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ISO 1600 and beyond with the Nikon D1H and Kodak DCS 720X  
Saturday, September 22, 2001 | by
There has never been a better time to be shooting sports with a Nikon-bodied digital camera. That's in large part because the current crop of peak action-friendly digital SLRs - the Nikon D1H, Nikon D1X and Kodak DCS 720x - boast strong autofocus systems, pro-class shutter lag times and decent performance at ISO settings that not long ago were absolutely off limits to digital photographers. ISO 800 is no longer a challenge; ISO 1600, ISO 3200 and in some cases even ISO 6400 is a possibility.

This report looks at how the D1H and DCS 720X in particular perform at ISO 1600 and beyond. The two cameras are different in many, many ways, but as I've discovered recently, when either camera is attached to a monopod-mounted 300mm lens at the sidelines of a football game, both can be used effectively to grab sharp, clear peak action moments. What follows is a brief summary of each camera, a comparison of key specifications, and downloadable full-resolution photos that demonstrate each model's high-ISO capabilities up to a stratospheric ISO 6400.

Though the D1X is not explicitly discussed here, I've posted several photos from Nikon's high-resolution camera too, in part to demonstrate what I've been pleasantly surprised to learn: that it holds its own at ISO 800 and even ISO 1600, and can in some situations produce usable (barely!) frames at ISO 3200.

Product Summary - Nikon D1H

The D1H is a joy to shoot sports with. Its fast frame rate, even when tracking a scrambling quarterback, huge image buffer for both JPEG and NEF formats, reliable autofocus and fairly brief shutter lag provide little excuse for not coming back with strong sports photos. And if the moment is there, chances are the colour is good too; with the optimum WB setting chosen, D1H colour often can't be topped. In short, this is a powerhouse sports camera.

Downsides are few, but there a couple of items worth mentioning: though the D1H can deliver stunning colour, it's Auto WB setting has already proven itself to be too inconsistent frame to frame, even under light that falls within its supposed working range for my liking. Getting around this can be simple enough - one way is to record images in the RAW, not-yet-colour-balanced NEF format, then fix the white balance after the fact in software, even if the light has changed a great deal from frame to frame, as is often the case when photographing night football. While going RAW can be done, the available software for D1H NEFs, including Nikon's own Capture 2.01, makes the editing and white balance adjustment process too slow and cumbersome for deadline work. Pity, because actually shooting NEFs with the D1H is a snap, thanks to its quick write speed and 27 frame NEF buffer.

Product Summary - Kodak DCS 720X

Kodak's high-ISO DCS 720x, which is slated to hit dealer shelves beginning next week, about equals the D1H at the shooting of sports, and for the same reasons: it shoots fast to its 128MB RAM buffer, utilizes a similar autofocus system to Nikon's digital SLR in its modified F5 body and offers an even shorter shutter lag than the D1H.

While Kodak has specified the frame rate to be 4.3 fps, the 720x on loan here peaks at just over 5 fps. In fact, side by side testing reveals that the D1H and DCS 720x offer effectively the same number of frames per second when either focus tracking or shooting static objects. Kodak also seems to have conservatively rated the burst depth at a minimum of 25 losslessly-compressed RAW .DCR frames; regardless of ISO or scene content, I've not been able to achieve fewer than 31 frames in a burst. Processing DCS 720x .DCR files into finished files openable in Photoshop takes a handful of seconds on even previous-generation computers, and Kodak's DCS Photo Desk 1.2 browsing application enables quick changes to key processing parameters like WB and exposure override for maximum image quality. Like the D1H, this is a camera built for sports photography.

Downsides? The size and weight of the camera make it difficult to handhold with longer lenses for even short periods. Unlike the D1H, the viewfinder image is not magnified beyond that of a stock F5, which means the masked-off viewing area seems uncomfortably small. And though daylight colour is fine, oddball stadium lighting colour is only okay, even with the optimum WB combo chosen in the camera or in Photo Desk. D1H colour in both good light and weird venue lighting sets the standard here, and the DCS 720x simply can't compete. Kodak is planning a November firmware release for the DCS 720x that should improve the colour from both its Auto WB and Custom WB settings, which could help shore up some of its colour oddities.

Note: For more information on the DCS 720x's interface and software, check out the article DCS 760 delivers crisp, clear photos. The 720x is near-identical in design and function to the 760, including such things as card write speed, Firewire transfer speed, user interface, control layout and more, making most of that article's commentary applicable to the DCS 720x too.

Specifications Comparison

The table below lists key specifications for each camera.

