"The unification of human civilization through modern communications and transportation means that there is no part of mankind that is not aware of the scientific method and its potential, even if that part is currently incapable of generating technology or applying it successfully. There are, in other words, no true barbarians at the gates, unaware of the power of modern natural science. And as long as this is true, the ability to use modern natural science for military purposes will continue to give such states advantages over states that do not."
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon Coolpix 990. Not the first digital camera, not by a long chalk, but one of the first affordable digital cameras that wasn't just a toy.
It was also the very first digital camera I used, all the way back in 2000. Digital cameras existed before then, but they were tiny pebbles compared to the avalanche that came rushing after. And when the snow had settled there was silence; and the silence was broken by a soundless concussion of light, and here we are today. The 990 didn't exactly kill off film. Instead it stood and watched impassively as the rope slowly frayed and unwound.
Most digital cameras from the millennium, most things, are forgotten plastic junk nowadays, but people still remember the 990. There was enormous pent-up demand for it which Nikon struggled to meet. It was the future, once... except that the future was there, in the shops, you could buy it and have it right then. Assuming you could get hold of one. In theory you could order it online, but who would be mad enough to give out their credit card details over the internet? That was why Amazon would fail, and the high street would never die.
At the time I worked for a website, and we needed a quick way of generating good-quality pictures, and the 990 fit the bill. Until that point we had used stock photographs but with a digital camera we could become a self-facilitating, self-perpetuating media node. My enduring memory is that it ate batteries in no time, but this was because we were too cheap to buy several sets of rechargeables. After spending nigh-on £900 for a digital camera, we decided to save money by using alkalines instead. We were young then, not too bright. Never made the IPO.
2000 was also the heyday of Robbie Williams. He's still around, and he never really went away, but 2000 was the point at which his orbit came closest to the sun. He had passed within the orbit of Neptune a few years earlier. Back then Pluto was still a planet. It took a hard heart to cast it out. Yes, you can argue that Pluto was set free to play with its own kind, like a billy goat that has been set free from the dining table and allowed to frolic and gambol with all the other billy goats. What is a billy goat, anyway? What differentiates it from a conventional goat? (internet) Well, the answer is that a billy goat is a male goat. They are related to sheep, and not cats, as I once suspected. They are gruff. And they are goats.
If you had been frozen in ice in 2000 and woken up yesterday, you would have no idea who this was. Instead you would gasp at the LCD screen and wince at the thought of having to redesign your website to suit it. You would want to know about Half-Life - they must be on the fourth, fifth game by now, surely?
Although Pluto's orbit crosses that of Neptune, they only appear to intersect if the orbits are flattened down into two dimensions; in three dimensions they miss each other by a huge margin. And even if they did collide, Neptune is mostly frozen gas, so Pluto would probably go PLOP and vanish, or come out the other side coated in a layer of ice crystals.
I'm reminded of the episode of Space: 1999 where the moon passes through a giant brain. It's infamous because the "brain" was just a lot of soap suds, and the actors kept slipping over, but there was something about it that stuck with me. The episode ended with the moon drilling a hole through this giant space brain, like a bullet passing through a man's skull, and the brain screams and dies. That mental image has haunted me ever since. Space: 1999 was a terrible programme in almost all respects, but as if by accident it had a knack of tapping into something that scared five-year-olds. Everybody remembers the episode with the howling tentacle monster that spat out steaming corpses, but there was the one where the chap is trapped in a glass box, the one where Brian Blessed melts, the one where Catherine Schell's face comes off, etc.
"They'll THINK you're a professional photographer." There's a bleak truth there. Digital photography democratised the porn industry just like videotape twenty years earlier, but even before then countless pairs of pants have dropped for a camera that didn't have film in it.
