Nikon today has released a user-installable firmware update for the D2H that improves autofocus and auto white balance, adds support for the EXIF 2.2.1/DCF 2.0 specification, enables the ability to customize file naming in the camera and more.
Firmware v2.00 (Both the A and B firmware in the camera are revved to v2.00 in this fairly comprehensive update) is a free download from various Nikon web sites worldwide, including Nikon USA:
Major changes include:
- Continuous autofocus has been improved, primarily through the addition of a center area option to Group Dynamic AF, as well as the ability to disable the Lock-On functionality of Continuous AF mode.
- Auto white balance now produces more pleasing, less yellow-orange colour when shooting under warm light sources with fill-flash.
- Three of the first four characters of the file name can now be set by the user.
- EXIF 2.2.1/DCF 2.0 support means no more Nikon Adobe RGB ICC profile is embedded into in-camera JPEGs shot with the camera set to Color Mode II; instead, applications that you use to view these files must be able to interpret EXIF 2.2.1/DCF 2.0 for an Adobe RGB profile to be applied automatically. In-camera TIFFs retain the Nikon Adobe RGB profile as before.
- The ISO setting is now recorded in the EXIF ISO tag. Previously, this data was found only in the private MakerNote tag, which meant ISO wasn't displayed unless the application was designed to specifically interpret Nikon's method of placing ISO info in the file. Now, any application capable of peeking inside the standard EXIF ISO tag should be able to display the D2H ISO setting, including Photoshop CS and various image browsing and cataloging programs.
- Zoomed playback of a photo has been modified. A zoom area frame now appears, allowing for the targeting of the section of the photo to be enlarged before zooming. The degree of enlargement is still controllable, in 7 increments, though the enlargement range has increased to a zoomy 30X for full-resolution photos, and 23X for photos shot on the M resolution setting.
- The method by which the histogram is calculated is new. The main difference is in how the graph is scaled vertically; it should be more readable now and better match the histogram seen in Nikon Capture.
- The centre indicator of the exposure compensation display on the top LCD and in the viewfinder will blink when any amount of compensation is dialed in. It will also blink, even when compensation is +/-0, if CSM b5 (easy exposure compensation) is set to CMD Dial only.
- A condition in which the frame rate would decrease, even when the camera was not set to adjust ISO automatically, has been corrected. In addition, with automatic ISO adjustment switched on, the maximum frame rate is now pegged at a still-sprightly 7 fps.
- The number of frames that can be rattled off in a continuous burst, when no CompactFlash card is in the camera, is now limited by the number set in CSM d2 (maximum shots in continuous mode). Previously, the camera would fire an effectively unlimited number of frames when the CF slot was empty.
- Cards whose capacity exceeds 4GB are now supported.
Some of the changes above have meant new or renamed menu items, particularly in the CSM menu. Not impacted by this update is D2H image quality, including the camera's noise characteristics.
D2H Firmware v2.00 Highlights
Autofocus The most significant change is to Group Dynamic AF. Up until now, this autofocus mode was effectively limited to closest subject priority. This, in and of itself, wasn't a deal-stopping problem, since having the camera focus on the nearest subject can sometimes be useful. Except that the time it took the D2H to scan the 3, 4 or 5 areas in the AF pattern selected, then calculate which AF area to use initially, could introduce a monstrous delay. Monstrous, that is, when all heck is breaking loose on the basketball or volleyball court. That's where we'd hoped that Group Dynamic AF could be applied effectively, but as we quickly discovered, the delays in the autofocus system driving the Nikkor AF-S VR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF lens we often choose for indoor sports made the camera feel like it was stuck in molasses. No, make that crazy glue.
The addition of a center area option for both the Pattern 1 and Pattern 2 groups in CSM a3 changes the game considerably. When chosen, the camera now starts autofocusing in the AF area that is nearest the middle of the particular AF pattern selected. Not only does this seem to reduce instances of the AF system lagging, it also meshes better with how we want to shoot: autofocus on the centre-most AF area in the pattern, then let the camera pick another AF area as the changing composition of the frame requires.
We've only had a chance to try out the new center area option at volleyball thus far, using only 3 of the 11 AF area patterns. The experience was so, so, so much better than before that we're optimistic that when indoor sports shooting resumes for real for us in the fall that Group Dynamic AF might actually be an option in a way that it hasn't been since the D2H was released in 2003.
