20 Years Of Photo Innovation

Take a look back at two decades of trends and technologies that changed photography
Outdoor Photographer may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. Outdoor Photographer does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting Outdoor Photographer.

20 Years Of Photo Innovation Little did we know that, like a boulder at the edge of a cliff, photography was poised for an unprecedented period of technological innovation when Outdoor Photographer debuted in 1985. Digital technology was the final push that sent us reeling over the precipice and set in motion a rush of advancements and new products that continues at a breakneck pace even up to today.

The digital revolution is certainly the biggest development in that time, but lots of other innovations, from film and filters to focus systems and flash, have improved our capabilities in the field and allowed us to make images today that would have been difficult or impossible to otherwise capture in the past.

Thanks to these enhancements in photo technology, we can carry more gear, record more vibrant colors, take sharper shots of fast-moving subjects and achieve better exposures in the most challenging light. We’ve come a long way from the equipment photographers used in that first issue.On these pages, we’ll look at the last 20 years and some of the major advances in technology that have made our photography more successful and enjoyable.

Photo Backpacks (1980s)
Camera bags have been around for as long as there have been cameras. For decades, the designs of these bags were some variation of an over-the-shoulder bag. The mid-1980s saw a major innovation that completely changed how gear was carried in the field, however. The Lowepro Quantum (1984) and, a few years later, the Tamrac Model 757 PhotoPack (1986), did more than just allow photographers to shift the load from their shoulders to their backs. It made it much easier to carry a lot of gear into the field, expanding our creative possibilities with the ability to bring a larger selection of lenses and accessories to remote locations.

Grad Filters (1980s)
Although graduated (“grad”) filters were available in the mid-70s, they weren’t used much for serious landscape work until a more professional grade became available in the mid-1980s. The filters let you expose for darker areas like the ground without overexposing lighter areas like the sky. The late Galen Rowell strongly promoted the use of the grad ND from his start as an Outdoor Photographer columnist and regular contributor. Without the filters, photographers would have had to settle for capturing detail in one area or the other. By allowing photographers to make better exposures of high-contrast scenes, grad filters have changed the look of color landscape photography.

Autofocus (1980s)
When autofocus (AF) first became widely available in the 1985 Maxxum line of Minolta SLRs, it was considered a novelty, but was quickly pursued by other manufacturers. Today, even professionals rely on AF because it can be faster and more accurate than focusing by hand. Advanced AF systems actually can track your subject’s movement so that the lens will be at just the right focus at the instant of exposure. This technology is a huge benefit when you’re shooting dynamic subjects like wildlife or sports. Many AF systems also offer multiple-point AF, where a number of AF detectors are strategically positioned around the frame, letting you focus on off-center subjects. They speed up picture-taking by avoiding the need to recompose your shot every time you focus as you’d do with a center target-only system. Many cameras offer five or more AF points, and some models have as many as 45 points.

Built-In, Pop-Up Flash (1980s)
Flash is an essential accessory for practically all photographers, but especially for outdoor shooters who require highly portable solutions. Built-in flash, which first appeared in the late 1980s, gave photographers the convenience of a flash system tucked neatly into the camera body. This not only simplified the use of flash for less experienced photographers, but also saved space in the camera bag.

Balanced Fill-Flash (1980s)
Twenty years ago, obtaining just the right amount of flash to fill in shadows from the sun was a complex technique better left for the pros. Without that fill-flash, though, shadows became “black holes” devoid of detail. Modern automatic metering systems, first introduced in 1985, easily mix ambient light and flash, giving you the right amount of both at the touch of a button. With the new technology, enthusiasts get great-looking images, instead of detail-less shots bound for the waste bin. Pros get a flash system that lets them concentrate on making even better compositions instead of worrying about flash-fill technique.

Zoom Lenses (1980s)
Zoom lenses were being designed and manufactured throughout the ’60s and ’70s, but a majority of photographers didn’t take them seriously. Sometimes deserved and sometimes not, most zooms were considered to be too slow or of lesser image quality when compared to their prime siblings. In the mid-1980s, however, the second-class status of zooms began to change. Computer-aided design, aspheric lens elements and fresh manufacturing technologies heralded a new era in photography, with zoom lenses that could compete with primes in terms of sharpness and color fidelity. With zoom lenses, photographers could carry a far greater range of focal-length equivalents than would be feasible with fixed focal-length designs.

Weather-Resistant Compacts (1980s)
Inclement weather often makes for exceptional photo opportunities, but can destroy sensitive photo equipment. That’s why weather-resistant cameras have been so popular with outdoor photographers. The Olympus Infinity, introduced in 1986, was soon followed by similar offerings from Minolta, Pentax and others. A perfect addition to every photographer’s gadget bag, weather-resistant cameras have continued to evolve, with newer models that even can be dropped in shallow water without worry.

