Nikon D2X Digital Camera Reviewed

by Bjørn Rørslett  

2. Appearance and Handling

The appearance of D2X is nearly identical to that of the D2H, itself an evolutionary improvement of the earlier D1-series. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that evolution didn't cease with the D2H, since subtle yet important changes have been made in the way the camera feels and handles. Controls on the rear have been slightly relocated to make using them even easier and more positive. The high shooting rate up to 5 frames/sec while maintaining 12.4* MPix images, or 8 frames/sec in 6.8 MPix "cropped" mode, in which only the centre of the imager is employed for recording pixel data, makes the camera much more versatile than the earlier D1X.

* Nikon brochures claim 12.84 (total), 12.4 (effective) MPix for the D2X, although the pixel dimension of the imager is 4288 x 2848 = 12.2 million pixels, and this is the image size you get from Nikon Capture as well

Nikon D2X emerges as a truly professional calibre camera, ready to take on whatever challenge the photographer may expose it to. The Nikon enginereers spent an unusual long time on polishing their new product. So you, the end user, should expect a mature, stable production unit straight out of the box, as it were.

The D2X. Frontside view

Nikon D2X: Sleek external appearance and a third eye atop the prism, but otherwise no warning against the power lurking under its bonnet

The 12 MPix sensor of D2X is of a CMOS type and thus heralds a policy switch-over for Nikon, the company until now best known for its staunch support of CCD imagers. We probably never will know whether the CMOS was initially planned for this camera, or simply replaced the LBCAST technology at a later stage of camera development. Anyway, CMOS it is. You can select two shooting modes, normal (entire frame, 12.2 MPix output) or cropped mode (6.8 MPix, using the central area of the frame, the outline of which is duly indicated on the ground glass). The cropped mode should appeal to sports or animal shooters. Switching between modes can, given the camera is set up correspondingly, be done just by pressing the FUNC button on the front (located beneath the DOF preview button).

Compared to its logical predecessor, D1X, the most striking differences are the smaller and neater shape of the camera, less heft, a new battery now using Li-Ion technology (EN-EL4 batteries and MH-21 charger are shared with D2H), and the hugely improved viewfinder. Not only is the viewfinder magnification increased significantly compared to the D1-series, but the view is much brighter, and there is a plethora of additional information presented in the finder as well. Whether or not you are thrilled by a 5 fps shooting rate for up to 15 NEFs, or 8 fps for 26 NEFs in cropped frame mode, is for each user to decide, but the camera certainly can deliver if you need true machine-gunning performance at the same or better level than the D2H. The shutter is redesigned from the D1-series models and now shares vital components with the time-tested F5 shutter unit. The F5 heritage is evident when you hear the swift, well-dampened clunk as the shutter opens and closes, the sound of which stems from the tungsten-made counterweight of the mirror. I think the sound of the D2X possible indicates additional dampening has taken place compared to D2H. The vibration of the shutter is kept to a very low level as it opens, and virtually nil if you use the mirror-up function in which the shutter opens the second time the release is actuated.

In use, the camera handled with utmost ease and the location of most controls felt very "correct" and enabled a relaxed, highly intuitive operation of the camera and all its features. Any Nikon user will take an instant liking to this camera and I suspect it'll work its endearing magic on quite a number of other people, too. The camera simply feels like an extension of your mind. Thanks to the extremely short shutter release lag, a mere 37 millisecs, you can indeed capture the peak of the action. Viewfinder blackout is just 80 millisecs so there is no perceivable blackening-out of the image at all, although you do get a slightly flickering impression at 8 fbps (not entirely unexpected).

Data transfer is over a USB2.0 port, safely but - in my opinion - not conveniently placed on the camera's left hand side. Nikon officials stated that the decision to replace Firewire connectivity with USB had been based upon the wider occurrence of USB-enabled computers and laptops. USB is deemed hot, Firewire is not. On an old PC/Mac, the connection falls back to USB1.x to ensure full backwards compatibility. I'd rather prefer FireWire to USB of any kind, but realize my voice isn't heard here. And I can still transfer images using my CF-cards of course. Since D2X is FAT32-aware, I believe there is no practical upper limit to the size of the cards you can deploy with it.

The ports for connection of mains and video have also been moved to the left side, just as on D2H. A real pity, and very inconvenient compared to the D1-models. The relocation of the ports means I have to redesign my "L" bracket for the D2-series, and I won't be able to get equally solid support when the camera is mounted for taking vertical shots. Rats. Fortunately, the PC flash outlet and the remote control connector are still found in front, at their usual positions.

Gadgetry is of course taken to the next level with the D2X supporting wireless image transmission with the WT-2 WLAN (the WT-2A supports 54 Mb/s) unit, but thankfully this feature is an add-on and not incorporated in the body itself. I cannot see myself using FTP data transfer to my car if I ever venture more than 100 meters away from it, but realise a lot of sport photographers covering big events could fall head over heels in love with this gadget. Also, WT-2 improves on the WT-1 made for D2H, by allowing two-way communication. Thus, you can not only download image data in real time, but manage the camera and its settings as well. Users having both D2H and D2X cameras can deploy the older WT-1 device on both*. No WT-2 device was available for testing before this review was posted, but I'm promised a unit in the near future so will update the review accordingly.

