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A preview of the Nikon D2H - Continued

This section looks at the D2H's options for storing, moving and reviewing photos.

Storage

A single Type I/II CompactFlash card slot fills out the right hand grip of the D2H. Like the D1H, it supports later model IBM/Hitachi Microdrives as well as flash memory CompactFlash cards. The primary change in the D2H's image storage capabilities is the ability to write to, read from and format cards over 2GB, thanks to its FAT32 file system support. A brief test of Lexar's Pro Series 4GB 40X card with a prototype D2H revealed no obvious incompatibilities.

The D2H also supports Lexar's Write Acceleration technology, for faster throughput to all of Lexar's current line of Pro Series CompactFlash cards.

We've seen published reports of the D2H's greatly increased throughput to the CompactFlash card, on the order of 2-3x faster. These reports seem to be confusing a significant speed increase in the processing of image data coming off the sensor (as would be necessary at 8 fps) with greatly accelerated write speed. While we are hoping to see an increase in throughput to the CompactFlash card, a jump of 2-3x is unlikely.

Connectivity

In a move that's likely to cause some short-term angst, Nikon has ditched FireWire in favour of USB 2.0 for tethered operation with its latest pro digital SLR camera. Doing so essentially turns the tables in the platform wars: Most Windows users of the D1, D1X and D1H, at least those who wanted to control the camera from Nikon Capture or load a custom tone curve, were forced to add a FireWire card to their desktop, track down a FireWire PC Card for their laptop or seek out one of the handful of PC laptops with a built-in FireWire port. Users of an Apple computer simply connected the camera, since FireWire ports have been standard on Macs for some time.

Now, the situation is reversed. Owners of relatively new Windows-based computers won't need to make a trip to the add-in card section of the computer store, since their desktop or laptop is likely to have native USB 2.0 support already. By comparison, USB 2.0 is nowhere to be found on the Mac platform, at least until the G5 Macs hit the streets later this month. That means Mac users will need to spring for a G5, add a USB 2.0 card to their computer or live with communicating with the camera at the pokey USB 1.1 throughput of current Mac's built-in USB ports. For occasional tethered use, USB 1.1 should be fine. But it will almost certainly be unacceptably slow for photographers looking to build a daily workflow around tethered operation of the D2H.

But let's face it, the use of cables of any kind is so 2002. The star of the D2H's connectivity show is the optional WT-1 wireless transmitter.

nikon_d2h_wt-1.jpg
Nikon D2H with WT-1 transmitter attached

We're man enough to admit that we wept openly at the coolness of the WT-1 during a session with a prototype of the device last month. Shooting pictures and, without lifting a finger, having them quickly and effortlessly whisked through the air to a remote computer makes for an impressive demo.

Nikon isn't the first to take a stab at wireless transmission from a digital SLR. That honour belongs to Kodak. But Nikon appears to be the first to have built a wireless transmission system that stands a chance of being widely adopted. This is part good engineering, since Nikon has clearly put a lot of effort into the WT-1, and part good timing, since wireless networking is cheaper, easier to setup and considerably faster in 2003 than at any previous point. The increasing ubiquity of Wi-Fi networking equipment (and networks) in particular should contribute to what we expect will be a successful launch of the WT-1 alongside (or rather underneath) the D2H.

Features of the WT-1 include:

  • Support for the 802.11b Wi-Fi wireless Ethernet protocol, the same protocol used in Apple's original Airport system (and one of two protocols supported in Airport Extreme), mobile computers using Intel's Centrino technology, T-Mobile's HotSpots and wireless networking equipment from dozens of manufacturers. A single camera connected to a Wi-Fi network should be able to transmit photos at up to about 600K/second, which is many, many times faster than today's wireless phones. Wire services have already been using 802.11b Wi-Fi networks for some time to move photos from photographers in the field to on-site editing facilities at events like the Superbowl and the Olympics (we profiled AFP's use of 802.11b at the Sydney Olympics three years ago), though a laptop has always been required. The combination of a PocketPC handheld and software like PocketPhojo has made it possible to do the same without a laptop, but not even a handheld is likely to top the ease and portability of the WT-1 attached to the D2H.

