Nikon D100: Everything Old is New Again
The Nikon D100, the latest in Nikon's line of digital SLR cameras, offers photographers frustrated with the limitations of point-and-shoot digital-picture-taking a new lease on the art of photography. At $2,000 street price, the D100, similar to Canon's EOS D60 (see "Canon EOS D60: More Pixels, Less Bucks, Great Camera"), is about twice the price of the best digital point-and-shoots. That's not too much to ask for a camera that gives back all those things digital technology had taken away, including: bright through-the-lens viewfinders; fast, reliable focusing; fast, multi-frame shooting; a system of interchangeable lenses and accessories; and uncompromising exposure control. For very serious amateurs, or professionals seeking feature rich, lightweight SLR, the D100 is a compelling offering.
If you're used to the convenience of a point-and-shoot camera that fits in a coin purse, then the bulk and heft of the D100 with a fast zoom lens attached will come as a shock. On the other hand, anyone used to shooting film with 35mm SLRs will find that the D100 fits nicely in the hand and is a comfortable, well-balanced shooting platform (see figure 1). The body is made of plastic, unlike Nikon's professional digital and film SLRs, but is sturdily built and up to the daily rigor of all but combat and expedition outdoors work. The good, sticky rubber grip adds to the overall feel of quality.
An optional vertical grip and battery holder provides extended battery life (which is rarely needed) and a connection for an optional remote control module, yet adds considerable bulk.
Figure 1: The D100 looks and feels like other mid-level Nikon SLRs.
Setting up the D100 for shooting is quick and easy. The camera comes with an EN-EL3 NiMH battery and rapid charger that delivers a full charge in about two or three hours. Images are stored on a Compact Flash card, which is not included. For this review and for most of my shooting, I opted to use a 1GB IBM Microdrive, which holds 316 high-resolution (3,000-by-2,000-pixel), Fine Quality JPEGs. For the very highest-quality applications, you're better off shooting in NEF, Nikon's raw 12-bit/color uncompressed format. However, these images occupy about three times the memory, dropping the drive's image capacity to about 100 images. Also, rapid shooting is adversely affected by using NEF, since the camera takes a proportionately longer time to write the image files to disk between shots.
Like all pro-level SLRs, the D100 is sold as a body-only. To take any pictures, you'll need one or more Nikon-mount lenses. For shutterbugs like myself, this is no problem if you already have a bag full of lenses for your older Nikon autofocus film cameras.
Lens selection for the Nikon, as with Canon's cameras, is a point of endless discussion and controversy in the digital-photography community. The D100 uses a 6-Megapixel CCD imaging chip that's about 40 percent smaller than a 35mm film frame. If you imagine the light coming from the lens and falling on the imaging plane as a circle, this means that more of that circle falls outside the edges of the rectangular CCD and is cropped away. This results in the often-mentioned magnification factor of the D100, which is approximately 1.5 times the rated focal length of the lens. In practice, this means an 80-200mm Nikon lens has the field of view of a 120-300mm zoom lens. Another way to think of it is as though you shot the picture with the 80-200mm lens, then cropped it down to the field of view of the 120-300mm lens.
Unfortunately, this also means that wide-angle lenses are magnified, so a 17-35mm zoom lens has the effective field of view of 25-50mm lens. Getting a boost from your telephoto lens is tolerable, and may even be seen as a benefit. For example, my 60mm Micro Nikkor macro lens achieves an effective length of 90mm and comes very close to the portrait and close-up taking qualities of Nikon's much more expensive 105mm Micro on a 35mm camera. On the other hand, anyone who has paid a pile of money for a fast, wide-angle lens for shooting panoramic vistas will be unhappy to have it suddenly behaving like overweight mid-length optics.
Nikon has announced plans to address this problem with the introduction of a new series of DX lenses. These are designed specifically around Nikon's digital SLRs and their diminutive imaging chip. Because the imaging area is smaller, these lenses can be smaller, lighter, and at least potentially cheaper to manufacture than equivalent 35mm lenses (pricing has not been announced, so it's not clear that Nikon will pass the savings on to consumers). The first such lens will be a 12-24mm f/4 zoom with Nikon's remarkably fast silent-wave focusing motor. It will have the equivalent field of view of an 18-35mm lens on a 35mm film camera.
While this is an obvious and ideal solution, DX lenses won't be backward compatible with Nikon's 35mm film cameras, since they won't be capable of filling a 35mm film frame. If the switch does result in smaller, lighter, and cheaper lenses of comparable quality, however, I have no qualms about Nikon sticking with the smaller imaging area in its D-Series cameras and thereby permanently diverging from the 35mm standard.
For anyone considering using third-party lenses with the D100, take heart. Because the camera effectively crops the edges of the image area captured by any 35mm-format lens, the tell-tale edge-falloff that results in darkened edges in images shot with some cheaper after-market lenses is far less of a worry. With the D100, you'll always be shooting through the middle six-tenths of the glass -- the sweet spot of any lens -- making a reasonable case for choosing good-quality third-party lenses over Nikon's flawless, but high-priced professional lenses.
