The Glorious Golden Age Of The Digital Camera

Always one to notice and indeed seek out patterns, I’ve found significant similarities with the small collection of cameras I’ve come to settle on, after years of exploring hundreds.

Here are the main ones –

– They’re digital.

– They use a CCD sensor, between 6 and 10MP.

– They were made between 2003 and 2011.

– The essential (for me) features are present and easy to access (ISO, focus lock, exposure lock, exposure compensation) but there’s nothing (or very little) that’s superfluous.

– They are well designed, both ergonomically, and in terms of user interface.

Here are my absolute favourites –

Ricoh GX100

Released – 2007

Sensor – 1/1.75″ 10MP CCD

Lens – 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4

Notes – Fantastic user interface, including a step zoom that cycles through 24, 28, 35, 50 and 72mm and back down with each press of the zoom switch. Superb handling. Focuses down to 0.01m.

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Ricoh GR Digital III

Released – 2009

Sensor – 1/1.7″ 10MP CCD

Lens – 28mm f/1.9

Notes – Much like the GX100, brilliant handling and user interface, very customisable so it can be as simple as you want it to be. Also focuses down to 0.01m. Plenty of in camera control over images, including options like cross processed and dynamic b/w.

Panasonic Lumix LX3

Released – 2008

Sensor – 1/1.63″ 10MP CCD

Lens – 24-60mm f/2 – f/2.8

Notes – Great user interface, excellent lens/sensor combo, even better are the film modes, including dynamic b/w.

Pentax K100D

Released – 2006

Sensor – APS-C 6MP CCD

Lens – Interchangeable

Notes – Along with the K-m and K10D which have 10MP sensors, but with very similar rendering, the K100D is one of very few cameras that delivers lovely colour images straight out of camera. Very compact, and every control seems to make sense. Nothing seems superfluous on the K100D.

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Pentax K-m

Released – 2009

Sensor – APS-C 10MP CCD

Lens – Interchangeable

Notes – Successor to the K100D, but with a 10MP sensor, though in practice I can’t tell the difference between the output of the two cameras, using the same lens. Has a few more features, like digital filters, but certainly isn’t overloaded and remains very easy to navigate and use.

FujiFilm FinePix S7000

Released – 2004

Sensor – 1/1.7″ 6MP Super CCD

Lens – 35-210mm f/2.8-3.1

Notes – The combo of lens and sensor is really special with the S7000. Pretty simple menus because of its age. Outperforms digital compacts many years newer.

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And a few others I’ve really enjoyed but no longer have or use – 

Canon Digital IXUS i  – 2003, 1/2.5″ 4MP CCD, 39mm f/2.8 lens.

FujiFilm FinePix F810 – 2004, 1/1.7″ 6MP Super CCD, 32.5-130mm f/2.8-5.6 lens.

Olympus Camedia C4040 Zoom – 2001, 1/1.8″ 4MP CCD, 35-105mm f/1.8-10 lens.

Panasonic Lumix LZ1 – 2005, 1/2.5″ 4MP CCD, 37-222mm f/2.8-4.5 lens.

Panasonic Lumix TZ2 – 2005, 1/2.5″ 5MP CCD, 37-222mm f/2.8-4.5 lens.

Pentax K10D / Samsung GX10 – 2006, APS-C 10MP CCD, interchangeable lenses.

Samsung GX-1S – 2006, APS-C 6MP CCD, interchangeable lenses.

Samsung NV10 – 2006, 1/1.8″ 10MP CCD, 35-105mm f/2.8-5.1 lens.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 – 2005, 1/2.7″ 4MP CCD, 32-96mm f/2.8-5.1 lens.

The characteristics of all of these cameras are so similar that it feels to me like they all belong to the same glorious golden age of digital cameras.

An era before CMOS sensors became mainstream, hit 12, 18, 20MP and beyond, and made images increasingly clinical and sterile.

An era before ISO sensitivities headed well into the thousands, cameras could see in the dark better than we can, and any connection with the ISO range of film was long forgotten. (When I shot film I nearly always used ISO100 or ISO200 emulsions and rarely felt it limited me.)

