Digital info for serious shooters: specializing in Nikon & Canon

California Poppies
Nikon D2X w 24-120VR
ISO 400

Survival Guide to the Nikon D2X.

Possibly one of the best cameras ever made, the Nikon D2X is an amazing display of photographic technology. But like any new camera it has plenty of wrinkles and a few warts. After a month of shooting with the D2X we've assembled an issue of DPS chock full of tips on how to get the most out of your new camera, including everything from settings to debunking "urban legends" that have already arisen around the D2X. We also provide a detailed review of shooting wireless with Nikon's new WT-2 and the D2X.

This week also saw the introduction of the D70s, the D50 and a Nikon D70 firmware upgrade which we also cover. Plus Moose provides a great workflow tip for D70 and now D70s shooters.

The Nikon D2X: A Survival Guide

Images: The Proof is in the Pudding

While I've been very happy with the image performance of all of my Nikon D-SLRs and the overall image quality I've been able to get on large prints, the D2X is the first one that really lets me feel my large prints can go toe to toe with prints from medium format cameras and hold their own from a technical perspective. Obviously I can't show you that here on the web, but Nikon is certainly making it a point to show example large prints where ever they show the D2X which will give you some idea. Perhaps most exciting is that it is less work than with earlier cameras to generate those prints. The native resolution reduces the need to fiddle with careful rescaling and I've found I also need to do much less work on selective sharpening. In addition, the native color is already rich & quite accurate as well as being complemented by the most accurate flash & flash-lit color I've ever seen with a digital camera.
The very high resolution does require a little more care. Reports on the web of un-sharp images are probably in some cases related to the very small pixel size and corresponding need for increased shutter speed to keep the image sharp. Remember that almost any perceptible motion of the camera is going to blur the image when you each sensor measures something like 1/6000 of an inch on each side.

The Auto-Focus controversy

I get asked several times each day "what about the auto-focus on the D2X. I've heard it has problems." Realistically, I'm sure that out of the many thousands of D2X cameras shipped there are some that have issues. But based on my experience with lenses including the 12-24, 24-120VR, 70-200VR, 200-400VR and 600f/4 the D2X locks in as well or better than the D1/D1H/D1X and while it might be a little slower than the D2H in some cases, it is not by much. The only target I've had problems with is dark birds against a blue or light sky. This is tricky for any camera, but the D2X doesn't seem to handle it as well as the D2H.
One possibly important tip is the poorly documented (or at least poorly explained) setting 4 under AutoFocus. When ON (the default for the D2X), the camera will stay locked on its AF target even if something gets in the way. This is great if you're shooting an athlete going behind an obstacle, but not so great if you want the camera to lock on to whatever you are pointing at. I've turned mine off to help me acquire focus as quickly as possible when subjects appear. Aside from that I haven't had to do anything special to get my D2X to perform well in a large variety of indoor and outdoor circumstances. I don't know, but I suspect those reporting substantial AF issues have problems specific to their particular camera, as there don't seem to be any substantial product wide issues.

Buying Light

Light, by definition, is the most important element of photography (creating with light). We spend thousands on fast lenses, speedlights and studio lights and often wait hours or even days to get the right light in an outdoor setting. So what if you could spend money to buy another stop of light? What would it be worth? Based on my experience over the last 18 months, first with the D2H and even more so now with the D2X that is exactly what Nikon has let us do. With first generation "D1" Pro D-SLRs (I include the D1, D1X and D1H in that group), using any ISO setting over 200 was a compromise in noise and color fidelity. With the latest cameras ISO 400 is increasingly a no-compromise solution and even ISO 800 is remarkably better than with earlier models.
Not entirely content to just believe my eyes and my clients' eyes on this, I loaded up the excellent Imatest image analysis package and compared the color fidelity and noise on a series of ColorChecker test shots ranging from ISO 200 to ISO 3200. Since interpreting Raw files is a matter of preference, I used in camera JPEGs with the camera set to Auto white balance, under an even sunlight with slight haze. What I found was a surprise even to me. There was virtually no loss of any meaningful image quality at ISO 400 and nearly none even at ISO 800. Even ISO 1600, which I tend to only use for indoor sports, tested very well and visually was almost identical. Only at ISO 3200 was there really visible (and very visible in the test image) increase in contrast and decrease in color fidelity. Another big difference this test showed from prior D-SLRs was the sophisticated in camera noise reduction. Some noise actually decreases as the ISO increases. That's a great thing for color charts, where we're interested in optimizing the evenness of color, but of course will cost you in edge detail. The best way to see for yourself exactly what the noise reduction does for and to your images is to shoot some Raw images and then tweak the Noise Reduction settings in Capture and notice the results. Note that by default Capture will turn on Noise Reduction for high ISO images because Nikon realizes it is necessary to combat the inherent sensor noise in a 12+MP sensor.
For those who want to see all the nitty-gritty, we've posted all the result charts for you.