One of the hallmarks of a modern, pro-level autofocus system is the ability to continue tracking a moving subject even when someone or something enters the frame in front of that subject. Nikon's marketing mouthful for this is Focus Tracking with Lock-On. Generally speaking, it enables the shooting of sports like football and soccer from field level without being driven bananas by the autofocus system refocusing on the ref running through the foreground. Or, shifting focus to the background when the AF area drifts off the subject briefly. The Lock-On functionality is a smart and carefully-timed delay, during which time the ref, it's hoped, will have passed through the frame and the camera can keep on tracking the intended subject.
Lock-On can also introduce a delay in refocusing on a new subject, however, especially for shooters who keep the AF system continually active when switching from covering the quarterback tossing the ball to the receiver catching it. For that reason, the new firmware allows for the disabling of Lock-On via the new CSM a4. With Lock-On disabled, the camera does indeed pick up new subjects faster, and may be the preferred method for shooting action with the D2H for some photographers.
That said, we've used this camera almost exclusively in Dynamic AF mode to date, with the centre AF area designated as the starting AF area. In addition, responsibility for engaging the autofocus system has been relegated to the rear AF-ON button exclusively. With the camera set this way, we've found the D2H to be a strong performer for the sports we've shot most with it, including rugby, football and some soccer.
The secret to success has been to release the AF-ON button whenever switching subjects.The AF dance goes something like this: press and hold AF-ON to focus on the quarterback, shoot pictures, release AF-ON, find the receiver, press and hold AF-ON again, shoot more pictures. With other sports, the timing of pressing and releasing AF-ON is a bit different, but the concept is the same: work around any Lock-On-induced delay (which may be coupled with other AF system delays that aren't related to Lock-On) by reactivating the AF system from scratch when picking up a new subject. With a lens like the AF-S 300mm f/2.8D ED-IF II, autofocusing on a new target is so quick this can and does work well.
We haven't yet put the camera through its paces with Lock-On disabled. If it causes more shifting of focus to the ref or the background, and it probably will, that will be too steep a price to pay for the sports we tend to photograph. Especially when the press and release AF-ON approach described above works pretty darn effectively. But for what you shoot, it may be worthwhile exploring this new setting.
Rounding out the autofocus changes are a tweak to increase the speed at which focus changes between a near and far subject in Single Area AF mode (this change is independent of the Disable Lock-On CSM feature), plus a new option called FPS rate + AF in CSM a1 (AF-C priority selection). This setting bridges the gap between FPS rate priority, where the camera will shoot at the chosen fps (ie 8 fps) regardless of the camera's ability to acquire focus or track the subject, and Focus priority, where the camera will fire only when the subject is in focus. FPS rate + AF places the priority on frame rate, but will slow the frame rate down if the AF system is struggling to acquire focus because the light level is low and/or the subject is low-contrast.
In a brief session with the FPS rate + AF option chosen, the frame rate did slow down noticeably when tracking a dark horse galloping towards the camera. It also produced 17 tack-sharp frames out of 20. With FPS rate dialed in instead, tracking the same horse on the same trajectory yielded 13 of 18 crisply-focused frames and no apparent slow-down in the shooting rate. So, if the goal of FPS rate + AF is to produce more in-focus frames in sequences when subject contrast is hampering the AF system, our quick look suggests that it may just do that. But more real world use is needed.
The major thrust of this firmware update is autofocus. Nikon has provided some powerful new AF options that should make the D2H a better fast action camera than it was before.
Auto White Balance A day or two after the D2H arrived here at the Little Guy Media offices last fall we had a kiddie birthday party to photograph. As is often the case when pulling out a camera to take personal pictures, we leave colour correction gels and gray cards behind and try to shoot photos like regular people.
Whoops, bad decision. Snapping away with the D2H set to Auto White Balance (AWB), the light from the warm fluorescent and even warmer tungsten lights in the ceiling, when mixed equally with ungelled Nikon Speedlight, made for an ugly colour mess. Though the areas lit mostly by flash looked close to the mark, the background - which was being illuminated mostly by ambient light - was a sea of yellow-orange muck. That may have been the last time we used AWB in that type of shooting environment.
The decision to not adjust the colour output of the flash with gels was the primary reason for the wacked colour. Secondarily, the more-intense saturation on Color Mode II, relative to previous pro Nikon digital SLR models, pumped up the background ick to some extent. And finally, the AWB system's decision to not compensate for the existing light at all and instead balance exclusively for the near-daylight output of the Speedlight all added up to jarring colour.
This firmware update can't add colour correction gels to the flash after the fact, and it doesn't appear to tone down colour saturation either (nor would we want it to). It does, however, better handle mixed light fill-flash shooting, by effectively dropping the white balance to a lower colour temperature, muting the colour of unpleasantly warm ambient light in the process.