The 1970s was a bummer of a decade for television science fiction. It was as if TV sci-fi writers had been upset that Star Trek did not come true and that miniskirts had gone out of fashion, so they went into a big sulk for the rest of the decade. The two biggest TV sci-fi programmes of the 1970s, The Bionic Man and The Incredible Hulk, were about decent people who had been horribly disabled by scientific accidents. Buck Rogers was about a man who had been frozen in time and revived hundreds of years after his friends and family had died, Battlestar: Galactica began with the genocidal massacre of an entire planet. On our side of the pond the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker incarnations of Dr Who took a gothic horror turn; "Inferno" ended with a parallel Earth being destroyed by lava, "The Horror of Fang Rock" ended with the entire non-regular cast being killed off, there was the one with the giant rats etc. "The Pyramids of Mars" had demonic possession, strangulation, immolation, a poacher is crushed between two huge mummies and The Doctor kills the baddie by making him die of old age not long after he has coerced his assistant to blow him up with an IED.
Meanwhile in the world of kid's comics a brutalised Dan Dare slaughtered his enemies with a laser sword whilst Judge Dredd doled out unfeeling justice in a world that made J G Ballad's High-Rise seem like The Good Life. Which is an interesting parallel, because Tom and Barbara Good would probably survive in a post-apolcalyptic high-rise block in which law and order had broken down. At least Tom would survive, because Barbara would be a valuable prize.
But, yes, Robbie Williams. After leaving pioneering boyband Take That in 1994 he did nothing much of note except put on weight and hang out with Oasis. When the band split into solo careers it seemed inevitable that lead songwriter and frontman Gary Barlow would become a huge star, whilst Robbie Williams would disappear off into obscurity. But Barlow's solo career fizzled out whilst Robbie Williams became one of the best-selling British solo acts of the late 1990s, early 2000s. But then Williams' career declined and so Take That reformed, at which point history seemed to right itself, and Barlow's career took off whilst (brain explodes)
Robbie Williams intrigued me because he was self-aware. Like in those submarine films where the sailor is trapped in a flooding compartment, and his fellow crewmen have to close the door on him. The camera holds on the sailor's face as the door closes, and he knows that he's doomed, and then you see his body floating up behind the little glass window in the door. That was how I thought of Robbie Williams. The people who die on the news are trapped in a world of pain, but they don't know that the cannon shells are about to blast their bodies into fragments. The same is true of television celebrities; we laugh at them because they're freaks and we laugh harder because they don't know it. Robbie Williams was different. At the height of his powers he participated in a documentary about him called Nobody Someday, which apparently wasn't very good, but can you imagine Nicki Minaj agreeing to appear in a documentary called Nobody Someday? It would cut too close to the bone.
Seriously, though, in trillions of years all that will be left of Earth and human endeavour - assuming that nothing comes after us, and that some future Earthbound race of unimaginable wisdom and intelligence does not puzzle over our bones, as we puzzle over those of the dinosaurs - will be gravity waves spreading through space. And so it stands to reason that the most influential man will have been the most massive, and thus it should be mankind's goal to genetically engineer enormous human beings whose bodies are hundreds of feet long and can store an enormous weight of fat, with incredibly dense bones. Once such a man is constructed we must produce gravity waves by bouncing him on a gigantic trampoline so that we may reach beings at the edge of the cosmos. Yes, we could just use a huge lump of lead, but that wouldn't be us.
Photoshop 5.0 running on a well-worn Thinkpad 600X. Photoshop is nowadays indelibly associated with digital photography, but it was used throughout the 1990s to process scanned film images and generate montages, simple graphics, banner adverts and so on. Looking through old scans of Playboy centrefolds - for research purposes - it seems that the unreal plastic-skin look didn't become dominant until 2002-ish.
I contemplated doing the whole post with 1999/2000-era technology, but after a stiff drink I decided against it. The end result would have been exactly the same, the only difference is that it would have taken twice as long. Word '97 is actually faster on a ThinkPad 600X than the LibreOffice equivalent on an i5-2500k, but the research and picture editing would have been frustrating. I could have done it, though. Computing has evolved incrementally since 2000; the hardware is now much more powerful, but I can't think of anything I can do today that I absolutely couldn't have done in 2000, albeit that it might have meant leaving the machine on overnight. Yes, of course Facebook didn't exist back then, and I wouldn't be able to watch Blu-Rays but conceptually there were social media sites and of course DVD, which was firmly establishing itself in 2000. People stored data remotely in 2000, they interacted socially over the internet, ordered groceries, downloaded music, hoarded vast quantities of porn, made music, it just took longer and the porn was a ripped 320x240 RealMedia stream instead of a 1920p H264 AVI.
