Today, digital photography is ubiquitous, but there is still a demand among enthusiasts for classic film cameras. By all accounts, the analog medium has made a comeback over the last 2-3 years. What you don’t often hear of is people hankering for older digital cameras, even for the sake of nostalgia. Technology has moved on, but has it moved on so much that they are obsolete? Or are early 2000s digital cameras secondhand bargains? We’ll find out.
Those of us that have been shooting digitally for over ten years probably don’t miss the early days of post-processing. The sensors were noisier and there was no in-camera dust removal. One way or another, a lot of time was spent trying to clean things up. Less advanced, too, was the software we used to process photos. Trying to recover highlights or remove noise, for instance, was harder than it is today. Photos were abandoned that might be saved with modern editing.
Aside from noisier, dirtier sensors and editing limitations, exterior hardware on cameras was also inferior in the early days. LCDs were smaller with a lower resolution, and electronic viewfinders weren’t as clear. The benefit of a bright viewfinder shouldn’t be underestimated, and it’s still a feature of higher-end cameras today over entry-level models (e.g., pentaprism vs. pentamirror optical viewfinders).
With camera age comes the question of sensor resolution. Modern cameras have high-res sensors. More resolution gives you more freedom to crop pictures after the event and still end up with a decent-sized print. It’s like having an extra lens. Many photographers prefer not cropping pictures, but it’s a luxury that didn’t always exist. In the “old” days of low sensor resolution, there was more discussion among photographers on interpolation methods. People wanted to make their digital files bigger so they could create larger prints. That subject is now almost archaic.
Glimmer of light
Despite the drawbacks of using old digital cameras, some had useful features that are rare or even extinct today. And the minuses are mostly surmountable. Let’s examine three cameras that are all 10+ years old and see what we can do with them. All of the following are eminently affordable on the secondhand market: more so than many classic film cameras.
Old camera #1: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
Even by today’s standards, the 2005 10.3-megapixel Sony DSC-R1 is an innovative camera. It never sold well, but it had a unique combination of a fixed 24-120mm Carl Zeiss lens, an APS-C sized CMOS sensor, full-time live-view LCD display (a first at that sensor size), and live histogram. The technical quality was/is excellent.
The main limitation of the Sony R1 is a sensor that gets noisy above ISO 400 combined with an absence of image stabilization. This is not a camera you can easily use for high-quality interior photos without a tripod. You have to employ old-school sturdy shooting methods with controlled breathing, a good stance, a steady hand, and a camera braced against pillars or posts if necessary.
At ISO 160-200, Sony R1 pictures are clear with great color. At ISO 400 they’re still good. When viewed at 100%, the images are satisfying with lots of detail. On the minus side, raw files take a long time to write on the R1 (several seconds, typically). This was never a rapid-fire camera for those aiming to pull the most quality from it. The R1 takes CF cards or Sony memory sticks – no SD cards.
The R1’s WLF (waist level finder)
The flip-out 2″ LCD of the R1 didn’t appeal to everyone as it swivels upwards, effectively making the camera bigger. It’s already quite a bulky bridge camera. Personally, I love the fact that the LCD screen can slot flush into the top of the camera, turning it into a waist-level finder. That’s great for candid portraits or street photos, even if you have to wait for those big Sony raw files to write (you can shoot JPEGs). The camera has an electronic viewfinder that’s dimmer and lower resolution than you’d expect from today’s cameras, but it’s usable.
Of all the digital cameras I’ve used, the Sony R1 is one of the few that I haven’t sold over time. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it because of its quirkiness and quality. For those familiar with him, well-known US photographer and blogger Kirk Tuck was still singing the praises of the R1 just a few years back. This is a secondhand bargain if you can cope with the cons.
Old camera #2: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30
The main problem with the 2005 Panasonic Lumix FZ30 is the noise from its 8-megapixel CCD 1/1.8″ sensor. Even at ISO 80, it’s there. That aside, there are many appealing features. The 12x Leica-branded optical zoom lens with image stabilization is sharp across its whole range. Despite its age, the electronic viewfinder in this camera isn’t bad, even if the dioptric dial nudges out of place too easily. I tend to use the EVF more than the 2″ flip-down LCD.
Offering all the exposure control you’d expect from an SLR, the Lumix FZ30 also allows raw shooting – a strong point in its favor. With today’s processing, and by restricting your photography to base ISO where possible, you can achieve good results. Limiting? Yes, but you get 36-432mm versatility for your trouble. The stabilization is effective, allowing you to make use of that long zoom at relatively low speeds with good technique.
This is a camera that yields detailed pictures, is quick to handle, has long battery life and doesn’t hold you up with big raw files. One frustrating aspect is the need for 2GB SD cards to run it, which many people will not have in this day and age. It doesn’t accept SDHC cards (4GB+).
Although noise is an issue with the Lumix DMC-FZ30, that is less important now than 14 years ago when the camera came out. Software like Topaz AI Sharpen, though not perfect, is good at suppressing noise and bringing out detail. The tools in Lightroom and other programs have also improved no end. Old cameras become more viable as processing technology advances.
Old camera #3: Canon EOS 450D/Rebel XSi
I wouldn’t recommend early digital SLRs to anyone based on dust problems alone, but that becomes a non-issue four generations in. The Canon EOS Rebel XSi (450D in Europe) came out in 2008. It was an entry-level DSLR offering many benefits over previous models. Among them were a sizeable 3″ LCD, Live View with phase and contrast detection AF, spot metering and a bigger, brighter viewfinder.
The Rebel XSi is small and light by SLR standards and won’t give much satisfaction to metal-loving traditionalists. It doesn’t feel substantial. However, it’s understated and functional, and lets you go about your work stealthily. No-one is going to think you’re a pro, no matter how well you hold the camera. The most noticeable flaw is some wacky white balance results from time to time, especially under artificial light. Shooting raw, that’s not a deal-breaker.
As you might expect from a Canon CMOS sensor, noise levels are low with the EOS Rebel XSi (lower than the Sony R1, for instance). Obviously, they’re not as impressive as a high-end camera from today or even yesterday, but you can risk ISO 800 or even max ISO 1600 images for some indoor shots and polish them up later. Better still, you can make use of live view, manual focusing and a tripod if circumstances allow.
A question of balance
If you’re using heavy “L” series lenses, they may not sit well on the Rebel XSi. It doesn’t have any heft. The original 18-55mm kit lens is sharp, lightweight and has good image stabilization. A modern equivalent of the Rebel XSi would give you more resolution, more advanced processing (a little quicker, less noise at high ISOs), a higher res LCD and video. All this was available in the camera that superseded it in 2009 – the EOS Rebel T1i (500D). But the stills photographer looking for a bargain DSLR might find an answer in the Rebel XSi. It has just enough and a bit more.
With modern processing at our disposal, digital cameras from the early part of this century have more potential now than they had when new. Especially those that shot raw files. Yes, you’ll find it hard to go back to them if you’ve spoiled yourself with ultra-high-res LCDs and mega-bright EVFs. But some of the downsides in old cameras have upsides of their own: less brightness and resolution means better battery life. Low-res sensors mean not editing football-pitch-sized files.
You wouldn’t use old cameras if your living relied on the best high-ISO performance. Still, any of the three models I’ve discussed can easily produce a publishable, high-quality photo if you accept their constraints and process the files carefully. Other than the Sony R1’s slow write times, the cameras are quick and easy to handle.
So, with one or two caveats, I’d say early 2000s digital cameras can definitely be bargains.
Do you use any of these cameras, or have any to add to this list? Please share with the dPS community in the comments below.