Kodak this morning announced the DCS 720x, a follow-on to the now-discontinued DCS 620x that improves upon the high ISO prowess of that camera while incorporating the interface design and key image processing components of the DCS 760.
Kodak Professional DCS 720x
DCS 720x Feature Highlights
This article looks at some of the many tweaks and changes Kodak has made to the DCS 620x's original design, changes that will culminate in the new and improved DCS 720x when it hits dealer shelves in late July or early August. Taken as a whole, the new camera looks to be a better 620x, buffed up with the look and interface feel of the DCS 760.
CCD, colour, noise, image quality
The CCD is an improved version of the 1728 x 1152 image pixel sensor in the 620X. It's the same physical size and active image area, which means the 620x's 1.6x focal length cropping factor, relative to 35mm film, carries through to the new camera. Kodak isn't revealing the exact nature of the improvements to the CCD, though they are said to increase overall image quality. The camera's two million pixel CCD is a bit shy on resolution by today's standards. As the 520, 620 and 620x have demonstrated, however, decent enlargeability and croppability is possible from a Kodak 2MP digital SLR sensor.
The CCD's colour filter array is composed of cyan, magenta and yellow filters, the same as the 620x, and unlike almost every other single CCD camera on the market, which employ RGB filters. A Kodak technical document released at the time of the 620x's introduction describes how a CMY colour filter array improves CCD sensitivity, thereby shifting upwards the effective ISO range.
The DCS 720x, says Kodak, will produce images with somewhat less noise than the 620x, which is the current high-ISO champion. Expect to see a slightly cleaner blue channel when working in the ISO stratosphere, as well as cleaner shadows in all channels at all ISO settings. This is due in part to improved circuitry that performs the analog-to-digital conversion of the image data as it moves off the CCD. Nikon's upcoming D1H, which has been designed to produce much less noise at higher ISO settings than the D1 it replaces, will likely be the only digital SLR camera to challenge the 720x above ISO 1600. And the smart money would be on the 720x at this point, based on the great prints one can make from 620x files at ISO 3200 and beyond.
Kodak has revamped the math behind the colour calibration of the DCS 720x to improve its colour response under warmer light sources, relative to the 620x. This should mean more accurate colour, says Kodak, under everything from tungsten studio lamps to arena, gymnasium and outdoor stadium lighting. A quirk of the DCS 620x is its tendency to generate different colour, including oddball colour shifts in highlights, as the ISO changes, even when scene illumination stays the same. In switching from a proprietary colour processing engine to one based on the ICC standard, Kodak took the opportunity to tune the 720x's colour to be more consistent as the ISO setting is moved upwards, thereby tackling a common 620x complaint.
Kodak is not yet making 720x image files available for publishing on the Web.
Sports action shooters will be glad to hear that DCS 720x shutter lag should be about on par with the F5 film camera and the D1. Kodak similarly reduced the shutter response time in the DCS 760; in shooting with that camera last month I found its shutter lag to be roughly equivalent to the D1, meaning no adjustment of my own timing was required as I moved from Kodak's to Nikon's digital SLR and back.
The same analog circuitry modifications that contribute to lower overall image noise also enable the camera's frame rate to jump to a respectable 4.3 fps, from the 620x's 3.5 fps. It can also record a minimum of 25 frames in a burst to its 128MB of onboard RAM. When shooting an average scene at a moderate ISO, Kodak anticipates the burst depth to be in the 30-35 frame range.
A speedier FireWire controller, the same as that found in the DCS 760, means tethered camera performance will be dramatically improved over the 620x. In my testing on an older Mac G3/400, the DCS 760's FireWire port served up files to the computer at over 5MB/second via DCS Camera Manager 1.0. Kodak claims that with the latest coputer hardware, both the 760 and the 720x will move photos at up to 8MB/second. Kodak estimates, therefore, that the 720x will be able to muster about 3 photos per second over FireWire.
Look for card write speed to be blazing, with both the IBM Microdrive and faster Flash memory cards, and perhaps older Type III PC Card hard drives too. The 720x, once again, uses the same hardware and internal firmware to drive pictures to the card slots as the DCS 760. In benchmarking the DCS 760, I saw transfer rates of about 3MB/second to the 1GB Microdrive and 2.1MB/second to the fastest CompactFlash Flash memory cards, including Lexar Media's 256MB 10X, 256MB 12X and 320MB 12X. The DCS 720x should offer about equivalent performance.
Like the 620x, the 720x will optionally generate JPEGs from RAW .DCR files. The new camera's JPEG compression time, however, should be a tiny fraction of the 620x (though not a speed match for the real-time JPEG processing of cameras like the D1 and Canon's EOS D30), thanks to the addition of a powerful digital signal processor (DSP) chip. In other words, the 720x will primarily be a RAW file camera that can generate JPEGs as needed from files selected by the photographer, complete with IPTC caption information if desired. If you believe in the benefits of the RAW format, as I do, then this approach is a Good Thing. Photographers who need nothing but JPEGs, and for whom maximum efficiency is the only criteria that matters, may find creating JPEGs as a post-processing step in the camera to be cumbersome. But I wouldn't include myself among this group of photographers, since in my experience it's possible to tune a RAW file workflow to be extremely quick, thereby avoiding the in-camera JPEG step altogether in most cases.
