Skip to main content

10 digital cameras that time forgot

10 digital cameras that time forgot
(Image credit: Future)

The camera market can be a cruel place. Sometimes a thoroughly deserving species gets bumped off prematurely when it didn’t deserve it, and sometimes we get a weird evolutionary oddball that we feed for a while out of kindness, but we’d rather it went away. (Like this rather unhelpful metaphor.)

So here’s a little tour through some of the cameras that time forgot. We’ve split them into two groups: the brave but brilliant that didn’t make it and the crazy kludgebuckets that just weren’t right from the start. Feel free to shed a tear or snigger at the appropriate time.

The good

1. Nikon CoolPix 990 (2000)

Nikon Coolpix 990

(Image credit: Nikon)

Today’s vari-angle screens are just a pale echo of this design masterpiece. This was a camera in two fist-sized halves joined by a robust central pivot, with a screen and controls on one side and the lens, flash and viewfinder on the other. This was when camera designers realised that digital cameras don’t have to have the same design compromises as film cameras and made something brilliant as a result. It’s almost impossible to describe how intuitive and satisfying this camera was to handle. 

2. Sony Cyber-shot R1 (2005)

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-R1

(Image credit: Sony)

This what the bridge camera should have been all along. Sony’s first attempt at a fixed lens big-sensor camera was way better than anyone understood at the time. You got a 24-120mm f/2.8-4.8 Zeiss lens, a 10MP APS-C sensor, a mirrorless design before anyone knew what that was and a flip-up vari-angle screen on the top – weird, but effective. With a modern sensor, a better EVF and Sony’s latest AF tech, wouldn’t you buy one today?

3. Olympus E-400 (2006)

Olympus E-400

(Image credit: Olympus)

This was Four Thirds before the Micro. It’s easy to forget now, but Olympus made some rather neat Four Thirds DSLRs before it made its clever strategic mirrorless switch. So what was wrong with this baby DSLR? Nothing. If Olympus put in an SD card slot and today’s 20MP sensor, it would be just as charming, wieldy and effective today as it was then. Imagine an Olympus E-M5 Mark III with a thicker, chunkier body and and optical viewfinder. 

4. Nikon 1 AW1 (2013)

Nikon 1 AW1

(Image credit: Nikon)

How many shockproof, underwater mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras can you name today? None. Exactly. The Nikon 1 mirrorless range got a raw deal from a rather sniffy photographic press unimpressed by its 1-inch sensor (yes, the same format now raved over in premium compact cameras), and the extraordinary Nikon 1 AW1 got the worst deal of all. Here was a normal-sized mirrorless camera using regular Nikon lenses (and two adapted waterproof lenses) that was as tough as most action cams and underwater cameras are now. Imagine a modern version with a 20MP sensor and 4K.

5. Samsung NX1 (2014)

(Image credit: Samsung)

A camera from the future when the future was still a bit too far away. OK, hold tight. You got a 28MP back-illuminated APS-C sensor which would still be the second highest APS-C resolution today, 15fps continuous shooting, a 209-point hybrid AF system covering 90% of the frame and 4K UHD video at up to 30p (C4K at 24p) with 4:2:2 output over HDMI. This was in 2014. 2014! Samsung had also made a start on a proper pro lens line-up before giving up. The (camera) world can be cruel place.

(Image credit: Future)

The bad

6. Olympus E-10 (2000)

Olympus E-10

(Image credit: Olympus)

Never in the field of digital photography has a camera this size had a sensor this small (oh yeah, the Nikon P1000). This was from a time when a 2/3-inch sensor seemed a decent size, and affordable big-sensor cameras were just a distant dream. The E-10 did actually make a certain amount of technical and financial sense back then. Probably. Today, though, it’s hard to understand why such a tiny sensor needed such a huge lens. You could probably live with the 4MP resolution, but the E-10’s appetite for AA batteries (four at a time) was ferocious.  

7. Kodak DCS Pro 14n and Pro SLR/c (2003/2004)

(Image credit: Kodak)

We couldn’t wait to get our samples, and then we couldn’t wait to give them back. These cameras looked incredible. Admittedly priced for pros, these were still the first mass-market full frame DSLRs on the market, and produced jointly by some of the biggest names in the business. The Nikon-mount Pro 14n used a Nikon body, the Canon-mount Pro SLR/c used a Sigma body. We only tried the DCS Pro 14n, and it was so beset by image quality issues (ours had a shifting color cast from green to magenta across the frame) that we were not surprised when the cameras were withdrawn in 2005. Not a happy time for anyone involved.

