, for completely candid shooting, and people wouldn't even recognize this as being a camera, because in some ways, it looks like a radio, or tape player of some sort.

Now, the rest of the features that Nikon introduced in these "flagship" cameras makes for quite a list:

• 1/1.8 ̋ high-density CCD
      • Total number of pixels: 3.34 million
Image size Selectable from:
          • 2,048 × 1,536 pixels
            • XGA (1,024 × 768 pixels)
              • VGA (640 × 480 pixels)
                • 3 : 2 (2,048 × 1,360 pixels)
• 3× Zoom-Nikkor
• f = 8 – 24 mm [35 mm (135) format equivalent
to 38 – 115 mm]/F 2.5 – 4 with macro
• Nine elements in eight groups, all elements
made of environmentally-friendly glass
• Nikon Super Integrated Coating (SIC) applied
• Glass-molded aspherical lens element included
• Contrast-detect TTL autofocus with 4,896-
           step autofocus control including macro range
          • Five-area multi AF or spot AF available
Focus modes 

• Continuous autofocus (when using LCD moni-
• Single autofocus (LCD monitor off and/or
 single autofocus selected in M-REC mode)
• Manual (fifty steps from 2 cm/0.8 ̋ – ∞ with
      Focus Confirmation indication)
Shooting distance 
• 30 cm (11.8 ̋) – ∞

                  • Macro mode: 2 cm (0.8 ̋) – ∞
0.4 – 1.1×
Optical Viewfinder

Real-image zoom viewfinder with LED indication
Frame coverage Approx. 85 %

Diopter –2 – +1 DP adjustment
LCD monitor
 1.8 ̋, 110,000-dot, low-temperature polysilicon
TFT LCD with brightness and hue adjustment
Approx. 97 % (through/freeze image)
Auto-off mode
30 s; can also be set manually (1/5/30 min.)
System Digitally stored (uncompressed TIFF or com-
      pressed JPEG)
CompactFlash (CF) card
Shooting modes
• Fully-automatic ([A]-REC) mode
• Custom ([M]-REC) mode (three combinations
of mode settings can be memorized)

This is just a brief summary, but, with the exception of resolution and screen size, doesn't this resemble a feature list of any digital camera you can buy today? Twelve years ago, Nikon defined the digital camera with the Coolpix 9** series. All we've been getting since then are various improvements to these specifications - nothing revolutionary beyond that. 

Also note there have been a few things lost along the way - notably the CCD sensor, which is arguably the thing that made this camera take "decent" pictures - the industry now has completely gone CMOS. For a brief time, I owned a Nikon D70 which was a 6 Megaixel DSLR introduced in 2004. It had a CCD sensor, which made far better looking photos than the newer CMOS based Canon Xti I had at the same time. Since then, I've been convinced that CCD is better, although CMOS is improving... this must be a case where marketing economics, and not quality once again come out on top. 

Other things we are loosing - the Optical Viewfinder.. I mean, why??? These used to be included even on the smallest and cheapest compact digitals... why has the industry abandoned such a necessary element? 

One more thing - look at the Macro Mode shooting distance this camera is capable of - it's only 2 cm (that's 0.8")! If for nothing else, I'll be using this camera for Macro shooting.

I guess my point is, once this camera broke the ground of digital feature capabilities, there really hasn't been much change taking place - it's more like improvements and variations on the same theme. What could I wish for that would've been different? For one thing, this body design should have been extremely patent protected and kept by Nikon, and still built right up to the present - but enhanced with availability of several different detachable "lens - sensor halfs", so you could build the camera to suit your needs and budget. Ricoh kind of did this with their modular lens approach, but it failed to catch on. I think it failed for two reasons - 1) It didn't swivel, and 2) It's Ricoh. I'm not saying that Ricoh is bad - far from it. They make great stuff, but it takes a market name like Nikon or Canon to make great innovations stick.

Digital cameras are ultra-capable of being modular cameras - Nikon proved this with that wonderful swivel body over a dozen years ago. It's just that ultimately, they didn't actually modularize it, but it sure looks like this is what they were thinking! They could've had one common control grip and LCD module for all of their premium cameras, but a separate line of lens-sensor modules - some with Optical VF's, some without; some with Zoom lenses, some with Fixed; some with CMOS, some with CCD; some with DSLR-like optics, others more like the trendy "Mirror-less" design. For a big price, they could've even built a Medium Format lens-sensor module to attach to the common control grip module. Naturally, the control grip module could be completely Android based; or not!

It's almost as if Ricoh failed to make it happen in the market, so that now everybody else is afraid to try it. There's one big advantage that digital cameras have over film - and that's in the area of hardware and software innovation, the sky is the limit, but somehow it seems like more camera innovation was actually done during the film era!

Oh yes - about my $5 purchase - it kind of works - it will take pictures, but overall, it's operation is quite flaky. Most importantly, it won't turn off. In the "off" position  it keeps beeping and toggles the LCD screen off and on. Other times, the LCD won't switch on when I want it to. To save batteries, I have to remove them completely. I doubt I'll use the thing much, but it sure is an interesting piece of photographic history.

1 comment:

  1. I still have one, and use it probably about once a week for misc. pics. I did use it extensively for close up up pictures of wild flowers. Sometimes they were so small I would hold the flower between two fingers to take the picture. Amazing good at those types of closeups. KM


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