How Does a 20-Year-Old DSLR Stack Up to Modern Cameras?

How Does a 20-Year-Old DSLR Stack Up to Modern Cameras?

Digital cameras have come along way in the last 20 years, but just how far? Blair Bunting recently took an almost-as-new Nikon D1 out for a spin to see how it stacked up to modern cameras.

Over on DIY Photography, Blair has written up his thoughts in two posts. Since he was a kid, Blair has always loved trains, so he thought they were the perfect subject for a little comparison test. In the first post, Blair rocked the Nikon D1 with its revolutionary 2.7-megapixel sensor, two stops of dynamic range, and usable max ISO of 200. That's serious spec-porn for 1999. What's incredible to see is that even working with such limited gear, Blair was still able to produce some strong images like the shot above. 

In the follow-up article, Blair shot with four modern cameras: the Nikon D850, Sony a7R III, Nikon Z7, and Hasselblad X1D. I'm not going to list specs for all four, but let's just say that none of them has a 2.7 MP image sensor. While the photos are certainly a lot more impressive from all the modern cameras, there's something about the rough charm of the D1's shot that still appeals to me. 

What's most interesting, though, are Blair's thoughts after using all the cameras on how the photography landscape has shifted (and not shifted) over the last two decades. It's easy to dismiss incremental, iterative updates (hey, Canon!), but over time, they add up to major technological advancements.

I don't think Blair will be replacing all his cameras with early DSLRs anytime soon, but I don't doubt the D1 deserves a place on his shelf, if only for its historical value. 

Images used with permission of Blair Bunting

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29 Comments

Sue G's picture

Before the Mega Pixel Wars .. There was Photography !!

user-239119's picture

Sounds like the start of a great dystopian sci fi novel!

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes. That's why I'll keep shooting film. Don't need a fancy shmancy 35MP or more camera. My 16MP will do just fine.

Rafael Hoyos Weht's picture

To this day I'm still shooting with the good ol Nikon D200 as a second camera. To take a good picture I dont really need all the fancy stuff manufacturers add (bluetooth, gps, wifi, 5.8 milllon ISO, live view, touch screen, you name it). The raw file ends up being the almost same as my Nikon D7500 (except for the megapixels, but who needs 20mp for pictures displayed con 7 inch devices)

Logan Cressler's picture

Perhaps you dont need all that stuff, but 5.8 million ISO is really handy for wedding photographers. Live view is really handy for architecture and real estate. GPS is really handy for wildlife photographers and PJs. Just because you dont use it doesnt mean everyone else shoots just like you.

Can you take pictures without it? Sure. Does it make the end result better or your life easier, or make you more money? Absolutely.

Who needs 20 MP? People that want to make money. And more than 20MP would be great for most of them.

Rafael Hoyos Weht's picture

I see your point, and I agree since I use all those features in my modern cameras too. But for the simple task of capture light and process a RAW file, a good ol DSLR can still do the job.

I can agree up to the comment about gps for wildlife photography. The only gps you need is one that tells you how to find your truck. And that only as backup. If you don't know orienteering, don't get off the road city boy. :)

You don't need gps for geotagging so 1000 people can trample the meadow where you took the photo. Just say "I photographed this black bear in Big Bent Nat. Park" and be done with it.

Logan Cressler's picture

No, but you might need it as a wildlife biologist so you know exactly where that rare specimen you cataloged was. You might also need it when you are on an expedition for a university under grant money. Remember, not all photographers shoot what you do. Dont fall into the trap of thinking just because you dont need it other people dont either, or just because you cant think of a good use other than social media that others have not.

I see your point. I'm forester and studied wildlife management. But you said wildlife photographer, and not all are respectful of habitat. They just want a shot to show off. Probably applies more to landscapes as some people are too lazy to find their own shots and copy what others have done.

Logan Cressler's picture

I find peoples assumptions usually speak more to who they are then who everyone else is.