8. Pentax Q (2011)

(Image credit: Pentax/Ricoh)

The worst idea ever, done brilliantly. So a good idea might be putting a big sensor into a cheap and simple camera (imagine a modern equivalent of the beautiful 35mm Olympus Trip). So now imagine doing the opposite. If you thought Nikon putting a 1-inch sensor in its first mirrorless cameras was questionable judgement, then this is off the scale. The Pentax Q system could possibly have appeal as a toy, or an exhibit in a cabinet of curiosities, but would you actually take any pictures with it?

9. Lytro Illum (2014)

(Image credit: Lytro)

We keep wanting to call it the ilium, but that’s not right. The Illum was a ‘light field’ camera that captured objects in three-dimensional space, admittedly over a relatively small angle, so that you could look at your subjects from different angles after the picture was taken or even create little fly-by videos of close-up subjects. The principle issue was that it was a concept nobody understood for a thing they didn’t particularly want to do. At least the camera itself was both (a) rather cool and (b) rather clever.

10. Sony QX1 (2014)

(Image credit: Sony)

This is what happens when you think so far out of the box you lose the box. Sony must have thought, we presume, that smartphone users want a better camera, so why not make a clip-on camera with a bigger sensor and a zoom lens, and then why not make it detachable so that you can use it independently via Wi-Fi? So it ended up as a fixed-lens Wi-Fi camera with no viewfinder in a market full of interchangeable lens cameras WITH viewfinders. That also had Wi-Fi. 

More things to read:

Home photography ideas
Best cameras for beginners
Best spy cameras

  • johnmcl7
    There's a very simple reason the 1in sensor is raved about in compact cameras but criticised it in the Nikon 1 series and that's the physical size. Sony made great use of the 1in sensor in their RX100 compacts as they were able to offer a body that was significantly smaller than the small mirror less cameras at the time and also fitted with a fast zoom lens starting at F1.8 whereas on small mirrorless cameras you had to choose between a fast prime or slow zoom.

    The Nikon 1 series on the other hand was barely smaller in practice than existing micro 4/3 cameras and a good bit larger than the 1in fixed compacts so you were getting the smaller sensor but no actual benefits for it. I assume the original idea for the 1 series as to make far smaller cameras than existing ones which would give them an advantage over the rest of the market which clearly didn't work out and while they did start to show some promise with niche cameras such as the waterproof one here and their high speed series, it's not really much surprise there was little interest in the 1 series in general.
    Reply
  • eclectic13
    It is always interesting to read opnions even if they are ill informed. I have extensively used a Pentax Q S1. Obviously the writer hasn't. It has amazing tech tucked into a very small form factor. It takes great pictures. The selections of lenes is excellent and they proform well. With the Q to K Pentax adapter you can use any k mount lens. It provides a complete system for carrying that does not weigh a ton, covers everything from wideangle to telephoto. I have prints made up to 20 x 24 without issues. So yes people use this camera, take great pictures with this camera and enjoy not having sore backs and shoulders from carrying a complete camera system.
    Reply
  • DaveHaynie
    The Nikon AW1 is pretty cool -- I picked one up a few years ago. Makes a great camera for kayaking, or when you don't want to drag out an enclosure for a bit of casual snorkling.

    There were general problems with the Nikon 1 series, though. The early Aptina sensors were pretty grim compared to Sony's 1" sensors. The AW1 is ok in bright outdoor light, but it doesn't compare to my RX10IV in terms of noise, DR, or basic image quality.

    The other problem was Nikon's marketing. They were trying to "pull an Apple" with the Nikon 1, selling form over function, high prices compared to DSLRs or other mirrorless.

    The AW1 was kind of a weird bird anyway. Only two AW lenses, but sure, it supports the other Nikon 1 lenses. But as well, this whole line was being pushed to consumers, and everyday consumers just don't understand the ritual of care needed to keep your submersible camera in submersible shape. So it got a bad rap for leaking, when in fact that was simply user error. It's no wonder that the only affordable rugged/water resistant cameras these days are compacts like the Olympus TG series, which allow a minimal, consumer-proof opening.
    Reply