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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 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 02/12/2004

Executive Overview

Just when many industry observers (myself included) were wondering whether Kodak could continue to compete in the professional SLR market, the company dropped a figurative bombshell on the photographic world at Photokina 2002 in the form of the DSC Pro 14n. The new camera was built upon a body provided by Nikon, but incorporated an astounding 13.7-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. Most amazing was the $4,995 US list price, undercutting Canon's then-recently announced EOS-1Ds full-frame SLR by fully $3,000.

When production models of the 14n hit the market though, some of the initial excitement was dampened by the 14n's unfortunate problems with image noise, and the compromises in image quality that were required to deal with it. The problems were directly attributed to the CMOS sensor used in that camera, designed by the Fill Factory, and fabbed by Tower Semiconductor. While it wasn't clear whether the problem lay in the sensor design itself, in the semiconductor fabrication process, or in the design of the camera's analog electronics, the result was unquestionable: Very high levels of noise originating inn the camera's analog section required unusually heavy-handed noise-suppression processing on the digital side, with the result that much of the potential resolution of the 13.7 megapixel full-frame sensor was lost.

Whatever the root cause, Kodak has aggressively addressed the 14n's noise problems in the design of the new SLR/n model. (Tellingly, they've worked with the Fill Factory to redesign the sensor itself, have switched semiconductor fabrication providers, and have also redesigned the camera's analog circuitry, thereby addressing all three of the potential sources of image noise described above.) The net result is a significant improvement in image noise, although the test images still show the effect of analog noise levels higher than those of other digital SLR cameras.

The SLR/n has the same substantial body first seen in the 14n, similar to Nikon's high-end 35mm SLR cameras, with a hefty size and very solid feel, thanks to its magnesium-alloy body. The sensor covers the same area as a 35mm film frame (36 x 24 mm), and produces a maximum 4,500 x 3,000-pixel resolution image without interpolation, maintaining Kodak's position in the lead of the SLR pixel-count race.

A Nikon "F" lens mount accommodates most Nikkor F-series lenses, a boon to anyone who already owns a Nikon 35mm camera setup. With a Nikon-built chassis and camera electronics, the control layout will be immediately familiar to Nikon shooters. Beginning on the front of the camera, a switch next to the lens mount, sets the focus mode to Manual, Single Servo, or Continuous Servo. The SLR/n also offers an adjustable AF area, via a setting on the Exposure Mode dial. Single Area AF bases focus on one of five AF areas in the frame, selectable via the Four-Way Arrow rocker pad. Alternatively, Dynamic Area AF uses all five AF areas at once, "tracking" a moving subject as it passes in front of each area. Also on the SLR/n is an AF assist light, which helps the camera focus in dark shooting conditions. The SLR/n's digital SLR design includes an accurate optical viewfinder that incorporates a detailed information display reporting exposure settings, memory card information, and a handful of mode settings. A set of brackets on the viewfinder screen highlights the selected AF area, and a Custom menu setting enables an alignment grid for more accurate framing. (A feature I'm personally very fond of.) The SLR/n also features a 2.0-inch color LCD monitor, for image review and menu display only. - Like most digital SLRs, the LCD screen cannot be used as a "live" viewfinder. In addition to the standard image playback display, the SLR/n offers a histogram option, showing the tonal distribution of the captured image, and an overexposure indicator option "blinks" blown-out highlights to show where highlight detail has been lost. Unique to the SLR/n though, is an extended range on the histogram display, showing information that can be recovered from the file via Kodak's "ERI" (Extended Range Imaging) JPEG file format.

Exposure control on the SLR/n is quite extensive, as the camera offers a wide range of features and Custom menu settings. An Exposure Mode dial offers the usual Program AE, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes. In Program AE mode, although the camera controls both aperture and shutter speed, you can rotate the Main Command dial to access a range of equivalent exposure settings to place emphasis on a faster shutter speed or larger depth of field. Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to two seconds, and a Bulb setting allows much longer exposures. The SLR/n also provides a special "Longer Exposure" mode that averages the results of multiple shorter exposures together to produce time exposures as long as 60 seconds, with effective ISOs as low as 6. (In this mode, the averaging process also dramatically reduces image noise.)

In aperture or shutter priority modes, the camera will display "Hi" or "Lo" in the viewfinder and on the top data readout panel if the camera can't achieve a proper exposure with the settings you've chosen. In manual mode, the camera's metering system evaluates the exposure you've chosen, and reports the amount of over- or underexposure it thinks you've specified in the viewfinder. A Depth of Field Preview button on the front of the camera stops down the lens to the selected aperture, previewing the depth of field before you take the shot.

