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Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) Camera

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The Nikon D7000, a 16.2 megapixel digital single-lens reflex camera.

The history of the digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) is an interesting one, and actually begins far back in time, before there were even devices we would recognize as computers by today’s standards. The technology we enjoy today owes itself to a number of other industries and intriguing historical events, some closely associated with photography, and some less so. By exploring that history, we can gain a greater appreciation for the cameras we have access to today, and get a better sense for where the technology may be headed in the future.

History of the DSLR Camera

Obviously, there would be no DSLR cameras today without their predecessors, the single-lens reflex camera, so the entire industry first and foremost owes its existence to the venerable SLR. We’ll not spend any real time discussing the importance of photography in the pre-digital era, but it is important to at least give it a nod of recognition. This article wouldn’t be possible without it!

In terms of blazing the trail toward digital photography though, the real action begins in 1952, when the very first video tape recorders were used to make recordings of television programs. Before this, television was either live, or it was a broadcast movie. There simply was nothing else, but with the invention of the video tape, an image was recorded as a coded signal (rather than as an actual image). Later, the tape it was recorded on was run through a decoding machine (a video tape player), and the machine converted the code back into an image that made sense to the human eye. This is huge, and the basic process of coding an image, then decoding it later with a different device laid the conceptual groundwork for the DSLR cameras that would appear decades later.

Technological change came more slowly in those days, and so, for the next five years, not much happened, but in 1957 we took another step forward with the invention of the “Drum Scanner.” This device, developed by a man named Russell Kirsch didn’t actually take pictures, but it could make a digital copy of a picture that already existed. The way it worked was that the scanning device picked up the different intensities of light and shadow on the image and saved them as a binary (digital) signal, so really, the birth of the industry can be traced to this event, as this was when digital imaging was actually born, although at this point, we are still quite some distance from the cameras of today!

Things may have remained in this state for a good number of years, except for one thing. The cold war! Tensions were high with the Russians, and one of the earliest “battles” in the Cold War was the race into space.

In the US corner, we had Dr. Wernher Von Braun, originally of Poland, and in the Russian corner, they had Sergei Korolev, who is today called the “Father of Practical Astronautics.” Both of these men were obsessed with the notion of launching a rocket carrying a satellite into space, and the first round of the Space Race went to the Russians, when Sputnik I was launched (also in 1957).

The reason this development was so pivotal to the development of the digital single lens reflex camera had to do with spying. It was reasoned that if a satellite could be launched into space and equipped with a camera, then the side that did that would be able to take pictures from extreme altitude and “snoop” on the other side without them knowing.

The problem, of course, was that there was no way to develop the film in space, and no good way to get it from the satellite back to earth once all the film had been used, so a whole new system of picture taking was needed, and here we see the birth of the first actual digital camera. A camera that used Russell Kirsch’s basic idea for the drum scanner, but applied it directly to a camera, such that it could take a picture, store it in a coded format which could then be beamed from the satellite back to earth, where it could be decoded. At this point, the digital cameras were primitive, enormously expensive, and not available to the general public. Their only use was in spy satellites. There were, of course, incremental improvements made in the basic technology, but it remained firmly a toy of the military.

Moving Forward

The next big move forward didn’t happen until 1973, when an engineer working for Kodak, named Steven Sasson, produced the first terrestrial digital image. His camera would be considered primitive and awful by today’s standards, given that it only had a 0.1 megapixel resolution and weighed more than eight pounds, but it was a start, and it should be noted that this camera was designed as an experiment and was never meant to be a commercial product.

It was clear that we were still a long ways from having a commercially viable digital camera, and the experimental model certainly had its shortcomings, but the point was, it worked! It had taken nearly two decades to get from the genesis technology to this point, but the story was gaining momentum now! The final intermediate step toward fully functional, commercially available digital cameras came in 1981, when Sony released a camera called the Mavica, which was a magnetic video camera. Although this camera was not digital itself, it was an important step toward the beginnings of the digital revolution for one big reason: The pictures taken with this camera could be stored on external “floppy” disks. Back then, the capacity of these disks was only about 1MB, and each disk could only hold about 20-25 pictures, but with a big enough supply of disks, you could hold a virtually unlimited number of pictures and store them indefinitely. This compares directly to today’s memory cards that all cameras come with.

