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I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1995

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I doubt any of you remember it, but 1995 was the coming out party for Digital SLRs. There had been digital cameras before then. There had even been digital SLR cameras of a sort - modified cameras tethered to a hard drive -- before then. But in 1995 camera makers released digital SLR cameras for the masses. Well, sort of for the masses. I think the masses were a few hundred people.

Prices were an 'affordable' $10,000 or so (and remember that was in 1995 dollars). You got a bit more than 1-megapixel for that money. But it was a self contained, battery powered unit that saved images in the camera for later display or printing from your computer.

The truth is, the chips, storage, and other technology was in no way ready to produce what we would consider a reasonable camera. But several manufacturers, using some brilliant innovation, made usable cameras anyway. They actually were used, too, and had some definite advantages over film, although resolution certainly wasn't one of them. A newspaper photographer could take a picture and transfer it (albeit slowly) via modem. That was much quicker than developing and scanning film and made the difference between making tomorrow morning's paper or not making it. And even a 1-megapixel image was sufficient for a two-column-wide newsprint photo.

I got very lucky the other day and was able to buy one of these amazing 1995 vintage cameras for a very reasonable price. Much to my surprise (and probably the seller's, too) we've even been able to get it working. So without further ado, I'd like to introduce my newest old camera: A Minolta RD 175 SLR.

Minolta RD 175. Image by Roger Cicala

It doesn't look 20 years old, does it? Nikon and Canon released their DCS series cameras about the same time, using a Kodak sensor and back mated to their bodies, but ergonomically the Minolta was much more attractive and easier to handle.

Nikon-Kodak DCS 420, circa 1995. The DCS cameras used a single 1.5 megapixel image sensor. Image by Roger Cicala

Notice the proud "3CCD" badge at the bottom of the Minolta camera. Full-frame sized imaging chips didn't exist back in 1995. Even small imaging chips with 1.3 megapixels of resolution were incredibly expensive. Minolta's solution was simply brilliant. The used 3 small camcorder chips, each 6.4 X 4.8mm in size and resolving 0.4 megapixels.

Relay optics at the back of the mirror box reduced the image. A prism in the camera split the incoming light, sending green light to two of the chips, while the third chip handled red and blue light (in stripes, rather than today's Bayer-type array). The input from the three chips was then interprolated into a 1.75-megapixel raw image in-camera.

The three-chip-and-a-prism assembly was smaller and made the camera's ergonomics better. It was also less expensive than the 'huge' (9.2 x 13.8 mm) single chip used in the DCS cameras and had an arguably higher resolution. (It was 1.75-megapixels, but that was the final interpolated image, as opposed to the 1.5-megapixel straight-up images from the DCS. I guess the 1995 Fanboys argued the point, sort of like today's Foveon versus Bayer array megapixel arguments.)

There were some downsides, of course. The RD 175 offered any ISO you wanted, as long as it was ISO 800. It would shoot at any aperture, too, as long as it wasn't wider than f/6.7. Still, for a brief time, this was arguably the best digital SLR money could buy. In fact, it was the first Digital SLR to be used for stop motion animation. The PC game "The Neverhood" was shot entirely, frame-by-frame, on RD 175 cameras.

A Few More Pictures

The RD 175 looks and feels surprisingly modern, basically like a rather large SLR.

 

Image credit Roger Cicala
Image credit Roger Cicala

 

Although the complete lack of an LCD viewfinder takes some getting used to. Image credit Roger Cicala

 

The camera uses two separate batteries: a disposable to power the body and a rechargeable one that powers the electronics and memory. Speaking of memory, these cameras don't use cards; they use small PCMCIA hard drives. There was one in the camera when we got it - a whopping 131 Mb (0.13Gb in modern terms).

Since the camera's electronic output is SCSI 1 through a cable as thick as my finger, it didn't seem likely we'd be able to get it talking directly to a computer. (In theory I think we could do a SCS1 to SCS 2 adapter, to SATA, to USB, but the chance of drivers actually working seemed unlikely). However we were able to find a PCMCIA to USB card reader. It required a bit of high-tech modification (sawing a big hole in the front to enlarge the entrance slot), but we were able to get it to accept the card.

 

The PCMCIA card and our slightly modified PCMCIA card reader.

 

Rather to our shock the 20-year-old hard drive still worked and contained several dozen raw images. Even after we got the files downloaded, getting the old .mcd format converted to something we could see took some experimenting, but GraphicConverter 9.0 saved the day.

The rest of the camera worked, too -- quite well, in fact. The autofocus system (single center point) is quite accurate, although it takes a good half-second or so to lock into focus.  Writing an image to the hard drive takes another 2 seconds or so, and then the camera is ready for more not-so-fast-action shooting.

