Kodak DCS Pro 14n


Is it ready yet? Maybe.


Stylewise, the Pro 14n is clean, though as you can see from these photos, it has a bit of a paunch both in front and back (see Handling section in review).

On the front, the top connector on the right is the PC Sync, the bottom is the 10-pin remote control connector. Fortunately, the hand strap comes connected from the factory--it's a real doozy to get back on correctly, so don't take it off if you think you might want to use it later. At the far bottom left you can just see the vertical shutter release peeking out. Unfortunately, there's no command dials or other controls to go with it.

The camera back is relatively uncluttered and laid out logically--in the menus, you normally only use the direction pad and the two buttons just above it.

The top plate of the camera is essentially unchanged from a Nikon N80, by the way. As is the low-power internal flash that pops up.

Experienced Nikon users will have no trouble picking up this body and starting to use it.

   

The Basics

On February 12, 2004, Kodak announced an update to the Pro 14n, called the SLR/n. This new version of the camera had an updated sensor, a different filter over the sensor, new power management facilities, a visible write-to-card light, a 60 second shutter speed, and a few other refinements. The new sensor does not require the Lens Optimization setting of the Pro 14n and has lower noise and less purple fringing tendency than the existing one. ISO range is calibrated from 160 to 800, with the full extended ISO range being 6 to 1600. This new version of the camera began shipping February 16, 2004. Owners of Pro 14n cameras were for a short time able to have the sensor and analog electronics of their current camera replaced by Kodak for US$1500, and once done, that camera is referred to as a Pro 14nx. In general, this review is applicable to all three variants of the camera, with the SLR/n being slightly preferred due to a few less obvious issues in side-to-side color variation and noise.

Kodak also continued to update the firmware of the cameras for some time after they stopped actively selling them. It's highly recommended that you make sure you have the most current software, as a few of the problems mentioned do tend to be ameliorated or erradicated by subsequent revisions. For example, I note in the right column that long exposures are iffy, but with the later low-ISO support, this problem seems to be non-existent. Likewise, side-to-side color issues with a few lenses did get better (though not completely fixed) with later firmware revisions.

Let's get the weeds cleared before we get to the camera: Kodak shot themselves in the foot handling this product's introduction. They then proceeded to get a sledgehammer and hit themselves in the same foot. When they stopped screaming, they tried to kick in a metal door with that foot. Frankly, I don't think Kodak's digital camera marketing team is quite ready to play soccer with Nikon and Canon yet.

What the heck did I mean by that last paragraph? Well, if you didn't follow Kodak's inept marketing introduction for the Pro 14n, let me fill you in on the highlights. Or is it lowlights?

At Photokina in the fall of 2002 Kodak launched the Pro 14n with great fanfare. One of the original claims made at their booth was that it would sell for US$4000, another was that it would ship in a couple of months (interpreted by the press as meaning November 2002). Indeed, the product manager sent a message to several forums titled "This camera rocks." He got rolled. Kodak quickly pulled back on the price ("the official price is US$4995, though you may find some selling it for less"). Then the expected ship date started slipping. By Christmas. No, in January. Mid-January. February. "Hey, we shipped at PMA" (I'm not 100% convinced they did--it appears that they shipped a demo model to each official dealer coincident with PMA in March 2003, but I only heard of two users who received cameras during that time, and both of those were purchases of dealer demos).

While the delays were accumulating, Kodak posted a few sample shots from the camera and was immediately hit with criticism from the nay-sayers. Two things seemed obvious: there was a lot of noise in those shots, and fine detail had this tendency to go Matisse (blotchy, indefinite, splotchy, plastic; take your pick of the appropriate term). "Oh, but I only had a few hours to do those shots," was the first response. But further samples, while better, still tended to reveal noise and blotches. If super models had skin that blotchy, no teen woman would ever want to emulate them and Sports Illustrated wouldn't be publishing a swimsuit issue. Still, you have to admire Kodak's Chutzpah. When they finally did get around to letting a few Pro 14n's out to reviewers, the image quality defects were most certainly there and the camera was almost universally called a disappointment (well, a few went further and totally panned it). Every review went right to three issues: noise at all ISOs that ratcheted up to unusable at anything above 200; loss of fine detail when the mandatory noise reduction routines kicked in; and unsaturated colors that weren't always right. Some reviewers found other faults to pick, but the primary impression was that the image quality wasn't up to snuff, so who cared about anything else?

