updated review: January 8, 2004
minor updates: 10/23/04
minor update to opening: 2/4/06

  Nikon D2h Review

Too little? Too much? Just enough? You make the call.

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The sound is one that spun a Canon 1D shooter's head around faster than Linda Blair's in the Exorcist (doubleclick on the picture below to download the sound to your computer). I actually mashed my D2h shutter release down recently just to see what the Canon shooters near me would do. And the reaction was just as described--twisted heads. Long used to bragging rights on action bursts with their 1D cameras, Canon users on the sidelines of professional sports everywhere now know there's a new boy in town, the D2h. [Of course, Canon countered by updating the 1D, which now has a larger buffer and comes closer to matching the length of the D2h's burst.]

Still, the D2h is a bit controversial. Announced in late summer 2003, it didn't begin to ship until November 2003. Despite this somewhat later-than-expected arrival, the D2h only provides a 4 megapixel sensor, which basically matches what the Canon 1D had (for some time), and is only half what the Canon 1D Mark II came out with. Thus, early grumbling in the various Internet digital photography forums all immediately went into a "too little, too late" versus "all that we need" debate. So let's delve into the camera and make up our own minds.

Recommended, if you need a DSLR that can handle action, the D2h will have you covered.

features
performance*
build
value

*with a hot mirror filter and proper exposure

The Definitive D2h Book Is Here

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The Basics

The D2h is a complete redesign from the D1 series cameras. While the family heritage is obvious, virtually every significant aspect of the camera has been rethought. This is not "some new features in a D1 package" type of design. I'm impressed that Nikon has taken the time to try to improve, refine, and innovate in as many places as it has. Every control, every body curve, and even every part deep in the body (frame, shutter, etc.) seems to have been touched. Thus, we have our work cut out just running down the feature set and changes to it.

Less obvious than all the external changes is the sensor, buried deep in the all-black body. Nikon has freed themselves from the Sony sensor parade with this camera, coming up with a new one of their own. Technically, it's nearly a CMOS-type sensor (except with JFET instead of MOSFET transistors). Nikon literature refers to it as a JFET LBCAST sensor (Junction Field Effect Transistor, Lateral Buried Charge Accumulator and Sensing Transistor array) because that describes the unique design that underlies each photosite. In Nikon's launch PR, the company made significant claims about this new technology. Specifically, that it had the low-power and direct addressing characteristics of CMOS and the low-noise and dark current properties of a CCD. Since the launch event, Nikon has been quieter about the noise issues, emphasizing the high speed data processing capabilities of the chip more than the noise tendencies. The bottom line remains the same, however: Nikon has produced a sensor of their own design, and it's competitive with other technologies. That alone should send shivers down Sony's spine, as now the four leaders in DSLR sales, Canon, Kodak, Fujifilm, and Nikon all have sensor technology of their own.

(I should perhaps make a comment about Nikon's sensor noise comments at the D2h launch. Most of the translations I saw--and the comments made by Nikon officials at the US and European launchs--led everyone to believe that the claim was "the pixels from a D2h will be lower in noise than any existing camera." That's not my take after re-reading the Japanese slides and press accounts of the launch in Tokyo. The claim that was made is that LBCAST chip itself is inherently less noisy than an equivalent CMOS sensor. Note, however, that both LBCAST and CMOS absolutely require that you run noise reduction techniques on the photosite data. Thus, while the sensor itself may produce less noise in photosite data than, say, Canon's CMOS sensor, it still needs to be run through noise reduction. And there Nikon didn't make any significant claims [e.g., they didn't say "our noise reduction techniques are better than Canon's]. Indeed, Nikon's noise reduction techniques seem relatively simple (dark current substraction, etc.) compared to Canon's. Thus, I didn't really have any clear expectations on how noisy or how un-noisy the D2h images will be. Personally, I hoped for "better," but I never quantified that in my mind.)

