How An Amiga Graphics Business Ran In The 1990s

If you have ever used an eraser to correct a piece of pencil work, have you ever considered how much of an innovation it must have seemed when the first erasers were invented? It might seem odd to consider a centuries-old piece of stationery here on Hackaday, but there is a parallel in our own time. Digital image manipulation is such a part of everyday life these days as to have become run-of-the-mill for anyone with a mobile phone and the right app, but it’s easy to forget how recent an innovation it really is. Only a few decades ago your only chance of manipulating a photograph was to spend a lot of time in a darkroom with a photographic developer of exceptional skill, now children who have never known a world in which it wasn’t possible can manipulate their selfies with a few deft touches of the screen.

[Steve Greenfield] pointed us at a detailed description of the business he ran in the 1990s, offering digital and composite photography using an upgraded Amiga 3000.  It caught our attention as a snapshot of the state of digital image manipulation when these things still lay at the bleeding edge of what was possible.

His 3000 was highly customised from the stock machine. It featured a Phase 5 68060 accelerator board, a Cybervision 64 graphics card, a then-unimaginably-huge 128MB RAM, and an array of gigabyte-plus Fast SCSI drives.  To that he had attached a Polaroid SCSI digital camera with a then-impressive 800×600 pixel resolution. The Polaroid had no Amiga drivers, so he ran the Shapeshifter Mac emulator to capture images under the MacOS of the day. The fastest 68000-series Mac only had a 68040 which the early PowerPC Macs could only emulate, so he writes that his 68060-equipped Amiga ran the Mac software faster than any Mac at the time.

His stock-in-trade was attending sci-fi conventions and giving costumed attendees pictures with custom backgrounds, something of a doddle on such a souped-up Amiga. He writes of the shock of some Microsoft employees on discovering a 60MHz computer could run rings round their several-hundred-MHz Pentiums running Windows 95.

His business is long gone, but its website remains as a time capsule of the state of digital imagery two decades ago. The sample images are very much of their time, but for those used to today’s slicker presentation it’s worth remembering that all of this was very new indeed.

In a world dominated by a monoculture of Intel based desktop computers it’s interesting to look back to a time when there was a genuine array of choices and some of them could really compete. As a consumer at the start of the 1990s you could buy a PC or a Mac, but Commodore’s Amiga, Atari’s ST, and (if you were British) Acorn’s ARM-based Archimedes all offered alternatives with similar performance and their own special abilities. Each of those machines still has its diehard enthusiasts who will fill you in with a lengthy tale of what-if stories of greatness denied, but maybe such casualties are best viewed as an essential part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the famous Amiga easter egg says it best, “We made Amiga …

Here at Hackaday we’ve covered quite a few Amiga topics over the years, including another look at the Amiga graphics world. It’s still a scene inspiring hardware hackers, for example with this FPGA-based Amiga GPU.

Amiga 3000 image: By [Joe Smith] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

37 thoughts on “How An Amiga Graphics Business Ran In The 1990s

    1. All Amiga computers were designed to output video at frequencies that were compatible with broadcast NTSC/PAL, which caused a lot of problems if you wanted to buy a monitor as a home user, but made them uniquely suited to professional video applications.

        1. Yes. I had one person offer me a tip when I was working as an electronic technician, and the owner of the shop I was at claimed it.

          But as Polymorph Digital Photography, I had a number of people spontaneously give us more money when they saw the finished picture. Which is probably partly down to my lack of self-confidence and tendency to charge way too little for my work.

          Sadly, being able to do something doesn’t mean you can succeed running a business doing that thing. I’d have been better off, I think, if I’d hired someone with an MBA to run the business.

        1. Thanks!

          That image was quite a bit of work. I manually shuffled all the buildings in downtown together and turned a parking lot into a park.

          The website is up again! Blah blah, I made a mistake, 30 minutes waiting for Live Chat, tech support spotted it and fixed it in seconds.