* I expected a firmware upgrade would be needed to put WT-2 on the D2H, but as it turned out, you need an entirely new camera, the D2HS. If you can survive with the WT-1, however, the D2H is still good

The viewfinder shows lots of information to be processed by the user, but in practice the layout looks very uncluttered and informative. The overview is enhanced not only by increased magnification (0.86x compared to 0.8x of D1X/H), but also a slightly reduced eye-point position so you get a wider view. All digits and numerals in the finder were very easy to read and stray light into the finder is well controlled. Adding a rubber eye-cup similar to the models used on F4/F5 is recommended for maximum protection against stray light if you wear spectacles (like I do). The information presented in the finder is very similar to that of D2H, with an added slowly blinking symbol if Hi-speed Crop mode is engaged.

D2X. Rear view

The rear view of D2X shows virtually identical layout to that of D2H, but the lower AF-ON and focusing controls are relocated a smidge for improved access and managability. An improvement not easily seen here is that the door to the CF compartment opens at a wider angle, so inserting or extracting the cards is much easier than on the D2H. Histograms can be shown for (RGB) or each channel separately.

Focusing with my AFS lenses is extremely fast and responsive, thanks to the advanced AF sensor technology (Multi-CAM2000) of D2X. Focusing tracking performed as it should, according to my brief test shootings (this is not a feature I normally use, though). Of course all the trendy new AFS and VR technologies are supported by D2X.

The 11 AF spots are sensibly distributed over nearly the entire frame. Thankfully, you can group, regroup, or even switch off most of the AF areas. The degree of user configurable control of the AF system is amazing and ensures anyone can get the AF system to provide the maximum benefit and focus assistance. When you shoot in Cropped mode, several of the sensors may be outside the frame, so you should set up a group of AF sensors dedicated to this shooting mode. The manual says the "outside" sensors are not ative, but as long as they can be selected, some ambiguity exists when a regrouping isn't performed.

The conspicuous "eye" atop the finder head, a shared feature with D2H, makes the D2X look a bit different from its D1-series comrades. The idea behind this external sensor is to get additional data to make colour balancing better and more fail-safe when the camera is run in auto W/B mode. In particular, Nikon claims that flickering lighting such as fluorescent tubes should be no real problem with their new system. My experience shows this claim does have some validity, but in common with D2H, some situations are too difficult to cope with even for this clever design of D2X. The D2H had obvious issues with auto W/B and manual lenses even if they do activate the camera's matrix metering. In this respect, D2X fares a lot better, but occasionally the W/B is goofed up. In addition, I wasn't entirely impressed with the auto W/B or dedicated Incandescent W/B under incandescent lights, even when using AFS lenses. As this kind of light is very deficient in blue, there are obvious limits to what can be achieved in terms of proper white-balancing anyway. The end user should be aware of that fact, although many aren't.

Support for GPS, a very nice feature of D1X and D1H, was regrettably removed from D2H to once again become available for D2X. The specification states D2X communicates over a standard NMEA protocol, but as the needed cable (MC-35) wasn't available to me at review time, I couldn't look further into this aspect. I have a MC-35 on order, though.

In common with the D2H, surely to hearten any gadgetry freak, we now have a voice-recording feature on the D2X. You record by pressing a small "mic" button and talk into a tiny hole on the rear. Sound quality clearly isn't exactly up to hi-fi standards, but the system works inobtrusively and reliably as well, and you can even listen to your own distorted voice emanating from the camera (run through a better sound system, the quality isn't really that bad, though). You can record up to 60 seconds of sound into a .WAV file, which will accompany your image file(s). The .WAV file gets the same sequence number as the .JPG /.NEF file(s) and its presence is duly noted in the EXIF header, too.

Several improvements may not be the ones hitting the front pages, but they are important for the end user nevertheless. The relase button for switching lenses is now much bigger and easier to use, even when you wear thick gloves (remember I'm a Norwegian and we endure, or try to endure, our cold winters). The eyepiece is secured with a locking catch and you are no longer going to have to replace them every month or so. Although the eyepiece (DK-17) is new, you can still use the nice DK-2 rubber eyecups with it. The command wheels front and rear are duplicated to give better control of the camera used for shooting verticals, a nice touch. The AF-ON button for verticals now is as big as the one for horizontals, a small but welcome improvement from the D1-series.

The LCD monitor on the rear is big and brighter than the already nice screen found on D2H, and the readability has been remarkably improved. The menu system itself provides navigation through a combined press on the multi-selector to the rear and the various command dials and buttons on the camera. Navigating through all the menu options takes some time, mainly because there are so many selections available. A very nice touch is the display of "Recent Settings" when the menu is opened, this gives direct access to the navigating history and obviates much browsing though the menu panes. The hood covering the LCD is very clear and transparent, and stays resonably (but not perfectly) well in place. It will, like that of D2H, scratch easily and I wonder how long its transparency is going to last. Thus, my D2H hood isn't very clear after 1 year of heavy use, but at least I haven't lost it yet. To remove the hood you press in the sides and lift it out. Unfortunately, the design is open on the sides and this means your breath will condense inside it on a cold day. A small rubber gasket, fitted under the left side of the hood, settles this issue, and gives me the pleasure of improving an improved design as well. Being a left-handed person, I often lift my cameras using my left hand, and this was much easier with the old D1-series than with D2H and D2X. This results because the LCD now is moved into a central position and offers less grip than before. Oh well, I guess I can live such small inconveniences down.

