The DCS 760 proves that size matters, and in more ways than one.
Kodak Professional DCS 760
First, the impressive clarity and smoothness of the 17.5MB (8 bits per colour) finished images rolling out of Kodak Professional's latest digital SLR is a testament to the benefit of 6 million of the right-size square pixels spread across a physically-large CCD sensor. If there's a digital SLR out there producing crisper, more detailed photos, I've not seen it.
Second, the sheer mass and bulk of the Nikon F5-based DCS 760 is a testament to the efforts of other manufacturers to produce digital SLR cameras that approximate the size of film SLR cameras. The DCS 760, like the 660, 620 and 620x models before it, is big, bordering on unwieldy for handheld use with a lens like Nikon's AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8. If there's a larger digital SLR shipping today, I've not seen it either.
Image sharpness and camera heft represent the two extremes of the DCS 760, Kodak's follow on to the DCS 660 which began hitting dealer shelves last week. Truly innovative digital features including an histogram incremented in f-stops, really good colour, solid software and potentially slow, expensive repairs round out the US$7000 (approximate US street price) package.
This article examines the primary strengths and weaknesses of the DCS 760. Writing about a camera like this is a bit of a departure for me, since its feature set makes it better suited for segments such as portrait, commercial and industrial photography than photojournalism. I think even news photographers will find, however, that the camera's strengths make it worthy of consideration for use in a newspaper photo studio, or for any lower-ISO shooting in which premium image quality and maximum enlargeability is required. This look at the DCS 760 is divided into the following sections:
The sidebar lists DCS 760 specifications.
Note: this piece is not written as a direct comparison to Nikon's D1X, and could not be, since I've not handled a production D1X camera as I write this. As will become clear, however, Kodak newest big-CCD SLR acquits itself well in the key areas of image quality, digital feature design and software. It's safe to say that the DCS 760 will be an able challenger to the D1X when that camera commences shipping in volume next month.
I look at digital SLR image quality as being constituted from four things: sharpness, colour, noise and a catchall category I call digital weirdness. The DCS 760 scores well in all four areas. And it stands head and shoulders above the crowd in its ability to render fine detail clearly.
Well-shot files coming off the DCS 760 produce such wonderfully sharp and clear large prints that it's easy to become somewhat anal retentive about one's shooting style. To be a newspaper photographer means to own a tripod, but to rarely use it. To maximize the 760's detail-grabbing oomph, I've been hauling out my Manfrotto more in the past 10 days than in the previous 2 years, so eager am I to capitalize on the crisp, clean edges produced by this camera.
The photo below is typical of what the DCS 760 can do in this regard. The cropped hands are only a 350K snippet out of the original 17.5MB file, displayed here at 100% magnification.
350K crop from 17.5 MB DCS 760 photo, displayed at 100% magnification. (full-res)
Sharpness is also exceptional in this 300K crop from a lit portrait (which was converted to b&w in Photoshop):
300K crop from a 17.5 MB DCS 760 photo, displayed at
100% magnification. It has been converted to b&w
using Photoshop's Channel Mixer (zoom|full-res)
Trying to convey the sharpness and detail of hi-resolution digital photos on a web page is tricky; please download a sampling of the full-resolution files in this section, open them in Photoshop at 100% magnification and see for yourself what 6 million pixels can look like. And if you truly want to get a bead on DCS 760 sharpness and how it might impact your photography, make some careful prints from the files. I have, on an Epson Stylus Photo 1280, and at 13 x 19 inches the clarity of detail is simply unmatched by lower resolution SLRs like Nikon's D1, Canon's EOS D30, or even Fuji's S1 Pro.
Note: all DCS 760 photos have been converted from RAW .DCR files to 12 bit, 34.9MB standard TIFFs using a beta version of DCS Photo Desk 1.1 for Mac. The finished files were then opened, converted to 8 bit and saved as JPEGs out of Photoshop. Full-resolution files available for download throughout this article have been marked with shooting data including ISO, then saved at a quality level of 11 in Photoshop 5.5, to ensure no visual loss of image detail. Unless the text accompanying a photo states otherwise, assume that it has not been adjusted in Photoshop.
Some digital SLRs capable of producing detailed photos with telephoto lenses turn around and produce nothing but mush with extreme wide angle lenses. Not so with the DCS 760, or at least not to the same extent as any other digital SLR I've experienced. Photos taken with Nikon's 14mm f/2.8 are almost as crisp as those shot through Nikon's 85mm f/1.8, AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8 or AF-S 300mm f/4, the three longer lenses I've had occasion to shoot with the DCS 760. This isn't a function of lens edge sharpness or other optical properties that might affect image sharpness in the film world. Instead, it's the manner in which light strikes the imaging sensor.
The full-res version of the 14mm f/2.8 photo below will give you a sense of how well the DCS 760 holds sharpness, even in wide angle frames.
