Kodak DCS 720x SLR Review

Steve's Digicams

Kodak Professional DCS 720x

Steve's Conclusion

At the time of this review, the Kodak DCS 720x is quite possibly the best digital SLR available for pros that have to work in the higher ISO ranges (800 and above). The DCS 720x is the updated replacement for the DCS 620x model. This camera is designed for sports shooters, its highly-sensitive 2-megapixel CCD imager has a calibrated ISO range of 400 to 4000 (up to 6400 via custom settings) and a 4.3fps burst rate. The competition for the fastest digital SLR is really heating up now, currently it's the DCS 720x, the Nikon D1H and the Canon EOS-1D. The new EOS-1D is the fastest at 8fps, the D1H and DCS 720x are tied with a maximum framerate of about 5fps.

The DCS 720x wins the prize for being the biggest and heaviest digital camera, tipping the scale at more than six pounds when fitted with a zoom lens and a battery. There's plenty of finger and hand grip area, too much really. My large hand was fatigued from just keeping it wrapped around the beefy handgrip. You have to be a very strong person to keep this camera held up to eye level for any amount of time. Even hanging around your neck or off your shoulder, it constantly reminds you of its size and bulk. It's no wonder that all of those pro shooters use a monopod to steady these cameras when mated with a large telephoto lens. The weight of the DCS 720x tells you that this is a camera of substance. The all metal construction and dirt and moisture seals make this a real workhorse of a camera with dependability being right up there with its image quality. Working pros have to be able to depend on their cameras, they rarely get a second chance to capture those "Kodak moments."

The DCS 720x is capable of capturing images and storing them in its own proprietary raw format or it can in-camera process finished JPEG images. The early model 720x's firmware only allowed for creation of .DCR raw files but the latest upgrade now supports in-camera JPEG processing. The DCR raw images are stored in a losslessly compressed format, depending on the scene content they're about 3MB each. The supplied Kodak DCS Photo Desk software allows you to convert the raw files into finished JPEG or TIFFs. It allows you to post-process these images to your heart's content before saving them to disk or exporting them to PhotoShop or any editor of your choice. We have a review page dedicated to the DCS Photo Desk application, click here to view it. You no longer have to worry about ruining an entire shoot because the wrong white balance was selected on the camera, it can be corrected in software. You can also vary the exposure value and this alone can often recover shots that were terribly under- or over- exposed. Two of its "power tools" are noise reduction filtering and the sharpening. The noise reduction makes ISO 1600 (and faster) shots highly useable. Using the anti-aliasing filter softens the image so you need to sharpen your images after capture.

As for camera controls, the DCS 720x has got them all because this is really a Nikon F5 married to a Kodak digital imaging system. Any exposure mode you want, it's got it. Programmed AE with Shift, Shutter speed and Aperture priority and full Manual, it's all there at the push of a button. A camera is nothing without a good metering system and Nikon's exclusive 3D Color Matrix metering is excellent and when needed there is also center-weighted averaging and spot as well. Custom settings let you choose the coverage for the center-weighted metering at 8, 12, 15 or 20mm. White balance options include the usual Automatic, Fluorescent, Daylight, Incandescent and Flash or for the best possible match use the Preset from image. Focusing options abound with Single Area AF or Dynamic AF with five selectable focus areas. Choose Single Servo AF with focus priority or Continuous Servo AF with release-priority. And there's focus tracking that is automatically activated when the subject moves. For the purist or those shooting stationary subjects you'll probably use the manual focus mode. The supplied Nikon DP-30 prism finder offers 100% frame coverage and includes the EC-B focusing screen and is interchangeable with twelve other screens.