2. Born to Make you Happy
The 990 coincided with the very peak, the very last spurt, the final fling of the dot.com boom. The dot.com boom was a distant thing that happened to other people, even if it was happening to you. In retrospect it was probably a good thing, the final serves-you-right to the smartly-dressed anti-slackers of Generation X, who found that their shirts and ties and affected smart casual clothing did not help them. The charlatans were punished, the minority with genuinely useful skills made themselves useful, happy that they had dodged a once-in-a-lifetime economic crash.
Nowadays the period is stereotyped as the hubris from which nemesis sprang. Antichrist adulterer and criminal mastermind Bill Clinton was in power, and his great mate Al Gore was poised to succeed him; the biggest threats to freedom came from a shadowy conspiracy of global banking interests, and McDonalds, and also aliens, who were using processed foods to... and the US government itself was plotting to murder its own citizens with a plague, and keep the survivors as slaves in camps administered by FEMA. Or was that Deus Ex? Timothy McVeigh did not live long enough to watch the world burn, he was executed three months to the day before 9/11. His soul still haunts the internet. He is the bogeyman, Bob, the golem from the time before time. He is there, on the message boards, mostly forgotten but he is there nonetheless.
On an objective level 2000 wasn't all that long ago. Elian Gonzalez, who was one of the hot news stories of 2000, is only 19; kids born in 2000 are (calculator) only 13 years old. Perhaps for them the 2000s will be just a vague memory of something that happened elsewhere. The economic collapse of the late 2000s made the dot.com boom seem like a trifle, but even that has faded. Whether because the wounds are healing, or because there is a limit to the amount of pain the human soul can take, I know not. Meanwhile the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are yesterday's news. McVeigh would have been pissed by the Iraq war, really he would. What a fascinating mess the Oklahoma City bombing would have made if Timothy McVeigh had carried it out in 2004 instead. Assuming that he could have driven his bomb through the tightened post-9/11 security. The US would have gone up a DEFCON rating. The press would have blamed it on the Arabs, just as they did in 1995. The conspiracy theorists would have written it off as a badly botched false flag operation except that this time you could imagine George Bush ringing up the Director of Central Intelligence and asking him "what the fuck?"
Still, let's cross our fingers and hope that Generation 2000 (c) Ashley Pomeroy 2013 has a smoother time. They will have far more leisure time than my generation, far more opportunity to sit around doing nothing. They won't have to worry so much about finding jobs, because there will be fewer of them. Fewer jobs. So in a way it'll be easier! Because there will be fewer of them.
3. Life is a Rollercoaster
Nikon's 900-series began with the Coolpix 900, which was launched in 1998. It was essentially a 1.2 megapixel compact camera stuffed into a swivel-body shell. It looked a bit cheap, despite costing nigh-on $800. It was followed a few months later by the Coolpix 900S, which had a few inconsequential tweaks and was, bizarrely, sold in the US as part of a promotion with the Duke Nukem 3D franchise(!). The camera included a CD of Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition, which was getting on a bit by 1999. There was a also a prize draw to win either a one-year lease on a Hummer, or $10,000 in cold hard cash. The winner - a sales rep for a business-to-business marketing firm - opted for the cash. Perhaps he already had a Hummer, in which case the money would have gone some way to paying for the fuel. If he had bought shares in Apple in September 2000 he'd be sitting on roughly half a million dollars worth of Apple shares by now. A far better return than if he had invested the money in gold (for example).
