Introduction: "These are the Five Fates"
Today I am going to talk to you about Kodak's DCS range of vintage professional digital SLR cameras. Before I do so, I want to ask you a question. Which contains more thoughts; the head of a horse, or the Horsehead nebula? A horse's head is a relatively small object, packed densely with tissue and brain matter; the Horsehead nebula is an enormous, diffuse scattering of dust and electricity. The horse is an expert on grass and lady horses. The Horsehead nebula gazes into the depths of space. One day, far in the future, it is possible that horses might rule the world. Their Satan will resemble Zara Phillips; she will be their nightmare demon, a distant race memory from the beginning of their time.
But I digress. By the late 1980s, traditional photographic film was beginning to look old-hat, at least in the field of photojournalism. Television news crews had transitioned from film to videotape during the early 1980s, but newspaper photographers continued to use film, because there was no viable alternative. In the mid-1980s, Canon, Nikon and Sony had released "still video cameras", which stored still television pictures onto analogue floppy discs, but although they had just enough resolution for newspapers, they were technically limited, and no use for TIME magazine or the National Geographic. There was a burning desire for a device that could emulate a film camera, without the cost and time of processing and scanning, that could integrate with computer-based desktop publishing, and that could create digital images that could be transmitted instantly across the world. Kodak's work on digital imaging sensors - the company had demo'ed a 1.4mp sensor in 1986 - meant that the company was ideally placed to sate this desire, but no-one at Kodak knew how to build digital SLR bodies. At the same time, Nikon and Canon were beginning to realise that their work on still video cameras was leading nowhere; the best models struggled to reach a megapixel, and still required videotape for storage, and ultimately digitisation at some point in the image-gathering chain. Kodak had no experiencing building professional SLR bodies, and thus it came to pass that the first digital SLR, the Kodak DCS of 1990, was a Kodak digital module strapped to the bottom of a a Nikon F3. Over the next eight years Kodak had the pro digital SLR market almost to itself. There had been a few other digital SLRs during the 1990s - the Fuji/Nikon E2 of 1994, and the Minolta RD-175/Agfa Actioncam of 1996 - but they sold poorly. They were too expensive for amateur hobbyists, and too bulky, fiddly, and limited for the professional market. Kodak's cameras were also expensive, and bulky, but they were based on camera bodies that photojournalists were familiar with, from familiar names, with extensive product support. They had quirks, but they were known quirks that could be worked around. Unfortunately for Kodak, the competition eventually caught up. I can imagine the shame that burned deep inside the hearts of whoever was in charge of Nikon, and Canon, that they had to rely on Kodak for their digital technology.
Kodak is a good example of a company that created and pioneered a new market, but found itself out-competed by wilier, more aggressive companies that came slightly later to the game. I suspect that Kodak was not overly upset at this, and that the company's professional digital SLRs were not very profitable, if at all. Kodak's compact digital cameras sold well, and continue to do so, although in declining numbers. Kodak was the best-selling digital camera company in the US in 2005, and is still in the top five. The company's sensors are used in a few high-end medium format bodies. There are however no longer any Kodak digital SLRs.
The DCS / DCS 200
The earliest Kodak DCS cameras were essentially Nikon film SLRs fitted with removable, Kodak-designed digital modules that hung below the camera, looking like large motor drive units. Today, these early DCS cameras resemble scientific instruments from a bygone age. Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, Kodak's website still has downloadable firmware and instruction manuals for most of them, even though they were discontinued a decade ago.
DCS stood for "Digital Camera System", nightmare stabbing juice. The name was introduced with the Kodak DCS of 1990. It was based around the ageing but very tough Nikon F3, combined with Kodak's digital module, a 1.3Mp device that was available in colour (as the DC3) or monochrome (the DM3). I'm not sure why Kodak decided to use the Nikon F3, and not the contemporary Nikon F4; whatever the reason, the upshot was that the original DCS was and remains the only manual-focus-only digital SLR ever sold to the public. Eventually there was a digital version of the F4, but it was a special edition produced by Nikon for NASA use, in tiny tiny limited numbers. I am not sure if the NASA F4's sensor was made by Kodak, or not. The camera was not part of the DCS series and falls outside the scope of this article.