  • Support for the 13 channels that divide up the 2.4-2.5GHz spectrum used by 802.11b. Regulatory limitations in some countries prevent all 13 channels from being used. In the US and Canada, for instance, only 11 of the 13 channels are available. In addition, the channels overlap, such that only 4 of the 11 (or 5 of the 13 in regions that allow for that) can really be used in any given location. In the world of Wi-Fi, the number of usable channels does not equal the number of Wi-Fi devices that can be active in the same area simultaneously; that's limited more by the capabilities of the networking equipment governing the wireless network, as well as one's expectations about how quick pictures should flow through the air.  But the number of usable channels does roughly equate to the number of different organizations that can set up their own wireless networks at a given event within range of each other. If the WT-1 does bring about a surge in the number of photographers and number of outlets that want to Wi-Fi their pictures from the camera, some careful coordination will be required. It will quickly make more sense for shared access points to be established, rather than each organization setting up their own.

  • The WT-1 can connect in either ad hoc or infrastructure mode. Ad hoc mode connections are between two Wi-Fi devices, such as the WT-1 and a computer with a Wi-Fi card installed. In Apple parlance, this is a computer-to-computer connection. An infrastructure mode connection is between a device like the WT-1 and an access point (a wireless router or similar piece of networking gear). Apple's Airport Extreme Base Station is an example of this type of hardware. With support for both, the WT-1 can be used to transmit photos to an individual photographer's laptop, no access point required. Or, for larger setups with multiple photographers, or to take advantage of all of the WT-1's security features, via a full-fledged wireless base station.

  • Three methods for securing the wireless link are supported, none of which absolutely guarantee the security of the link, but together should provide more than enough of a roadblock to unwelcome intruders:

    • 40/64-bit and 128-bit Wired Equivalency Protocol (WEP) security. Data is encrypted as it's transmitted over the wireless link. WEP is generally accepted to be relatively easy to crack, at least for a sophisticated hacker with the right wireless data sniffing tools. An emerging wireless encryption protocol called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), that is said to provide much stronger security than WEP, is not planned for the WT-1.

    • MAC address filtering. Each WT-1 has a unique Media Access Control (MAC) address, often referred to as an Ethernet address. With access points that support MAC address filtering, the MAC address of the WT-1's that are permitted on the wireless network can be entered via the access point's setup screen. Spoofing a MAC address is not impossible (and in fact is a common capability of wireless routers intended for use with home DSL or cable connections to the Internet), but like WEP it would take a savvy bad guy to figure out and spoof the MAC address of a WT-1.

    • SSID/ESSID support. Another common feature of access points is the ability to turn off the broadcasting of the Service Set Identifier (SSID) or Extended Service Set Identifier (ESSID) so that only devices that know the SSID/ESSID (often referred to as the network name) can gain entry to that access point. Wireless network monitoring software can extract the SSID/ESSID, though it would, once again, require an evildoer with some experience to do it quickly.

  • The D2H can be configured to transmit photos as they're shot, by automatically placing them in an internal queue. A small transmission icon appears over a photo on the rear LCD monitor; the icon is yellow when the photo is waiting to be sent, red during transmission and white when it has been successfully transmitted. Photos can optionally be deleted from the CompactFlash card after they've been sent and, when shooting RAW+JPEG, either just the RAW NEF, just the JPEG or both files can be transmitted. WAV format sound files are always transmitted along with their associated photos. Both individual photos and folders of photos can be selected for transmission, in addition to the transmit everything option.

  • Establishing a Wi-Fi link between a WT-1 and a computer or network is analogous to stringing an invisible Ethernet cable between the two. Once that's done, the pictures have to be moved somehow. Nikon has settled on the FTP protocol for that, and has built a mini FTP client into the D2H. Both anonymous and name/password connections are possible. We're not sure if the D2H will automatically resume transmission of photos (though the WT-1 will automatically reestablish a lost wireless link), and we're not sure if or how it attempts to handle file naming conflicts (which might be a relatively common occurrence with multiple cameras transmitting photos to a single folder on an FTP server).


