This month in digicam history: The swivel debuts, Minolta wows us, and the face of camera testing hands over the baton


posted Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 9:30 AM EDT

Last month, we celebrated our 15th birthday here at Imaging Resource, and in reflecting back on all those years of covering the camera market, we were struck by just how far it's come. It's pretty thrilling when you stop to think about it: we could scarcely have imagined the capabilities of some of today's cameras when this site started in an era of sub-megapixel compacts, many of them without so much as a zoom lens. Entry-level interchangeable-lens cameras today best the capabilities of professional cameras that cost many thousands of dollars in days gone by.

In writing our 15th anniversary piece last month, it occurred to us that we'd like to give readers a sense of that excitement, and a feeling for just how great our camera gear is today. At the time, we pledged to start a monthly series looking back over the years, and this article is the first in what shall hopefully -- time permitting -- become that series.

For each article, we'll offer a snapshot of the camera market at three distinct intervals: in the very earliest days of Imaging Resource 15 years ago, as well as at the site's five and ten year anniversaries. We're not going to list every product and review, but rather we'll call out a few of the most interesting. If you want to dig deeper, you can find more in our archives. This month, we'll look at the state of the camera market in May 1998, May 2003, and May 2008.

With that introduction out of the way, let's roll up our sleeves, and dig deep into the archives for some cameras of yesteryear!

Nikon's Coolpix 900 debuted the famous swiveling design which would become a hallmark of the company's cameras for several years.

May 1998.

In our second month covering the digicam market, Imaging Resource took an in-depth look at two camera models. The tiny Canon PowerShot A5 was the subject of our first review that month, and the third in the history of the site. For its US$700 pricetag you received a resolution of just 0.7 megapixels, and a 35mm-equivalent, f/2.5 prime lens. Like most cameras at the time, images were stored on chunky CompactFlash cards. As an interesting aside, our review may well have been among the first to contemplate the moniker "Digital ELPH": Canon didn't officially use that name for another two years.

Later in the month, we were thrilled by the Nikon Coolpix 900, priced at US$800. With a resolution of 1.2 megapixels and a 38 to 115mm-equivalent, f/2.4-3.6 zoom lens, the Coolpix 900 debuted the swivel-bodied form factor that was a popular hallmark of Nikon's enthusiast-friendly cameras for several years. When that swivel design was finally retired, we regularly heard from fans bemoaning its loss. We've a feeling that more than a few of you are still out there, and still mourning for your long-lost swivel. (And we feel for you -- it was a great design!)

The Digita-based Kodak DC260 is one of a rare few cameras to open up their operating system. It's taken almost 15 years for app-enabled cameras to reappear on the market.

Several cameras were introduced in May '98, including Fujifilm's chunky BigJob DS-250HD (1.3 megapixel), and Epson's PhotoPC 700 (1.2 megapixel; most photographers have likely long since forgotten Epson's involvement in the camera market!). The big excitement of the month, though, was reserved for Kodak's DC220 and DC260. The latter was way ahead of its time, with a somewhat-open Digita operating system (in its way, a precursor to the Android cameras of today), manual focus control, external flash sync, and a 1.6 megapixel resolution that merited an exclamation point in our subsequent review. (Yes, really. More pixels excited us, back in the day.)

A couple of other key memories from May 1998 include the Olympus Eye-Trek video glasses initially developed for use on Japan Airlines flights -- and perhaps something of a precursor to today's Google Glass project -- and the medium-format Minolta Dimage Scan Multi scanner (US$2,500 with a resolution of 2,820 dpi.)

The tiny Pentax Optio S was shown off with one of the more eyecatching marketing techniques we can remember: Place it inside an empty Altoids tin.

May 2003.

Five years later, camera manufacturers were struggling to cope with the big news of the day: the fast-spreading SARS virus that threatened to become a global epidemic. With China being at the heart both of manufacturing for many components and for the virus' spread, component supply was becoming an issue. Nevertheless, eight cameras were announced that month. Evolution was the name of the game for most, with models like the Canon PowerShot SD100, Minolta DiMAGE Xt, and Nikon Coolpix 5400 all refining the designs of existing, popular cameras. Popular photo sharing website SmugMug -- a father-and-son creation that survives to this day -- also made its initial debut.

Reviews that month included the Canon PowerShot A300, Olympus Camedia D-390 and D-560 Zoom, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P8 and DSC-P72. Two reviews stand out as particularly interesting: the extremely compact Pentax Optio S was cleverly marketed indeed, with the message of its tiny body reinforced by placing the camera inside an empty Altoids tin. Our love that month, though, was reserved for the Minolta DiMAGE F300, a camera we felt to be an "excellent performer in almost every category".

After ten years as the ISO-standard test subject for all our camera reviews, Marti (left) passed the baton -- well, floral bouquet -- over to new models Jody (middle) and Lauren (right).

May 2008.

And so, we come nearer to the modern day. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were almost upon us, and for the first time, official partner Panasonic was preparing for the first-ever high-definition coverage of the games. Closer to home, after ten years of posing for countless camera reviews, long-time IR test subject (and IR founder Dave Etchells' wife) Marti finally hung up her flower bouquet, so to speak, passing the baton to our current mannequin-cum-models, Lauren and Jodi. (You've got another half decade to go before you catch up with Marti's record, ladies!)

Olympus takes the award for most interesting announcement this month, launching the only interchangeable-lens model, the 10-megapixel Olympus E-520. The sixth-last model in its long-running E-series, the E-520 was the company's first consumer model to drop the EVOLT brandname. The waterproof, dustproof, freezeproof Pentax Optio W60, meanwhile, broke with today's conventions by offering a relatively clean, sleek body, rather than the angular, futuristic designs that are de rigeur in most of today's lifestyle cameras. And the Fujifilm FinePix Z200fd grabbed attention with an unusual, diagonally-sliding lens barrier.

Eyecatching colors weren't the only visual hook for the handsome-looking Fujifilm FinePix Z200fd. It also boasted an unusual, diagonally-sliding lens barrier.

Down in the lab, we put the Sigma DP1 -- the camera that started the now-flourishing large-sensor, fixed-lens market -- through its paces. Years ahead of its time, the DP1 also boasted a full-color Foveon image sensor, but sadly it was troubled by image quality and performance issues. We also tested the 14.6 megapixel Pentax K20D, finding much to love in this customizable follow-up to the K10D. Meanwhile, sister site SLRgear was looking at some interesting telephoto glass, including the Pentax SMC DA * 200mm F2.8 ED (IF) SDM and Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM lenses.

And so, we come back to the present day, all the more appreciative of our modern cameras. Not only do they offer more features than ever, but boy, do we ever have a lot of them to choose from. So far this year we've averaged over 25 cameras per month, and just in the last few days we've posted first shots from seven of them! (By comparison there were just eight announcements in May 2003, and four apiece in May '98 and 2008.)

Did you own -- or just lust after -- one of these cameras? Are there any features that stand out in your memory, good or bad? Or perhaps you'd like to share your own favorites from all those years ago. Either way, reminisce in the comments below.

(Fuji DS200HD image and Nikon CP900 image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.)