Peek into the viewfinder of a QuickTake 150

Apple's first (OK, second) digital camera is a 16-exposure-shooting, preview-lacking, AA-battery-killing monster. But it takes a surprisingly decent picture.

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Credit: Christopher Phin

Most of what I write about on Think Retro are things that I personally remember using or lusting after. That’s how nostalgia works. It’s not really about the stuff or the places or the films or the whatever, but about how you felt at the time you were exposed to them.

It’s why advertisers use chart toppers from when you were a teenager to get you to buy a wildly impractical car: They know that subconsciously invoking that dizzying feeling of potential and exhilaration will help silence the part of your brain that’s quietly insisting you buy a Toyota Camry.

As a result, I don’t really have any sense of nostalgia for the QuickTake, Apple’s original digital camera. I never owned one, never even aspired to own one because to teenage me, $749 was an impossibly huge sum. I had only just been able to afford a tiny compact film camera. I did see one once. Our high school computing teacher justified buying one for his department by saying it was something the students should know about, but I suspect he just wanted to play with it himself.

And so when a Mac aficionado who wanted to leave a couple of beloved items in friendly care kindly donated a QuickTake 150 to Think Retro, I had the odd experience of unpacking and using a device that I didn’t feel my usual retro nostalgia for. It was almost like I was getting a brand-new, completely modern gadget, and getting excited for the first time about digital photography.

Here, then, are some of the things that struck me as I explored the QuickTake 150.

quicktake 150 01 Christopher Phin

Let’s start, though, with the “150.” The very first model was the QuickTake 100, which launched in 1994. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that this wasn’t just the first digital camera from Apple, but the first digital camera, period. Or at least the first consumer digital camera. Or at least the first consumer digital camera for under $1000. (Pedantry is fractal.)

But a little over a year later, Apple released the QuickTake 150. Superficially, and even internally, it was identical to its predecessor, but it came with a new clip-on lens that allowed it to take close-up shots.

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Well, by “close-up shots,” I mean no closer than 10 inches, which is hardly the macro performance we’d expect today. This was a fixed-focus camera, so the clip-on piece was the only way to change where the lens focussed. But how did you know if your close-up shot would be in focus? No worries! Apple has a completely straightforward and not the slightest bit onerous way of checking. From the manual:

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The view through the viewfinder is usually crystal clear, because it’s basically just a hollow tube through the entire body of the camera, rather than troubling the sensor at all. But when you clip on the close-up lens, this is what you get.

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Those vertical lines are, I assume, there to correct the framing of the standard viewfinder lens. From the manual again: “The special viewfinder adjusts the field of view so that the image appears just as it will in the photograph. (With other closeup lenses, the viewfinder images are offset.)”

The close-up, lens, though, at least lets me take selfies with the QuickTake 150, even if the lack of a forward-facing screen means I can get the framing wrong.

quicktake 150 05 Christopher Phin

Indeed, even if I’m shooting the right way round, you forget that a camera that only has a viewfinder makes it tricky to get some shots. I wanted to shoot some flowers in our garden, but would’ve had to lie on the ground to look through the viewfinder. For this shot, I had to hold the camera above my head and guess at the framing—which I got wrong.

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It’s no longer uncommon for cameras to have rotating screens, but even on devices that don’t—an iPhone for example—the viewing angles of the screens are sufficient that you can use them to frame up even if you’re looking at them obliquely.

“So what?” you might say. It’s a digital camera. Delete the shot and take it again. Ah, but there are two problems with that. The first is that I can’t delete a single shot from the built-in memory; I can only delete everything. The second is that I wouldn’t know I’d gotten the shot wrong until I got back to my Mac, because there’s no screen on the camera to review your shots. This is the small LCD on the back of the camera:

quicktake 150 07 Christopher Phin

The big number in the middle is how many shots I’ve taken, the number at the top left the number of shots I can still take at the current resolution. “High quality” is 640×480 pixels (the setting I’m on in this shot) but you can press the button at the top-right to switch to 320×240, which lets you store 32 shots rather than 16.