Portrait shot with Nikon 14mm f/2.8 and off-camera flash (zoom|full-res)
The apparent sharpness of DCS 760 files is enhanced by a welcome change in the way the camera's RAW data is interpolated into a full colour photo. Specifically, solved is what Kodak refers to internally as the "zipper problem," where certain high-contrast diagonal edges are rendered jagged and, well, digital looking, even at magnifications and print sizes where pixelation couldn't be the cause. This is an image characteristic that falls into the digital weirdness category I referred to earlier, and has been a telltale sign of Kodak digital SLR photos since the DCS 520 was introduced in 1998. This characteristic seems completely eliminated in the DCS 760, and contributes to the smooth, sharp and overall film-like appearance of DCS 760 photos.
In the full-res versions of the next three photos you'll see more of the DCS 760's impressive sharpness and smoothness, even in the baseball action photo, which was shot at a slow enough shutter speed (1/640th) to pick up slight motion blur. You'll also begin to notice some unwelcome chrominance artifacting.
Skyline: note blue/yellow pattern in building, left rear (zoom|full-res)
The full-res version at 100% magnification, and even the zoomed version, of this skyline photo in particular shows the distinctive blue/yellow pattern found primarily in images shot with single CCD cameras like the DCS 760. That is, when they're shot without the optional Anti-Aliasing (AA) optical filter installed into the camera. Kodak's AA filter will significantly reduce the appearance of blue/yellow moiré patterns and other signs of chrominance artifacting, like coloured pixels in specular highlights. But it does so at the expense of image sharpness.
With lower-resolution Kodak cameras like the DCS 520, recovering lost sharpness in Photoshop is a snap, and I've long advocated keeping the AA filter in place for that camera, the DCS 620 and 620X. I've long advocated the exact opposite with the higher-resolution Kodak DCS 560 and 660, a recommendation that holds true for the DCS 760 too. That's because it's simply not possible to recover, to my satisfaction, detail lost to the AA filter with Kodak's 6 MP cameras.
So, whether you're eyeing the DCS 760 for high-quality, low-volume shooting in the newspaper photo studio, or you're a portrait or commercial photographer seeking to crunch through a large volume of images with minimal post-processing, you'll be faced with a critical workflow decision: Shoot for maximum sharpness, then use the Photoshop plug-in combo of Quantum Mechanic Pro and Moiré Eraser to reduce or eliminate any chrominance artifacting that surfaces, or replace the included IR filter with the extra-cost AA filter (which includes IR filtering too), live with muted sharpness, but avoid most chrominance artifacting that would require post-processing to remove. The gun detail below, from the cowboy portrait earlier in the article, demonstrates the effectiveness of Quantum Mechanic Pro:
Before Quantum Mechanic Pro
After Quantum Mechanic Pro
In short, you can't have both maximum sharpness and minimum artifacting without post-processing of the photo. This remains the primary drawback of single CCD cameras from all manufacturers. Kodak is currently the only digital SLR maker to offer their low-pass filter, the AA filter, as an optional, removable (though pricey and fragile) extra; in other cameras, including the upcoming D1X, a similar optical filter is permanently mated to the CCD sensor itself.
Kodak has posted DCS 760 RAW files on their developer site. Check them out if you wish to compare for yourself the effect of the Anti-Aliasing filter and the Infrared filter on image sharpness and chrominance artifacting. DCS Photo Desk 1.1 is required to process them into finished files.
If you've shot with any of Kodak's current crop of digital SLR cameras previously, you already have a good idea of the feel and quality of DCS 760 colour. Since the DCS 520, Kodak colour in daylight or studio conditions has been at or near the top of the class; of the cameras I shoot regularly, only the D30 offers more pleasing colour, sometimes, than the DCS 760, though Canon's digital SLR will at times forsake printability for maximum contrast and punch. I suspect most pro shooters will find DCS 760 colour more controlled, and the neutrals definitely more neutral from white to black. Overall, I'd give the printability nod to the DCS 760 when shooting under daylight-balanced light or tungsten-balanced studio light.
The DCS 760's take on this early morning vista near Jackson, Wyoming is typical of the camera's handling of daylight illumination on the Daylight WB setting. The original image was slightly flat, and in areas not directly struck by the low-angle morning sun, slightly blue. I've applied a moderate Curves contrast boost to the entire photo, resulting in the frame below (examine the larger zoomed version to get a better idea of the final look of the photo). The slight warmth of the shafts of light in the foreground, and the coolness of the light in the distance, is a pleasing rendition of the scene as I remember it.
14mm f/2.8 shot of Grand Teton mountains, Jackson, Wyoming (zoom)
You've already seen some examples of daylight colour from the DCS 760 in the sharpness section. Allow me to replay some of them here:
An SB-28DX, warmed with a Lee 1/4 CTO gel and zoomed to the 85mm setting, provided the main illumination on the subject in the mid-afternoon portrait below. Shot on the Daylight WB setting, the DCS 760 has done a wonderful job of capturing the colour of the sky, while picking up, and perhaps shifting slightly too red, the warmth of the gel-covered strobe on the slightly sunburned cowboy.