An era before zooms got into silly ranges and the aperture speeds and image quality dropped in proportion. Though my FujiFilm S7000 does run from 35mm to 210mm, the latter being way beyond what I’m ever likely to consider using, but at least it’s still f/3.1 even at this extreme.

An era before the numbers on the spec sheet became more important than the character of the sensor and lens, the usability of the camera, and the directness of the controls.

I do have a few cameras that don’t meet all of the above criteria. 

The Pentax Q has a 12.4MP CMOS sensor. But otherwise it ticks all of the boxes, and as I nearly always use its dynamic mono mode, those sometimes overly precise and cool qualities of CMOS sensors are well buried.

The Pentax K30 falls down on most criteria, being from 2012, and with a 16MP CMOS sensor and too many features I don’t use or need. And perhaps this is exactly why it’s a camera I admire, but still struggle to love and embrace. It’s almost too new, too advanced, too complex, too good.

Because of my such positive experiences with my cameras from the golden age of digital, it’s unlikely I’ll be looking beyond these criteria for any future purchases.

And I plan to continue to enjoy those above that remain my core favourites.

How about you? Do you have any cameras from this golden era? What would you consider the golden era of cameras, and why?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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19 thoughts on “The Glorious Golden Age Of The Digital Camera”

  1. I would only add that in the days of film many of us managed with f3.5 lenses, and yes there was the ridiculous “f1.2 vs. f1.4” argument even back then.
    My experience with digital cameras mirrors yours: I get the same best picture results from the older cameras. That’s why I bought new batteries for the Kodak P850. The newer cameras have resulted in two disappointments and two great machines. This 50/50 score is why I’m reluctant to buy an expensive camera: what if I don’t like the result? You can only rely on others’ experiences for evaluation to a certain extent, looking for clues to your own style in what they have to say.
    Anyway, I should have the ‘new’ Fuji today!

    1. I think much of the lens debate is about snobbery and status – then and now. Some assume that only the poor have lowly f/2.8 and 3.5 lenses, those in the middle have f/2 and f/1.7, and the rich have the f/1.4 and 1.2!

      I’ve had a few vintage 50/55/58mm f/1.4 lenses and not found them to be any better in the final image than an f/1.7, or even an f/2. Plus they’re always much heavier, and more expensive, so I’ve usually sold them on and kept the trusty f/1.7 or f/2. This has been true with Takumar, Minolta, Yashica and Pentax lenses.

      I don’t think camera age is the only measure of how good it’s likely to be, and there have always been rubbish cameras and great cameras.

      But I do think as more have been made, an ever smaller proportion have been good, by our standards, because the manufacturers are aiming for different markets, ie those who only care about the numbers on the spec sheet, not how enjoyable the camera is to use, and the character of the images.

      Just makes me want to try out more cameras from this golden age!

  2. Hi Dan,
    My main DSLR for over ten years has been the Pentax Km, as well as an array of similar age compacts. I have found they deliver good quality images and are very reliable in all situations. The Pentax is beautifully compact and has all those lenses to choose from! The images, and particularly the natural colours, have rendered well on the cards and calendars I produce. Thanks for the continuing interesting posts!

    1. Paul, yes I too love the Pentax CCD DSLRs, they offer just the right balance of simplicity and image quality. And of course the amazing lens of Pentax K glass. Thanks for your comments.

  3. I was very late to the digital party, sticking with film right through until 2009 when I acquired a Pentax K20. I was sold for life on the Pentax handling. Looking at the images it produced again today, there was indeed something very magical about the colours and rendering of its CCD sensor. Thank you for posting this, you’ve inspired me to pick it up and use it more again.