The kit in the photograph above would have cost $4,000 for the 600x, $650 for Photoshop 5.0, $900 for the Coolpix, which comes to $5,550. Plus $400 for a pair of 128mb flash cards. The 570mb memory in the 600X would have been astronomically expensive; the 2gb flash card in the 990 didn't even exist back then. If Mr Nikon Contest Winner had sunk his winnings into that, plus a DVD player and a Handspring Visor etc - which is probably more likely, 'cause Apple wasn't yet an unstoppable tidal wave in 2000 - he would now be sitting on a nest egg of rubbish worth about $150.
The lens has a seven-bladed variable aperture - the 950 had a fixed aperture and used a built-in ND filter to regulate exposure. There's noticeable barrel wide open. At the bottom, f/2.5 on the left and f/7.1 on the right - it gets sharper but not that you'd notice. I didn't test it at full tele (my subjective impression is that it's much the same).
The 990 was, for many people, the point at which digital cameras finally arrived. They had been thrusting in and out without achieving much, but suddenly they hit the spot. The floppy disk-based Sony Mavica had been popular in 1998, and lots of website designers and eBay sellers had popped their digital cherry with one, but as a photographic tool the Mavica was hobbled by its camcorder-quality CCD. At the time the digital camera market was starkly divided into poor-quality compacts that were nonetheless much more expensive than a film camera, and staggeringly expensive SLRs and medium format backs from Kodak, Leaf and Phase One, amongst others. There was a huge gap in the middle for a digital camera that could produce good-quality results, preferably with a range of manual controls, at a reasonable price, and the 990 was the right product at the right time.
An MC-202 would probably have been a poor investment in 2000; the market was in the midst of an analogue synth frenzy at the time, and MC-202s haven't really appreciated. This one doesn't seem to have a MIDI retrofit. I remember an article in Sound on Sound from 1995 that sent prices through the roof, on account of the boxout that compared it with the TB-303. But as a usable piece of equipment it's limited - the sequencer doesn't have patterns, for example, so you're limited to just one sequence, and CV/Gate control is problematic, and why not buy an SH-101 instead?
Still, the 900S was followed in 1999 by the Coolpix 950, which was a much more attractive proposition. On a physical level it cast the 900's swivel-bodied design in black-painted metal, with some ideas from the D1 professional digital SLR, and on a technical level it had a two megapixel sensor with variable ISO (the 900 was fixed at ISO 64). At this point people really started to take notice, and it quickly became the two megapixel benchmark.
None of the 900-series cameras had a conventional hotshoe, which is a shame because they could sync at all shutter speeds. Instead they had a Speedlight-compatible terminal, and you were supposed to mount a Speedlight onto an optional bracket. In addition to the bracket there was a whole 900-series system, with accessory telephoto and wide angle lenses and a slide copying attachment, and the 28mm filter thread was easily adapted to work with microscopes and birdwatching telescopes as well.
The 990 came with a 16mb Compact Flash card, which seemed stingy even in 2000.
Let's stick the card in my 5D MkII.
Sadly the 5D's 23mb RAW files overwhelm it (although an sRAW file might fit).
It will handily store, er, one single low-quality large JPEG. People in the future will wonder not that the card is so small, but that we used physical media at all - why not just transmit the photo straight from the camera to the computer? Why transmit it to the computer at all, when you can transmit it The Cloud?
The Coolpix 990 was launched in early 2000, amidst much anticipation. It added a three megapixel sensor and five-point autofocus, which could be selected with a thumbpad on the back of the camera. There was a USB port, plus proper manual exposure control and a variable aperture mechanism. Of all the 900-series cameras, the 990 is the one that most people remember today, if only because the name is simpler (nine five... five nine five? Five nine nine?).
It was followed by the Coolpix 995 - five five nine? nine five five? five something or something something five - which had the same sensor but added noise reduction and a different internal flash. At that point Nikon ran out of 900 numbers; the last 900-series camera was the Coolpix 4500 (2002), which had a sleeker body and a four megapixel sensor and the number 4, which is not 9. Nikon also sold the same basic hardware in their fixed-lens models; the 990's fixed-lens counterpart was the Coolpix 880, for example, the 950's partner was the Coolpix 700. The fixed-lens cameras had no romantic appeal and no-one cares about them today.
