Breakthroughs: DSLR Sensors

The birth of sensorship

The birth of the DSLR can be traced back to a little camera company called Nikkor, which eventually became Nikon, and its relationship with a small government agency known as NASA. One of Nikon’s first major successes, the 35mm Nikon F, gained popularity in the U.S. with photographers covering the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Soon, the company was secretly collaborating with the booming U.S. space program, which eventually culminated in converting Nikon’s F4 film camera to hold a one megapixel monochrome Loral CCD at the film plane and store data on hard drives capable of holding 40 images at a time. This modified Nikon NASA F4 made history in September 1991 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

To learn about how Nikon changed the camera industry forever, keep reading on the next page.


It would take eight years for Nikon to release their first professional DSLR, the D1 in 1999. At that point, DSLRs were based on CCD sensors that allowed early DSLRs to capture similar depths of field and picture angles, as well as use 35mm lenses, despite being smaller than their 35mm, full-frame film relatives. Three years later, a relatively small and obscure company in Japan named Contax released the first full-frame DSLR in 2002 using a Philips sensor, known as the Contax N Digital. It would go on to receive luke-warm reviews from the pro market.

Shortly after the failed Contax release, both Nikon and Kodak collaborated to create the first professionally endorsed full-frame DSLR in 2003 — the Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n. The feat was due largely to the use of highly efficient CMOS sensors, and photographers quickly realized those full-frame benefits come with a full-wallet price tag. Citing poor profitability, Kodak discontinued the production in 2005. It wasn’t until 2007 when Nikon entered the full-frame DSLR movement with a signature camera. The release of the D3 was a big deal, and Nikon hit a home run.

Plenty of other brands have contributed to the evolution of DSLRs during this period and continue to do so today. Nikon still deserves most of the credit for getting the ball rolling, and continuing to do so as the official camera company endorsed by NASA.

To learn more, check out the history of Nikon on their website.

Written by Justin Gural. Additional contribution by Ben Bowers and Eric Yang


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