We'll get to actual sensor performance later in the review, but I do want to emphasize a couple of things: the fact that this is a JFET chip means that one of the power-hogs in the D1 series has been eliminated. Second, the fact that Nikon uses dual-channel processing on the chip is what gives the camera the ability to run at 8 frames per second. Finally, since each photosite is directly addressable, noise reduction and other image processing techniques can be performed at the pixel level prior to passing to a central DSP (digital signal processor), again potentially speeding up operations. This particular sensor is designed for speed.

Other sensor-related items have changed, as well. In particular, Nikon has used a thinner, less aggressive low pass (anti-aliasing) filter. This means that the capture acuity is actually visibly higher on the D2h than it is on the D1x. Note that acuity is not the same as resolution, however. We're talking about edge definitions, not the size of the edge that can be captured. I've seen others on the Internet already start incorrectly making the comment that the D2h's resolution is higher than the D1x's. That's certainly not true in the horizontal axis, but people are interpreting sharp-appearing D2h images as having more resolution than anti-aliased D1x images, which is wrong. In a perfect world we want both (more resolution and more acuity), but in the real Nikon world we have one or the other. Personally, I do prefer edge acuity over resolution, but I also don't produce large fine art prints from my work. One potential problem with Nikon's decision on the filter: there will be a stronger tendency to produce color moire patterns on fine, repeating detail; this is not a camera destined to for serious fashion shoots, IMHO.

The D2h feature set is essentially state-of-the-art. I'll not repeat the full list of features here, but instead point out some of the things that are changed or added from the D1 series:

  • The vertical shooting grip gets a front command dial.
  • The color LCD is bigger and brighter than before.
  • Voice annotation is built in.
  • White balance can be set directly in Kelvin values, and white balance now has its own dedicated sensor at the front of the prism; custom white balance is simple, can be done in two different ways, and you can save settings with names you provide.
  • A new, user-assignable FUNC button has appeared on the front of the camera. The list of possible assignments is shorter than I'd like (you should be able to assign it to depth of field for the vertical release, for example), but it still provides some flexibility that wasn't on previous models.
  • The viewfinder now features additional informational displays--virtually every significant setting can be seen without taking your eye from the finder.
  • Speaking of the viewfinder, the blackout time during shots is so minimal that you'll easily be able to follow action at 8 fps. Coupled with a shutter release lag of as little as 37ms, this has got to be the fastest (non-pellicle) SLR ever made.
  • The autofocus system is completely new, quite complex, and versatile. An 11-sensor array covers all but the corners of the image area, and can be configured to operate in enough different ways to confound even those that study the manual carefully.
  • The Autofocus Direction pad now has a center push ability, which is used to advantage in a number of different ways (it brings up the histogram when an image is displayed, for example).
  • NEF and JPEG files can be written simultaneously for each image, and you can choose the size and quality of the JPEG file to be written.
  • An interval timer has been added to allow time-lapse and unattended photography.
  • AI and later manual focus lenses can be used with the matrix meter (after a bit of data input, and only in Aperture-priority and Manual exposure modes).
  • The camera can track vertical position and auto-rotate images in Nikon View.
  • The camera uses USB 2.0 for computer connections and connection to the optional WT-1 wireless transmitter. The wireless transmitter allows 802.11b ftp transfers from camera to computer at ranges up to 500 feet (with the optional extension antenna; otherwise 100 feet).
  • A new flash technology has been added, which Nikon's schizophrenic marketing department can't quite decide whether to call i-TTL or CLS (creative lighting system). The details of this addition are too varied and complex to describe in this review; I'll have more to say in my review of the SB-800, which is required to implement the new flash system.
  • A new EN-EL4 lithium battery is used, and we can see exact battery life remaining. The camera even tracks battery charges and recommends when new ones should be obtained! Unfortunately we get new battery chargers and AC adapters because of this.

On this last point I must criticize Nikon severely: traveling photographers--of which I'm most certainly one--already have to cope with carrying more equipment after the transition to digital. If I want to carry a D2h and another Nikon body as backup, I now have to carry two sets of batteries, two sets of battery chargers, and two sets of AC adapters (to allow sensor cleaning). And that's not even considering that I need to carry yet another set of batteries and charger for my AA's used in the flash units. This is a very typical example of what happens when talented engineers don't pay enough attention to users. Message to Nikon: stop sprouting new batteries and chargers like weeds, and standardize on one or two. You won't be able to get away with such cavalier design long term.

