Maybe this has happened to you, too: You head out with your camera, ready to take some great photos, only to find that you left your memory card at home or forgot to charge your battery. (If this hasn’t happened to you, maybe you’re less distracted than I am.) In such a situation, you might be glad to have an old backup camera along with you, to bring back at least a few photos from the field.
One spring morning, I set out to photograph the Blue and Crested Tits around our cottage in the mountains. Everything was perfect: the birds were landing where I wanted, and the morning light was beautiful. However, I learned that my camera batteries were at zero. I had no choice but to reach for my son’s Nikon D90, mount it on my Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, and take it for a test run.
Although the light was nice, there wasn’t much of it. With my Nikon D500, I would have set ISO 3200, but I didn’t find the courage to set that on the D90. With this nearly 15-year-old camera, ISO 3200 and anything higher is certainly suitable for photographing the Loch Ness monster or a UFO, but not ideal for serious photography.
Because I wanted to take home some usable photos, I chose a fairly conservative ISO 1600 instead. By today’s standards, this ISO sensitivity can be used even for landscape photography without much issue, but fifteen years ago with an APS-C camera, it was about the limit of usability.
Camera sensors have made great progress in the past fifteen years, but editing software has also taken a giant leap. Almost every software from Lightroom/Photoshop to its many competitors have drastically improved their noise reduction over time. So I also wondered if, using my current software, I could make the photos at ISO 1600 pretty usable.
In order to create a reference point, I converted (in camera) the original RAW file to a JPEG. I leave the image below uncropped so that you can judge the image quality of this 12.3MP sensor from 2008, downsampled to web resolution.
As you can see, the resulting photo certainly cannot be described as noise-free. However, if we don’t view it at 100% magnification, it is pretty usable. The sharpness and colors are not dazzling, but it should be considered that this is an unedited photo. Certainly with better post-processing, the image would be acceptable for online display, something like this:
However, the measure of a photographer’s work should not be an Instagram post, but a printed photograph. I wanted to see if I could get usable prints out of these images using my current photographic process and newer software.
First, I pre-edited the RAW file with DxO Pure Raw, to remove lens aberrations, reduce noise, and sharpen the image. (I’ve talked about the process before here.) I then did careful tweaking of color rendition and contrast in Capture One – although I’ll wait until a future article to dive into full detail.
Let’s take a look at the resulting photos instead. On the left (“before”) is the out-of-camera JPEG, and on the right is the version with modern tools:
I think those speak for themselves. Aside from the obvious resolution limit of 12.3 megapixels, I dare say that the photographs are perfectly suited to today’s requirements for exhibition prints.
In fact, that the photo of the Nuthatch – taken by my then five-year-old son – won the first place in the children’s category of the Czech Nature Photo competition! I think that proves it. (I also think I’m allowed a bit of bragging on his behalf :)
Even if it were necessary to print a low-resolution photograph at a larger sin, there are powerful tools today that can reliably extrapolate photographs by 2x, 4x, or even more. But that’s another story.
So, what is the point of my photographic contemplation today? No, I’m not exactly telling you to dig out long-forgotten old cameras from the depths of your cabinets. (Although, as I mentioned before, even that can come in handy sometimes as a backup.) A more practical takeaway from this article is that you should revisit some of your photos from the past and try to breathe new life into them with modern editing software.
If I’ve inspired you to do a little archaeological exploration into the depths of your archives, I’d be delighted. Maybe this will not only bring new life to your old files, but also dust off some forgotten memories. I’d love it if you’d write something about it in the comments below.
GIMP is professional software and because it is Open Source anyone can download and use it. It would be nice if this article was written with GIMP being used because the software provides opportunities for people to harness their skills because does not have a paywall.
I have great regrets for selling my old Canon 600D a few years ago, but I suspect the need to keep more batteries charged and to carry another camera kit would stop me from taking it out with me, but I have known the despair of turning on my camera several times and finding that it was left on and is now completely flat. I now always carry a few extra batteries for this exact reason.
My phone takes some nice photos but using it while my expensive camera with a flat battery stays in the car is an awful feeling. It was a beautiful sunrise that morning as well. It was a painful lesson that I’ll never forget.
I am considering getting a second battery for my Z9 for this reason as well. Although I have already verified that I can shoot all day with it, it would add to my peace of mind and that counts too. Plus, I could keep my GPS on all day and shoot more videos.