DX Coding For SLRs (1985)
Like autofocus, the introduction of DX coding on film canisters was another step toward automation in photography, enabling cameras to automatically select the correct ISO setting. In 1985, Pentax was the first to introduce a 35mm SLR with the ability to read DX coding—the A3000. While some photographers still prefer to set a custom ISO different than the manufacturer’s recommendation, DX coding quickly became a ubiquitous feature on 35mm cameras.

80-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED AF Nikkor (1988)
While Nikon and other manufacturers included many zooms in their inventory of lenses, it was prime lenses that were favored by most photographers for their sharpness and speed. The 80-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED AF Nikkor, with its constant maximum aperture and superior image quality, marked a turning point in photography, when zoom lenses rather than fixed focal lengths would become a photographer’s first choice. A successor to the manual-focus 80-200mm ƒ/4 Nikkor, this lens not only was autofocus and an ƒ-stop faster, but it also delivered amazing sharpness and color fidelity with the aid of three Extra-Low Dispersion (ED) glass elements.

Flash Memory Cards (1990s)
While digital cameras have changed how a photograph is made, memory cards have transformed the way photographers shoot. Early digital cameras were tethered to large portable storage devices, making them unwieldy for typical use. The compact memory card changed this by allowing camera designers to incorporate storage into the camera itself. Introduced in 1994, the CompactFlash card was the first widely available form of flash memory for digital cameras and still is a popular format today. Multiple other formats soon followed. As the price of these cards dropped and capacities increased, photographers got the additional benefit of shooting many times the equivalent of a roll of film on a single card, less the interruption of switching rolls.

Adobe Photoshop 1.0 (1990)
In February 1990, the world of photography changed forever, although few photographers likely noticed. Born out of an interest in photography and emerging computer technology, Thomas Knoll developed the roots of an image-editing technology while working on his Ph.D. He had developed a basic application for handling images on his Macintosh Plus computer. His brother, John, who worked for Industrial Light and Magic, was excited by what he saw and encouraged his brother to expand on what he had done. Called Image Pro, the software was taken around various companies in Silicon Valley until finally a company by the name of Adobe took interest in 1988. Within less than 10 months of development, Adobe Photoshop 1.0 was released, and after more than a decade of revisions and innovations, it has become the gold standard of digital image editing. It allows photographers to replicate tools and effects available in the traditional darkroom, and adds an arsenal of additional capabilities made possible through digital capture and output.

Fujichrome Velvia (1990)
Famous for its super-saturated colors, Fujichrome Velvia is a staple of pro and amateur landscape shooters. Introduced in 1990, Velvia was the first transparency film to best the legendary Kodachrome in sharpness and grain, as well as vividness of color. It also offered the advantages of E-6 film processing, which included much faster turnaround, worldwideavailability and the ability to easily push or pull development. In turn, other filmmakers have worked harder to improve their own emulsions, and the quality of E-6 transparency films has improved dramatically in the last 20 years.

First Digital Camera (1991)
In 1990, photojournalists began testing Kodak’s prototype professional digital camera. A modified Nikon F3 with a 1.3-megapixel sensor, the camera was capable of storing 50 images on a non-removable hard drive. By 1991, the DCS Camera was shipped. The body was quite cumbersome, heavy and very expensive; however, the technology paved the way for the digital SLRs of today.

Lithium Batteries (1990s)
Digital cameras, flash units and other photo equipment create heavy electrical loads, and alkaline batteries perform poorly—especially in cold weather. While rechargeable batteries work very well, reenergizing them while you’re on the road or in the backcountry can be a problem. Disposable lithium AAs have provided an answer since their introduction in the 1990s. They’re as effective as rechargeables and are easily replaced when they’re drained. Although they cost more than alkalines, lithiums are less expensive in practical use because they last as much as five times longer. That’s less waste for the environment, too.

Nikon Coolscan (1993)
Until 1993, when Nikon released the first version of the Coolscan, high-quality film scanners were prohibitively expensive for all but the service bureaus. Unlike those high-end scanners that relied on fluorescent or tungsten illumination that generated a lot of heat, Nikon used a cool light source to scan the image, which made it exceptionally compact and quiet. It became the first affordable and portable scanner on the market for consumers and changed production costs in many printing, publishing and photography professions.

Carbon-Fiber Tripods (1994)
First available in 1994, carbon-fiber tripods were the first major advance in tripod design in decades. Although they’re more expensive, carbon-fiber tripods are as much as one-third lighter than an aluminum tripod of similar height. They’re much more rigid as well, which can be important when you’re working with macro lenses or long telephotos. The carbon-fiber tripod’s biggest impact on photography, though, may be that its light weight encourages more photographers to bring along a tripod with them in the field.