  • Using the WT-1 will require an FTP server to receive the photos. Mac OS X client has one built-in, and it should be suitable for an individual photographer's WT-1 usage. But with few configuration options it doesn't scale well to handle multiple photographers. In that case, Mac OS X users might be better off stepping up to the US$250 (and up) Rumpus, a slick, well-designed FTP server for the Mac (Classic or OS X) that provides lots of control in an easy-to-use package (this was the FTP server software we used until converting our primary home office server to Mac OS X Server). Windows users have several standalone FTP server software options, including the US$40 (and up) Serv-U.

  • While the WT-1 will be able to drop photos onto an FTP server running on a local network, it's not clear whether direct transmission to a distant server over the Internet will be possible. That is, the TCP/IP setup of the D2H looks like it should be able to handle either scenario. It apparently can resolve domain names too, converting ftp.someserver.com into an IP address such as 215.124.125.64. But in our discussions with Nikon we've not been able to confirm that it will do both. Regardless, transmission to a local network will probably be what most WT-1 users will want to do. UPDATE: We've received preliminary word from Nikon that the WT-1 will support over-the-Internet FTP transmission.

  • The WT-1 draws its power from the camera. Under unspecified test condititions, Nikon indicates that the the number of D2H frames per charge drops by about 20% when the WT-1 is used. How much juice the WT-1 requires will undoubtedly float up and down from there, depending on the number of photos transmitted in a session.

  • The WT-1 features the same magnesium alloy construction and environmental sealing as the D2H itself. A small cover must be removed from the base of the D2H before the WT-1 can be attached. Removing the cover exposes the power connection between the camera and transmitter. The WT-1's short USB cable must also be attached to the D2H, via the USB 2.0 interface on the camera's side. The WT-1's USB connector incorporates a surround similar to the port cover and is designed to keep the camera's USB port sealed from the elements.

  • Included with the WT-1 is a removable 1-inch omnidirectional antenna, the WA-S1. Its gain is rated at less than -1.5dBi; Nikon's spec for its range is 30m (100ft). An optional external antenna, the WA-E1, is an 8-inch omnidirectional antenna rated at less than 4dBi with a range of 150m (500ft). The WA-E1 includes a 1/4-20 threaded mount for attachment to a tripod (or to the centre of a construction helmet or other headgear worn by the enterprising news photographer) and a pigtail with a connector for the WT-1 antenna port. Without knowing the transmit power of the WT-1 itself it's hard to assess the likelihood of achieving the range that Nikon has specified (even line-of-sight), though we suspect that the transmitter inside the device will need to be on the beefier side.

  • The antenna port on the WT-1 is not proprietary, though we haven't yet been able to determine which of the many standard Wi-Fi antenna connectors it is. Nikon will almost certainly dissuade users from attaching antennas other than the two it provides, to prevent the WT-1 from operating outside the limits established by regulatory bodies such as the FCC in the US, and its counterparts in other countries, for 2.4GHz devices. Having said that, devising antennas that extend the WT-1's range, provide a means of attachment other than a tripod mount or solve some other wireless problem should be possible without running afoul of the government. Look for all manner of antennas to be mated to the WT-1 shortly after its release.

  • If you've ever set up a PocketPC device to transmit photos via FTP over a Wi-Fi link to an Internet server, you have an idea of what the various WT-1-related menus look like. There's a lot to configure. Fortunately, it's possible to fill out a text template with all the necessary information on the computer, copy that to a CompactFlash card and load it into one or more cameras. The WT-1 will include a sample template file as well as a simple application that walks users through providing all the configuration details that make up the text file.

  • The wireless link does not allow for remote control of the camera from Nikon Capture or other software.

