Looking back: The first Which? digital camera test

For most of the nineties, taking a picture meant buying a roll of film (usually 24 exposure, or 36 if you were feeling flush), carefully setting up shots so you didn’t waste any precious film, and then taking the finished roll to your local chemist and waiting a few days to see how your pictures turned out. Taking them out of the envelope could be a bitter sweet affair – the joy of seeing that your work had paid off, or the crippling disappointment of that oval advice sticker blocking a poorly lit photo of your uncle blowing out his birthday candles.

Then, digital cameras entered the frame. Suddenly, we could take 24 shots in as many seconds, just to make sure we got the perfect photo. We had instant access to our images, and could easily share them with friends and family by email – no need to get extra prints.

We first tested digital cameras back in 1998. Below you can see what we had to say about battery life, memory cards and very dodgy picture quality.

Read our reviews of over 150 digital compact cameras

Limited battery life

Today, we would reasonably expect our digital cameras to go quite a distance on one charge. If you’re going away for a week, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to recharge your camera (unless you’re a budding David Bailey).

This wasn’t the case in 1998. Most of the cameras we tested could only take up to 80 shots before the battery ran out of juice. One of them, the Kodak DC210 Zoom, couldn’t even manage 40 photo’s before the battery died.

Many of these older cameras took traditional AA batteries too, rather than the built-in rechargeable batteries that most have today. Replacing them could end up being an expensive business.

Pricey memory cards

The 1998 Sony MVC-FD5 saved pictures to a floppy disc

The 1998 Sony MVC-FD5 saved pictures to a floppy disc

Buying endless replacement batteries wasn’t the only cost consideration; you had to buy memory cards (or even floppy discs – the method of storage on some models) too.

Of course, they held many benefits over film – for one thing you could save the images on your computer and reuse the card – but they didn’t come cheap. In 1998, we said:


To put it into context, that 4Mb card probably would struggle to store more than one image taken on a modern camera. Luckily, the cost of memory has decreased massively since those early days. You can expect to pick up a 32Gb card for less than £15 today, which will happily store hundreds of pictures.

Not quite picture perfect

If you did spend your hard earned cash on a 4Mb card back in 1998, the number of photos you could take depended on your camera’s resolution. The Casio QV-70 could store a whopping 192 images on a 4Mb card at ‘high quality’, a resolution of 320 x 240. But most of the cameras we tested took images at a higher 640 x 480 resolution (we were yet to reach the dizzy heights of the megapixel), and these would only be able to store around 40 images per 4Mb, barely more than a 36 exposure roll of film.

We weren’t blinded by the new technology of the ‘high quality’ snaps, and told our readers:

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We felt early digital images didn’t stand up to much scrutiny, especially when blown up. At the time we suggested that they were better suited to ‘websites and newsletters’, rather than anything important, like your wedding, for example.

Quite a contrast to today, where a Which? Best Buy will take truly stunning photo’s. Read our reviews of the latest Best Buy digital cameras to see what we mean.

Were you an early adopter?

Were you one of the pioneers of digital photography? Were you happily snapping away, while everyone else was down at Boots getting their photo’s developed? If so, let us know what your first digital camera was in the comments below, and your experiences in those early days.

More on this

Digital camera Best Buys – the top-rated models
Choosing and buying the best digital camera – our handy guide
How we test digital cameras – watch the video to see what goes on in our labs

4 replies

  1. I had and still have a Kodak EasyShare DX6440. Its 4 megapixels, 4x zoom and actually has an adjustable viewfinder as well as a small screen. I’m not sure if that was the very first digital camera I bought but it could be. It must be at least 10 years old now. It used 2 AA batteries which I guess didnt last that long but I most likely used rechargeables.

  2. Bought a Relisys, Dimera 200 from Serif for about £100 (inc P&P) in 1999. It had 1 MB flash memory card and 640×480 “Fine” resolution!! never really got it to work properly – waste of money. Now have Pana Tz-40. Excellent but takes most of skill out of taking photos.
    I started seriously with 2nd hand Zeiss Ikon 120 folder and disc exposure calculator in 1950s.
    PS I still have the Dimera if you would like to test it !!

  3. I was bought in 1999, as a retirement present, a Sony Digital Mavica camera. It was very bulky and used floppy disks It was state of the art in those days & I remember the novelty of being able to email some of my holiday photos from Hong Kong to home at an internet cafe. Each floppy disk could hold about 40 photos. It was amazing at the time.

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