Tales of pixels past

Barrie Smith
13 February, 2009
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In the last few years digital imaging — via digicams — has had a dream run: tonnes of pixels, miles of zoom length on many cameras, rapid image capture and writing speeds to the memory card plus cheap as chips pricing. Joy!

But in all the happiness I got to thinking of how it was when the business was in its early days. Not so dreamy!

For my sins I’ve been founding editor of two digital camera magazines, starting from scratch. Not only was it challenging to find writers on the subject then but the specs of cameras at the time left something desperately wanting, so it was hard to get decent size images for reproduction … and don’t even think of shooting a picture for the front cover! I’m talking late 90s.

I recall once putting a story together on how to make decent size prints from images shot with digicams of the time. I really needed to use reasonably-sized images to back up my golden prose. To give you an idea of the tempo, this particular issue carried ads for a nice Olympus digicam that could shoot 640×480 pixel pictures. Wow! Also a Fujifilm and a Nikon — all 640×480.

Undeterred, I fell upon a tiny Kodak DC20, capable of shooting images of 493×373 pixels … with the wind behind it! A single shot would have reproduced to 4.2×3.2 cm at 300 dpi. Phew!

Its price at the time was a sharp $329. And there was a companion deluxe model with the same resolution for $499. Spoilt for choice!

My approach was a bit radical and, considering I was 13 years younger and still to face life’s realities, I thought I could shoot sections of a subject and stitch them in Adobe’s Shop of Photos version 3.05. Crazy youth!

So, anyway I mosied around town and the South Coast to shoot a pile of shots, finishing up at Duke Kahanamoku’s statue facing over Freshwater beach headland in Sydney. The Duke is alleged to have been the first person to ride a surfboard in Oz (but probably wasn’t).

I shot six shots in about 10 seconds flat … there was only enough internal memory for eight! No memory cards back then!

Then, back at the ranch, my Mac fired up I stitched the shots together with much shoving, shuffling, magnifying and merging. Each pic totalled 558KB as TIFF files, so the whole baggage needed over 3 MB of RAM to begin with, plus another 6 for elbow room and undos when working; the Mac had only 4MB of RAM. But we got there.

The rubber stamp was employed feverishly, mostly to give the sky and clouds consistency. Final size of the Duke’s composite, cropped, was 7×8 cm. So I got there!

Then, would you believe it! Stitching software arrived on the scene the week the story was published!

Another barrier to easy image making in those days was storage. When I had to hand in work to the magazine’s designer I usually slung a bagful of 1.4MB floppies over the fence.

But the glory days arrived in the shape of the Zip drive. My God! Imagine a storage media that could hold 100MB of images. Wonderful.

And things sailed along quite smoothly for a few months until an event occurred that shook the living daylights out of computer practitioners around the world. The Click of Death!

As you slipped a cartridge into the computer’s Zip slot you heard a click, click, click. You then found the directory had been erased so you could not access the data. The problem was apparently due to an internal misalignment of the write/read head. I lost hundreds of precious megabytes this way.

So, stop complaining. Things were never so good before!

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