Speaking of Buying Light: Flash with the D2X

Endangered GKR
Nikon D2X
SB-800 & SB-600
The D2X has the best digital flash system I've ever used. When used with the SB-800 or SB-600 (or both) it is at least as good as the one on my D2H and possibly even a little better. The accompanying image of an endangered and very nocturnal Giant Kangaroo Rat (okay, so they're only two inches long and not really rats, but they are endangered and quite cute) was made using my D2X, an SB-800 with the new Nikon SC-29 connection cord for the SB-800, and a wireless SB-600. The combination was faster and more accurate than any I've been able to use over the years and finally did away with cabling intricacies and the settings voo-doo that have accompanied previous attempts. I'm looking forward to my next trip to Asia to re-capture images of some of the nocturnal animals there that I struggled to photograph with a D1 and SB-28.

High-speed Crop mode

I still really enjoy HSC (high speed crop) mode, but it does come with a couple caveats. First, you've got to remember that you're shooting at twice the normal focal length of the lens--about 1.5x for the "digital multiplier" and about 1.5x for the crop mode. This gives you a very small effective Depth of Focus and a very small tolerance for camera shake. So you'll need to have plenty of shutter speed. Remember the old rule about 1/FocalLength for your minimum shutter speed? It's not a bad idea to keep that in mind--except that your focal length is twice that of your lens. Second, the crop marks on the viewfinder, while well implemented, are a little tricky to use. Your eye doesn't do as well noticing whether your entire subject is inside the crop marks as it does keeping track of whether it is in the viewfinder. The result is likely to be some "chopped" limbs until you get used to allowing enough room. When in doubt remember you can always use the "full sensor" mode and crop later.

Raw files & Software Support

Obviously shooting Raw files is a major reason that many photographers have purchased the D2X. Many have been surprised by how excellent the JPEGs are--given the camera's state of the art Auto white balance, low impact JPEG compression and staggering native resolution--but Raw files are still "the main event." Unfortunately the D2X Raw files have several obvious and some not so obvious differences from previous raw files which have made support from non-Nikon raw converters difficult.
In particular Nikon has begun encrypting (or "encoding" if you prefer) the "as shot" white balance information, which has resulted in Adobe first delaying support for the D2X until ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) 3.1 in late May and then stating that even then it will not use the "as shot" data. The upshot will be that photographers using ACR with D2X images (when it is available) will need to manually adjust the white balance for all of their images. Personally I like the color rendition of Nikon Capture and the workflow of using Photoshop so I really wish that Nikon would just make Capture a plug-in to Photoshop and make it externally scriptable by image management applications (like Photoshop is) and side-step the issue, at least for now.
We asked our 2500 forum regulars, almost all of whom own either Nikon or Canon D-SLRs (mostly Nikon and mostly more than 1 each) what they thought. Out of those who've responded, so far 89% think Nikon should document the NEF file format, 7% think they should at least not encrypt it, and 4% figure they should be allowed to do what they want with it. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts. The good news is that D2X Raw files do have a nice large preview in them so there is less need to process the NEF. And of course JPEG+Raw mode provides some of the best of both worlds.

Getting it right in the camera

Coastal Redwood
Nikon D2X
10 frame Vertical Pano
Hand held
Ever since Raw files were invented it has been tempting to point, shoot and "fix it on the computer." With the D1X, D1H and D2H this worked relatively well. In addition to the stop or two of latitude for exposure correction Raw files from those cameras were unaffected by most cameras settings and were easily corrected for white balance, tone and color space after the fact. However, with the advent of the D2X, which features even more complexity in its file format and in the image processing undertaken in the camera, it's important to point out that it is still a good idea to get as close as you can in the camera. This is particularly true if there are blown-out highlights in the photo, like this 10-image vertical panorama of several "tall tree" 300' California Redwoods.

