10 years ago…

Today, we’re gonna party like it’s 1999

In 1992, when I was the managing editor of a monthly camera trade magazine called Photo Business, I boldly predicted that digital photography would replace film by 2005. “You’re nuts,” was my supportive editor’s response. “Film is still light years ahead of digital. But let's publish it and see what happens.” By 2003, it was a done deal: Digital cameras outsold film cameras.

I prepared this week’s “The Best Film Cameras Right Now” buying guide and went through the rapidly shrinking selection of currently available 35mm, medium-format and large-format cameras, I couldn’t help but think about how much photography has changed in the past 10 years.

When film cameras roamed the Earth

In 1999, film cameras still ruled. There were dozens of SLRs and over 100 point-and-shoot models to choose from, and manufacturers were still coming up with innovative features. The Nikon F5 was state-of-the-art for pro cameras, while the Canon Rebel line of 35mm SLRs was a popular first “step-up” from compacts. Minolta, Konica, Yashica and Contax cameras were still being made, and each had a loyal following. You can find these cameras dirt-cheap in Adorama’s Used dept.

Kodak, Fuji, Konica and Agfa were competing with a steady stream of new film introductions. 1-hour labs were in every town and on nearly every block in big cities, and were processing record amounts of film. Some were starting to go digital, but it was an expensive process. A few labs added APS film processing, but that format was on the verge of falling flat on its face.

Popular Photography, Shutterbug, Peterson’s Photographic, and Outdoor Photography dominated the magazine racks, and none of them had a web site. Peterson’s folded a few years ago (although it’s now reappearing with special editions), but all the magazines are now struggling with lower ad revenue and declining readership—thanks to the emergence of the web as a resource for plentiful, up-to-the-minute news, information and tech specs (even if not everyone gets it all right). New web sites dedicated to digital photography were popping up: DPreview, Steves’s Digicams, Photohighway, and others. Some (like Photohighway) are gone, others have thrived with the popularity of Digital.

Digital cameras? Check out these specs and prices!

Digital photography, in its infancy, was expensive and offered features that, by today’s standards, are pathetic. But in 1999, they were state of the art. The new Olympus C-2500L, according to one site, “raised the bar in performance for high-end digicams” with its 3x (36-110mm equivalent) zoom lens, 2.5MP sensor (with JPEG or TIF file storage—no RAW), 122K pixel 1.8-inch LCD monitor—and a $2,000 price tag!


Nikon’s first digital SLR, the D1 (left), was a bulky 2.74MP pro camera with a $5,580 list price. Canon’s pocket-sized S10 had a 2MP sensor and 2x optical zoom lens, capable of producing 4x6-inch prints (barely). Price? You can pick up a used one for $65 now, but back then you couldn’t afford it.

Memory? It wasn’t cheap: The biggest capacity card then was a 224MB (yes, megabytes) Compact Flash card, selling for $999—such a deal! Nowadays, if you could find such a small CF card, you’d probably pay a couple of bucks for it. Remember, we were still using floppy discs back then.

No wonder film was still dominant in 1999.

Really fast forward

Yes, photography has changed a lot in ten years, and the pace of innovation isn’t letting up. Just this week, Pentax launched the first DSLR with in-camera HDR (high dynamic range). In a field test of a preproduction model, Jack Howard and I were blown away by the quality of the results. As Jack writes, the Pentax K-7 is a “game changer.” Panasonic will soon have the first Micro Four Thirds camera with HD video. Casio’s latest pocket-sized camera can produce 300 fps videos. Cameras can identify faces, fix focus and lens aberrations, or even wait for everyone to smile. State of the art today…quaint, overpriced and outdated in a decade?

I wonder what photography will look like in 2019…

That’s a wrap! What do you think photography will look like ten years from now? Leave a comment at the bottom of this page—and enjoy your Memorial Day


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