Kodak DCS 720x
Nikon D1H
Sensor 2MP Full Frame ITO CCD w/CMY colour filter array (for more information on this CCD, which is of a similar design to the discontinued DCS 620x, see The technology inside the DCS 620x) 2.7MP Interline Transfer CCD w/RGB colour filter array
Effective pixels •1720 x 1160 •2000 x 1312
Finished file size •5.7MB (8 bits per colour)
•11.4MB (16 bits per colour)
•7.51MB (8 bits per colour); •15.1MB (16 bits per colour)
In-camera file formats •Kodak proprietary RAW .DCR
•Baseline Standard JPEG (generated from user-selected .DCR files, processing time 2-3 seconds per photo)
•Nikon proprietary RAW .NEF
•Baseline Standard JPEG
•TIFF
Average file sizes as recorded to the camera's storage media DCR: 1.8 MB

Note: Kodak's DCR format is said to be losslessly compressed

•Large Fine JPEG: 1.1MB
•Uncompressed NEF: 3.8MB
• Compressed NEF: 2.0MB

Note: Nikon's Compressed NEF format is said to be visually lossless, though the compression does alter the actual image data

ISO •400 - 6400 in 1/3 stop increments
•ISO settings up to about 25,800 via Photo Desk software

Note: ISO range "calibrated" to ISO 4000

•200 - 1600 in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 stop increments
•ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 via Custom Setting
Focal length cropping factor About 1.6x (relative to 35mm film frame) About 1.5x (relative to 35mm film frame)
Burst rate 4.3 fps (my testing: about 5 fps) 5 fps (my testing: about 5 fps)
Burst depth Varies; 25+ frames (my testing: minimum 31 frames) •JPEG or TIFF: 40 frames
•NEF: 27 frames
Shutter lag (milliseconds) 61 ms, +/- 1.2 ms

Note: This specification generated through testing with the PocketWizard MultiMax's built-in lag time calculator)

75 ms, +/-5.2 ms

Note: This specification generated through testing with the PocketWizard MultiMax's built-in lag time calculator)

Storage media Dual PC Card slots; compatible with PC Card Type I/II/III, Compactflash Type I/II (including Microdrive) and Sony Memory Stick Single CompactFlash slot; compatible with CompactFlash Type I/II, including Microdrive
Optical low-pass filter included? No; available as optional extra Yes; bonded to CCD
Infrared filter included? Yes Yes; incorporated into low-pass filter
White balance settings •Daylight
•Flash
•Fluorescent
•Tungsten
•Auto WB
•Custom WB (can store 10 in camera)
•Shade
•Cloudy
•Flash
•Sunny
•Fluorescent
•Incandescent
•Auto WB
•Preset WB (can store 3 in camera)
•All settings except Preset WB include a 6-increment override to warm or cool the photo
Computer interface 400mbps FireWire 400mbps FireWire
Transmit directly from camera? Yes, via email, allows distribution to one or more recipients simultaneously; requires additional hardware and version of DCS 720X firmware slated for release later this year. Cost of this feature not yet set. No
Battery Removable 1700 mAh NiMH Removable 2000 mAh NiMH
Video out Switchable between NTSC and PAL Switchable between NTSC and PAL
Voice annotation? Yes; built-in microphone No
Weight 4.1 lbs (1.86 kg) with battery and PC card, without lens 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) without battery
Included software •DCS Photo Desk
•DCS Camera Manager
•Photoshop file format plug-in (scheduled for late October release)

Note: DCS 720X .DCR files may be processed with applications that incorporate Kodak's Software Development Kit for the DCS 700 series

•Nikon View 4
•3rd party software (varies by region)

Note: D1H NEF files may be processed with applications that call Nikon's NEF file library from the application. Currently, Canto Cumulus, Fotoware FotoStation and iView MediaPro support this capability

The D1H and DCS 720x at ISO 1600 to ISO 6400

Neither the product summaries or specifications reveal what really is at the heart of this report: how does each cameras fare when set at ISO 1600 and above? Ultimately, I hope you'll decide for yourself by downloading, viewing and especially printing a few of the full-resolution photos below. Only toning, sharpening and printing images such as these reveals the characteristics of a given camera's images at a given ISO. On-screen viewing alone doesn't cut it, and in some cases can be downright misleading.

Note: See the Assessing Noise sidebar for information on how to gauge the amount and type of noise present in a photo. See the Image Preparation Notes sidebar for more information on how the photos in this report were prepared.

There are three versions of each photo to choose from, in addition to the thumbnail. Click the appropriate link to open the file you want, based on these descriptions:

  • Zoom - A screen resolution version of the photo, complete with noise, artifacting and whatever else that might be haunting the image left intact. The process of downsampling the photo for on-screen presentation may mask the visibility of noise, so please consider this version of the photo to not necessarily be representative of its actual, full-resolution appearance.

