Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Quick Review: Nikon D2Xs

Independent Review References:
Nikon D2Xs
Panasonic AG-HVX200
Sigma 10-20mm f 4-5.6
Nikon D2Hs (preview)
Nikon D2H
Canon EOS 30D
Nikon D200

I'm sure you'll be inundated with the images taken during the daytime of all the fine low-ISO, high-color quality images of this camera. But I'm simply going to add just a little tweak, which is about low-light situations, and color-tweaking your camera.

Speed? What Speed?
The Nikon D2Xs can be your primary camera if you feel confident shooting at a reduced frame rate. With the setting in full frame mode, you aren't going to set any speed records in frame rates. After using the D2H for several years, I would have figured the D2Xs was going to be somewhere near the same frame rate of about 7 frames/second, what with better technology, stiff competition from other camera manufacturers and all. But this body isn't meant to fire off in rapid succession; that's what the D2Hs is for (I'll end up writing something about that one in a future post).

The D2Xs can bang out some pretty good files at a decent fps rate, with the high speed crop set to the ON position. Plus, you get the benefit of a tighter image size than with the crop removed. I was shooting with a 300mm 2.8 lens with the subject at the 50 yard line, and I felt like I was using a 400mm or perhaps longer lens while camped out at behind the end zone. The fps rate was much slower than the sports-minded D2H, but I quickly adjusted my shooting tactics. But you'll be shooting nothing but blue crab and turtle races if you want to keep up with your subject, sitting on the motor with the high speed crop off. I couldn't figure what was going wrong when my first job was shooting high school football. One minute, the running back is full frame; the next frame, it seems like he's knee up; the following image, and he's waist-up, coming at me full speed.

You should tweak your settings immediately. These Nikons are set to fire right out of the box, at point and shoot settings, so if you're clueless in Seattle, try just popping in a fresh battery, slipping on a Nikon AF lens, frame some subjects, and fire away. But you really want to set it yourself, right? The user settings seem much easier to manage than the Panasonic HVX200 camcorder, because of the thumb button settings, and a really cool cheat sheet with a "?" mark revealing whenever further explanation is stored within the menu. Panasonic (and any camera manufacturer that doesn't provide this vital feature in their high-end hardware) needs to rip a page out of this manual and follow suit, unless it's patented. If you don't understand the option in the menu that you sit on, and that question mark has popped up, just push and hold the corresponding button on the camera back and viola, an explanation about what the options mean.

Boring Color Tweaks

Rock taken at sRGB Version I.

Rock taken at sRGB Version II.

Rock taken at sRGB Version III.

Unpacking the new body from its box, the settings were pretty similar to the ones in the D2H. Setting the sensitivity down to ISO 100, I started shooting images of a boulder, in afternoon sunlight. But the images didn't have any pop in saturation. Keeping the settings on low contrast with the light setting on cloudy, a little experiment with the Adobe settings was done to grab similar images under different color profiles (yes, there's a "?" for that as well). For my tastes, I didn't care for the sRGB and kept the camera on Adobe, in color mode III. Do I understand the color profiles, other than what the camera tells me? Definitely, not. But I liked the saturation better with my current settings. Your tastes may differ.

Under the Stars

3216x2136 moonrise Raw untoned
Stars at moonrise, untoned image, directly from camera, 30 seconds at ISO 1600 (or HIGH1).

Using my settings on high contrast (altho I usually stick with low contrast for wider tonal range), I banged off some test images of some stars that impressed me while camped out in Chincoteague, VA. Putting a Sigma 10-20mm f/ 4-5.6 (a terrific piece of glass!) on the body, I ramped up the setting to ISO HIGH1, which is 1600 equivalent. Why don't they just call it 1600? Adding to that midnight clear night, 30 seconds of exposure, and high speed crop off, to take full advantage of the 10mm size, which has a lens magnification already in place with Nikons. Adding NR (noise reduction) only adds more write time which is a feature I turned back off, since that would lead to battery drain.

