Getting better at something does take time, but getting better is something that is ultimately inevitable, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Every time you pick up your camera, you body and mind will learn something new no matter how small it may be. But this principle isn’t just applicable to the picture taking process, we’re also getting better every single time we use our picture editing software too.
But before we talk about software, first let’s take a quick look at how camera technology has evolved over the last couple of decades and what significance that plays in our retouching today.
What camera were you shooting with 10 years ago?
Camera technology and image quality has been excellent for well over a decade now and the cameras that many of us were using 10 years ago actually had good enough pixel quality to rival what we use today. Basically, the cameras that are now over 10 years old (like the now legendary Canon 5D Mk II released in 2008) produced files that are still classed as excellent today.
But so what?
The point here is that the industry baseline for acceptable image quality has been at a high enough standard for quite a long time now and as a result, we the creatives are reaching a point for the first time where we can go back and still easily use those old files we captured years ago.
The reason we couldn’t do this before with any reliable success was because the file quality simply wasn’t there. For the sake of argument, we couldn’t do this 10 years ago back in 2010, because the image quality of files being produced back in the early 2000’s were just too inferior compared to contemporary cameras at the time.
For example the Fujifilm FinePix S1 Pro released in 2000 was touted as producing a whopping 3.1 megapixels compared to cameras 10 years on from that. In 2010 Sony’s A 230 that had a far healthier 10.2 mega pixels and even prior to that the Canon 5D MKII had a blistering 21.1 megapixels back in 2008!
The vast leaps and bounds that the image quality took in the early 2000’s was simply staggering. But since then, image quality has somewhat flatlined due to file size increases simply being unnoticeable to even the most petty of photo judges.
Canon’s Game Changer
You’ll hear me reference this camera a lot in this article and for good reason too. The Canon 5D MKII released in 2008 and quite literally revolutionised an entire industry with its features and its leaps in quality. One of the biggest features though, was its monstrous full-frame sensor and its ability to record in full HD (1920 × 1080). I appreciate this may seem odd to some of my younger readers, but you have to remember that this was not possible at the consumer level until now. In fact, nothing else even came remotely close. The BBC began to use the 5D MKII for broadcast quality footage in 2009 and even the 2012 film ‘The Avengers’ used the 5D MKII for some of its scenes! This camera really did set a new bar in terms of quality thanks to its full-frame sensor and its a bar that so many other manufacturers would struggle to break or even reach for many, many years to come.
It’s probably worth noting here that I am indeed a dyed-in-the-wool Nikon shooter and have been… forever. This period was among one of the darkest times to be a Nikon shooter, and there was not a year that went by during this time that every Canon shooter justifiably laughed at us.
-If you’re a Nikon shooter, I urge you to look away from the following paragraph… don’t do it to yourself!
For context, Nikon didn’t respond to the full-frame DSLR problem for nearly a decade! In fact it wasn’t until 2007 when Nikon released its D3, Nikon’s first full frame DSLR and wait for it….. it was 12 megapixels and cost $5000 at launch compared to the 20 megapixel 5D MKII that cost almost half that nearly 10 years prior. Like I said, that was a very dark time to be a Nikon shooter and I should think thousands of lost souls gladly jumped the Nikon ship during that time.…. and let’s just say that I ‘accidentally’ and momentarily fell out of the Nikon ship during this time too.
My First Gelled Lighting Shoot – Circa 2009
Like I said, I dare you to find anybody that wasn’t impressed by the 5D MKII back then. The studio I worked at had a bunch of them and my photographer friends all had them. As a result, I always asked to borrow their 5D MKII’s whilst my Nikon lenses sheepishly languished in my camera bag awaiting a half-decent body to use. But it was also during this time that I actually started to develop my gelled lighting style in earnest.
With the advent of digital technology and the quality of sensors now being able to render a far wider colour gamut, colour gels were far more viable than they’d previously been. You think colour-banding with gels is an issue now? Try shooting on a 20 year old digital camera and get back to me.
During my ‘adulterous’ period with the 5D MKII, I shot AND retouched this shoot below back in 2009…
PLEASE NOTE: This was my first Gelled Lighting Shoot!!! Don’t judge me!
Like I said, the above shots were all from my first ever gelled lighting shoot back in 2009 and they were all retouched by myself at the same time in 2009 too.
Fast Forward to the Future…
The Era of Ultra 16K HD Remaster!
As many of my contemporaries will attest to, we’re currently living in a world of HD Remasters and remakes as the lazy production houses do everything in their power to cash in on those nostalgia dollars. But that being said, none of us can deny how incredible some of these Hollywood remasters look. The remasters of films like Jaws, Alien and Blade Runner are among some of the more notable versions, and their modern re-releases extract details and colours previously simply unimaginable during their theatrical release.
Is it Finally Time to Remaster Your Old Photos?
So can we do the same? Can we actually dig out our old files and ‘remaster’ them?
The very simple answer is yes.
Essentially this whole article so far has been a brief history lesson in understanding what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ quality of capture device. We are now living in an era where images we took 10 years ago, can essentially be remastered for the first time. If we go back any further than that, the cameras at the time simply didn’t capture enough information for us to make that viable, until now.
