- Jan 9, 2018
- Reaction score
- Can others edit my Photos
- Photos OK to edit
Most people will at least be aware of the Game Boy Camera, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year. Released in February 1998, it was at the time the smallest commercial digital camera in the world. I have been unable to find an MSRP that I am confident in, but my estimate is that a camera and Game Boy would be about 225 dollars in today’s money, compared to “A dozen models priced below $1,000” according to a digital camera review of the time. Even with a huge margin of error, this makes it the cheapest digital camera of the time and as such it was the first that could be called truly mass market. It served as a gateway drug for many children into the world of “funtography”!
The image quality is low, even for the time. It features the Mitsubishi M64282FP 128x123 image sensor. This is is cropped to 128x112, giving it a very slightly widescreen aspect ratio of 8:7. This is the maximum resolution that could reasonably be used by the Game Boy’s display of 160x144. Colour depth was 2-bit, meaning black white and 2 shades of grey. The Game Boy Color allowed users to choose from multiple pallets for the 4 colors available, but this does not affect how light is gathered or interpreted by the sensor.
I measured the image sensor to be 3.6mm x 3.6mm (∓0.2). The lens has a single element held in a plastic bracket around the sensor. The white plastic around the lens is just decoration, it doesn’t hold anything in place and it is not a focus ring. Nintendo lists a focal distance of 20 cm. The shutter speed is automatic (of course there is no physical shutter) with a listed exposure value of 2.2. The image sensor itself supports a maximum exposure time of 1 second.
I attempted to match the vertical framing of a shot from the Game Boy Printer using my D5200 with the image sensor located in roughly the same position, and then used that to estimate focal length. I came up with 22mm on the APS-C sensor, making the 35mm equivalent 34mm. Given margin of error, I suspect that the real equivalent length is 35mm, making the true focal length of the Game Boy Camera 4.1mm. All of these are estimates, but they should be close enough to give you some idea how it shoots.
It’s clear from advertising and the built-in images that Nintendo expected users primarily to use the camera for pictures of people. As such, the most obvious phone-like feature is that the camera can be rotated around to take self-portraits, an idea it took the iPhone several generations to mimic 15 years later. It does have one landscape feature included though: the ability to stitch together multiple images into a panorama. This is part of a suite of filters, trick lenses and other photo editing options that are buried in the camera’s labyrinth of seriously weird acid-fueled menus.
But what use is a panorama, one might ask, if the Game Boy screen is almost the same resolution as a single photograph? The obvious companion, and the only official way to get a picture off a Game Boy Camera, is the Game Boy Printer. Essentially a receipt printer, it has the same horizontal resolution as the system itself but can print out an image of any length. Because it uses a special receipt paper (available in several colours), even sealed official rolls have aged beyond the point of being usable. However, standard receipt paper can be used instead provided it is cut down to the correct size. This provides nearly identical quality, suffering only because the adhesive paper used by Nintendo was slightly thicker than that currently available.
A number of alternative solutions for extracting the original bitmaps have been created over the years. The straightforward option is to buy the $100 USD (!!!!!) Bit Boy which can extract all 30 images in one batch (presumably by emulating another Game Boy Camera connected via link cable). That’s a bit rich for me considering what it does, but there are homebrew alternatives. These were quite complicated to build until late 2017 when Brian Khuu created an Arduino system. Now we shall take a short break while I build one, because I didn’t know about this until I found it while researching this article!
Right, that will make the rest of this much easier. I had only saved one image previously, and that was by compositing 3 prints and a photograph of a Game Boy Advance SP screen. In many ways I prefer the result of that method, but there is no comparing ease of use. This is a portrait of my friend Samantha, extracted on the left and composited on the right.
In shooting mode the Game Boy Camera only has 3 settings that affect image quality: brightness, contrast and dither. Contrast is particularly useful, and pushing it to the maximum reduces colour depth to 1-bit which can be fun to play with, as you can see in this self-portrait.
Dithering I almost always leave on. As you can see in the lefthand photo below turning it off makes most things look rather alien.
Low light shooting at any significant distance is non-existent. See here the image the Game Boy took and what was actually in-shot.
Closer up it can sometimes handle high-contrast objects in low-light. The below example is about average for it, improved by dropping contrast slightly. It was lit entirely by three computer monitors.
The biggest problem with low light shooting is similar to what can be seen with compact cameras. The shutter speed slows down dramatically and the view goes from a fairly smooth 10-15 frames per second down to 1 fps. It also takes an age (think up to 10 seconds!) to adjust to strong light changes, such as going between a computer monitor and the desk in a dark room. The fact is that none of this would have mattered at the time, because the only back-lit Game Boy that existed was a fairly rare model in Japan launched the same year as the camera.
In the shooting conditions it was designed for the Game Boy Camera gets much better. In reasonable light objects are usually distinguishable and the effects can be quite pleasing in their own way.
The “trick lenses” are generally not very useful. This is what qualified as digital zoom in 1998.
On the other hand, the panorama mode can produce nice results provided there are no dramatic contrast changes between shots. Otherwise the automatic exposure compensation will make it impossible to match the frames. The below is not a bad example of the effect.
Overall, shooting with the Game Boy Camera requires a good understanding of contrast and dynamic range. It is possible to take somewhat detailed photos, but the lighting has to be just right and there can't be too much contrast between those details and the background since two of your colours can easily be consumed by rendering the background.
Post-processing is an area where the GBC gets really interesting. Not only could you get an entire digital camera for a fraction the cost of the competitors, it even came with a portable mini-photoshop! Ok, really it’s somewhere between MS Paint and Paint.Net but that’s still pretty good. Images can be mirrored, stamped, drawn on, merged with one another, stitched together in a variety of ways, put in different frames...actually, that’s pretty much it. There are also animation programs, a tool for putting your face into built-in games and even a simple music editor but there is really only so much you can do with tiny 2-bit photos. I think that the future potential for the Game Boy Camera lies it what might be done with it’s images using real post-processing. Like chiptune music, is there room in the world for chiptographs?
The Game Boy Camera has been used for a significant number of odd projects in recent years, including faked colour by combining filtered images, adaptation to fit a telescope and the cover of a Neil Young album. One user even modified a system so that he could use the Game Boy as a video camera! Of course this is all silliness, but it’s impressive what people continue to do with something that was really just built as a bit of fun.
See this roll!