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Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n Digital SLR

Kodak updates their Pro 14n with a new sensor, improved processing, and greatly reduced image noise.

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Page 1:Intro and Highlights

Review First Posted: 02/12/2004

 

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13.7 megapixel (effective) RGB-filtered CMOS sensor, delivering 4,500 x 3,000 pixel images.
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Full-frame sensor gives focal-length multiplier of 1.0
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ISO of 160 - 1600, in 1/3-EV steps
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Rugged, magnesium-alloy chassis pares weight, but provides rigid frame.
* Compatible with most current Nikon F-mount lenses and accessories.
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Greatly improved noise characteristics and power management

 

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Manufacturer Overview
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Kodak's new DSC-SLR/n digital SLR is a strong update to their previous Pro 14n model, with very similar specifications, but greatly improved performance in several key areas. The enhancement that will undoubtedly be the most welcome for prospective users is its greatly improved noise performance, thanks to a redesigned CMOS sensor chip, a change in fabrication provider, and a redesigned analog electronics board. At the same time, Kodak has improved the SLR/n's image processing, revamped the calibration algorithms to improve responsiveness, and improved its power management. Other SLR/n enhancements include a unique long-exposure/ultra-low ISO mode that lets you capture up to 60-second exposures at ISO 6 for exceptionally low image noise and unique time-exposure creative effects.

The net result of all these enhancements is a markedly more usable camera than the 14n, with most of that prior model's most serious limitations successfully addressed. Kodak still faces stiff competition in the full-frame d-SLR market from Canon's EOS-1Ds, but at least now they have a product that actually can compete, based on its not-insignificant merits. (And Kodak's proven track record of delivering continual enhancements and upgrades for its cameras through ongoing firmware releases holds the promise of future improvements and feature enhancements.)

But the very best news for current Pro 14n owners is that Kodak is offering an upgrade program, by which existing 14n models can be upgraded to nearly full SLR/n functionality and image quality, by swapping out the sensor and analog electronics board. Referred to as "14nx" models, the upgraded cameras will lack only the SLR/n's power management, and the slight processing speed resulting from the new model's higher processor bus speed. All other features and functions of an upgraded 14n will be identical to those of a new SLR/n.) This is unprecedented in the d-SLR world, and should give great comfort to current and future Kodak pro SLR owners. While not cheap, at a projected price of $1,495, the upgrade program is certainly a better deal than simply scrapping a current camera and buying a whole new one. (And given what I've seen of the SLR/n's improved performance, I'd say that the 14n upgrade constitutes a very worthwhile investment.)


High Points

  • 13.7-megapixel (effective) RGB CMOS sensor, delivering image resolutions as high as 4,500 x 3,000 pixels.
  • SLR optical viewfinder.
  • 2.0-inch color LCD display.
  • Nikon "F" lens mount accommodates wide range of Nikkor lenses.
  • Auto and manual focus control, with Single Area and Dynamic AF modes and AF assist lamp.
  • Program AE, Flexible Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to two seconds, with Bulb mode for longer exposures, and timed exposures of up to 60 seconds in the special low-ISO mode.
  • Depth of field preview.
  • Adjustable ISO from 160 to 1600 ISO equivalents.
  • Special low-ISO/time exposure mode with ISO values as low as 6 (!)
  • 3D Matrix, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering modes.
  • Seven white balance modes, including a manual setting.
  • Auto-Exposure Bracketing mode.
  • Continuous Shooting and Interval Shooting modes.
  • Self-Timer for delayed shutter release.
  • Built-in flash with five modes.
  • External flash hot-shoe and additional PC sync terminal.
  • JPEG and RAW file formats, including simultaneous JPEG/RAW mode.
  • Images saved to CompactFlash (Type I or II) and/or SD/MMC memory cards.
  • Full support for FAT32 file system for use with memory cards larger than 2GB.
  • Nikon 10-pin accessory interface.
  • Power supplied by DSC Pro 14n Battery pack or optional AC adapter.
  • Improved power management for much longer battery life than the 14n.
  • Improved calibration algorithms reduce impact of sensor calibration cycles on shooting readiness, and permit much faster startup times.
  • New "Expert" noise-reduction mode in Photo Desk attacks chroma noise while preserving luminance detail.
  • IEEE-1394 interface for high-speed connection to a computer.
  • Video cable for connection to a television set.
  • GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) compatibility.

