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Nikon unveils 12.21MP D2X digital SLR - Continued

A lot of what should be good in the D2X is pulled directly from the D2H. In developing that camera, Nikon got a lot of things right, from the overall body design and superb battery system to the dependable i-TTL flash and capable autofocus.

The main focus of the D2X, then, is pixels: capturing them, reviewing them and transmitting them wirelessly. This section covers some of what we've learned about the D2X in these areas so far, and is based on discussions with Nikon representatives, reviewing press releases and from a brief session with a prototype unit.

Image Sensor and Image Quality

Nikon is currently dealing with a perception in the marketplace that the D1X is long overdue for replacement. And that D2H image quality, while by no means horrible, is not up to the level of the competition. Oh, and that the decision to stick with DX-size sensors for its higher-resolution digital SLR models is just plain crazy.

Given all of that, there's an extraordinary amount of pressure on Nikon to get D2X image quality right, both by avoiding the noise and colour quirks of the D2H and demonstrating that smaller-than-35mm sensors can produce detailed, high-resolution photos worthy of 12.21 million image pixels. And they need to do all that in a camera to be released not way off in the future sometime, but now. That's a lot of pressure.

We've not seen any photos taken with the D2X, so the discussion of image quality here is really just to highlight some of the image-related technology lurking inside its magnesium alloy frame.

nikon_d2x_sensor_2.jpgThe CMOS sensor (shown at left), which Nikon has designed but not manufactured themselves (an NE Online article suggests that Sony is the sensor's maker), has tiny pixels. With a pixel pitch of only 5.49 microns, the sensor itself, and the noise reduction processing that follows, will have to be first-rate. Canon's EOS 20D demonstrates that it is possible to keep the noise at bay in a 6.4 micron pixel pitch CMOS sensor, so we're hopeful that Nikon's noise management in the D2X and its 5.49 micron pixels will be at least as competent as the 20D's. Pixel pitch is by no means the only factor that dictates the noiseiness of a digital camera's images, but it's an important one.

Nikon has said little so far about the technical underpinnings of the CMOS sensor, as has been their habit in the past when they haven't been both designer and builder of the sensor component. The D2X brochure emphasizes the optimizations made to the image processing engine, both in the analog to digital conversion step and once the image data is in digital form. The result of these optimizations is promised smoother tonal gradations in both highlights and shadows, as well as overall better colour and tone (in part because of refined Auto White Balance and Auto Tone Compensation algorithms). Data is read out of the sensor simultaneously across 4 channels, as would be necessary to manage over 12 million pixels of data at 5 fps, or over 6.5 million pixels of data at 8 fps.

While the majority of user-changeable settings that impact image colour, including white balance, are the same as those found in the D2H, Nikon has separated the choice of colour look and colour space for 2 of the 3 Color Mode options. Now, it's possible to choose sRGB or Adobe RGB as the output colour space for Color Mode I and III.

This is a small but important change in the colour processing capabilities of this camera, for those who shoot JPEG and TIFF in particular, since it moves the Nikon system a big step closer to enabling the photographer to choose the colour look first and foremost, then match that with a colour space that is best suited to the workflow downstream, an option that in the Nikon sphere has been open only to NEF shooters until now.

Curiously, Color Mode II has not been made similarly flexible: it remains Adobe RGB only.

nikon_d2x_menu_29.JPG
Choosing a Color Mode

nikon_d2x_menu_28.JPG
Choosing a colour space

Hi-Speed Crop Mode

We're reserving judgement on the usefulness of this feature until we've had a chance to use it. There's no disputing the wizzyness of the Hi-Speed Crop mode, however, and if the noise levels are manageable, there's a certain appeal to being able to shoot even low-light sports and other fast action with telephoto lenses that have 2x the reach they would on a 35mm film camera.

Nikon has thought through how to integrate this feature into the D2X. The Type-V screen that ships installed with the camera, though it adds even more markings to an already-busy focusing screen, seems to make it easy to discern the smaller picture area of the Hi-Speed Crop mode, while also being reasonably unobtrusive. When this mode is active, the corners of the inner rectangle blink briefly when the shutter button is half-pressed, much as the focus area indicators do. In addition, when attempting to select one of the two focus areas outside the High-Speed Crop rectangle, the nearest corners of the rectangle blink to indicate that you just can't do that. An indicator in the viewfinder information also illuminates when Hi-Speed Crop is on, and the AF area icon on the top LCD changes too (as shown below).

nikon_d2x_toplcd_1.jpg
Top LCD, full resolution mode

nikon_d2x_toplcd_2.jpg
Top LCD, Hi-Speed Crop mode enabled

In short, Nikon seems to have covered most of the bases when they implemented Hi-Speed Crop. The only possible gotcha we've unearthed is the fact that the metering of both ambient and TTL flash still takes into account areas outside the Hi-Speed Crop mode's capture zone. This could lead to both ambient and flash exposure error in some situations, though the risk is probably minor.