We've given the D2H's AWB system a whirl under cool and warm fluorescent, household incandescent and office tungsten, with and without SB-800 flash. Comparing a camera running original firmware and one loaded with the new firmware, in every case the new-firmware AWB system takes more of the edge off warm ambient light when ungelled flash is being used for fill, in a manner that should produce results that are more pleasing. Note that there is no magic to what's happening inside the D2H in this scenario. It's simply opting for a lower colour temperature white balance. This translates into the flash-lit areas in the scene taking on a slight blue cast. Overall, however, this change in AWB thinking should be welcomed by photographers that insist on using AWB and ungelled flash.
When shooting without flash, AWB appears to perform similarly to before, which means that when the light is warmer than about 3500K or so, AWB still seems to throw in the towel and render photos with a strong overall colour cast. So, this AWB change seems to mostly or exclusively address fill-flash photography.
File naming If you've dreamed of the day when you could include your initials in the names of the files rolling out of your D2H, that day has arrived. The DSC portion of the file name can be set to your initials now, or to any combination of three letters and numbers, through a quick-to-use interface on the camera's rear LCD monitor. This is a sweet change.
There's one hitch. Because the firmware upgrade also bumps the camera up to EXIF 2.2.1/DCF 2.0, the placement of the three user-configurable characters in the file name jumps one position depending on the Color Mode. For example, if the three characters are set to RDG, a photo taken on Color Mode I or III would be named RDG_0001.JPG (as an example). On Color Mode II, that same file would be named _RDG0001.JPG.
If you intend for downstream software to recognize the custom characters in the file name, that software will have to account for the location of the underscore ("_") character.
In addition, for JPEG photos shot on Color Mode II to be properly recognized as being in the Adobe RGB colour space, the viewing program will need to interpret EXIF 2.2.1/DCF 2.0 files. Photo Mechanic 126.96.36.199 for Mac and Windows seems to handle D2H new-firmware files just fine, as does Photoshop CS on both platforms, in our testing so far.
Image quality Not changed by the update are the D2H's key image quality traits, both good and not so good. In side-by-side tests of a D2H running original firmware and another with the v2.00 update loaded, we could see no noticeable differences. The camera is still over-sensitive to near-IR light, making the use of an optical filter like the Tiffen Hot Mirror a must when shooting under IR-heavy illumination, it still tends to shift some shades of red to purply-magenta and some shades of yellow to yellowy-green, and the level of noise at all ISO settings appears unchanged.
Also unaffected by the firmware update is the difference in crispness between RAW .NEF files converted by Capture 4.1.2 and JPEGs generated in the camera, even when processed on the identical sharpening setting (including no sharpening).
Nikon had not promised a change in image quality with this update, and in our testing there doesn't seem to be any (with the notable exception of fill-flash AWB photos as discussed earlier). Firmware v2.00 is clearly about improving camera functionality, with an emphasis on shoring up autofocus performance.
One firmware file at a time The D2H contains both "A" and "B" firmware, which must be updated in separate operations. Nikon's firmware updating instructions are thorough, but it's worth emphasizing one point: if you intend to update the firmware from a CompactFlash card, be sure to copy only one firmware file to the top (root) level of the card.
If you copy both the A and B firmware files to the card, such that both are on the card simultaneously, the camera will recognize only the B firmware updater. The solution is to copy one firmware file to the card, run through the update process for that firmware file, delete the first firmware file from the card, then repeat the process with the second firmware file. It doesn't appear to matter whether the A firmware or B firmware is updated first.
D2H v2.00 firmware files
Fresh batteries Each update routine takes several minutes to complete, so be sure the camera has lots of juice before you begin. If you intend to power the camera with its Li-Ion battery, a quick glance at its charge status in Battery Info in the Set Up menu would be prudent before you commence.
Check the Shooting menu The settings in the Playback menu, CSM menu and Set Up menu are retained through the firmware update, while the Shooting menu is returned to its default state. Be sure to reconfigure the options in the Shooting menu to your liking before using the camera after the update.
No Microdrive, WT-1/WT-1A Nikon cautions against running the firmware updater from a Microdrive, and also indicates that the WT-1/WT-1A Wireless Transmitter must be removed from the camera before updating the firmware.
Nikon has also posted an addendum to the D2H user guide that outlines the functionality differences brought about by the new firmware, including which menu items on the rear LCD monitor have been added or changed.
Thanks to Richard LoPinto, Nobu Sasagaki, Bill Pekala and David Dentry for their assistance in the preparation of this article.