  1. Amiga scene still quiet alive these days, I recently bought my first amiga 500 and I was surprise to discover that there are still people happy to spend 600/700 £ on accelleration cards to see their amiga running at 40/60 mhz, is a really closed market and every old piece of hardware is so expensive and most of the knowledge about accelerator card is still closed source, it’s a shame…with a more open environment we could get more, like the Dreamcast scene…

  2. I produced a few commercial brochures back in the early 90’s on my A4000. Pagestream was a very capable publishing program. Of course, no commercial typesetters could use the native files, so we’d have to provide postscript files. There was always a “lost in translation” issue with Mac-equipped typesetters:
    “Is this a Pagemaker or a binary file?”
    “It’s just plain ASCII. Postscript.”
    “So is it binary?”
    “No, it’s just simple text.”
    We’d scan the B&W files on a client’s system and edit in there Photoshop 2.0. All the color photo separations were done by the printer, with an image FPO (for position only).
    Kinda miss those days…

    1. I got tired of the struggles with getting printers to accept Pagestream, and bought Adobe Pagemaker. It was interesting running a 300MHz Pentium next to a 60MHz 68060, and finding the 300MHz Pentium slow just because W95 vs Amiga 3.1 + Directory Opus.

      1. I remember Pagestream could do some crazy things; like print long, narrow engineering drawings (10 in. x 15 ft) on a standard dot matrix printer, and do so with decent accuracy. Amazing, for the time.

        We also used Pagemaker on PC, and before that (occasionally) Ventura Publisher on a clunky 286. And Wordstar, etc. Also remember the W95 dropdown menus taking time to load for each window, while the 2.1+ Amigados response was instant. :-P

        1. Oh, man. Windows was so slow. I got so used to instant response on the Amiga. Windows style guide had (has) a big chunk of the screen taken up by the menu bars. On the Amiga, nearly everything used the right mouse button and drop-down menus, keeping the screen clear to use.

  3. Wow! Such nostalgia. I also wouldn’t have a career without the Amiga. Bought an Amiga 500 with my own money as a kid back in 89-90, and had a dream to work an Amiga trailblazer called NewTek. Good times!

    Kevin Nations
    15 year Ex-NewTekker

    1. Hi Kevin,

      I worked at Play, with the group that left NewTek and joined up with progressive image tech, and jeeze now I can’t remember the name of the 3rd group. I was the first overseas buyer of a toaster (I was in the Air Force in Okinawa at the time) so I could have LightWave 3D at 0.9 beta. Prior to that I used sculpt animate series. I remain friends with many key NewTekkers that worked at play to this day.

      After almost 8 years with them I worked at an Emmy winning studio on PBS and FOX children series using LW3D as well.

      My career was totally started through my tool of choice when setting up my career path… An Amiga. I had the 500 with 3 floppy drives, and a Hurricane 020. I made an animation called The Legend of Lance Sterling, that placed in Bit.Movie animation show. (I lived Eric Shwartz animations and felt both excited and guilty to place above him in that contest). After that I had justified I could get a hard drive.

      Then when the toaster came out I got an Amiga 2000 with GVP 040 and 42 or so megs of RAM (counting all the RAM).

      After the USAF I worked at alpha video doing 3D professionally. I worked on a3000 tower with a PAR board that made my life so much easier that single frame recording frames to tape. And at home I upgraded to a A4000 with toaster.

      Then in late 94 I got a PC, had LW on it, and in 95 I went to work at Play. The best job of my career. What a great bunch of people! I became more involved with leading teams as creative director and then engineering services manager, and was removed from graphics for years until I worked at WCP on children series and was promoted to production manager there.

      Now I am in the middle of starting a new biz back in imaging again. I am taking my experience in 3D, editing, production, and photography, and starting an aerial photography and videography business.

      Current site with my LW work is JamesStudioGallery. I am getting my drone pilot license and LLC set up right now, and that will be a whole new site.

      Again… It all started in 88 on the Amiga. (I was programming task time wire frame animations on the Apple and Atari in 83 though).

      I credit LW and the Amiga with getting my career off to a great start. My career change right now brings me back to the magic of the 80s and 90s, the core of who I am. And I have to say using Modo on the PC brings back the excitement too.

      I would love to have a hot Video Toaster Amiga system still! There’s things that I did in DPaint IV that I wish I could do on the PC to this day. I’d love to have a system for quick and dirty concept work.


  4. I’m inordinately excited – I was cleaning out my storage, and discovered that a friend of mine had given me an A3000, still in the original box! It needs a SCSI hard drive, and I think I have some RAM ZIP chips to max it out (it has 12M now, I think), and I am sure it could use a recapping… but… the battery DID NOT LEAK!

    I have a 1G SCSI drive in a removable drive to install in it. I also found I have Kickstart 3.1 chips for it, and both Workbench 3.1 floppies and Workbench 3.9 on CD. I have a portable SCSI CDRom drive. I still have CD reader/burner software. Most of the other software is gone, however I kept a disk image of my original hard drive installation including Directory Opus and ImageFX 3.something.

    I find I’m ridiculously excited about this.

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