The original DCS set the pattern for Kodak's first wave of digital SLRs, in the sense that it was a stock Nikon F3 with a removable digital module. The Nikon F3 could be transformed back into a 35mm film SLR by fitting a replacement film back; this was a feature that continued with subsequent DCS models until the DCS 520 of 1998, and was briefly revived by Leica in 2005 with the Digital Modul R, which could be used to convert the Leica R8 and R9 film SLRs into ten-megapixel digital models. I cannot think of another 35mm format digital back, although digital backs are common in the medium-format world. In the first years of the twenty-first century a company called Silicon Film came up with some press releases that promised a digital imaging module the same size and shape as a 35mm film canister, that could theoretically have been used to convert any old 35mm film camera to digital, but it turned out that the whole idea was vapourware, spurious nonsense, barmy old cack of the highest order.
The original DCS was more svelte than later models, because the batteries, storage system, and LCD screen were contained in a separate digital storage unit that had to be lugged around. It resembled the kind of portable tape recorder used by roving television journalists in the 1960s. There are lots of pictures of the DCS on the internet, but no anecdotes or image samples. I get the impression it was more a headline-grabbing proof-of-concept than a viable product. The DCS cameras remained a tiny part of Kodak's empire, a part that attracted headlines but was never a money-spinner.
The DCS - later known as the DCS 100, to differentiate it from subsequent models - sold for £15,000 in 1992, back when £15,000 was still a fair amount of money. In common with Kodak's other early DCS cameras, the DCS 200 used Kodak's own special version of the TIFF image format, that had to be uncompressed and developed with Kodak software. The JPG standard was still very new in 1991, although there was apparently an optional JPG encoder board for the DCS.
Kodak followed the DCS in 1991 with the DCS 200, a 1.5Mp model with integral storage and no LCD screen. It was a self-contained unit based on the semi-pro Nikon F-801s, with a chunky digital module that hung beneath the camera, doubling its height. The digital model held the batteries, the sensor, and an 80Mb internal SCSI hard drive. The resulting camera was a bit of a behemoth, but it was easier to carry around than the DCS and its storage module.
Nonetheless in most respects the DCS 200 was less capable than the original DCS. Whereas the DCS had a 200Mb hard drive, and in its most advanced form could fire bursts of twenty-four images at 3.5 frames per second, the DCS 200's 80Mb hard drive stored only fifty images, and the camera had a frame rate of 2.5 seconds per frame. The was no graphical LCD preview screen at all. Furthermore, the DCS 200 produced 8-bit files with very little exposure latitude.
In its favour, the DCS 200 was half the price of the original DCS, at around £7,000. I imagine it was also a semi-prototype product; the internet has almost nothing about it, and the combination of a fifty-image limit and ponderous speed would make it impractical for press use. In theory it might have been useful for eBay product shots, but remember that it came out in 1992; eBay didn't exist, and the internet was generally text-based. In 1992 the internet as you know it today was called the WorldWideWeb, and it ran on a few NeXT machines at CERN. The May 1992 Playboy Playmate was Vickie Smith, I wonder what happened to her?
The DCS 400 / DCS 1/3/5
Kodak's next digital SLR model was the DCS 420 of 1994, an altogether more mature product. It resembled the DCS 200 but used removable PCMCIA cards for storage rather than a built-in hard drive. It was also a 1.5Mp model, but this time it produced 12-bit files with more exposure latitude than the DCS 200. In common with the DCS 200, the crop factor was 2.6x. This meant that a 50mm normal lens became a semi-telephoto 130mm portrait lens. In those days Nikon's widest conventional lens was a 15mm model, which became 39mm on the DCS 420, which still isn't very wide. The other major limitation of the DCS 420, also in common with Kodak's early cameras, was that it was relatively sensitive to the infra-red end of the spectrum, and tended to produce images with a magenta colour cast.
Nonetheless the DCS 420 was slicker than the DCS 200. It could take a five-image burst at 2fps. Kodak made a modified version for the Associated Press, which was sold as the NC2000/2000e, with a larger (but lower-resolution) sensor and a slightly faster, twelve-shot burst mode. The 420 and the NC2000 sold relatively well, and pop up on eBay once in a while. There is one good anecdote about the NC2000e on the internet, by a man called Eamon Hickey.
The 420 was followed but not replaced by the 460, which was released in 1995. This was a 6Mp model with a 1.3x crop factor. It cost £25,000 at the time, still a fair sum today. 6Mp was an extraordinarily high resolution for 1995. The only other 6Mp digital SLR on the market at the time was Kodak's DCS 1, which was essentially a DCS 460 based on a Canon EOS-1N body. As far as I can tell, the first professional digital SLR to improve upon the DCS 460's resolution was the Canon 1DS of 2002, an 11Mp model, although the Fuji S2 Pro of around the same vintage as the 1DS had a native resolution of 6.1mp.
