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A look back at the NC2000
Thursday, January 13, 2005 | by Eamon Hickey

One night in the summer of 1999 Tony Kurdzuk was shooting a feature story on 24-hour diners. He and a writer, both working for the Newark Star-Ledger, drove a good percentage of the length of New Jersey, starting at midnight and finishing at 5:00am, dropping in on all-night eateries, Kurdzuk firing away at every stop.

His camera was the "filmless" Associated Press/Kodak NC2000e, an improved version of the original NC2000, the "first electronic camera designed specifically for photojournalists" in the words of the AP.

It was hard to know if the NC2000e was actually taking pictures properly. It had no LCD for playing back the images it was supposedly recording and, of course, no spinning film rewind knob, nor any way — or need  — to open the camera back.

nc2000_blown_shutter.jpg"In the middle of the night, somewhere around 3:00am, the shutter blew out," Kurdzuk says, "but the camera kept working. There was no indication whatsoever that there was anything wrong. Everything I shot after three o'clock had a shutter blade straight through the middle of the frame. That kind of stuff happened all the time." (A different NC2000's blown shutter is shown at left.)

Kurdzuk pauses for a moment, and then figures out how to sum it all up: "The NC2000, in general, was a practice in masochistic anxiety."

But there was another side to the equation, he acknowledges. "It was a combination of excitement and anxiety. There was a lot of excitement about how cool this stuff was. You'd show up at an event, and you'd be the only guy with a digital camera, and everybody was ooohing and aaahing. That was always really cool. [But] I could never trust what the camera was doing. When you popped that card into the computer there was always that little thought in the back of your mind: what happened this time, what went wrong? But you kept doing it because it was so cool. And it was where the industry was going."

"It was like the Wild West and panning for gold," remembers Nick Didlick. "It was wild and woolly." Didlick, then a staff photographer at the Vancouver Sun, first shot with an NC2000 in August 1994, just six months after the camera's announcement.

At that announcement, it was explained that the "NC" was short for "News Camera", making its purpose plain. This filmless wonder that would carry photojournalism into its future was manufactured by Kodak with design guidance and development funding from the Associated Press. It boasted a 1.3-megapixel CCD — and the unprecedented advance of removable storage media — in a digital sub-assembly built around a Nikon N90 (F90) film SLR. All for a cool US$17,950. It would be marketed and sold exclusively by the AP.

An exploded view of the NC2000 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

"My background was in wire service photography," Didlick continues. "I've been around the world many times travelling with a portable darkroom and developing pictures in bathrooms from Saudi Arabia to Washington, D.C. So when the NC2000 came along, and the laptop computer, I thought, 'Holy Christ, this is brilliant. I don't have to take all this crap with me on the road'. To me it looked beautiful. But when I got into it a little deeper, I realized it was one of the world's worst inventions."

nc2000_didlick_pbook.jpgDidlick (shown at left) may be exaggerating. After all, he came back from that first experience with the NC2000, when he used it to photograph the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, "and decided I was never going to shoot film again," he says.

By the middle of the following year, the Vancouver Sun, along with its sister tabloid the Vancouver Province, became the world's first sizable daily newspapers to move their entire photo staff to digital.

"We bought twenty NC2000s," Didlick recounts, "and announced to the world that we'd be giving up film. And away we went." Also along for the ride was the Calgary Herald, another paper in the same Southam newspaper chain. They completed their NC2000 conversion a few weeks after the Sun and Province.

The Seeds of the Revolution

Trace the origins of the NC2000 and you end up face-to-face with former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Many news organizations had experimented fitfully with so-called filmless cameras in the late 1980s and early 1990s — mostly big, weird, very low-resolution still-video units from Sony, Canon, and Nikon — with very limited success. Image quality was atrocious and usability was even worse.

But heading into the Democratic Party National Convention prior to the 1992 U.S. presidential election, a small group of AP staffers, spearheaded by editorial imaging product manager Jim Gerberich, decided to test the possibilities of a newer Kodak digital camera, simple called the DCS (and later renamed the DCS 100). This was a 1.3-megapixel unit, based on the Nikon F3, that had been introduced the year before.