So here, in 50% sized jpg glory, are the kind of images you would have taken if you were a well-to-do photographer with cutting edge digital gear, circa 1995. They aren't half bad, actually.

 

A couple of guys unpacking in the workroom. The f/6.7 exposure times are leisurely. Their hands aren't blurred because they're working that fast. Also note the false-color on the laptop  - it's actually shiny silver, not red. Unfortunately, the wall color is accurate. Don't ask me why we have one red wall. Roger Cicala

 

The park behind the Lensrentals office. Detail isn't phenomenal, but I'm impressed with how the autoexposure nailed this backlit shot. I have some modern cameras that don't always do that well. The dynamic range is better than I would have expected, too. 

 

Making the most of those 1.75 megapixels to do a little macro shooting with the 50mm f/6.7 macro lens. Again, I'm mostly impressed, although even at 50% size you can make out a bit of noise.  Image credit Roger Cicala

 

Even a true macro shot has nice detail. Come on, confess: when I told you it was 1.75 megapixels you weren't expecting this much detail, were you? Image credit Roger Cicala

 

Other than showing some pictures, I have nothing profound to say here. It is fun to be able to use one of the first digital SLRs ever made. I was really surprised that it worked at all, and after looking at the images, for the first time I can understand why people (or more likely corporations) were willing to pay huge money for a camera like this in 1995.

And I have to admit, as a person who sometimes wonders out loud if my camera, which 'only' has 24 megapixels, is really adequate for my needs, that these 1.75 megapixel images were a bit of an eye opener.

 

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

June, 2014

One last note: I don't post people's pictures without permission, but I'd like to mention that the memory card came with several images on it, apparently advertising pictures of two gentleman and a young lady. Her computer monitor says the Watkins-Johnson Company and they were taken, if my judgement of their laptops date is correct, about 1997 or 1998. Just on the off chance someone might want those images, I thought I'd mention it.

33 Responses to “I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1995”

Alberto said:

I wonder, how many photographs with portrait orientation were taken with the DCS 420? My guess is "not many".

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Alberto, I actually have a DSC 420 so I picked it up and tried that. My next thought is "I wonder how many DCS 420s ended their life when a photographer tried to use it in portrait orientation". I just about dropped it. The grip is really shallow.

grubernd said:

nice. i have never seen one of those old Minoltas.

having shot one of those DCS monsters back in 1997 (??) i can tell you that you dont shoot portrait with the grip upwards but downwards. and then you discover you can push the release button quite comfortably with your thumb, removing almost any strain on your hand. yes. the thumb. give it a try. =)

Lasse Beyer said:

I really liked The Neverhood. Gonna have to dig it out and play it again on my old PIII (which I keep for exactly this purpose: playing old games)!

Roger, do you provide some geeky raw files? I'd love to convert them to .dng :) .

Matt said:

Why is the laptop the wrong color?

Wayne Harrison said:

I worked at Wolf Camera in Atlanta back in the 90's. I we'll remember seeing that camera, looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. Looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Matt, I assume the third chip that handles blue and red color got overwhelmed with the shiny silver and had to call it red.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Lasse, email me at Roger at lens rentals dot com and I'll send you a few. They aren't very large.

A said:

Congratulations on your latest (1.75MP) baby! One of the folks at work cleared out a cupboard the other day; and found a floppy disk based Sony Mavica lurking in the shadows. Retro.

Interesting that Minolta did the 3ccd differently to everyone else. Usually they split into the primary colours:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3CCD

I'm wondering whether the false colour effect you're seeing has something to do with IR sensitivity? I'd be curious to try sticking an IR filter on it, and seeing what happens!

Aaron said:

Very cool! I remember in HS they had one of the old early digital cameras that saved to a 3.5" 'floppy' disk. Hmmm...I should avoid ebay. I tend to like buying old artifacts like that, but I'm trying to save up money for some expensive new artifacts :D

Yea, the 3CCD thing they did is rather interesting. I've only heard if being split RGB, not G/R+B.

Colbert said:

On some level I'd like to see an Imatest comparison of the same sample of the 50mm macro on an A7r and and this camera. You know, to see how far we have come... and to have a good laugh.

L.P.O. said:

Roger,
just to let you know that the GraphicConverter link to Lemke starts with http// instead of the correct http://

Very interesting the laptop colour. To me it seems that the red receiver might be overtly sensitive to IR, or possibly even UV.

But from the silliness to the real question:
Why do you have a hot pink wall?