The 4500 was the last of the classic swivel-bodied Nikons. The company didn't quite abandon the idea, but subsequent twisty Nikons - the square SQ, and the the S4 and S10 - were essentially point-and-shoot trinkets in a cheap-looking 900-esque body. The swivel was surprisingly common at the time of the 900. Casio introduced it with the QV-10 (1995), and it was then used on the Agfa ePhoto1280 (1997) and Ricoh RDC-4200 (1998). Sony also used it for the professional-ish F-X0X range, which petered out in the mid-2000s. Nikon's implementation remains the most iconic.
At the time there was a general assumption that digital cameras were a fresh start, and that they would look nothing like film cameras of the past. In a way this turned out to be correct, because most photographs are now taken with mobile phones and tablets, which owe more to the pocket calculator than the Pentax Spotmatic. There is a sense that stand-alone cameras are old-hat, even in fields that once seemed utterly incompatible with mobile phone cameras - famously, when the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed its staff photography department in 2013, it sent its journalists on a course of "iPhone photography basics". Did Robert Capa turn in his grave? It's worth remembering that the top photographers of the past were not equipment fetishists; if Robert Capa could have taken photographs by blinking his eyes, he would have done so, and Weegee would have killed for a camera that could transmit photos straight to the newsroom. In the case of the Sun-Times the sadness comes from the sure-fire certainty that the photography course will be perfunctory, and the photographs likewise.
Dedicated cameras still exist, of course. The trend in compact camera design over the last few years has been to imitate film rangefinders of the 1960s, whereas digital SLRs have almost always looked just like film SLRs. Olympus tried to introduce a rectangular shape for its earlier Four Thirds SLRs, but that quickly died a death. In any case the swivel died off in the mid-2000s. It was displaced by articulated screens, which are presumably simpler to make.
In the high-end compact market the 900-series had a couple of spiritual successors, although none of them survived to the end of the decade. Sony's F-828 (2004) and Nikon's Coolpix 8400 (2005) were solid mid-decade eight megapixel prosumer compacts that were anachronisms in an age of sub-$1,000 digital SLRs, and Sony's DSC-R1 (2005) tried to bridge the two worlds, by putting an APS-C sensor in a fixed-lens body, but it was an idea ahead of its time. Canon managed to keep the market segment alive for a while longer with the G-series Powershots, which were functional and attractive, but Nikon's own P-for-Posh range didn't capture the public's imagination and, as with the 880 before it, has been lost to time. In fact Nikon never managed to recapture the 900-series' mojo, and seemed to concentrate its energies on the consumer SLR market instead, in which it did very well with the best-selling D40.
4. Bohemian Like You
Wind back to the start. Forgotten plastic junk. The 990. Thirteen years later, lots of photographers remember the twisty Nikons, reason being that the 950 and 990 were their first true loves, the first cameras they used that were not just pieces of tail. There's a melancholic aspect to setting the date on old digital cameras. The 990's date starts at 2000, and back then nobody had to change the year because the cameras were junk the next year. Nikon might as well have saved a few bytes and simply left it fixed at 2000. The date on my 990 goes up to 2037, which was forever away in 2000, not so much in 2013. I assume that something important inside the camera will run out or rust by that time, and it will never need to register 2038. And now the manic phase fades out and a corrosive anger takes hold.
I say photographers. That's not strictly speaking true. The 990 dates from a period when digital cameras were the exclusive domain of gadget enthusiasts and computer hobbyists. Most of the modern digital photo review sites emerged around that time, and it's notable that absolutely none of them were founded by photographers or indeed talented amateurs. They were founded by businesspeople and engineers. Photo.net, the oldest, was founded by a computer programmer called Philip Greenspun. He was also nominally the CEO of a company called ArsDigita, although in practice he seems to have spent his time flying a private plane and going on holiday until he was kicked out. He was not a photographer; he took pictures with some of the most capable and expensive photographic equipment available to mankind, but he had no photographic vision and produced nothing of worth.