Yes, 640×480 sounds preposterous today, of course—it’s less than a third of a megapixel—but you know what? It’s not as useless, even today, as my prejudices told me it would be. For example, this post is 580 pixels wide, so the landscape-orientation shots I’m posting from the camera have actually been scaled down to fit.

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The one thing that’s frustrating about the VGA resolution is that there isn’t enough detail to allow you to “crop to zoom." In the shot above, the thing I was interested in was the lettering around the portico, but there aren’t enough pixels for me to zoom in much.

Of course, with film cameras you couldn’t review images either, and like with the QuickTake you could only shoot a small number of shots, and I wonder if those limitations were just taken as read when the QuickTake was being designed. That is, that was how photography worked then, so maybe it didn’t even occur to them to try to solve these problems.

As a result, using this camera engenders an oddly analogue sensibility. You carefully consider each shot before you can take it, in part because you only have 16 exposures, and in part because you can’t review a shot, or delete just one even if you could. Without going too hipster on you, that’s not an entirely unpleasant sensation.

Besides, the pictures from this are far better than I remember or expected. They’re still atrocious put next to shots from an iPhone (let alone a full-frame or medium-format digital camera), with dull colors, often appalling balance and dynamic range, noise and crosstalk. But for all that, I was really quite amazed, especially at the size you see here. Remember: this is the first ever consumer digital camera. (Or at least, identical to it; hush now.)

quicktake 150 09 Christopher Phin

Here’s what my iPhone 6s makes of that shot. Obviously, it’s in a completely different class, but look again at the QuickTake’s and tell me it doesn’t hold up much better than you were expecting.

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Likewise this shot of Milsom Street in Bath, where I live, a deliberately tricky shot with a lot of contrast. QuickTake is first, then iPhone, then iPhone in HDR, and you can click them to see them bigger.

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Again, this goes artificially easy on the QuickTake compared to the iPhone (even discounting the fact that I happened on a nicely bright, sunny day, which the QuickTake likes), because the iPhone’s wildly more flexible shots have been shrunk down about 16 percent of their original size. But still; I was expecting to find these photos risible, even if I would have recognized how exciting it was to be shooting digitally.

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Here’s another odd thing that occurred to me. The ability to take only 16 shots seems laughable today, and yet on the day I set out to take the shots I’ve published here, I still had a couple of exposures left by the time I got home. Sixteen might sound ludicrously low, but with a slight readjustment of mindset, even on a day I went out to take photographs, I didn’t hit that limit.

It is, however, odd that while you can only shoot 16 images, you have the option—of which I was completely unaware—of a belt-clippable battery booster pack that takes eight AA cells.

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The cable plugs into a power connection on the side of the camera, which is hidden behind a cover that opens most pleasingly. You push it into the body of the camera and then slide it open in a satisfyingly chunky, clunky way.

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Sure, the three AA cells that fit inside the camera don’t last a hugely long time, but it still strikes me as peculiar that you get an add-on battery pack, which I would associate with keeping a camera going so it could shoot more photos than the internal batteries would allow.

I am, though, amused that because it takes regular batteries, slotting a fresh set in essentially makes this camera identical to how it would have performed when brand new, which isn’t something you’ll be able to say of most anything modern with a built-in rechargeable battery.

quicktake 150 21 Christopher Phin

It’s an odd-looking thing, though, and I slowly started to feel a little uncomfortable shooting in public with it. Because it looks so unlike a normal camera, I started to get paranoid that people would think it was something other than a camera. A thermal imaging scope, perhaps, or as my friend Matt observed, some Bondian gadget with a “Distance to target” readout I’m looking at through the viewfinder. I might sound mildly crazy saying that, but look again at the picture at the top of this page and tell me I don’t look suspicious as hell.

Getting to know the QuickTake 150 has been a lovely experience, a real chance to think and feel myself into the birth of an aspect of computing which is now such a vast and dominant part of our lives. We think nothing of shooting dozens or hundreds of digital photos every week—perhaps thousands if we habitually use burst mode. But for me at least it’s fascinating to remind myself of the historical context for this, and of a time when taking a photo and sideloading it to your Mac, essentially instantly, was a truly magical thing.

Apple today makes the most popular cameras in the world bar none and I hope that like me, you enjoyed a little snapshot of where it all began.

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