The DCS 720x is designed as a sports camera and as such it has the ability to capture images at about 5 frames per second up to a depth of 25 frames thanks to a generous 128MB RAM buffer. Real world testing shows that the burst depth is more like 30 or 31 frames. Burst recording options are CS (Continuous Silent), CL (Continuous Low) and CH (Continuous High), all rated at 4.3fps. Shutter speeds are 30 seconds to 1/8000 in 1/3- stop increments plus a Bulb setting. ISO equivalent sensitivity is user selectable between 400 and 4000 (6400 via custom settings). The camera produces wonderful images at ISO 400 to 1600, the higher speeds produce varying amounts of noise but this can be controlled by the use of special filter software like Camera Bits' Quantum Mechanic in Photoshop. Image noise can also be made manageable by using the DCS Photo Desk noise reduction options. The DCS 720x comes out of the box with a removable, low-pass infrared filter mounted in front of the imager. This can be swapped out for a high quality anti-aliasing (AA) filter which virtually eliminates the ever-present moir´┐Ż patterns in textured areas. The use of the AA filter will require post-processing sharpening even when the sharpening option has been enabled in the camera. Here again, Quantum Mechanic is the best image sharpening tool as DCS Photo Desk sharpens like a sledge hammer drives a nail.

The overall user (digital) interface of the DCS 720x has been greatly improved since we last reviewed the DCS 620x. The color LCD is bigger and brighter and the way you move through the menus or image previews is much easier and quicker now. Viewing a captured image on the LCD still leaves a lot to be desired, the D1H and EOS-1D gives a much truer to life color representation. I found that the DCS 720x's LCD often showed an image as over-saturated to the extreme but thankfully it wasn't really captured that way. Image review can be "fit to screen" or magnified 1:3 or 1:1, when magnified you can scroll around inside of the enlarged image. Kodak goes beyond the normal histogram with its Luminometer feature. It displays the brightness of the area under the cross hairs (2% to 180%) and the brightness relative to middle grey in stops from -3 to +3.25. It takes a while to grasp what all of this information is telling you but once you do "get it," you can produce perfect exposures, one after another.

The bottom line. Many of us wondered if Kodak was going to slowly disappear from the professional digital camera business now that Canon and Nikon are making their own pro SLRs. The DCS 720x and DCS 760 say that for the time being the answer is NO. Kodak has ceased its efforts in the Canon-body market to concentrate its efforts on building the best possible camera around a Nikon chassis. Sports shooters using Canon EF lenses will no doubt jump on the new Canon EOS-1D. Nikon AF lens users now have several ways to go; the Kodak DCS 720x, the leaner Nikon D1H or the higher resolution Nikon D1X or Kodak DCS 760. As with all major purchase decisions it is best to look at all the alternatives before making the jump. Thankfully that "jump" now costs less than $8,000 with the prices of these pro digital cameras tumbling in the last year, but they're still many times more expensive than their film counterparts. Most of the DCS 720x users will not be bothered by the price, for this is a necessary "tool" of their trade.

Rob Galbraith's excellent "ISO 1600 and beyond with the Nikon D1H and Kodak DCS 720X" report is required reading for those photojournalists in the market for a high-ISO digital SLR. To quote Rob,

    "There has never been a better time to be shooting sports with a Nikon-bodied digital camera. That's in large part because the current crop of peak action-friendly digital SLRs - the Nikon D1H, Nikon D1X and Kodak DCS 720x - boast strong autofocus systems, pro-class shutter lag times and decent performance at ISO settings that not long ago were absolutely off limits to digital photographers. ISO 800 is no longer a challenge; ISO 1600, ISO 3200 and in some cases even ISO 6400 is a possibility."

Compare the High-Speed Digital SLRs

Kodak DCS 720x
Nikon D1H
Canon EOS-1D
Sensor 2MP Full Frame ITO CCD w/CMY color filter array 2.7MP Interline Transfer CCD w/RGB color filter array 4.2MP Interline Transfer CCD w/RGB color filter array
Effective pixels 1720 x 1160 2000 x 1312 2464 x 1648
Burst rate 4.3 fps 5 fps 8 fps
Burst depth Varies; 25+ frames (my testing: minimum 31 frames) JPEG or TIFF: 40 frames
NEF: 27 frames
JPEG: 21 frames
TIF: 16 frames
Finished file size 5.7MB (8 bits per color)
11.4MB (16 bits per color)
7.51MB (8 bits per color), 15.1MB (16 bits per color) 11.6MB (8 bits per color), 23.2MB (16 bits per color)
In-camera file formats Kodak proprietary RAW .DCR
Baseline Standard JPEG (generated from user-selected .DCR files, processing time 2-3 seconds per photo)
Nikon proprietary RAW .NEF
Baseline Standard JPEG
Canon proprietary RAW .TIF
Baseline Standard JPEG
Average file sizes as recorded to the camera's storage media DCR: 2.3 MB
JPEG: 500-900KB

