So Just How Good Was Early Digital Equipment?

With the recent announcement of the Nikon D5 and it's baby brother, the Nikon D500, raising the bar for digital photography higher again, I thought that it might be a good time to reflect on how far things have come - or not.

Ignoring the Nikon E2N from the mid-1990s - a frightenly expensive joint venture by Nikon and Fuji into the emerging digital arena, and one that cost me a small fortune - my first proper digital Nikons were a pair of D100s. Although the buffer was only 4 RAW frames I spent over four years using them professionally and never once had cause to worry that they might not be up to the job. One soon got used to being limited to the lower range of ISO as noise did become a problem as speed increased, but they did the job very well and the files from the 6.1 megapixel APS sensor were easily capable of quality reproduction as a double-page spread in a glossy publication - surely the litmus test of most cameras if we are really honest.

I also used the Nikon D1 and Nikon D1H as well as the first full-frame Nikon DSLR, the Kodak DCS Pro 14n. This was a camera ahead of its time but beset by software problems. It morphed into the Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n and SLR/c - Nikon and Canon versions - before having the dubious honour of becoming the Kodak swansong in the digital camera field. I used both versions and was very impressed by them, reporting on them in a number of articles for the British Journal of Photography. For the first time I could use all my full-frame lenses as they were intended. Noise at high ISOs (anything above 400 really) was a problem and their proprietry RAW files caused a number of problems, but in terms of quality at 50-200 ISO in optimum conditions they delivered files that wouldn't really be matched until the Nikon D3 appeared.

We all seem to be locked into this never ending cycle of sensors being produced with more pixels, demanding more expensive cameras, yet the reality for the majority of professional photographers - never mind the amateurs out there - is far more mundane. Most clients will never want an image to reproduce at anything larger than a double page spread, despite our dreams of bigger and better. And with the advance into web-based publishing even this is unlikely for more and more professionals.

So how 'poor' were the old cameras? I'm not getting into super technical testing here - that's for labs and nerds. I just thought that I would dig the cameras out and do a really simple test to see what was what. Whilst there is clearly a difference between the images shown here it is not immediately apparent what image was shot with which camera. Examining high quality TIF files output from each under controlled conditions in Photoshop CC I would still be happy to submit any of them to an editor of a glossy magazine and feel confident in them being reproduced as a double-page spread - even those from the D1H.

The shots below are taken with a 2001 Nikon D1H, a 2003 Nikon D100, a 2008 Nikon D300 and a 2013 Nikon D3S in uncompressed RAW format using a NIKKOR AF-S 80-200mm F/2.8D IFED lens, but displayed in no particular order. Can you determine which is which?