The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

BC and AD - Photography before computers and after digital
Gordon Brown
Program date: September 19, 2007

Gordon BrownGordon Brown


Most of the images below are from Gordon's slide show which was itself a work of art with its clever animations.


1994 Apple Quick Take

Modern cheap digital

Unbuilding Kodak Park

Impact of digital

Histograms - 1984

Histograms - 2007

Virtue of RAW files

1973 First CCD sensor

Bayer CCD Patent

Bayer Colour CCD

1904 Primitive Pixels

1935 - Dufaycolor

1827 Niepce 8 hr exp

1827 Niepce better

1976 first time in print

Gordon Brown is both a scientist and a photographer of the Ansel Adams large format school. Brown worked as a scientist for Kodak in Rochester - he came up with the T-Max name for the famous Kodak film - and he taught the well known Zone system exposure technique favoured by Adams. Today he continues to do photography workshops and lectures.

Gordon augmented his very professional animated Power Point talk with a collection of vintage and very rare digital cameras as well as some sample digital prints which illustrated the quality possible today from even a modest printer.

EASTMAN KODAK. As a Kodak retiree, Brown began with an update on Kodak and the impact of the digital transition on this grand old firm. World-wide staffing has moved from a peak of 120,000 employees down to a modest 20,000 (60,000 to about 12,000 in Rochester). This reflects the parallel transition from vertical integration to outsourcing and collaboration with others to manufacture the Kodak ideas and products.

In our last Email newsletter, Bob Lansdale reported the sad demolition of the buildings on the old Kodak Canada campus in the Mount Dennis area of Toronto. Kodak Park in Rochester has suffered a similar fate with building implosions reducing the number of buildings from 218 down to 104. Brown noted that of the remaining buildings, only Building 38 is a coating factory and it is running at 100% capacity to meet the dwindling demand for traditional film products. Black & White papers were discontinued when the last paper coating facility (in Guadalajara, Mexico) was closed.

Showing a picture of an apple orchard, Brown noted the he had the urge to be a modern day “Johnny Apple-seed” and sow apple seeds in Kodak Park to restore it to orchards. He also noted the old vertical integration in Kodak was right down to owning their own coal and electricity generating facilities. People joked that there were even “Kodak cows” to ensure an untainted supply of gelatin (see Elizabeth Brayer’s excellent biography of George Eastman to read about the first massive product recall that occurred in the early years of Kodak).

WORKFLOW. Gordon compared the traditional and digital work flows: With film, you choose the desired film, take the photographs, develop the negative chemically, print and correct with an enlarger, develop the print, label and file the negatives. The digital workflow eliminates the film choice (you could make similar decisions with camera settings), replaces the chemical development with transferring the image files to a computer, replaces the individual print corrections while enlarging with similar adjustments and more using image editing software, print the corrected image with a digital printer, and save image information in a digital asset management program.

HISTOGRAMS. In October 1980 the Journal of American Photography published an article on "Zone Histograms". The author used graphs to depict the proportions of information by "zone" in typical photographs that have a normal distribution vs low key and high key photos. A decade later this histogram concept appeared in Adobe Photoshop 1.0 and is one of the fundamentals of digital photography. [If you want to know more about the zone system, pick up a copy of "The Print" and "The Negative" by Ansel Adams. These books from the 1960s are still in demand because the basic concepts apply to digital photography as they do the traditional processes. And to learn more about Adobe - my favourite software company - track down a copy of "Inside the Publishing Revolution" by Pamela Pfiffner from Adobe Press 2003. - Bob Carter]

LIKE A NEGATIVE. Digital cameras provide images in a variety of formats. An almost universal format is the Jpeg which is a compressed version of the image data collected by the sensor. The Jpeg provides an image close to the quality of the original (raw format) in a much smaller file size with very little adjustment leeway. The Jpeg is like a print - you cannot add back what is missing. The better cameras today offer a "raw" file format which is like a traditional negative. Raw files contain all the data collected by the image sensor with no unalterable adjustments. However; the format of the raw data file is not standard with each camera maker having one or more versions. To avoid file orphans, Adobe is trying to have its DNG format accepted as the standard. Meantime, programs like Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Lightroom can read over 140 varieties of raw files and transform them into more conventional formats. Along with the conversion, ACR and Lightroom allow you to adjust exposure, light balance, and other parameters just as film photographers do with their negative processing and enlarging techniques.

SENSORS. Kodak has a long history in the digital arena with its research into CCD image sensors and manufacture of these essential cornerstones of the modern digital camera. I found it interesting that Leica chose a Kodak sensor for its M8 rangefinder digital camera - the most recent version of the fabled post war M3 of 1954. The sensor has tiny lenses on each pixel so even the edge cells capture all the available light rays ( this makes it feasible to use older lenses - even 1930s screw-mount - on the M8). Other digital cameras resort to custom designed lenses that keep all rays perpendicular to the sensor, necessary since each sensor cell has a finite physical depth vs the surface sensitivity of film.

Kodak designs and makes CCD sensors for the high end cameras and camera backs including Hasselblad. The CCD sensor is more expensive to manufacture than the more recent CMOS sensors, but it has greater colour fidelity and is more light sensitive. Today’s Kodak still designs cameras - it’s one of the top names in digital camera sales - but manufacturing is outsourced [Leica went a similar route years earlier with its collaboration with Minolta, Panasonic, and Fuji].

Modern companies tend to control product design and distribution but forgo the all-embracing vertical integration of yesteryear. Gordon Brown noted this includes Apple and other Electronics companies as well who design their products and then farm out manufacture to a third party.

