Sometimes I like to get out the old gear and shoot with it, to make sure I don’t rely too heavily on technology to get my job done well. Saturday, I was inspired to dig my Kodak DCS 720x out of its box at the bottom of the gear cabinet to shoot a football scrimmage at ECU, and although that technology is from 2001, I made some great images with it.
I read recently that Kodak only made about 1,600 720x cameras.
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 sense that no entity is immune to the fortunes of economics.
I thought about this when I recently came across a web post about this camera system, which crossed my path some years ago. The article delves all the way back into the 1990s with the introduction of the first generation of digital cameras, the NC-2000 based on the Nikon N90, a $15,000 dinosaur that had neither a monitor screen on the back nor a removable battery, 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.
I originally got the 720x in 2003 when Kodak discontinued it and dumped the remaining supply of them on eBay, for a tenth of the original list price.
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 (6 megapixels) 760, and a faster, very-high-ISO, low resolution (2 megapixels) 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 known, mine and a friend’s, died years ago with zero possibility of repair because of Kodak’s vacancy. 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.” After that, it thinks it is March 2023.
• In the 2019 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 enormous, 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 large, heavy nickel metal hydride batteries was terrible. I always had to carry an extra battery, which is no longer an option because I only have one working battery left.
• The camera is covered in large, awkward 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. Once, when I was using both cards, it got into some kind of feedback loop. 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 — this continued, 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, which is adequate at lower ISO settings.
• Instead of the now-standard RGB (Red, Green, Blue) Bayer pattern array on the sensor, the high-ISO DCS cameras (the 620x and the 720x) had CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) arrays in an effort to increase sensor sensitivity by using less-absorptive 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, thanks 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.
• The 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 my old Kodak dinosaur once in a while and play around with it.