A distinct advantage of the LCD screen is the ability to zoom into the image, up to 30X magnification. This facility is by the way also available on D2H with the latest 2.x firmware update. However, on that camera the magnification is too high for the limited resolution available, not so on D2X where you in near real-time can decide whether or not you have got the sharpness right on target. A nice and useful feature indeed.

Digital flash technology has long been a source of frustration for the end users: no problem when everything works, lots of grievance when you're left in the literal darkness or the entire energy load of your batteries make a giant pop - and that's it. I'm happy to report that D2X behaved quite civilised with my SB28DX flash (no, I won't buy more modern units, flash for me has been on the wane for a long time). No surprises in any direction, provided I dial in a +1.7 EV correction to the exposure. On default settings, D2X files with flash were severely underexposed to my liking. All flash modes, front or rear curtain sync, worked perfectly (with +1.7 EV added). Possibly the dialed-in exposure correction wouldn't be necessary were I to use the newer SB-800 i-TTL device. I have no immediate plans of "upgrading" to this new generation of flashes and frankly, I have scrutinised the SB-800 pamphlet but still haven't a clue as to how this differs from my existing d-TTL flash. I'm a dimwit in this department, obviously my holding a Ph.D. doesn't help much for practical chores.

Battery performance of the D2X has been quite good, although not outstanding, and I got over 200 shots per charge. This includes a lot of image monitoring and checking on the LCD screen, and I'd like to add that outdoor temperatures have been below 0°C during most of the shooting. I expect better performance when the ambient temperature becomes more pleasant. The salient point to note is that D2X, despite its much bigger pixel capacity, doesn't drain its battery any faster than the D2H. Thanks to its beefed-up internal processing capacity, D2X writes its big files to the CF-card as fast or even faster than does the D2H, and previews are virtually instantaneously available.

I've encountered very few operational bugs with the D2X. The issue with erratic W/B in conjunction with manual lenses is just annoying and not a major one. The same can be said for the intermittent failure of Auto W/B or Incandescent W/B to function properly. That the SB-28 DX flash works, but needs to increase exposure for flash +1.7 EV can possibly be considered a bug as well.

The final, and to me most remarkable, improvement of the entire D2-series is the ingenious backwards compatibility with older, manual-focusing (MF) lenses. For years now, commencing with the introduction of F5 in 1996, Nikon has crippled the metering compatibility even of the pro-level cameras. Many long-term Nikon aficionados take exception to this practice and some, myself included, have had CPU modifications done to older lenses to make them more amenable with newer cameras. Nikon officially claimed this kind of modification wasn't "feasible", but in silence some of the European Nikon outlets have started to offer a conversion service. So much for closing the ranks.

With the introduction of D2H and now again D2X, I feel our voices have been listened to. Any AI'd, AI, or AIS Nikkor not needing the reflex mirror to be swung aside can be mounted on the D2X/D2H. I have literally hundreds of lenses fulfilling that score, eureka! Using the nifty FUNC button* (lower front left, below the preview control), it's simplicity itself to give the camera needed details about lens speed and focal length. You can dial in the data for all your MF lenses, and the camera will recall the maximum aperture if you rotate the dial to get focal length. If you have several lenses with the same focal length, you do have to select amongst them, but most people won't even notice this because having duplicate lenses in a given focal length is uncommon. In practice setting or selecting the lens data only takes a fraction of a second, and the initial entry has to be done just once. Best of all, the D2X remembers the data for the MF lens last used, so when you swap a single MF lens with AF/AFS Nikkors in a shooting session, there is no need to repeat the setup of the manual lens. Very, very clever. Very, very nice.

* Using the FUNC button to quickly switch between MF lenses means you cannot simultaneously enter Hi-Speed Crop Mode this way. Perhaps not a big issue for the big gun shooters who are likely to have the latest genration of AFS telephoto lenses anyway

Nikon has not gone all the way with the MF compatibility, however, because you cannot use exposure modes other than "A" or "M" with them, but matrix metering will work. Since setting the actual aperture of any Nikkor can be done from the camera, as long as the camera identifies the lens in use, I was in the beginning a little surprised that "P" or "S" modes wouldn't work (not that I would fall into the trap of using these "exposure for dummies"-modes, of course). Neither is it possible to set apertures for MF lenses by the command dial. My analysis is that Nikon could implement these features if they wanted, but refrained from doing so as not to run into trouble with inaccurate exposure if an AI'd or AI lens was used. These lenses have a non-linear response to stopping down the aperture, and you should always set the aperture directly on the lens, not with the camera's controls. Saved by the bell as it were, Nikon to the user's rescue.

Nikon D2X Reviewed

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Last update 25 February, 2005