Kodak DCS Pro 14n SLR Review
By Movable Type Admin
This conclusion was based on a pre-production Kodak Pro 14n camera with firmware version
4.1.2 (the latest as of 3/24/03). Click here to jump down to our July 2003
To bring a new camera to market is no easy task, especially an entirely new professional digital SLR. In the last couple of years many questioned whether Kodak would be able to survive and prosper against the increased competition from Canon and Nikon. The Kodak DCS 760 is a very capable camera but when placed next to a Nikon D1X or Canon 1Ds it looks huge and very dated. Kodak had to develop a smaller and lighter SLR to remain competitive and aggressively decided to also incorporate a full frame 36mm x 24mm sensor. Presently there are only two full frame dSLRs, the Canon EOS-1Ds and the Contax N Digital. The EOS-1Ds is based on the same rugged and weather-proofed body as the EOS-1V film camera and has proven to be an excellent camera and sells for $8000. The Contax N Digital has remained fairly obscure since its release and we figured it would given its Contax/Zeiss N series lens mount and an $8000 sales price. Do we see a pattern forming here? There's only two full frame cameras on the market and both of them sell for $8K, Kodak's new Pro 14n has a suggested retail price of just $4995.
I'm sure that most of us (reviewers) figured Kodak would use one of their own image sensors seeing as how they are well known for their high-resolution "Kodak Blue" imagers. The image sensor in a professional SLR camera is the single most expensive component, often accounting for as much as 65% of the total cost. Kodak announced at Photokina in September 2002 that they were going to use a FillFactory CMOS imager which took us all by surprise. Given that Kodak was aiming at a $4995 price point maybe they couldn't meet that target price if they used one of their own image sensors (this is only my unsubstantiated opinion). Kodak like Canon, Nikon and every other company must show a profit to survive, but at what cost? Going with a new image sensor meant doing everything from scratch and things aren't nearly as black and white as the technical specs would have you believe. There's a lot of design and engineering time necessary to integrate the sensor with all the other components that will eventually become a working camera. Kodak said that delivery of the Pro 14n would begin in mid- December 2002 and has since announced and missed two or three other delivery dates. It would have been a wiser strategy to say it would be ready around Summer 2003 and then deliver it early.
There's been a ton of pro and con discussions out on the Internet about the Pro 14n just like there is when any new camera is imminent. We saw the same thing happen with the Sigma SD9 and its Foveon sensor. The people lined up on two sides, those that were sure that it was going to be a revolutionary and ground-breaking product and those that didn't think it could live up to the hype or were just not going to voice an opinion until the facts were in. After the smoke cleared and the SD9 had been reviewed it was apparent that the camera was indeed capable of making wonderfully sharp and colorful images but only within a narrow range of parameters. It needed plenty of light and a relatively fast shutter speed to deliver the optimal image. At lower light levels that require longer shutter speeds or higher ISO values the image quality begins to degrade rapidly.
This also seems to be the case with the Pro 14n, at least at this stage in its development. The ISO range is 80 to 800 except in 13.5MP the upper limit is ISO 640. The longest shutter speed is half a second, longer shutter speeds produce a warning on the color LCD telling you that you have exceeded the capabilities of the firmware. The printed camera manual and the published specs for the Pro 14n state that the longest shutter speed is only 2 seconds. Kodak says that a future version of the firmware will include a dark-frame subtraction method of noise reduction. The competing Canon, Nikon and Fuji dSLRs all go out to 30 seconds with no problems. In fact a 30-second exposure from the 10D or D60 (both of which use CMOS sensors) at ISO 100 is incredibly noise- free. And shorter exposures at higher ISO values look great too, something that we can't say about the Pro 14n's images. It's possible that future firmware upgrades will allow the Pro 14n to shoot longer exposures or use higher ISO speeds but I only count eggs that are already hatched.
The Pro 14n can simultaneously create an ERI-JPEG and RAW image but we haven't seen the same quality from these JPEGs that we do from a properly post-processed RAW image. As with all images from pro cameras, the Pro 14n's images need sharpening and leveling to bring out all of the captured detail. And there is lots and lots of detail in the Pro 14n's images. Kodak's ERI-JPEG images can be viewed or printed immediately and also contains enough raw image data to allow it to be post-processed with DCS Photo Desk or the Photoshop import filter. This lets you shoot the space-saving and immediately usable JPEG image format and still have image "protection" in the form of a two-stop range of exposure latitude if needed. To get the best quality out of this camera you will need to be computer savvy and adept at using both the DCS Photo Desk -and- Photoshop software. Kodak supplies DCS Photo Desk and DCS Camera Manager software with the camera and makes software and firmware updates freely available on their web site. There are third-party raw conversion alternatives such as Adobe's Camera Raw and I suspect there will be others if the camera becomes popular enough.
In proper lighting conditions with the Pro 14n set at ISO 80 or 100 it can produce marvelous images. If all you shoot is studio portraits, product photography or well-lit outdoor pictures then the Pro 14n will probably serve you well. If on the other hand you need to shoot in all lighting conditions, capture night shots or need higher ISO speeds for sports photography then this isn't your next camera. You can judge the capabilities of this camera by looking at the sample images posted here and around the net, just be sure to also note the shooting environment and lighting.
Build quality: It's much smaller and lighter than any previous DCS Professional camera. The DCS 760 is built around the rugged and weather-proofed Nikon F5 chassis and has the weight to prove it. It also has the metering, viewfinder, shutter and high speed mirror box of its professional film counterpart. The Pro 14n has a good feel to it in your hands, but it doesn't take long in actual use before you realize that this camera is a lot closer kin to a Nikon F80 than an F5. The Pro 14n has a durable magnesium alloy body but it is not weather-proofed in any manner. The Pro 14n is like most digital SLRs in that the top of the camera contains the same controls found on their film camera counterparts. The back of the camera is where you find the digital controls and the familiar color LCD monitor. The controls and their placement on the body is where you'd expect them to be and Nikon users should instantly feel "at home" with this camera.
Design complaints: The back of the Pro 14n below the eye level viewfinder bulges out and forces you to press your face against it tightly to achieve the proper orientation to see through the viewfinder. Other dSLRs in contrast are quite flat on the back, their LCDs do not protrude much farther back than the edge of the viewfinder. Right-eyed shooters will find their noses firmly pressed into the color LCD and that means it will always be greasy. Pressing your face tight to the camera also means pressing your face up against buttons and this almost always turns the LCD on in review or menu mode. This wouldn't be a big problem -if- the Pro 14n turned off its LCD at the tap of the shutter button (hint, hint) but it doesn't. You must press the Cancel button to turn the color LCD off. The buttons on the DCS 760 and other DCS cameras were indented, you never accidentally activated them. The Pro 14n's buttons stick out from the body and are easy to activate, intentionally or otherwise. The only other thing that bothered me was the location of the vertical shutter release. It is not where your index finger would expect it to be. You have to stretch for it and this is not comfortable. It should be located more towards the front of the camera. Also the vertical grip "bulge" along the bottom of the camera is not deep enough to securely grasp it with your fingers.
The digital features and menu system are well implemented and easy to navigate. The 2-
inch color LCD is sharp, colorful and easy to see in all but the brightest of outdoor
conditions. DCS Pro cameras only require a couple of buttons and the 4-way controller
to do everything. Once in Review mode you press Up or Down to "pop up" the options menu
where you must quickly make a selection or it disappears. From this popup you chose
full screen review, histogram, zoom or index mode. Most of the data is displayed on the
color LCD but some is also displayed on the small monochrome data display below the big
This data display is also used to show "tool tips" when making menu selections and in capture mode it displays the white balance, ISO speed, image type, size and quality, number of remaining frames and the active card slot. It looks big, bright and readable in the picture above but out in the real world this thing is not very easy to see. The dots that make up the characters are very small and even when back lit there is not a lot of contrast to this display.
One of the biggest complaints will undoubtedly be its battery life. Having used other CMOS imager dSLRs like the D60 and 10D, I fully expected the Pro 14n to have a good battery life, but such was not the case. The D60 or 10D can go all day on one battery, so far one Pro 14n battery has only gotten me about 45-50 pictures. Jay Kelbley of Kodak Pro tells me that the Pro 14n "has a very powerful DSP (digital signal processing) chipset that is powered up whenever the camera is turned on. If you just shot away with a fresh battery you could get 600 shots. If you leave the camera on for 4 hours and intermittently shoot you can get 300-400 shots. If you leave the camera on for 8-10 hours and then go shoot you would get 30-70 shots. The 14n as currently configured, does not automatically turn off.. The LCD will "sleep" to save some power, but unless you turn the switch to "off" or remove the battery, the camera will continue to power the DSP, Microcontroller, etc. in an effort to keep the camera ready to shoot." Pro 14n owners should plan on owning 2 or 3 batteries -- or one heck of a long extension cord. A good alternative is a powerful and compact external battery, see my Digital Camera Battery section in this review.
Or maybe the biggest complaint will be "why does it take twenty seconds to turn my camera on?" You flip the power switch and the data LCD on the back displays " DCS Pro14n" for about 9-10 seconds as the camera "boots up." With the latest firmware it then displays "" for another 7 seconds. In comparison the Canon EOS-1Ds turns on in about one second, same for the D60 or Nikon D1X or D100 -- so what the heck is the Pro 14n doing? Or maybe a better question is - what are you [not] doing while your camera boots up? According to Kodak the camera is performing a dark frame noise test when the "camera recalibrating" message is displayed. This should only happen when there is a substantial change in ambient temperature detected by the camera.
I won't bother detailing the exposure modes, if you're in the market for this type of camera then you aren't a beginner. The Pro 14n offers all the usual Program AE, Shutter and Aperture priority, Manual and AE Bracketing modes as all high-end dSLRs. The Nikon F-mount gives you access to a wide variety of Nikkor and third-party lenses including the latest AF-S lenses with very fast focusing motors. On the front is the familiar focus mode switch (Manual, Single Servo, or Continuous Servo), selectable Single Area AF (with 5 AF areas, manual or auto selection) or Dynamic Area AF that follows a moving subject through its five AF areas. There's a nice bright AF-assist lamp to increase subject contrast in low-light conditions. I used the Pro 14n exclusively with Nikkor AF-S type lenses and wasn't overly impressed with the AF speed, I'd put it about even with the D100 which is not a pro level camera.
Kodak claims that the Continuous drive mode yields 2fps but I was never able to exceed about 1.6fps or thereabouts. What image type you have selected greatly affects the depth of the camera's buffer. If you have 13.5MP Raw+Jpeg selected you will only be able to capture four frames and even with a very fast (24x) CF card it will take about half a minute to flush the buffer. Any time you select Jpeg with or without the Raw files it lowers the buffer depth to four frames unless using the Small/Basic Jpeg which is not very useable for professionals. If you select Raw by itself you can get about 6-7 frames in the Pro 14n's 256MB buffer, again it takes about half a minute to process the contents of the buffer. Kodak says that this buffer can be doubled to 512MB, the cost is unknown at this time. This camera will operate the best with the fastest and largest CF cards you can buy for it, a 512MB size card is good, a 1GB size card is better. The Pro 14n is fully compatible with IBM/Hitachi Microdrives and supports the new Lexar Pro Series CF cards with Write Acceleration technology. I have no idea how well SD/MMC cards work in the Pro 14n because that card slot is not currently activated. Kodak says a future firmware update will enable this media slot. Once it is enabled the camera will have the ability to simultaneously write to both types of media.
