Nikon D2X SLR Review
It has been nearly four years since our Nikon D1X review. Its successor, the D2X, was announced by Nikon in September, 2004, and is only now becoming available. Four years is nearly an eternity in this business, and users of professional Nikon dSLR's have been patiently (?) awaiting the next generation of their business tool of choice; their patience has been rewarded with a camera that sets a new standard for Nikon in terms of resolution and responsiveness. The D2X's 12.4-megapixel images have more than twice the resolution of the now discontinued predecessor, the D1X. That's a lot of resolution by any measure except the Canon 1Ds Mark II. But the D2X is not only about resolution; this dual personality professional dSLR is equally at home on the sidelines as it is in the studio, offering a level of responsiveness generally reserved for sports shooters.
The camera's personality change is accomplished by the menu setting of "High Speed Crop", which can also be assigned to the FUNC. button. With HS Crop off, the D2X uses the entire 12.4-megapixel CMOS image sensor, shooting at a continuous rate of up to 5 frames per second to a depth of 20 JPEG or 17 NEF (RAW) images. Turning HS Crop on converts the versatile D2X into a speed demon, cropping the capture area of the sensor to 6.8-megapixels and boosting the capture rate to 8 frames per second to a depth of 34 JPEG or 29 NEF images. The D2X High Speed Crop feature is an interesting concept, giving you essentially two professional camera's in one.
The D2X is a big and heavy camera by consumer standards; it weighs 4 1/2 pounds including battery and the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR lens we used for testing. It is the same body as the D2H, 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 D2X 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 235,000 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 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 D2X's body is its powerful 11.1-volt, 1900mAh Lithium-ion battery, the same piece used in the D2H. Because it's a smart battery, the D2X 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 800 images and exploring the camera's menu system extensively, the battery still had 16% 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.
The eye-level viewfinder was a pleasure to use, providing a bright 100% view of the full frame and plenty of exposure information, allowing you to keep your eye at the viewfinder while changing exposure settings. The viewfinder has a framing guide for High Speed Crop mode, indicating the capture area of the cropped image; the corners turn red when the shutter button is depressed, reminding you to compose the shot using only the cropped area, not the full frame. It took me some time to adjust to composing the cropped image; old habits, like assuming that the entire viewfinder image will be captured, are hard to break, and I often found that I had cropped out important elements of the image. But after taking several hundred HS Crop images, I was able to capture a high percentage of properly composed shots.
How fast is fast? Nikon states that "the camera is ready to shoot the instant it is turned on", a remarkable claim that I can confirm by deduction and tell you that the D2X power-on performance is faster than my fingers can operate the camera. To perform this test, I mounted the D2X 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 D2X captured images 1/10 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. That's the same time I measured for Auto focus shutter lag from a powered-on condition; the D2X really is ready to take pictures the instant it is powered on! You don't need to be concerned about the D2X's ability to capture spontaneous events; it will likely be ready before you are.
The D2X's shooting performance was what you'd expect from a professional camera. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was imperceptible when pre-focused. Auto focus shutter lag ranged from 1/10 to 3/10 second, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR lens. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture full frame images at 6/10 second intervals, and HS Crop images at 1/2 second intervals. In High-speed continuous shooting, the D2X slightly exceeded Nikon's claim of 8 frames per second when using High Speed Crop mode and 5 fps in full frame; the D2X 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.
Considering the size of its full frame 12.4-megapixel images, the D2X continuous capture performance is impressive. Shooting Large Fine JPEG images, it captured 20 images in 3.2 seconds, and took 16 seconds to clear its buffer. This exceeded Nikons spec of 5 fps, but failed to attain the claimed depth of 22 shots. The D2X does not continue to shoot at a reduced rate once the buffer fills; you must remove your finger from the shutter button and re-depress it to continue. Using the uncompressed NEF format, the D2X captured 17 images in 2.8 seconds, taking 50 seconds to clear the buffer completely; compressed NEF images were captured at the same rate and depth, but took only 31 seconds for buffer clearing. The D2X supports the TIFF format, but you'll probably avoid using it; while it captured 16 images in 2.6 seconds, buffer clearing took a whopping 8 minutes 48 seconds!