100pct zoom
Detail at 100%. The largest images are on my Flickr site.

Taking the camera to its limits (remember trying to shoot ANYTHING with a Nikon D1 series at night? If I have any images stored, I'll add them), I also pulled the file size back to small size and basic setting. And I was pretty darned impressed with what I saw, after being used to the loads of noise in previous Nikons (D2H, D2 and D1 series).

Tuba City Drive
Taken in the high-noise days with a D1H at ISO 800 where Lori Piestewa grew up in Tuba City, 2003.

I really wonder if adding NR will help or hurt in the long run. There are post-processing programs of all types out there. Simply dive into your camera's settings and try each one. And do one thing before changing your settings: make an audio recording of what you've done. Whatever is necessary, make sure to add that audio clip. The EXIF data that is like a thumb print of a picture file didn't have the ISO setting that I had used for the sequence I shot with the Sigma.

Firmware Upgrades, Old and New

Nikon has already released the ver. 2.00 D2Hs firmware upgrade, which add some options. It also has a firmware upgrade for the D2X, and people are whispering that the firmware brings the D2X to closely resemble the D2Xs! But if you choose to upgrade, you're on your own. I won't take responsibility if you screw it up. From what Jeff shared, it's worth adding the new firmware upgrades, and they are simple enough for both the Macintosh (you can tether the camera or drag/drop the file into an SD card, as long as it's recognized by the camera). As for Windows/Microsoft? I can't share any observations, since I'm Macintosh.

Nikon's website was simple enough with the information. You'd better keep your doggone camera on during the process, or you might have something like a paperweight, if the process is interrupted. I already did my D2Hs body, and there were 2 files, firmware A and firmware B, which took a couple minutes. Being a fidgeter with a camera in my hands, I was tempted to play with the buttons, but realized the danger and set it down, picking up a remote instead. Matter of fact, I have to download the D2Xs firmware, which is only about 1 megabyte.

Initial Thoughts
With the greater ISO range, bigger file size, and less noise, I'd say that I'm pretty happy with the D2Xs. It's still one loud camera, which makes it impossible to be ignored in a quiet room, unless the subject's way in their own world. And forget about catching the gremlins or Santa Claus; either one will bolt when hearing the clunk of the shutter. As I learn the camera's assets and limitations, I'll keep posting here. If I can find a way to make it a stand-alone section, I'll do that. The fact that there's an option for some double exposures is nice as well. Bring the film camera functions back into the digital age. It's just not nearly as fun doing it in Photoshop than doing it in-camera. Keep your eyes peeled for the D2H (I just got one, and will review that soon, as well) and other consumer-grade cameras (I keep hearing lots about the Nikon D200 and the Canon EOS 30D) that write very nice files with manageable quality in extreme conditions.

Get yourself some larger cards. Unless you'll be shooting a single frame of a rocket launch, you'll see how quickly a now-old 512 MB card can fill up with the camera settings on high file size and quality, let alone trying to shoot in RAW or TIFF. Try that in a 256 or 512 MB card, and your once-formidable CF card becomes tinky winky. If your card size isn't ready for the camera, set it temporarily until you get at least a 1GB, and perhaps a 2GB or larger card. That way, you can take advantage of the best image quality, instead of scaling it back, which then starts defeating the point of getting such a camera, in the first place.

But again, see where this is heading? The CD burn for storing files is way obsolete. Remember, CD's have now been used since the early 1980's. Their capacity was fine for the early computers. Just as we've outlived them, we're outliving the usefulness of CD data storage. At this stage, you'll start filling up 4.4GB DVD data disks, if you're shooting high resolution NEF and TIFF files, or if you're shooting several jobs in one day. So a nearby option may still be to start considering a now-expensive high-capacity disk burner and disks (BlueRay, HD DVD), or at the very least, a double-layer DVD burner. The 9GB disks are still pretty expensive, and their use will be temporary, since high definition media will be available for the masses when people start capturing video on HDTV cameras.

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