Note: Kodak's DCR format is said to be losslessly compressed

Large Fine JPEG: 1.1MB
Uncompressed NEF: 3.8MB
Compressed NEF: 2.0MB

Note: Nikon's Compressed NEF format is said to be visually lossless, though the compression does alter the actual image data

Large Fine JPEG: 1.9MB
Uncompressed TIF: 3-4MB

Note: Canon's TIF format is said to be losslessly compressed

Camera firmware user upgradeable Yes, via card Yes, via card Yes, via card
ISO 400 - 6400 in 1/3 stop increments
ISO settings up to about 25,800 via Photo Desk software

Note: ISO range "calibrated" to ISO 4000

200 - 1600 in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 stop increments
ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 via Custom Setting
200 - 1600 in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 stop increments
ISO 100 or ISO 3200 via Custom Setting
Focal length cropping factor About 1.6x (relative to 35mm film frame) About 1.5x (relative to 35mm film frame) About 1.3x (relative to 35mm film frame)
Shutter lag (milliseconds) 61 ms, +/- 1.2 ms

Note: This specification generated through testing with the PocketWizard MultiMax's built-in lag time calculator)

75 ms, +/-5.2 ms

Note: This specification generated through testing with the PocketWizard MultiMax's built-in lag time calculator)

55 ms, +/-5 ms
Storage media Dual PC Card slots; compatible with PC Card Type I/II/III, Compactflash Type I/II (including Microdrive) and Sony Memory Stick Single CompactFlash slot; compatible with CompactFlash Type I/II, including Microdrive Single CompactFlash slot; compatible with CompactFlash Type I/II, including Microdrive
Optical low-pass filter included? No; available as optional extra Yes; bonded to CCD Yes; bonded to CCD
Infrared filter included? Yes Yes; incorporated into low-pass filter Yes; incorporated into low-pass filter
White balance settings Daylight
Auto WB
Custom WB (can store 10 in camera)
Auto WB
Preset WB (can store 3 in camera)
All settings except Preset WB include a 6-increment override to warm or cool the photo
Auto WB
Personal WB (up to 3 can be registered)
Hybrid auto w/CCD and external sensor
WB Bracketing (+/-3 steps in whole increments)
Computer interface 400mbps FireWire 400mbps FireWire 400mbps FireWire
Transmit directly from camera? Yes, via email, allows distribution to one or more recipients simultaneously. No No
Battery Removable 1700 mAh NiMH Removable 2000 mAh NiMH Removable 1650 mAh NiMH
Video out Switchable between NTSC and PAL Switchable between NTSC and PAL No
Voice annotation? Yes; built-in microphone No Yes; built-in microphone
Weight 4.1 lbs w/battery and PC card, without lens 2.5 lbs w/out battery 2.75 lbs w/out battery (11.8 oz)
Included software DCS Photo Desk
DCS Camera Manager
Photoshop file format plug-in

Note: DCS 720X .DCR files may be processed with applications that incorporate Kodak's Software Development Kit for the DCS 700 series

Nikon View 4
3rd party software (varies by region)

Note: D1H NEF files may be processed with applications that call Nikon's NEF file library from the application. Currently, Canto Cumulus, Fotoware FotoStation and iView MediaPro support this capability

Photoshop file format plug-in
IEEE1394 drivers

(Much of this table data came from www.robgalbraith.com)

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DCS 720x Sample Photos

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