The D2x's continuous capture performance improves significantly when using its High Speed Crop feature. Shooting Large Fine JPEG images, it captured 34 images in 3.8 seconds, and took 18 seconds to clear its buffer. This exceeded Nikons spec of 8 fps, but failed to attain the claimed depth of 35 shots. Using the uncompressed NEF format, the D2X captured 29 images in 3.2 seconds, taking 55 seconds to clear the buffer completely; compressed NEF images were captured at the same rate and depth, but took only 35 seconds for buffer clearing. It captured 28 TIFF images in 3.1 seconds, but took an agonizing 16 minutes to clear its buffer. Our timing tests were done using a Lexar 4GB 80x Pro Series CF card for which the D2X has been optimized to achieve its best data throughput with.
You can almost get lost in the feature set of the D2X. The ISO sensitivity is variable from 200 to 800 with a variation between ISO steps of 1/3EV, 1/2EV or 1EV. The HI-1 and HI-2 settings provide ISO equivalent sensitivities of 1600 and 3200 for those times when you're willing to sacrifice 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 1 to 8fps with a maximum depth of 22 full resolution JPEG images, the framerate and maximum number being user-selectable. The D2X offers three metering modes: 3D Color Matrix, Center-weighted averaging (with your choice of the weighted 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, direct selection of color temperature, plus five manual white balance presets you can save and later recall. Carried over from 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 D2X's flexible exposure system is complemented by an extremely robust auto focus system. It incorporates an 11-sensor auto focus system with 9 cross type sensors that Nikon claims cover the majority of the image area. In High Speed Crop mode, 9 AF sensors are used. 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 D2X 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 D2X'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, one of the few cameras I've used that have been able to keep up with this fast animal.
While its exposure and auto focus system complemented each other nicely, producing consistently sharp, well-exposed images, image noise was present in shadow areas at ISO sensitivities as low as 200, and growing to a quite noticeable level at ISO 800. The D2X includes a High ISO Noise Reduction feature that can be activated in the camera's menu system; this in-camera noise processing does diminish the amount of noise, but at the expense of image detail. At ISO settings of HI-1 (ISO 1600) and HI-2 (ISO 3200), shadow noise is very high even with the use of High ISO Noise Reduction. Please see our Sample Photos for examples of noise both with and without High ISO NR. While some may find that the D2X's in-camera noise reduction processing meets their needs, I would prefer to use a 3rd party application such as Neat Image or Noise Ninja; they provide user control over the noise removal process and generally better results.
Nikon Capture 4 software is offered as an option for an MSRP of $99. Its use is essential if you want to take full advantage of the D2X'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 D2X's total imaging package, and I don't understand why Nikon did not bundle it with the camera. Note that the D2X's raw NEF files can also be processed by Adobe Photoshop CS's raw converter as well as Bibble 4.2 and Corel RawShooter Essentials 2005. Please visit the Open RAW web site to understand issues that have recently emerged regarding proprietary RAW formats.
The D2X 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 or SB-600 Speedlight, the D2X 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 D2X 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.
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 D2X. 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 D2X "Dust Off ref photo" function. But sooner or later the camera has to be sent in to a service center for a thorough cleaning.
The Nikon D2X is a bit of an enigma. With both full-frame and High Speed Crop modes, it is versatile like no other camera, equally at home in a studio or a sports arena. It is feature rich, offering the exposure controls and Custom Settings demanded by professionals. Its 12.4 megapixels of resolution, while lagging the 16.7-megapixels of Canon's 1Ds Mark II, set a new standard for Nikon and will be well-received by those with large investments in Nikon glass. But I am a bit disappointed with the shadow noise present in images taken at ISO 200 and above. Nikon attempted to mitigate the problem with their in-camera High ISO Noise reduction feature, but its effectiveness is only fair and you lose image detail as a result; a better solution is the use of 3rd party noise reduction applications. Studio and commercial photographers who don't rely on high ISO settings will be happy with the long-awaited D2X, but photojournalists and sports shooters who need the camera's full range of sensitivity should carefully evaluate the D2X's image noise before parting with $5000.
D2X Sample Photos
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