    1. Ian, the K20D has a CMOS sensor. But it’s early technology CMOS, so while I feel the earlier K10D had a better sensor (and I did swap my K20D for a K10D), the K20D did have a good sensor. Skin tones in particular, to me are unbeatable with the K20D. Greens are also very beautifully rendered, better than I’ve seen with any other CMOS sensor. And I’ve used the same lenses with K10D, K20D, K-r, K-50 and K-S1 so I can tell the sensor differences…
      And yes the handling of the K20D is absolutely beautiful, it might be the best of any camera I have ever touched. And it had also one big advantage over later cameras… absolutely zero shutter shake. I don’t know how they managed but it has, from what I could tell, absolutely none.
      I’m almost talking myself into buying a K20D again, I better stop, I have 3 DSLRs and that is enough 🙂

      1. Chris, how is the K20D handling different to the K10D? I had the K10D and handling was excellent in terms of shape, I just found it a bit heavy and cumbersome to use for extended periods, hence the switch to the K100D and K-m (the latter I believe has the same sensor as the K10D anyway).

    2. Ian, I thought the K10D and K-m were the last bodies with a CCD sensor, and Chris seems to confirm this. I think originally the DSLR manufacturers were trying to get 35mm film SLR users on board, so they tailored the CCD sensor output to look as much like film as possible. Even the early CMOS sensors still had an element of this, and in time CMOS in my experience has become a more clinical and precise look, moving away from the warmth and character of the CCD. I would guess that the K20 being one of the first CMOS sensor Pentax DSLRs, they were trying this similar approach – not alienating shooters of the K10D, K100D, K-m etc, by keeping the look of the output pretty similar to what they had grown accustomed to.

      Please let us know how revisiting the K20D goes!

      1. I’ve read this in a few places and it makes sense that, knowing they were never going to make another new 35mm SLR for existing customers to “upgrade” to, they would want to make the transition to their DSLR range as seamless and painless as possible.

        I don’t think this is exclusive to Pentax at all, I think the early CCD DSLRs from Nikon and others went the same kind of route.

        Perhaps many of them even used the same sensors, or close variations of, I know my early Pentax CCD DSLRs have Sony sensors…

  4. From that era, I have the K10D and had the K20D – but that one is CMOS. Fantastic camera.
    I also had a Sony DSC-P200 and my son still has one (with its 7.2MP CCD – 1/1.8″ plus a Zeiss branded lens). Great little camera.
    And I have a couple of newer cameras which I agree are almost “too good” but I have gotten to a point where I made myself got good presets for the way I like the results, and so I’m able to use them without having to think too much.
    In regards to fast lenses (f1.2 or f1.4), why not? Especially with my K10D they are an amazing help so I can keep the ISO low (where the CCD really shines). And they tend to be very, very high quality lenses that are going for very cheap these days – at least the old manual lenses. I’ve been trying to sell an excellent Pentax-M 50mm f/1.4 lens for 50 dollars OBO now for months and haven’t had a single offer on it… same with the Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro, a true Tessar lens that it seems nobody wants…

    1. I had the M Macro 50/4 and it is a fantastic lens. I sold it in a purge when I had way too many 50s, and I’m half on the look out for an A equivalent, just because I find A series much easier to use with my two DSLRs.

      Most of the time my A series 50/1.7 does the job though, with the surprisingly good F 35-70 at the long end in its “macro” range for when I want to go closer.

      Chris, do you not find with an f/1.2 or 1.4 lens though that wide open the image quality isn’t so good and more importantly for me, the depth of field is so shallow it’s not really usable? I’ve not had an f/1.2 but with a few f/1.4s I’ve had I mostly used the stopped down at least a couple of stops because of this. But then I do shoot pretty close up much of the time.

