Interview with Kodak’s lead engineer on the early Nikon-based Kodak DCS cameras


NikonWeb published a very interesting interview with Kodak's lead engineer James McGarvey on the early Nikon-based Kodak DCS cameras:

Q: The Electro-Optic Camera - the World's first DSLR - was designed and constructed for a US government client. The customer preferred Canon cameras, so you built it around a Canon F-1 body. Later, when you decided to make your first commercial model, you used a Nikon F3 body instead. Why?

A: Nikon and Canon were close competitors and either was a viable choice for a professional digital camera. The Canon preference was specific to that first customer, but the US Gov't. customers more often preferred Nikon, so we used the F3 body on the Hawkeye II cameras, before the DCS. For the DCS, the choice was also simple, as newspaper photographers were the expected prime market and Nikon held a solid lead there, at least in the US. I believe we thought that Canon might have a slight edge in Europe, but we expected to sell more systems in the US initially.


Q: Did you in any way cooperate with Nikon on the development of the Kodak DCS? Was Nikon even aware of your project?

A: No and no. I believe they were surprised when we announced the DCS. We bought F3's through normal dealers (I don't remember who), and since the quantity was small before the product launch, I doubt if Nikon was alerted to anything ahead of time. I remember that we were packing the F3 back door in the kit with the DCS, since we had it and a user might want to use the body with film at some point. Nikon told us we couldn't do that as we were not an authorized dealer. We could incorporate the F3 in our product, of course, but not "resell" cameras! Generally, though, I believe Nikon was happy with the situation, since they were selling F3's and the first commercial digital camera was carrying their lens mount. I don't remember any complaint other than the door issue.

Additional images:

Electro Optical Camera, the World's first DSLR

Electro Optical Camera, the World's first DSLR

Kodak DCS camera with its Digital Storage Unit (DSU)

Kodak DCS camera with its Digital Storage Unit (DSU)

F3 based Kodak DCS (1991) and Nikon F4 (1988)

F3 based Kodak DCS (1991) and Nikon F4 (1988)

The Hawkeye II Integrated Imaging Accessory

The Hawkeye II Integrated Imaging Accessory

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  • Daniel Mora

    RIP poverty Kodak. 🙁 Shot yourselves in the foot trying to bury sensor tech, in favor of film.

    • I think that’s overly harsh — Kodak invented the technology, was first to market, partnered with Apple on the QuickTake, and so on. Kodak’s big problem was they hadn’t been a marquee name in cameras since the 50s. Kodak’s efforts to become a camera brand were hampered by their having only sold cheap “instamatics” for many years. When the entry price for digital cameras was $300 who would buy Kodak over Canon, Nikon, Sony, or Panasonic? By the time prices fell to instamatic levels (and really they still haven’t) the damage was done. (Kodak had the same problem in printers competing with Canon, HP, Epson, and so on.)

      • jmrt

        Fuji had less legacy to protect.

        • Seems like a big part of it — and arguably having NO brand associations as a camera maker was probably better than being synonymous with instamatics and disc film.

          • BlahBlah

            Kodak was reluctant and hesitant to market in digital. As a result, this was their undoing.

            “The problem Kodak would face in all of these new ventures is that it was too late to own any facet of the market. Whether fighting for territory in the printer or digital camera markets, it was always perilously behind well established players. The investment required to ramp up in those markets generated a debt load that outpaced the company’s ability to generate revenue, and that cycle can continue for only so long.” (Source:

          • I think it’s the other way around… Fuji has always been innovative and iconic with both their film (e.g. Instax, Velvia, Provia, Astia, etc.), film cameras (e.g. GF/GW/GSW/GX series), digital (SuperCCD sensors and now X-Trans), lenses (retrofocus medium format lenses before Zeiss, lenses for Hasselblad, Fujinon-A lenses for large format, high end TV/video lenses), etc.

            And more:

            • You’re right of course. Fuji did make good film cameras. My memory is going.

      • peteee363

        fuji also was already, in my opinion, making superior transparency films, so was also considered a quality company. where kodak made and sold only inexpensive equipment, fuji didn’t have that rep yet.

      • zoetmb

        Even though Kodak was a big early player in digital, internal forces at Kodak were still trying to protect their traditional film businesses and they were never going to make as much money selling sensors to other manufacturers as they did selling consumer products such as film.

        But if Kodak had found a way to sell digital sensors to all the phone manufacturers, where the numbers are far greater than camera sales, they might have had a partial path to survival.

        They should have let their digital units fully compete without restriction with the film and film camera divisions.

        While Fuji has been more successful selling consumer cameras, they’re in trouble as well because P&S cameras are slowly disappearing. They’ve just stopped selling motion picture film and have turned the last several million feet of inventory over to a third party. When that’s gone, it’s over for Fuji MP film leaving only Kodak.

        To Kodak’s credit, even in bankruptcy, while they’ve continued to reduce the number of 35mm still film emulsions that they sell, they haven’t really yet reduced the number of motion picture emulsions that they sell in spite of the fact that all of the profits came from prints, not negative film and that the U.S. film industry plans to stop making 35mm film prints at the end of this year.

        • Fuji is in trouble now — along with most of the digital camera industry (even Canon and Nikon aren’t doing great) — but they got this far. Kodak’s demise was spectacular.

  • BigD

    Here’s a cool little story and of course some dickhead finds a way to turn it into an argument.