The same could be said of the founders of Digital Photography Review (a stockbroker or investment banker of some kind), Digital Camera Resource (a 20-year-old web developer), and Outback Photo, of which the earliest internet traces date from 1999. The site's founder, Uwe Steinmueller, banged on about his passion for photography, but he was actually an engineer for Siemens-Nixdorf. The other leading sites are much the same. They are written by and for people who have a passion for toys. I realise I'm implying that an engineer can't be a photographer as well, which is ridiculous - Alfred Stieglitz was an engineer and chemist - and of course I'm selectively highlighting the Siemens-Nixdorf connection because I know that there's something unromantic about the name Siemens-Nixdorf. But in this specific case the disconnection between self-image, aspiration, and reality is enormous. These people aren't even operating on the level of those awful websites that give out photographic prizes.
Their sample galleries are packed with thousands of images taken with cutting-edge technology, but in the thirteen years and thousands of pictures since 2000 not a single one has amounted to anything on a photographic level. Okay, they're supposed to illustrate a camera's capabilities, but that's no excuse for boring pictures. Outback Photo has a lot of tedious picture postcard images of sunsets and pelicans; the owner of Digital Photography Review seems to have spent ten minutes with each of his cameras wandering around the same small patch of London's South Bank; the Luminous Landscape is anything but; the Digital Camera Resource isn't, any more, because it closed in 2013.
Being charitable, I accept that some of these people might have had a passion for photography in 1998, but the pressure of having to bang out reviews and articles killed that, and left them no time to develop as photographers. Their hobby is building affiliate links, or advertising lectures; they are the kind of awful self-help gurus whose work exists solely to help themselves. They will pass from this Earth leaving not a trace.
See, you have to make a distinction between people who use cameras to do their job, and people who use cameras to record their artistic vision, and people who like to buy expensive toys. And in the latter case you have to distinguish between people who like to buy expensive toys so that they can play with them, and people for whom the process of buying is the whole point. The 990 appealed to the first and last. It appealed to cash-strapped professional photographers - of the real estate, stock photography, and high school yearbook variety - and also the unboxing crowd. At an RRP of roughly £900 for a gadget that required an infrastructure of £200-worth of flash cards and a £1,000 home computer the 990 was a very expensive toy.
As far as I can tell not a single famous photograph was ever taken with a 990, and looking through Google's search returns it seems that far more photographs of the 990 have survived to the present day than photographs taken by the 990. Searching for images with the 990's output dimensions reveals lots of grey-looking photographs of empty car parks and distant fields. But what did I expect from a posh digital compact from 2000? It never appeared on photojournalists' radar screens, it missed the millennium, it predated the rise of lifestyle blogs, the timing was all wrong for it to capture something indelible, something terrible by accident. For the interns and software engineers and client liaison managers who bought it, it was an object to be played with and admired, to show off.
But for some people it was also a tool, as unsentimental as a panel van. eBay was launched in 1995, and it's hard to imagine eBay without pictures, but for a long time its listings were mostly text. It was difficult to get photographs in listings in those days, and hosting was not straightforward. The 950 and 990 were perfect eBay cameras - good macro, tripod thread, self-timer, and although the software didn't have an option for tethered shooting it wasn't hard to transfer images via the USB cable or simply with a card reader. I like to imagine that there are 990s scattered around the world, permanently mounted on a tripod, churning out images of toy cars and coins and old posters. The cameras have long since paid for themselves and will be used until they break.