      1. Dan, I think you answered your own question there 😉 If you shoot too close, indeed the f/1.2 and f/1.4 is going to be a bit too shallow in terms of DOF.
        But if it’s a good sample and you shoot it from a bit more of a distance, it can work wonders in terms of isolating a subject. The f1.2 lens in particular is so smooth in its transition from in-focus to out-of-focus (and that goes for any aperture) that I am in awe of the pictures I end up taking with it.
        A bit less so with my Sigma 30 1.4 Art and the Rikenon P 50 1.4, but they too can come up with some magic shots. The Pentax-M 50 1.4 is not at the same level – the colors and rendering I get with it are just not that exciting – wide open or stopped down – compared to my better lenses. The Pentax 50 1.7 models, on the other hand, are fantastic, as you know by now. In fact I shot some comparisons between the SMC-K 50 1.2 and the SMC-F 50 1.7 and sometimes I preferred the rendering and colors of the 50 1.7! At other times it was the 50 1.2 but they’re incredibly close – except in regards to bokeh, where the 50 1.2 just eats any other lens for lunch, breakfast and dinner 🙂
        I find if you shoot close a good performing nearby wider angle lens works great. I bought an SMC-A 24mm f/2.8 lens a couple years ago very cheaply because the A contacts don’t work – and I don’t mind it because that just makes it the same as a K or M lens 🙂 And it’s wonderful with closeups because it will keep more in focus than a 50mm lens while still having very decent bokeh. I also have a Tokina 24 2.8 lens that is excellent in the same way and focuses even closer. Got that one for 14 dollars! Tokina made several different models through the years and the one I have is one of the latest if not the latest one they did, and it’s great.
        I have too many lenses but with all those cheap and great manual focus Pentax K lenses around, who can resist? 🙂

      2. Thanks Chris, notes taken! I’m very much in a digital compacts phase right now, but I expect as the summer approaches I’ll return to DSLRs I’ll check out some of your recommendations.

  5. Regarding the K20D/K10D and similar Pentax cameras of the era, I can’t reply to Ian or Dan, so I’ll post back down here… (I guess Dan has it set up so that you can’t reply a reply?)
    Anyway, the K10D and K-m as you said, have the 10MP CCD sensor from Sony, but there’s also a 3rd one which is the K200D. It’s in the middle of the road – has the weather seals and top LCD from the K10D, but the small size and the pentamirror of the K-m. And I think it has the same JPEG engine of the K20D as they came out at the same time.
    The K20D and the K-7 are very unique in the Pentax lineup as they have Samsung sensors (14.6MP). Pentax and Samsung had a partnership going but Samsung couldn’t really compete with Sony so Pentax went back to Sony with the K-x. If the K-7 had come out with the K-x sensor instead of that Samsung sensor, it would have a cult following now… but I digress. The Samsung does have its strong points though, as I said, skin tones are just unbeatable and some of the colors are gorgeous. If you keep it at low ISO you can get very sharp, very pleasing results that look a lot like very fine grain film like Ektar or Portra (and the K10D with its beautiful CCD colors is more like slide film!)
    Back to the K20D – it has basically the same shape and weight of the K10D, but the grip is just way more comfortable to hold. I find that the body is also more refined and the controls have a higher quality feel to them. And the viewfinder at 2.7″ seems not much larger than the K10D’s 2.5″ – but it’s a much better viewfinder. All in all, the K20D is a much better camera except… for the sensor. And that is what got me to exchange the K20D for the K10D as to me once the image has been recorded, the camera just doesn’t matter anymore, and all you have is the picture, so I’d rather have the nicest sensor I can have – for my own taste of course.
    Ian, definitely pick up a K10D if you can, they sell for cheap now. The K200D and K-m sell for even cheaper, so if you use autofocus lenses then they’re a great, lighter option. There’s a K200D on sale at Pentax Forums right now for 50 dollars shipped… hard to go wrong with that price…
    Good luck!

    1. I have the K7 on my wish list too, and I recall now reading something about the endearing colours the sensor gives, despite it not being one of the older Sony CCD sensors.

      Strange that Pentax had the collaboration with Samsung that originally just produced the Samsung clones like the GX10 (same as K10D) and GX-1S (same as *ist DS 2) which I believe had the Sony 10 and 6MP CCDs respectively, then in the next range it was Samsung who took the forefront and provided the sensor(s?) for Pentax (and presumably used it in some of their own cameras from that era too?).

      I can vouch for the K-m (aka K2000), it’s a cracking little camera, and has more in camera processing options than the earlier K100D, like digital filters, which are more useful than perhaps they sound!

      Re the replies nesting, yes I limit it otherwise they indent further and further across the page and become almost unreadable, especially on a tablet or mobile device. Just add a new reply further down, like you did.

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