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First Look: The Nikon D2H 
by Jim McGee

Given the state of digital camera development you almost have to wonder what any company could do to shake up the marketplace. Add a few more megapixels - yawn. I've got all I need for most applications now…

Then Nikon rolls out the D2H. A 4 megapixel camera - yawn. Then you look at the details and what Nikon is adding to their digital lineup - wow!

First the Camera 
Nikon divides its current D1 line of professional digital cameras into the 5.47 megapixel D1X and the lower resolution, but faster, 2.74 megapixel D1H. The D1X is targeted toward landscape, fashion, and fine art shooters where resolution is most important, while the D1H, which can capture 5 frames per second to a 40 frame buffer (JPEG mode), is targeted toward sports and news shooters where high frame rates are most important.

Now comes the D2H. It ups the native resolution to 4.1 megapixels (not including the expanded resolution available using NikonView and raw mode files). The frame rate jumps up to 8 fps with a 40 image buffer in JPEG mode (25 frames in NEF mode). Nikon listens to its pro shooters. Photojournalists and sports shooters wanted more speed and more resolution. They got it.

Attention was also paid to the balance of the mirror mechanism. The new design means that when the shutter is pressed on the D2H there is only 80ms of blackout time in the viewfinder.

But the news doesn't stop there. Both these groups of shooters wanted their cameras to be more responsive. The new D2H has an "instant power-up" feature. There is no more waiting for the camera to power up while the moment you wanted to capture passes. And while the D1H was never a slouch when it came to shutter responsiveness; Nikon has improved this area as well. There is a mere 37ms lag from when the shutter is pressed to the capture of the image. That makes the D1H the most responsive digital SLR currently available.

Taken together these improvements will make a huge day-to-day difference to how sports & photojournalists work.

When we shot the X Games we had a good opportunity to compare various autofocus systems side by side. The Nikon Multi-CAM1300 was the best of the pack and is used in their F5, F100, D1X and D1H cameras. 

Now Nikon claims to have improved on that performance with the Multi-CAM2000 Autofocus Sensor Module. This new AF module uses 11 sensors of which 9 are cross-type sensors to effectively cover the image area. In the viewfinder you'll be able to individually pick any one of those 11 sensors for spot focus or spot metering as well.

You'll notice that the D2H has a slightly different look than previous D-series Nikon digital SLRs. The ergonomics of the camera were tweaked by industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro with an eye toward making the handling of the camera more intuitive. 

On the back of the camera the size of the LCD screen has been increased from 2 to 2.5 inches and buttons are a bit bigger. Of course the magnesium body of the D2H is still built to the same standards as Nikon's other pro bodies for weather resistance and ruggedness.

Speaking of ruggedness we often get questions about the D100 vs. Nikon's D1 series cameras since the D100 currently has the highest resolution among Nikon's digital SLRs. The weather resistance and ruggedness is what sets the D1, and now D2, cameras apart from the D100. One example is the shutter. The new D2 shutter is torture tested through 150,000 cycles.

Power is supplied by the new EN-EL4 Lithium-Ion battery system. The new pack is about half the length of the old pack, 24% lighter (just 180 g) and provides 47% more power. The pack also has a memory chip which allows the camera to provide you with information such as the exact remaining charge (%), number of shots taken since last charge, if the battery needs calibrating (advanced 'refresh') and the overall battery life (five stages). There is no battery memory with this design so you don't have to worry about running a battery completely out before recharging.

New LBCAST Image Sensor 
Nikon fitted the D2H with an all new LBCAST image sensor. This JFET design reduces power consumption while increasing speed and eliminates the need for fixed pattern noise correction at power-up (allowing that quick response when the shutter is pressed). The increased speed comes from the LBCAST's ability to read 2 channels of data from each pixel at once. The available ISO range of this chip is ISO 200-1600.

The LBCAST design features a thinner optical low pass filter design than previous designs that suppresses moiré patterns without compromising the camera's resolution. Nikon claims that the LBCAST chip "delivers subtle color gradations and smooth diagonals, while minimizing the appearance of color fringes and reducing false colors." As always we'll hold off our final opinions until we can shoot with a production unit in the field but this should all add up to a significant improvement over the D1H's CCD technology. Even better combine the reduced power consumption of the LBCAST with the 47% increase in battery life with the EN-EL4 Lithium-Ion battery system and you're looking at going a long time between recharging. Have we finally put battery issues behind us?

With the introduction of full frame capture chips by Kodak and Canon there has been a tremendous amount of speculation that when Nikon introduced the D2 series it would feature a full frame chip. That is not the case with the new LBCAST chip. It remains a partial frame chip, the same size as the capture chip in D1 series cameras, with an effective multiplier of 1.5x. (see What's the Big Deal About a Full-Size Chip? in issue #20)

White balance has been the bane of every digital camera we've tested to date and we've yet to try one that we couldn't fool. Our position has always been that the photographer should check white balance and set it manually when needed. (see Gary's article on white balance in issue #27). Nikon has taken steps to make auto-white balance a reality in all situations. The D2H features not one, but three sensors, to determine the color temperature of the light you're shooting under. It even evaluates light flicker to determine if you're shooting under fluorescent lights or if the color temperature of the light source is simply something near the spectrum of fluorescent light. These white balance sensors work in concert with the new auto tone control (ATC) algorithm to produce accurate color and tonal balance in the captured image.