For those who don't intend to use Hi-Speed Crop much, the D2X will include a user-swappable Type-B screen in the box that has only corner bars to mark the capture area of this mode. Both the Type-V and Type-B screens are shown below.

nikon_d2x_viewfinder_1b.jpg
Type-V focusing screen

nikon_d2x_viewfinder_2.jpg
Type-B focusing screen

Beefed-up Playback

New to the D2X is the ability to view blown out or saturated highlights in both RGB or as individual channels. A new Highlight screen offers sub-pages for each of the four views:

nikon_d2x_menu_30.JPG
Highlight - RGB

nikon_d2x_blinkie_red.jpg
Highlight - red channel only


nikon_d2x_menu_32.JPG
Highlight - green channel only

nikon_d2x_menu_33.JPG
Highlight - blue channel only

And a new histogram screen contains four selectable histograms, one each for RGB, red, green and blue. Selecting one of the histograms shows the saturated highlights for that channel in the 1/4 screen size photo.

Wireless Transmission

Announced along with the D2X today, and hinted at in a technology announcement earlier this week, Nikon's Wireless Transmitter WT-2/2a is an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi device that, when operating in 802.11g mode, should transmit photos several times faster than the real-world 300K/second or so transfers of the current WT-1/1a, which is 802.11b-only. Like the WT-1/1a, it attaches to the base of the camera and communicates with the camera via a cable to the USB 2.0 port.

nikon_d2x_wt2.jpg
Nikon D2X with Wireless Transmitter WT-2/2a attached

Armed with the upcoming Capture 4.2 software, full remote control of the D2X over a WT-2/2a wireless link will also be possible, with the same broad range of camera control functions that Capture supports over a wired USB connection.

Easier configuration of the wireless link is promised, thanks to the WT-2/2a's support of the new PTP/IP protocol, in addition to FTP. Plus, the wireless connection is meant to be more secure, through the inclusion of TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol), which switches the encryption key every 10,000 data packets, as well as two types of authentication: Shared Key and Open System. WEP is also supported.

The D2X will also accept the WT-1/1a, though transmit speeds will be at the slower rate of that device, and camera remote control isn't supported. Better throughput, easier set up, enhanced security and camera remote control - the WT-2/2a sounds like it will be a much more capable device than the WT-1/1a.

Alas, D2H users won't be able to join in on the faster wireless party: the WT-2/2a is for the D2X only. As a result, the WT-1/1a is not being replaced by the newer transmitter in Nikon's wireless accessory lineup.

The WT-2/2a accepts the same optional Extended Range Antenna WA-E1, as well as third party 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi antennas that have an RP-SMA connector. The WA-S1 stub antenna is included with the WT-2/2a.

Fun, Fun, Fun (aka multiple exposure and Image Overlay)

While Photoshop has reduced the need for in-camera multiple exposures, there's still something to be said for getting the picture on one piece of film. Or in one bank of RAM. Or something.

With that in mind, Nikon has included the ability to create multiple exposure photos in the D2X. From 2 to 10 photos can be combined, with optional "auto gain" applied in the process (we're not yet sure how automatic gain will impact the blending of several exposures).

nikon_d2x_menu_06.JPG
Preparing to shoot a multiple exposure sequence

nikon_d2x_menu_07.JPG
Enabling automatic gain

But wait, there's more. The new Image Overlay mode enables the user to blend together any 2 NEF frames to create a new, third frame, with control over the blending opacity of each. And it's all done in the camera.

The menu screenshots below demonstrate the key steps in the process:

nikon_d2x_menu_09.JPG
Select the two NEF photos to be combined

nikon_d2x_menu_12.JPG
Adjust the opacity, or "gain," of each

nikon_d2x_menu_13.JPG
Choose Overlay to preview the blend

nikon_d2x_menu_14.JPG
Image Overlay preview

nikon_d2x_menu_15.JPG
Save a new, blended photo

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The final result

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