Which, in a roundabout way, brought me to this article on investing in tech stocks, from Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, March 1999:
For moderate-risk investors the writer recommends PMC-Sierra, a semiconductor company. At the time of the article its shares were changing hands for $68; they split 2:1 in May 1999 and again in February 2000, eventually climbing to $245 in March 2000; but by March of 2001 they were $32, and they went gradually downwards ever since then, averaging roughly $8 or so for the last ten years. In January 2016 it was bought by Microsemi, for $9.22 a share. The share price chart is a wild ride, and the dot.com bubble is obvious:
Scrolling down a few pages there is an article on the extraordinary performance of AOL.com, whose shares had recently tripled in value. What to Make of America Online's Hot Hand is the headline, with a photo of Steve Case, who does not look comfortable in a shirt. "How much further can this remarkable company play out its hand?", asks the writer, a Brian P Knestout, who gave up writing in favour of law. He is currently the Senior Attorney in the Legal Division of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, so presumably he's doing alright. AOL still exists, although it has been a long time since it was touted as a sound investment, and as if to add insult to injury its share price is currently half that of Time Warner, its former partner.
I can remember the first time I learned that Americans were putting money into the IRA. It seemed mean of them; and then I learned that an IRA is a kind of pension fund that they have in America. So all that stuff about the Americans funding the IRA was just a misunderstanding. It's an odd experience, flicking through magazines from 1999. The adverts are glossy and for the most part don't look badly dated, but they must have been shot on film! Looking through the rest of Kiplinger's I learn that Eastman Kodak has been involved in a film price war with Fuji, but the future looks bright because neither company is prepared to die just for that. "Kodak's digital camera is losing money now, but the company has a great future in that area", because who else has Kodak's digital know-how? The magazine ends with a speculative piece about the coming wave of Windows CE-based palmtops. And there's an advert for Priceline.com, with William Shatner, but it's not a funny advert, it's just an advert. Sadly none of the major interview subjects appear to be convicted fraudsters, unlike Michael Mazzariello from this post here.
7. Something Indelible and Terrible
But let's talk about the camera. Too scared to go under the doctor's coathanger, and maybe God had planned something for it, so now there is a baby to look after. Noise. The 990 is noisy even at base ISO. The noise manifests itself as a mixture of colour waves and grain, although surprisingly it doesn't increase very much at ISO 400, and ISO 400 is a practical proposition. The 990 does have a problem with hot pixels, though, which betray the camera's Gen One nature. They can be cloned away easily enough but it's jarring to see them. To be fair, the problem was quite common at the time - Kodak's DCS cameras and the Nikon D1 had a hot pixel problem as well. Canon seemed to solve it with their CMOS technology, and from 2001 onwards it was no longer an issue.
ISO 400, underexposed a bit; surprisingly not bad, although you can see a couple of stuck pixels
Ditto, taken at 1/10 - the shutter button is very light. The highlights seem to have blown out purple.
Modern digital compacts outresolve the 990 by a huge margin, but tend to use heavy noisy reduction, so their images often look like impressionistic oil paintings, with all the fine detail smeared away. The 990 has a hands-off approach to noise reduction, in fact it doesn't seem to have any noise reduction at all, at least not in software (the 995 added it as an option). Perhaps the camera's CPU was too slow. As a consequence the 990's images are grainy and noisy but also sharp and detailed, which I prefer. Post-hoc noise reduction is an iffy proposition given that the images are so small.
Having said that, a three megapixel image is still larger than 1920 HD TV, slightly wider and a lot taller. The 990's roots as a computer gadget are apparent from its range of resolutions, which are expressed in terms of 4:3 computer displays - QGA for video, VGA and XGA for stills, plus a 3:2 crop of the full frame as a sop to old-fashioned 35mm film. As a photographic format 4:3 is reminiscent of 645, but slightly squarer. I like to imagine film photographers in 2000 contemplating a future where resolution was expressed in terms of computer monitors. They must have been horrified. Perhaps if they hadn't been such stuck-in-the-muds they might have jumped in and started up some websites, lit a candle to chase away the darkness of Uwe Steinmueller and his ilk and their fucking fucking shitty shitty fucking ebooks.
In addition to the monitor the 990 has an optical viewfinder. It's a missed opportunity. On an ergonomic level it's in the perfect place - you don't have to squash your nose against the monitor when you use it. And there was surely space inside the lens portion of the camera to include some decent viewfinder optics. Unfortunately it's just a zooming optical tunnel, with focus and exposure information conveyed via some blinking LEDs. It only shows a portion of the frame, and irritatingly this is off-centre, so I never use it. In my opinion an optical viewfinder should either be done right, or not at all, and it would have been better if Nikon had used the space to stuff in a faster lens (perhaps).