LBCAST has three optimized color modes:

  • Mode 1: Optimized for portraits and natural skin tones (sRGB)
  • Mode 2: Optimized to realize a wide color gamut (Adobe RGB)
  • Mode 3: Optimized for landscapes and flora colors (sRGB)

A feature Nikon has added to keep up with the digital arms race is a new raw file format (NEF format). The new file format allows the D2H to write files that contain both raw mode data and JPEG data to speed up back end workflow. It's often handy after the fact to have access to the raw data in post processing to make corrections to the camera settings that were used when the image was captured, but for the majority of images that you won't be modifying the ability to output a JPEG file is a real plus. In the past you had to pick one or the other. Now you have both automatically when you download through NikonView.

The D2H supports Compact Flash Type I or II and Microdrive storage. FAT 12/16 and FAT 32 are both supported. No CF card is supplied with the camera.

Nikon Capture 4.0 software and NikonView 6.1 
Nikon Capture 4.0 has three significant new features: 

  • Image Dust Off - Allows you to use a 'white paper shot' to remove the effects of sensor dust from a batch of images by comparing the locations of dust from a reference image to the location of artifacts in the image batch.
  • Digital DEE - A tool from Applied Science Fiction that improves the tonal balance of an image by applying what is in effect "digital fill flash" to darker areas of the image while maintaining detail.
  • Fisheye to Wideangle Transformation - A tool designed for the new 10.5 mm fisheye lens, it "unwraps" the fisheye image into a rectangular ultra-wide angle rectilinear image. It's a very cool concept that we're dying to see in action.

The D2H contains an orientation sensor that records whether each image was captured in landscape, portrait left, or portrait right orientation by writing a flag into the EXIF header of the image (or RAW header). This allows the camera, Nikon View and Nikon Capture to display the image in the correct orientation when it is displayed - a great feature for those who shoot a lot of verticals.

Those who have a current Nikon digital camera will be glad to hear that NikonView 4.0 is backward compatible with previous NEF file formats. 

Did You Say Wireless LAN? 

The WT-1 mounted under the D2H, shown with the 
stub antenna

One of the most interesting features of the D2H is the new accessory WT-1 wireless transmitter. This is an IEEE 802.111b (WiFi) device that allows you to use the D2H directly on a wireless LAN!

The D2H has FTP support built in. To use the D2H on a wireless network attach the WT-1 to the base of the camera (it connects through the D2H's USB port), setup the network server, your username, and password using the setup menu, and then define the folder you want the D2H to write to. That folder is a subdirectory on a computer on the network. Now as you shoot the images are simultaneously written directly to that network hard drive. There is no performance degradation. The images are simply copied to the network. The WT-1 includes a standard mini-antenna and a long range antenna that can be clipped to your jacket or belt. The range of the small antenna is 30 meters, the large antenna 150 meters.

In use images are first written to the memory card in the camera, and then copied to the network drive in the background while you continue to shoot. You can configure the WT-1 to copy raw files or JPEG only.

This opens up a lot of possibilities up for studio photographers. Instead of judging sharpness or tone on a tiny LCD, images are instantaneously available on the network and viewable on whatever monitor you have available. Imagine doing a test shot and seeing it immediately on a 19-inch monitor. This could be the ultimate Polaroid!

Or imagine the photographer covering a sports event. With a properly equipped laptop, a wireless router and the long range antenna your images could be transmitted directly to your laptop for instant editing and upload while you're shooting more than 100 yards away (keeping your laptop from disappearing while you're on the other side of the arena is a whole different problem).

The SB-800 Flash 
The SB-800 flash is designed to work with the D2H and introduces Nikon's new intelligent TTL flash system (i-TTL). i-TTL provides for 'Advanced Wireless Lighting' for the control of up to 3 groups of remote flash units from one master SB-800. Four frequency channels prevent other photographers from inadvertently triggering flashes. FV Lock (Flash Value Lock) allows you to change composition or zoom for the shot while maintaining desired lighting of the subject. And the new Auto FP High Speed Sync Mode delivers automatic fill flash in bright light.

The SB-800 includes a modeling light, but it is unclear if i-TTL allows you to remotely trigger the modeling lights on all units or if you can only flash individual units as with the current SB-80DX units.

i-TTL is also capable of using color information provided by the D2H color matrix metering in flash exposure calculations. Again this is a system we're looking forward to testing.

The SB-800 is compatible with existing Nikon digital and film cameras in TTL mode.

The New 10mm Lens 
Finally there is the new 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor lens. As a DX lens it is only compatible with Nikon's D-series cameras. It won't work with Nikon's film cameras (click here to read more on Nikon DX lenses). The real news, as we mentioned above is the ability to "unfold" the fisheye images captured with this lens into rectangular, rectilinear ultra-wide images the equivalent of a 15.75mm rectilinear lens.

This G-type lens produces an image with a 180 degree angle of view. Minimum focus distance is a mere 5.5 inches using close range correction. It uses a rounded diaphragm with seven-blade opening to provide a natural look to out-of-focus picture elements. It's 10 elements in 7 groups optical formula uses an ED glass to minimize chromatic aberration for natural colors rendition.

Sometimes we forget that these cameras are part of a system. In this case Nikon has upgraded multiple parts of the system and taken together the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The list price on the D2H is $3,500. Expect street prices to stay at list until supply catches up with demand. Prices were not yet available for the SB-800 or the 10.5mm fisheye. You can also expect to see price drops on the current D1H while Nikon and retailers move them out of the pipeline.

A final release date for the D2H has yet to be announced. The first official public appearance for the camera will be on August 23rd at the 9th annual IAAF World Championships in Athletics, at Stade de France, Paris. Some early prototypes are circulating around now. We'll wait for a production model for testing. As the digital wars intensify it just keeps getting better and better for photographers.

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