By default, the SLR/n employs a Matrix / 3D Matrix metering system to determine exposure, depending on the lens in use. In Matrix mode, the camera divides the image area into 10 segments and meters each one individually. 3D Matrix metering applies to Nikkor D-type lenses (with a built-in CPU chip, allowing the lens to report focusing distance to the camera), and the camera not only reads brightness, but also scene contrast and subject distance to provide a more accurate exposure. Center-Weighted and Spot metering modes are also available. An exposure compensation adjustment increases or decreases exposure in one-half-step increments from -3 to +3. (A feature I'd change: Half-EV exposure adjustments are really a bit too coarse for digicams - I'd really like to see one-third EV steps. The 1/2 EV steps in the SLR/n unfortunately appear to be a limitation imposed by the Nikon body that it's built upon. - Perhaps a case of Nikon not wanting to compete too strongly with themselves?) If you're uncertain of an exposure, the SLR/n's Auto Exposure Bracketing mode takes a series of either two or three images at different exposures, bracketed around the metered setting. The camera also offers an AE Lock button, which locks exposure and/or focus independent of the Shutter button.

An interesting feature on the SLR/n is the Digital Exposure Correction option, by which the camera automatically assesses the image and makes adjustments to its tone and contrast to optimize the images. This feature only affects data in the JPEG files though, not the camera's RAW-format images. Note too, that Digital Exposure Correction doesn't correct for improper shutter speed, aperture, or ISO selections. Another option, called "Look" in the settings menu, applies a tone scale and color-management adjustment as the images are captured. Options for Look are Portrait (less saturated colors), Product (more saturated colors), Wedding (somewhat higher saturation, but natural skin tones), and Event (lots of saturation). Yet another adjustment lets you tweak the SLR/n's in-camera sharpening.

Sensitivity settings range from 160 to 1600 ISO equivalents, depending on the file format chosen. (Maximum ISO is 800 for JPEG or RAW + JPEG modes, 1600 for RAW only.) A Noise Reduction feature reduces the level of image noise from longer exposures and higher sensitivity settings, helping reduce image noise in low-light shooting conditions. In-camera noise reduction options are Normal or Strong, while the accompanying Kodak Photo Desk software offers the more advanced "Expert" mode as well. White balance options on the SLR/n include Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Flash presets, and a Click Balance (manual) setting. Within each of the presets, you have a handful of options. For example, the Daylight setting offers Standard, Warm, and Cool settings, and the Flash preset offers Standard, Warm, Cool, and Studio options. The Click Balance option analyzes the RGB values from the most recently captured image (such as a gray card), or a saved image, and applies them to the next image captured. Once selected, Click Balance provides an eyedropper over the image, letting you sample a specific part of the frame and determine the correct color balance.

The SLR/n's pop-up flash unit is rated at a guide number of 17 meters at ISO 200, translating to a maximum range of 6.1 meters (19.7 feet) at f/2.8 and ISO 200. (By my calculations, this translates to a range of roughly 5.5 meters at f/2.8 and the camera's minimum ISO of 160.) Depending on the lens being used, the internal flash offers D-TTL metering control in either 3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash for Digital SLR, Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill-Flash for Digital SLR, or Standard TTL Flash for Digital SLR modes. Flash operating modes include Front-Curtain Sync, Slow Sync, Rear-Curtain Sync, Red-Eye Reduction, and Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync modes. A Flash Exposure Compensation setting adjusts flash power from -3 to +1 EV in one-half-step increments. The SLR/n also features an external flash hot-shoe with standard Nikon proprietary contacts, and a PC sync terminal for connecting more powerful flash units. Maximum flash sync speed is 1/125 second.

A Continuous Shooting mode captures a series of images as fast as 2.5 frames per second as long as the Shutter button is held down, until the SLR/n's buffer memory fills. Actual frame rates will vary somewhat, depending on the JPEG compression and image resolution settings, and the number of images in the series will depend on the amount of available buffer and card memory. (Maximum run lengths range from 18 high resolution RAW files to 20 low resolution/low quality JPEG shots before you have to wait for the buffer memory to clear. Interestingly, with a maximum burst length of 16 frames, the buffer capacity for maximum-resolution JPEG files is actually smaller than that for the RAW format.) There's also a 10-second Self-Timer mode, and the ability to record short sound clips to accompany images.

The SLR/n stores images on either CompactFlash (Type I or II) or SD/MMC cards, and is compatible with Hitachi MicroDrives. It also fully supports the FAT32 file system, for use with cards larger than 2GB. You can specify which card the camera saves images to, with the option of saving duplicate images on both cards. (An option that struck me as handy was to save RAW files to the CF card, while simultaneously saving JPEGs on the SD card.) A Job Tracker function lets you mark all images associated with a certain event, date, etc, using IPTC-standard file tags. Available resolutions are 4,500 x 3,000; 3,000 x 2,000; 2,250 x 1,500; or 1,125 x 750 pixels, with JPEG compression levels of Good, Better, and Best, and a RAW setting. To mimic common film sizes, the SLR/n features a Crop Aspect adjustment with options for 2 x 3, 4 x 5, or 2 x 2 aspect ratios.

The SLR/n connects to a computer via an IEEE-1394 FireWire cable (not included with the camera). A video cable accompanies the camera for connection to a television set, which is only useful for image playback, since the LCD isn't usable as a viewfinder. (As is the case with most SLRs.) For power, the SLR/n uses a Kodak Professional DCS Pro battery pack, or an AC adapter.


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