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A History of Photography Part 3: Going Digital

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Read Time: 11 min

Until modern times, photography was quite a difficult hobby to maintain. One had cameras, different lenses, manual focus, and complicated settings. With the advent of digital cameras, all this complexity disappeared.

Following on from the first and second parts in this series, today we take a step back and take a look at how the digital form of our favorite art became what it is today. From the invention of digital image sensors, to how Photoshop came to be!

The Digital Era

History of the Invention

On October 17, 1969, George Smith and Willard Boyle invented the charge-coupled device (CCD) at Bell Labs. In 1970 the inventors built a CCD into the first solid-state video camera. By 1975 the CCD camera received image quality good enough to broadcast television.

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In 1981 Sony Corporation released the first prototype digital camera, the Mavica, that used two CCD chips to record images as magnetic impulses onto a floppy disk. About 25 pictures could be stored on a disk. However, Mavica wasn't exactly the digital camera. It was a video camera that "froze" video frames. It started the digital revolution, however.

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For quite some time, Kodak worked on revolutionizing the way cameras worked. In 1986, Kodak scientists invented the world's first megapixel sensor, then in 1987 it released seven products for recording, storing, manipulating, transmitting and printing electronic still video images.

In 1991, the first digital camera system was developed, aimed at photojournalists. The popularity of film cameras was beginning to decrease in early 1988 when Fuji introduced the first generation digital camera, called DS-1P, utilizing CMOS sensors. The first ever massively sold camera that worked with a home computer via a cable – Apple QuickTake – was released in 1994.

Today, over 40 years after the invention of the CCD sensor, there are millions of cameras stored everywhere - from a Digital SLR, right down to the camera in your mobile phone. The technology is incredibly versatile, and still a hugely important part of photography today.

How It Works - Technology

The only thing that distinguishes a film camera from digital is how the light coming through the camera lenses is saved. Where a conventional camera would transmit and record the light onto a piece of film, the digital cameras use a semiconductor device that records light electronically and saves it in bits and bytes using the pixel grid. A computer (whether it's your Mac or the built in processor in camera) then recognizes these bytes, and depicts whatever has been recorded.

Another intriguing feature of a digital camera is the way the color is recorded. A digital camera cannot "see" color, but only the intensity of the light. In order to record color, most sensors use filtering to look at the light in three primary colors – Red, Green and Blue. After capturing the filtered channels, the three of them are combined to create the full spectrum.

More advanced cameras use three different sensors to record each color. For this the beam splitter is used. It literally splits the beam of light into different sensors at the same time and the three images are then combined. Cheaper cameras use the method of sensor rotation, where red, green and blue filters rotate as the camera takes 3 shots each for every filter.

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However, the cheapest method of recording color in the digital camera is placing a permanent color filter array over the photo. The method is pretty much guessing (although very accurately guessing) what the color is in each individual pixel.

The most widely used filter is the "Bayer filter pattern", that alternates a row of red and green pixels with a row of green and blue pixels. Eventually there are 50% green pixels and 25% of both red and blue. This inequality is down to the fact that the human eye is not equally sensitive to each of the three primary colors (and therefore green is needed in order to create true color for our eyes).

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This method is cheaper than beam splitter filtering or filter rotation. It also uses less hardware space, so the cameras can be smaller and more mobile. After the picture is taken, the camera processor uses a system called demosaicing to create an image.

Another fascinating and, let's admit it, marvelous invention in a digital camera is the autofocus system. There are two autofocus systems: one is cheaper and is called "active" autofocus, and the more expensive alternative is "passive" autofocus.

Active autofocus requires the camera to send infrared signals, and then receive them back as they bounce off the subject. The received signal is then recognized and the lens is adjusted. One of the advantages of such system is that it works great in the dark, and makes working with flash much easier. However, the disadvantages are that a black object can absorb the signal, and obstacles between the subject and the camera can also mess up the focus system.

Today's digital SLR's use passive autofocus which is a system that analyses the picture by processing the pixel strip and deciding how the lens should be adjusted. The only disadvantage of this system is that it requires light and contrast so that it can focus. This means that the camera won't be able to take pictures appropriately in the dark (hence the requirement for "AF-Assist" in some cases).

The Effect on Photography

The Introduction of digital photography was like a bomb going off in the world of photography. The number of people who could finally feel the art of photography by not having to learn an enormous range of skills is unbelievable. A lot of people have gained a hobby due to the ease with which the pictures can now be taken, and every family has at least one camera. There are are billions of pictures taken each day across the world.

Graphics Editing Programs

In 1987, around the time when digital cameras started to appear, a PhD student at the University of Michigan started working on a program to display grayscale images on a monochrome display. Thomas Knoll was the student's name. The program caught Thomas' brother – John's – attention who recommended turning the program into a program for image editing purposes.

The two worked on the program – which was renamed to ImagePro – for six months. After the program was finished, Thomas worked out a short-term deal with scanner manufacturer to distribute copies of the program (then already renamed to Photoshop) along with the scanners. There were about 200 copies shipped.

