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How to Extend the Life of a Digital Camera Using Adobe Camera Raw

The pull to new tech can feel irresistible. We’re drawn to increased mega-pixels, promises of unparalleled low-light performance, and wireless transferring capabilities. Often we can convince ourselves that we need these extra bells and whistles, but do we, really? This tutorial might just keep some money in your pocket and that trusty old digital camera in your hands, at least for a little while longer!

If you’re a photographer who’s finding you’ve reached the limits of what your camera can do and are struggling with essential tasks, then it very well might be time to upgrade, but Adobe Camera Raw has a few new tools and techniques that can greatly improve digital photos, even older ones. Either way, it pays to know about these new software post-production capabilities before you spend any of your hard-earned cash.

They Still Make 'em Like They Used To

New Digital Cameras Aren't Revolutionary Anymore

When digital imaging technology was getting started there were big differences between cameras, and changes came on in leaps and bounds. There were bigger sensors, better colour, enhanced low-light sensitivity, smaller cameras, mirrorless cameras — every year there were new models offering more features. Looking at cameras today, however, it seems the leading manufacturers have converged to similar set of features and design, more or less.

When I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D90, it was the late noughties. The D90 was one of the first successful DSLR-style digital cameras: it was relatively affordable and worked out well for a lot of people. It was a mid-range crop sensor (DX) that went for around £800. It had 12 megapixels, could record video – which was unheard of at the time for DSLRs – and handled low-light pretty well. I loved it, but over the years that followed, I started to reach the limit of what it could do. When I became self-employed, I got some business start-up funding to upgrade my equipment and opted for the Nikon D800, which cost around £2000 for the body only.

The time between getting the D90 and D800 wasn’t much, a gap less than five years, but the difference between the two cameras seemed huge. They were released only four years apart, and even considering that I’d moved from a cheaper crop sensor to a full-frame, I immediately noticed the difference in the image quality and how much further I could push the performance. The pixels were triple that of the newly-released cameras just the year before and, as a result, the RAW files were big and slower to buffer. The big files were somewhat slow to process on the computers of the time, too.

Old Camera Hardware, New Software Tricks

I’m now almost a decade into D800 ownership and, though I’ve got close, I’ve still not reached the limit of its capabilities. In terms of usability, functionality and regular-use image quality, nothing has really changed significantly in the newer cameras, not enough to make me upgrade in any case.

Computer power and photography software, however, has moved along at an even greater pace than the imaging hardware. If you're thinking of upgrading your camera, first consider whether you've upgraded your computer recently. Is your existing PC able to shoulder some of the load? You might be pleasantly surprised. Here are a few tools you can use in Adobe Camera RAW to help you get the most out of your current digital camera, or even to re-process your old files with new fidelity.

How to Use Adobe Camera Raw to Extend the Usefulness of an Older Digital Camera

What do those of us who don’t want to, or can’t afford to upgrade, do when we want to get a little more from the photos made with our older cameras?

1. Image Size and Super-Resolution

Image size is possibly the main issue people can have when it comes to older cameras. Images taken using cameras with fewer megapixels don’t lend well to being displayed or printed in larger sizes. Upscaling these has never been a realistic prospect, mostly they’d become soft or pixelated versions which were useless. That is, upscaling was not a realistic option until Super Resolution was added to ACR 13.2 last year.

I was sceptical – great, another tool that claims to be able to upscale…

Going back slightly, there’d been a tool in ACR called Raw Details Enhancer which ‘improved’ RAW photos by employing an advanced demosaicing algorithm, essentially rebuilding the image to better render details and edges, reducing visible artifacts and displaying cleaner colours.

Super Resolution builds on this algorithm, and now instead of just enhancing an existing image it can use a building-block method to interpret neighbouring pixels and extend the photo, by a staggering four times the original size!