The list of specification changes or additions I'd ask for is relatively minimal:

  • It would be nice to have ISO 100 (to match all the charts published in Nikon flash manuals, including the SB-800).
  • I'd like even more control over the patterns used by the autofocus sensors (e.g., "detect only horizontal motion").
  • Now that we have a better battery, I'd like more control over the self timer settings, especially longer ones.
  • We need individual channel histograms as an option. Indeed, since you can pull up a histogram with a center press of the Autofocus Direction pad, make that pull up the current luminance histogram and then put the channel histograms on other info pages you browse through.
  • Since the battery charge is known, the cleaning mode really should allow cleaning with a battery (if remaining power is greater than XX%).

While some might ask for more megapixels, I'm willing to wait for a D2x based upon the same design that trades speed for resolution. The problem, of course, is that Canon's offering, the 1D Mark II, has an 8mp sensor, so Nikon really does need to address the D2h's resolution gap to stay even in the race.

Handling

Nikon is learning. I just wish they'd learn faster.

First off, let me say that this is a stylish body design. Lines are clean, markings are clear, and there's less of impromptu design feel to it than we had in the D1 series. It appears that curves and placement of ridges was more carefully considered to help handling characteristics.

Unfortunately, if you have smallish hands, as I do, you'll find some of the positions of controls are wrong. In particular, if you hold the camera primarily using the front grip, you'll find the thumb reach to the Autofocus Direction pad is a little long. The center of the pad ought to be where the right edge currently is. Likewise, reaching to hit the AF-ON or AE-L buttons with your thumb tends to move your hand position back around the grip, which means you don't have quite as solid a hold on the camera. If you have large hands (can get more than an octave spread on the piano) or are shooting with gloves, these positions are less problematic, but be forewarned: Nikon isn't designing for small hands.

The vertical grip continues that problem. The reach for the Autofocus Direction pad is even greater when holding the camera vertically, and the Depth of Field button is no longer reachable without moving your hand position off the shutter release (one of the reasons why I said the FUNC button needs to have other options, such as Depth of Field--you can almost reach that button from the vertical release with small hands).

On the flip side, the large number of buttons required for a digital body are all well marked, large, and nicely recessed on the D2h. It's both easy to activate a function as well as not easy to accidentally activate a function. That's just the way it should be. The AF-ON and AE-L buttons have been slightly offset at a diagonal so that they're easier to distinguish from one another (the AF-ON is the upper button). The ISO, QUAL, and WB buttons are larger than on the D1 series, and again nicely recessed yet accessible.

The two new buttons on the back are a good news, bad news pair. The voice annotation button is deeply recessed (you have to really want to use it to access it--thus you don't accidentally waste space recording noise due to accidental pressing). The Autofocus Area Mode Selector (hey I don't make these names up) is going to confuse many, however, at least at first. That's because some of the selections also add Closest Subject Priority when selected, some don't. Some show the active sensor in the display, some don't. And they all interact with a couple of Custom Settings, which control the release-priority versus focus-priority choice, and the pattern that's used in Group Dynamic AF. If you were confused by Single Area AF versus Dynamic Area AF, you're going to need to study these new controls--they add a great degree of choice to your autofocus options, but they are not obviously intuitive, even to veteran Nikon users.

One handling aspect that's welcomed is the new information in the viewfinder. Not only will you know how many shots are left on your card (or how many you've taken), but you can see white balance settings, ISO, image quality settings, and more. If you learn where all the controls are, there's no reason to take your eye from the finder, exactly the way you want a camera designed for action photography.

White balance is more flexible and more easily controlled than before. Custom white balance can be done from a gray card or the incident white balance meter in the camera. Kelvin settings can be set directly (though at pre-determined values). White balance settings can be named. White balance settings can be "obtained" from images already on the storage card. White balance itself is measured via a dedicated incident sensor at the front of the viewfinder. A nice step forward overall.