I said "not all are" and "some people." I didn't paint all people with a wide brush. Pointing out that SOME are like that is not an assumption. Look at recent articles of people getting close to wild animals in nat. parks. Getting off the boardwalks in Yellowstone. There is plenty of information including posted signs on location that say this is bad and dangerous behavior, yet they do it. What I am saying is GPS is a tool that has value, but any tool can do damage, so use it wisely.

GPS is a great tool for photography. I do a lot of government work and the graphic designers love it because they can find photos of a specific location in a heart beat.

Z K-P's picture

Personally I think 5.8 million ISO is old school now. My phone has 6 million ISO and it was me that captured the brightening of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way, handheld mine you!

Rob Mitchell's picture

Love it.
I still take my Fujifilm S3pro out from time to time. Horribly slow but I enjoy it.

Timothy Turner's picture

The owners manual for your new digital slr is the scifi novel

Logan Cressler's picture

They have that film look. The low resolution grainy film look :D

Timothy Gasper's picture

If a D1 can come this close to our "so much updated" cameras, I wonder how far displaced a camera like, let's say, a Nikon D7000 could be? I'll stick with my film cameras, scan them and print and the 16MP cameras I have....thank you very much.

I still use my 12MP D700 over my 36MP D810 periodically. Nothing wrong with fewer pixels, esp. with family photos.

Joel Manes's picture

The CCD sensors and large pixels have a nice look to them.

I have been taking photographs for most of my life. I was getting fed up of the pathetic film processing/printing that was prevalent, unless you wanted to mail off the film, wait two week, and pay a small fortune. Color slide home processing (Ektachrome) helped, but not for prints which my wife and family wanted.

I promised myself that when I saw digital photos that were as good as film, I would but a digital camera.
Along came the D1X. I sort of regretted my promise to myself as I handed over the $4k. But the first photos were definitely worth it. Of course, a better printer was next on the list...

Probably the weakest point was the expensive and limited capacity battery (well, Japanese camera manufacturer ... what do you expect?).

Dan Howell's picture

Agreed, the D1 didn't catch my interest, but the D1X did and I jumped on board. In some ways it was the most pivotal camera I purchased (or at least 2nd to my first camera ever). I happened to buy it a month before 9/11. Not only did I capture some of the destruction with it in virtually my own neighborhood, almost all paid work stopped in NYC for a few months.

In a way I had pre-loaded my film/processing expenses into the purchase so while I wasn't working on commissions I decided to make or re-make an entire portfolio with that camera which significantly changed the course of my work. I can't load all of that effect onto the camera, but not having to pay-as-you-go when I wasn't earning in those months allowed me to shoot more, learn more and grow more as a photographer.

Soon after I was back to making money on assignments but I was bringing the D1X to the table now and it started to pay for itself on assignments as well. I held onto it for 5 years until I was basically shooting 50% film and 50% D1X until I took the plunge and got a Hasselblad/Leaf MFDB and dispensed with film for good.

The D1 cost $5,000.

Let's try the old lenses on the new bodies. That would be an experiment.

John Ellingson's picture

I still have images from my D1. They are surprisingly good. With current processing software they are even better than when taken. That is not to suggest that I would use a D1 today. I'm delighted with my D850 and D500s. I wore out my D1 to the point of not being worth repairing. This makes me want to dig up some of those images and play with Topaz Gigapixel.

I still have my 2006 canon rebel xt. Works like a charm, but nothing compares to my Kodak A10 8x10 portrait camera, circa 1925 with my 400mm Voightlander f64, circa 1915. Talk about bokeh, the aperture has around 30-40 blades!

Rifki Syahputra's picture

ahhhh... it brings back the good ol times with the workhorse D2Hs

Jacques Cornell's picture

I could still do my event photography with my original 4MP Canon 1D. But, I choose not to simply because I can afford newer cameras and appreciate the conveniences.

I still roll a D700 slr and love it. It till produces amazing quality compared to new stuff.

AH, that makes me feel less of an extinct dinosaur for still using my Nikon D 3100!