Libor, did you consider not hiking your ISO up that high? Perhaps if you had tested the camera first to see what it could do, you might have been very surprised that you may not have needed such a high ISO. Maybe you did do that, and just didn’t say so. You might have gotten better more vibrant results with plain old auto ISO. I have an old D70, and to this day it takes incredible photos in most any light with all auto settings. And it has only 6 megapixels! I know that I am Miss Manual Shooter, but those old cameras were meant to be shot in auto, and even I would yield to that logic.
I’ll start at the end, Elaine. I disagree that DSLR cameras, however old, were primarily designed to shoot on automatic. But of course you have to know their limitations and know how to use them. If I use an automatic, I leave the decision up to a device that has no idea what I’m shooting and what my intent is. You’re right that I could have used a lower ISO, but with birds as small and restless as tits, I would have run the risk of motion blur. When I shoot other species of songbirds, like South American Antpittas, I know I can go as low as 1/30s, but that’s not possible here.
“I disagree that DSLR cameras, however old, were primarily designed to shoot on automatic.”
Exposure metering: 1,005 segment color meter, 3D Color Matrix or center-weighted metering; spot metering.
Metering modes: 3D Color Matrix; Centre-weighted; Spot.
Exposure modes: Digital Vari-Program (Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Close up, Sports, Night landscape, Night portrait); Programmed Auto [P] with flexible program; Shutter Priority Auto [S]; Aperture Priority Auto [A]; Manual [M].
Yep, obviously, it’s primarily designed to shoot in manual mode.
May I jump in this discussion about manual versus automatic, please?
When I first started photography 50 years ago, my camera (Pentacon Praktica with a 35mm Zeiss lens) had only mode: manual. Even the light meter was external and I was limited by the 36 shots available on a roll of film. and it took a few good minutes to prepare until I was able to take a shot.
Nowadays, I much appreciate some automation to take out from the burden of setting the camera and let me concentrate on the picture itself.
The point of using manual setting is correct if you just don’t take it as an inflexible rule.
A lot of work was done to develop these automatic or semi-automatic modes and if you their limitations, you can use them to your advantage. Especially with birds …
You’re right, Mihai. A certain and appropriately applied degree of automation is a great help. I’m a bit sensitive to someone claiming to be a professional and therefore shooting exclusively on manual mode. Personally, I have my shutter speed and aperture set almost 100% manually. However, I leave the ISO, the most boring and least creative item in the exposure triangle, on automatic. However, in some conditions I work with full manual. For example, when there is a big difference in the brightness of the background and the subject, or when the lighting conditions are fairly constant. In a forest full of contrasts, on the other hand, I shoot with Auto ISO almost exclusively. A bird jumps from light to shadow and everything is different. I don’t have the mental capacity to deal with that.
My favourite mode of all is Programmed Auto, marked P. When people in my courses show me that they shoot in this mode, I try to explain to them that the abbreviation P actually stands for Panic. And photography is, after all, the joy of creativity! There shouldn’t be a trace of panic in that, should there? Although, if I were to miss a single chance when photographing a really rare animal, I might be seized with panic bordering on hysteria :-)
I never meant to set off a manual vs auto discussion with my post. I was simply responding to your need to add vibrancy to your photos in post. I take great joy in shooting manual, and I shoot manual exclusively. In this case, based on my results with my ancient D70, I thought that maybe the higher ISO could have been avoided. Libor then explained why he needed it, and I am fine with his answer. Regarding The Great Debate, speaking personally I see no point in owning a very expensive super camera and then turning it into a point and shoot. I truly find joy in shooting manually. And I love the increased creativity it gives.
Spot on, Pete! The manual settings on the D70 are all internal in the program settings, and placed across three menus so it is not easy to access them. There are no external manual buttons at all, except for the M on the PASM dial. To me this clearly means that this camera was intended to be mainly used in auto mode. Having never even seen a D90, I assume that the arrangement is similar to the D70, as it is only one generation later. I used the D70 for years. It was a great camera.
Not long ago I needed to use my Nikon D200 battle tank. It was stored and unused for a long time, but it saved a job.
A battle tank accurately describes the D200. I still have it myself and have taken many great photos with it.
Always want to do exactly that…..but alas, cannot manufacture time!!
Yes, time, that’s the biggest problem. Once I can’t hold a telephoto lens in my hand, maybe I’ll get to it :-)