Portrait shot with Nikon 14mm f/2.8 and gel-covered SB-28DX (zoom|full-res)
The rugby player portrait was lit by two Canon 550EX strobes (my lighting kit is a curious mix of Canon and Nikon gear at the moment) triggered by PocketWizard MultiMax radio remotes; the front strobe is mounted in a softbox. I shot some frames on the Daylight WB setting, others, including the frame shown, on Custom WB (with the neutral point set from a Kodak Gray Card). On a calibrated monitor, what I hope you see is what I see: controlled, pleasing, near-perfect portrait colour. This is the DCS 760 in its element.
The three remaining examples are taken in various forms of outdoor light.
Pale evening sunlight (zoom)
Overcast + weak stadium light (zoom)
In difficult light, including office fluorescent, household incandescent and mixed light sources, the DCS 760 tends to produce decent colour. It is, however, often bested by both the D30 and Nikon's D1 in many such difficult lighting situations, assuming those cameras have the optimum WB setting dialed in. Like other Kodak digital SLRs, working under colour that hovers between the calibration of its four manual White Balance settings means using a combination of a Custom White Balance and the selection of a lighting type in software to extract maximum colour quality. This approach, and the resulting colour, was groundbreaking when introduced with the DCS 520 in 1998, but has since been surpassed by Nikon and Canon in their own SLR cameras.
Given that the DCS 760 is aimed more at nice-light shooters, I'm not going to discuss its colour performance in oddball light any further. Except to say that in tricky conditions, DCS 760 colour will often be acceptable, but equally often it won't be best-in-class.
Starting with the DCS Pro Back, Kodak turfed their proprietary colour processing engine in favour of one based on the ICC standard. The company's new colour direction continues with the DCS 760, which also uses ICC under the hood of DCS Photo Desk when converting RAW files to finished files. The change at this point is academic, since the look of the DCS 760's colour is largely indistinguishable from the DCS 660 it replaces.
Later this year, however, Kodak intends to begin releasing additional Looks, new ICC profiles that can easily be installed into upcoming revisions of Kodak software that will enable the DCS 760 to emulate different film types. One Look is to provide boosted saturation while preserving clean skin tones, neutral neutrals and printability; another is to boost contrast and saturation for maximum image punch. This, says Kodak, is one of several enhancements coming to Kodak software this year that should improve the flexibility of the colour that can be derived from a DCS 760.
If you have a sense of adventure, it's possible to take partial advantage of the DCS 760's ICC world now. All it takes is skill and software to edit the ICC profiles that ship with DCS Photo Desk, thereby enabling the tuning of DCS 760 colour to meet personal preference or the needs of a particular print job. Though I've edited printer profiles with relative ease before, a one hour crack at tweaking DCS 760 input profiles made it clear to me that one will need a whole lot more than one hour to make any worthwhile adjustments. For those interested in stepping down this path, ColorBlind Edit, Doctor Pro, ProfileMaker Editor and Kodak's own Colorflow Profile Editor are examples of ICC profile editing applications.
Also coming down the pike will be the option to choose that DCS 760 RAW files be processed from within ProPhotoRGB, a gigantically wide gamut colour space (RGB Working Space in Photoshop 5.x parlance) developed by Kodak to preserve even the most rich and saturated colours, instead of the DCS 760's current and relatively narrow-gamut DCSRGB, Kodak's own variant of the sRGB colour space.
There are two types of noise that can degrade single CCD SLR images: luminance noise and chrominance noise. The former is intermingled with an image's detail, and is therefore difficult to clear without denting image sharpness at the same time. Chrominance noise is woven into an image's colour, and is therefore easier to tackle without affecting sharpness, though there is some risk of a loss of colour along stripes, edges and other colour transition areas. DCS 760 files are almost completely devoid of luminance noise. This translates into photos that sharpen well for any type of output. The camera's files do contain their fair share of chrominance noise at ISO's approaching 400, though even properly-exposed ISO 80 frames may benefit from chrominance noise filtering.
As the 100% magnification views of the individual channels below demonstrate, chrominance noise is most pronounced in the blue channel, though as the ISO creeps up, so too does the visibility of red channel noise.
Red channel, ISO 80
Green channel, ISO 80
Blue channel, ISO 80
Red channel, ISO 400
Green channel, ISO 400
Blue channel, ISO 400
Both DCS Photo Desk's noise reduction routine (below, left) and Quantum Mechanic Pro (below, right) can remove most chrominance noise from the blue channel (shown) and red channel, so for all but critical applications, the full ISO 80-400 range of the camera should be usable.