Meanwhile, starting back at Photokina, I asked politely to be put on the reviewer list for the camera. Over a period of six months, I asked five times. Twice I was told that "you're on the list." Perhaps the list was resting. Perhaps the list was confused about by my first name and was waiting for "Thom" to appear in a spell checker. Perhaps the list was soooo long with Nikon experts waiting to audition the camera that I'm just further down than I'd expect to be. (About a week after my long-on-order Pro 14n showed up from the dealer, Kodak called telling me that they finally had a demo unit for me to borrow. Too little, too late.)

If from my sarcasm you're starting to get the idea that I'm no fan of Kodak's marketing, you're dang straight. If I had ever executed product marketing so poorly at any company I worked for, I would have expected to be immediately dismissed; I would have been shamed into leaving the tech industry for a job at McDonald's, assuming of course, that I had enough skill left to beat out the local teens at flipping burgers.

So. Here's why all that is important to know: you must learn to ignore all of Kodak's totally inept and amateurish marketing. Instead, pay attention to the wizard behind the shutter curtain. Pretend that the name on the camera is Honda or Sony or Disney or some company that understands marketing. Further, forget all those previous reviews you may have read of the camera, because the one thing that Kodak's marketing team said along the way that has proven to be correct is this: "new software updates will improve it."

And so we begin.

Two features are the ones that catch everyone's attention: 14-megapixel resolution and full 35mm frame coverage. That's it. If you don't already want a Pro 14n after hearing that it has those two features, then don't bother reading on--a Nikon D70, Nikon D100, Fujifilm S2 Pro, or Fujifilm S3 Pro runs off basically the same body design and all do perfectly fine jobs at smaller sensor sizes and resolutions than the Pro 14n. I mean it. The reason to pay all that extra dough for a Pro 14n boils down to those two features; you either need one or both of those features, or you can just immediately pocket the extra bucks or spend it on lenses for your D70/D100/S2/S3.

Okay, so why would you want 14 megapixels? Well, at 300 dpi, we're talking a 10x15" print direct from the camera, with no interpolation other than the Bayer demosaicing. Compared against a desktop-scanned slide blown up to that size, the digital camera's picture has one tremendous advantage: no grain. Further, Kodak chose not to put an anti-aliasing filter on the Pro 14n, so that 14 megapixel resolution is real, not filtered down a bit by softening filters (which force you to sharpen the image back up after the fact). In theory, if you get everything set right in your Pro 14n and take a picture, you can pop it directly over to an Epson 2200 and get an archival 11x17" print with no extra resolution fiddling.

And why would you want full frame? Well, suddenly your wide angle lenses are wide angle lenses again. No more 1.5x field of view crop, which makes your 14mm act like a 21mm lens. Your 14mm lens gives you 114 degrees of angle again, not the 92 degrees the other Nikon DSLRs give you. Fisheyes are fisheyes again. You can shoot in close quarters in small rooms again. Depth of field charts (and scales on the lenses) all give you the right numbers again. Heck, you can even drop the word "equivalent" from your vocabulary.