 

Update Summary: SLR/n vs 14n
This review is going to look very familiar to anyone who read my earlier report on the DSC-Pro14n, since the two models use the same basic camera body. Most features and functions are thus pretty much identical between the two, so the bulk of this review is lifted directly from my earlier piece on the 14n. There are a number of differences in the LCD menu screens, but current 14n owners who've kept their cameras up to date with Kodak's firmware releases will find few if any surprises: Almost without exception, the feature and user interface enhancements that have appeared since my original review of the 14n have been included in Kodak's incremental firmware upgrades for 14n owners. The image-quality enhancements seen in the SLR/n are almost entirely the result of "behind the scenes" improvements in the sensor and analog electronics, while the mechanics of the improved power management are entirely hidden from the user's view.

Here, then, is a summary of the key changes since the original Pro 14n. For the most part I won't comment on user-interface changes that have been included in the 14n's ongoing firmware updates, but I will make mention of one or two that I consider the most significant.

  • New Sensor and IR filter: This is clearly the most significant change since the 14n. Here's a summary of differences between the 14n's sensor and the new chip in the SLR/n:
    • Design Rules: The SLR/n's sensor was designed with a new set of design rules, and fabrication was also moved to a different silicon foundry. The net result is what appears to be a very significant reduction in image noise levels.
    • Pixel Layout: The SLR/n's sensor has a different pixel layout, with symmetric photodiodes. This reduces the effect of greatly varying angles of light incidence on the sensor's color calibration. The 14n's sensor (and apparently most large image sensor chips) showed color shifts across the focal plane, particularly with very wide angle lenses operating at minimum aperture. The 14n dealt with the problem by carrying different "calibrations" for different focal length lenses, but an imperfect match could produce odd position-dependent color shifts. The new sensor in the SLR/n largely eliminates the problem, greatly reducing the need for custom lens calibrations.
    • New IR filter: In something of a departure, the SLR/n uses a dye-based IR filter, rather than the dichroic type used by the 14n and most other digital cameras. The dye-based approach sacrifices about a half-stop in light sensitivity, but reduces optical artifacts caused by internal reflection with the dichroic filter. (The problem being most apparent with lenses with elements that projected back into the camera body. The 60mm Micro-Nikkor was apparently particularly prone to producing a bright glint in the center of the frame when stopped down, the result of internal reflections in the near-IR range of wavelengths.) The long pass-band (e.g., visible light) "tail" of the dye-based filter's spectral response also apparently helps offset the higher red-sensitivity of the sensor itself, producing more balanced output levels between the red, green, and blue sensors. In the raw silicon, there's about a two-stop difference in sensitivity between the red and blue channels. When you combine this with the heavy color cast of incandescent light sources, the total variation in response can reach four or even five f-stops. You'd thus expect the dye-based IR filter to be particularly helpful when shooting under incandescent light sources, and the SLR/n does indeed appear to do a better than average job with such lighting.
  • New Analog Board: Also likely a key contributor to the reduced image noise. Both the improved sensor assembly and analog board are available to current 14n owners as a $1495 upgrade.
  • Higher ISO Capability: This is the result of the new sensor and analog electronics, but deserves mention in its own bullet point. The 14n had an ISO range of 80-640, and ISOs above 400 were only available at lower resolution settings. The SLR/n as an ISO range of 160 - 800 for JPEG, extending to 1600 for RAW only. The SLR/n's high-ISO capability is still markedly inferior to many D-SLRs, but it's a long ways ahead of that of the 14n.
  • Faster Digital Processing: I don't think there is a huge difference between the 14n and the SLR/n, since both use the same TI DSP chip for their image processing. In the SLR/n though, the bus speed between the processor and memory has been increased, which should provide a modest increase in cycle times and buffer-clearing performance. (The processing speed boost and the improved power management mentioned below are the only two features of the SLR/n that aren't available to 14n owners under the for-pay hardware upgrade program.)
  • Greatly improved power management: In the 14n, the power-hungry DSP chip was cranking away at full throttle whenever the camera's power switch was turned on. This led to very short battery life, even if you weren't actively shooting pictures. - And turning the camera off to conserve power was often a difficult decision, because it took so long for it to wake up when it was powered on again. In the SLR/n, Kodak has figured out how to truly put the processor to sleep when it isn't being used, and to wake it up very quickly when the shutter button is half-pressed again. The net result is dramatically improved battery life over that of the 14n. (As mentioned above, this is one of the only two SLR/n enhancements that isn't available to current 14n owners as part of the hardware upgrade program.)
