You’d think the new Nikon D850 DSLR camera is the latest Apple iPhone! Since its introduction it has acquired near-mythic technological celebrity status among photography buffs. Personally, I cannot get excited about a new $3500 camera. It’s way out of my budget. No sense in lusting after something I will not buy. The cheapskate in me was far more excited when Nikon introduced the affordable 6-Megapixels D40 model back in 2007. In fact, it was the entry-level Nikon D40 that convinced me to abandon film-based photography and embrace digital.
But I’ve been thinking… Is there a way to get Nikon D850 imaging quality in a used DSLR camera I can purchase for $200 or less? I don’t need machine-gun-like frame buffers, night-vision high-ISO settings or sumo wrestler-sized megapixel sensors. What I do care about is getting the best image quality at normal ISO settings for as little money as possible. Is that even in the realm of possibility?
I think it is. In fact, I know it is! Here’s why: The prime technical advance in the Nikon D850 that improves image quality is the introduction of the backside illumination (BSI) CMOS sensor. The sensor is the heart of the camera. It converts light (photons) into electrical current that your camera records as images. Backside illumination is an enhancement in CMOS sensor construction that improves its ability to capture light. How? Traditionally, CMOS sensors have a layer of wiring and transistors that sits above the light-gathering surface of the sensor pixels. This reduces the light gathering ability of the sensor pixel due to that layer of wiring partially blocking the photo-diodes that record light. That hurts image quality. By moving that wiring to the back of the of the photo-diode (backside illumination), more light is gathered by the sensor, thereby improving image quality.
That’s a big deal! However, backside illumination is expensive in comparison to normal CMOS sensors. That’s why you see it first in a $3500 top-of-the-line camera like the Nikon D850. Now, that begs the question: Why do I have the audacity to believe that I can find similar image quality in a used $200 DSLR camera? Read on my skeptical shutterbugs…
CMOS sensors are favored by nearly all DSLR camera manufacturers because they are cheaper to manufacture, better suited for recording video, and use much less battery power than CCD sensors previously used in vintage DSLR cameras like the Nikon D40 from 2007. However, the experts all concede that CCD sensors offer better imaging quality! Here’s why: All CCD sensors have backside illumination! Their photo-diodes are superior at gathering light than equivalent CMOS sensors without backside illumination. Adding backside illumination to a CMOS sensor gives it CCD sensor image quality! Most current DSLR cameras use CMOS sensors that do not have backside illumination… Do you see where this is heading?
Here’s my point: If you want the traditionally superior imaging quality of a CCD sensor, go buy a DSLR camera that has a CCD sensor! You will get superior image quality at normal ISO settings when compared to most CMOS sensors. However, there are a few drawbacks of vintage CCD sensor DSLR cameras. You will not get video recording capability, images will be noisier at higher ISO settings. Plus, they tend to be battery hogs. Few DSLR cameras above 12-megapixels have CCD sensors. However, you can find stellar image quality (at base ISO) that equals the best that CMOS sensor camera are only now starting to acquire for a fraction of their price.
From my personal experience, I have found that vintage CCD sensor DSLR cameras provide better image quality in bright sunlight than CMOS sensor cameras. If you ignore the classic photography wisdom to shoot only during the ‘golden hours’ you may enjoy the results more by shooting with a CCD sensor at normal ISO settings. I certainly do. I spent a couple of years in Phoenix, Arizona, where every day of summer is sunny, cloudless and full of glare. My favorite camera for those conditions was a lowly vintage Olympus E-300 DSLR (it was used to shoot the image shown below in bright midday sun). It has a Kodak CCD sensor that loved the sun and captured beautiful photos at midday. I had to put it away as sunset approached as its low light performance was dreadful. CCD sensors in general are not as good in low light or at higher ISO settings than CMOS sensors.
When CCD sensors were replaced by CMOS as the megapixel race heated up among camera manufacturers, I became less impressed with image quality. CMOS sensors were more versatile and cheaper, but something was lost when it came to image quality. My CCD sensor cameras produced a glossier, brighter image while my CMOS sensor cameras produced images with a slightly duller matte look. To this day, my favorite images come from a vintage Fujifilm FimePix S2 DSLR (6-megapixels) with a Fuji designed CCD sensor. Again, this CCD equipped sensor produces stunning sunny day images.
If you are a cheapskate photography hobbyist whose prime concern is pure image quality, then take a closer look at vintage CCD sensor DSLR cameras. Typically, most have no more than 12 megapixels and can be found used on eBay for under $200 all day long. You will not get video, battery life will be lousy, and they’re not worth using above 400 ISO. However, you will find the image quality at normal ISO under normal lighting conditions will rival the very best CMOS sensor equipped DSLR cameras. The color rendition is exceptional from CCD sensors.
Here’s a few of my favorite vintage DSLR cameras with CCD sensors:
This is my current daily use camera. It uses the same Sony CCD sensor found in the Nikon D200 and D80. The default in-camera jpeg rendering of the Pentax K10 is rather poor. However, the raw images produced by the K10 are rich in detail, color and microcontrast. The same Sony CCD sensor was used in the Nikon D200 and D80. I have not used either camera. Based on online reviews these cameras offer raw file image quality similar to the Pentax K10.
Fujifilm Finepix S2/S3 Pro
This DSLR camera has a Fuji engineered CCD sensor that provided class-leading dynamic range for its time. It also makes sumptuous images that to my eye remain some of the best produced by APS-C image sensor cameras. The challenge is finding one in good condition and working order. Also, the only modern raw image processing software that does justice to the raw files from this camera is Phase One Capture One Pro. You won’t see the full beauty of these images when using Adobe Lightroom.
Nearly all of the 6-Megapixels and 10-Megapixels DSLR cameras from Nikon and Pentax use excellent Sony CCD sensors. On the used market, the price of used 10-Megapixels DSLR cameras make them a better and more usable choice than 6-Megapixel models.
If your megapixel needs are modest, and you use other devices for recording video, you will find playing with vintage CCD sensor DSLR cameras quite rewarding. These are vintage cameras that do not have the speed and technical prowess of current DSLR’s. However, they capture beautiful images at base ISO settings that are will delight you as much as the top CMOS sensor DSLR’s on the market today. Plus, they are cheap, cheap cheap! Cheapskate photographers this is for you!