The combination of low crop factor and high resolution meant that the DCS 460 was several years ahead of its time, although in most other respects - ease-of-use, size, weight - the 3mp, 4Mp professional models of 2002 were greatly superior. The DCS 1 and DCS 460 would in theory be useful today as backup bodies, if they were smaller, and had screens, and if spare batteries were cheaply available, and they used CompactFlash cards. The early Kodak DCS models used laptop-style batteries that were supposed to be recharged whilst inside the camera, that are impossible to remove without undoing screws. Nowadays the batteries are hard to find, and I imagine after all this time most of them will have run flat. Kodak's digital SLRs used PCMCIA cards, which are also scarce and expensive. In theory the DCS cameras will accept a CompactFlash-PC Card adapter, but from what I have read the results are very erratic, and the cameras only work with older, lower-capacity CompactFlash cards.
In addition to the DCS 1, Kodak also produced the Canon-bodied DCS 3 and DCS 5, which were essentially the same as the NC2000 and DCS 420 respectively, but with EOS-1N bodies.
Most of the aforementioned were available with monochrome sensors. In theory, the monochrome sensors should have had a higher apparent resolution than the colour sensors, because the image data did not have to undergo colour filtration and Bayer interpolation, but I am not entirely sure of this, and there is very little information about the early monochrome DCS cameras on the internet, and no image samples. There were also monochrome infrared versions; these were monochrome models without the sensor's built-in infrared filter. It's also worth mentioning that the early DCS cameras did not have anti-aliasing filters, which was both a blessing and a curse; it meant that the images were nice and sharp, but they were also susceptible to colour moire patterns. The very last of Kodak's monochrome models was the 6Mp 760M of 2002, of which less than a hundred are produced. It remains an intriguing camera today. With a 6Mp sensor using non-interpolated single-pixel mapping the 760 should produce "Foveon-esque" monochrome images with the equivalent resolution of a conventional 10-12Mp camera, but again there is very little about this camera on the internet, and no full-sized image samples.
The 420 / 460 / DCS 1 / 3 / 5 models were the last of Kodak's early digital SLR range. They are all antiques. From this point onwards Kodak's digital SLRs underwent a complete overhaul, and set the pattern for all subsequent digital SLRs. The swirly-swirl in a cup of coffee is mirrored in the eye of a hurricane; the ant has six legs, and so does the entire world.
The DCS 500 / 600 / 700
There were two basic strands of Kodak's second batch of DCS cameras. The Kodak DCS 520 / 560 models of 1998 were based on the Canon EOS-1N, but unlike the earlier DCS cameras the digital module was integrated with the film camera. They were the first digital SLRs to have LCD preview screens, small 1.8" TFT designs that complemented a smaller monochrome text LCD on the back panel. Even today the cameras do not look obviously old-fashioned, although they are about a third taller than a modern Canon 1D. The DCS 520 / 560 still look very serious and professional. They project authority, and are the kind of cameras that might help you bluff your way past a security guard. They have an integral portrait grip, although it is thin and small, and does not travel the full width of the camera.
The DCS 520 / 560 were also sold by Canon, as the EOS D-2000 and D-6000 respectively. I cannot pretend to be an expert on the international business world, but I get the impression that Canon was not best pleased at having to share the limelight with Kodak. Canon eventually developed a popular range of own-brand digital SLRs, even going so far as to design and manufacture their own range of digital image sensors; in contrast, most other camera makers buy sensors from outside suppliers, mainly Sony. It is perhaps notable that Kodak's later, Nikon-compatible 14n / SLR/n used a body supplied by Nikon, whereas Kodak had to use a Sigma body with a reverse-engineered Canon mount for the Canon-compatible SLR/c.
Once again I digress. The DCS 520 was a two-megapixel model aimed at sports photographers, with a burst rate of 3.5fps for twelve images, whereas the 560 was aimed at studio photographers, with a high-resolution 6Mp sensor. It had a 1.3x crop factor. Both cameras had some quirky features that were generally left out of subsequent SLRs; they could record short voice memos, they had built-in games of Pong, and they also had intervalvometers, for periodic shooting. The combined infrared / anti-aliasing filter was removable, and could be replaced with a plain infrared filter, giving a sharper image at the expense of increased moire. The 520 is relatively well-documented on the internet. It is modern enough to have been reviewed by Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Review, and the samples I have seen are on a par with images from modern digital SLRs, sized down, although the reviews pointed out relatively high noise levels.
