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Kodak's DCS Pro 14n digital SLR. Courtesy of Eastman Kodak Co., with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Kodak DCS Pro 14n: Exclusive hands-on! (UPDATED)
By Dave Etchells, The Imaging Resource
(Saturday, September 28, 2002 - 05:10 EDT)

This has definitely been a week of startling developments in the digital SLR arena!

Earlier in the week, I not only reported on, but produced a fully detailed "First Look" review of the remarkable new Canon EOS-1Ds, an 11.1 megapixel full-frame SLR. Little did Canon know that Kodak was lurking right around the corner, with a 14 megapixel camera, announced at the startling price point of $4995 US. (With an anticipated "street price" close to $4,000.)

As of show time, Kodak didn't have a unit that they felt comfortable sharing any files from, as they were still tweaking their image processing. (An advantage of Kodak's all-software image processing chain is that their cameras' imaging characteristics can be tweaked right up until the moment of release. - In fact, as we've seen several times in the past, even fairly major changes and upgrades are possible after a camera has shipped. Kodak's post-sale software/firmware upgrade track record is about the best in the industry.)

I did get to look at (and touch ;-) a DCS Pro 14n prototype though, and was quite impressed with what I saw.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The first thing that struck me about the camera was how light it is. If you're thinking in terms of the massive SLRs of Kodak's recent past, think again - The DCS Pro 14n is positively svelte in comparison. It's still a noticeable handful, with a rather bulky grip and a fat-looking base that holds the prismatic (rectangular) LiIon battery, but it's surprisingly light in the hand.

Kodak DCS Pro 14n: Body Design
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USER INTERFACE
I liked the 14n's user interface quite a bit, and snapped a few shots of its LCD menus to share with you. I'm really pressed on time here, so will just list the screenshots without comment: Kodak's promised us an early review sample, and you can bet I'll be quick about getting this one up on the site. The level of interest from our readers is really extraordinary, between this camera and the Canon EOS-1D!

Here are the screenshots I snapped of the 14n's user interface:

Kodak DCS Pro 14n: Body Design
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
Menus on the Kodak DCS Pro 14n LCD display. Photo copyright © 2002, The Imaging Resource. All rights reserved.
.

PONTIFICATIONS - KODAK'S PLACE ASSURED?
I'd say that I'm not embarrassed to admit that I'd largely written Kodak off in the professional SLR market, once the multiple salvos by Canon and Nikon started hitting. The original D1 was a body blow, but with the combination of D30, D1x/h, D60, and D100 piled on top, it looked like a knockout. After all, how could Kodak compete with the very people they were buying camera bodies with? Wouldn't the costly camera bodies constitute an insuperable obstacle to Kodak's being competitive in the market?

Where I (and I suspect a lot of other people) erred in that thinking is that Kodak actually doesn't need much more from Nikon apart from a metal chassis with a lens mount on it. (Although I believe they're also getting some of the autofocus "guts" of the camera as well.) At Kodak's press dinner last night (it's now Thursday evening as I'm working on this article again), I had a long and stimulating conversation with Lance Drummond, the General Manager of the Kodak Professional ("KPro") business unit. When I raised the question of the viability of Kodak's getting camera bodies from Nikon to build their cameras around, Lance was quick to disabuse me of the notion that this was any sort of an inordinate expense for them. While KPro in the past has operated by purchasing complete cameras from Nikon to be converted to digital cameras, in the case of the DCS Pro 14n, Kodak apparently is taking very little apart from a body casting, lens mount, and a few assorted pieces of electronics. (I could be wrong about the AF, my recollection of the details of some of Lance's comments is a little hazy at this remove. Any errors here are entirely my fault.) In fact, astute observers will note that the DCS Pro 14n carries only Kodak branding, not Nikon. This is a first for Kodak.

One might also wonder how Nikon feels about Kodak competing with them in their own slice of the market. Wouldn't that hurt Nikon's market position? Quite the contrary. Nikon wins in several ways with this relationship. With Kodak, Nikon, and Fuji now all building digital SLRs based on Nikon' s lens mount, Nikon's total market share is poised to grow steeply. And the more Nikon-compatible bodies there are out there, the more lenses Nikon stands to sell. (And I strongly suspect that the lens business enjoys noticeably higher profit margins than does camera manufacturing.)