Rupert said:

Roger, a PCMCIA to CF adapter might work in the Minolta. I'd keep it below 2GB cards tho'

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

The hot pink wall was there when we took over this space a couple of months back. We have no idea why there's one 60 foot wall entirely in hot pink when the rest of the space is industrial beige.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Thank you, L.P.O., I've fixed that.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Colbert, it wouldn't work. I did, for fun, shoot an ISO 12233 chart and you couldn't make out even the thicker lines.

AH693973 said:

Send that bad boy off to the DXO mark folks. You could really open up the lower left of their comparison chart.

Romano said:

Hi Roger --- just a side comment about your (wonderful) blog. When I am reading it with my tablet (Nexus 7), the right part of the figures (the part that exceed the text column width) are cropped out and impossible to see (as with the caption text). Not a big problem, but I do not know if you were aware of that... (feel free to delete this comment if you want, I understand is quite off-topic).

Dan said:

Why did you leave the 5D strap attached with the elastic band like that? My estimation of you just went down!

Joking. Sort of. I am mildly irritated by it.

Siegfried said:

Roger,
please use it carefully. I take it like it's a copy of Petzval by some Voigtlander or Hermagis, but in a digital domain. It's like have a running Tin Lizzie or Maybach Zeppelin. In a word: wow!

Zig

Tony said:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Other digital cameras available in 1994 were the Apple QuickTake and the Nikon E2. The Apple had abysmal image quality due to the chromatic aberration and the omission of a needed AA filter. Every diagonal line looked like it was made of Lego blocks.

I was a manufacturing engineer at a big company that used hundreds of process instruction docs. I had them buy a Nikon E2 and a couple of lenses which ran a total of about $15K. It made uncropped images on the single 2/3" sensor via the internal 50mm EL-Nikkor relay lens.

Adding pictures to the the process docs - no longer with taped-in color prints, but fully electronic copies we could revise and print on demand - improved the manufacturing yields enough to pay for the camera system in about 10 months. The 1.3 MP images were pretty clear with excellent color. The pixels had a 2:1 aspect ratio, longer in the vertical direction, and they were in staggered rows. Resistors on circuit boards did not look like resistors if the camera was turned the wrong way.

Even with the low res images, that jump from film to digital 1 MP in some ways might have been a bigger leap than anything that came after.

Boris said:

So when can we rent these? :D

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Dan, if you have 50 of those on the shelf and leave the straps dangling loose, then straps get tangled. When straps get tangled someone pulls one camera out and 5 more fall on the floor. When 5 cameras fall on the floor, someone gets in a lot of trouble. So basically rubber bands save jobs.

Mike said:

That 50 mm is still usable on Alpha bodies too, and the image way better. Sony still sells its version of it.

Nqina Dlamini said:

Rubber bands save jobs...LOL.
I enjoyed this, brought back memories. At work (around 2001) they had a 645Kpixel Olympus CCD camera. The pictures were not that bad. I borrowed it a few time to take family pics and so forth.

Aaron said:

Thanks for that video Roger. I don't know which is better. The guy, or what he's tearing down :)

brandon said:

dan, if you aren't 100% kidding, you might want to seek help. even then, dude....

Eamon said:

Roger, just a tiny niggle: you said, "Nikon and Canon released their DCS series cameras about the same time"

The DCS cameras were Kodak products. Nikon had no involvement at all in the early Nikon-bodied DCS models, other than allowing Kodak to buy N90/N90s bodies directly from Nikon USA.

Canon apparently gave Kodak a little bit of development assistance on the Canon-bodied DCS cameras, and some of them were co-marketed by the two companies, but they were built by Kodak in Rochester, NY. The digital side was all Kodak.

I learned these and many other things while researching an article about the NC2000, Kodak's first viable DSLR for photojournalists. That article is here, if you're interested: http://www.robgalbraith.com/multi_page3e5f.html?cid=7-6463-7191

LDS said:

Actually, holding the camera in portrait mode with the shutter button in the lower side and using the thumb to click it, was one of the advices in the Canon A-1 manual. And often it helped to keep the camera more stable. But that was the 80's.. not the 90's...

Justin said:

Hey Roger,

I don't want to doubt your first-hand experience with the color issue of the Macbook, but could he possibly just have a transparent red plastic protective case installed on the laptop? I only ask because it looks like the surface is much more reflective in the photo than a standard aluminum Macbook's surface and the illuminated logo appears to be tinted in a way that could possibly be attributed to a transparent red case. I mean, what blog post would be complete without a Doubting Tom in the peanut gallery, right?

Michael said:

Roger, I really enjoy your blog. I worked at Watkins-Johnson from 1986 through 1996. I doubt if I am pictured in the old images, but perhaps I might recognize one or more of the people who are. I'd be happy to try to identify the subjects if that's of interest.

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