The real 14n has stood up.
Dubbed the DCS Pro SLR/n, the successor to Kodak Professionalís DCS Pro 14n takes the same body and most of the same functionality of the 14n but tosses out its sensor, infrared filter and related circuitry in favour of new components that are promised to deliver the image quality that, in our view, Kodak had planned for the 14n but were never able to deliver.
The result, based on an early peek at DCS Pro SLR/n RAW files supplied by Kodak, is a camera that shows less shadow-polluting noise even at its base ISO of 160 than the 14n does at ISO 80, with improved colour as well. Weíre eager to shoot our own pictures with the SLR/n. Based on what weíve seen in supplied photos thus far, however, weíre optimistic that this will be a camera we wonít fear using outside of the brightly-lit environment of a photo studio, though even the SLR/n is unlikely to be a higher-ISO powerhouse at the upper end of its calibrated range of ISO 160-800.
Kodak Professional DCS Pro SLR/n
This article tallies up some of whatís new, and what isnít, in the SLR/n.
Most of the camera components of the 14n carry over to the SLR/n, including its magnesium alloy body, twin CompactFlash/SD slots, Multi-CAM900 AF system, D-TTL flash metering for compatibility with later Nikon Speedlights, an orientation sensor, FireWire connectivity, a somewhat bulky handgrip and awkward viewfinder.
In fact, sharp-eyed photographers will note that the sum total of the cameraís exterior differences are a new name badge on the front and a red card access light on the card door. If you like the 14n as a camera, expect to like the SLR/n equally well.
Note: If you use the 85mm f/2.8 PC Micro-Nikkor, it will still require a spacer or other modification to physically attach to the camera.
Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n showing new card access light in card door
Most of the key image-related specifications also remain mostly unchanged, even if the resulting image is new. Variable resolution RAW files, a maximum image size of 4500 x 3000 pixels, a burst rate of 1.7 fps and a burst depth of up to 19 frames are all about the same as the 512MB version of the 14n (the SLR/n is only available with 512MB of buffer memory).
The most significant specification difference is the ISO range, which is now ISO 160-800 in 1/3 stop increments. The camera will record photos at up to ISO 1600, in 1/3 stop increments above ISO 800, though only the ISO 160-800 range is fully-calibrated for optimum results.
All the SLR/n changes that really matter are on the inside. Kodak has revamped four components: the image sensor, infrared filter, analog circuit board and digital power management circuitry. Photo Desk v3.3 further enhances the image quality of the SLR/n (and the 14n also) through a new noise reduction mode and an additional colour look.
CMOS sensor. Itís still CMOS, itís still the same 24mm x 36mm size, it still delivers 13.5 million pixel photos at full resolution, it still eschews the use of microlenses (which are employed by most other digital SLR sensor manufacturers to improve a pixel's light-gathering efficiency) and it once again has been developed in conjunction with Belgian sensor design firm FillFactory.
Wafer of SLR/n sensors, a finished sensor and the camera itself
Thatís where the similarities end. The SLR/nís pixels feature symmetrical photo diodes in place of the asymmetrical ones in the 14nís sensor, which should, promises Kodak, eliminate the need for the 14nís Lens Optimization feature. Lens Optimization in the older camera compensates for the green/magenta colour shift that results from light exiting the rear of the lens striking the sensorís asymmetrical pixels at different angles.
Early adopters of the 14n found that if their preferred F-mount lens was not in the 14nís Lens Optimization database that their pictures could have a near-uncorrectable colour shift across the frame. This should not be a factor with the SLR/n.
The modified pixel design, a new analog-to-digital conversion board and a change in the company that fabricates the sensor, says Kodakís Jay Kelbley, all add up to a CMOS imager that has lower noise characteristics than that of the 14n, as well as a native sensitivity that's approximately 1.3 stops greater.
DCS Pro SLR/n sensor and analog board
Infrared filter. All digital SLR cameras produced by Kodak, except for the DCS 465, that have incorporated an optical infrared reduction filter have used a dichroic filter. The DCS 465, and now the SLR/n, employ a different type of infrared reduction filter called an absorption filter. In the SLR/n, as with the 14n, the filter is incorporated into the cover glass over the sensor.
The promised benefit of an absorption-type filter is a dramatic reduction in the visibility of red flare around bright light sources, which can be a significant problem with the 14n, as well as fewer instances of anomalous reflections caused by light bouncing around between the dichroic filter and the lens elements.