Modern Imaging Software
Of course it’s not just the capture device that has improved, it’s the technology that we use to extract that data too. We know this technology as Raw imaging software and some of these include ‘Adobe Lightroom’, ‘Capture One’ and ‘Adobe Camera Raw’.
The technology now available in this consumer level software is staggering, and again they have come an extremely long way in the last 10 years too. All of these software titles can now extract vast amounts of detail from both shadow and highlight regions of images that was previously considered as un-saveable. You can quite literally load up a 10 year-old file today and see data in the highlights and shadows that simply wasn’t visible or at the very least, useable when you originally took the shot.
What about Photoshop?
I’ve purposefully not included modern editing software like Photoshop here. Of course, there is no doubt that Photoshop has improved in the last 10 years, but has it really improved, or has it simply made many things more streamlined and easier to achieve? My point here is that you shouldn’t confuse your ability to improve with the software having more features. Tools like Curves, Levels, Colour Balance etc. have been part of Photoshop since the 90’s. Sure they’ve added a bunch of filters and tricks, but the softwares ability to drastically improve your shot, is largely based on your skill, not theirs. Photoshop’s success is that it gives many of us a safety net and the ability to make changes that would otherwise be baked into the image. It’s your ability and knowledge that is actually doing most of the heavy lifting here.
Your Modern Skills
Of course, let’s not omit the hugest gain in all of this; you skills. Your skills and ability has most definitely seen the biggest development over that time period and I’m not just referring to your camera skill either, how far has your software skills developed in that time? I’m guessing a lot.
We’re all learning new tricks in Lightroom and Photoshop all the time and although it doesn’t feel like it day to day, these skills all add up.
My final point to all this is that it may be worth having a rummage around on some of those old Zip Disks to see if there’s any untapped gold to be mined from those long abandoned archives. The shots you took 10 years ago may well have been captured on a pretty decent digital camera and the files may actually contain more than enough data for you to push and pull them around a bit to produce something half decent…. Now whether your photography skills were up to par back then is another matter ;)
For the sake of this article, I decided to give it a try with those old 2009 5D MKII files from my first gelled lighting shoot. Here’s the results….
Like I said, there is some extremely questionable gelled lighting here and I’d like to think my lighting skills have come a long way since then, but the fact still remains that the quality from those files, that are now over 10 years old, is pretty staggering.
If you’d like to compare the two generations further, check the originals alongside the remasters below.
Nerd-Note: I’m sorry, did someone actually say that this shot was taken with a 20 megapixel camera from over TEN YEARS AGO?!?!?
Click to enlarge the image: This is a 400% zoom crop from the PSD too. It’s not even the raw file!
I think you’ll agree that camera tech hasn’t actually come as far as we might think it has in the last decade. Manufacturers like Sony and Fuji have dazzled us with ‘features’ but nothing of any real significance has happened to boost image quality at this scale. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, that Canon 5D MKII quite literally changed the game for image makers and if you’re looking to take your first steps into photography today, you can do a whole lot worse than picking up an old MK II. The damn thing is so good in fact that it’s actually still holding some of its value a decade later, and with many of them being sold second-hand from between £400-£500 – BODY ONLY!
Points to Consider
- This article is being written during the global pandemic of 2020. We are currently not allowed to go out and shoot new work so many of us have turned to older work in our archives to edit instead. If this is you, now might be a good time to have a rummage about and see what you can play with from that old hard drive under your desk.
- If you have old images that were taken after 2010, chances are that those files may have details and information in them that you’d not previously been able to extract. They might be worth a second look.
- Don’t forget that your skills have also dramatically improved in recent years, and not just your camera and lighting skills either. Many of us have learnt new pieces software and many of us have simply just gotten better at using old software.
- Raw editing software has come a very long way, but in terms of image editing software like Photoshop, not so much. 10 years ago I was doing very little to my raws prior to opening them in Photoshop, but software like Capture One and Lightroom have really revolutionised what can be extracted and achieved with our raw files today.
- Image quality from modern consumer level cameras has not actually come that far in the last decade. I think you’d be surprised at the quality of your old files when you open them up.
I find it interesting that we are often unable to extract the maximum amount of data from our images at the time of capturing them. If this holds true, will we be doing the same thing with the images we take today, in 2030? Are we simply unable to fully realise the quality found in our latest cameras today?
Upon rereleasing the film Jaws on Blu-ray in 2012, director Steven Spielberg said this:
“The new restored version of the film looks better than the movie people saw in theatres in 1975”
Take care of those raw files you shoot today, they may indeed look even better in 30 years time!
-Featured model: Kayt Webster Brown.
P.S. It might be worth checking the comments to see if any Nikon shooters are STILL defending the D3 ;)
Thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and that you get a chance to dig through your archives to see if you can give some old shots a new lease of life. If you do, I’d love to see the before and afters. As always, if you have any questions, then by all means fire-away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.
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About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. Jake currently has a workshop available on colour and exposure. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page, follow him on Instagram and sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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