How Far Have Cameras Come?

I don't always do a year-end summary of where we are with digital cameras, but since we're nearing the point where we've had still digital cameras for 34 years (I've had one for over 30), it's probably a good point to talk about where we've come in a third of a century of tech progression. 

Technically, we can trace digital photography all the way back to JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in 1961, but probably the first fully digital camera commercially available was the Fujix DS-X in 1989, and for interchangeable lens digital cameras (ILC) the first would have been the Kodak DCS in 1991.

Given that I mostly write about ILC, I'm going to use the DCS as my starting point. That starting point in 1991 was 1.3mp, and in today's dollars would approach US$30,000. The usual product that's used as the signal of the consumer ILC market is the Nikon D1 (1999), which was 2.74mp and sold for what would be close to US$12,000 in today's dollars. 

I'm using inflation-adjusted prices for a reason: while some of you complain about how expensive today's ILC models are, when viewed in the context of relative cost, they're actually quite inexpensive. It shows you just how far we've come.

That Nikon D1 used a slightly small APS-C crop (23.7 x 15.6, a format Nikon now produced at 23.5 x 15.7 and calls DX). While the camera produced 2.74mp images, those were binned pixels; the actual photosite count in the D1 was 4x what it produced. In terms of frame rate, the D1 managed 4.5 fps for up to 21 frames (buffer), stored on CompactFlash cards that were no more than 2GB in size.

As you can easily see from the preceding paragraph, we've come a long way in every one of those aspects. We now have ILC cameras with as many as 100mp, larger image sensors (full frame and medium format), faster frame rates (to 120fps), near infinite buffers, and storage of at least 2TB at the top end of ILC spectrum. ISO was a limited 200-1600 range in 1999, despite the binning, which tells you something about where commercial image sensors were at the time.

The interesting thing is that the D1 already had a shutter that went to 1/16,000, had 1/500 flash sync, had Nikon's advanced color matrix metering system, and many other things that would still seem to be in the upper end of state-of-the-art. Oh, and it was 38.8 ounces (1.1kg).

One thing that wasn't state of the art was autofocus. The D1 used a five-area dedicated focus sensor that was highly center-of-frame oriented. 

So where are we today? Surprisingly, the Nikon Z9 is heavier ;~). But if you look at top end ILC cameras today, you'll find that virtually everything that was state-of-the-art in 1999 has been considerably upgraded in very meaningful ways, and at a price that's generally half that you paid at the turn of the century. We've made considerable progress. Enormous progress in some areas.

And yet, today I hear more complaints about cameras than I did in those first few years. Moreover, the nature of the complaints have changed. Early on, the complaints tended to be performance based (noise, buffer, resolution). Today, the complaints get down into nuance that's effectively unimportant. I saw one the other day where someone complained about the shape of a button. 

My take is different: I’ve got far, far better gear today than I had 10 years, let alone 20. I’m perfectly happy with where we’re at here at the end of 2023.

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