Digital Photography’s Humble Beginnings

Originally published on Bokeh on 13 August 2015

Ready to feel bad about your life accomplishments?

How’s this — Steven Sasson was only 24-years-old in 1973 when he joined Eastman Kodak, then one of the biggest names in photography, as an engineer. Within two years he had invented what we recognise today as digital photography and created the first modern digital camera.

Steven Sasson in 1973, when he started working at Eastman Kodak / Steven Sasson

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Sasson highlighted how nobody really foresaw the power of digital.

Back in the early 70’s Eastman Kodak was the most dominant player in the field. The company held a near monopoly of the American photography industry, since anyone that wanted photographs would most likely purchase a Kodak camera (from the Instamatic series), load up Kodak film, get the product developed using Kodak chemicals, before finally having the images printed on Kodak paper.

With such a firm hold on the film market, Eastman Kodak casually assigned Sasson without any expectations to look into a neglected piece of technology that had been invented a few years earlier.

This tech was called the charged coupled device (CCD) — something contemporary readers may be familiar with.

“Hardly anybody knew I was working on this, because it wasn’t that big of a project. It wasn’t secret. It was just a project to keep me from getting into trouble doing something else, I guess.”

To this day, CCD technology remains — along with CMOS, which was invented in 1963 — one of the most important aspects of digital imaging sensors.

Forty years ago however, Sasson was on square one. The CCD could take light patterns through a lens and convert them into an electric signal, but his machine could not record the electric pulses required to make any use of the light patterns. He solved this by experimenting with a concept new to the time called “digitalising”, which turned the electric pulses into numbers.

Now that he had the data, he only needed to transfer it to RAM and save everything onto a digital magnetic tape. Easy right?

An early digital playback image / Georges Eastman House

When Sasson was finished, the resulting camera ended up being that R2-D2 inspired amalgam of Walkman, hard drive, and projector that we showed at the start of the article.

“This was more than just a camera. It was a photographic system to demonstrate the idea of an all-electronic camera that didn’t use film and didn’t use paper, and no consumables at all in the capturing and display of still photographic images.”

Sasson then demonstrated the working model to Eastman Kodak’s marketing and business executives, but they weren’t biting.

“It only took 50 milliseconds to capture the image, but it took 23 seconds to record it to the tape. I’d pop the cassette tape out, hand it to my assistant and he put it in our playback unit. About 30 seconds later, up popped the 100 pixel by 100 pixel black and white image.”

Despite the huge potential of the technology, decision makers at Kodak were skeptical of change; the company at the time was simply too profitable, especially when Sasson mentioned that digital images would only begin to rival film’s quality in 15–20 years (the first digital consumer camera Kodak offered came out 18 years later).

The Ecam (electronic camera) was introduced in 1989 / George Eastman House

Sasson was kept on the project however, and together with his colleague Robert Hills, released the first modern DSLR in 1989. It was called the Ecam, and offered compressed images, used memory cards, and had a 1.2 megapixel sensor.

Remarkably, Kodak still wasn’t having it. Regardless of whether they disdained or feared a digital future, they told Sasson that they wouldn’t put his Ecam on the market.

“When we built that camera, the argument was over. It was just a matter of time, and yet Kodak didn’t really embrace any of it. That camera never saw the light of day.”

Kodak eventually relented, making a number of DSLRs based off 35mm Nikon bodies from 1991 to 2004. Their last model was the Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n and SLR/c, a full-frame 13.5 megapixel powerhouse which used Nikon and Canon lenses respectively.

Kodak’s last DSLR / Wikipedia

The camera was situational, expensive, and undoubtedly impressive — just ultimately not accessible or popular enough to halt the tide.

Kodak was bleeding money, and though Sasson’s technology earned the company billions from competitors who built DSLRs, the patent expired in 2007.

The rest is history, and in 2012 Eastman Kodak declared bankrupcy — a sad, but possibly preventable outcome if only the stolid suits had chosen to back their prodigious visionary.