Old digital cameras?

I still own and use two of my very first lenses, a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro and my trusty Nikkor 50/1.8D (that's been through more abuse than any other of my lenses). The Nikon F-Mount fascinates me a bit because it allows for such great compatibility. At least when going back in time.

You can still use age-old Nikkor lenses on modern camera bodies. And people do - for sentimental reasons, because some of the old lenses still perform spectacularly or because there's never been another like it (Nikkor 50/1.2 anyone?).

So I was wondering ... how to the camera bodies compare to that. How 'usable' is an old DSLR body in today's time, do they still hold their own?

I have used my D80 (my first DSLR) as a backup camera in a few situations. And sure it certainly lacks when compared to a more recent camera. But I don't miss all too much in terms of functionality - I don't use live view often, nor do I record videos. It comes down to things like noise-ratio and AF-tracking where the years do show.

But what about properly old? Like 'first of them all' old?

As a pure hobbyist I'd never consider getting a 'single digit' Nikon - much too expensive. But then again we're talking old here. And the oldest of them all is Nikon's first widely available DSLR ever - the D1.

It was not Nikon's first DSLR ever - but the first that appealed to a considerable audience. Its predecessors (like the E2 and E3) were bulky, limited and hugely expensive. The D1 hit the stores at around USD 4000 in 1999, which with inflation is about the same a 'single digit' costs today.

I picked mine up from eBay for 99€. Yup. Not much to lose ... and what can I say. It looks really decent (apart from the rubber missing rubber at the CF card slot) and works perfectly. Actually it feels solid as a rock and I have no doubt it will still work in another decade or two.

As first impressions go ... it seems very familiar yet very different as well. It is a lot more bulky than newer Nikons, straight lines and planes where today everything is curved and smooth. Some of the control elements we're used to today are there - and many are not. Especially the back of the camera seems empty. The display is tiny and many of the controls we've become used to are not there (Menu / Zoom in and out / OK and such).

At its core a camera is a simple thing - you point, you focus, you push the trigger. Same goes for the D1 so you can pick it up and start shooting right away. But that is where it really becomes apparent how much time has passed since the D1 was introduced.

Today's routine (at least for me) is to look through the viewfinder, compose, focus, take the picture and then check the display. Are the histograms okay, does the shot look okay, zoom in to check if I shook too much and if is it sharp where it is supposed to be.

But with a D1 you take a picture, look at the display and see - nothing. Because saving the image takes a lot longer than it does today. And becausae the D1 does not by default show a preview of taken pictures. Pushing the 'monitor' button gives you that.

It then shows the shot and a histogram. And the latter is really the most useful thing here because obviously the display is too small to properly check the shot and the colors are way off anyway.

So I was sure you could set picture preview somehow. "Let's bring on the menu to browse through the settings". Ha, silly me! There is no menu button - because there is no menu. As far as customization goes you do that via CSM button in combination with a small 7-segment display on the lower half of the body. With it you can browse a set of 31 "special options' you can change. They are identified by numbers only so you have to check the manual. Yikes!

But checking the manual is really worth the time because not only was I able to enable picture preview, I also found that I could enable AF-on focusing (yay!), enable RAW mode and a few other things you sort of expect. Doing so made me instantly feel much more 'at home'.

All in all, everything I really felt like I need is there. I have my two dials, I can use AF-on focusing, there are the A/S/M modes, there is auto-bracketing. So really, can you take this camera, go out and shoot? 

Yes you can. And it is a really cool experience, too. You are using the camera upon which all of Nikons later DSLR cameras are based and you realize the last 17 years of constant development and improvement. Personally I think that this goes to show what an awesome job Nikon did with the D1. Because I feel that what we use today is the result of evolution - based on a proper foundation. So almost two decades later you can still grab the D1, go out and use it. 

But will I? Well ...  no. Not regularly anyways. Because as we say here "Das Bessere ist der Feind des Guten". Better is the enemy of Good. And just because you can doesn't mean that you will. 17 years is a long time and technology has advanced at incredible speeds.

A sharp prime will always be a sharp prime. Proper optics don't age - technology does. So as for the initial questions, do older DSLR bodies hold their own like older lenses?

No, they don't. And that is no surprise of course. What was a surprise (at least for me) how much fun it was to use this thing despite its shortcomings compared to a modern camera. So I will not be using it for day to day use. But as something different you play around with, that you take out from time to time just to have so fun with?