DCS Photo Desk's noise reduction
routine removes most chrominance
noise from the blue channel while
retaining colour detail along stripes
and edges. It does not, however,
eliminate, or even minimize,
Quantum Mechanic Pro cleans up virtually
all chrominance noise from the blue channel
and knocks down most chrominance
artifacting, but is less effective than DCS
Photo Desk at retaining colour detail
along stripes and edges, even in its Retain
Color Detail mode.
If your shooting routinely takes you beyond ISO 400, however, the DCS 760 may not be for you. Images deliberately underexposed 1 stop at ISO 400, then adjusted using DCS Photo Desk's superb exposure compensation control, show decent colour and detail but an overabundance of blue channel noise in particular. Underexpose 2 stops, then compensate in DCS Photo Desk, and images take on the look of heavily push-processed film. The ISO 400 and pseudo ISO 1600 frames below, which were taken 75 seconds apart under identical illumination, illustrate this:
ISO 400, no exposure compensation
in DCS Photo Desk (zoom|full-res)
ISO 400, underexposed 2 stops,
compensated 2 stops in
DCS Photo Desk, for an effective
ISO of 1600 (zoom|full-res)
Kodak has trumpeted the fact that the DCS 760 contains new, low-noise electronics throughout the camera, and particularly in the analog board to which the CCD is attached. The benefits of the lower noise capabilities of the camera's circuitry have primarily been funneled into accelerated analog-to-digital conversion of the image data as it departs the CCD, thereby boosting the frame rate to 1.5 fps from the DCS 660's almost 1 fps. The net effect is a DCS 760 camera that will appear to be about as noisy as a DCS 660 camera, says Kodak, though the DCS 760's official upper ISO limit of 400 is 1 stop greater than the DCS 660's 200.
To maximize the DCS 760's image quality, then, it will be necessary to stay within the ISO 80-400 range, being mindful to edge closer to ISO 80 whenever possible.
I've observed that when photographers describe an image as looking digital, more often than not what they're seeing is not pixelation, noise, or other supposed digital characteristics. Instead, it's often an image rendering error that has produced colour or detail in the frame that's not part of the content of the image. As described earlier in this article, Kodak digital SLR cameras prior to the DCS 760 are afflicted with the "zipper problem," an error along high-contrast edges that can cause them to be slightly jagged and pixelated in appearance, instead of smooth. This problem, and indeed any other that would normally qualify as unexpected digital weirdness in my book, simply isn't present in DCS 760 files.
Even sharpening images for newsprint reproduction, the quickest and easiest way to reveal a host of hidden image problems, reveals little of concern. The DCS 760 digital camera produces highly un-digital image files.
Except for chrominance artifacting! Also as discussed earlier, shooting this camera without an AA filter means living with the appearance of blue/yellow moiré patterns in textured areas, red, green and blue pixels lighting up specular highlights, and so on. In effect, the camera makes it tough to strike a balance between maintaining image detail and losing chrominance artifacting. Shoot with the AA filter and chrominance artifacting is a thing of the past. But so to is decent or even acceptable sharpness. Remove the AA filter and spectacular sharpness returns, but so does chrominance artifacting. This translates into additional time filtering each frame with Quantum Mechanic Pro to remove the unwanted coloured bits.
Other cameras that employ a low pass optical filter to prevent chrominance artifacting, including Kodak's lower-resolution models and the D1, do so without whacking image sharpness beyond where it can be recovered afterwards in the computer. If the DCS 760's image quality has an Achilles' Heel, it's this.
The problem I'm describing is compounded by the fact that the three-strength sharpening function built into DCS Photo Desk is truly awful; if you do choose to purchase and install an AA filter into the DCS 760, look to Photoshop to fulfill your sharpening needs. Kodak Professional has pioneered many great image processing techniques; digital image sharpening is not one of them.
Digital feature design and software
The DCS 760 and DCS Pro Back were developed in concert. As a result, the 760's internal processing routines, user interface and overall function are more like Kodak's medium format digital back than the DCS 660.
Image processing and speed
The DCS 760 is the first Kodak digital SLR to incorporate a Digital Signal Processor or, as Kodak product manager Jay Kelbley calls it, a "big, hairy DSP." Unlike Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), which can run only the routines stamped into them at the factory, a DSP can crunch whatever numbers are thrown at it by the camera's firmware, in a manner dictated by the firmware. A DSP, like an ASIC, can run image processing routines at lightning speed, freeing the camera's main microprocessor, a 75mhz PowerPC chip, from having to perform certain intensive functions.
This includes JPEG compression, a feature that will remain dormant in the DCS 760 until the necessary firmware code is completed. That won't happen until sometime this summer, at which time a user-loadable firmware update is to be made available free on Kodak's web site. When enabled, JPEGs should be generated in a tiny fraction of the time of even Kodak's 2MP DCS 520, 620 and 620X cameras, thanks to the DSP's mathematical prowess. It's unlikely that JPEG speed will match the near-real time processing of camera's like the D1 and D30, however, or even the upcoming big-file D1X.
