Just a quick post about something that's starting to become apparent to me. Camera sensors aren't necessarily getting better but something else might be...

It's been an interesting day. I've been getting e-mail comments about the flower images and graffiti images from people who want to know if I really shot them with an "old" Nikon D700. They mention how rich the colors are...

Now....I owned a D700 back when it was a "new" camera and got a lot of good use from it for several years but I never remembered it as being such a good camera. It didn't have any big flaws but the files seem humdrum. Well balanced but nothing to write home about. Nothing remarkably better (other than the full frame sensor) than the color or tonality I was getting from a D300 or a D2Xs. But here we are nearly ten years later and I'm loving the color and tonality I'm getting when I process the raw files in the latest revs of Lightroom and PhotoShop. The colors, especially, seem nearly foolproof. And they've also got character.

I know that no one went back and retrofitted all the D700s on the used market to make the hardware much, much better so I started following the chain backwards. I count well over a dozen major upgrades to the Adobe raw converters in the past decade. It's possible there have been more.

Could it be that the cameras we've been working with were packed with potentially great hardware even a decade ago but we could only unlock a small percentage of the imaging potential because the limiting factor was in the software? In camera processors were much slower and less capable ten years ago which slowed down throughput and encouraged camera makers to optimize Jpeg files for speed rather than ultimate quality. The raw converters of the day were running on older processors, supported by slow and pricy DRAM. Who doesn't remember all the third party programs like Bibble that were marketed because the camera company raw programs were so slow and doggy at the time?

Each improvement of the raw converter software on the market (Adobe+DXO+Capture One) was in part a response to bigger camera files but also faster processor speeds, higher throughput on the desktop and the need to make each successive generation of cameras appear as though they were worth the money to upgrade to.

But an rise in the software "water levels" lifts all "raw file boats" because, at their core the files are all just binary information until they are de-mosaiced and interpreted.

It's entirely possible that the files I am seeing now are not just looking better because I'm remembering the old ones incorrectly but because the newest software is able to squeeze and massage so much more from the raw information provided.

Remember when we used to see movies like "The Wizard of Oz" on broadcasted television when we were growing up? We loved seeing the movies on our old TV sets with their almost square aspect ratios and their low resolution. Except in actual theaters we had never experienced better imaging. Then TVs got bigger and the color got better and better. Finally we're at a point where we can see old classics spread across 60 and 70 inch, 4k monitors and, if the movie has been remastered (re-interpreted using the original information existing in the actual film media) we find the quality to be a good match for modern sensibilities; at least when it comes to sharpness, tone and color.

Did they go back and re-film? Heck no! They just used the latest processing to wring out some more of the potential that was in the original capture all along. Isn't that what happens when we take a raw file from an older digital camera and re-imagine it in the most contemporary and advanced raw converter software? Some things won't improve dramatically. Noise won't get that much better, but color, tonality, sharpness and anything that can be interpreted and augmented by improvements in software will benefit the older hardware and the work we create with it.

Test this out yourself. If you still have an older Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. digital camera hanging about as a door stop, charge up the battery, pop in an old CF card, shoot a test and then open the file in the absolute latest rev of your favorite flavor of raw converter and see if the camera doesn't transcend your older appraisals of its quality.

Kinda kicking myself for not thinking more about this sooner. Thoughts? Into the comments below!


Mike Rosiak said...

I wonder if there's a way to measure the impact of this post, depressing the new camera market, and boosting the market for the old gear?

Mike Rosiak said...

... and ... are YOU performing better with the software?

joel said...

Great observations but I was told years ago (2007-ish when I bought my first DSLR) that the point of shooting RAW was that they could be re-processed with the greatest software. At the time, limited by my skills and limited processing software, I certainly never did better with the RAW images than I did with JPGs outside of *slightly* better shadow recovery at base ISO. Most of those early images aren't worth re-processing but the ones I did certainly improved a bit.

So you don't even need to dust off an old camera, just an old archive!

Eric Wojtkun said...

