25 Years of Digital Photography: From Ugly to Awesome

When I received my Nikon Z9 at the end of December 2021, I was a bit anxious. Would it live up to the hype? Was it going to be the camera Nikon had promised (and many Nikon users had been waiting for)?

From day one, my worries were put to rest, and over the next week, the more I learned, the more I liked it. This resulted in a long, mostly glowing article. And as I continue to use it, I continue to be impressed. It made me think of this digital photography journey I’ve been on for the past 25 years. It went from ugly to awesome.

In 1996, my boss at the Rochester, NY newspaper returned from a photojournalism conference where he had been told, “Digital photography is the future.” So he went out and bought one, a state-of-the-art digital camera, the Kodak NC2000e (“News Camera for the new millennium”). Starting life as a Nikon N90s, Kodak later turned it into a digital camera (ala Frankenstein). Since I was the computer geek on staff, he handed it to me and said, “See what it can do.”

The results weren’t pretty.

It recorded images of 1.3 megapixels (1280 x 1024 pixels!) on a removable hard disk. There were four ISO choices, 200, 400, 800 and 1600, but 800 was so loud it was barely usable. 1600 was good for laughs. With white balance, even being careful, images tended to have a magenta cast.

The battery was built in, so if it died while you were away (an almost daily occurrence), you had to plug it into a portable, but heavy, power bank. You have it all for the low price of just $15,000. Oh, and there was no LCD screen to review photos. Shoot and pray. Despite all this, he revolutionized press photography.

State-of-the-art digital for 1996, the Kodak News Camera 2000e (Improved!). 1.3 megapixels, no LCD, very limited ISO, questionable color and non-removable battery for just $15,000.

Before digital cameras, before you could submit a photo for publication, the film had to be processed and a print made (or eventually, the film scanned to digital). Remove the film, and you remove the need for treatment. No more frantically watching the minutes go by on the deadline while waiting for the movie to finish. No more traveling with portable treatment kits to turn hotel bathrooms into darkrooms.

Now all you have to do is remove that little hard drive from the camera and connect it to a computer so you can “process” your photos anywhere, anytime, and then get them to paper. Even if you weren’t traveling, this meant you could stay longer at an event because you didn’t have to factor in film processing time when you returned.

Burr Lewis, Gannett Rochester Newspapers staff photographer, in the print lab in 1990. It was the nicest darkroom I’ve ever worked in and was state of the art for its time.

Of course, the quality wasn’t great, but neither was the reproduction in most newspapers. In the spring of the following year, 1997, our newspaper became one of the largest in the United States to complete a full digital conversion (and the only newspaper to issue every photographer two cameras). Luckily, by then the price had dropped to just $13,000.

In an effort to make the change as successful as possible, each photographer received not only these two cameras, but a set of fast aperture zooms (at 1.3MP you didn’t have the luxury of cropping, you had to fit tightly). As exceeding ISO 800 was unrealistic, each person was also given a lighting kit, and the staff shared two larger high-powered kits. That’s because all of the indoor high school sports we shot had to be lit. We were on the cutting edge of digital photography, and it was tough.

Covering professional sports, indoors or outdoors with the NC2000e was a challenge at best as we couldn’t use the flash. Slow shutter speeds, fast apertures, lots of noise and questionable color. The image at the top of this story, as well as this one, was taken with this camera.

However, photographers were not required to shoot digitally. Each member of staff was allowed to keep a film camera and told that if they couldn’t do the job digitally, they should go ahead and film. And you know what? After six months, no one has shot a film. Despite all the challenges – the low resolution, mediocre high ISO performance, slow frame rate (2fps!), and poor overall quality – the convenience and speed of getting the images won out. the rest.

In mid-1999, major camera manufacturers began building their own digital cameras, from the ground up. Instead of a Frankenstein-like camera, we got the Nikon D1. It recorded 2.7 megapixel images on removable CF cards, had a rear LCD screen, a frame rate of 4.5 fps, 200-1600 (with 1600 actually usable) and a removable battery among many other features interesting (for the time). About eighteen months later, Nikon released new versions with more advanced features (the D1X and D1H), and the race was on, primarily between Nikon and Canon. Kodak was left in the dust and is now a case study in business schools.

Since getting that first D1 in the early 2000s, I’ve now photographed (and taught) a total of 52 different Nikon DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Many were incremental upgrades to an existing design, but some, like the D3 and now the Z9, were groundbreaking in functionality and image quality.

Here’s a quick comparison of the first Nikon digital camera I used, the D1, and the latest, the Z9. Today’s purchasing power of $5,000 in 1999 dollars would equate to over $8,300.
While filming the Chiefs/Steelers game with the Z9 last weekend, I used wide-area (L) AF area mode on the Z9. Here’s part of a 28-frame sequence of Travis Kelce taking a catch and rushing for a touchdown. I was using the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens and zoomed out as it raced towards me. Nikon’s NX Studio software can show me where the autofocus system is focused in each frame, and in these 18 frames in this burst it shows it’s on its body first, but moves then quickly towards his eye and stays there even when he was filling the frame from the waist down. A friend sent me an 81-frame sequence of an NBA game shot with the Z9, of a player on fast break, and he’s sharp in every frame. This latest generation autofocus system is quite amazing.

So what does the future hold for us? Honestly, I have no idea. I still remember when we first had 6 megapixel cameras and then 12 megapixels. Each time we thought we had died and gone to heaven. And honestly, who needs more than 12 megapixels? But, as we all know by now, if we can get more resolution while still having great high ISO performance (low light performance), we’ll take it. What about autofocus that can catch the attention of a fast-moving person or animal, even if they don’t capture much of the frame? Yes please!

I just know that whatever the future holds, I look forward to it. I just hope that in twenty-five years (assuming I’m still here) I’ll think back to 2022 and be like, “Oh yeah, we thought we did well then, but now…”

About the Author: Reed Hoffmann is a photographer and photography teacher who has been in the photo industry for decades and has used every Nikon DSLR (and taught most of them). The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. Follow Hoffmann’s latest workshops here. You can also find more of Hoffmann’s works and writings on his website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This article was also published here.

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