The DCS 760 is designed to always place priority on shooting new pictures over processing already-shot pictures, to ensure the shutter button will fire the camera immediately up to the point where the internal buffer is full. Previous-generation Kodak digital SLRs were also designed as shooting priority cameras, but do not handle multitasking as well as the DCS 760. That's because previous cameras funnel all processing requests to the microprocessor, which handles the sequencing priority of those requests. Because the DCS 760's improved architecture means the microprocessor doesn't need to arbitrate most or all multiple functions, the entire camera feels more responsive when doing two or more tasks at once, including shooting and either writing to a card or transferring images to a computer via FireWire.
Behind the DCS 760's card/battery door. Dual PC Card
slots are filled here with two CompactFlash cards in
PC Card adapters. Note the video out port also.
Case in point: even while the camera is shooting pictures, the DCS 760 achieves wicked-fast transfer rates of about 3MB/second to the 1GB Microdrive, making it the first digital SLR I've tested to come close to realizing the write speed potential of IBM's latest miniature hard drive CompactFlash card. I've also run a half dozen of the CompactFlash Flash memory cards featured in February's CompactFlash report through the DCS 760; the fastest, Lexar Media's 256MB 10X, 256MB 12X and 320MB 12X cards, clock at an impressive 2.1MB per second, while the Delkin 448MB, Kingston 256MB and Microtech 192MB cards, all of which use Hitachi components, follow close behind. The DCS 760 boasts, by a wide margin, the fastest write speeds of any digital SLR I've ever benchmarked.
As a result, one of the camera's losslessly-compressed RAW .DCR files, which weigh in between 4 MB and 6 MB typically, will write to a wide variety of brands and types of storage media in under 3 seconds, and no more than 2 seconds to the 1GB Microdrive. That's impressively quick for a camera generating files that will ultimately exist as 17.5MB 8-bit or 34.9MB 16-bit Goliaths once processed through DCS Photo Desk.
This, combined with a substantial 256MB memory buffer, adds up to a camera that masks the fact that huge amounts of data are being generated and whisked about every time the shutter is tripped. Only the pokey 1.5 fps shooting rate, and the fact that low-capacity cards fill in a hurry, tips the DCS 760's hand as a high-resolution digital SLR.
The DCS 760 also supports the FAT32 variant of the DOS file structure, which means it's ready to go when multi-gigabyte CompactFlash and PC Cards begin to ship this year.
DCS 760 FireWire port
Thanks in part to a new FireWire controller, transfer of images from the DCS 760 to a computer through DCS Camera Manager is much faster than older Kodak cameras. Even on my aging Mac G3/400 desktop, photos move through the FireWire cable at just over 5MB/second; Kodak claims speeds in the 6-8MB/second range with the latest G4 desktops. In practice, this means that roughly one thumbnail per second will appear in DCS Photo Desk when it's set to monitor a folder of incoming .DCR files from the DCS 760. This is in Capture mode, DCS Camera Manager's function for saving files directly from the camera to the computer, bypassing cards in the camera altogether. When moving images from a card in the DCS 760 to a computer in Copy mode, transfer speed plummets to 1/3 or 1/4 of Capture mode.
And while we're talking speed, Kodak indicates that the DCS 760's shutter lag is now about equal to that of the Nikon D1, which in turn is comparable to a stock F5 film camera. I'm inclined to accept this. That's in part because I had no trouble tripping the shutter at the right moment when switching back and forth between a D1 and a DCS 760 while shooting consecutive photos of the pitcher's release at a recent baseball game. By comparison, a year earlier I'd tried the same trick with a D1 and DCS 620X, and every 620X frame was late compared to the D1 frames.
The set of buttons, controls and screens on the back of the DCS 760 comprise the entry point for the camera's digital functions.
DCS 760 - rear view showing user interface to digital controls
At first glance, the 760's interface appears unchanged from the DCS 660. In fact, many functions carry over, including:
- Quick and full card format options
- Recovery of deleted photos
- Firmware upload
- Histogram, image information and overexposed highlights indicator
- Single and multiple image delete
- Placement of IPTC text information into image files as they're shot
- Custom Settings choosable via on-screen menus
- Screen brightness adjustment
Looking a little more closely, it becomes apparent that many functions have been tweaked or overhauled altogether, and that the four buttons running down the left hand side of the camera's back have been given new, single-purpose job descriptions. As a result, far less work with the navigation switch is necessary to move about and make selections from within certain menu screens.