(Of note to potential buyers just entering the SLR market is that Canon has recently introduced a new digital flagship, the EOS D1s SLR, with a full-size 35mm CMOS sensor. This hints that Canon's small-sensored cameras are probably just a temporary stopgap measure and not the ultimate future for Nikon's main competitor.)
Ready, Aim, Shoot
After using small point-and-shoot cameras with useless optical viewfinders, the D100 was a revelation. Rather than relying on the LCD's screen fuzzy image and the slow, unpredictable autofocus, the D100 lets you aim and shoot through its excellent optical viewfinder, and rely on its lightning-fast and pinpoint-accurate autofocus system.
One feature I particularly like is the capability to manually move the focusing target with the Game-Boy-style joystick. For example, you can focus on a feature in a corner of a room, while keeping the camera framed around the room's center. My only complaint is the position and size of the joystick, it's an awkward reach and too small for a big thumb.
After suffering through other cameras' point-and-shoot focus and exposure delays, and the long waits between shots while data is written to memory, it's incredibly refreshing to be able to photograph my young children in their hyperkinetic motion, and actually keep up with them while the action unfolds.
Metering with the D100, as with the company's other SLRs, is a delight. You can choose the 10-segment 3D matrix, center-weighted, or spot metering (see figures 2-4). The switch for these is well positioned, so it's easy to switch modes to keep up with rapidly changing shooting conditions. The D100 also offers standard exposure compensation for situations where you need to push or pull the camera's meter, and a Bracketing mode lets you easily grab several shots at predetermined stops above and below the metered exposure.
Figure 2: The D100 offers a full spectrum of features that can be used to make well-balanced, natural-looking exposures that compare favorably to 35mm film. Matrix metering yielded a great exposure for this image dominated by middle tones.
Figure 3: Like all Nikon SLRs, the metering and exposure control in the D100 is outstanding. Spot metering and manual exposure allowed me to finely control the highlights and shadows to stay true to the lighting in this shot. Being able to instantly view an exposure, histogram and gamut warning screen on the LCD makes on-the-fly exposure adjustments far easier than with film cameras.
Figure 4: Center-weighted metering was used in this shot to compensate for the contrast between the extreme brightness of the background and the boy's sharply contrasting black sweater.
After you've taken a shot, you can hit a "review" button to quickly take a look at what you've just shot, whenever you want to check on your work. You can also set the camera to automatically review images, but this setting tends to interfere with rapid camera adjustments, such as changing the focusing spot, while shooting, so I usually leave automatic review turned off. Because the D100 spends so much less time displaying images on the LCD than a point-and-shoot digital, you can easily expect to shoot 300 or more images on a single battery charge, rather than the 30 to 50 shots typical of a Nikon Coolpix, for example. I have yet to drain two of the D100's batteries in single day of shooting. By swapping out the Microdrive for Compact Flash cards, the number of shots you can take on a single battery charge increases to 600 or more, but the cost per megabyte for Flash memory is about three times as high.
The D100's controls are familiar if you've used Nikon's high-end film SLRs, but daunting to the uninitiated. There are 12 electronic buttons and 6 multi-position switches, two control dials and a jog-shuttle controller, not to mention the aperture preview button and shutter release. Gaining full mastery of the D100 means getting familiar with 20-odd controls, some of which are used to set up the camera for various types of shooting, and some of which are used in combination for fine-tuning exposures while you shoot.
Of course, you can just stick the camera in "P" for program, and start shooting, but then why bother with an SLR? Actually, there's at least one good reason to do just that. The D100 uses what Nikon calls a Flexible Program. In ordinary Program shooting the camera automatically balances aperture and shutter speeds based on the metered exposure and the current focal length of the lens. Flexible Program does the same, but allows you to cycle quickly through aperture and shutter speed combinations by simply spinning the thumb and forefinger dials.
For even more control, Aperture- and Shutter-priority and Manual modes are also readily available (see figure 5).
Figure 5: Shutter-priority mode lets you spin a dial to set the shutter speed -- the camera automatically adjusts the aperture based on the metered exposure. Here, it was used to slow down the shutter to enhance the effect of motion in the background. Aperture priority puts the emphasis on depth of field.
While the D100's built-in pop-up flash is great for fill flash in difficult lighting situations, working with an external high-powered flash is sometimes problematic.
Because of inconsistencies in the way the CCD reflects light, the D100's through-the-lens (TTL) flash exposure doesn't work at all with older Nikon flashes, such as my SB-24, and the camera's TTL flash stretches the definition of the term even with the built-in flash or with Nikon's newer DX-series digital strobes. In the D100 "TTL" exposure is based not on the metering of the light through the lens while an image is exposed, but on the measurement of a pre-flash that just precedes the actual shot. This works OK for group portraits, where everyone's standing still, but the pre-flash can last long enough to noticeably alter your subjects' expressions. And it won't be reliable for shooting a fast-moving dancer wearing a shiny dress, or when shooting a rapidly moving object under rapidly changing lighting: You're likely to get a bad exposure.