The 520 / 560 were Kodak's final Canon-based SLRs. Kodak followed them up with the DCS 620 / 660 in 1999; essentially the same cameras as the 520 / 560, but based around a Nikon F5 body. The 620 was complemented in 2000 with the 620x, a high-sensitivity model with a base ISO of 400, going up to ISO 6400. It had the same sensor as the 520 / 620, but a different colour filter array that sapped less light, and the software had a high-ISO noise reduction algorithm. From the samples I have seen, the images were still usable for photojournalistic applications at ISO 3200. This is impressive even today, and was unique in 2000. The 620x cost $10,495 at the time, and it was apparently a solid success. It was replaced a year later by the similar 720X, which had a slightly faster burst rate of 4.5fps. The other major difference was that the 620x had a white balance sensor mounted on the handgrip, whereas the 720x did away with the sensor, and calculated automatic white balance entirely from the image.
There was a 6Mp DCS 760 as well, which used the same sensor as the DCS 560 / 660, with the body of the 720x. This constant reuse of sensors is a feature of the DCS range. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Kodak's sensor division was unwilling to develop sensors specifically for Kodak's camera division, because Kodak's camera divison did not sell enough cameras to justify the expense; as a consequence, the camera division had a limited choice of sensors, that were not specifically tailored to the company's cameras. I surmise.
The DCS 720x / 760 were the last of Kodak's DCS cameras. Used as a pair, with the 720x for low-light sports and the 760 for everything else, the 700-series would be capable enough for most photographic applications today, if you could find them in working condition with all the accessories. Having said that, most modern digital SLRs will do almost everything that the 720x/760 could do, in one body, for less money.
The DCS 300: Ditch the Bitch
There was a second, short-lived DCS strand, the DCS 315 / 330 of 1998 and 1999. These were based on a contemporary Nikon Pronea APS SLR. You might not remember APS. It was a miniature film format, smaller than 35mm, that was briefly popular in the mid 1990s. It was developed by Kodak and died a death in the late 1990s, although the APS name lives on, because most digital cameras use an APS-sized sensor. The DCS 315 used a 1.5Mp sensor with a 2.6x crop factor, whereas the DCS 330 had a 3Mp sensor with a 1.9x crop factor. They were aimed at the advanced amateur and semi-pro market, and were therefore distant ancestors of the Canon 10D / Nikon D70. Unfortunately they were priced at around £5,000, and were far too expensive for hobbyists (who instead went for the Nikon Coolpix 950). Professionals shunned them in favour of Kodak's full-sized DCS models. Nowadays the 315 / 330 look grotty and cheap, and they are probably the least desirable of Kodak's vintage range; not functional enough to be useful, not vintage enough to have sentimental value. The DCS 330 entered the marketplace just in time to compete with the Nikon D1, and therein lies Kodak's nemesis.
By 1999, Kodak's Nikon-based digital SLRs were competing with actual Nikon digital SLRs, and losing. The Nikon D1 was smaller, cheaper, lighter, more practical, and had a higher resolution than any of Kodak's 2Mp photojournalist models. Kodak still had a few unique selling points. The 620X had unbeatable high-ISO performance, and the 560 / 660 / 760 had resolution. Kodak's PhotoDesk image management software was highly regarded, and the company released regular firmware updates for their older cameras, and provided extensive support. In general however it was to no avail; for whatever reason, Kodak could not bring their prices down to match those of Nikon. By 2002, the 5Mp Nikon D1X had eroded away the resolution advantage of Kodak's 6Mp models, whilst managing a faster burst rate, in a smaller body, for less money. Cameras from Canon and Fuji were selling well at the advanced amateur end of the market, and by the time Canon released their own professional digital SLR, the Canon 1D of 2001, Kodak had decided to leave the professional photojournalist market.
The DCS 14n / SLR/n / SLR/c
There was a brief postscript, in the form of the Kodak DCS 14n, and its sequels, the Pro SLR/N and SLR/C. These really deserve a separate writeup. They were 14Mp models with an imaging sensor the same size as a 35mm film frame. On paper the cameras were very impressive, with a higher spec than the market-leading Canon 1Ds, but in practice they were plagued with problems, and did not sell very well. The main issues were excessive noise at moderate ISO values; smeary noise reduction that could not be turned off; uncomfortable ergonomics; moire patterning on account of the lack of an anti-aliasing filter; and ponderously slow camera operation. The latter-day DCS was announced in 2002, did not reach the market until 2003, was substantially revised in 2004, and was discontinued in 2005 having never reached a satisfactory state. The sensor was made by a company called FillFactory, and the bodies were suppled by Nikon and Sigma, with Kodak writing the software. I suspect that the 14n was an attempt to cheaply produce a camera that would nonetheless outperform the current state-of-the-art. In practice the end result was an interesting failure.