OK and CANCEL
Four-position navigation switch
The net effect is an interface that is easier to navigate than previous Kodak digital SLR cameras, especially those with v3.x firmware installed. Plus, if you're an Ansel Adam's disciple, you can now apply the Zone System right from your very own digital camera. More on that in a moment. First, a look inside the DCS 760's menus:
Pressing the OK button
switches on the rear LCD
monitor. Here, FOLDER01 on
CARD2 is active. The photo is
being displayed in full screen
view; the checkmark indicates
the photo has been tagged.
Pressing the TAG/RECORD
button briefly applies or removes
a tag; holding the button down
commences the recording of
a sound caption.
Pressing the MENU button
activates the camera's
collection of pull-down menus.
The four-position navigation
switch enables movement
from one menu to the next, as
well as up and down within a
menu. Here, FOLDER01 on
CARD2 is shown as active
in the Card Menu.
In any menu, OK selects the
highlighted item, while CANCEL
ends the operation or moves
the user one level up in the
menu hierarchy. Here, the Main
Menu is highlighted.
One casualty in the redesigned
interface is a button dedicated
to white balance selection.
The DCS 760 forces the user
to always travel to the WB Menu
to choose between Auto, four
manual settings or Custom.
Here, Daylight is highlighted.
Note: Most of the screen shots are cut off on the right and bottom, owing to a display mask that didn't fit correctly on the early DCS 760 I received from Kodak. Shipping cameras were not expected to have this problem.
That's a quick look at the menus, which are indeed easier to traverse than previous Kodak cameras, though perhaps not as quickly accessed as the D30 and its super-simple menu design. Ultimately, any of the current crop of digital SLRs have a menu interface that's usable.
The DCS 760 moves into a class by itself, however, when an on-screen image is zoomed, or its histogram is displayed. Both functions are similar to the DCS Pro Back, and unlike any competing digital SLR. One of these functions in particular is way cool, and both provide useful information, once it's understood what information it is they're providing. In short, Kodak has ignored the page in the rule book that says all digital image analysis functions must emulate Photoshop. Instead, they replaced that page with one from Ansel Adams' book The Negative. The result is an extraordinarily powerful set of on-screen tools for determining overall exposure, contrast range and lighting ratios.
First, images can be magnified to either 1:3 or 1:1; the four-position navigation switch enables the user to scroll, slowly, around the image in a near-stepless fashion. At either magnification, a moveable Luminometer crosshairs (called a spot densitometer in Kodak's marketing literature) appears over the photo, inside a Region of Interest box at 1:3, and an information readout appears below.
What's a Luminometer, you ask? As implemented in the DCS 760, a Luminometer calculates the brightness of the area under the crosshairs, and it does so in photographic terms. The information readout displays a brightness percentage within a range of 2% to 180%, where 18% reflectance is middle grey, 36% is one stop brighter than middle grey, 9 % is one stop darker than middle grey, and so on. Also shown is the brightness relative to middle grey, in stops, from -3 to + 3.25. If this is sounding like the Zone System, that's not a coincidence.
From determining basic exposure off a Kodak Gray Card to optimizing lighting ratios, the Luminometer is a tool that I didn't even know I could have in a digital camera. Once I grasped how to use this feature, however, the DCS 760 and I produced absolutely dead-accurate exposures.
For those whose photography depends on precise control over all aspects of exposure and contrast, the Luminometer is a great thing. It's only apparent drawback stems from the difficulty inherent in viewing a big, big image on a small, small screen. Scrolling around, changing magnification ratios, moving the Region of Interest box, it all requires patience. As a result, it can sometimes seem maddeningly slow to take a handful of Luminometer readings from a single picture.
Previous Kodak digital SLR cameras worked hard to emulate Photoshop's 8-bit, 0-255 scale histogram. Not the DCS 760. In keeping with the photographic theme they started with the Luminometer, the histogram is incremented in stops, 9 in all, with a double-tick on the X (horizontal) axis at the 18% reflectance mark. Once again, it's the Zone System through and through. Unlike the Luminometer, which I dig, I'm not sure yet of the utility of a histogram measured in stops.
I am sure, however, that The Negative will be as important in learning the DCS 760 as the user guide.
The screenshots and accompanying text below describe the mechanics of accessing the Luminometer, histogram and other image viewing features.
With an image displayed,
pressing the left or right positions
on the navigation switch brings up
the previous or next photo,
respectively. The location bar,
which appears automatically
when browsing through multiple
photos, shows the relative
position of the photo. Here, frame
8 of 9 total frames is displayed.
Pressing the top or bottom
positions on the navigation switch
brings up a floating menu. This
menu provides access to
5 different views of the image: full
histogram, 4-up and image delete.
Here, zoom is selected. The
dotted lines on the photo frame
the zoom function's Region
of Interest box.
Pressing OK switches on the
information display beneath the
photo; pressing OK again zooms
the display to 1:3. The top or bottom
positions on the navigation switch
move the Region of Interest box
and Luminometer crosshairs.
