25 years of consumer digital cameras: they have improved with age!

Kodak dS digital science DC20 digital camera released by Kodak in 1996
(Image credit: Chris Willson/Alamy)

It’s a bit hard to pin down an anniversary for the introduction of digital imaging because there were a couple of false starts, followed by a pretty long lead-in time when the photo industry was hedging its bets and even considering hybrid systems such as drop-in digital modules for 35mm SLRs. Nevertheless, as we now go through yet another evolution – from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras – digital capture has been around long enough to create a generation of photographers who have never shot film.

Although there was quite a bit happening beforehand, I nominate the launch of the Kodak DC20 in 1996 – on 3 June in Australia to be precise – as a key moment in the history of the digital camera. It was the first true digital point-and-shoot compact – essentially a digital Instamatic – and was very affordably priced at the time around US$360 (AU$560) when everything else was twice the price. It also made the files easy to access and use in a range of ways. 

Kodak refined a lot of things with the next model – the DC25 launched only three months later – including adding a built-in flash, a LCD monitor screen and a memory card slot (for CompactFlash) to supplement the internal memory that was increased in size from 1MB to 2MB (yep, that is megabytes). Interestingly, the DC25 was much more of a Kodak product (the DC20 was built by Chinon who marketed its own version) and set the formula for an accessible and affordable digital alternative to the then ubiquitous 35mm compact camera. It was deliberately conventional in styling, when many other camera makers were being a lot more adventurous and taking advantage of the design freedoms inherent in not having to accommodate a film cassette – among them Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, Polaroid, Ricoh, Samsung and Sony

The first sub-$1,000 DSLR - the EOS Digital Rebel (aka the EOS 300D and Kiss Digital) (Image credit: Canon)

Kodak had shown the first DSLR in 1991 – the DCS-100 based on the Nikon F3 – and by 1996 this had been much refined with arch-rival Fujifilm also in on the act (and also collaborating with Nikon), but the big bang in this category came in May 2000 with Canon’s EOS D30. Tellingly, this was the first DSLR that Canon designed and built itself, the first enthusiast-level model and the first to get close to a 35mm SLR in terms of size, weight and operability. 

Launched in August 2003, Canon’s EOS 300D took things further by being smaller and lighter, and also breaking through the US$1,000 price barrier to create the first entry-level DSLR. Both these dates are important anniversaries in terms of where we are today. And it’s worth remembering that mirrorless cameras – a purely digital evolution – have now been around for over 13 years, Panasonic kicking it all off at the September 2008 Photokina when the Lumix G1 was unveiled.

Panasonic G1 - the first mirrorless camera (Image credit: Digital Camera Magazine)

So, in terms of the mainstream photography market, there’s been well over 20 years of shooting digitally and perhaps a lot longer if you started out with one of the higher-end digital compacts while you waited for the DSLR to become more affordable. That digital imaging has been able to offer progressively more with each generation of camera – and with the mirrorless configuration taking this further again – is probably the main reason that film hasn’t enjoyed the same revival as vinyl. It’s still on a very small scale even if it is at least 15 years behind what's happened in audio, although interest is definitely on the rise and this could well be due to the curiosity of all those photographers who have only ever known digital. Right now, the future looks more exciting than the past.

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Paul Burrows

Paul has been writing about cameras, photography and photographers for 40 years. He joined Australian Camera as an editorial assistant in 1982, subsequently becoming the magazine’s technical editor, and has been editor since 1998. He is also the editor of sister publication ProPhoto, a position he has held since 1989. In 2011, Paul was made an Honorary Fellow of the Institute Of Australian Photography (AIPP) in recognition of his long-term contribution to the Australian photo industry. Outside of his magazine work, he is the editor of the Contemporary Photographers: Australia series of monographs which document the lives of Australia’s most important photographers.