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D100 Digital Camera5-stars

 

Nikon D100. Photo by Kodak DC-260.

Once in a lifetime we are fortunate enough (or reckless enough) to buy that dream car, or the dream home, or ... the perfect camera.

Nothing's "perfect". Nothing lasts forever. A good investment should still pay for itself over time, in performance and satisfaction.

This investment should last a lifetime, more likely so if you're already over 50. This camera is everything a serious amateur photographer could want in a digital camera, and, yes, you CAN take your lenses with you -- if you stay in the Nikon SLR family of cameras, into which the D100 has made a dramatic entry.

Nikon D100 6.3 megapixel single lens reflex digital camera, with AF Nikkor 24-120 Zoom attached. Camera measures 5.7W x 4.6H x 3.2 D (inches, body only). Camera body is strikingly similar to N80 35mm film camera body in design and size, but about 9mm taller. Lens and tripod adapter, both pictured here, not included in the D100 retail box. Included: camera body, strap, EN-EL3 D100 Lithium battery pack, external charger, protective caps and clear monitor cover, audio cable, USB cable, manual, and Nikon View 5 browser and capture software. Takes Compact Flash or IBM microdrive, not included. The owners manual documentation is unusually clear and well written.

Moving to a camera in the D100 feature range is not a decision to be made casually. This is not something that can be shared and enjoyed by the whole family. Though anybody can delight at the stunningly sharp, clear pictures, there are cameras on the market at less than half the price with great fixed optics, 4 to 6 megapixels, that are much easier to use and may even take more pleasingly balanced pictures in the hands of the average consumer.

The D100 costs $1999, slightly more than the totals we paid for the Kodak DC-260 when it came out in 1998, plus the cost of the Sony DSC-S85 when we bought it in 2001.

If you aren't already a 35mm enthusiast, and don't like the jargon of f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO ratings: the D100 is capable (like all digital cameras) of shooting fully automatic focus and exposure. Don't let that fool you. The extra leap to the complexity of pro and semi-pro cameras allows you, among other things, to turn all that "auto" stuff off when it gets in your way. You can still focus manually, and set shutter speed and f-stop manually, for special situations and when you want exposure-to-exposure consistency that "Auto" can't deliver.

In short, this camera will always have limited appeal to most consumers, even if prices come down to the level of 35mm film cameras, which is not likely to happen Real Soon Now.

The D100 joins the ranks of a handful of new digital SLR's that fill the gap between the $999 high end consumer digital camera and the $16,000 to $34,000 professional digitals. This includes the stunning Canon D60 Eos, which runs neck and neck with the D100, and in some ways outshines it. In the end, the photographer with a stable of Canon lenses will automatically choose the D60; the Nikon buff will naturally choose the D100.

No, neither film nor digital SLR bodies come with lenses at all (unless sold as a special "bundle"). It's assumed most photographers already have the lenses they like using. The ability to switch lenses, say from normal to telephoto, gives the SLR much of its desired versatility. Equally useful is the ability to add screw-on filters (ultraviolet, polarizing, tinted and neutral) and close-up attachments.

Although no digital camera is ideal for deep-space photography, the SLR camera body can be attached directly to the back of many astronomy telescopes with a cheap adapter. The D100, so mounted, will take stunning pictures of "bright" night sky objects such as the moon and planets. With smaller telescopes, this is the ideal for terrestrial photography for extreme magnification, distance, or really bright, sharp close-ups.

This versatility is all part of the rationale for the SLR that can't be answered with "but my camera has a built-in zoom."

Output and Storage: The D100 has a usable ISO range of 100-4,000, writes out 6.3 megapixel images sized in 9 JPG, 3 TIF and one RAW format. These progress in size from 220K to 17.3MB at up to 24-bit color depth. The D100 writes to CompactFlash (commonly available up to 512MB at this writing) or the IBM 1GB Microdrive. With optional software, the camera can capture directly to a personal computer or laptop.

The obvious advantages of Digital include instant results, zero processing costs after the initial investment, on-the-fly adjustment of ISO sensitivity ("film speed") and image type size, no scanning or developing,instant inspection, edit and delete, flash memory storage and transferability to the personal computer, and a potentially huge "roll of film" to hold many pictures without changing CompactFlash storage cards. Less obvious is the lack of a cumulative buildup of analog dust and lint flaws between camera, negative emulsion, developing and processing, and/or scanning. Digital images are "clean".

Disadvantages are few and obscure, but there are some. If you calculate the number of pixels potential in a scientist's 4x5 photographic plate, digital photography loses in the megapixels numbers game. There are limitations in computer and CCD technology where the extreme ends of film technology still rule.

