Zooming In: Imaging—A Retrospective

Zooming In: Imaging—A Retrospective


In years gone by I wrote many a Zooming In columns for Digital Imaging Reporter at CES that were intended for publication on the eve of the show opening. I attempted to look forward into the abyss, commenting on what we might see at the LVCC. Not this year. This year we present a retrospective.

I want to opine on where we stand as an industry, remembering our humble roots. And perhaps prognosticate a bit on what maybe/probably lies ahead. As if.

My grandfather fought in World War I, my father in World War II. (Ironically our then-enemies are now mostly firm friends.) However, for all three of us kin, photography was spelled K-O-D-A-K for decades. Most people in my youth shot with roll film, often in Brownie cameras.

Kodak Brownie Hawkeye

I entered the as-yet-unpredicted photo quagmire in 1973 at the Hanimex Optics Factory in Hong Kong: Cooke triplet lenses and condensers for slide projectors.

Transitional Decades

By 1973, we photographers worldwide all still used film, but by then mostly in 35mm cassettes or 126 cartridges. In Hong Kong in the 1970s, Frank Wolfe (Prodev, previously a Time/Life photographer) was going nuts trying to get a license for the 110 format.

He was denied a 126 license from Kodak, who had licensed Haking exclusively. Wolfe convinced himself that mischief was afoot; pressure was applied and Kodak finally relented, granting the license.

Dycam 1

The sixties had been relatively calm, but Magicubes, built-in electronic flash, autofocus and motor drives set the industry afire into the seventies and eighties.

By late 1988, I was with Vivitar in the USA, and early in the nineties I saw my first digital camera, nearby our Los Angeles office: the Dycam.

It also sold as the Logitech Fotoman. It used a CCD image sensor, stored pictures digitally and connected directly to a computer for downloading images (read all about it in Wikipedia). Life would never be the same.

Of course, in between there was the disaster of the APS consortium and its oddly shaped cassette, as well as the success of single-use cameras.

At first, digital cameras were extensions of film cameras (remember eFilm?), even for SLR models. But that changed in 2004 when Microvision developed an eye-level EVF (electronic viewfinder) that was shown to many companies at that year’s photokina. They all yawned, presumably because that EVF was so low res and monochrome.

Nikon Nuvis S APS Camera

However, that development opened the door to several later major advances, such as eliminating the mirror in DSLR cameras, allowing short BFL (back focal length) lenses, and the incorporation of video capture. But that turned out to be a sideshow to today’s ever-more popular mirrorless system camera category.

Enter Action Cams & the Smartphone

The real revolution was coming in two parts: GoPro and smartphones. The latter far outweighed the importance of the former. In common: Chinese sourcing. We continue to be in awe of the capabilities of the Japanese photo industry, but in my humble opinion (IMHO), Japan is not doing enough to tap into what China has to offer it.

In drones, DJI of China is so dominant and wealthy that it had the smarts to take control of Hasselblad . . . Hasselblad! Sheesh! One unexpected twist has also been the revival of the Russian company (KMZ) that made Zenit SLRs years ago. There is now a consortium involving them, Leica, Huawei and Pentax to various degrees. I visited KMZ’s factory outside of Moscow in 1996 when I was at Premier Camera of Taiwan. We were asked to help KMZ make and develop more modern cameras. I left Premier (dumb move), but it seems that the cooperation thrived.

In the 2000s, did any/many people foretell the overwhelming success of the smartphone? It is the quintessential TPO image capturer. Time-Place-Opportunity. The smartphone is always with us (or most of us)! Now we have such models as a Huawei with triple Leica lenses; it even had a monochrome lens/chipset, however, recently Huawei switched that to a wide-angle lens.

A Very Successful Throwback

In parallel, Fujifilm had been granted a license by Polaroid to continue to make and use the instant film system introduced and withdrawn by Kodak. To evade the Polaroid patents, Kodak had the incoming light rays enter the camera into the back

Fujifilm Instax Mini 8

of the film. This allowed that system to dispense with the mirror, thus allowing for smaller and simpler cameras.

To the surprise of many, Fujifilm has a stone-hard hit on its hands with its line of Instax photography products. Good for them.

Back in today’s digital arena, the success of 4K HDTV sets has been a boon to digital camera users; they make terrific image-viewing devices. The extra cost of each digital image one captures is almost zero; compare that with the (analog) past!

Coming soon to imaging equipment, I predict: voice controls similar to Alexa smart speakers (already in some models like GoPro) will become more universal camera features.

GoPro Hero7 Black with voice control

And simpler image manipulation is down the road . . . Asia will continue to dominate manufacturing, now with the help of many American and European creators. Lucky us!