At that point Kodak left the digital SLR market entirely. Nowadays the company produces a range of popular simple point-and-shoot cameras aimed at people who have more and better things to worry about than cameras. The Kodak name still has a certain cachet. The company's sensor department produces high-resolution sensors for NASA, Olympus, and Phase One, amongst others. The patents that Kodak amassed during development of the DCS series have kept the company's lawyers busy, firing off periodic lawsuits against Sony, Panasonic, and Sanyo.
Kodak's DCS series is mostly forgotten nowadays. The cameras were revolutionary, but not iconic. They sold in relatively small quantities, and do not often turn up very often on the used market, and even then they are usually missing vital accessories, or are sold "as is". Looking back, it is odd that the company did not develop its own camera body; Kodak could have at least hired the expertise, but it did not happen. The impression I get is that Kodak's development funds for professional digital SLRs were strictly limited, and that the DCS cameras were part of a research project that developed momentum of its own. In theory, Kodak should be king of the hill, because it is one of the few camera manufacturers that also produces its own sensors, but in practice the company never seemed to advance beyond the DCS 520 template that had been set in 1998. The high-ISO 620X / 720X models were clever, and remained class-leading in that one narrow field for a few years thereafter, and the company seemed to have the NASA market sewn up, but apart from that, the competition's cameras were generally smaller, cheaper, more functional, and more practical. And they became more so as time went on. The current top professional cameras are the Canon 1D MkIII and the Nikon D3, either of which outperform the DCS 720x / 760 in all respects.
Today the early Kodak DCS models are hard to value. They are like old supercomputers from the past; impractical and hard to maintain, yet their former grandeur commands a certain respect. The early models are too quirky to use regularly as practical tools, and even on a good day they offer nothing over modern cameras. The later, post DCS 520 models are still practical, but they make no financial sense as tools, and are not really valuable as antiques, because they do not have emotional resonance. Certain cameras have value far beyond their practical worth, because they were used by famous photographic artists. The Kodak DCS models were functional tools for photojournalists who needed to transmit images of footballers, soldiers, politicians and celebrities quickly across the world. Their very brief heyday coincided with a period of relative world peace, a time when newspapers were turning their back on war photography, and there are no DCS Don McCullins. September 11, 2001, was photographed with the Nikon D1x and D1, and the Canon D30, and a thousand point-and-shoots. The dirty little wars and genocides of the 1990s were not recorded; or, if they were, the pictures were not published and did not become iconic. Besides, when I think of iconic news images of the last twenty years or so, I think of video footage, a field that Kodak has ignored entirely.
The most comprehensive general source is Photography in Malaysia's thorough series on the DCS:
John Henshall's "Chip Shop" has several reviews of the early DCS models. The reviews are extremely useful, because they were written when the cameras, for a British audience, and give prices in pounds:
NikonWeb has an interesting article on the DCS 420, with samples, written from the point of view of a modern-day collector of old cameras:
Eamon Hickey has an entertaining essay about using the Associated Press NC2000e, essentially a Kodak DCS 420 with a slightly different sensor:
Digicam History and Apphotnum were useful for context:
Gisle Hannemyr does a good job of selling the Kodak 460:
Charles Dickinson's thesis, "An Evaluation of the Current State of Digital Photography" (1999) is an interesting round-up of early digital cameras, and has some photographs that compare the DCS 460 with 35mm film:
Earth Observation Magazine has an article from 1995 about the infrared versions of the DCS 200 / 420:
Grafika.cz has some samples from the DCS 560:
Shutterbug.net has a thorough article on the DCS 520 / Canon D2000:
The website of Newton Camera Brackets has some large photographs of the DCS 520, and its batteries and PCMCIA sockets:
The later DCS 315 / 330 / 520 / 620 / 720 cameras are relatively well-documented, with reviews at Digital Photography Review and Steve's Digicams amongst others. The 14n / SLR/n / SLR/c are extensively documented at most of the leading photography review websites.
I tell a lie about Kodak's DCS series not having a mythology. There is the NASA connection. NASA has used DCS models in space for several years, including the DCS 560 and DCS 760. Indeed, Kodak made some noise about this, but not enough:
Unrelated to the DCS, this article about Bill Biggart, a photojournalist who was killed by debris on 11 September 2001; his last shots were taken with a Canon D30 which was also destroyed, although the CompactFlash card and the images survived: