Nikon D2H SLR Review
By Movable Type Admin
What is your definition of "responsive"? Nikon invested their considerable and talented resources to provide an answer that they hope you'll use - D2H. Designed for photojournalists and sports photographers, the D2H sets a new standard for Nikon digital cameras in speed, responsiveness and image quality. At an estimated retail price of $3200, its value is considerably higher than its predecessor, the D1H, currently available from retailers for about the same cost.
How fast is fast? Most performance benchmarks measure the absolute amount of time required to perform certain functions, and the results of competitive cameras are compared by prospective buyers. There are at least two performance measurements that the D2H has made irrelevant, both in terms of the numerical result and in comparison to its peers. I typically measure the elapsed time between powering a camera on and capturing the first image, a performance metric important to photographers who need to capture unposed spontaneous events. Nikon states that "the D2H is ready to take pictures the instant it is turned on", a remarkable claim that I can confirm by deduction and tell you that the D2H power-on performance is faster than my fingers can operate the camera. To perform this test, I mounted the D2H on a tripod so that I could use two hands to operate it, one to rotate the power switch, and the other to operate the shutter release simultaneously. The result? The D2H captured images 4/10 second after the power switch was rotated, this time including photographer response time, rotating the power switch, auto focus, exposure setting, white balancing, raising the mirror, releasing the shutter, and recording the image. I experienced the same remarkably-short delay when waking the camera up from its Auto Meter-Off condition, and it's the same time I measured for Auto focus shutter lag from a powered-on condition; the D2H really is ready to take pictures the instant it is powered on! You don't need to be concerned about the D2H's ability to capture spontaneous events; it will likely be ready before you are.
The D2H's shooting performance was impressive in every test I submitted it to. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 second when pre-focused. Auto focus shutter lag was 4/10 for the first shot, and 1/10 second for subsequent shots of the same subject. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture images at 2/10 second intervals; this is about as fast as my shutter finger works, and it seemed as if there was no delay! In High-speed continuous shooting, the D2H lived-up to Nikon's promise of 8 frames per second; the D2H also has a "low-speed" continuous shooting mode which allows you to throttle-back the frame capture rate to between one and seven frames per second, increasing the duration of a full burst. The viewfinder and top display both indicate the number of remaining shots that can be stored in the camera's Memory Buffer, that number decreasing while shooting, and increasing as the buffer empties when you have stopped shooting; as the buffer empties, more shots can be taken. The D2H also writes to its CF memory card quickly; using a SanDisk ultra 1GB CF memory card, the D2H flushed its Memory Buffer of 24 Compressed NEF (RAW) + JPEG basic images in 16 seconds. The D2H can capture images continuously to a depth of 40 frames, depending on the chosen image quality and the limit you impose as Maximum Shots in the Custom Settings Menu. However, if you have Long Exposure Noise Reduction set ON, the depth of continuous shooting is reduced from 25 to 15 shots in RAW quality, from 24 to 14 shots in RAW + JPEG basic, and from 40 to 30 shots in JPEG fine; if you've been shooting some long exposures using the camera's noise-reduction feature, don't forget to turn it off so that your continuous shooting depth is not limited. Speaking of Noise Reduction, it worked very effectively in our long exposure test.
While I've provided you with the measured results of the D2H's shooting performance, those numbers don't adequately describe how it feels to use such a responsive camera. The D2H was so fast that it became nearly transparent in use; it did not demand my attention or make me wait, and allowed me to concentrate my efforts on capturing images, not operating a camera. Photojournalists and sports photographers are going to love this camera's performance.
The D2H is a big and heavy camera by consumer standards; it weighs four pounds including battery and the Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR lens we used for testing. The camera body is made of a magnesium alloy and designed to take the day to day beating of a war correspondent as well as resisting dust and moisture in the harshest of environments. The D2H is ergonomically designed, and comfortable to hold in either portrait (vertical) or landscape orientation. The controls are well-placed on the body, and have a solid, professional feel. The 2.5-inch 211,000 pixel LCD provides a clear view of menu's and image playback, but the monitor can't be used as a live image viewfinder. The Playback options mimic those found on the consumer cameras with zoomed playback and pan, thumbnail review and several screens of camera and exposure data as well as a histogram display. The eye-level viewfinder was a pleasure to use, providing a 100% view of the frame and plenty of exposure information, allowing you to keep you eye at the viewfinder while changing exposure settings. The top and rear LCD control panels complement the viewfinder nicely, allowing you to set shooting parameters comfortably with the camera at waist level or on a tripod with your eye away from the viewfinder.