Camera CCD's, designed for daylight usage, generate "noise" for night shots, i.e., very long time exposures in very low light conditions. Forced CCD speeds, such as the D100's custom H1 and H2 ranges at 3,200 and 6,400 ISO equivalency, are subject to randomly spaced, brightly colored pixels. If your subject is a mountain by the light of the rising quarter-moon, you could find and edit these pixels. If your subject is a field of 10,000 stars of varying magnitudes and apparent colors, you could not. The Nikon manual addresses how to minimize this inherent limitation.

Deep-space photographers will use film and very long time exposures (24 minutes to several hours) to capture faint objects such as nebulae and star clusters. Alternately, they go digital with special (relatively cheap) dedicated astronomy CCD plates that do not pixilate on long low-light exposures.

Processing Time: In normal usage the D100 feels as responsive as a normal camera. Unlike "consumer" digitals, the D100 writes to a buffer which can hold up to 7 consecutive shots, so the D100 user does not perceive the baffling time delay that has spoiled many a digital action shot. In burst or bracket mode shooting, this buffer can still fill up fast with the largest formats such as TIFF and RAW!

Shutter: the D100 uses the same thin blade shutter mechanism as other fine through-the-lens cameras. As a single lens reflex (wysiwyg), a small mirror pops up out of the light path. Some consumer digitals, like our Sony S85, appear to play a recorded SLR camera shutter sound as an aural cue that the picture actually has been snapped. The D100 makes a sound "like a real camera" because it is a real camera.

Resolution: Is the resolution of images captured by the D100 SLR inherently as fine as those captured by the older N70 film SLR camera, with the same lens? In theory, no way. In practice, try scanning and balancing a 35mm slide or negative so that it looks as clean and natural as the D100 equivalent.

First Impressions

I started reading the reviews of the pre-release prototypes in May. Early on, I got that old familiar feeling that sooner or later I was going to own one. The D100 was scheduled for release in June. The word was the camera wasn't going to be widely available until "late summer". That was an understatement. By July, Ritz Camera was taking "pre-orders". Nobody else was; most shops had no idea when they would get even one display model. Web and mail retailers were not listing the D100, and many never will. By August, Ritz advertised a "1-2 week backorder" status, which, privately, they were admitting to customers was running 2-4 weeks.

If you "always wanted to own a BMW", at some point you either have to order it, or admit there's never going to be a "right time". I ordered the D100 from Ritz August 6th, and it arrived 19 days later.

I couldn't be more excited about it, and of course I'm delighted. I'm an old-school manual Nikon user (going back to 1964). It isn't just that I don't fully trust fully automatic cameras, I don't understand the rationale behind many of the controls. No user of the Sony DSC-S85 will ever relate the automatic settings to either the old manual controls, or to the conventional pop-culture icons for sun, shade, fast moving, stationary, flash and so forth.

They are still inventing digital camera Operating Systems as we write this. There are no Human Interface Guidelines. In a family with many different brands of digital camera in the same household, anybody can point and shoot, but it would be interesting to hear what happens when somebody else attempts to change a setting!

My experience with the fully auto features of my Nikon N70 35mm was a bit unnerving (see PHOTOS). Understanding what the "auto" features are actually doing is harder than just setting everything back to "manual". An Auto SLR is quite a bit more complex than an auto consumer product. The N70 on full auto was quite intimidating under anything less than full bright sunlight, and the control set was non-intuitive. I found myself going back to the manual for simple things like setting film speed and yes, even rewinding and changing a roll of film.

Features

For a full technical review of the D100, consult a professional review of the product. I recommend the Digital Photography Review writeup of the D100. I read all 17 pages at least twice, and finally saved to disk as complete web pages. It is an excellent resource, as well having a complete set of specs, photographs and comparison tests.

Owners Manual: After I put a lens on the D100, charged and installed the battery, and inserted a 256MB CompactFlash (Crucial, $99), the first thing I did is spend an hour with the D100 manual. It is unusually clear and well-written, organized logically, and indexed and cross-referenced. Domestic and foreign users alike will appreciate (but not equally so) that the D100 comes with two manuals. One is printed in English; the other, in all other languages.

Thanks to the thoughtful design of the D100, and the clearly written manual, I felt comfortable that I could perform all the basic operations in the manual without going back to the manual to remember how to do it. I still don't feel that way about the N70 after three years (though I had largely migrated to digital by 1999).