Once the camera sets the white point (white balance), then Raw file processors (I tried Capture, Bibble and Raw Shooter Essentials) base their interpretation of the highlights on that white point. As a result, attempting to warm the image up by changing the White Balance on the PC caused a distinct and unpleasant color cast in the highlights. This is not a new problem, and avoidable by not blowing out the highlights, but a reminder that even with the latest technology it pays to find a way to get the shot right in the camera when you can.

Storage, storage and more storage

With every JPEG+Raw image from the D2X consuming 20MB (and that is with compressed Raw files), I've found myself filling up cards, portable storage devices (like the Epson P2000) and my hard drives. Since I wrote about this already in DPS 3-4, I won't belabor the point any further, but I do know that many shooters, including myself, are going back to just shooting JPEGs for many assignments to keep things smaller, faster & simpler. With the color right out of the camera having gotten so good and Capture as well as Bibble able to work with JPEGs now--plus the stumbles with Raw file software for the D2X, they may be having a renaissance. In my case I usually wind up shooting JPEG+Raw but often delete the Raw images (using Delete Corresponding Raw image command in DigitalPro) for all but a few of my shots that I might want to work on further in Photoshop. For the rest I just keep & use the JPEGs.

Wireless with the WT-2

The good news for wireless shooters is that the WT-2 is a big step up from the early to market WT-1. First and foremost, the configuration is easier and more flexible--although it still requires many steps and some knowledge of networks. Second, the WT-2 now supports 802.11g, with a theoretical capacity of 54Mbps (Mega-bits per second) versus the 11Mbps of the WT-1. However, you should note that you can only operate in "g" mode if you have an access point. If you just connect "ad hoc" to your laptop or desktop you'll be limited to "b" mode. Fortunately there are now "palm"-sized APs. I own the D-Link version which I can even power off my USB port for field use (see the New Product section below).
The Connection Wizard on the WT-2 walks you through the steps of assigning an IP address to the camera (it can also use DHCP, which is a great innovation), picking a wireless access point with which to connect (it was easy to connect to my 802.11g access point even using the latest WPA/TKIP security, which was a pleasant surprise), and then indicating the ftp server you want to use. I started with the default ftp server that comes with Windows XP (part of the IIS application--which is not always installed by default by is on your Windows CD). Once I poked a hole in the firewall for the ftp port (normally 21) ftp transfer worked flawlessly, and the camera clearly indicated the transfer progress. To ensure maximum reliability I use my Digital Camera Battery on the D2X to keep it alive while I'm using the wireless mode.
Like all wireless connections, performance degrades quickly with distance. Even with the EA (Extended Antenna), image transfers began slowing down as I moved more than 20' from the base unit. At 5' from a dedicated access point I could transfer images as fast as 1 Megabyte per second (about 7-8 seconds for a JPEG, 11-13 seconds for a compressed NEF and 20 seconds for an ucompressed NEF). When using the camera in a remote location (monitoring a bird nest or feeder for example) I quickly decided to use the "send JPEGs" only mode to make things move along faster, figuring I could use the NEFs from the camera if I really needed them. At 50'-80' the image transfer rate from the unit to a wired access point which also had an antenna was about 400KBytes/second, or 20-30 seconds per JPEG or compressed NEF--with a pause of about 5 seconds between the NEF & JPEG if I opted to send both. The good news is that the camera firing is quite quick (as with tethered shooting, it happens when you let the mouse up on the Shoot or AF&Shoot button). For speed I pre-focused and only used the Shoot button.
Nikon has done a great job of recreating the camera display in Capture, so you can see highlights ("blinkies") and the RGB Histogram as your images arrive. And since you can also control the camera's settings you can actually do something about it without having to manually re-visit the camera site. This is a huge advantage over the original WT-1. Admittedly, I could in many cases accomplish these same tasks using a very long Firewire cable, but those exceed the official Firewire spec, so they sometimes have their own problems and of course are often not practical. The one command I wish Nikon had added was a setting to control whether the NEF or the NEF+JPEG are sent, but that is not currently supported.
In ftp mode you still need to fire the camera manually or with a radio remote. But another touted advantage of the WT-2 is the ability to control it from your PC. The WT-2 supports PTP which allows 2-way communication. This is a slick alternative to needing a radio remote & a wireless connection and operates the same was as more traditional tethered shooting using Capture. The basic connection parameters are all shared with the ftp mode, so it is only the specific PTP pairing & operation that need to be defined. Pairing is a one time "security connection" between a computer & the camera--much like Bluetooth devices use. It is done with a special Wireless Connection Utility that Nikon ships with the WT-2. Once you have paired the camera you can control it using Nikon Capture 4.2 or later.  It took me some trial, effort and a call to Nikon Support to get it to work. Fortunately David in Support cracked the code. In my case I needed to press and hold the checkerboard button when pairing the computer and camera for the first time. Just pressing & releasing didn't do the job in my case, although Nikon has confirmed that normally just pressing the pairing button should be enough.
Wide-area wireless: For many years I've thought that the "right" way to sell digital cameras would be with some type of always on connection that could wirelessly be sending images to "the net" as you shot them, so they would be instantly available to you for processing, sharing and printing. Ironically, except for a few demos by Philippe Kahn and LightSurf the industry was very slow to address this issue from the camera side--while in the meantime the cellphone industry has leapt into the camera+phone business in a big way. One result is that Nokia and Motorola now produce far more cameras than either Nikon or Canon. The camera makers have suffered from the lack of a good way to send images. Only recently has the widespread availability of wireless hot spots started to make interconnection feasible.