Custom Settings have been grouped in a meaningful way, getting rid of the old scroll-through-30+-functions method of locating what you want to set. Custom Settings banks can be named, making it easier to remember what's different about Bank B than Bank A.

The new battery is nice in a couple of ways. First, it's smaller than the EN-4 that was in the D1 series. Second, it doesn't have any exposed contacts, so you don't have to worry about putting that little plastic end cap on when you stick multiple batteries into a pack or pocket. Third, you get relatively accurate charge remaining information, should you need it. No longer do you have to guess whether the half-full battery indicator means you're about to have a dead battery or you've still got some life left in it. On the flip side, the silly camera end cap is a detail I could have lived without. Essentially, you have to "assemble" the end cap and battery every time you change batteries. Why not just give me a door to insert the battery through?

Connections to the camera (video, AC in, USB 2.0) all attach via connectors on the left side of the camera. Unlike the D1 series, the rubber doors that sit over these connectors seem to stay closed, and provide a pretty good weather seal. Moreover, a side location is better than the previous front location if you hold cameras in the traditional manner (left hand under lens, right hand on grip).

Sensor cleaning is no different with the new model than previous. Nikon disclaims all but blower bulb cleaning, and you can't clean without an AC adapter. Yuck. This means that I have to travel with my extra cost AC adapter. Have Nikon engineers actually traveled with their products?

One small touch that has gone unnoticed in other reviews: the eyepiece won't unscrew unless you first close the viewfinder eyepiece shutter. For years, we Nikon pros have been slowly losing our eyepieces when they rattled out from vibration or whatever; no more. Thank you, Nikon.

Overall, handling aspects have improved slightly from the D1 series (which was already quite good), though those with small hands need to be aware that they might be uncomfortable with the reach to the Autofocus Direction pad and AF-ON/AE-L buttons.

 

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Cleaning the CCD

I've now posted an article on how to clean the CCD.

 

 

Performance

Battery performance is superb. Really superb. The camera seems to power down gracefully, for example, much like the old film bodies. If you accidentally leave the camera on overnight with a full battery, the camera still claims ~87% battery charge 24 hours later, and that figure seems accurate. About the only thing I could find that draws down the battery quickly is very long bulb exposures or tethered use. A 10-minute exposure can pull the battery down 25% or slightly more. This shows just how much power conservation is going on normally; a lot! I can't imagine a situation where I'd need more than two batteries for a day's shoot, though there may be a few prolific photojournalists out there that disagree. Indeed, if you shoot less than 500 images in a session, you'll probably do fine with just one battery. Batteries charge modestly fast. Several charges from under 30% power remaining have taken just a bit under 90 minutes; Nikon claims about a 100 minute full charge time, and I've yet to have any charge go that long.

CompactFlash write performance can be superb. I use the words "can be" because I have encountered a few older cards that don't achieve the fast write performance the D2h is capable of. But with a WA enabled card or other state-of-the-art card, write performance on the D2h is faster than any DSLR I've encountered to date, and by a fairly comfortable margin. [Here at the end of 2004, a few cameras are starting to catch up; but the D2h still remains state-of-the-art, which is saying something for a camera that's been out for more than year.] It appears that burst write speeds on the D2h can be as much as 2x the D100 with a WA card (you can't directly compare file write speeds, as the file sizes are different). Rob Galbraith has tabulated D2h write performance on his site, and my results are right in line with his--with the right card the D2h is state-of-the-art fast. With the wrong card, it's merely mid-pack to fast.

Autofocus performance is superb, though requires learning to use well. Once you learn how all the controls interact and find the settings that work for the situations you photograph, you'll find that the new autofocus system is fast, sure, and reliable. But you have to learn the nuances to get the most from it, especially since both the group dynamic autofocus and default autofocus positions re-introduce closest subject priority as an option. Be prepared to spend some quality time with a convenient moving subject practicing with the various autofocus settings. Nine of the 11 autofocus sensors are low-light, low-contrast capable, which makes it hard to find a situation where the camera won't focus (though it's still possible). And if you are having problems with that, use an SB-800 set up to only provide AF-Assist illumination (you can finally set it up so that no flash triggers). I wish the reach to the Autofocus Direction pad was better for my hands, but even though I have to stretch to reach it, I still like this system a lot.