Ergonomics: As a full-size SLR, the D100 is a hefty camera, particularly with a zoom lens, but the full wraparound grip, which also houses the battery pack, makes single-handed shooting easy (use two hands anyway, and use the camera strap!). I like the feel of this camera more than any other SLR I've owned. I really appreciate the fact that the view screen or "monitor", and other windows and controls, are strategically placed so that I'm not constantly smudging them in an effort to operate or grip the camera. Nikon wins high marks for thoughtfulness of design.

User Interface: No camera should win high marks for ergonomics if the user interface isn't logical, intuitive and consistent. This concept was understood before we had the word "ergonomics". Between the VCR, television remote and the digital camera, something terrible happened to the concept. "Hard to operate" became a badge of distinction, a test of prowess like the old wooden Chinese puzzle boxes. Arbitrary and pointless complexity became a status symbol.

This design issue finally hit an insurmountable obstacle with the advent of personal computers. If the operating system wasn't both powerful and easy to use, so that users could spend time with the work rather than with the manual, no machine, of whatever power and state of the art, could be worth the powder to blow itself up.

It turns out that while the D100 feature set is much more advanced than my older N70 film SLR, it is also much more logically organized, intuitively structured, and easier to understand. I like it!

Use of obscure iconic symbols is reduced to a few basic and frequently used functions on the back of the camera body. As with all digital cameras today, the built-in computer is almost everything. I'm delighted and relieved to say that I find the computer and user interface of the D100 to be (for the most part) well thought out and easy to navigate without constant reference to the manual. We'll have more to say about this very soon.

Mechanical operation of the camera is cleaner than my first manual Nikon. Mounting and usage of the familiar Nikkor lenses, and operations like servicing the battery pack and CompactFlash, are still simple. Popping up the flash unit is simple and actually activates flash-fill in typical default setups -- what a concept! Because so much of the modern camera's function is entrusted to the computer module and programming controls, there is less to do on the mechanical level. This can be a blessing or a curse. With the D100, for the most part, it is a blessing.

Computer and navigation system: On the top right of the camera is a LCD readout panel displaying the most frequently referenced functions, such as exposure mode and sensitivity setting (ISO), f-stop, shutter speed and number of shots remaining at the current picture size. I've learned to decipher most of the N70 readout panel, which is tough. The D100 panel is relatively uncluttered and easy to scan. The number of pictures defaults to an "always-on" mode even when the camera is turned off. Nice touch.

All control settings and options are available through the Menu. With the popular four-compass-directions NAV button, it is easy to locate and navigate through the major functional menu groups, and their cascading-menu subgroups. I like working with this menu, in contrast to the Sony DSC-S85's, in which it easy easy to change anything, but impossible to find it. If you inadvertently select a setting that will reset the camera or reformat CompactFlash, such as switching to RAW format, you will get a warning. Similarly, attempting to delete an image will give a warning first. Another nice touch.

The optional command and sub-command wheels are intended to offer basic function changes without having to dive into the menu. Unfortunately, you still have to leave "shoot mode" to use them. Digital Photography Review called this the least-well-thought-out feature. I have never been a fan of scrolling lists that only show one value at a time, such as shutter speed or ISO equivalent speed.

Please post your comments!

The camera back panel buttons are mercifully brief. Left side, top to bottom: LCD monitor display on/off, Menu on/off, Playback thumbnail control, image lock, and the ENTER button. Right side: image delete (you also get a warning).

Conclusion: I was able to write most of this from memory, with minimal reference to the camera and manual that are right behind me. That's a great sign and very positive endorsement, especially since this is the fifth day after FedEx delivered it.

Illustrations

Let's see more of what the D100 looks like. Top left photo is older Nikon N70 film camera, for comparison. All photos of the D100 were taken with the old Kodak DC-260, which is still a reliable workhorse!