Exposure metering includes the usual Nikon options of Matrix / 3D Matrix (if using a Nikkor D-type lens 3D Matrix is available), Center-weighted averaging and Spot. AE Bracketing allows for shooting a sequence of two or three frames with the camera automatically varying the exposure on each shot. Exposure compensation is available in all modes except Manual and allows for overriding the metering system up to +/1 2.0EV in 1/2EV steps. In contrast, most other dSLRs offer a user-selectable step increment of either 1/2EV or 1/3EV. In the center of the metering selector switch is the AE/AF Lock button that allows you to lock exposure and/or focus without using the shutter release. A feature unique to the Pro 14n is Digital Exposure Correction which operates only on JPEG images. Using all kinds of high-tech wizardry the camera analyzes the captured image and makes changes to the tone curve to produce a better overall image. I can't say that I had time to explore this option so I can't comment on whether it really helps or hurts the final image. I can't stress enough that for the best results you should be capturing RAW images, not JPEGs. The white balance system worked well, the presets each have numerous sub-options (standard, warm, cool) to further adjust the color temperature. The manual white balance feature is excellent, using a captured image you can move a small "eyedropper" tool to precisely sample the white or gray point from even the tiniest portion of the frame.
The bottom line: The Pro 14n delivers incredibly high resolution and details, but only in a narrow range of operating parameters. Kodak does not use an anti-aliasing (AA) filter in front of the sensor so it creates very sharp images. This sharpness comes at the cost of increased color artifacts most commonly seen as moire patterns. Kodak should make the AA filter an option, many of us would prefer to eliminate or minimize color artifacts before capture and do our sharpening in software after capture. Image noise in the Pro 14n is a moving target. It's there in the low contrast areas and how much it stands out is dependant on how you do your post-processing with Photo Desk. You need to choose to either "hide" the noise or emphasize the details in shadow areas, you can't have both. Use of too much noise reduction results in what one of the other reviewers refered to as "stippling," if I had to give it a name then I'd call it blotchy looking. Individual pixels get blended into adjacent pixels and of course the end result is loss of detail.
If you're a studio portrait or product photographer, work in the ISO 80-100 range and
lighting is not a problem -- the Pro 14n will probably suite you well. The lack of
high-ISO support, a rather anemic and slow buffer and less than robust AF performance
does not make this a camera for sports or action photography. If you need a camera that
delivers "ready to use" JPEGs -- this isn't the one. As stated before, you need to
capture Raw and then spend some time in Photo Desk and Photoshop. My personal opinion
is that Kodak (and the buying public) would be better served by admitting that their
choice of image sensor for the Pro 14n was not optimal. The limited ISO range, the lack
of long shutter speeds and the apparent image noise is a product of the camera's image
sensor and no amount of firmware tweaking is going to fix it. Increase the Pro 14n's
price to cover the additional cost but please put one of your own Kodak Blue image
sensors in this camera.
All of the firmware upgrades (five so far) have definitely improved the operation of the camera and the quality of the images, so Kodak didn't fib about that. Did it "solve" all of the problems we saw with the late-beta firmware? The short answer is no, it didn't. There's still a problem with chromatic aberation (purple fringing) when dealing with heavily backlit and contrasty subjects. There's still noise at long shutter speeds (1/2 second or more) and at higher ISO values - this is still not the right camera if you need to shoot night shots or work in low-light environs. The noise reduction routines in the latest PhotoDesk software yields much cleaner images but it's still a rather slow and "clunky" affair. I'm no big fan of the PhotoDesk software interface, Adobe's Camera RAW and Photoshop blow it away, but hey - it is FREE isn't it?
The Pro 14n is still the highest resolution dSLR that you can buy, it generates lots and lots of pixels - these images are huge, and that's a good thing. Compared to the Canon 1Ds or the other less-resolute dSLRs the Pro 14n's images are quite sharp, this is due to the fact that unlike the others it does not have an anti-aliasing filter in front of the imager. Full-frame is the way to go if you're a wide angle freak and the Pro 14n delivers in this respect. Disappointing is the viewfinder's 92% field of view, this is just not what you expect from a "pro" level SLR, it needs to be as close to 100% as possible. But, at $3000 less than the Canon 1Ds it is a very respectable camera if used within its limits.
The camera that we used had the 256MB memory expansion installed which Kodak is
50% off ($295 instead of $595) now through 8/31/03.
See the "Second Opinion" links below to read other Pro 14n reviews at the Imaging-Resource, Luminous Landscape, Rob Galbraith's and other camera sites.
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