    • Jorge


  • Eric Calabos

    F4 to D4
    Inetresting, The body design hasnt revolutionary changed

    • John Smith

      A wheel is also still round. 🙂
      My point is that sometimes we reach an “optimal” design and from that point onwards we only see minor cosmetic changes.
      As long as the nature of a camera doesn’t dramatically change I don’t expect to see revolutionary design changes. (Just minor improvement)
      A good observation though!

    • zoetmb

      Well the body has to mount a lens, you need to grasp it in one’s hands and it needs to have convenient controls near the natural positions of one’s fingers. So in that respect, you wouldn’t expect a lot of changes.
      But if you think about the hundreds of settings available in modern DSLRs, it’s a radical change from setting just ASA, aperture, speed and focus in film SLRs.
      Furthermore, if you look at how Olympus designed the OM-1, which was smaller, lighter, faster and less expensive than the Nikon bodies of the day, you can see how it is possible to make big changes in classic forms. I would still love to see a digital equivalent of the OM-1.

  • Sahaja

    I think Kodak’s demise is probably mostly due to the changes
    in the printing industry – Photography going digital is a small thing compared to that. Every newspaper and print shop daily used to consume massive amountsof lithographic film and chemicals – mostly made by Kodak and Agfa, who both also made many of the huge graphic arts cameras and processing machines for use with that film.
    Fujifilm was a *much* smaller player in the graphic arts and printing market – and so had much less to loose.

    When non-film based computer typesetting, page layout software, and computer to plate technology (no longer requiring lith film chemicals, graphic arts cameras and processors) appeared pretty well all that business largely vanished overnight.

    Another big area that has contracted is X-Ray film and the chemicals and processors etc. required for that. Now that we have ultrasound and EMR scanners, the use of medical X-Rays has really shrunk. Another big market for Kodak (and Agfa) products gone.

    Even if Kodak now had 100% of the market for imaging sensors in
    cameras – that would be nothing compared to what they have lost in graphic arts films and processing chemicals which were once consumed on a massive scale.

    Laying off all the workers that produced this stuff – with redundancy payments, medical benefits, pensions etc. they were entitled to – must have been a huge cost as well.

  • Sahaja

    Well these cameras said “Nikon” – Kodak was only making digital backs. The interview says these cameras were aimed at newspaper photographers. At the time, I don’t think newspaper organization would have had any problem with the Kodak brand since they pretty well all used huge amounts of Kodak films and chemicals in their phototypesetting, colour separation, proofing and plate making processes. Kodak also manufacture many of the huge graphic arts cameras and processing machines and a lot of other associate equipment. The graphic arts / printing industry must have been by far the largest consumer of Kodak products. All that rapidly became digital along with digital photography.

    Another Kodak market that has disappeared is microfilm – at one time companies used to microfilm all their records for archival purposes, now they are digitised. With ultrasound and other digital imaging medical X-Rays are no longer used anything like as much as they once were too.

    So, along with photographic film and processing, all these other markets for Kodak products dried up too – and all around the same time.

    Even if Kodak had managed to become the leader in imaging sensors and digital cameras, it would never have made up for all that.

    • zoetmb

      I disagree. Newspaper and magazine photographers were used to using Nikon and they weren’t going to switch to Kodak in spite of their use of Kodak film. Kodak was a non-player in the hardware professional market by that time, even though decades before, Kodak was the manufacturer of the large format panoramic Cirkut cameras.
      I think the first DCS cameras were sold to the Associated Press and maybe Life Magazine. IIRC, they were originally priced at $50,000! My father was a commercial pro photographer back then and I remember that he was intrigued, shocked (at the price) and either pessimistic about whether pros would truly adopt digital cameras (beyond newspapers) or perhaps he was scared that his world was changing so drastically.

  • gyoung

    When I worked at a School of Art & Design we had a DCS, our first digital camera I think. Later on when the digital part ceased working we bought a new back and focussing screen from Nikon and carried on using the F3 for film. We also had a couple of F801 based cameras with Kodak digital backs. I wish they had carried on with that way of thinking, a modern digital back for a film camera would be lovely.


  • Vin

    side bar: When I was in school, Kodak and Apple gave our news paper and yearbook some of the fisrt digital camera equipment to use for printing and publishing. It was like a $30.000 package at that time 1989-90. It was not the Nikon F3, but a Kodak point and shoot digital. I remeber we were awarded best year book and first ever to use digital in publishing a year book on CD.

    Many of the major US news papers were using and testing out the Kodak/Nikon digital Dslrs. You could see it in the associated press publications. I do believe Nikon had a packaged DSLR quite quickly after that with a Kodak sensor inside.
    I think Kodak may have been spread wide in many directions, to many hands in the pot.

  • RobUK

    I bought an F3 in 1989, secondhand, when I was a student (blowing most of my student grant which we got back then in the uk 😉 and remember hearing about the DCS a few years later – I lusted after it so much! but I remember it costing around 30,000GBP so would never happen. I still have the F3 though. My first digital camera was a Fuji in the end, still a lot of money these days for what was a 1meg or so camera! although now I have worked my way through the D3, D3x, D3s and D4, reading this article has brought back some memories 😉

  • I want the F4 with a modern Kodak DCS.

  • Brad Smith

    I actually just found one of the Hawkeye II bodies. They’re truly a wonder of workmanship, being mostly hand-made.

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