12th Nov 2005

History of the Digital Camera

Believe it or not, in digital camera history the camera was invented way back in 1951 when the first first video tape recorder (VTR) captured live images from television cameras, converted those images into electrical (digital) impulses, and saved the images onto magnetic tape. Technology marched on and in 1956 the VTR technology was perfected and television shows were no longer forced to be broadcast live. During the 1960’s space race NASA began using digital signals to map the surface of the moon. These digital images were beamed back to earth and enhanced using computers.

Sony Makes Digital Camera History

Coming out way ahead of their time, the first electronic camera was patented by Texas Instruments in 1972. It wasn’t until 1981 that Sony introduced the first commercial electronic camera called the Mavica. Images were recorded onto a mini disc and then put into a video reader that was connected to a television monitor or color printer. Even though the Mavica was not a true digital camera, it was actually a modified video camera that took freeze-frame images, it is credited with kicking off the digital photography revolution and earning its spod in digital camera history. The first true digital camera to work with your home computer was launched by Apple in 1994.

Cameras Gain LCD Monitors

1995 is generally considered the dawn of the consumer digital photography era. Kodak, a longtime film photography pioneer, released its DC40 camera in March of 1995, followed by the Casio QV-11, the first with an LCD monitor, which came out towards the end of 1995, and then Sony made digital camera history by releasing the Cyber-Shot Digital Still Camera, Sony’s first true digital camera, in early 1996.

Lured by the smell of money, Microsoft, Kodak, and a company with the weird name of Kinko’s, joined forces to keep the wonders of digital photography out in the public’s eye. The trio developed digital image software workstations and kiosks that enabled customers to produce Photo CD Discs and photographs as well as add digital images to documents. IBM jumped into the market by cutting a deal with Kodak to develop the first Internet-based network image exchange. Seeing the rise in popularity of digital photography, Hewlett-Packard stepped up to the plate as the first company to make color inkjet printers that worked with the new digital camera images. These events were all important in digital camera history.

How Digital Cameras Work

Digital cameras start out very much like their 35mm film camera ancestors. Both have a lens, an aperture, and a shutter. The purpose of the lens is to bring light from the scene into focus inside the camera where the image is exposed. The aperture is the hole the can expand and contract to control how much light enters the camera. The shutter controls the length of time the light enters the aperture. Once you get past those similarities though, the digital camera is in a class of its own.

Every time that you snap a photo, millions of calculations have to be made in just seconds in order for the camera to preview, capture, compress, filter, store, transfer, and display the image. In order to pull this off, the camera has a microprocessor inside that’s very similar to the one in a personal computer.

Pixels and Photographs

Digital photographs are made up of hundreds of thousands or millions of tiny squares called pixels, which is short for picture elements. Your computer and printer uses these tiny pixels to display or print photographs. To do so, the computer divides the screen or printed page into a grid of pixels. It then uses the values stored in the digital photograph to specify the brightness and color of each pixel in this grid. Controlling, or addressing a grid of individual pixels is called bit mapping and digital images are called bit-maps.

CCD’s Change Images to Pixels

In order to get the image converted into pixels, the camera uses a solid-state device called an image sensor, or CCD, (charge-couple device) to receive the incoming image. The CCD takes the place of film and is made up of fingernail-sized silicon chips that each contain a grid made up of hundreds of thousands or millions of photosensitive diodes called photosites, photoelements, or pixels. Each photosite captures one picture of what will be the complete photograph. The more pixels that the CCD contains, the better the quality of the picture.

Pressing the Shutter Starts the Process

Pressing the shutter release causes the shutter to open and lets light stream through the lens and into the aperture. A metering cell measures the amount of light that is coming through the lens and sets the aperture and shutter speed for the correct exposure. Each pixel CCD records the intensity of the light that hits it by building up a corresponding electrical charge. The more light that hits a pixel, the higher the electrical charge. When the shutter closes, no more light strikes the pixels, and the camera then converts the accumulated charge on each pixel into a number. This series of numbers is then used to build the image by setting the color and brightness of matching pixels and saving them to the camera’s memory device.

Saving the Digital Image

The memory device performs the second function that we typically think of film performing, and that is saving the image so it can be developed later. In the digital camera’s case, however, the picture does not need to be developed. You simply download it to your computer or, if your camera supports this option, you can download it directly to a printer.


Digital photography is the next logical step in photography. As prices continue to fall, and the number of pixels that a camera is capable of storing and rendering rises, there will come a time when traditional and digital camera history part ways and the film-based camera will become obsolete and relegated to cardboard boxes stored in the attic.

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