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The DCS Pro 14n: worth the wait? - Continued

The Camera as a Camera

Sometimes, the sea of technical specs that describe a digital SLR overshadow the fact that it's still a camera with a shutter button, viewfinder, autofocus and metering systems that need to work well for it to be a useful photographic tool. By drawing heavily from the Nikon N80/F80 parts bin, Kodak was able to build the DCS Pro 14n less expensively than previous Kodak DCS models based around the F5. Fortunately, the N80/F80 is a surprisingly capable midrange film SLR, offering basic performance well above its amateur camera status.

But it's not an F5 either, so you'll have to decide whether the balance of feature strengths and weaknesses of the 14n that stem from it's humble film SLR roots will suit how you shoot. Here's a rundown of key camera features:

The body. It's trimmer than any previous Kodak DCS camera. And compared to a DCS 760, the 14n feels like it's filled with feathers, not circuit boards. Still, Kodak could have kept the camera at Weight Watchers meetings for a little longer: though not a heavy camera by any means, the 14n's handgrip and base are somewhat bulky. Overall, holding the camera in either the horizontal or vertical position is comfortable enough. The wide base prevents the attachment of the Nikkor 85mm f/2.8 PC Micro, however: The lens will slide into the 14n's mount but not twist into position.

Viewfinder. It's big, relative to digital SLR cameras with smaller sensors, and reasonably bright. But, the protruding rear LCD display makes it impossible to find a comfortable right-eyed vantage point at the viewfinder opening. Trying to eyeball straight horizons through the viewfinder is all but impossible. To make matters worse, even an average-sized nose will regularly depress the Menu button, which in turn activates the rear LCD display. And, if you use a PocketWizard MultiMax, the somewhat contorted head angle that the viewfinder requires translates into enough pressure on the PocketWizard in the hot shoe that it triggers spontaneously.

Jay Kelbley, Worldwide Product Manager in Kodak Professional's DCS group, indicates that add-on viewfinder adapters that would provide a greater level of viewing comfort are being investigated. Whether they're able to identify a usable one remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the viewfinder is not much fun to look through for horizontals, though for verticals its fine.

Shutter release. The camera sports two shutter releases. When shooting horizontally, the somewhat-spongy shutter button from the N80/F80 is used; when shooting vertically, a Kodak-fabricated button trips the shutter. Shutter lag tests at 127 ms, which puts it in the same league as Nikon's D100 or Canon's EOS 10D.

The camera does contain a lag of a different sort, however. When the camera is first turned on, when the ISO moves across certain thresholds or even when camera temperature changes, the camera goes through an internal calibration process that includes measuring a type of sensor noise, called dark current noise, so that it can be muted during image processing. As of firmware v4.1.2, the camera takes about 13 seconds to get itself ready to take a picture when it's first switched on, whereas moving across an ISO threshold causes about a 5 second delay.

There are three different ISO thresholds: ISO 80, 160 and 400, so switching ISO across any one of them results in Camera Recalibrating to flash across the lower LCD display. This multisecond delay is probably not a real problem, but it does take getting used to. If you're in the habit of turning off your camera during lulls in the action, shooting with the 14n means keeping the camera on perpetually instead to prevent pictures being missed during the lengthy startup.

The 14n was the first digital SLR announced with an auto-orientation sensor (though the EOS 10D was the first camera to ship with one). Thanks to a small gravity switch nestled in the base of the camera, the 14n can detect whether it's oriented horizontally, 90 degrees vertically left or 90 degrees vertically right. The resulting photos are tagged with this information.

When this tag is read by DCS Photo Desk 3.0, vertical pictures are automatically presented with their correct orientation. All except for pictures shot with the camera upside down, that is, which the 14n can't detect. This feature works as advertised, and doesn't seem easily confused by tilting the camera up or down in the vertical position. This feature is long overdue in digital SLR cameras, and it's great to see models from Kodak and Canon that have it now.

Autofocus. Using the centre of its 5 AF points only, the 14n focuses well in low light and, with AF-S Nikkor lenses, tracks moving subjects quickly and accurately. Shooting two periods of NHL hockey with the 14n and AF-S 300mm f/2.8 + TC-14E II 1.4x teleconverter from the concourse level of Calgary's Saddledome, the camera didn't miss the focus on a single frame (more on that in a moment). If you're expecting 14n autofocus to be a big step down from Nikon's pro cameras, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

It's not without its limitations, however:

  • The AF system is too quick to jump to a different focus distance when the AF point moves off the subject temporarily. The AF system in, for example, the D1X and D1H, is smarter about continuing to track the subject, even if the AF point shifts to the background briefly. Returning to the hockey example, the 14n didn't miss a single frame in which the AF point was hovering over one of the subjects in the photo. When the AF point was seeing ice or background instead, however briefly, the focus would shift. This behaviour gives the AF system a somewhat erratic feel.

  • The outer four AF points are clearly inferior to the centre focus point, regardless of lens or illumination. More hunting for focus is the order of the day, especially in low light. The cross-type centre focus point is markedly better at detecting contrast and establishing focus. When I shoot with the D100, which shares the same Multi-CAM900 AF system as the 14n, I use the centre AF point almost exclusively, and to good effect. The 14n seems to be no different in this regard.

  • With non-AF-S telephoto lenses, AF tracking speed drops noticeably, though it's still reasonably quick.

You may not be intending to shoot sports with the 14n, but the fact that the AF system is capable of doing so, within certain limits, means you can cover a myriad of on-the-move shooting situations with confidence that the autofocus will keep up. Just stick to the centre AF point whenever possible.

Ambient and TTL flash metering. Another pleasant surprise. Like all Nikon-bodied cameras I've used since the N90/F90, the 10-segment Matrix Metering of the 14n delivers predictable, reliable outdoor exposures, in flat and contrasty light. Some exposure compensation is almost always required when the light isn't flat, but the amount, and when it's needed, rarely deviates. The only obvious difference I've observed between the 14n and a D1X or D1H is the amount of exposure compensation required in contrasty front-lit situations. More is required, as much as -1.5 stops in fact, whereas with Nikon's own pro digital SLRs it's rare to need more than -0.7.

Exposure compensation, shutter speed and aperture are all limited to 1/2 stop increments. Any digital SLR, including the 14n, should be capable of finer, 1/3 stop exposure adjustments.

TTL flash has been superb so far. In the hot shoe or at the end of an SC-17 cord, the SB-80DX and the DCS Pro 14n team up to deliver accurate flash exposures frame after frame in my shooting. Dark backgrounds haven't been a problem, nor has setting the flash head to the 105mm setting for a spotlight effect when shooting with a wide angle lens. I'm sure I'll run into a troublesome flash situation with the 14n at some point, but I haven't yet.

The main limitation of the flash system is the sync speed. At 1/125, it's slow. Depending on what you shoot, this will either be no problem at all or a significant limitation, relative to digital SLR cameras that sync at 1/250 or 1/500. Shooting hockey with catwalk-mounted strobes, for example, 14n photos showed too much ghosting in too many frames. The EOS-1Ds, at 1/250, shows almost none.

Next Page: The CMOS Sensor/Intro to Image Quality
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