Color integrity is usually excellent, just as it has been with previous Nikon DSLRs, but with one caveat, which I'll get to in a moment. Some other reviewers have remarked about getting more saturation out of their D2h shots, but once I make my usual post-processing adjustments I don't see any significant difference from older Nikon DSLRs. You have a choice of three color spaces, and the sRGB and AdobeRGB spaces seem accurate in my early testing, again with some caveats (see end of paragraph and next paragraph). Since white balance is easier to master on this camera than previous Nikon DSLRs, it all adds up to getting solid color results for those paying attention. But there's a wrinkle in the ointment: things that emit near IR appear to bamboozle the camera in a couple of ways. I first noticed this when I was trying to photograph some of my mom's paintings for her. The center area in one of her paintings just wouldn't get the color right, and it had a bit of strange noise in it (the rest of the painting was color accurate, as expected). Others on the net have noted that use of a hot mirror filter (filters out near IR) changes the camera's noise and color tendencies with certain fabrics and objects. Well, they're right. It appears that any object that reflects near IR has a tendency to run up the blue channel response in the D2h, which in turn makes for slight color shifts and increased noise. Note that flash emits a great deal of near IR and IR light, and I've indeed run into the problem more often indoors using flash than elsewhere. A hot mirror filter does seem to eradicate the problem, at the expense of small light loss overall. Ironically, Canon is one of the few makers of a 77mm hot mirror filter, and Nikon doesn't make one.

A second color problem took me longer to recognize: in some situations the camera has a green bias that can be ugly (see the software section in my eBook for a full example of this). More often than not the green bias shows up in shaded areas--if a subject is well and evenly lit and you've set the white balance correctly, this problem isn't present. But when you've got neutrals in a shaded area and a well lit other area, you can easily see it. It's easy enough to deal with, but annoying.

Edge acuity is pretty darned good, though it comes with a minor caveat (potential moire). Still, an unsharpened D2h image set next to the same number of pixels from a D100 or D1x simply looks like it has the more detail due to the acuity produced by the thinner low pass filter. So the trade-off is better detail at the expense of potential moire. Other than screen doors and a few fabrics, I haven't seen any moire that I'd worry about, though. Indeed, even in shots of birds and other animals with fine feathers or hairs I haven't seen color fringing or moire.

In an earlier iteration of this review I wrote that "near infrared is blocked more on this camera than on previous Nikon DSLRs." I'm adjusting that slightly: while the overall amount of near IR that is usable in IR imagry is less, there appears to be an abnormal blue channel response that contributes to noise and color shift, as noted above. Overall, yes, near IR response is down (Bjorn Rosslett reports that it's two stops different than the D100; it doesn't quite seem that much with the filter I use, but it is a noticeable difference). But the blue channel appears to respond to near IR light, which it shouldn't be doing (near IR should all be picked up only in the red channel). Whether this blue channel problem is limited to some camera bodies or is there for all D2h's made to date is unclear; many of us early users have encountered this problem, but others claim they haven't seen it.

The final performance issue everyone wants to know about is one I'm not yet fully comfortable with writing in detail about: noise. As noted earlier, expectations were sky-high after Nikon's hype at the D2h launch. Some folk were simply expecting a camera that blew away all previous DSLRs in terms of noise (e.g., a camera that performed at ISO 1600 the way others do at ISO 100). Well, we need to peel those folk down from the ceiling and get them off the drugs they're using. As much as the next guy, I'd love to see a breakthrough in image noise tendencies. The D2h isn't it. That's not to say that it performs poorly, though. It's easily the equivalent of anything Nikon has done in the past, and, if I'm evaluating my images correctly, maybe even better up to a point.

