How to Get Great Photos with an Old Camera

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 Which makes it easy to think that the brand-new DSLR you got last year and love using so much is already outdated and incapable of taking good pictures.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.

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 I have long since relegated my outdated gear to the upper storage shelves in my closet in favour of newer, fancier, more expensive cameras that hold a much closer place in my heart.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 However, what I was really interested in investigating was whether outdated cameras are still worth using in spite of the many advances in modern imaging technology.

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.

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.

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.

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 auto focus options.