Now the mind blowing part (at least to me): With the WT-2, once I set the camera to connect to a particular network, it painlessly and seamlessly sends my images off as they are shot. And the destination no longer has to be local. It can be any computer connected to the internet. With Internet hot spots popping up all over, this means that I can be at any "un-wired" venue and have my images whisked away to my studio as I take them--from anywhere in the world. Obviously large publications and news organizations have been setting up this capability for a long time using first generation wireless devices and portable access points, normally with local editors on laptops, but with the WT-2 the process has become simple enough and effective enough that it is truly within the reach of any photographer who has a need.

Of course the WT-2 (and a D2X) are still very expensive tools and the capabilities are still limited. But they show a very promising start into the world of wide-area imaging for Nikon. Over time, if we are going to continue to think of Nikon & Canon as imaging leaders they will need to adapt to this new market aggressively and take a leadership position. I'd look for point and shoot that can send image wirelessly to photo sharing sites or via the cellphone network before too long. All the pieces are already there for cameraphone owners or gadget savvy gurus, but have yet to be packaged for the volume digicam owner.

The Bottom Line

As you've no doubt guessed by now, I really like my D2X and am very happy I bought it. But something you may not have guessed is that it has also helped me appreciate my D2H even more. On the one hand I can compare the "dripping" detail on my large D2X prints favorably with those from a medium format film camera while on the other hand when I look at my computer screen or 8"x10" prints, those from the D2H measure up head to head with those from the D2X. And the big bright pixels on the D2H still give me a nice solid feeling about my images and their quality. I haven't shot with the D2Hs yet, so I can't speculate on how much of an improvement over the now much cheaper D2H it is.

Full Disclosure: As with my D2X, I bought my WT-2 and antenna, although it is a lot of money for an accessory. In my case the business justification has to do with the dynamics of remote wildlife photography. With a radio remote I can fire the camera perfectly well, but have to return to the site--possibly disturbing the animals I'm trying to photograph--to retrieve the film card and review my images. With the WT-2, my laptop and the D-Link pocket router I purchased to use with them I can review the images as I shoot and even control the camera settings live. This greatly increases my productivity in those situations as well as decreasing the amount of stress on the animals.

DigitalPro Tip

Pro Shooters LLC has released DigitalPro 3.1, with full support for the Nikon D2X and Nikon D2Hs, plus added support for portable storage devices such as the Epson P2000. You can download it from Pro Shooters website. Version 3.1 is a free upgrade to licensed users of version 3.0.

Subscribe to:
DigitalPro Shooter
the newsletter!

Subscribe to DigitalPro Shooter
Enter your email to receive our newsletter on shooting digital.


All contents copyright Pro Shooters LLC. All rights reserved.
Nikon is a trademark of Nikon Corporation. is not affiliated with Nikon Corporation.