The Gadget We Miss: The Casio QV-10 Digital Camera
One of the first consumer digital cameras defined the category
The first few products in a new category often end up defining that category. That is definitely true of digital cameras, where one of these mould makers was the Casio QV-10: the first consumer digital camera that included an LCD screen.
Launched in 1995, the QV-10 was one of the first consumer digital cameras (see note 1). Although there were earlier digital cameras, it was one of the first to have the whole package of features: it could capture images digitally and display them on an LCD screen, saving them to be copied to a computer later on. Although the camera was by no means cheap (it was launched at a price of 65,000 Yen in Japan, $900 in the US), it was a very popular camera.
Of course, the specs on offer were somewhat limited by the technology of the day. It had a fixed focus lens with two manual aperture settings (f/2 and f/8) from a metal plate with two different sized holes that slid in place inside the lens. The images were captured at a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels (which equates to about 0.07 megapixels) which were interpolated up to 640 by 480 pixels for the video output. These images were heavily compressed into JPEGs to save memory space, because the memory capacity of the camera was 16 Megabits (note the bits, not bytes: that translates to about 2 MBytes). That could hold 96 images, but you had to wait 4 seconds after taking a picture before taking another, as the camera took that long to write it out to memory. The color LCD screen faded in sunlight and the camera body got rather warm if you used it for too long. And the battery life was… shorter than the advertised two hours by a considerable amount. If you used rechargeable batteries, the camera could die in an unpleasant way that required a return to Casio to fix (see note 2)
The QV-10 had a number of new and unusual features, though. The body was split so the lens portion could rotate around, so you could see the live image on the screen while shooting a self-portrait, which predated the selfie trend by 18 years. It also had a manual macro mode, which could shoot down to about 2 inches from the lens front, which was a decent macro for a compact camera.
The screen was also rather radical, being one of the first to use the then-new thin film transistor (TFT) technology in the color LCD display. This screen was pretty bright and did a good job of previewing the images, which was a big benefit given the relatively low screen resolution. You could also use the zoom button to zoom in on the center of the image to take a closer look.
My experience with the QV-10 began on a rainy thursday afternoon in late 1995. Moderately drunk and wandering around the center of Bournemouth (it’s a long story), I wandered into a branch of electronics retailer Dixons to see what new gadgets were on offer. The QV-10 caught my eye, and I quickly pulled out my credit card to buy one. On the salesman’s suggestion, I also bought a large box of AA batteries. Several hundred pounds later, I was the proud owner of the camera and set out to start shooting with it.
I was a pretty experienced photographer at that point (I have a degree in photography and have worked as a freelance news photographer for several years), so I knew how to take photos. To be honest, shooting with the QV-10 was a frustrating experience: the image quality was not great, to put it mildly, as colors were muted, images lacked dynamic range and had very weak detail because of the heavy JPEG compression.
And copying the images over the serial cable with the included software took a long time: this was long before the much faster USB connections . The battery life was also appalling: Casio claimed a life of “up to 120 minutes”, but I seldom managed more than an hour out of a set of 4 AA batteries.
But something about the immediacy of the experience captured me: being able to take photos and see them on the screen a few seconds later felt slightly unsettling.
I’d seen digital cameras that could shoot faster and with better resolution, but they were big, hulking things for the pros, like the Kodak DCS-460, which cost a hefty $28,000. This was different: it was small, light and quick to shoot. And it was (relatively) cheap.
I was accustomed to shooting on film, and I knew how things would look after they were developed. So, the immediacy thing wasn’t a sudden revelation: when you shoot a lot of film photos, you learn how to read a scene by eye, to see how an image will be captured on film and how to get the image you want in the final print using all of the tricks that film photography offers. The QV-10 was different: with this, you could shoot, look at the image and then shoot again if you didn’t like the result. It took me several days to understand how revolutionary this was.
This ability made it a camera for everyone, not just for those who knew the dark arts of developing and printing photos, or who trusted others to do it for them.
This was how things were going to be from hereon in: film was a dying medium and digital was going to take over. Gone were the days of carefully framing, thinking and then shooting a picture to make the most of your 36 exposure roll of film: now you could shoot, shoot, shoot and then delete the ones you didn’t want with no cost or consequence, no wasted film and expense.
And that is why I miss the QV-10: it was the first camera that convinced me of the potential of digital cameras to change not just how people take photos, but the way that they approach the task of taking photos.
Let me put it this way: I’ve been writing about technology and gadgets for about 20 years, but the Casio QV-10 is one of the few gadgets that I have hung onto over this time, despite moving many times and crossing the Atlantic since then. In fact, I pulled the camera out recently and shot the photos you see in this article with it (see note 3), and the experience felt like it did all those years ago: both frustrating and exhilarating at the same time, which is how most revolutions feel.
Note 1 — Which digital camera was actually the first consumer model is a matter of debate. Some claim that the Dycam Model 1/Logitec Fotoman was the first consumer digital camera, but this only shot black and white pictures and cost over $1000. The Apple QuickTake 100 was launched in 1994, but had no screen to display the captured images. There were also other earlier cameras that captured analog images (such as the Sony Mavica line), but these were not true digital cameras. The Sony Mavica line did not offer a truly digital camera until 1997: the Digital Mavica MVC-FD5.
Note 2 — The QV-10 had an achilles heel: if the battery died while it was writing to memory, the memory was corrupted, producing the dreaded MEMORY ERROR message. This was a particular problem with rechrgeable batteries, where the battery voltage falls quickly when they are exhausted. For this reason, Casio recommended against using rechargeable batteries.On the original model, this required a return to Casio to fix, but the updated QV-10A and subsequent models included a way around this: by holding down the ZOOM and DELETE buttons while powering on, you could reset the memory.
Note 3 — The serial port on my QV-10 is broken, so to get the images off the camera, I had to use the video output and capture that. Oddly enough, this actually seems to produce slightly better results than the original image: I suspect that the process of outputting the image by video softens it and hides some of the more obvious artifacts.