Nikon N70 35mm camera D100 digital camera
Nikon N70 35mm film SLR, 24-120mm zoom mounted. Nikon D100 digital SLR, 24-120mm zoom mounted. Note taller body.
Front view, D100 body Front view with f1.4 50mm lens mounted.
Front view, D100 body only. Dimensions are 5.7W x 4.6H x 3.2 D (inches). Small illuminator light on upper left emits enough light for Auto-Focus to operate correctly when ambient light is too low. Below the light, depth-of-field preview button is barely visible in this photo. Popup flash is visible in front, top and side views, above Nikon logo. Front view, D100 with f1.4 50mm "normal" lens attached. Visible on right is lens release button, and Focus Mode selector: M, S or C for Manual, Single-Servo Auto Focus (static), and Continuous Auto Focus (moving subjects). The oversize camera grip shows well here and in the "top" photo. The included camera strap shows Nikon intended for this camera to be serviceable and to present itself well.
D100 back D100, side view
Back, D100, left to right, top to bottom: Bracketing and Flash Exposure Compensation buttons. TTL viewfinder. Auto Exposure/Auto Focus lock button. Command Dial. 5 LCD display and programming buttons (discussed in article above). LCD monitor with protective clear plastic snap-on overlay. 4-way NAV button, Focus Area Lock, Trash (delete) button. CompactFlash/microdrive compartment cover. The removable clear plastic LCD overlay is a thoughtful touch. Standard Nikon "hot flash" visible above viewfinder, for external strobes. Side, D100, f1.4 50mm lens mounted. Soft rubber compartment cover conceals connectors for USB, audio, and optional external power. Shooting Mode Selector Switch is visible on camera top. Lenses attach and detach with the lens release button and a one-eighth circle twist of the lens on the standard Nikon bayonet mount
D100 top view
Side, D100, 24-120mm 72mm zoom mounted. This lens has appreciable heft, but the D100 balance still feels good. Barely visible on bottom is the standard tripod mount screw hole. The lithium battery pack compartment cover is on the far side bottom, not really visible in this view. Top, D100. Left to right: Shooting mode dial, hot shoe, LCD control panel, Exposure compensation and Flash synch mode buttons, and LCD illuminator button (nice touch for low light setup!). Sub-command button visible in front of On/Off switch, front of camera.

Photos

To do a film-to-digital comparison properly, I would need to get some Kodak 100 Gold film for the N70 and wait for Kodak processing. It would be fun to do that, and I would like to see the results myself. But that would be more interesting for a day's outing, than a photo or two from the apartment balcony, so we'll put this off for another day.

A digital-to-digital comparison is inherently unfair, since the only digital camera we have in California is the venerable Kodak DC-260. I love this 1.3 megapixel camera, which was state of the art in 1998 and still does an awesome job of cranking out perfect pictures almost every time. I've always suspected that Kodak engineered some sophisticated color balance and image enhancement algorithms into its images, for these images rarely benefit from the standard PhotoShop feature set, as do Nikon slide scans and even the Nikon D100 images I've shot so far.

For fun, bearing in mind the disparity in cameras, we'll set up the tripod on the back balcony using "normal" lens settings and the highest JPG quality each camera is capable of producing.

Images: imported into PhotoShop 7.0, using the embedded color profiles from each camera. No editing or balancing added in PhotoShop. For comparison, exported to (a) JPG medium "Save to Web", 324x216 side-by-side resize, (b) 900x600 JPG quality '9' high, downloadable. These are the formats our regular PHOTO visitors are used to seeing.

DC-260 normal scenic shot D100 normal scenic shot
DC-260-P0001075-SM.jpg, reduced to 324x216 "Save for Web" JPG Medium, Photoshop. No enhancements. Native size 1536x1024, 501KB. Click image for downloadable 900x600 JPG, "9" high resolution, 214KB. With the DC-260, "normal" is somewhere between wide angle and telephoto zoom, but you never know where. As expected, native Kodak color balance and contrast is somewhat more dramatic than the untouched D100 image, right. D100-DSC_0025-SM.jpg, reduced to 324x215 "Save for Web" JPG Medium, Photoshop. No enhancements. Native size 3008x2000, 3050KB. Click image for downloadable 900x600 JPG, "9" high resolution, 210KB. Shot with f1.4 50mm lens, f9.0, 1/320, automatic, color space sRGB. As expected, native Kodak color balance and contrast, left, is somewhat more dramatic than the untouched D100 image, above.
DC-260 and D100 detail comparison
DC-260 vs. D100 compare. Given the greatly uneven starting size and resolution from the two cameras, a detail portion from both images was blown up to 200% of starting size, at which point neither JPG looks particularly sharp. Image size alone will account for a lot of the differences in detail. Note the DC-260 was hardly able to resolve the telephone wire lines at all. Color correction still has not been applied to either image. Most people would say that the DC260 image is "prettier", and in fact the Kodak algorithms have a tendency to make things look prettier than they really are. The DC100 payoff should come with higher resolutions and TIFF (lossless) image capture, below.
D100-DSC_0026-detail.jpg
D100-DSC_0026-detail.jpg. Cropped out of 3008x2000 17.3MB TIFF image. Taken with 24-120mm zoom at full zoom, 1/1000 sec., f8.0, focal length 120mm. You can see that TIFF produces not only an image of much finer resolution (as you would expect for 17.3MB), but overall image quality is much sharper and color balance is much better, than the finest quality JPG. Reviewers have commented that JPG did not live up to its full potential with this camera, in their opinion due to very conservative engineering values for sharpening. This was a 600x400 crop (about 1/5 of the 3008 pixel image width) at 100% of image size, not 200%, and some color balance was applied in PhotoShop this time. Not much difference was noted, as the color balance and contrast were dramatic improvements over the JPG image shot with the 50mm lens. The 17.3MB native TIFF image size is the same size as the CoolScan IV film scan. Lacking a more concrete test, it seems to me the D100 image is subjectively at least as good as the scanned35mm equivalent, clearer from edge to edge, and conspicuously free of lint and dust. In the full image (obviously not reproduced here), I can read the "Blockbuster Video" and "Direct Sales Floors" halfway across town.