Curiously, the Kodak Pro 14n doesn't use a Kodak sensor to achieve those two important things (and here I thought Kodak was spending its R&D money trying to make itself more of a digital leader; silly me). Instead, Kodak buys sensors from FillFactory. It's unclear from either company's materials just how close the relationship is. Did Kodak help FillFactory in the design of the chip? Who knows? I don't, and I don't think either company wants me to know exactly who did what based upon the material I've read. It's not that Kodak doesn't have sensor technology of their own, but I think the 14mp figure got Kodak's attention. Indeed, that's 3 megapixels more than the nearest competitor, the Canon 1Ds [the 1Ds Mark II has now eclipsed it, as Canon upped the resolution to 16mp for the new model], and well over double the 6 megapixels found in most of the other current competitors (Nikon D1x, D70, D100, Fujifilm S2 Pro, Fujifilm S3 Pro). It's an impressive number, no doubt. Good thing the photosites are all aligned in rows and columns to make the math easy, otherwise someone might still be counting them. The question is whether or not Kodak can hold that advantage as others increase their resolutions. Perhaps. I expect most of the next crop of digital SLRs to be in the 10 to 12 megapixel range [the D2x is 12.4mp, the 1Ds Mark II is 16mp, so I underestimated], so the Pro 14n isn't going to simply fall off the resolution charts tomorrow.

Beyond those two things, there's not a lot that's unique to report. The 14n has a feature list that's similar to most of the other DSLR bodies. To wit:

The Pro 14n has a feature set that sounds a bit like the D100, mainly because it was built from the same base body, the Nikon N80. (Kodak's marketing team, like Nikon's, tries to claim otherwise. For example, Kodak claims that the Pro 14n is "derived" from both the N80 and F100, but "derived" seems to mean that a couple of F100 parts were borrowed and added on, in particular the PC Sync socket and 10-pin remote connector. The top-deck is exactly the same as the N80 with two minor cosmetic differences. The shutter is the N80's. The autofocus and metering system is the N80's. The viewfinder and grid system is the N80's. The internal flash is the N80's. Heck, the custom settings are the N80's, only without numbers.)

The autofocus system is fast, and features five sensors (CAM 900) that can track rapidly moving objects, or direct autofocus to a specific area of the frame. Autofocus detection works from EV –1 to EV 19 (specified at ISO 100). The metering range extends from EV 0 to EV 21, plenty wide for virtually any shooting you might do. Note that the spot metering range is slightly lower, from EV 3 to EV 21. Unless you make a habit of spot metering in unlit situations at night (not likely considering the noise issues that would trigger with this camera), you're not likely to encounter that limit.

Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/2 stop increments from 2 seconds to 1/4000. Single shot and continuous firing at 1.7 fps is supported, with an 8 shot buffer. (Kodak now is producing a 512MB buffer upgrade for US$595). But Eight 14-megapixel images is a lot of memory, though--you'll need big CompactFlash cards to take advantage of the upgraded buffer, should you choose to get it.

The Pro 14n manages matrix metering the old-fashioned way, with a 10-segment metering pattern. Likewise, the white balance is not set by the matrix metering system, but from data from the CCD. This results in a post-shot custom white balance setting system that is actually quite handy. Carry a small gray card around with you with this camera and you should never get the white balance wrong.

The matrix metering also incorporates information about the focus point you’re using if you’ve mounted a “D-type” lens. Nikon also lists “subject positioning,” “overall scene brightness,” and “scene contrast” as factors in the matrix metering calculations. In short, it’s hard to second guess the camera as there are so many factors being considered. If simplicity suits you, the spot meter option is a better choice. (Centerweight is 60/40.)

As befitting a serious camera, Kodak retains the simple N80 mode selections: Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual are the full lineup. Program mode is easily adjusted by spinning one of the control dials. There's also an automatic adjustment of the program due to focal length of the lens used; thus there is no “Program High” or other special automatic modes as there are in some other Nikon bodies. Like all Nikon bodies, you can override the programming using the rear command dial, something Nikon calls "Flexible Program."

An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 3-stop range in 1/2-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at half-stop values. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls. Kodak has converted the Multiple Exposure setting on the Frame Advance dial to "Exposure Lock," a nice touch--photographers are always asking me how they lock exposures in manual exposure mode so that an accidental touch on a command dial doesn't change exposure; here's the answer). ISO values from 80 to 800 in one-third stops can be set, though current software locks you out of the higher values when shooting at the highest resolutions (currently, 400 is the highest ISO you can set shooting RAW).

