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The Product of the Decade: 2000s
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January 2010     Nikon Reviews       Canon       Leica       Pentax  

 

Introduction         top

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The heck with the product of the year, which photo magazines simply award to whatever camera advertised the most.

Now that we're in a new decade, let's elect the most important photo product of the past decade, the 2000s.

First lets define "important." Important means a product which lets us create better photographs that we couldn't have done without it. Better may also mean easier or faster, but more important for this appellation is the ability to create better photographs, not that we can just crank out more of them.

I'm biasing this towards serious photographers, not snapshooters. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it was easy to pick out one from the other: snapshooters like my mom shot color print film (C-41), and the serious photographers shot either black-and-white which they developed and printed themselves, or transparencies (K-14 or E-6) for color.

For fun, let's start with products-of-the-decade for some time back, and work up to the 2000s.

 

1820s         top

The fixed image.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce of France fixed an image for the first time in about 1825, creating the first photograph. This wasn't a product for sale; it was an experiment.

For some time before this, experimenters had been able to capture negative images in chemical mixtures, but no one had figured out how to stop the reaction and fix the image in tangible form.

Lenses and cameras (camera obscurras and artists' tracing devices) had been around for hundreds of years before.

 

1830s         top

The first commercially available camera.

The 1830s brought us the fist commercially available camera for photography, the Daguerreotype camera.

 

1870s         top

The dry plate.

From the 1830s through the 1860s, photo technology was focused on improving its chemistry.

This was fine and dandy, but there was one teensy problem with all these processes: they all used wet plates.

Wet plates mean you have to coat the chemicals yourself in your own darkroom, and then expose and process the plate in that darkroom while it was still wet.

If you wanted to take travel or outdoor photos, you had to haul your darkroom on your horse, as did William Henry Jackson and Mathew Brady. Mathew Brady is a rock star: he's been dead for over 100 years, as has the correct URL (MathweBrady.com) and a better website than most people who call themselves photographers today.

George Eastman was the first to produce practical dry plates commercially in 1878.

Dry plates were bought at the store, and then shot and developed at your leisure.

Dry plates are by far the most important product of the 1870s, in fact, probably the most important product of the entire second millennium (years 1000 - 1999) along with the concept of fixing an image.

 

1880s         top

Film.

A bit of brilliance made it apparent that once we have dry photosensitive material, we could coat it on flexible plastic, instead of glass, for far improved convenience and portability.

George Eastman was the first to produce practical photographic film, the most significant product of the 1880s.

George Eastman also rolled that film into a snapshot camera, the Kodak, which is also a landmark. Now we had a camera that invented the snapshot, and allowed everyone to take pictures, in addition to skilled photographers.

 

1890s         top

The Zeiss Planar lens and 35mm film.

The Zeiss Planar lens, designed by Dr. Paul Rudolph, is the first commercially available double-Gauss camera lens.

This product is so significant that this design is still used today by Nikon and Canon for all their 50mm lenses, and even by Leica for it's current 50mm f/2. Only Leica's faster f/1.4 and f/0.95 lenses today use newer designs.

35mm film was introduced for motion-picture work in 1892. Oddly, its width is metric (35.00mm +0.00 - 0.02mm per SMPTE), while its perforations are English (64 perforations per foot).

 

1900s         top

Panchromatic sensitivity.

For all of previous history, photographic materials had only been sensitive to blue and ultraviolet. This is why skies were always washed-out and without clouds.

Men labored for decades trying to extend color sensitivity to include green and red, so that normal-looking black-and-white photos could be made.

Frederick Wratten finally invented panchromatic material in the 1900s, the product of the decade. This was done with sensitizing dyes that allowed the silver, sensitive only to blue, also to respond to red and green.

He also invented Wratten colored filters, which were (and still are) used to give better contrast by selecting which colors should be lighter or darker than others.

Even today, B&W films are still too sensitive to blue, and not sensitive enough to red and green, which is why we have to use yellow (blue-blocking) filters outside to get good cloud rendition.