Contributing to the size of the D2H's body is its powerful 11.1-volt, 1900mAh Lithium-ion battery. Because it's a smart battery, the D2H can display the percent of remaining charge, an estimate of the battery's remaining useful life, and indicate the need for it to be recalibrated during its next charge. After capturing over 600 images and exploring the camera's menu system extensively, the battery still had 10% of its capacity remaining. Lithium batteries offers many benefits over NiMH; lighter in weight, better performance in low-temperature environments, longer run time, can be charged whenever desired without shortening its lifespan and the ability to provide the user with accurate battery life remaining indications.
You can almost get lost in the feature set of the D2H. The ISO sensitivity is variable from 200 to 1600 with a variation between ISO steps of 1/3EV. The HI-1 and HI-2 settings provide sensitivities of ISO 3200 and 6400 for those times when you're willing to give up some image quality to get that special shot. There are a myriad of options for focusing; single or continuous servo AF, single focus area or dynamic or select one of the eleven focus points on the fly, and of course full manual focus as well. It provides a wide range of exposure options, including Manual, Program AE with shift, Shutter speed priority up to 1/8,000 sec, Aperture priority, AE Bracketing, WB bracketing, exposure compensation of +/-5EV in 1/3EV steps, single frame drive mode or continuous at 8fps with a maximum depth of forty full resolution images, the framerate and maximum number being user-selectable. The D2H offers three metering modes: 3D Color Matrix, Center-weighted averaging (with your choice of the metered area: 6mm, 8mm, 10mm, 13mm or the entire frame) or 3mm Spot. White balance options are also numerous with presets for Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy and Shade which all can be fine tuned +/-3, plus five manual white balance presets you can save and later recall. New to the D2H is the ability to measure the color temperature of incident light using a sensor located on the pentaprism, setting white balance without a reference object.
The number of permutations and combinations of shooting parameters you can set is mind- boggling. Fortunately, Nikon has provided a Shooting Menu Bank consisting of four independent areas in which you can store and later recall frequently-used settings, banks A through D. The Bank Select menu allows you to assign a meaningful name to each of the four banks, helping you to recall the purpose of that combination of settings.
The D2H's flexible exposure system is complemented by an extremely robust auto focus system. It incorporates a new 11-sensor auto focus system with 9 cross type sensors that Nikon claims cover the majority of the image area. It can be set for Single or Continuous servo AF and provides plenty of flexibility in the selection of AF area. In Single-area AF, the D2H focuses only on the subject in the selected focus area. Dynamic- area AF focuses on the subject in the selected focus area, but detects subject movement and tracks it as it moves from one focus area to another. Group-dynamic area AF allows you to limit focus tracking to a smaller group of focus areas, while Dynamic-area AF with closest subject priority chooses the focus area containing the closest subject. The D2H's predictive focus tracking feature worked remarkably well. It was able to maintain sharp focus on a hyperactive Shetland Sheepdog engaged in chasing bird shadows outdoors, the first camera I've used that's been able to keep up with this fast animal.
The D2H captures 2464 x 1632 4-megapixel images, larger than the 2000 x 1312 2.74- megapixel image size of it's predecessor the D1H. The images can be in-camera processed as finished JPEG with Fine 1/4, Normal 1/8 or Basic 1/16 compression, with available settings for sharpness, contrast and hue in the Shooting Menu. If you want artifact-free images you can select between TIFF RGB, or raw NEF compressed or uncompressed formats. The color space is selectable between two modes of sRGB, one optimized for portraits and one for landscapes, and Adobe RGB with the Adobe RGB offering a wider and richer gamut of colors. The physical storage of your images is on any CompactFlash Type I or II device including the IBM Microdrives.