Flash sync is 1/125 second. Flash metering uses five TTL sensors and can be balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear curtain. However, if you want to shoot in any TTL mode, you'll need either the SB-28DX (not the older SB-28), SB-50DX, or SB-80DX Speedlight. That's because Nikon's TTL modes normally use reflections off the film surface during exposure to determine when to turn off the flash. The Pro 14n's CCD is not very reflective (and certainly not the same reflectivity as film stock), thus only flash units designed specifically for the digital bodies (the DX suffix) work in TTL mode.

It's important for those migrating from Nikon 35mm SLRs to the Pro 14n to understand the operational differences in the flash system. With a DX-type flash on the Pro 14n, the camera performs the same matrix and pre-flash adjustments as, say, an F5. However, the Pro 14n doesn't alter any flash decision once the shutter is opened (i.e., it doesn't monitor the light reflected back during exposure to fine tune when to shut off the flash). This difference is subtle, but can show up if you have a moving object with high reflectivity in the scene (e.g., jewelry, metal surfaces). Also, rapidly changing light conditions can produce strange results. For example, in a situation with lots of other flash photographers with my F5, I found that rarely did another photographer's flash mess up my exposure (well, at least not too badly). With the Pro 14n--like the D1 series and D100--I've had troubles and inconsistencies that I didn't have with the film bodies (or the Fujifilm S2 Pro). In short, you've got to be a little more careful when you've got moving subjects with high reflectivity or rapidly changing light conditions. Balanced Fill-Flash modes are more problematic than Standard TTL in this regard, so I generally only use Standard TTL on the Pro 14n.

On the plus side, DX Speedlights perform pre-flash and full TTL capabilities even when the flash head is set to a bounce position (on 35mm bodies, setting the flash head to any angle other than normal or down -7 degrees cancels some of the more advanced TTL features). The internal flash only supports TTL modes. When set correctly and mounted on a Pro 14n, the DX Speedlights display D-TTL on their LCD as the flash mode, by the way (instead of TTL).

In the viewfinder, you'll see 92% of the full frame, which means you're not seeing between 120 and 180 (!) pixels worth of information at every edge. Shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering method, focus indicators, exposure compensation, and flash ready are all visible in the viewfinder, even to eyeglass wearers like me. On the color LCD on the back of the camera, you'll see 100% of the image. Probably of most use on the color LCD is the ability to see a histogram of any picture you take, allowing you to tinker with exposure to get every last bit of dynamic range out of the sensor (like slide film, always expose so that the brightest highlight doesn't blow out--you can usually recover shadow detail that blocks up, but blown highlights are obnoxious to the eye and not easily fixable).

The Pro 14n takes any Nikon F mount lens (well, lenses earlier than the AI manual focus Nikkors damage the mount if you try to put them on the Pro 14n, and a few specific lenses won't work on the Pro 14n, usually because they have elements that stick into the mirror box and require mirror lock-up, or have things that stick down and hit the Leno Chin [read on]). Non-CPU lenses don't allow metering and must be used in Manual exposure mode.

The Pro 14n produces several different types of files: JPEG, JPEG-ERI, and RAW. The JPEG options work as you'd expect, but you pay a significant penalty for using that format: the files are compressed and lose a bit of detail, plus they are converted to 8-bit format, losing some of the Pro 14n's tonal range in the process. Noise also tends to get encoded into JPEG compression in ways that are very difficult to remove. The JPEG-ERI format is specific to Kodak (and requires that you install a special filter into Photoshop if you want to use those images in that product). The ERI portion refers to Kodak's Extended Range Imaging JPEG format, which retains additional highlight detail and gives you some ability to adjust exposure after the fact with the JPEG image. On this, at least, Kodak should be applauded: the Pro 14n most definitely has the broadest dynamic range capturing JPEG images of any camera currently available.