That's saying a lot, actually. The D2h's sensor is a new design from a new player in sensor design, and has a high bar to get over just to achieve parity with other sensors that are several generations old. I'm comfortable in saying that Nikon achieved parity or better, although the exact aspects of that are the stuff that require much more verbiage to describe accurately, especially given the near IR issue. I will say that the quality of the D2h noise is nice, at least up to ISO 800. By that I mean that it is random and more grain-like than the mosaic, banded, and color-blotched noise you often see in digital images. At high ISO values, though, the mosaic rears its head on the D2h, though banding seems pretty well under control on my sample. Even so, ISO 1600 and even 3200 are quite usable with post production noise reduction--the primary loss is one of color saturation and contrast, not detail.

Noise also shows up in underexposed images more readily. The D2h is not a camera you can shoot at anything other than proper exposure. Even a one stop underexposure will bring up the noise level, and two stops will make it noticeably visible. Fortunately, the metering system is accurate and flexible, so there's really no excuse for getting exposures wrong.

One aspect of noise I can report on with positive results is long-exposure noise. There isn't any. Okay, that's a bit too extreme a statement, but it sure seems that way in comparison to the D1 series. Even though the D2h has a dark-frame subtraction noise reduction feature that can be set, I'm not really seeing the need for it until you get out to very long exposures. And by very long I mean measured in minutes. Even a five-minute exposure seems free of hot pixels and obvious dark current noise, though bringing up shadow detail reveals that there's some there. I consider this excellent performance.

Is the D2h better than the D1h it replaced? Yes, by a long-shot in every aspect of performance. The fact that people are asking for even more shows you just how far digital cameras are moving. Again, it would be nice to have 8mp and a bit better noise handling at high ISO values, but that's really about all that's necessary to put the D2h on the top of the heap again. The autofocus, exposure, flash, long-exposure noise, and color saturation performance of this camera are superb. Color accuracy is good with caveats that can be dealt with.

Drawbacks

  • Potentially long reach for small hands. This is a big camera, and shooters with small hands won't find all the controls quite where they want them.
  • Buffer could be bigger. One disappointment to NEF shooters is that the buffer is no more than 16 images in size when noise reduction is on (14 when shooting compressed NEF with JPEG), 25 with it off. While that's still at least two seconds at 8 fps, it is a limit that you can reach while shooting intensive action.
  • Requires SB-800 for best flash. If you're going to get a D2h, be prepared to get at least one (and probably two) SB-800 Speedlights, as well. Flash is much better with i-TTL than it is with D-TTL, and you have more control and multiple flash TTL with the new system.
  • Wide isn't wide. If you do scenic work, as I do, you need DX lenses to restore your wide angle due to the 1.5x angle of view change. And then you may find that you don't have enough megapixels for really large print sizes (I'm getting spoiled by the Kodak Pro 14n's prodigious pixel creation).
  • Near IR pollution. The blue channel seems to respond to near IR, and a hot mirror filter fixes the problem. Ouch. We all thought this issue was gone after the Kodak DCS 2000 left the market.

Positives

  • Fast. Wow! Fast frame rate, fast mirror return, fast shutter lag, fast autofocus, fast, fast, fast. Repeat: Wow! If Nikon targeted action shooters with this camera (they did), they hit a bull's eye.
  • Flexible and Controllable. New controls, more options, and improved user control all around. Some of the stuff is minor (like the grouped and named Custom Settings), but it still adds up to making an already flexible camera even more so.
  • Rugged. Nicely built. Well weatherproofed, nothing sticking out to get clipped off in abusive handling, controls that are designed for use with gloves, magnesium alloy body with padding in the right places. Nikon has built the SLR hammer for the 21st century (the F being the original 20th century SLR hammer).
  • Flash. i-TTL works, and it restores multiple flash ability. No more needs to be said. Wedding photographers are going to swoon over the flash capabilities.
  • Excellent 4mp Image Quality. Acuity is good, color is excellent, and noise performance is at least as good as previous Nikons, if not better. With the right settings and discipline, this camera performs more like a 5mp or higher camera.
 

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