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D2Xs replaces D2X as Nikon's flagship digital SLR
Wednesday, May 31, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

Nikon today has unveiled the D2Xs, the company's follow-on to their 14 month old flagship camera the D2X. The main change in the new model is inside the viewfinder when Hi-Speed Crop mode is enabled: gone are the corner and edge markings delineating the smaller shooting area in favour of an innovative masking system.

There are other refinements in the D2Xs, relative to the camera it replaces, including a new wide viewing angle rear LCD, beefier battery, new software for verifying the authenticity of the camera's photos and numerous other nips and tucks to the feature set. But the headline act in the D2Xs is the new viewfinder.

What's New in the D2Xs

Let's start with what's not new, since the great majority of the D2Xs' features carry over either unchanged or lightly modified from the D2X. At its core, the camera remains a 12.21 million image pixel digital SLR capable of shooting at that resolution at up to 5 fps; switching to Hi-Speed Crop mode enables the camera to capture a 6.87 million image pixel photo, at up to 8 fps, by utilizing just the centre section of the sensor.

The CMOS image sensor and its associated circuitry, as well as the 11-area Multi-CAM2000 autofocus sensor and 1005-pixel RGB meter (which measures both ambient and Speedlight flash output), these components are unchanged from the camera that precedes the D2Xs (though metering and autofocus operation are modified slightly; details on that are later in the article). It's the same shutter rated for 150,000 cycles and the same reflex mirror too.

 A Nikon technical document makes it clear that features impacting image quality, including the processing electronics and all the settings that impact colour, noise, sharpness and other basic characteristics of a photo, are unchanged in the D2Xs. In other words, a picture shot with the D2Xs should look the same as the D2X, assuming they're shot in a comparable fashion. The only exception to this would be when the camera's new black and white shooting mode is selected, since in-camera black and white isn't a D2X option. 

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Up Front: The Nikon D2Xs. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy Nikon)

The body and its various dials and buttons also carry over unchanged, except for the D2Xs name badge emblazoned on the front. Ultimately, almost all of what differentiates the D2X and D2Xs lies in the viewfinder or under the hood, in areas that impact camera function more than the look of its photos.

Here's a breakdown of what's new.

Viewfinder masking in Hi-Speed Crop mode The etched lines and blinking corners of the D2X viewfinder in Hi-Speed Crop mode have been replaced in the D2Xs by a mask that automatically appears when this mode is switched on. When enabled, the masked area instantly becomes darker and blurrier than the capture area. The masked area also takes on a textured, grainy appearance. In bright light, it's still possible to see through the masked area; when the light is dim and the scene content is dark, the masked area becomes almost an opaque black.

Our first impression, based on a brief session with the D2Xs this week, is that this is a much better way to differentiate full-resolution mode from Hi-Speed Crop mode, one that also helps clean up a viewfinder image that's too busy with lines and markers in the D2X.

The masking feature uses liquid crystal polymer network technology. When the camera is set to full resolution, there is no evidence that the mask exists, no faint pattern on the viewfinder screen or other visual disturbance around the viewfinder's outer perimeter. The D2Xs viewfinder image appears to be about as sharp towards the edges as the D2X, which means the D2Xs appears to have the same slight viewfinder softness in the outer quarters as the camera it replaces. This means that the electronic trickery Nikon has employed to make the mask appear doesn't seem to have diminished viewfinder clarity. This also means the D2Xs viewfinder image is fairly sharp from centre to edge, but not as crisp as the D200's viewfinder, especially at the edges, or as large.

Note that these impressions of the D2Xs viewfinder are based on pretty limited use of it. Different scenes, lighting or lenses may possibly reveal something unpleasant about the new masking technology. But so far, what we see, we like. 

The D2X's blinking Hi-Speed Crop icon beneath the viewfinder image is gone in the D2Xs; taking its place is an icon that appears when the camera is set to black and white. The only way in the viewfinder that the D2Xs communicates to the photographer that Hi-Speed Crop mode is on is through the capture area mask. And this should be more than sufficient.

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Through the Looking Glass: Photos taken through the viewfinder of a D2Xs, animating between full resolution and Hi-Speed Crop mode. At left, the camera is aimed at a blank wall. At right, it's focused on a print by Nikon USA's Lindsay Silverman. (Photos by Eamon Hickey/Little Guy Media)

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Through the Looking Glass, Part II: Additional views of the D2Xs viewfinder, including a simulation of Hi-Speed Crop masking on the left. Click each photo to enlarge. (Photos courtesy Nikon)

Last summer, we used the D2X and its Hi-Speed Crop mode extensively. It took numerous outings to get comfortable with framing fast-moving sports inside the smaller capture area, and we have more than a few pictures with heads cut off to prove it. The masking technology in the D2Xs should make it possible to use Hi-Speed Crop mode with less fear of botched compositions when all heck is breaking loose, and we're looking forward to giving it a try. The added bonus, as noted earlier, of the switch to dynamic masking in the D2Xs, when compared to the crop markings and perimeter lines of the D2X, is a healthy reduction in viewfinder image clutter.

At first glance, Nikon appears to have really improved the implementation of Hi-Speed Crop mode.

Metering tweaked for Hi-Speed Crop mode The D2X takes both its ambient 3D Color Matrix Metering II measurements and its i-TTL flash control measurements from the entire viewfinder area, even when the camera is set to Hi-Speed Crop mode. This means the D2X is metering outside the picture area when the camera is set to Hi-Speed Crop. The D2Xs, by comparison, will take its readings from the entire viewfinder area when set to full resolution, and from the area inside the mask only when set to Hi-Speed Crop mode. This should translate into more accurate ambient and Speedlight exposures in Hi-Speed Crop mode.

Wide viewing angle rear LCD The same 2.5 inch, 230,000- dot LCD component that graces the back of the D200 is now in the D2Xs. Like the D200, the LCD is spec'd for a 170 degree viewing angle (which does translate into a screen that shifts far less in brightness or contrast with even big moves in head position). Also like the D200, each camera's LCD is colour calibrated during the camera's assembly.

If the tuning of the D2Xs' rear LCD is as close to the D200 as we've been told, then it will mean that photos will appear lighter and brighter than they do when viewed on a calibrated computer monitor, at least in typical indoor shooting conditions. This is a Nikon-ism going back several camera models, even with the LCD's brightness turned all the way down, and it has made it frustrating at times to try and use the rear LCD as an exposure assist tool in both the D200 and D2X, and especially the D200.

The fonts and colours used in the D2Xs' menus have been tuned for improved readability and easier navigation.

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