In addition, the image quality under warm light sources, such as tungsten or early morning and late evening sunlight, should be better. Look for less-visible blue channel noise and improved colour variation in photos than those from the 14n.
The promised benefits come from the different filtering characteristics of the SLR/nís absorption filter, relative to the dichroic filter in the 14n. The downside of the infrared absorption filter is that it cuts the light reaching the sensor by about 1/2 stop, whereas dichroic filters of the type used in the 14n cut the light little, if at all.
The increased sensitivity and lower noise of the SLR/nís sensor, says Kelbley, gave them enough wiggle room to employ an infrared absorption filter and still achieve a base ISO of 160 for the new camera.
Power management circuitry. In the 14n, the digital signal processor (DSP) was always on when the camera was switched on, even when the camera was asleep. The revised power management capabilities in the digital circuitry of the SLR/n allow the DSP to sleep. The net effect is that when the camera is switched on but in sleep mode it draws little to no power.
Noise processing. In addition to the hardware changes, Kodak has tweaked the RAW file image processing in the new version of Photo Desk also.
Photo Desk 3.3 for Windows previewing an SLR/n RAW .DCR photo
Photo Desk 3.3, which should be up on the Kodak web site today, includes a new Expert noise reduction mode thatís designed to reduce both chrominance and luminance noise in a manner thatís much more friendly to fine detail in the photograph.
Expert noise reduction mode in Photo Desk 3.3
Poring over a small handful of SLR/n RAW files, itís clear that the Expert noise reduction mode is much kinder to detail. This addresses a longstanding beef weíve had with Kodakís noise reduction methods Ė they can get rid of the noise, but at too high a price. So, the Advanced and Advanced with Moirť Reduction options still exist in Photo Desk 3.3, but itís likely that users who favour photographic-looking detail over image smoothness will prefer Expert mode. We look forward to working with a greater variety of SLR/n images, to see if our initial impression of Expert mode holds up. Meanwhile, Kodak has posted 6 photos taken with the SLR/n for download in original RAW and processed TIFF or JPEG formats.
Photo Desk 3.3 also includes a new Look, called Commercial Product.
Look popup menu in Photo Desk 3.3
As we mentioned earlier, the net effect of the changes in both the camera itself and Photo Desk 3.3 all seem to be positive. Files look less noisy and more detailed than the 14n. Still, with all user-adjustable noise reduction switched off, even the sample photos show plenty of chrominance artifacting in hair and around other small details, owing to the lack of a low-pass optical filter in the camera, and there is still obvious and potentially unwelcome smoothing of flat areas in a manner that can make objects in the frame, like distant trees, look oddly unnatural.
All in all, however, the few SLR/n files weíve processed look a lot better overall than those weíve shot recently with the 14n.
Kodak is also touting the long exposure capabilities of the SLR/n. The camera includes three long exposure noise reduction modes: Off, Long and Longer. When set to Off, the camera will shoot exposures for whatever duration you choose, but will make no attempt to apply special processing to counter noise buildup in long exposures. Long applies traditional dark frame subtraction noise reduction. Longer performs some serious magic voodoo, combining multiple short exposures for effective exposure times of up to 60 seconds, though with a drop in ISO to 6 (yes, 6) to achieve 60 second exposures.
DCS Pro SLR/n Menu Screenshots
Choosing a Long Exposure mode
Longer long exposure mode's magic voodoo screen
Firmware menu (the SLR/n will ship with v4.5.3 installed at launch)
Creating a new User Setup
Naming a new User Setup
And Then There Were Three
The launch of the SLR/n actually means there will soon be three versions of Kodak's high-resolution digital SLR: the original DCS Pro 14n, the DCS Pro SLR/n and the DCS Pro 14nx.
The latter version is the name Kodak has given to 14n cameras that have been sent by their owner to a Kodak service centre to be upgraded with the sensor, infrared absorption filter and analog board from the SLR/n (about 12 different service facilities worldwide will be able to perform the upgrade, says Kelbley).
Kodak was the first company to make available a sensor/circuitry upgrade for a digital SLR, back in the mid-90ís. The camera was the NC2000; upgrading it to an NC2000e reduced the noise at higher ISO settings and doubled the burst depth from 6 frames to 12. The US$1495 upgrade for the 14n to 14nx status is designed to accomplish much the same thing. The Imager Assembly Upgrade program will commence March 15, 2004.