EARLY PIXELS. The earliest plates and films designed to capture colour used tiny filters much like those in a CCD sensor. Gordon showed two commercially successful examples: The Autochrome invented by the Lumiere Brothers and announced in 1904. Grains of potato starch were dyed one of three colours and scattered on top of a black and white emulsion to capture the colour information. The tiny spaces between the grains were filled with lamp black. Projecting white light through the developed and reversed negative and the grains gave a soft colour image. In 1935, Dufaycolor was marketed in England. It used a matrix of clear strips dyed red, blue or green and placed over a black and white emulsion in a 35mm roll format giving owners of the then novel miniature cameras the ability to snap and project colour transparencies.

BUT WILL IT LAST. Brown peppered his talk with cautions on preserving the delicate photographic media be it silver or silicon; paper or plastic. This included the hazards of airborne pollutants from previously unsuspected sources such as sulfur fumes in oil-based paints “toning” black & white prints a brown colour when a nearby wall is painted and ink fumes trapped under glass when a modern ink-jet print is hastily mounted and framed under glass “for preservation”. Another concern already noticed in the digital world is the rapid changes in hardware and software leaving many orphan formats and media whose images cannot be easily viewed or extracted. In comparison, many early examples of daguerreotypes and the odd pre-daguerreotype have survived. At the Harry Ransom Center (a PHSC member), in Austin Texas, Gordon saw the famous photo taken c1827 by Niepce. He noted that it was just an indistinct blur viewed directly, but when viewed at an oblique angle, the familiar image of Niepce's back yard appears.

EARLY DIGITALS. The first functioning digital camera was assembled in 1975 by Kodak engineer Steve Sasson using the Fairchild 100 x 100 pixel CCD sensor. The camera weighed in at 8.5 pounds and took 23 seconds to record an image on audio tape. The following year, the first digital photo, taken with Sasson's camera was published - a boy and his beagle. The camera never went into production - this honour went to Canon with its RC-701 camera, used at the Los Angeles Olympic Games tests a decade later in 1986. Canon called it a "Magnetic Still Video" camera. The following year a Kodak venture company released the first "megapixel" camera using a 1.7 megapixel Kodak CCD that captured a 1320 x 1335 pixel B&W image. Intended for research and industrial applications, it sold for $10,000 to $40,000. Kodak's first professional digital camera was the 1.3 megapixel DCS100. The 13 pound system came with a Nikon F3 body modified to hold a B&W or colour CCD sensor. The camera came tethered to an electronics box housing a 200 meg hard drive. Kodak threw in a copy of Photoshop and Photostyler as well. They sold 987 units over the period of 1991-4 for $20,000 to $25,000 each.

In 1981, Sony offered its first Mavica still video SLR for $10,000. The camera used two sensors to record each image. One captured colour data and the other captured luminance (B&W) information. It recorded 25/50 NTSC TV field/frame images on a miniature floppy disk. This camera became famous in 1989 when one was used to send images of the Tiananmen Square demonstration to the outside world. During the demonstration and actions to suppress it, the Chinese government blocked all foreign mail. It didn't anticipate the capability of the Mavica to send images via telephone.

1981 Sony Mavica
1989 Tianamen Sq

1991 Kodak DCS100
1.3mpx @ $20 - $25k

1994 Apple QuickTake
early consumer digital

Kodak KAF 31600
31.6 mpx sensor

c1878 - George goes
out to snap a few

1878 Eastman starts
with dry-plates

Difference between
Cameras & flutes... :-)

A bit of Gordon's -
digital collection

...and Gordon Brown
as well...

LOSE SOME, WIN SOME. Just imagine the changes brought about when a young George Eastman moved the photographic world from glass plates and tripod mounted behemoths operated by individuals skilled in strange chemical processes to roll film and hand held cameras usable by almost anyone. We are experiencing a similar phenomena today as the world says good-bye to film and darkrooms and embraces the digital camera. We have lost some things - cameras that lasted decades, the magic of the darkroom, battery less cameras, media viewable by eye, and known archival standards. But we have gained others - zero cost at the time of exposure, instant photo review, easily mixed photo parameters (B&W, Colour, ISOs), better image manipulation including post exposure negative rendition and invisible retouching (think dust spots, red-eye, etc.), exact duplicates and light in the "darkroom".

EVOLUTION. What I liked about Gordon Brown’s talk is the way he demonstrated that digital is an evolutionary step in our favourite art of photography, not a totally different art. The very elements of a digital picture resonate with history - early colour processes with their tri-colour “pixels” of dyed potato starch or tiny strips of dyed material layered on a light sensitive emulsion formed an early version of an image sensor. He compared histograms in Photoshop with the variation in density of silver negatives and prints. Brown’s slides comparing the steps from shot to print in traditional photography with those in digital photography emphasize that the tools have changed, but the not the process. Good photographic practices - including lighting, composition, and asset management still apply. (I guess you could say, if you were a good photographer with silver, you are still good with digital, but faster. And if you were a poor photographer...).

This is the first page I designed totally in Dreamweaver CS3 on an iMac running OS X 10.4. I chose minor colour changes and a more standard layout. A few months later, January 8, 2008, I updated the page to this design and on June 28, 2008 I moved the page a third time to a template version of the page to make any colour and style changes easier. Unless otherwise noted, images on this page were taken with a Sony F828 digital still camera off the projection screen and subsequently adjusted in Photoshop CS3 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V1.2. Contents and most images are ©2007 Gordon Brown and may not be used without his permission. You can reach Gordon Brown at Any PHSC images may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact PHSC at for more information on the items discussed on this page.

Click on most of the small images to see a larger version in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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