Panchromatic sensitivity allows the creation of color film.

Also in this decade we see the introduction of Kodak's first Brownie camera, and Zeiss' Dr. Paul Rudolph's introduction of the Tessar lens, on which most simple f/2.8 and f/3.5 and other normal lenses today are still based today.

120 format film was also introduced in 1901, and is still the most popular professional film format today.

Albert Einstein invented (OK, explained) the photon in the 1900s.

 

1910s         top

The full-frame format.

The full-frame 24x36mm format was invented by Oskar Barnack of Leitz.

Oskar Barnack made a prototype tiny camera that used 35mm movie film, and exposed double cine frames (two times 18 x 24mm) to get a bigger negative than movie cameras.

Sadly, Oskar Barnack was an engineer, not an artist and not a photographer (just a hobbyist), so to this day we still suffer from his poor choice of aspect ratio (1.5:1).

The cine frame is perfect: 18 x 24mm, or 3:4, which is used by television and simpler digital cameras today. Most subjects fit in this rectangle, horizontally or vertically, with little to no need for cropping.

When Barnack blindly doubled-up the 18 x 24mm cine frame to get the 24 x 36mm frame, he also changed the aspect ratio to 3:2 from 4:3, making a much longer and skinner rectangle. OOPS! This would have been obvious to any artist.

DSLR shooters are still cursed from Barnack's big mistake.

3:2 is too long and skinny. Horizontal frames are too short vertically and too long horizontally, meaning that for many subjects we have to crop off the sides. Even if we fit our subject into it, the final image has less area due to the shorter vertical dimension compared to squarer formats. 3:2 images just don't have the life of images that can breathe inside the larger frame of slightly squarer images.

Vertical shots are even worse with this format; we almost always have to crop off top and bottom to get a decently shaped vertical rectangle.

This is why the Nikon D3 series allows in-camera cropping back to the correct 4:5 aspect ratio.

No one aspect ratio fits every subject. Every photo must be cropped as needed.

The correct camera aspect ratio is the one that lets us do the least cropping on average to create the final images we want as we shoot what we shoot.

Most photos wind up needing to be cropped to somewhere between 4:5 and 3:4, as all professional cameras have been since the invention of photography.

If Barnack was paying attention to good photos instead of resolution, he would have chosen somewhere between 30mm to 32mm as the horizontal dimension, as Nikon did with its first 35mm cameras in the 1940s. Of course standardization always wins, so Nikon succumbed to Leica's mistake and also went along with 24 x 36mm by the late 1940s.

Since we want to use an integral number of perforations per frame, the correct format for 35mm still film is 7 perforations, for a 24 x 31.5mm frame. Of course the actual horizontal image dimension might be anywhere from 31 to 32mm, no big deal.

If Barnack had made this correct choice in 1913, we also would get 41 exposures on the same 36-exposure rolls of film, and more likely get about 44 - 45 shots on the same rolls we shoot today. Barnack has no idea how many billions of dollars worth of resources he has wasted with wasting that extra perforation on each overly-elongated frame that most of us throw away. Heck, when projected, the on-screen size also shrinks when we have to pull the projector back to fit it all in, and on the Internet, the longer frames still give fewer square inches on-monitor when constrained to fit the page.

 

1920s         top

The LEICA 35mm camera.

This first 35mm camera, the LEICA, was prototyped in the 1913, and introduced to the world at the Leipzig fair in 1924. It continues to this day.

The 1920s also saw the introduction of the flashbulb and the 120-format twin-lens reflex (TLR).

 

1930s         top

Kodachrome, by UCLA grad Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes.

Kodachrome was the world's first practical color film. The two Leopolds, musicians by trade, invented Kodachrome in Mannes' appartment in their spare time.

Others came before it, but Kodachrome is what made color a practical, although very expensive, reality.