Yes...i've seen this when I went from Aperture to Capture One...and in the years since. Software is huge in digital...but you knew that. I miss the color of my Pentax k200D 10MP DVD and the K5. I also noticed a big difference when I went from software to software with my old Fujifilm X-trans files. M4/3 16mp sensor output via jpeg is another clear example of improvements in using internal software for processing over the last few years. Actually this would be a cool test, since the sensor has only gone through a few changes since introduction. Nice article.

David Lobato said...

Kirk, you're onto something. Files from my Nikon D7000 and my Nikon 1 series of cameras look much better with current PS and Lightroom processing compared to a few years ago. Noise reduction is a big factor, especially with judicious sharpening. Highlight and Shadow adjustments are better now. I'd guess any current RAW converter would do a better job.

James Moule said...

Interesting coincidence. I have been processing ten year old RAWs with the latest Adobe Camera Raw and comparing the result to what I achieved ten years ago. I have done about fifty and the color and all other characteristics are always much better.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting observations Kirk.
Please also consider a couple of other factors, down stream hardware and software. Better screens (whether desktop, tablet, phone etc) and software to support them. Another one, but I’m not sure how relevant, better printers. I’ll assume you don’t have older monitors or printers lying around with which to do comparisons (nor the inclination to re-acquire), so this is probably speculation at best.
Not THAT Ross Cameron

David said...

I would say yes. This was more obvious to us sadistic Sigma users. I have an Sd14. It came with sigma pro 2.5. Sigma pro software is still the best over all to extract the best from a Sigma camera. The difference between Sigma pro versions for Sigma files is striking. To the point where some Sigma users will comment on the best version. The newest version 6, though seems to limit features for the older cameras. Version 5 was really good.
I think this will also be true for other software, but possibly more suttle. Each software has its own default output priority that users like. So version changes I don't think will be too different. But with that said I do remember a major Adobe change at either 2010 or 2012. So much that you can change it in the settings.

Michael Meissner said...

Well the other factor is not only have you upgraded post processing software, but I imagine your picture taking skills have improved over the years as well.

Granted in this case, the graffiti wall is probably not stretching your skills that much. But perhaps it is like C├ęzanne painting Mont Sainte-Victoire or Monet with his water lilies, where you keep coming back to the familiar scene and at times you see different things.

Anders said...

That is why I always used Capture NX-2 when I owned the D700.

I have also made many tests comparing Capture NX-D to LR, Capture One, Dxo, Acdsee Ultimate etc. and while those apps have become very good and have their place, I usually get the best results from the Nikon apps.

Malcolm said...

Perhaps do what James Moule did above. Take an old file, process it again and see how it compares with the Jpeg you created ten years ago.

ODL Designs said...

My feelings were that the drive for higher iso performance led to thinner Bayer filters and more color guesswork.

I have an e1 in the studio, I also have older copies of PS, maybe I will do a test :)

C. Kurt Holter said...

You totally nailed it. From 2000 through around 2005 I was using three different raw to jpeg converters depending on the kind of shoot I was processing (people, architecture, products, etc.) in order to get the best results. Between the level of software bugs and the speed and quality of the conversion/optimization process, it was a dice roll.

Needless to say I'm glad I archived the raw files from that time, even though storage was nowhere near as cheap as it is these days.

Andrea said...

I trial-shooted a 16-years old Camedia camera that one of my colleagues wanted to sell, and the processed raw files are really excellent!

Noons said...

Very interesting! Had a similar experience with my Nikon D80 and D200 files.
Still have all my old RAW files, always used those.
A few years ago I moved away from Nikon and Adobe software to Corel's Aftershot Pro (various versions) and their superb Paintshop Pro and Visual Studio for videos.
They work soooo well with my new M4/3 gear!
Recently I started going back to some of my old files taken with the D80 and D200.
To my immense surprise, I was able to get much better results from both of them.
The saturation and noise reduction as well as dynamic range is so much better than anything I did with the old software, there is just no comparison!
Of course: this may also be the result of a LOT more experience in using these things now, the monitor is also miles better than the old one - and I now use a Spyder4 to calibrate the monitor.
So it might not be just a single thing!
But overall a very welcome surprise.

