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!