The 720x retains three levels of JPEG compression, though each has been tuned to produce a cleaner, and presumably smaller, JPEG file than the 620x. In-camera JPEG compression will be available in the DCS 720x from the time it ships, says Kodak. Like the 620x, the new camera can resample the photo prior to JPEG compression. In addition to the three spatial resolution levels offered by the 620x (100%, 67%, 50%), a fall release of firmware for the 720x will add 25%, 150% and 200%. The 25% setting will, for example, enable numerous ultra-low resolution files to be transmitted back to the newspaper for web display or for perusing by an editor before a smaller set of full resolution files is sent. The 150% and 200% settings are offered for organizations whose image databases accept only photos at or over a certain resolution.
An IR filter will ship with the camera, not Kodak's Anti-Aliasing (AA) filter. The AA filter will still be available, but as a pricey extra-cost option.
Proponents of the Zone System will fall in love with the new on-screen luminometer and histogram incremented in f stops. These features carry over from the DCS 760, and will reward photographers who embrace the luminometer in particular with near-perfect exposures. The luminometer, histogram, other menus and on-screen tools, the button layout and improved LCD display - all are identical to those found in the DCS 760. Check out the user interface section of the May 17 report on Kodak's new 6MP camera for a glimpse at what the 720x's interface will offer. Kodak is currently revamping the pan and zoom function of the DCS 760 to improve its speed. The same improvements will likely be in the DCS 720x when it ships.
DCS 720x digital interface and controls
The 720x is housed inside the same hybrid F5-Kodak digital body as the 620x, with some internal modifications and, as mentioned, the buttons and controls from the 760. The interface itself is first rate, but the body is just too big for comfortable, all day, handheld use, especially with lenses like the Nikkor AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8. The 720x is the fifth Nikon-based digital SLR Kodak has built around this bulky frame. It's time to wrap it up.
The viewfinder is unchanged from the 620x, which means the masked-off viewing area will be smaller than the D1 or even Kodak's own DCS 520, both of which employ moderate viewfinder magnification to boost the viewfinder image to a more pleasing size. The 720x's viewfinder will for some, including myself, seem too small for extended comfortable image viewing and manual focusing.
Kodak is moving away from a single Photoshop import plug-in/TWAIN driver to a troika of DCS Photo Desk, DCS Camera Manager and a Photoshop file format plug-in. This spells bad news for those hooked on Kodak's import module, as the 720x will not be supported. To view and process the 720x's RAW .DCR files, then, will require DCS Photo Desk, the file format plug-in or a third party application built on Kodak's pro camera SDK. Here's a quick look at some of the software changes coming from Kodak, all of which are slated for release at the end of next month. For a more complete look at Kodak's software direction in 2001, peruse the software segment of the DCS 760 report.
DCS Photo Desk 1.2. The next revision of Kodak's standalone browser for its FireWire-capable cameras will add a colour moiré filter designed to knock down chrominance patterns appearing in some photos shot without an AA filter. It will also add support for files from the DCS Pro Back. Support for the DCS 720x will not be new in v1.2, because it's already in the currently-available v1.1. Also slated for v1.2 is the ability to display, preview, IPTC caption and view IPTC/EXIF text and shooting data in JPEG and TIFF files that don't originate from Kodak cameras. In other words, DCS Photo Desk will become a free JPEG and TIFF browser with the ability to add and edit caption information without recompressing JPEGs in particular - cool. Kodak is also hoping to implement the direct transfer of images from DCS Photo Desk to Photoshop in v1.2, eliminating v.1.1's need to save RAW .DCR files out as JPEGs or regular TIFFs first. This feature, cautions Kodak, could slip into a later release. Version 1.2 is due to be posted as a free download for Mac and Windows from Kodak's web site at the end of July.
DCS Camera Manager 1.1. The primary change in v1.1 of Kodak's camera control and image transfer utility will be support for the DCS Pro Back. V1.0, available now for Mac, already handles DCS 720x files. One possible feature addition is audible alerts: having the computer beep when a file arrives, beep multiple times if an error occurs, and so on. As Kodak is still working to get the Windows version of DCS Camera Manager 1.0 out the door, it seems likely that audible alerts will be held for a future release. Version 1.1 is to be available as a free download from Kodak's web site at the same time as DCS Photo Desk 1.2 in late July.
File format plug-in. No big feature additions are planned for the file format plug-in which is currently wrapped into the Photoshop Import plug-in/TWAIN driver installer package. The next release, also slated for the end of July, will add support for the DCS 720x and DCS 760.
The DCS 720x (and DCS 760 too) will be ready for the Internet sometime in the fourth quarter of this year. At that time, Kodak intends to introduce the ability to send photos directly from the camera via email. By connecting a Web-enabled phone to the camera's serial port, the 720x will be able to send one or more JPEG or even RAW .DCR photos as attachments to an email message. The ubiquity of email, and the fact that a photo need only be sent once to a mail server, along with a list of email addresses, for that photo to make it to multiple destinations, is behind Kodak dumping the Zmodem transmission support found in the 620x and other 2MP Kodak digital SLR cameras in favour of email over the Internet for the 720x. There are many unanswered questions at this time - which phones, how fast (the 720x sports a new serial port chip, which may help throughput as mobile phone data rates increase), cost - but, based on what is known, it's clear that email transmission could be a boon for photographers working on deadline. FTP transfer is not planned at this time. If you want to be able to move photos to an FTP server in addition to email, let Kodak know!
Kodak currently projects that the DCS 720x will begin leaving the factory at the end of July, with stock on dealer shelves in early August. The camera's price will not be announced until the end of June.