The Digital Revolution Begins

From the start of the digital revolution to the present, it’s been primarily about incremental improvements to the technology, rather than any groundbreaking, game changing new technology, and the first truly digital, commercially available camera was the Nikon Coolpix 950, which was released in 1999. This camera was enormously expensive, which limited its appeal, but it had an impressive 2 Megapixel resolution, making it the first commercial camera that could take pictures of sufficiently high quality to be acceptable to the general public, and from here, the race was officially on!

In 2002, a big advance was made in the form of a new type of light sensing sensor. Called a “Foveon Sensor,” the big advantage was that it could detect levels of red, green, and blue light all at the same time, whereas previous sensors could only detect one of those (either red, blue, or green). This, of course, was quite limited and made for larger, bulkier cameras, but with the new sensor, the camera size could begin to shrink notably, and it didn’t take long for someone to begin taking advantage of the new technology. In the summer of 2003, Cannon launched its latest offering, called the Digital Rebel, sporting 3 Megapixel resolution and lens compatibility. That meant that if you had an SLR and some specialty lenses, you could buy this new camera and simply apply your lenses to it! Needless to say, it was a huge success, and from there, the digital SLR revolution was in full swing and there was no turning back.

Today, you can buy a camera with 16 Megapixels for around $200 USD, and there are cameras on the market as high as 25 Megapixels. One thing to note though, is that at some point, there is a diminishing return on simply getting a camera with more megapixels.

The primary advantage on more versus less, where megapixels are concerned is in zoom. Having a camera with more megapixels allows you to zoom in more closely without suffering from a loss of resolution. To see this in action, take a picture with an older digital camera (say, in the 4 megapixel range). Then take another with a state of the art camera. Download both to your computer and open them using your computer’s default image viewer. Start zooming in.

What you’ll notice happening very quickly with the 4 megapixel image is that as you zoom in more and more, the image becomes increasingly pixelated and fuzzy. Before long, it becomes impossible to tell what you’re looking at. It’s just a hazy blur of computer generated, colored squares. If you do the same thing with the higher resolution image, you can zoom in much further before that effect becomes noticeable. One of the primary advantages then, of the higher number of megapixels is your ability to take a photograph of something extremely far away, and zoom in until it is the central image you’re looking at, and to do that without significant (and in many cases, even noticeable) loss of resolution.

The Future of the Industry

So where are DSLR cameras going in the future? The truth is, they’re vanishing. More precisely, they are merging with other popular forms of technology. You can’t buy an iPhone or Android today that doesn’t come equipped with a camera. Most tablets also sport at least one camera, and many sport two (both front and rear facing). Increasingly, apps are making better use of digital images. Windows 8 has an image-based password scheme you can implement on your devices, and you can expect to see more of that in the future.

The DSLR camera also looks to play an important role in emerging “Augmented Reality” related tech, in which images act as “triggers” that launch apps, and give you a real time, immersive experience. There are even applications in existence right now, today, that can take a high quality 2d image and extrapolate it into a 3d model. This, then, can be uploaded to a 3d printer to create a whole new product or prototype, all on the basis of a 2d image taken by a high quality DSLR camera.

Hand in hand with these types of applications though, it should be noted that we are now at the leading edge of the era of wearable computers. The Google Glass project is but the first and highest profile of these, but in the months and years ahead, you can expect that there will be many others.

None of this is to say that the market for the standalone DSLR camera will suddenly vanish. As long as there are professional photographers and hobbyists, the demand for the camera itself will remain strong, but as the technology continues to develop, people will find new and inventive ways to merge the digital camera function into other technologies, creating whole new markets, new ways of interacting with each other, and inventive new ways of using the core technology.

Conclusion

The digital single lens reflex camera has had an interesting, vibrant history that spans decades, even though the first commercially viable DSLR only hit the market at the dawn of the new millennium. It began with tentative steps taken by technologies only loosely related to photography, morphed into a Cold War era, space tech, returned to Earth in the form of an experiment, then burst onto the scene as an exciting new technology that changed the way we interact with one another, worldwide. While no one can say for certain what the future of the technology holds, two things seem true at this point:

One, the technology is only seeing an increasing number of uses as time progresses, and is becomingly increasingly entrenched in our daily lives (so there’s no danger of it suddenly dying off or disappearing), and two, advances in the industry will probably continue to follow the same course they have followed so far, which is to say, continued incremental improvement, as opposed to any radical, game changing technology that creates a paradigm shift in the industry.

Hobbies | Photography


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