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|| News Item: Posted 2004-01-02

Terrill's take on the Nikon D2H
By Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

USC's Steve Smith runs the ball as UCLA's Jarrad Page gives chase on Nov. 22, 2003, in Los Angeles. Shot with a DsH and a 400 2.8 at 200 ISO at 1/2000 f4, JPEG Fine with a "Normal" contrast setting.
After working with this camera for a month and a half, I have tremendous mixed feelings about it. On one hand it’s a masterpiece of engineering and on the other Nikon has fallen short on image quality.

First some positive points.

The battery is absolutely incredible. When I did some brief testing back in September of 2003, I could see that the battery had been improved over the D1 series. So when I got a production model in early November, I decided to do some real world testing. Over a seven-day period, I shot five basketball games, one football game, an MLS Championship soccer game and various tests for a total of 3,577 JPEG images shot on a single charge. Throughout the tests, I did the typical amount of chimping. This is a miracle considering that I usually don't get more than 300 images from a D1H battery. The recharge on the completely dead battery took 1 hour and 50 minutes. The battery is also about half the size and weight of the D1H battery. The battery information in the menu system is also a cool feature, which shows the frame count, percentage of battery power left, lets you know when the battery should be calibrated and how much actual life is left in it. Very impressive!

The wake up time, which is almost instantaneous, and the shutter lag are also impressive. You wouldn't think that the difference in shutter lag between the D1H at 70ms and the D2H at 37ms would be perceptible, but it is. You only need to shoot with the D2H for a few minutes and then pick up a D1H and shoot with it to notice the difference. More often than not, with the D2H, I get the image that I expect (i.e. A ball just before it goes into a glove). You know how they say, "If you saw it, you probably don’t have it"? Well, with the D2H, you pretty much do. I can't say the same for the D1H.

The mirror blackout time is also a marked improvement over the D1H. There were many times that I would shoot a long sequence with the camera and afterwards was unable to remember even seeing the mirror come up. It's a lot like the screen flicker of the old silent movies. It’s there, but hardly noticeable and easy to ignore. Conversely, I would often lose track of the action with the D1H due to the extended period that the mirror was up.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

Andre 3000 from the group Outkast performs "Hey Ya" during rehearsals for the American Music Awards on Nov. 13, 2003. This picture was shot at 1000 ISO at 1/200 2.8 with a white balance of 3800k, normal contrast and JPEG Fine, Sharpen high.
The automatic image rotation is brilliant. Having the images come up in Photo Mechanic rotated the right way is a real time saver. It also proved difficult to fool. It doesn't matter which way you shoot vertically (underhanded or over-handed) or which release button you use, the images come up rotated the right way. If you dutch the camera only part way, it will rotate to the closest logical orientation. In field tests, I found that once in a great while a few images failed to rotate. It also had difficulty knowing the proper rotation if the camera was pointed straight up or straight down. Not really surprising or a significant problem.

The auto focus is also improved. I shot a 25-frame sequence of a quarterback getting sacked, the ball popping loose and the defender running in 75 yards for a touchdown. Every frame was sharp. The D1H on the other hand is often unsure of itself as it jerks slightly back and forth looking for focus during a play. I've had many situations with the D1H where the first frame of a sequence would be sharp, the second out and the third sharp. It seemed as if the camera's processor just couldn't keep up with all the functions it was being asked to do in addition to auto focus. The D2H doesn’t seem to have this problem.

The D2H's ergonomics are also greatly improved. The buttons are larger and also positioned in a more logical manner.

There are also a lot of little things that are worth noting. The camera is very lightweight. The voice annotation and playback speaker are a great improvement. Having an aperture adjustment as well as shutter speed when shooting vertically is helpful. The ability to reference the dust on the sensor, so that it doesn’t appear on your pictures is a great help. The rubber caps that protect the camera's various connections stay put, which is a definite improvement over the D1H. I used to have to duct tape those down. The eyepiece locks in place. The motor drive (in my tests) is actually better than advertised. I achieved 8.5 frames per second verses Nikon’s claim of 8.

