How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

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In this article, I will give some tips for you on how to get great photos from your old camera or an outdated model you’re still using.

The rapidly advancing technology issue

Camera technology has advanced so rapidly in recent years. Which makes it easy to think that the brand-new DSLR you got last year and love using so much is already outdated and incapable of taking good pictures. Comparing apples to apples, or in this case cameras to cameras, is enough to give one a healthy dose of humility when you discover that the six-frame-per-second camera you were so excited to buy has now been outclassed by its newer seven fps counterpart.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

This and all the images in this article were taken with either a Nikon D200 or Canon Rebel XTi. Both were made in 2006 or, as I like to call it, the stone age of digital photography.

Looking at charts and diagrams of how high ISO performance in the latest models run circles around your old dusty camera can give anyone a healthy dose of GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. I have long since relegated my outdated gear to the upper storage shelves in my closet in favor of newer, fancier, more expensive cameras that hold a much closer place in my heart.

However, there’s no rule that says you can’t take beautiful pictures with old cameras and just because something new and shiny comes along doesn’t mean your old gear is suddenly destined for the dustbin.

Dig out the old camera

As a way of experiencing this firsthand, I recently got out my old Nikon D200 camera, the first DSLR I ever owned, and put it through its paces to see if I could still get some good pictures from its aging body. Of course, anyone who has shot with older gear already knows the answer is, absolutely!

A good camera from 2007 is still a good camera in 2017. The beautiful pictures you took in days gone by aren’t suddenly going to transform into ugly monstrosities just because another model of camera has come down the pike. However, what I was really interested in investigating was whether outdated cameras are still worth using in spite of the many advances in modern imaging technology.

My trusty old Nikon D200

For example, here are the specs of the old Nikon model with which I shot several photos for this article:

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

Old cameras might not have all the bells and whistles of their modern brethren, but don’t discount them entirely.

  • 10 megapixels
  • A maximum ISO of 1600
  • Heavy as a brick
  • It has no Live View
  • There is no touch screen
  • There is video capability
  • 11 Autofocus points
  • One very slow Compact Flash card slot

Any serious photographer would scoff at these specs, right? Well, not exactly. Old cameras like this may not hold a candle to modern models with every latest innovation packed into a much smaller space. But if you’re willing to put up with a few tradeoffs you may be surprised at what you can still do with them.

The real question isn’t whether or not an old camera can still take good pictures because if it could take good photos in 2006 it can still do so today. Nothing about a newer camera inherently makes the older camera any worse, unless by way of comparison. There are a couple of things you can do to get better photos if you do have, or are thinking about buying, an older camera that can help you get the most out of your images.

Work within the camera’s limitations

One of the best things you can do if you want to get good pictures with old gear is to know the strengths and limitations of the equipment you are using. Then take pictures that work around those characteristics.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

ISO limits

For example, one trait that is almost universal among older gear is miserable high ISO performance. Modern cameras can often shoot at ISO 3200 or 6400 without breaking a sweat. But be prepared to adjust your expectations quite a bit if you pick up a model from 10 years ago.

Solving the problem isn’t all that difficult, it just takes a bit of creativity and adjustment on your part. When I took my D200 (which I don’t dare shoot past ISO 800, and even that is pushing it) out to experiment as I wrote this article, I kept the ISO performance in mind. I aimed for pictures where light was not a scarce commodity (in other words, avoid low light situations). The result was pictures I like quite a bit and would hold up against anything I could take with my modern Nikon D750.

Megapixel limits

Old cameras are also generally low on the megapixel front. That doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you’re doing a great deal of heavy cropping to your images and even then you can still get good results if you crop carefully. It is something to keep in mind though, and it’s important to shoot your pictures knowing the limitations like this. Get closer to your subjects instead of cropping, or find a lens that has a little more reach to it compared to the lenses you are used to using.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

Other limits of older cameras

In addition to more megapixels, modern cameras often have large image buffers, burst rates, and more reliable autofocus systems than their older counterparts. Keep this in mind if you go to a sporting event or head out to capture wildlife photography with an older camera, and change things up a bit to get the images you are looking for.

Plan your shots carefully so you don’t fill up the image buffer, or shoot with a smaller aperture to give yourself more leeway in terms of depth of field. If you’re used to relying on a modern autofocus system to lock on and track your subjects, then try experimenting with center-point autofocus and learning to be a little more nimble when composing. Also, try learning new techniques like back button focus to improve your skills so you don’t have to rely on the camera doing all the heavy lifting for you.

Limitations can be a good thing

Ironically, sometimes the limitations of older cameras can actually help you get better pictures because you have to improve your photography skills in order to compensate for the camera’s shortcomings.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

For example, using the ultra-fast burst mode on a modern camera can actually impede your ability to get good shots. Using an older camera without that feature can force you to plan your shots, think about things like composition, and how you want your subject framed within the elements of the picture, and ultimately get better pictures as a result.

My point is that if you find yourself using an old camera, whether a basic DSLR or one that used to be the cream of the crop in its heyday, you should know what you’re getting in to beforehand. Plan around its limitations so you’re not frustrated or confused when you are trying to take pictures.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

In-camera focus stacking, flip-out LCD screens, and hundreds of autofocus points are nice and can certainly help you get better shots. But often the key to getting better shots is to simply study the fundamentals and hone your basic skills.

Work on understanding exposure, lighting, and composition. Know how to control the camera you have in order to get the shots you want regardless of whether the camera is brand new or well past its prime.

Know your camera’s capabilities

One thing that consistently surprises me when shooting with older cameras is just how much they can actually do. While they might not have touchscreens and built-in GPS, it’s not uncommon to find highly advanced tools such as a plethora of metering modes, Auto-ISO controls, customizable bracketing options, and a variety of autofocus options.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

A top-of-the-line camera from 2005 may not compete with the cream of the crop today, but when it was released it had to appeal to demanding professionals and advanced amateurs which required a certain set of features and capabilities. Even basic models like the early Canon Digital Rebels, which were aimed at consumers and hobbyists, had all sorts of features that may surprise you if you’re used to modern models.

If you shoot with older gear, either an old camera you’ve had for a while or something you picked up online or in a thrift store, take some time to get to know it. Go to the manufacturer’s website, download the manual, and really get to know what it can do. Dig through the menus and experiment with the various options. Find a willing helper and test out its various modes and features. You may just be surprised at how capable and useful these older cameras can really be.

How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

Conclusion

I often get asked for camera recommendations and I like to suggest that people take a serious look at used cameras and lenses. Check reputable online websites that sell these sorts of things for significantly less than shiny new cameras you will find on store shelves. Just because a camera has been put out pasture doesn’t mean it’s not worth using. In fact, the money saved by buying older gear could be put to good use in other ways.  An investment in better lenses, a tripod, or even educational materials that can advance your skills in much more significant ways than simply buying a new camera.

What about you? Do you shoot with an older camera or are you considering buying one? What tips and tricks do you have for getting the most out of these types of cameras? Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

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