The Game Boy Camera might have been my first foray into digital photography, but my first real digital camera—the one that taught me the basics of photography and digital post-processing—was also one of the first true prosumer digital cameras to hit the market in 2000: the Canon PowerShot G1.
Although my uncle had a basement full of photography gear (including a giant enlarger) and my mom had a bag full of Pentax SLR film cameras, my childhood experience with photography was limited to an old Kodak Disc film camera: a consolation prize from the company after a lawsuit from Polaroid prevented it from producing or selling instant film, rendering my parents’ Kodak instant camera instantly obsolete. It was a basic point-and-shoot camera and while loading the disk-shaped film was easy enough for a 10-year-old to do, the film was expensive (well played, Kodak) and I had better things to spend my hard-earned birthday money on.
Years later the Game Boy Camera rekindled an interest in photography, but its capabilities were limited and there wasn’t much room for exploration or to expand one’s skills. I was also in college when the Game Boy Camera was released, and while real digital cameras started to become more popular and drop in price, they were still expensive toys with very limited resolutions and functionality. Unless you were willing to invest thousands of dollars, you were basically getting a digital point-and-shoot which I had little interest in.
After graduating and starting a job with a software company that made compositing software for film and TV visual effects, I suddenly had the need for a capable digital camera, or, as was more likely the case, I suddenly had a convincing way to justify the cost of a nice digital camera to myself, and the disposable income to afford it. It was also around the same time that a new category of digital cameras became available: the prosumer model which finally made the functionality of a DSLR—including fully manual shutter and aperture controls as well as RAW files—available on a more compact and affordable shooter.
It was one of my first major purchases out of college and I remember spending weeks and weeks pouring over reviews, spec sheets, and image samples with my co-workers trying to decide between the two leading prosumer digital cameras available at the time: the Nikon Coolpix 950 and the Canon PowerShot G1. I ended up choosing the latter because the Nikon had a bizarre two-part body design that could twist in the middle in lieu of a pivoting LCD screen, and I was genuinely worried the rotating hinge would easily break if I wasn’t obsessively careful.
I think I spent a little over $1,000 on the PowerShot G1 which was a lot of money to someone who grew up in a single income, fiscally-conservative household, but I credit that camera for not only fostering a love of photography, but also helping me to learn the basics of the craft. I know that many photographers believe the challenges of shooting film, including the limited number of shots per roll, is a better tool for honing photography, but I was more interested in the technical side of shooting, and being able to experiment with shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings by snapping thousands of photos was a learning process that worked best for me.
My first job out of college also involved a lot of travel, mostly to big cities around the US for various trade shows, but a week spent in Amsterdam as well, which gave me plenty of opportunities to chew through compact flash cards. I certainly snapped plenty of tourist-caliber photos, but I also loved experimenting with depth of field, and spent many company dinners painstakingly trying to artfully position candles behind glasses of water and shooting my compositions with a shallow focus. Surprisingly, I was never given space in a gallery to show off my work, but with manual controls I was able to find the limits of the camera and learned how to work within them, which is a skill that’s still applicable to the digital cameras I shoot with 20 years later.
I never found using a point-and-shoot camera that much fun, and looking back it was probably because all you needed to do was point and shoot—an act that still sounds boring to me decades later. The PowerShot G1 had a very capable Automatic shooting mode, but most of the time I kept in Manual because I loved fiddling with the knobs and settings to get the perfect exposure. Having the complete control over the process (relatively speaking, I know the camera still did a lot of processing of the data coming from the sensor) was what satisfied my interests in the hobby as much as producing beautiful images did. Although I don’t gamble, my career choices have somehow led me back to Las Vegas again and again, and as cliché as it may be, I very much love walking the strip late at night with a camera in hand. The architecture is tacky and very much obscene, but there’s an infinite number of weird angles to capture and endless opportunities to play with the ever evolving light from the glowing casinos.
Today a digital camera boasting a resolution of 3.3-megapixels and ISO settings that max out at 400 is laughable, but cameras like the Canon PowerShot G1 showed camera makers that the hobby wasn’t defined by two groups: those that want a camera to do everything for them and those that need a professional-grade hands-on shooter. The prosumer segment grew dramatically after the PowerShot G1 and Coolpix 950 were released, and eventually led to DSLR cameras with their swappable lenses becoming more affordable down the line. My Canon PowerShot G1 was eventually replaced by one of the first prosumer DSLRs, the Nikon D70 (while my friends who shot with the Nikon Coolpix 950 switched to Canon) but the number of EOS Digital Rebel cameras Canon has sold over the years is staggering.
Twenty years later, the Canon PowerShot line of digital cameras is still going strong with options featuring impressive optical zoom capabilities and bodies much smaller and lighter than the beast I carried around. But companies like Canon and Nikon aren’t doing so great. While shopping for the PowerShot G1 20 years ago Sony’s Mavica line was a relatively new option but because Sony forced its own brand of MemoryStick flash cards on its users, no one really wanted to shoot with its gear.
But Sony played the long game, and slowly but surely improved the capabilities of its cameras and by betting on smaller mirrorless shooters it’s now considered by many to be the dominant player with both Canon and Nikon struggling to keep pace. After the Canon PowerShot G1 and the Nikon D70 I switched to Sony and haven’t looked back, but were it not for the G1 I doubt I’d actually have much interest in photography outside of what my smartphone can do.