So, no matter how you look at it, this is a good thing for all parties. Which means it's a relationship that's likely to continue for some time. Kodak gets cost-effective camera body components, Nikon gets a bigger piece of the overall SLR/lens marketplace, and the consumers win with a broader range of innovative products at increasingly affordable prices.

A HOLE CARD - KODAK'S ERI FILE FORMAT
"But that's not all," as they say in TV infomercials. As part of my press visit with KPro, I got a chance to quiz pro back product manager Steve Noble, and can say that I *finally* understand how Kodak's unusual "semi-raw," JPEG-compatible "ERI JPEG" file format works. And it's a beautiful scheme.

Kodak announced ERI (Extended Range Imaging) at this year's PMA show in February, and at the time, it frankly struck me as a bit too good to be true. The basic idea sounds pretty simple: The EXIF headers on JPEG files let stuff really arbitrary data into them without affecting the rendering of an image. Why not use the header to hold whatever part of a raw image that doesn't fit into the basic JPEG file itself?

That's actually a pretty straightforward idea, the only problem is how much will it add to the size of the JPEG file? For a whole host of reasons, you can't just subtract the JPEG data from the RAW, and save the difference. Well, you could, but the difference file would end up about as large as the original RAW file was to begin with. This is why it sounded too good to be true: Kodak claims that the ERI data adds only about 30% to the size of a JPEG file, yet preserves almost all the information of the original RAW format.

It turns out that it does take a fair bit of digital legerdemain to accomplish this, but the process is actually fairly straightforward. Time permitting, I hope to report on ERI in greater detail as part of my 14n review, but Kodak's approach seemed so cool that I couldn't resist sharing it here. Here's the process in a nutshell, at least at a conceptual level:

  1. Start with a RAW image, process it normally to a JPEG.
  2. Map the RAW data into an expanded 36-bit rendering space, using logarithmic magnitude coordinates for the RGB values. (Actually, I'm not sure, it may be some variation on an Lab-type color space, the key elements are that it's a space with an expanded range, and that has logarithmic coordinates. - This last basically means that a one-bit change corresponds to the same percentage change in brightness, across something like an 11 or 12 f-stop range.
  3. Now, take your JPEG version of the file, and convert it "backwards" into the logarithmic rendering space.
  4. Subtract the two images, working in the expanded rendering space.
  5. In a lot of places, you'll find that JPEG version of the file does indeed match the data from the RAW file exactly. Cool. For those parts of the image, you don't have to store any correction data in the EXIF header.
  6. With a conservative JPEG compression ratio, you'll end up a lot of the image area with no correction needed to get back to the RAW data. This means that you can compress the heck out of the correction data, even with lossless compression.
  7. Go ahead and do a lossless compression on the "difference image" and stuff it into the EXIF header.

There! You're done, and you have (a) an image that renders just fine in any JPEG-compatible application, and (b) all the data you need to almost exactly duplicate the original RAW data that came from the sensor.

For a lot of professional applications, the value of the ERI format is hard to overstate. You keep the ease of a JPEG-based workflow, meaning it's easy to whip out proof prints, send customers low-res electronic proofs, etc. But when it comes time to generate a really first-class print of a difficult subject, you've got all the highlight and shadow data to work with that would have been lost in a pure JPEG version of the image.

I think that ERI is going to prove to be a strong competitive advantage for Kodak, as true professional-quality SLRs continue on down the price curve. The market hasn't yet absorbed the import of it, but once it does, I think it will have a very salutary effect on Kodak's sales.

PONTIFICATIONS - WHAT IT ALL MEANS
Well gosh, I don't know. ;-) It's pretty obvious though, that Kodak has a lot of life still left in their KPro group. Rather than declining, we're on the verge of seeing a dramatic resurgence. A lot will depend on how well-executed the DCS Pro 14n is, and how it's received by the market. If it delivers the same order of magnitude of image quality as its predecessors have though, I think we'll see Kodak playing an increasingly important role in the digital SLR market.

Stay tuned! (For my review of the 14n, if nothing else. ;-)

UPDATED 2002-09-30 19:11ET: Thanks to IR reader Doug Dolde for catching a broken link on the second image of the DCS Pro 14n. This was caused by a missing period in the filename, and has now been fixed...

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