The 1930s also saw the invention of the automatic exposure camera, as patented by Albert Einstein, using cells that employ the photoelectric effect, also explained by Einstein in 1905.

Canon was founded in the 1930s for the express purpose of making cheap copies of the Leica camera. Back then, Leicas were ridiculously expensive instruments only available to the very rich, and Canon wanted to make a camera for everyman. Little changes with time.

The 1930s also brought us electronic flash, invented by Harold Edgerton, and the first Linhof Technika 4x5 camera, which also continues on to this day for serious photographers. My copy of Linhof Practice isn't around; I think Linhof has been making similar cameras since about 1889.

 

1940s         top

The Polaroid camera.


1950s         top

The LEICA M3 and the Nikon F.

The LEICA M3 came out in 1954, and introduced the world to the Leica M bayonet mount which is still in production today, the world's oldest still-in-production lens mount. The M3 is Leica's best and most popular camera ever, outselling any of their lamer attempts at cameras through this present day.

For most people, the Nikon F of 1959 converted the world from rangefinder to SLR cameras. The Nikon F mount also continues to this day, however very little of Nikon's lenses are still completely compatible as there have been numerous mechanical and electronic changes, unlike with the Leica M mount, which is still 100% compatible.

The Nikon F is what converted the world to SLRs, and ultimately that's what's been putting Leica out of business ever since.


1960s         top

The Minolta SRT-101.

The Minolta SRT cameras were the world's largest selling cameras in the 1960s. Everyone had them, they worked well, and they took a beating.

The Flashcube also came out in the 1960s.

 

1970s         top

The Canon AE-1.

The Canon AE-1 is the biggest selling SLR of all time. It allowed anyone to take great SLR-klasse photos.

The AE-1 sold so well because Canon put in the effort to design it to be manufacturable in huge quantities at very low cost. It wasn't just cheap, it was very clever, using many manufacturing firsts. For instance, the AE-1 used heavy metal plating over plastic top covers instead of real metal ones.

The Polaroid SX-70 and the Magicube are also products of the 1970s. The Magicube employed pyrotechnic squibs to fire itself. Batteries were no longer needed.

 

1980s         top

The Nikon FA.

The Nikon FA is the world's first camera with a meter that delivers the correct exposure under almost all conditions.

Earlier meters simply measured light, but had no intelligence to allow them to figure out if the subject was supposed to be light or dark.

Minolta's earlier CLC (Contrast Light Compensation) of SRT fame attempted to do the same thing, but didn't work that much better than ordinary meters.

 

1990s         top

Fuji Velvia.

Just like most of photography's history, cameras and lenses are secondary to film and chemistry in getting the results we need.

Fuji's Velvia film was a landmark for nature and landscape photographers, quickly replacing Kodachrome.

As far as cameras, the Contax G system and Contax 645 are still the world's best 35mm and medium-format cameras as of 2010 for nature and landscape work, and they came out in the 1990s.

Nikon's F5, the pro standard for sports, news and action, also came out in the 1990s and set the low standard on which all current Nikon SLRs are based.

These are all swell cameras, but not revolutionary in letting us do anything significantly different than previous models.

 

2000s         top

As we get to the finale, let's list the products that didn't make Product of the Decade, and why.

 

Any DSLR

The first practical DSLR was Nikon's D1, from which all current DSLRs descend.

This is a landmark camera for news, action and sports, but the D1 came out back in the 1990s, so it's from the wrong millennium.

Today's DSLRs are great, but only evolutionary, not revolutionary, from the first D1.

 

Ultra-High ISOs

The Nikon D1 went to ISO 6,400 back in 1999.

ISO 25,600 or whatever isn't very important to serious photographers, as opposed to spec-counters and online experts.

Faster ISOs are evolution, not revolution. Likewise for more resolution; it's not revolutionary.

 

The Nikon F6

The Nikon F6 of 2004 is the world's best 35mm camera for many people. It is extraordinary, but it is merely evolutionary, not revolutionary, so it can't make Product of the Decade.