The D2H's image quality is excellent. Its exposure and auto focus system complemented each other, producing sharp, well-exposed images. Noise is detectable in images captured at ISO 800, and noticeable at ISO 1600. ISO settings of HI-1 (ISO 3200) and HI-2 (ISO 6400) produced high noise levels, and should be considered as accommodations for low ambient light conditions when capturing a noisy image is preferable to capturing no image at all. That said, the Nikon Capture 4 software did a creditable job of removing noise from images captured at high ISO settings, although with a loss of sharpness. One thing that I did notice is that the D2H's image noise looks more like film grain than sensor noise, at least up to about ISO 1600. We can not do real justice in the image quality evaluation as this is better done by someone that -is- in the photojournalism business -- a person like Rob Galbraith to be exact. Visit Rob's web site and read his Nikon D2H Image Quality report. Rob also promises an in-depth Nikon D2H review sometime after the first of the year (January 2004.)
Nikon Capture 4 software is offered as an option for an MSRP of $150, or an $80 upgrade for users of Nikon Capture 3. Its use is essential if you want to take full advantage of the D2H's raw NEF files; it offers a rich set of image editing functions on its Tool Palettes, including White Balance, Noise Reduction, Curves, Color Balance and Unsharp Mask. As you use these tools, the original data from the NEF file is preserved, and your changes are recorded as processing instructions that you can later modify without degrading the content of the original image file. Images can be transformed into TIFF or JPEG formats, allowing the them to be processed by other applications, printed at a lab, or simply shared with your friends and family. Nikon Capture 4 completes the D2H's total imaging package, and I don't understand why Nikon did not bundle it with the camera. Note that the D2H's raw NEF files can also be processed by Adobe Photoshop CS's built in raw converter. And I imagine that Phase One's C1 RAW Workflow software will be updated to handle the D2H shortly as well.
The D2H has a regular PC flash sync connector so it can be used with any type of studio lights or external flash units. It also has a flash hot shoe to accommodate Nikon Speedlights, and Nikon claims compatibility with its SB-80DX/50DX/28DX products. When paired with a Nikon SB-800 Speedlight, the D2H supports the features of its Creative Lighting System, including Flash Value Lock, Auto FP High-Speed Sync (allowing flash with shutter speeds up to 1/8000 second), Wide-Area AF Assist Illumination, Flash Color Information Communication (providing the camera with the color temperature of the flash for white balance adjustment), and Advanced Wireless Lighting (providing control for up to three groups of Speedlights through the Master SB-800). The D2h offers six flash sync modes: Front-Curtain Sync (normal sync), Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync, Rear-Curtain Sync, and Slow Rear-Curtain Sync. Unfortunately we did not get a SB800 to test while we had the D2H - maybe next time.
As with any digital camera, even the professional ones, there are a few gotchas. The most common and annoying problem is keeping the CCD imager clean. It's a problem with all interchangeable lens digital cameras, it's not specific to the D2H. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics. Those of us that use these digital SLRs always keep a can of compressed air handy to "blow" away most of those contaminants but it doesn't always work. Nikon Capture 4 software has a feature that removes the effects of dust on the Image Sensor from NEF (RAW) images by comparing them with a reference image taken by the D2H "Dust Off ref photo" function. But sooner or later the camera has to be sent in to a service center for a thorough cleaning.
I have only one disappointment with the D2H I've been testing - Nikon wants it back. To say that I've
been spoiled while using it is an understatement. I'll repeat what I said earlier:
The D2H was nearly transparent as I used it; it did not demand
my attention or make me wait, and allowed me to concentrate my efforts on capturing
images, not operating a camera. I will surely miss this camera when it's gone, but I'll
have some fond memories. While most of you may never have the opportunity to use
this remarkable camera, you'll soon be able to enjoy its results in the various
newspapers and magazines you read; the media will be buying D2H's as fast
as Nikon can manufacture them for many months to come.
Nikon Posts Firmware 2.0.0 Update for D2H SLR
07/20/2004: Nikon USA has today posted the D2H firmware update 2.0.0 which adds numerous new features and improvements including:
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