Using the D100

I have used this D100 camera, fooled with it, and practiced with it for 6 days now. This hasn't made a dent in the battery indicator. Though I haven't used some features at all, such as manual overrides and custom functions, I've managed to shoot indoors flash, indoors no flash, indoors daylight flash fill, outdoors normal lens, and outdoors zoom.

I've captured the hummingbirds at the feeder, a perfect hand-held shot, and Mr. Squirrel racing down the fence on the other side of the pool. We have a flash picture of C.Bear that shows incredible detail on his anorak, the gleam in each of his Mardi Gras beads, and the unraveled threads of his "runny nose". All of this, in only 26 shots.

The joy of capturing the moment is much more than about the camera that makes it. The moment is the important thing, and it lives forever, or, at least, so long as its record can be preserved. The ability to replay it faithfully in every detail, as with good audio equipment, enhances the experience of re-creating the original. It adds adventurous depth and clarity to the act of re-experiencing special moments and insights. But we should not forsake playing music or taking pictures because we could always do better with better equipment. It is the sharing of the jumbo prints around the living room, or the highly compressed email and web images, that brings photography alive. In such cases it hardly matters what camera was used to compose the shots. The rationale of the complex camera is all about regaining control of the capture and presentation process. It is about mood, much more so than being a chronicle of events. It is an additional process, one which can even greatly enhance the pleasure of re-creating the moment, but it is a different process nonetheless.

I love manuals but loathe poorly designed documentation, so I have a reputation for rarely giving manuals the time of day. I devoured the D100 manual and feel comfortable using it as a reference, always a great sign. More significantly, the thoughtfulness of the camera design, and its ease and intuitiveness of use, is weaning me from the manual already. This never happened with the N70 in three years.

I can hardly wait to go for a drive and do some serious shooting. Spring in the Castro Valley hills is always the best time for outdoor photography around here, but there is always something interesting if you know where to look, and I do. I bought the D100 with the full intention of turning it into a "working camera", for fun, travel and vacation -- unlike the N70, which spent large portions of its existence tucked away in a camera bag in a closet.

I do not think this camera is going to disappoint. There's no way I can tell others that this camera is right for them, particularly when the initial purchase price is more than double that of popular high-end consumer models. The DC-260 took us four years to amortize its cost to below a buck a shot - we're up to 1075 shots on it, and it was our "main" camera until we bought the poor, unappreciated Sony for Phoenix. I expect the D100 will take a little longer to amortize to this level, but I expect it will get a lot more use per year, and that it will still be taking great pictures in 10 and maybe 20 years. That was the plan.

Judging from the initial demand for this camera - it is still really hard to find at any price - there is a lot of pent-up demand within the Nikon SLR owner community for a move to digital without a compromise in quality. I believe that Nikon owners may not find a better time to make this move for quite some time, and that if they do move now, they will be surprised and delighted. This camera is really a pleasure to use.

For some sophisticated SLR users, the D100 might perhaps never fully replace their high-end 35mm cameras. Old friends are hard to part with. For me, the move will be easy and complete. I was never comfortable with the N70, which was not high-end; I much preferred the much older EL2, which I nevertheless stopped using because guilt chained me to the newer investment. I never climbed past midpoint on the N70 learning curve, and using it was frankly a big ordeal fraught with many uncertainties and failures. Fortunately, the AF and D-type lenses were the biggest part of that investment, and it is SO nice to be able to move them to the D100!

For astrophotography, when we get to that, we will probably get a dedicated telescope CCD. For the occasional really long night time exposure, I can always break out the N70 (better yet, the EL-2) and do my time exposures manually. For almost everything else I can possibly think of, even Mars and Saturn, the city at night, and the High Sierras, there is the D100.

Many years ago, I used to observe that really good motorcycles were capable of delivering performance that most riders would never learn to handle proficiently. This is also true of many other machines that offer us at least the opportunity to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. With the D100, at last I will never be able to complain about the limitations of the equipment!

Tree in Apartment Parking Lot, at sunrise

 

Alex Forbes ©September 2, 2002


Postscripts - see addenda page

 

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