Kodak could have dominated digital photography

Sep 25, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Sep 25, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Kodak was once one of the biggest names in photography. For decades, it stood head and shoulders above not only its competitors but every other brand in the photography industry. Their film was used by everybody, from seasoned professionals to those shooting family snapshots.

Then digital came, and Kodak seemed to just sort of disappear from our collective consciousness. Kodak literally invented the digital camera. So, what went wrong? Let’s find out, as James Warner of Snappiness tells the story.

Kodak seemed to be everywhere in the 80s. Fujifilm started to gain some ground in the 90s, at least as I remember it in the UK at the time. Kodak had already invented the digital camera 25 years before the turn of the century when digital started to take off.

Steven Sasson holding the world’s first digital camera, which he developed while at Kodak

So, what happened? How did the company that had so much influence over the photography industry completely fail on photography’s future?

Well, the popular myth is that Kodak was too busy being a dinosaur, clinging onto the past – film, its primary money maker – pretending that digital was just a fad and film would make its triumphant return! A gamble that Kodak would lose.

But this doesn’t appear to be completely accurate. The way James tells it, part of Kodak’s problem was its reliance on film. It didn’t want to give up what was, at the time, still a very good earner – that was increasing in popularity.

But Kodak didn’t ignore digital. It actually started producing cameras in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Well, they produced Kodak electronics Frankensteined into a Nikon SLR. The frame size was smaller than film and the resolution was terrible, but the speed of delivery made them ideal for news photographers.

The Kodak DCS 420, on a Nikon N90 body. I almost bought the DCS 460 back in the day, which utilised the Nikon N90s – the 35mm SLR I was shooting at the time – Image, Wikipedia

In fact, it embraced it with its in-store digital printing kiosks. You’ve definitely seen them sitting in some high street department store. Just walk up, slot in your memory card or USB stick, tap on a touchscreen interface for a few minutes, and it spits out your prints. Kodak also makes money on paper and chemicals.

But Kodak’s venture into higher-end cameras, kicking off with the Kodak DCS14n (the world’s second full-frame DSLR), proved to be less successful than hoped. A camera plagued with issues – I knew a couple of DCS14n owners back then who complained about a lot – didn’t land Kodak the prestige it had hoped to bring into the digital age.

The Kodak DCS Pro 14n, the peak of Kodak’s digital arsenal and its last DSLR – Image, Wikipedia

The failure of the DCS14n ended Kodak’s dabble into the high-end, causing the company to shift to consumers. But what looked to be the future of consumer digital photography was short-lived by the influx of smartphones with built-in cameras that were much more convenient and, eventually, at least as good quality.

Then, social media came and people no longer print their photos. They share them in their feeds.

Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, although the Kodak brand is still around today. And, funnily enough, their business seems to be increasing. Film’s becoming popular again.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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13 responses to “Kodak could have dominated digital photography”

  1. Alex Woo Avatar
    Alex Woo

    Hard to cannibalize your own business and auto companies are now discovering.

    1. Tunes Firwood Avatar
      Tunes Firwood

      Alex Woo Better to cannibalize your own business than wait for others to do it instead.

  2. Douglas Burghardt Avatar
    Douglas Burghardt

    Still have my SLRn.

  3. Dennis Goldensohn Avatar
    Dennis Goldensohn

    They didnt believe that fil medium. Would ever go away. So they ever late to the game and the other major camera manufacturers saw their future in the digital camera market and made the move. And they didn’t need the fil manufacturers since these new platforms didn’t require their film products. Just like the VCR, others outside the US capitalized on the technology while we here invented it.

  4. Patrick Demptinne Avatar
    Patrick Demptinne

    Mine : Nikon F5~Kodak DCS-760 + Kodak picture card adapter PCMCIA
    Media: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10231308381042118&set=p.10231308381042118&type=3

    1. Tom Harvey Avatar
      Tom Harvey

      Patrick Demptinne use this when I was a photographer at Lockheed. State of the art then.

  5. Donn R. Nottage Avatar
    Donn R. Nottage

    They through all their resources into digital early on, then crashed and burned. :(

  6. j238 Avatar
    j238

    An early New York Times article on the invention of digital photography included a statement from Kodak projecting that the traditional film process would persist into the future.
    (I’ve searched the archive, but it did not turn up.)

  7. Johnny Martyr Avatar
    Johnny Martyr

    Digital photography is boring! Thank you, Kodak for sticking with film!

  8. Cube948 Avatar
    Cube948

    Not quite what actually happened…
    In 2012 Der Spiegle ran a great piece on this complex time in history here:

    https://www.spiegel.de/international/business/a-century-on-film-how-kodak-succumbed-to-the-digital-age-a-815488.html

    If you want to know more about the real story give that a read. If you don’t want to click on the link, search for “Der Spiegle Kodak”.

    1. FrogLuvR Avatar
      FrogLuvR

      Great article about Kodak’s slide in bankrupsy – although a tad bit long.

  9. Libby Sutherland Avatar
    Libby Sutherland

    I still have my Kodak SLRn, successor to the 14n. The camera was a marvel in its day if you could deal with the moire, the black fabrics that looked purple, the horrible battery life. If you try and put in a 4gb card, the camera goes nuts flashing all over the place and you have to pull the battery pack to stop it 😀 But if you shoot 5 successive raw files on a winter day the camera will keep your hands warm 😂 But the colors! Oh the colors! And the skin tones. Nothin’ like them.

  10. Gary Pageau Avatar
    Gary Pageau

    What a superficial and lazy review of the issues at Kodak. “Snappiness” couldn’t even take the time to learn to pronounce Steve Sasson’s name correctly. How could he call Fujifilm a “relatively new” competitor in the 1990s when Fujifilm was established in 1934 and had been selling film and paper in the United States since the 1970s?

    One thing he neglected to mention, for example, is that as part of its bankruptcy process, Kodak sold many of its digital photography patents, which are still in use today in with other companies, including Apple, Google, etc. You’re using Kodak technology every day and don’t know it.

    Then there is this statement: “Then, social media came and people no longer print their photos.” That is an ignorant comment, as the photo printing business is about $2 billion in the U.S. alone.

    I did an interview with former Kodak executives from that era that describes the challenges and successes, warts and all, here: https://youtu.be/levNsNaxzy8?si=ukeo_t6m1080Pbdf