The RAW format contains the data that came from the CCD, without camera processing. To access these RAW images, you use Kodak's Photo Desk software. (Photo Desk deserves a review all of its own. While Nikon Capture has gotten quite good with repeated iteration and CaptureOne DSLR embodies PhaseOne's long experience with raw digital data, both could learn a few tricks from Kodak's workflow and tools. Photo Desk is a reasonably mature product with a nice feature set. Working pros will especially like the ability to build "job assignments" in Photo Desk and then link pictures to jobs as they shoot. Even for someone like me this can be useful: if I know the locations I'm likely to shoot at during a workshop, I can pre-assign each location a "job" and then have a much easier time later sorting images into my folder-based filing system (e.g., North America/California/YosemiteNP/Valley). Like the Pro 14n, it seems like a work in progress though: each new incremental version seems to add ability that wasn't there before [which is a good thing, but can be frustrating if you have multiple systems to upgrade, as I do]).

Kodak apparently wanted to have only one package throughout the world. You get the charger/AC adapter with the camera, but you also get cables for the charger for a wide range of international plugs (5 in all). Quick Start Guides in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, and Japanese come along with an English manual (foreign versions of which are on the CD). Yes, the camera itself supports all those languages, too. You get one battery, the IEEE-1394 cable, neck strap and hand strap. And if you look hard enough, you'll even find the N80 viewfinder eye cap somewhere down in the bowels of the boxes.

Curiously, I haven't seen anyone really mention a few anomalies between the manual and the camera. For example, there's cryptic mention of GPS in the manual. The port marked "Test" on the side of the camera is actually a serial port and the Pro 14n supports NMEA-standard GPS devices at 4800 baud, much like the D1h and D1x do. My upcoming book will have the pinouts you need to hook up Magellan and Garmin units.

Handling

There's plenty of good news and a bit of bad. Let's get the bad out of the way first.

This is a big camera. Pamela Anderson has had less extra mass added than the Pro 14n adds to an N80. Weighing in at 2 pounds (907g), that's almost 14 ounces of extra bulk over the N80. So much so, that I felt like I had lost weight when I first picked up the 14n body. And that extra mass is distributed, well, in unflattering ways. The "Leno Chin" on the front bottom of the camera gets in the way of a few lenses, tripod collars, and other accessories, for no apparent reason. The 85mm PC-Nikkor is probably the most notorious problem, but the chin can be a nuisance with regular lenses, too. For example, if you hold the 17-35mm AF-S the way I learned to hold lenses (hand under the lens), you feel a bit pinched for space when using the zoom collar (perhaps folk with large hands might feel differently, but the point stands: if you have a lens zoom or focus ring close to the mount, the lip forces your hand further forward than you'd like).

But other bulges get in the way, too. The right hand grip sticks further out front than the N80 (or D100 or S2 Pro). Again, small hands may find this problematic, though the finger notch is very nicely positioned and helps you grip the grip. One problem with the increased girth of the front grip is that the Depth of Preview button is a long reach for short fingers.

The Pro 14n also has a beer back (like a beer belly, only on the other side). The color LCD and buttons around it all stick out further than the eyepiece. I measure this back bulge at 1 cm beyond the eyepiece (about half that with the rubber eyepiece in place). That's not a trivial hump. Moreover, the entire back below the viewfinder sticks out at least this far (the bottom adds another half centimeter and makes it difficult to move the direction pad lock lever). The net result is that if you've got a big nose, expect it to hit the color LCD before your eye gets to the rubber eyepiece. What usually happens is that the photographer goes into "cheek kiss" mode: they turn their head sideways to clear the beer back, as if they were letting the camera give them a kiss on the cheek. If you don't wear glasses, you won't like this shooting position. Those of us who wear glasses are used to being forced back from the viewfinder, though, and I don't find the shooting position bad, just a bit awkward.

The final handling problem is inherited directly from the N80: the exposure compensation button is in the wrong spot. It should be the right hand button behind the shutter release, but the 14n joins the Fujifilm S2 Pro and the Nikon N80 as the only Nikon bodies with the exposure compensation button as the left handbutton behind the shutter release. Not an issue if you only use those bodies, but definitely an issue if you switch between many Nikon bodies, as I do.

