Haven’t you heard? Old digital cameras are all the rage now. Partly thanks to YouTube romanticisation, Gen Z have discovered the world of early 2000 point-and-shoots, and are praising them for their eh, ‘film look’.
Now here’s the thing, I never really liked old digital cameras. My memory of them was always of washed out colours, blown highlights, and an uncomfortable level of sharpness that was somehow also smudgey. In fact, as far as I am concerned, they were about as far away from the way film looked as it was possible to get – and a big reason that I shot the real deal so often. However, I am never one to pass up the opportunity to fall down another weirdo rabbit hole, and while I was in a camera shop in San Francisco recently, curiousity got the better of me, and I ended up buying a Canon SD780s.
In a bid to contribute my own voice to the raft of YT fawning, I’ve put together a video talking about the SD780, with some of my first adventures on the street. Have a watch of that here:
I had originally been looking for an SD1000, a 7MP compact with an optical viewfinder (!) and a really beautiful simplistic design with sharp corners. However, the owner told me that this particular model regularly had issues with the lenses getting stuck, and all of the ones he had in stock were defective. Maybe that’s true, maybe not, but I wasn’t all that interested in the other SD models on offer, as even though they were technically superior, they were a bit too ’rounded’ for my aesthetic tastes. In the end though, the SD780 ended up luring me in. Not only was it not as curvy as the alternatives, but it also had the all-important optical finder, and it even boasted a 12MP CCD sensor. That resolution might not sound all that impressive by today’s standards, but it was pretty impressively large for the time, and is also more than good enough for what I am interested in. After all, I wasn’t buying this thing for its technological prowess.
One of the reasons that people keep banging on about these older cameras is the CCD sensor. Most modern cameras use CMOS sensors, and there’s a whole bunch of technical reasons that get trotted out about the benefits of one over the other, depending on the particular use. You don’t get rolling shutter problems with CCD for example, and they are theoretically better for low light, but on the flip side, contemporary consumer CMOS sensors are far more advanced given the investment in their development – to the point that it’s not really an equal comparison. Ultimately, they are just different, particularly when you are shooting JPEG straight out of the camera – and I felt like the results were surprisingly pleasing in a way that I didn’t expect, and definitely don’t remember from using wee digital bodies back in 2008.
With that said, low light performance was definitely not the best, particularly out and about in the street at night – with colours lacking any kind of vibrancy or definition. That was more what I remembered from decades gone by – but there were some exceptions, given the right conditions… and to be fair, the maximum aperture was only f3.2 at the widest focal length.
Ultimately, this camera performs best when there is plenty of light, which – while perhaps obvious – was always one of the hallmarks of the era to which it belongs.
There are no real manual controls on the SD780s to speak of, in that you can’t adjust the aperture or shutter speed. Instead, you have to rely almost solely on the camera’s judgement. In many ways, that was actually pretty liberating, as it meant that I was forced to work with the camera’s limitations – to play around with the auto-exposure calculations – and focus more on composition, finding interesting lines and light. It was fun in a way that I haven’t really had with photography for a long time – forcing me to look for particular scenes that I would otherwise not think twice about capturing.
One of the bizarre tendencies of this thing was that it would stubbornly refuse to go above ISO 400 on auto ISO – even with plenty of light – preferring instead to drop the shutter speed to such an extent that many of my ‘run and gun’ shots ended up blurred beyond usability. What I ended up doing was manually cranking the speed to ISO800 or 1600, which meant I had less chance of blur. I even discovered that you could go all the way up to ISO3200 with a ‘hidden’ menu option, which was a pleasant surprise.
The problem with doing that was that the pictures turned out really noisy, which wasn’t overwhelmingly bad, but wasn’t necessary for day time shots at all. I discovered that if I dropped the exposure compensation by 2/3rds of a step, the results were much better. I suspect the sensor of this thing has a proclivity to over-expose – something which tracks with older digicams.
One thing that I do love about the SD780s is just how tiny it is, and I can’t really stress that enough. This thing is teeny. It’s one of the smallest cameras I have ever seen or used, and definitely packs the biggest punch relative to its size, with dimensions similar to that of a credit card.
When it comes to the ‘look’ of the shots themselves, they are pretty contrasty (which I like), and the colours definitely have an early 2000s digital feel, particularly as the dynamic range was clearly pretty limited. You can see what I mean here in the sky:
Overall the JPEGs out of the camera were fine, though couldn’t be adjusted very much at all without blowing highlights or the tones going a bit weird.
There is apparently a custom firmware that you can load onto these old digicams called CHDK which provides some kind of RAW output – but I’m not sure if I can be bothered going through the process of installing that. After all, the limitations and simplicity of this thing are part of its attraction.
The optical finder is pretty cool, and what’s even better is that (similar to the Ricoh GR series) you can turn off the back screen to make it easier to see! However, in practice I’ve found that I just don’t use it all that often. It’s simply too wee for my terrible eyesight, and my glasses get in the way – similar to the issues I faced with the old Leica iii models. It’s a shame, but not a total loss, and perhaps I’ll be able to find another model with a bigger finder at some point in the future.
One of the simple joys of these old digicams is that they usually have some kind of built in optical zoom. This of course comes at the expense of the maximum aperture, but is pretty handy for capturing things that catch your eye when out and about.
As an added bonus, this tiny thing can even capture video – even up to 50fps. The quality isn’t great, of course, but it’s not terrible – and is fun to experiment with, in the same way that the pictures are.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this old camera has face tracking for auto focus, which – despite not being the most up to date iteration – is handy for quick snapshots, as well as video.
As I was kicking around San Francisco, and then made my way up to Canada afterwards, I knew I had to try out the SD780 for candid street shots. After all, everybody on YouTube seemed to claim that these digicams are hidden gems, perfect for street photography.
The truth is that while these are fun to use, and people don’t really give them much of a second look – they don’t really provide the picture quality or manual control required to get consistently good shots – at least not to the same level as something like the Ricoh GR III. But then again, that camera does cost about £900. Given the right conditions though, I was fairly pleased with the results.
Unsurprisingly, one area where the SD780 and probably all cameras of this age struggle is in low light. Not only is the digital noise pretty ugly and the camera prone to blur due to exposure miscalculations, it also regularly struggles to find the focus.
SO: The question on everybody’s lips: Should you run out and buy a ‘y2k cam’ immediately? Well, maybe. If you can find one in good nick for £50 or so, then why not? They clearly aren’t the best, but can shift your perspective a bit, and that in of itself is often invaluable. However, don’t be a chump and spend a few hundred quid on one (like me), because that would just be foolish. They’re no worth it.