Furthermore, the remote TTL feature in the DX strobes (which allows film cameras to control multiple unwired strobes) is unsupported by Nikon's digital cameras. Shooting in a studio with a multiple-strobe setup, I found I had to do many test shots to find a manual exposure and color balance combination that yielded pleasing results, and I ended up with a lot of unwanted noise in high-key shots, something that was never an issue with my Nikon film cameras (see figure 6).
Figure 6: Getting good results with the D100 and studio strobes is far more difficult than with Nikon film cameras, and the resulting shots can have a lot of unwanted noise in shadows. Particularly vexing is the lack of reliable TTL flash control in this environment.
On the other hand, the D100 offers plenty of creative control over flash exposures, such as red-eye-reduction-, slow-, and rear-curtain-flash modes, as well as flash-exposure compensation (see figure 7). While the D100 doesn't do a great job of through-the-lens flash exposure, you can achieve excellent results with some manual tweaking. And being able to instantly review images and histograms on the camera's LCD goes a long way to ease the pain. As with the built-in pop-up flash, shooting with one of the DX strobes is great for fill-flash shooting, and these lights offer more power and a better angle above the lens.
Figure 7: The D100's built-in fill flash is most useful for brightening shadows in harsh lighting situations.
Figure 8: While the D100's TTL flash handling leaves room for improvement, it offers some sophisticated creative exposure options. In this hand-held shot, the camera is set to over expose the background before firing the flash to slightly underexpose the foreground.
Caution: Dirt Road Ahead
If you're considering the D100 for work in particularly grimy environments, think again. When you shoot with 35mm film, the imaging surface is exchanged for a new one after every shot. Many photographers are painfully familiar with the effects of dust, hair and small bits of grime on an otherwise perfect negative, but at least these effects are limited to a single frame, or at worst a roll of film.
In the D100, the CCD and its extremely delicate filter are fixed in place behind the reflex mirror, and unlike a frame of film, this surface is expected to last the life of the camera. Nikon recommends professional servicing when the filter needs cleaning, and in fact, you can't put the camera's mirror into lock-up mode to access the film plane without plugging in the optional AC adapter. Your choices for cleaning are either pay Nikon for the AC adapter, which you're not likely to need in any other circumstance, or pay a service shop to clean the camera for you. (Woe to the photographer who needs to clean his CCD in the field.) Keep in mind that each time you change lenses you are opening your camera and potentially allowing dust into the CCD chamber.
I had used my D100 for exactly three days, changing lenses maybe a dozen times, before a small hair stuck to the chip, resulting a prominent squiggly black mark near the center of every subsequent frame. One look at the camera's CCD, which is surrounded by a slightly raised rim, confirms that Nikon designed the camera without end-user cleaning in mind. I expect that this serious flaw, more than any other, will lead to the D100's eventual re-design.
The image quality from the D100 is excellent, with true-to-life color saturation, contrast and detail. The D100 tends to capture images a bit on the soft side, which can easily be corrected in Photoshop, or by changing the level of automatic sharpening through the camera's menus. Nikon is very conservative in its in-camera image adjustments, which I prefer, since I usually want to do fine image adjustment in Photoshop, rather than having the camera balance my images for me.
If you shoot in Nikon's 12-bit-per-channel raw NEF format, the camera captures more data than you can display on your computer monitor, meaning there's a lot more detail to work with when you do bring pictures into Photoshop or another image editor. Shooting in this format lets you recover from a bad white-balance setting, for example. Nikon's NEF processing software, Nikon Capture 3.5, is not included with the camera (several online retailers sell it for less than $200). On the other hand, you might want to consider the third-party replacements, including Bibble ($99) or the $39.95 Qimage Pro , both of which offer some comparable features, and whose relative advantages are the subject of much discussion in the professional photography discussion boards. (For more Nikon camera-compatible software and add-ons, see "Hot Nikon D1x Accessories.")
As with most slide films, Nikon's CCD is prone to sacrificing image detail in highlights while doing a good job of capturing detail in dark shadow areas. That means that in images with broad exposure ranges (a person with bright sun on his face, for example) it's a good idea to under-expose your subject by roughly 1/3 stop to preserve detail at both ends of the spectrum.
As with other two-sides-of-the-fence discussions, the debate as to whether Canon or Nikon produces better images rages on. I can only say that I've seen amazing photographs from both cameras and, well, they're both really, really good. If you've got lenses for one or the other, that fact will do far more to influence your buying decision than the quality of images produced by either camera. Studio photographers lean towards Canon's equipment due to the better flash-exposure control.
Nikon's D100 is miles ahead of any point-and-shoot digital camera in terms of its breadth of functionality and creative picture-taking control and performance. It's not as sturdy as Nikon's "pro" cameras, particularly given the dangers posed by dirt on the CCD, and it has a few problems compared to professional film SLRs, including the lens magnification factor, and poor automatic flash performance. But overall, the D100, along with the Canon D60, to which it is remarkably similar, is a revolution in photography. It comes very close to duplicating the control and performance offered by top-quality film SLRs, while approaching the price of the best point-and-shoot digitals. The D100 is a camera that will convince many fence sitters to switch to digital once-and-for-all.
Read more by Sean Wagstaff,
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