Now for the negatives.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

This picture, cropped to 1/3 of it's origial size, shows K.J. Choi tees off during the third round of the Target World Challenge, Dec. 13, 2003. Shot Raw with 300 2.8 at 250 ISO and shot at 1/2500 at 5.6 and using the "Less Contrast" setting.
The image quality isn't quite what I’d hoped for from this long anticipated camera. In real world and studio tests, I found that the D2H images shot using JPEG compression were noticeably soft and required the use of either high in-camera sharpening or a significant amount of sharpening in Photoshop. In tests shooting with the Raw + JPEG setting there was a definite difference in sharpness between the JPEG and the Raw image. The Raw was the clear winner. In contrast the same test done on a D1H and a D1X yielded little discernable difference between the Raw and JPEG images. All tests were done using identical settings and sharpening turned off. As a result, I’ve been shooting everything in the Raw setting.

Another image quality disappointment is the noise. I realize others have had great experiences in this area. I have not. While in some situations the image noise above 500 ISO is equal to or better than the D1H, I found in many others the noise is worse. It isn’t so much the amount of noise, but the quality of it. In some situations the noise has a clumpy red or purple look to it, which was quite noticeable at Lakers games. Some people feel that this may be an infrared problem. Do I need to dig through my attic looking for my old NC2000 Hot Mirror filters? I hope not.

The noise even rears its ugly head at 250 ISO. I was shooting a golf tournament recently and shot a golfer teeing off against an almost black background. The image, which was perfectly exposed for the golfer, exhibited an unacceptable amount of noise and banding in the blacks as if I had shot it at 1250 ISO. (Click on this link to see the image: I took a look at images shot last year on the same tee and the same basic exposure with a D1H and found there to be quite a bit less noise (almost none). This sort of situation is rare, however. Most of the time the D2H performs well in daylight situations. In any case the noise at high and low ISO seems to clean up well using third party software, but this shouldn't be necessary in a brand, new state-of-the-art, camera. On the other hand, I shot the American Music Awards with an incandescent white balance setting at 1000 ISO and felt that the camera performed quite well. In this case the noise wasn't clumpy at all. The saturation also seems to drop as you go up in ISO. Go figure.

While the 2.5-inch LCD monitor is impressive at first look, it has some flaws. On my unit, the image doesn't appear as sharp as I think it should, even when you zoom in on it. The color is also a little bluer than it should be. It would be nice if Nikon made the color on the monitor user adjustable.

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

Photo by Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

This picture, cropped to 1/3 of it's origial size, shows Nicole Kidman. It was shot at JPEG Fine with a setting of Sharpen Medium High at 400 ISO with a 70-200 2.8 at 1/160 of a second at f4. The file was also sharpened further in Photoshop.
On the pre-production model that I had back in September, the screen protector broke after catching on my jacket on the first day that I had it. On the production model that I have, I lost it altogether as the camera rubbed against my hip at a golf tournament in Hawaii. Obviously, a little clear tape will fix this problem.

While shooting basketball games, I got the distinct feeling that the D2H images had slightly more motion blur in them than in the D1H at identical shutter speeds. However, I haven’t been able come up with a test to prove this out.

Being limited to 1/250 of a second for flash sync is a little disappointing. On the other hand, I was able to try out the SB-800 AF Speedlight with the D2H and was very impressed with its’ performance. I was able to achieve a sync of 1/8000 and (in the short amount of time that I had it) was unable to shoot a poor exposure with it. Even while using Nikon's 12-24mm and shooting just inches from someone's face, the exposure was dead accurate. Anyone who has ever shot digital, whether using Nikon or Canon, knows the misery of shooting strobe with it. The SB-800 used with the D2H is a massive improvement. I can honestly say that, after nine years shooting digital, I can finally shoot strobe with confidence.

(Click on this link to see the full-sized file of Nicole Kidman:

In conclusion, I think Nikon has built a camera that (mechanically) is without equal, but definitely needs some improvement on image quality. I hope and believe that Nikon will fix these issues (possibly with user upgradeable firmware), which is why I haven't switched to Canon yet. And, while I'm disappointed that Nikon would put out a camera with these flaws, I think they deserve a chance to rectify the situation. I'm also not convinced that every D2H put into the pipeline is exhibiting these problems. There are just too many people that absolutely love their cameras and have no complaints at all.

Related Links:
D2H: Good News or Bad News?
Mark J. Terrill's member page

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Rick says: "Stop Complaining!" ::..