At the time, John Knoll traveled to Silicon Valley to demonstrate the product to Apple and Adobe engineers. Both demonstrations were a success, and eventually the Photoshop license was purchased for distribution by Adobe in 1988. Two years later, Photoshop 1.0 was released for Macintosh.

The effect this program had on the photography is unbelievable. It made photo manipulation easier, and allowed people to spend less time editing and getting better results. The program eventually created a whole community of amateur and professional artists who were now able to create or improve their pictures using a simple personal computer.

Today the image editing market keeps growing, with major companies like Adobe and Corel competing with smaller indie-companies who offer the customers different approaches to image editing at a reasonable price. Those companies specialize in lightweight editing programs that, for example, are used for color correction only. Their small size makes them cheap enough for non-professionals to use.

The World Wide Web Effect

Online Based Communities

With the increasing number of amateur photographers around the world, online photography communities started to appear offering amateurs and pros a chance to share and receive feedback on their photos. This resulted in sites like Flickr becoming the main source for sharing and inspiration for photographers around the world.

Flickr was developed by Ludicorp – a Canadian company – and launched in 2004. In the beginning, Flickr was more about sharing pictures and photos one found online in a chat room called FlickrLive. However, the site evolved into becoming a place where users uploaded their own pictures and shared and commented on them. Eventually the chat room element was dropped by Flickr team.

The idea behind online communities is that not everyone has the budget and the capacity to be able to exhibit his or her work so that the world could see them. As photography became more casual, and people began to shoot personal images rather than commercial work, the separation between these two approaches widened.

Did You Know: Interestingly, Flickr was developed through the tools used to create a web-based massively multiplayer online game called "Game Neverending" that was cancelled in 2004.

Stock Photography

Stock photography – the supply of photographs licensed for specific uses – is a huge market for today's professional and amateur photographers. In the 1880's, newspapers and magazines obtained the technology to reproduce photos using the half-tone printing press. The first newspaper photographs were taken by staff photographers, but this eventually changed to agencies hiring freelance photographers on commission.

As the freelance photography started growing, the first stock photography agencies were founded. One of the first major stock photography agencies – known today as Robert Stock – was founded in 1920 by Armstrong Roberts. The market has grown rapidly in recent years, and today we have a wide range of stock photography available for any use.

One of the milestones for stock photography agencies and freelance photographers was when big agencies started moving online. By early 2000, three major companies appeared in the market – Getty Images, Corbis and JupiterImages. Smaller agencies followed the big ones into the online world. The result was quite significant as smaller companies and individuals gained access to the wide range of stock photography. Easier access resulted in more customers and therefore bigger revenue.

In 2001, Google introduced its "Image Search Engine" that resulted in image search becoming available to anyone and everyone. Before then, the process of finding the required picture was a tough job, and one had to know places to look for.

The availability of the internet, along with simplified image search, resulted in smaller stock agencies being able to offer their service to a wider range of customers around the world. By charging less, these companies attracted more customers (sometimes even big companies who had previously worked with top stock agencies), creating a whole new place for professional and amateur photographers to earn money.

Since it is cheaper to buy one photograph when you need it, newspapers and magazines (especially small ones) preferred this approach over hiring a staff photographer. Today, stock photography has grown ever-larger through moving online. Photo banks are now used by individuals who might need a specific image for any project or assignment.


Today there are thousands of noteworthy photographers around the globe, and it is very hard to choose one or two and focus on them. As an ever-growing community and industry, big names come and go - but we'll try to focus on some of the most noteworthy photographers.

Carol Guzy

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Carol Guzy, born in 1956, is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. She was the first female to ever win the Newspaper Photographer of the Year Award in 1990. Carol is mostly known for her work in Washington Post for her strong and extremely powerful photography.

Guzy has been recognized as a great news photographer who tells a story through one picture. Her photography is considered the style to imitate and follow around the world. Carol often likes to use black and white filters to increase the effect of the photos. She prefers showing the world as it is and is well-known for her photos looking calm but at the same time shocking.

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Juergen Teller

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Juergen Teller is a German fashion photographer – born in 1964 – who is one of the brightest postmodern fashion photographers today. His work is considered very European and modern. He enjoys depicting controversial subjects and images. His style is raw and overexposed.

Juergen in the last 10 years has worked with many fashion magazines, including Vogue and The Face. His works have been exhibited all around the world, the reason for his popularity being the ability to capture the world how it is right now, in the 21st century, at the moment.

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Kevin Carter

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Kevin Carter was a celebrated South African war photographer. Born in 1960, he began his career photographing scenes of the violent struggles and conflicts in South Africa. However, he became widely recognized after taking his most famous picture of a famine victim in Sudan. In the picture a little girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby.

Carter said that he waited for about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. After printing the picture, The New York Times released an editor's note saying that the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture. Carter, of course, came under criticism for not helping the child.

The photograph won Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Carter wrote to his parents "I swear I got the most applause of anybody, I can't wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive."

Carter committed a suicide on July 27th, 1994. His suicide note stated "I am depressed ... without phone ... money for rent ... money for child support ... money for debts ... money!!! ... I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners..."

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