Pressing OK one more time
zooms the display to 1:1. The
Region of Interest box
disappears, though moving the
crosshairs is still possible. One
more press of OK takes the
display back to full screen view.
The 9-stop histogram, plus
key shooting information.
Images may be displayed 4
at a time.
Single image delete, with the
file name displayed.
It's also worth noting that the DCS 760's rear LCD monitor is much sharper and clearer than the screen found in previous Kodak digital SLR cameras. That said, it's still not a match for the screen in the D1, D30 or Fuji's S1 Pro. All three cameras display a sharper image still, with more realistic saturation than the DCS 760.
Kodak's software strategy is in a period of transition. First, the days of the Mac Photoshop Import plug-in/ Windows TWAIN driver are numbered. While Kodak hasn't ruled out further development of bug fixes or feature additions to the v5.9.3 driver available today, they also have no specific changes planned. As a result, Kodak will not be adding support for the DCS 760 to the driver.
DCS Photo Desk, released last December, is the first in a suite of free and extra-cost standalone Mac/Windows applications designed to replace and ultimately surpass the functionality of the Import plug-in/TWAIN driver. Kodak promises that by year's end, their strategy for the DCS 760 will be more fully realized; for the next several months, however, DCS Photo Desk will be the only Kodak application to convert RAW .DCR files from the DCS 760 into finished JPEGs or TIFFs. Here's a look at Kodak's software direction for the new camera:
DCS Photo Desk. Available now, the application in its current form is a serviceable first crack at a standalone RAW file browser. It's strengths are in two areas: the speed with which it processes out to JPEG or TIFF the DCS 760's hefty .DCR files, and the simple but effective control it offers over the colour and brightness adjustments made during that processing. In fact, DCS Photo Desk's software exposure compensation function works even better with the DCS 760 than with other Kodak digital SLR's, thanks to some tweaks to the extreme compensation settings. In testing, I was able to fully recover ISO 80 daylight images overexposed 2 stops. The same extreme test with a DCS 520 or 620x at their lowest ISO, for example, results in a strong colour shift in highlights.
In short, Kodak software remains the best I've used at converting RAW data to finished files in an efficient and quality-focused manner. It also includes keyboard shortcuts for numerous functions, and uses a clever scheme of icons across the top of image thumbnails to indicate the processing parameters (white balance, noise reduction, etc.) that have been stored within that file.
DCS Photo Desk 1.1 on a 1024 x 768 monitor
But it lacks keyboard shortcuts for image zooming (out of necessity, I added my own using OneClick for Mac), offers no colour management support, file renaming of .DCR files isn't possible without copying them elsewhere and, most egregiously, it offers only minimal integration with Photoshop. And finally, screen real estate would be better managed if the Info palette could be shrunk in a manner similar to the Tools palette.
So, in it's current form it does enable work to get done, and even the beta version used to prep DCS 760 photos for this article has been stable. But it has some distance to go before it surpasses the ease of use of even the v5.9.3 driver, let alone 3rd party applications like Photo Mechanic 2 Pro.
Kodak plans to begin bridging that distance over the course of this year through "feature creep," the steady addition of new capabilities to DCS Photo Desk. Improvements are said to include better integration with Photoshop, enabling photos to be opened directly into Adobe's pro image editor without having to save them out of DCS Photo Desk first, the inclusion of a profile picker interface that will enable the selection of different film emulation types, or Looks in Kodak-speak, as well as the ability to perform pedestrian tasks like file renaming on a window of thumbnails. Updates to the program are expected to be free downloads from Kodak's web site. DCS Photo Desk 1.0 is available on the Web as I write this; v1.1 will be available for download soon, but the primary change will be the addition of DCS 760 support, not new features.
DCS file format plug-in. Currently, Kodak ships a Photoshop file format plug-in with the v5.9.3 driver. This enables RAW Kodak files to open into Photoshop simply by double-clicking them; the processing parameters stored in the file are applied as the file is opened and converted. The plug-in will not fade along with the Import/TWAIN driver. Kodak plans to add DCS 760 support to it in the months ahead.
DCS Camera Manager. A new application designed to capture or copy images from the DCS 760 (and other FireWire-capable DCS cameras) and set various camera properties. DCS Camera Manager brings much-needed automatic image transfer from camera to computer, and it does so at just over 5MB/second to my antique Mac G3/400, courtesy of the DCS 760's new FireWire controller hardware. It integrates nicely with DCS Photo Desk, which can be set up to automatically monitor a folder for arriving photos and immediately display their thumbnails.
DCS Camera Manager 1.0
DCS Camera Manager should prove to be a solid, reliable utility for moving photos out of the camera quickly, even while the photographer continues to shoot. Its release is imminent on Kodak's web site, where it will be a free download. It will also ship with the DCS 760 in the future, though cameras on dealer shelves today will not have it in the box. For more information, see Kodak poised to release DCS Camera Manager 1.0.