  • Improved calibration management: One of the complaints about the 14n is that it seemed to perpetually wanting to take a time out to recalibrate itself, and startup in particular was a very slow process. In the latest firmware though, Kodak has made the camera much more intelligent about it chooses to recalibrate itself, and how much calibration data it attempts to generate on startup. Specifically:
    • At startup, the camera only builds dark frame calibration data for "normal length" exposures. (Exposure times of a half-second or less.)
    • For shots longer than 1/2 second, the camera now captures an adaptive dark frame on the fly.
    • The camera is now more conservative about when it decides to recalibrate. Now, the camera will only run a calibration sequence if the ISO is changed, if there's been more than a five degree temperature shift, or if the camera sits for more than 12 hours in sleep mode.
  • "Longer Exposure" mode: This feature has already been in the 14n firmware since about September of 2003, but deserves separate mention here, as it's such a significant extension of the camera's capabilities. In a special mode, with very specific longer exposure times, the SLR/n averages together multiple shorter exposures to result in very long overall exposure times, with very low effective ISOs, and very low image noise. Effective ISO can range as low as 6 (!), and exposure times as long as 60 seconds in this mode, with amazingly low image noise.
  • Improved Firewire transfer rate: The SLR/n's Firewire subsystem has been enhanced, with the result that it can now do sustained transfers as fast as 12 MB/second. Kodak claims that this is as much as 8-10x faster than other D-SLRs, although I haven't independently verified this fact. (In point of fact, I don't think there are any memory cards on the market yet that can transfer data this fast themselves, so the issue may be largely moot.) Although Kodak didn't mention it in my briefing on the camera, I have to think that this is a third feature that wouldn't be included in the paid hardware update program for the 14n, since it involves the digital circuitry.
  • Greater burst lengths: The SLR/n now offers burst lengths of 18 frames in 13.5 MP RAW mode, and 16 frames in 13.5 MP JPEG. (The version of the 14n I tested had a maximum burst length of only 6-7 frames in RAW mode.) RAW + JPEG mode unfortunately isn't improved as much, still being limited to 5 frames per burst, up from the 4 frames offered by the 14n. It's not clear whether the improved burst length performance is a function of increased buffer memory size, improved buffer management, or both.
  • Digital and Camera setups can be saved for rapid recall. The SLR/n lets you record up to 10 camera setups for later recall, said setups including not only digital parameters (white balance, image sizes, etc), but camera settings as well. (This is another item that I'm unsure whether it applies to 14n models with firmware upgrades.)
  • New "Expert" noise-reduction mode: This is properly a function of the Picture Desk software, not the camera itself, but it deserves mention. The new "Expert" noise-reduction mode in Photo Desk more aggressively desaturates the chroma component of noise, while still preserving luminance data. The net result is that there's much less "flattening" of fine subject detail, even though noise levels are still significantly reduced. Since this is an enhancement to Photo Desk, rather than a camera attribute, it should apply to 14n images as well. Don't expect your 14n images to look like those from the SLR/n though, as there's still a lot more noise coming off of the 14n's sensor in the first place.
  • Exposure tweak in 0.1 EV increments: I was pretty critical of Kodak over the 14n's limitation of 0.5 EV steps for exposure adjustment. Even given the better than average headroom in Kodak's DCR RAW-format files, I really felt that 0.5 EV increments of exposure adjustment were way too coarse. While it doesn't fully address the problem (because requires you to delve into the LCD menu system), Kodak has added an option to the Image menu that lets you tweak the exposure +/- 0.5 EV independent of the camera's exposure system, in 0.1EV increments. I don't know if this is a true shift in the exposure itself, or if it's just a tweaking of the parameters in the RAW files (I suspect the latter), but it's welcome nonetheless. - But as noted, I'd still much prefer to see finer gradations of exposure adjustment available directly via the camera's exposure-adjustment control.
  • Port for LED in memory compartment cover door: This is pretty insignificant, but it's there, so I felt obligated to mention it. A small plastic light pipe now allows you to see the card-activity LED from the camera's rear panel, even when the memory compartment door is closed. Handy and welcome as a way to know whether the camera is done processing an image or series of images, but obviously not a critical feature.

 

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