Let's face it: the F6 is magnificent, but an F4 from the 1980s does the same thing.

 

The Contax G2 and Contax 645

These, along with the F6, are the best cameras ever made for use today.

Sadly, they also come out back in the 1990s. The 2000s were a completely dead decade as far as any real advancement in human/camera interface goes.

It's quite sad that all the efforts for over the past ten years have gone into digital crap and junk feature-bloat instead of developing any newer, better, faster and easier ways to handle a camera.

Sadly, the user interface for basic camera functions has gotten worse.

We used to have dedicated knobs, one per function, and each knob had a unique physical position for each setting value, making it easy to set cameras in the dark.

Today, everything has devolved from the Nikon F5's cost-cutting and inferior "hold one button while pinning another dial" interface.

 

The LEICA M7

The LEICA M7 of 2002 is Leica's first-ever electronic or auto-exposure rangefinder camera.

The LEICA M7 shoots faster and freer than any previous camera made by Leica. With the LEICA MOTOR M it shoots 50% faster than Leica's newest M9 (3FPS vs. 2FPS), and has a huge buffer (39 shots versus 7).

Sadly, it doesn't let the Leica shooter do anything new. The Leica M-mount Minolta CLE did the same thing, sometimes even better, back in the 1980s.

 

The LEICA M9

The LEICA M9 is the world's best, and most remarkable digital camera ever made.

It was introduced and shipped in September, 2009, so it qualifies for the first decade.

Sadly, it's innovative as far as the subcategory of digital cameras goes, but is insignificant for photography overall, since Leica's RealRaw cameras still give better results for serious shooters.

The best application of the M9 in serious photography is as an exposure preview system for a RealRaw camera, like the M3 or IIIf.

 

HDR?

Nope. HDR is a bad simulation of burning and dodging from a negative, which has been around for over 100 years.

Worse, people try to let the computer figure out what areas should be lighter or darker when merging layers (developing tone maps), which is why 99% of HDR today looks like gray crap.

To do HDR correctly, you must have the eye to merge layers manually to look right.

 

DSLR Video?

Nope.

Camcorders did a better job last decade, and my Canon Powershots do a better job than my DSLRs. At least they can focus as they shoot and render motion properly, unlike DSLR video.

Worse, how many of you are able to distribute your DLSR video? Can grandma watch your videos on her big-screen TV, or does she have to look over your shoulder on your computer, or hers?

At least with camcorders, it's easy to burn live video to DVD to mail out in full resolution, long-form format that plays anywhere. I use the Sony VRD MC-5 to burn direct from the DV connector of my DV camcorder, not from some nasty bit-rate-reduced files on my computer, and I never have to turn on my computer to do it. The newer model is the Sony VRD MC-6.

Camcorders are getting worse, too. Now all they do is make files to store on your computer, which I know you people (or I) will never get to burning to DVD for anyone to see. Worse, newer card-based camcorders no longer have digital video outputs, so you have to burn DVDs from the analog outputs, or bung-up your computer editing video! So much for the digital video revolution.

These are s ad times in consumer video; everyone has gone so blind watching 500 kb/s video on you tube and cable TV that no one knows what good video looks like anymore.

 

Panoramic Stitching?

Sorry, everyone did this on computers back in the 1990s, and we've been doing it in prints since, well, the 1800s.

 

So was anything novel in the 2000s?

As you can see for the past 190 years, some decades have landmark products or discoveries, and others don't.

You can't have a real revolution every decade. 2000 wasn't one of them. All we got was a lot more more of the same. No one invented automatic exposure or the image sensor this decade. Heck, I've been working in digital for a living since the nineteen eighties, so none of this is all that new after over twenty years, even if it's new to many of my readers.

As an exact measure of how much more of the same we got, the Nikon D1 of 1999 gave us 2.6 megapixels, and the D3X, which first shipped in 2009, gives us 24 MP. Counting each pixel, 10 years later, we got exactly 9.293 times more pixels. Whoopee.

