1997. The digital camera was barely a year old in the consumer domain. Its fanbase almost universally comprised computer techies on the lookout for a new toy. And that’s exactly what the digital camera was in ’97. A toy. Not even devices costing four figure sums could be considered serious photographic equipment at that time. The resolution was much too limited, and the low pixel counts were only part of the problem. For a variety of reasons, early digicams rendered very poor image definition, and photos were often overly noisy, even at low ISO equivalents. Limitations on storage capacity would regularly result in image file over-compression too, so the scourge of noticeable JPEG artifacts could be added to the list of aesthetic afflictions.
Fuji’s DX-5 and DX-7 cameras, well advertised in the computer and tech magazines of their day, certainly couldn’t be regarded as useful photographic devices – even in late ’97 when they first arrived. But the difference with them was that they didn’t cost a four figure sum, or anywhere near. And since all digital compacts in 1997 were photographically inept, it was a fair argument that there was little point in blowing a much larger sum on something which only really offered marginal improvements over this dynamically priced duo. If you were going to buy a toy, it was a bit silly to be spending the cost of a pro 35mm SLR outfit and a top quality film scanner.
The Fujifilm DX-5 was an extremely basic digital camera, with a suggested retail price of £279.99 in the UK. For that, you got a cheaply made, plastic device with a lo-spec lens, a 640 x 480 pixel maximum image resolution (that’s less than 0.3 of a megapixel), no manual setting options, no macro capability, no zoom, and perhaps most surprising of all from today’s viewpoint, no LCD monitor. Users were stuck with a traditional viewfinder only, and they couldn’t see their photos until they’d transferred them to a computer. At the point of capture, with no potential to evaluate images in the moment, using the DX-5 was little different from using a film-loaded compact… Except that the pics you were capturing with the DX-5 were nowhere near as good, obviously. A nice Olympus MJU II (the classic 35mm consumer compact of the period) could make a dire laughing stock of the DX-5, for just £99.
The operational details were fairly standard, although there was no auto white balance, and the colour temperature was preset at 5500K, which is considered to be a standard ‘daylight’ shooting bias. The ISO equivalent was a non-adjustable 150, but that would be pushed up to 200 when the flash was in use. Aperture settings ranged between f3.1 and f8 (selected by the camera), and shutter speeds ranged between 1/4 sec and 1/5000 sec – although a scene would have to be almost impossibly bright for the camera to make it up to the 1/5000th.
The DX-7 at least had an LCD screen, a macro facility and some manual user control. However, this modest upgrade came at a price, with the model weighing in at £400 – well, £399.99. That’s well over £600 as I write this post in August 2013. There was still no zoom (not even digital) and the device was in keeping with the DX-5 in terms of resolution and general cheap tackiness. Like the DX-5, the DX-7 stored its images on Fuji’s pre-2002 card format of Smartmedia.
This is the type of image you'll get from the Fuji DX-5 or DX-7. It's just possible to get away with them at small sizes on the Web.
Colour in the images from either camera wasn’t inherently bad, especially if you could tweak and enhance it using a photo editor, but pretty much everything else ranked somewhere between poor and dreadful. Inadequate dynamic handling meant that highlight burnout could suck big time, whilst subtleties of texture failed to register. Small nuances in greyscale variation were all but ignored by the sensor, whilst the more pronounced variations were boldly rendered, so the photo’s patina took on that characteristically clumpy look, highly indicative of ‘90s digital compacts. Most people just blamed the low pixel counts for the binworthy quality, but if you size a modern digital photo down to 640 x 480 res, it still looks sharp and well defined at its size. Clearly, the problem with these old cams wasn’t just the shortage of pixels. In a sentence, the technology wasn’t anywhere near ready for market.
Outside the realm of the computer and tech fanatic, no one really had a clue what the digital camera was all about in 1997, and that was just as well. It would be another six or seven years before the digicam could really offer the average consumer a product of the price range and standard they were used to in the world of film cameras. And serious photographers were, if anything, even more reluctant to switch than the casual snapper. Even in 2003, the photos showcased in Amateur Photographer magazine were almost invariably shot on film, and in the August ’03 Landcscape Special there were no digitally captured images featured at all.
You’d only buy a Fuji DX-5 or DX-7 today for its collector’s value, and it’s hard to know what would be a sensible price to set as your maximum. In photographic terms these devices are worth about three quid at the most, and you could probably knock two quid off that for the staggeringly abysmal battery life which barely permits the shooting of a single photo. In fact, by the time you’ve taken into account the inconvenience and expense of having to get hold of an old Smartmedia card and card reader (those who do any research will probably remove the Smartmedia cards from these old cameras and sell them separately), and then added in the probability that the camera will be almost or totally life-expired, you’re pretty much into the territory of the ‘seller’ paying you to take the camera off their hands.
But there is a fascination building around very early digital cameras, and whilst no one expects them to be of any use, it’s good to be able to find a piece of history which doesn’t cost the earth. If you can get one of these for five or ten quid in nice, working condition, it might be worth picking up. It would be more of a tech ornament than a camera, but we’ll soon be reaching the stage where these early digicams are approaching 20 years of age, and I doublt it’ll be too long now before the demand for them among collectors will start to outweigh the supply of functioning examples. I wonder what a Fuji DX-5 or DX-7 will be worth in 2023?