A 14nx is promised to be identical to the SLR/n in image quality, which should translate into less noisy images along with the other improvements described earlier in this article. And, owners of 14n's with 256MB of buffer memory can, for an additional fee, upgrade their cameras to 512MB at the same time (Kodak is evaluating whether to offer the combination of 14nx upgrade and buffer memory boost as a package with a cost that's lower than the total of the two modifications performed separately).
Why not call an upgraded 14n an SLR/n? Principally because the upgrade does not include the SLR/n's improved power management. A 14nx's DSP will not power down when the camera is asleep, just like the original 14n, and unlike the SLR/n.
The sensor upgrade is a heck of an olive branch from Kodak to 14n users who may be unhappy to see their camera, which has been shipping for less than a year, replaced by a model which delivers something closer to the image quality some were perhaps hoping for from the original 14n.
Oh, and if you forget which of three versions of the camera is yours, the camera's rear LCD will tell you on startup.
The Upgrades Don't Stop There
Owners of any of the three variants of the camera are eligible for an upgrade of a different sort, one that puts the near-equivalent of an LPA Design PocketWizard MultiMAX radio remote inside the body. In fact, if you're as much of a fan of PocketWizard remotes as we are, you could be forgiven for thinking of the SLR/n as a way-cool PocketWizard that happens to include the functionality of a digital camera.
The 14n, 14nx and SLR/n are not the first digital SLR cameras to be eligible for the PocketWizard treatment. LPA Design rolled out this capability in Nikon D1-series cameras back in 2002. There are key differences between then and now, however: the TR60 transceiver module the company makes available to manufacturers like Kodak includes all of the functionality of the MultiMAX (though the manufacturer may implement only a subset of the features if desired), Kodak itself will perform the installation of the module, the presence of the module will not cause Kodak warranty or repair difficulties and the functionality of the TR60 is configurable through the camera's rear LCD menus.
In other words, this is the right way to put the capabilities of the PocketWizard system inside a camera; kudos to Kodak for being the first digital SLR maker to do this.
Front and back views of the TR60 module, with a quarter included for scale
The differences between the PocketWizard MultiMAX and Kodak's implementation of the TR60 are few. The range is reduced to roughly 1000 feet through the removeable screw-in antenna that attaches to the camera's PC sync socket (which behaves like a regular PC sync socket when the antenna is detached), instead of 1600 feet for the external MultiMAX. And the camera already has an intervalometer, so that functionality of the TR60 wasn't required. The ability to control the shutter delay of the camera, for use in multiple camera setups where the triggering of each camera needs to be carefully coordinated with the firing of strobes - so that all cameras are exposing while the strobes are firing - is also not implemented.
Otherwise, it's a MultiMAX, one of the most fully-featured 32-channel triggering devices available. Like the external MultiMAX, the transmitter functionality of the TR60 enables the camera to fire up to 4 groups of strobes wirelessly. As a receiver, it also enables the camera to be triggered by another PocketWizard. In this regard, the TR60 has one advantage over an external MultiMAX: a somewhat-expensive PocketWizard camera trigger cable isn't required to trip the camera from afar.
Kodak has not set the price for the PocketWizard upgrade, and is also evaluating whether to offer a configuration of the SLR/n that already includes the TR60 inside. It will be available initially through service centres in the US and Canada only starting in "the second quarter of 2004 or earlier" says a Mamiya America press release (Mamiya America is the PocketWizard distributor).
PocketWizard Menu Screenshots
PocketWizard main menu
Strobe confirmation menu
DCS Pro SLR/n Availability
The DCS Pro SLR/n has one other advantage over the 14n at launch: while the 14n didn't ship for months after its unveiling, the SLR/n begins to ship to dealers today at a suggested list price of US$4995 in the US. It's expected that the first cameras to reach dealers will become their demonstration units, but that before the end of February 2004 the SLR/n will be in the hands of early purchasers, says Kodak's Jay Kelbley.
The 14n is not being discontinued, though it's likely that demand for the older model will drop off quickly, even at the discounted price for the 14n currently.
Photo Desk 3.3, Camera Manager v3.3 and DCS File Format Module v3.4 are to be posted today on Kodak's website. The next revision of firmware for the 14n, probably to be called v4.5.3, is to be released in about 2 weeks (the firmware for the 14n and SLR/n is near-identical).
Thanks to Jay Kelbley and Jim Clark for their assistance in the preparation of this article.