Emulating the Nikon D80

28.12.18

Once upon a time I had a Nikon D80. When I revisit the pictures I took back then I notice two things. The first is that I didn't give a damn about image sharpness and almost all my pictures are blurry in one way or another (camera shake, slight misfocus or lens aberrations). The second however is how much I like the way that camera failed in low light.

Landscape shot during the day with ISO3200
Landscape shot during the day with ISO3200

The D80 is a product before the age of insane ISO ratings and aggressive noise reduction1. Being able to take noiseless images above ISO1000 was still a dream but the images the D80 took even in Hi1 (ISO3200 eqivalent) were beautiful in the way an Instagram filter is beautiful; so much that I occasionally took pictures in high ISO ratings even during the day in order to get that look (above). Behold for example this portrait taken at ISO1000:

Portrait of a young woman
Portrait of a young woman

More than a decade later and ISO1000 is now virtually noise-free territory. However some times I do miss the gritty rendition of the D80. I don't want it in all my images obviously, nor I want to carry an extra camera with me just to take that special image. (It doesn't help that in the meantime I have given it away, so even if I wanted to, I couldn't). You can buy used D80's today for less than 150 bucks but I wanted a cheaper, more durable solution (D80's tend to break after several thousand clicks and are now EOL so no more replacement parts).

Since we can now start from a noiseless image at the same ISO ratings we need to add the noise ourselves. I used the Darktable module grain to add the noise despite the fact that this is not meant to emulate digital noise. A plugin similar to the Gimp's HSV noise would be better but I wanted to create the emulation in Darktable so that I can easily re-use the technique. Thus, I borrowed the D80 back, took a picture, and tried to simulate it using the D750.

Still Life and some Packaging, D80
Still Life and some Packaging, D80
Still Life and some Packaging, D750
Still Life and some Packaging, D750

It turns out that the response of the D80's CCD in extreme sensitivity gain settings wasn't only a matter of noise.

After a couple of hours and multiple attempts I created a style for Darktable that I think should do a good job of emulating that D80 look on clean, noise-free images.

The most significant changes were that I made less saturated pixels even less saturated, as well as the darkest pixels less saturated, as on my sample images the darker the area of the image was, the less saturation it had. Finally the highlights have an obvious yellow tint which I recreated using the color correction module.

Darktable Screenshot with the color zones and color correction modules open
Darktable Screenshot with the color zones and color correction modules open

Most other changes were slight color adjustments in various lightness zones, so that the image matches the reference.

I tested my style on another image taken in quite different conditions and it almost matched the D80 response, so I am happy with the result. Please try it and tell me your thoughts.


  1. It is also one of the last (if not the final) DSLR with a CCD sensor instead of CMOS. For years I thought that this was the reason for its film-like achromatic noise, however this was due to Nikon performing chroma noise NR even when the High ISO NR setting is in the Off position and me shooting JPEG's. The RAW files clearly have the red noise inherent in digital images. ↩︎