  • Full-Res - The full-resolution, uncropped, unadjusted file. It has not been filtered to remove noise.

  • Full-Res QM - The full-resolution, uncropped file, filtered with the Quantum Mechanic Pro plug-in for Photoshop to dent or eliminate image noise. Quantum Mechanic dramatically improves the printed output from the DCS 720x especially, and the D1H also, making it both a mandatory part of my high-ISO image workflow and a mandatory part of any meaningful comparison of what can be achieved when photographing in available darkness with these cameras.

Note: Clicking the Full-Res or Full-Res QM link will open the photo in your browser. Mac users can Option-Click these links instead to force the file to download to the hard drive, ready to be opened into Photoshop. Windows users, Right-Click the link and choose the option for downloading files to disk.


Nikon D1H, ISO 1600
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 1600
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 6400
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 6400
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Additional Photos from the DCS 720x, D1H and D1X

Rounding out the downloadable photos is a more random collection of football frames taken with the D1H and 720x, as well as a smattering from the D1X.


Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 4000
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 5000
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 6400
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 3200
+ 1/3 stop in Capture 2
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 1600
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1H, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1X, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1X, ISO 800
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1X, ISO 1600
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Nikon D1X, ISO 3200
- 1/3 stop in Capture 2
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)

Observations

Based on Epson Stylus 1280 prints of most of the QM versions of the photos here, it's clear to me that either the DCS 720X or D1H is suitable for sports photography up to ISO 1600, when the main criteria is freedom from noise. Even the D1X keeps pace in many situations; though there is a greater volume of noise in its images, the noise is more random and grain-like in appearance than the other two cameras, and is therefore less objectionable to my eye. In fact, a subjective assessment of the noise differences between the D1H and D1X suggests the D1H gains at most about a 2/3 stop benefit from its CCD's larger pixels. Add to that the aforementioned added bonus of the noise pattern being slightly less regular, and therefore more pleasing, in D1X frames, and the D1X's high ISO performance is truly impressive.

Both the D1H and D1x produce cleaner, truer more pleasing colour in Calgary's McMahon Stadium. This venue is one of the trickiest I've encountered to set a WB for, because the colour characteristics of the light change drastically from the middle to the sidelines to the end zones. Nikon's own digital SLRs handle this colour range best. Given that, the D1H is my first choice for shooting in this place, principally because the DCS 720X's colour can't keep up.


Kodak DCS 720x, ISO 3200
(Zoom|Full-Res|Full-Res QM)
ISO 3200 is another story. A properly-exposed DCS 720X image like the one at left, once filtered with Quantum Mechanic Pro, is unbeatable. Though the colour is less than what it ought to be, and the camera itself produces smaller files than the D1H, a more significant factor affecting printability at this ISO is the noise accentuated by sharpening, and a well-shot and Quantum Mechanic-filtered DCS 720X photo has remarkably little noise. The camera offers more latitude to goof up, too. Underexposed or too-loose D1H photos shot at this ISO don't tend to hold up too well on the page when brightened or cropped.

Beyond ISO 3200, both the D1H and DCS 720X offer quickly-diminishing returns. The DCS 720X retains an edge, but by ISO 6400 both cameras can produce frighteningly noisy files. Photos from the D1H become almost impossible to sharpen in fact, as the semi-regular textured pattern overwhelms the image.

Generally speaking, the D1H can be shot with confidence at ISO 1600. Beyond that, quality is going to range from quite usable to marginal, depending on the tones in the scene itself, the degree of underexposure and how much cropping is required. The DCS 720x holds it together remarkably well to about ISO 4000, and is less punishing of underexposure error in this range too. D1X files look great at ISO 800, remain eminently printable at ISO 1600, with complete collapse brought on by even the slightest underexposure at ISO 3200.

Conclusion

When the DCS 620x was introduced, it was THE Nikon-bodied camera to get for shooting at ISO 1600 and up. Nikon has closed the gap with the D1X and D1H, both of which produce good quality files at ISO 1600, files that are cleaner at this ISO than those from the D1. If your sports photography rarely takes you beyond ISO 1600, which camera you choose can be made based on other factors - overall colour and image quality, service and support, available and included software and so on - since the D1H, DCS 720X and even the D1X produce good ISO 1600 photos.

At ISO 3200, the equation changes. If I had to shoot at ISO 3200 on a routine basis, under the less-than-ideal lighting that usually dictates ISO 3200, the DCS 720x would be my camera of choice, despite a street price expected to be about US$2000 more than the D1H, at about US$6000 or less. This camera, like the 620x before it, simply can't be beat when working the upper limits of the ISO range.

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