Paging through the D2H's configuration screens for the WT-1, it's hard to imagine that Nikon left anything out. Like so much about the D2H, the wireless transmission option has been thoroughly thought through. Still, we can see a handful of features that appear missing that would improve the WT-1 experience:

  • Support for 802.11g, in addition to 802.11b. The newest member of the Wi-Fi protocol family is capable of real world throughput greater than 2.5MB/sec over a strong wireless link (in our own 802.11g setup we've managed to transfer D1H JPEGs at well over 3MB/sec consistently). The 802.11g protocol is backwards-compatible with 802.11b, since both are geared for the 2.4GHz band; even the same antenna could be used whether the WT-1 was operating in 802.11b or 802.11g mode. Like 802.11b, as the signal strength drops so does the throughput, though 802.11g tends to drop more precipitously, eventually matching 802.11b's slower transfer rate when wireless signal strength is so-so. At major events where wireless bandwidth is being divvied up many ways, or whenever photographers are working at the limits of the wireless signal, 802.11g might not be that much faster than 802.11b. For the major event photographer, then, 802.11g might not always provide that big a speed boost. But for the studio photographer wanting to move pictures from the camera to the computer without wires, the 5x faster throughput under those conditions would mean substantially less time spent waiting for pictures to move. Especially if the file format is something other than JPEG. Support for 802.11b only is a drawback of the WT-1 that will probably limit the adoption of the device outside of the core news/sports segment at which it's aimed.

  • Customizable file names. As it stands now, there is no way to configure the D2H so that file names are unique to that camera. Given the potential for file name overlap across multiple cameras dropping photos into the same location, we're not sure what provision Nikon has made, if any, to prevent files from being overwritten accidentally. We would like to see the first four characters of the file name be whatever the user wishes (and we're fine choosing from only alphanumeric characters, which would ensure compliance with the Design Rule for Camera File Systems specification that the D2H otherwise adheres to).

  • IPTC captioning. The D2H does allow for a 36 character comment to be entered into the metadata of each photo. This is a handy feature that we've used for some time with the D1H to include our name and the camera's serial number, to help in the sorting process downstream. Much more powerful would be the ability to tag each photo with IPTC text information, including the name of the photographer, basic event details and perhaps organization-specific routing data. This information could then be augmented by an on-site editor at major events, used to do a rough identification of the content when photos are streaming in from a variety of locations or to ensure that automated picture delivery systems can move photos to their correct destinations.

 Shortcomings aside, the WT-1 looks to be way cool. We can't wait to try it out for real.

Playback

Like the camera that precedes it, the D2H allows for the immediate review of pictures, including zooming, even while a long queue of photos is still being written to the card. Deleting single images is just as efficient, thanks to the press once/press-to-confirm Delete button. The D1H already has the most efficient basic playback features of any digital SLR we know of, and it appears the D2H is going to carry on this tradition. All digital cameras should work this way.

And what a screen to review your photos on! The 2.5", 211,000-dot scratch-resistant rear LCD monitor appears only slightly smaller than the TV we had in college. It's almost certainly brighter. And Nikon has positioned it in the centre of the camera's back, flush with the surrounding controls, out of the way of the nose of either right- or left-eyed photographers. This is a sweet, sweet LCD.

nikon_d2h_rearlcd.jpg
2.5", 211,000 dot LCD monitor

Other playback and camera configuration features include:

  • Zooming is pulled directly from the D100, which means the D2H provides a near-stepless zoom in on the image. In a quick trial of this feature we found it to be quick to zoom and a bit slow to pan, at least at the highest magnification setting.

  • A photo's shooting data, histogram and other playback information is spread over multiple screens, as it is with the D1H. Pressing the right or left position on the 8-way multiselector moves between the screens. The screens of information available, and the layout of each, is mostly unchanged from the D1H, though there are a couple of additions. The saturated highlights screen now is now labeled Highlights, so it's no longer necessary to guess if that's the screen you're viewing. There is also one all-new screen that shows the camera's 11 AF points over the photo. We haven't been able to determine whether this screen will show the active focus point, the AF area group selected, or both. In the design of the D2H, we would have preferred a reduction in the number of per-photo playback screens, perhaps combining the shooting info and histogram into one, as it is in Canon cameras, among other changes.

  • The playback button layout has changed dramatically from the D1-series. The changes appear to be all for the better. We're especially happy to see that the Protect button is prominent, while the new multiselector makes light work of navigating through the camera's vast collection of menus and submenus.

  • The arrangement of Custom Settings is all-new in the D2H. And necessary to help keep track of the many, many configuration options in this camera. There are now six categories of Custom Settings: Autofocus, Metering/Exposure, Timers/AE&AF Lock, Shooting/Display, Bracketing/Flash and Controls.
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