Image Stabilizer Canon EF 75-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM (1995)
The first lens to feature technology to reduce the impact of vibration and camera shake, the Canon EF 75-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM lens provided photographers with the ability to handhold a telephoto zoom at shutter speeds two stops slower than could normally be expected to deliver sharp results. Sensors in the lens detected motion and produced a corrective signal to a group of lens elements to shift and compensate for camera movement. The result was a sharp image that otherwise would have been soft. This lens and subsequent lenses have delivered a greater percentage of sharp shots under difficult conditions.

Kodak E200 (1996)
Introduced in 1996, Kodak’s E200 film was the first high-speed, pushable film that offered photographers color contrast and image structure traditionally associated with slower films. E200 set a new benchmark as the first slide film that could hold its color, sharpness and grain when pushed, thus extending shooting ranges under demanding light conditions.

Epson Photo EX (1998)
With the release of Epson’s Photo EX in 1998, consumers now had the option of printing large images that looked like real photographs. The EX printer, with its large carriage, was the first printer capable of producing 11×17-inch images as well as 44-inch panoramas. The printer incorporated several breakthrough technologies. Epson’s Micro Piezo and Super Micro Dot Technology allowed the printer to produce smaller, rounder dots while precisely placing them on the page. It also included a new Multi-Layer Dot Technology, which increased the color range, and Epson’s AcuPhoto halftoning module virtually eliminated visible dot patterns. The result was a smoother image with truer color unlike any printer and the beginning of a new era in photo-realistic output from desktop printers.

17-35mm ƒ/2.8 ED-IF AF-S Nikkor (1999)
The 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 ED-IF AF-S Nikkor caused quite a stir when it was first released. It was Nikon’s first ultra-wide-angle zoom, a lens that was the direct result of computer-aided designs and improvements in the manufacturing of aspheric lens elements. This small, 26.5-ounce lens included three aspheric elements and two ED elements. Its internal focusing mechanism eliminated the need for the front element to rotate or extend itself. The incorporation of an AF-S built-in motor delivered fast autofocus. It was a boon for photographers who desired both speed and an expansive angle of view.

Nikon D1 (1999)
Eight years after the introduction of the Kodak Digital Camera, the 2.74-megapixel Nikon D1 digital SLR set a precedent for professional SLRs. With a fast boot-up time, a 0.05-second shutter release lag time and a fast shooting rate of 4.5 frames per second, the D1 was proving to be the fastest and highest quality digital camera on the market that broke the $5,000 price barrier. The Nikon D1 created a buzz, and digital photography began to be seriously regarded by professional photographers as a viable‚Äîand now affordable—way of shooting.

Canon EOS D30 (2000)
In the next year, the Canon EOS D30 set a new price point. Released in September 2000, the D30 offered 3 megapixels in an easy-to-use SLR. The price of the D30 in 2000 was approximately $3,000. Canon also developed the camera with a CMOS chip, a feat that was supposed to be impossible in manufacturing, and matched the quality of a CCD chip. Cheaper to produce, the CMOS chip is now the predominant chip type used in digital SLRs.

Four Thirds System (2003)
Until the introduction of the Olympus E-1, digital SLRs were adaptations of film cameras and lens systems designed for the 35mm frame. Developed jointly by Olympus, Kodak and Fujifilm, the Four Thirds image sensor took a new approach to digital SLRs, breaking from the 35mm mind-set. Along with the new sensor, the Olympus E-1 system introduced a new line of lenses designed specifically for the new format, giving photographers the whole range of focal length options, from wide-angle to telephoto.

Anti-Shake CCD (2003)
When Minolta (now Konica Minolta) introduced its Anti-Shake CCD in the DiMAGE A1, it was seen as a unique alternative to lens-based image-stabilization technologies; but as the A1 was a fixed-lens “compact” digital camera, its biggest potential advantage went largely unnoticed. That potential was realized with the later introduction of the Maxxum 7D digital SLR in 2004—because the Anti-Shake system is built in to the camera and not the lens, it allows photographers to get the benefits of image stabilization with any lens they choose.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel (2003)
Once again, the price barrier was broken by the release of the Canon EOS Digital Rebel. In an effort to appeal to the enthusiast consumer, Canon released the 6-megapixel Rebel for less than $1,000. Because of the low cost and relatively high performance, many pro photographers also bought the camera as a versatile backup to their more expensive EOS system SLRs.

Digital Medium Format (2005)
Although digital backs for medium-format cameras aren’t new, they have tended to be clunky aftermarket add-ons that often required being tethered to an external power source or storage device. More recent improvements in both power and mass portable storage have helped cut the wires and allowed manufacturers to explore more integrated designs. This may be the year when digital medium format really takes hold, with new models announced from Mamiya, Rollei, Hasselblad and Pentax. Unlike earlier medium-format solutions that addressed digital capture as an afterthought, these new models have been designed from the start as digital cameras.