Carlo Santin said...

Yes the processing software has gotten way better. It is very noticeable. The files from my D300 look as good as anything from a newer camera. ACR has made some impressive updates recently and even just hitting the auto button seems to give very pleasing results-if you are starting with a good exposure. I think if you are shooting a lot of video in addition to stills then you want the newest camera you can afford, but if you are stills only then it's a wide-open playing field for buying and using older tech. There are some pretty terrific older cameras out there still in great condition that can be had very cheaply. New models get rolled out so quickly now that the old ones get forgotten. I think that's a real problem in the industry and I think manufacturers are paying the price now. Sales are way down. We've reached a saturation point. Good enough happened a number of years ago (I'm a Nikon guy so for me that would be something like the D7000, that camera should satisfy even a serious hobbyist) and really, how many times is the average consumer going to buy an expensive camera?

Peter Ziegler said...

I've noticed a similar evolution in RAW processing, but I think it's only half of the story. When Lightroom updated its RAW engine in 2013, the difference was so great that I went back to most, if not all, of my older files and reprocessed them. However, I also found myself using a lighter touch on the sliders to get more pleasing results. That I attribute to my learning curve, not Adobe's.

Mark Davidson said...

I would also note that our processing skills have improved as we got the hang of the potential of the software.
I still agonize over slight shifts in colors on my wide gamut monitor yet when I see the work on the web all those subtle corrections disappear.

The real issue for me is that irrespective of the tech in our cameras or in our software we are all still viewing the bulk of imagery on computer screens, laptops and phones. In that environment the heavy artillery of our present technology far exceeds the needs of the media available.

Henk said...

I remember a 2008 vacation image I shot of my wife and daughter sitting on light coloured rocks in the blazing sun. The raw image developed in the Olympus software had unrecoverable highlights. Converted in SilkyPix I could recover all detail in the rock surface at that time. It was the best raw converter then, even better than Bibble. Now CaptureOne does an even better job with that same image.

It was one of the reasons that I always shoot raw since I started shooting digital.

Thanks for an excellent post Kirk.


Andy Gordon said...

I've been following your most recent journey back in time with interest. I've been looking at my old d300s nef's in the latest version of Capture One and I have to say that I'm really impressed with the images and how well they respond to highlight and shadow manipulation.

I'm especially impressed with those taken with studio flash and how good they are when you nail the exposure and focus.

I blame you Kirk on the fact that I'm now looking at getting an old Nikon to pair with the 3 or so old AIS lenses that I've kept for some reason :-)

I've been reading yor blog for what a few years now, but first post. I do enjoy your views on your trade and life in general

Thanks for keeping me interested and amused


Edward Richards said...

Color in particular is all about the software. With Bayer arrays, realistic color is software construct. To a large extent, so is contrast. Dynamic range has improved a bit, but that is not going to change the tonality of the files. Megapixels have improved, but that is only an issue for huge prints. You have mentioned using DXO - there was a period when the results were much better for difficult files with DXO than Adobe. That was a good illustration of the point.

Anonymous said...

In an interview last week at Zynga's HQ in San Francisco,
NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil (whose day by day
driver is a Mini Cooper S that he lately tuned to
285 horsepower) gave GamesBeat a demo of CRS Racing 2 on an iPad
Professional, exhibiting off what he calls beyond console” graphics at resolutions
beyond what the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can duplicate at
this level.

mosswings said...

There's an obvious example of this in our pockets: the smartphone "camera". The supposedly crummy little sensors in our phones can produce some pretty impressive images through the use of not only rendering but control software. Google's HDR+, used in its Pixel 2 phones, uses fast frame rate capture, highly efficient image alignment algorithms, and sophisticated exposure fusion to generate quite high quality pictures. Computational photography - of which postprocessing is a part - is radically changing the very nature of cameras.

Bottom line - enjoy those camera bodies from the golden age. They still can best computationally-aided devices, but what those C-A devices are doing is showing just how little sensor you need to please your eyes.