DCS Capture Studio. A Mac-only standalone application that ships with the DCS Pro Back now, it will be revved to support the DCS 760 in the next several months. DCS Capture Studio provides full colour management support and extensive Photoshop-like control over tone and colour adjustment. It can even generate an ICC input profile semi-automatically from a GretagMacbeth ColorChecker located in a test frame of the scene. Capture Studio will not be free for DCS 760 users.
Kodak DCS Software Development Kit (SDK). Kodak's pro digital camera SDK enables third party developers to relatively easily add support for Kodak DCS cameras to their own applications. Both the Mac and Windows SDK's with support for the DCS 760 are coming available to developers now; third party software built with previous versions of the SDK should be able to update to the new SDK with minimal fuss.
Kodak's reputation for having the best no-additional-cost software is well-deserved, particularly when stacked against the included offerings from Nikon, Canon and Fuji. But for the DCS 760, Kodak's best is probably several months away. That may translate into several months of a less-than-ideal workflow, or the purchase of software built on Kodak's SDK, until the company's own software catches up to its hardware.
Size and service/repair
Let's face it. The DCS 760 has a body only a mother could love. It's big, it's fairly heavy, and it's just not much fun to handhold with a big telephoto zoom attached. With other Nikon-based cameras I use the rear AF-ON button to drive the autofocus system. This is not possible to do for extended periods because of the girth of the handgrip (below).
DCS 760 handgrip
While shooting rugby with the camera I was forced to revert to shutter button focusing, to alleviate the ache in my right hand hand that developed part way through the match. And in this case the lens and body was supported by a monopod, so the relatively top heavy balance of the camera was not contributing to the ache. As a photographer who rarely works in the studio and often shoots on the move, the handgrip design, more than any other element of the camera's exterior, poses a problem for me.
But not an insurmountable one I suppose; I did shoot the rest of the 1 hour match without any difficulties, and I've shot with the same-size DCS 620 and DCS 620x before in similar situations without overwhelming problems. Still, prospective purchasers of the DCS 760, particularly those who envision lots of field use, need to think long and hard about whether the camera's many virtues are going to be outweighed by its decidedly bulky frame.
Why build the camera this big? In fairness, it does provide a couple of potential benefits, including room for two PC Cards, and therefore gigabytes of PC Card image storage online at once. This isn't too compelling for me, since I prefer to spread photos from an important assignment over several smaller cards, and the digital SLR world is going CompactFlash anyway. It also means that Kodak can include a large, high-capacity battery pack to meet the fairly voracious power appetite of the camera.
Of course, by sticking with the same basic design as the DCS 660, Kodak was able to bring the camera to market faster, and at a lower cost, than would have been possible if they'd started from scratch.
If you depend on your camera to make a living, it's important to enter a DCS 760 purchase with the knowledge that Kodak service is typically slower and more expensive than that afforded pro photographers carrying equipment manufactured by Canon or Nikon exclusively.
The hybrid nature of the camera contributes to this. For instance, when Kodak receives a camera, and determines that the problem lies in the modified F5 portion, the photographer may opt to have it sent by Kodak to Nikon for repair. In the US, the turnaround time on just that portion of the repair is said by Kodak to be 2-3 weeks typically, on top of the time that Kodak has it on their bench, though turnaround times in Europe are apparently much faster. As a result, even a minor problem in the camera could mean being without it for up to a month in the US, as well as Canada and many countries south of the US, all of which feed their repairs into Kodak's US repair facility.
Alternatively, Kodak will offer to replace the modified F5 body from a refurbished one in stock, at a price that may be much higher than what it would cost to fix the problem in the modified F5 body. So, you choose between quick turnaround time and a potentially steep repair cost, or slow turnaround at a lower cost.
As a result, consider the Gold level Kodak Care Kit, a service agreement offered in the US and Canada only, a must if you absolutely can't afford to be without your camera for more than a day or two. The Gold service agreement includes access to a loaner pool of DCS cameras, including the DCS 760, though its worth noting that it doesn't guarantee a camera in the event there's a run on loaner pool gear.
With Nikon and the D1 ruling the pro roost for the past 18 months and Canon showing a solid first effort in their advanced amateur D30, I for one had counted Kodak out of the digital SLR arena. The DCS 760 shows that Kodak is anything but done. If you can live with its overstuffed body and potential service hassles, the DCS 760 should reward you with crispy sharp images that print with really good colour, even when enlarged to poster size. Kodak has taken the best of the DCS 660, married it to the architecture of the DCS Pro Back, and come out with a camera that I predict will stand tall, both literally and figuratively, against Nikon's upcoming D1X. Prospective purchasers of a high-resolution camera that have already settled on Nikon's big-file SLR would be well-advised to take a look at the DCS 760 in detail before making a final decision.
For more information on the camera, see Kodak's DCS 760 product page.