By now we all know the Kodak narrative: an innovative company has incredible success in the film era, then gets bloated with old management ideas and an arrogant “people will always need film” paradigm, then goes belly-up when they can’t compete. It’s a good lesson in the idea that no entity is immune to the fortunes of economics.
I thought about this when I recently came across a web post about a camera system that crossed my path some years ago, the Kodak DCS. The article delves all the way back into the 1990s with the intro of the first-generation of digital cameras, the NC-2000 based on the Nikon N90, and talks about how much photographers hated them compared to film. Fortunately, I didn’t come to the digital party until 2001, when these primitive beasts had been retired.
Readers might recall that on occasions I get out my ancient Nikon/Kodak DCS-720x and play with it. On at least one of these occasions I speculated my DCS 720x might be a candidate for infrared explorations, and though I was able to create a few interesting experimental images, I seldom dig it out of the box to do that, and later had better luck with a Sony F828.
Readers will also recall that my Kodak DCS 760 died years ago, and in August 2016, I took it apart, which was very fun and revealed a lot about how they were made. It’s worth reading if you have a minute (link.)
I originally got the 720x in 2003 when Kodak discontinued it and dumped the remaining supply of them on Ebay, for a tenth the original list price. In 2006 I saw a 760 on Ebay for just a couple of hundred dollars and thought it would be worth at least experiencing.
Kodak’s vision of digital photography by 2001 was to produce two very different cameras in the same Nikon F5 body: a slow, low-ISO, low-frame-rate, higher resolution (6MP) 760, and a faster, very-high-ISO, low resolution (2MP) 720x. The Canon versions of these cameras were the 560 and the 520.
One fundamental issue with Kodak digital cameras, particularly with their digital SLRs, is reliability. Although my 720x is still operable, both 760s I’ve knows, mine and Robert’s, died years ago with zero possibility of repair because of Kodak’s vacancy. Ken Rockwell also notes this in his review of the Kodak DCS 14n.
Despite this, it’s still fun to dig out the behemothic DCS 720x, charge its clunky battery, and squeeze off a few frames.
Of note on the bad side for both the 760 and the 720x:
- The buttons on the back are fundamental to the operation of the camera, yet are small and hard to push; I sometimes hurt my thumbnail using them.
- Due to a long-expired capacitor or button battery, the camera can never remember the date, and interrupts every startup with a message that says, “Date/Time is incorrect,” which requires a reply of “OK.” It thereafter thinks it is March 2023.
- In the 2017 world of huge viewfinders and three-inch back-of-camera monitors, the tightly cropped viewfinder of the Kodaks and their dim, two-inch monitor are hard to abide.
- The front-to-back depth of the camera is huge, and though I have long fingers, I can barely reach all the controls. Coupled with its weight, this contributed to some tendonitis in my right elbow when I was using this camera a lot.
- Battery life with the huge, heavy nickel metal hydride batteries was terrible. I always had to carry an extra battery.
- The camera is covered in awkward, large ports for AC power, Firewire, and a 15-pin shutter release.
- The media cards are PCM/CIA-based; I never owned such a device, and have adaptors that allow me to use Compact Flash cards.
- The 600 and 700 series cameras had two card slots, but once when I was using both cards, it got into some kind of feedback loop, and each card had a folder inside called FOLDER01, each of which had a folder in it called FOLDER01, and each of those had a folder in it called FOLDER01, presumably forever until I turned off the camera or removed the cards. I never found the images, and had to reshoot the event.
Although you can program it to convert its RAW files into JPEGs, the JPEGs are uselessly noisy and flat.
- These RAW files are best edited with Kodak DCS Photo Desk, which was never supported by Mac OS X, meaning any computers in the last 15 years (I can’t speak for Windows). They will open in Adobe Camera RAW, but look pretty shabby.
- Instead of the now-standard RGB Bayer pattern array, this high-ISO DCS cameras (the 620x and the 720x) had CMY arrays in an effort to increase sensor sensitivity by using less-absobative dyes, meaning that even the best editing favored some colors and ruined others. The 720x, for example, makes gorgeous purples, but not once was I able to get an orange tone to look right.
- The infrared filter is mounted in front of the mirror so it can be easily removed or replaced with an anti-aliasing filter (which was not cheap), so the camera was prone to some unexpected reflections between the sensor and the filter that weren’t visible in the viewfinder, usually pink.
On the other hand, I made some great images with these cameras, so here are the good things about them…
- High-ISO images from the 720x were always very clean, thank to the Photo Desk software. I often shot sports at ISO 4000 or 5000 when the occasion called for it. The camera’s contemporaries like the Nikon D1H didn’t do as well in the ISO stratosphere.
- Since there was no anti-aliasing filter in either of these cameras, pixel-for-pixel sharpness was unchallenged by anything else in the era.
- Focus was super-fast and on-the-money thanks to these cameras being based on the excellent Nikon F5 film camera. I thought building on the best film body of the era was a smart move, but Kodak’s next, and last, digital SLR, the SLRn/Pro 14n, was based on the cheap, consumer F80.
- The overbuilt quality of these cameras made them feel very rugged.
Despite their shortcomings, I was able to make memorable, high-quality images for my newspaper that still look great today, using both the 760 and the 720x.
One characteristic of a really great camera is to do its job in the background and get out of the photographer’s way so we can do our jobs, and some aspects of the Kodak’s failed to do that.
I will continue to pull out the old Kodak once in a while and play around with it. But I will probably never do photojournalism with it again.