Back-of-camera design hasn't moved on all that much since 2000. The 990 is slightly bigger than most modern mirrorless rangefinders, and so the buttons seem lost in a sea of plastic. It wouldn't have killed Nikon to make them larger. Imagine if the whole of the lens portion had been devoted to the lens, and it was a constant f/2.0 throughout the range. That would have been good.
You can see the five-point autofocus in action. Matrix metering works splendidly. There's a top LCD as well, sadly not backlit.
You can see the five-point autofocus in action. Matrix metering works splendidly. There's a top LCD as well, sadly not backlit.
The review screen has a histogram. Problem is that you can't see it until you've shot the photo, stored it on the camera, and switched to playback mode. As with the original D1 you can't simply press a button to see the image you just shot, you have to turn a dial. Apropos of nothing, the camera has an early implementation of focus peaking.
12. It Takes Courage to Enjoy It
The 38-115mm equivalent lens has a conservative specification, f/2.5 at the wide end, slowing to f/4 at the long end, with noticeable CA and barrel distortion at 8mm that fades to nothing particularly offensive at 24mm. With such a wide lens and a tiny sensor it's very hard to squeeze bokeh out of it unless you shoot macro, albeit that lots of people did shoot macro with the 990. Fully wide you can put the lens just 2cm away from the target, and in its day the 990 was very popular for boring pictures of flowers, viz:
It's odd how people ignore leaves and shovel them out of the way until they photograph them, at which point the leaves suddenly become stunning works of art. It's as if actual nature is too raw, it has to be safely behind glass before it can be appreciated as an object. But the same is true of people, cars and so forth; real life is boring, it becomes special only when it is framed, only when it is presented. The peripheral focus points stop working in the macro range and in low light.
At the other extreme, as a digiscoping camera, the bokeh is lovely and smooth. Far more than the characteristically ring-shaped bokeh of a mirror lens. I haven't done the maths, but it would be interesting to tot up the relative costs of a decent spotting scope plus a used 990 (or 4500) versus a cheap mirror lens. My hunch is that a decent spotting scope would be much more expensive than a mirror lens - it strikes me as the kind of field where you really have to pay a lot for quality - but on the other hand the results would be much better.
I further surmise than for a period in the early 2000s, back when digital SLRs still cost thousands of pounds, this option might have produced comparable results at much less cost than an SLR with a pro-level telephoto lens plus an extender, and I imagine that lots of people did the same mental calculations at the time. Nowadays the digiscoping world has adopted Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX bodies, because they can be easily adapted to scope mounts and weigh nothing compared to the weight of the scope.
The 990 doesn't really have a modern spiritual successor. The X20 in the picture above is a capable, premium-priced compact, much more advanced than the 990. The lens is wider and longer and a stop faster throughout the range, the top ISO is much higher, greater resolution etc, but those things alone wouldn't justify the $599 price. The days when people were prepared to spend a lot of money on a compact camera for its performance are long gone, the camera has to look good, and the X20 is a good-looking camera. It's even more of a trinket than the 990, and I want to stress that I'm not mocking its performance; just like a Porsche or Range Rover, it has reserves that its owners will never tap.
What was it like to take the 990 for one last spin, in 2013? One last tango in London. I can remember using it back in 2000, and it felt special then, although it wasn't the process of digital photography that felt special, it was the odd design. At the time digital photography felt disappointingly mundane, because there was no fuss, no wait for the film to develop, no sense of occasion. No trip to Joe's Basement, no going through the prints. It took no effort and felt as if it had taken no investment, and the image was disposable. Was that it? The irony is that using the 990 in 2013 felt more interesting than it did in 2000, because it's now an antique, and I was probably the only person in London or indeed the United Kingdom actually using one on that day. Goodbye to all that.
In the next post I venture even further back into the past. Into the savage world - of 1998.