At the convention, AP photographer Ron Edmonds used the DCS 100 tethered to an Apple Macintosh desktop computer manned by Gerberich under the photographers platform. Edmonds made good quality pictures of Clinton's acceptance speech that Gerberich and photo editor David Rocha had in the AP's PhotoStream distribution system, and thus in newsrooms across the U.S., within five minutes of the event itself.

They did even better at the Republican Party Convention a month later. These experiences convinced them, Gerberich says, that digital "was now just a matter of when, not if."

The DCS 100, however, was clearly not the camera that would usher in the age of digital photojournalism. It was portable only by the loosest definition — it saved pictures through a cable to a heavy hard drive/power pack apparatus — and its color photos weren't good, says Gerberich. Other cameras that were then available or under development had similar drawbacks for news photography.

nc2000_product_photo.jpgSo the AP began discussions with Kodak about developing a new camera for photojournalism, and by late 1992 the two organizations had hammered out a deal. The AP would provide design and specification advice, as well as development funding, and it would market and sell the camera to its members. Kodak would engineer and manufacture the camera.

Among the features that the AP most desired were removable picture storage media, the minimum possible focal length conversion factor (and thus as big a sensor as possible), usable high ISO sensitivities, and a decent continuous framing rate and buffer size.

What the NC2000 ended up with was the 20.5 x 16.4mm, 1.3 million image pixel CCD from the DCS 100 merged with the Bayer pattern color filter array from the DCS 200 (a smaller sensor Kodak digital SLR based on the Nikon N8008s).

Kodak won't confirm this, but rumor has it that the original monochrome version of the CCD, known internally as the M3, was first developed for spy satellites in the 1980s.

A microscopic view of the M3 sensor (Photo by Dennis Walker/Camera Bits)

Its size gave the NC2000 a focal length conversion factor officially listed as 1.5X (but actually 1.6X if measured on the format diagonal). Unlike most current digital SLR models, the sensor was also proportioned differently than a 35mm film frame. Its aspect ratio was closer to 5:4, as compared to the 3:2 shape of 35mm cameras.

nc2000_viper_hand.jpgPictures were stored on removable Type III PCMCIA (PC) cards (shown at right), perhaps the camera's most important innovation. It meant that, as with film, exposed images could be removed from the camera and stored in a pocket for later download, or taken away (by, say, a sideline runner at halftime) to be edited and distributed, while the photographer loaded a fresh storage card and kept shooting.

As basic as it sounds, this was a huge advance from the DCS 100 and, of course, critical to newspaper and wire service photographers.

Continuous shooting speed was two frames per second for six shots before buffer stall set in, and the ISO range was 200-1600. (Gerry Magee, Kodak's product manager for the NC2000, recalling the camera's severe noise at ISO 1600, referred to that spec with a chuckle as "very aggressive". Others have referred to it as "bogus".)

The original NC2000 at ISO 1600 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

Early shipping units were built on Nikon N90 bodies, purchased in standard retail configuration by Kodak from Nikon USA, but after a year or so of production Kodak switched to the N90s body.

The actual image area was indicated in the viewfinder with a grid line, but the extraneous area of the 35mm frame size was not masked off. Photos could be saved in uncompressed RAW format only — no JPEGs. Voice captions or other notes could be recorded in WAV format monaural sound by pressing and holding a button on the camera's back.

The minimalist interface on the camera's back (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Calgary Herald)

The NC2000 weighed in at 3.6 pounds and stood over seven inches high. Kodak manufactured it in the company's venerable Elmgrove plant near Rochester, NY.

And then there were the batteries. "Yeah," says Gerry Magee, "that was one of the whoops's on it."

Bob Deutsch, then and now a staff photographer for USA Today, puts it differently: "The first thing I said to them was, 'How do you change the battery?' And their comment was, 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'This is crazy. You can't produce a camera with a non-replaceable battery.' And they said, 'Well, it's too late.' And I said, 'Then why the hell are you showing it to me?'"

The NC2000's NiCad (and later NiMH) battery was indeed not field-replaceable; you had to plug the camera into a charger to juice it up. In addition, the charging system didn’t actually work very well. Photographers would learn how big a whoops this was.

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