Super Resolution in action. Original image (left) at 100% and enhanced (right) at 200%Super Resolution in action. Original image (left) at 100% and enhanced (right) at 200%Super Resolution in action. Original image (left) at 100% and enhanced (right) at 200%
Super Resolution in action. Original image (left) at 100% and enhanced (right) at 200%

It’s very effective and the great thing is that unlike RAW Details Enhancer, you can also use this on JPEGs, so those photographs that are languishing unloved on a hard drive somewhere from your old DSLRs or ‘snappy cam’ can have a new lease of life.

Are there downsides? Sure, but only what you’d expect. If the original image is poor quality (soft, artifacts, odd colouring) then it won’t really fix those, and they’ll be enlarged along with the rest of the details in the image, perhaps even making them more noticeable. But for a photograph where the only sticking point is the size? It’s perfect.

2. Clean Up Noisy and Soft Images

Lower light capabilities and poor performance at high ISOs sometimes made older cameras inefficient in anything less than full daylight. Both the de-noise and sharpening tools in ACR have come a long way in dealing with these low-light/high-amplification noise problems.

De-noise tools have always been very hit and miss, often just smoothing everything out to the point of looking like a cartoon.

Detail and Noise tools in ACRDetail and Noise tools in ACRDetail and Noise tools in ACR
Detail and Noise tools in ACR

In the Detail menu of Adobe Camera Raw, you’ll find plenty of options to help you breathe new life into photos. For noise reduction there’s the regular tool which works on luminance noise (greyscale) in your image, and then there’s chroma noise reduction for blotchy colours. Being able to target each of these separately means you can balance the level of reduction and how visible that becomes when looking at your photograph. The Detail option will help you preserve both edges and texture and you really can work it quite hard before it starts to get odd trade-offs like irregular patches and colour specking or bleeding.

Using targeted adjustments can help further because you can focus on specific areas where the noise is most visible, without affecting the whole image.

3. Overcoming Crop Sensor Limitations By Combining Images

If you're still using the older camera, you might want to make some changes in how you shoot based on capabilities of the employing software, rather than trying to fix things like noise or image size later. One thing I’ve always found really useful for getting a little more out of images on occasion is to bracket my shots and/or shoot with an intended panorama in mind.

Bracketing is when you take the same photograph several times, each with a particular (self-set) exposure between them. For example you might take your ‘regular’ photo, plus a stop higher and one lower. For scenes with a lot of contrast this can help you get a photo where everything is well exposed, as you merge the images to get one with a higher dynamic range.

The final image top right, and zoomed in to just 25%The final image top right, and zoomed in to just 25%The final image top right, and zoomed in to just 25%
The final image top right, and zoomed in to just 25% using the panorama method

Shooting for a panorama is a similar tactic in that you’re photographing multiple times to stitch them together, but with the choice of also bracketing each shot if you want to. One concern about doing both is a) the buffer time of the camera between each shot and b) the processing power required to do both. The key is to keep the images to as few as possible.

Why would you want to make a panorama and how does this relate to image quality? There are a couple of reasons to make one, either you can’t fit everything into a scene – which might be a problem with crop sensors in particular – or you want to be able to crop into your image, something that won’t be possible if the original photo is already quite small.

In How to Create a Panoramic Photo in Adobe Camera Raw you can see how to improve image quality and preserve detail by zooming in and taking multiple images to stitch together as a panorama, as well as things to consider while actually photographing, plus how to use ACR to merge your images effectively.

Summary

In reality, we can't use the same camera forever, eventually we reach its limits or something will break and we'll be forced to upgrade. Until then though, rather than chasing the tech and often spending quite a lot of money on something that perhaps isn't required, we can definitely extend the life of our current DSLR or digital camera. Adobe Camera RAW is a big help with that, in particular the following tools:

These ACR innovations have certainly made my life a lot easier and allowed me to push my camera usage and image editing further than I might have been otherwise able to. Hopefully they'll do the same for you and you'll hopefully be able to save for that upgrade, when the time comes.

More Adobe Camera RAW Tutorials

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