All the 2000s gave us was simple evolutionary extrapolation: more pixels and more bits and more frames per second, but no new or better ways to make them.

Sorry. All we got were garbage features from the Orient, not anything life-changing.

So what was significant?

 

The Product of the Decade: Fuji Velvia 50         top

How can Fuji Velvia 50, a simple re-issue of the Product of the Decade of 1990, original Fuji Velvia, possibly win Product of the Decade for the 2000s?

"Velvia" is the original ISO 50 film from 1990, and "Velvia 50" is the new product introduced in 2007. Fuji Velvia 50 is the same emulsion coated on a slightly different plastic film base.

it seems crazy, but as I'll explain, I tried, and I can't think of anything else as significant and as revolutionary as the reissue of Fuji Velvia 50. Remember, Fuji Velvia was discontinued in 2005, with no replacement.

There is no way to get the look of Velvia or Velvia 50 except by shooting Velvia or Velvia 50. When I posed the question to the audience about how to get LEICA M9 files to look as good as Velvia 50, I got a hundred complex ways to do it, none of them looking better, much less even as good, as just snapping Velvia 50 in the first place.

When you are an artist, everything has to be perfect. "Nearly the same" isn't the same, and it won't do if you need the stunning look of Velvia.

So how can Fuji Velvia 50 be the most innovative product of the decade? It's the same thing!

Actually, Velvia 50 is a different product from the discontinued Velvia. It has a different plastic base.

Fuji had to make the choice to invest the money required to redesign Velvia to coat it on the newer film base. If Fuji hadn't, we would have no Velvia or Velvia 50 today.

Fuji introduced a new product at considerable expense, and thank goodness it has the same look from the original Velvia emulsion.

This prize is awarded to the product which, above all others, allows serious photographers to make even better images than they have before.

Unlike cameras, where an old 1980 CLE trumps Leica's 2002 introduction of the M7, you can't use old film. If a film gets discontinued, there is no way to replicate its look. Even re-issuing the exact same film would be an innovation, as Kodak did when it reissued Tri-X after the real photographers complained when Kodak's blind engineers tried to cram "new, improved" (to engineers) TMax 400 down our throats. Velvia 50 actually is a new product.

At the top of this article, I qualified this award as going to a product meaningful to the serious photographer, as opposed to the overwhelming masses of snapshooters.

Today as always, serious work is done on film. Digital, like color print film of decades past, is a medium for the majority of normal people more concerned about speed and convenience, not ultimate quality. There's nothing wrong with posting on flickrbook, but it's not exactly like creating work to hang at The Met.

The scary reality is that if Fuji didn't reintroduce Fuji Velvia 50, much of the work I and other hard-core nature and outdoor photographers produce today would not be possible. The cover of the February, 2010 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine was credited as shot on Velvia 50, not even the original Velvia. Velvia is this crucial to nature and outdoor photography.

If Fuji didn't introduce Velvia 50, I probably would have given up on serious photography, and have to make do with digital instead. I nearly gave up in 1989, when I started to realize that Kodachrome looked boring, and only when Velvia came out in 1990 did it reinvigorate me to get back into photography.

So thank you, Fuji, for creating Velvia 50 as the most innovative and important photo product of the first decade of 2000.

 

Runner-Up: The Nikon 18-200mm VR.

The 18-200mm VR II and original (18-200mm VR) were great for people shooting DX, but DX had gone obsolete for serious shooters by the end of the decade.

DX digital was never a serious format for serious nature and landscape art, but of course it is very important, even in 2010, for normal snapshots.

The Nikon 18-200mm VR, for the first time in history, allowed shooters to cover the entire range from wide to super-tele in just one lens, and added Vibration Reduction to let us leave our tripods at home.

For casual shooting, the 18-200mm VR was, and still is, a huge hit with everyone, including myself.

 

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Thanks for reading!

Ken

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