With the bad out of the way, we can start down the "good" list. And that list is long and includes things that other camera manufacturers should copy.

Those of you who like to hold cameras with one hand will love the Pro 14n (as long as it's the right hand we're talking about). Besides the nice finger notch on the front grip, we have a well designed (and padded!) thumb notch on the back. Couple that with the supplied hand strap, and this is a photojournalist's dream (too bad about the noise performance at high ISOs, though, as that pretty makes the dream go "poof").

The PC sync socket is in a nice location and doesn't get in the way of hand holding the camera with something plugged into it. I'm less convinced of the AC adapter position, which forces the cord to hit the lower palm of my left hand. At least you get the AC capability included with the camera, not an add-on cost as with the Nikons.

CompactFlash and SD/MMC card slots live at the bottom back of the camera behind a simple door. There's plenty of finger room to grab the edge of a CF card and pull it out, thanks to a thoughtful tab on the door.

I would have liked the four-way direction pad a little higher on the body back than it's position (you have to move your thumb out of the thumb notch to get to it), but this pad is much better than the ones on the D100 or S2 Pro. Better still, the plethora of buttons to support the digital features totals only eight on the Pro 14n, and you're really only going to use three or four of those most of the time. Which brings us to one of the Pro 14n's better features: the software design is pretty darned good, and flexible. I'd quibble about a few things (such as the CF Card menu entry being both where you find selections to both let you pick the image file format and format the card), but once you learn the basic navigation (10 seconds, tops), you're home free. One really nice aspect is that anything that you can get to via menus you can assign to a "hot key," making one-button specialized menu access possible. If you've ever scrolled through the 30+ custom settings on a Nikon D1x looking for the one you want and use most, you'll know why that's important. If you don't know why, you haven't shot enough digital yet.

Part of the reason the software design is so good is that the second LCD on the back (below the color LCD) is used to present text descriptions of what it is your current selection means. Nice. For example, scroll down to Long Exposure and you get "Optimizes image quality for exposure times > 1/2 second." Scroll over to Enabled and you see "Enables Long Exposure image quality optimization." Clear enough. Where this facility really starts to shine is with the Custom Settings. Not only do you have the pretty clear menu choices, but there's no guessing as to what certain things mean. For example, Focus Area Light can be set to Auto, Off, or On. What's the difference between Auto and Off? "Displays AF brackets in low light" and "AF bracket lights always displayed." If you can read, you can figure out the custom settings without a manual or cheat sheet. Hallelujah!

The histogram function is also very nicely implemented. If you can't read this histogram, there's something wrong. Moreover, with ERI enabled (more on that in Performance, below), you can clearly see whether or not ERI is the only thing saving your butt with highlights. The histogram supposedly has tick marks for EV steps, but I find Kodak's markings a bit optimistic: the histogram is telling me on most shots that I have 8 stops of dynamic range plus ERI. No, not quite, especially once we consider noise levels. Still, it is a good tool for judging how much to raise or lower exposure (if the tick marks indicate you have a stop of headroom at the highlights, then if you set +1EV exposure compensation you'll find your highlights right against the ceiling).

White balance is a snap, especially if you have a neutral object handy. Take the picture, select the Click Balance option in the menus, and the picture is color balanced. You can save that Click Balance (and many others, should you need multiple custom settings) and apply it to subsequent images. This is one heck of a lot easier than some Custom White Balance routines (the cryptic D100 white balance routine comes to mind).

Navigating amongst folders, images, and even within an image is pretty straightforward once you learn how the buttons interact. If you use Kodak's Photo Desk, you can even build "jobs" and assign images to jobs, as I noted earlier, a very nice workflow touch. Unlike the restrictive options of the Nikon bodies, you can actually name folders on the Pro 14n. Sure, you only get five characters, but it's still better than nothing.

Updating the camera's software is also simple, yet another nice feature. Put the update file in the root directory of a CompactFlash card, select Update on the camera's menus, and follow the instructions (which basically consist of pressing the OK button to acknowledge that you want to do this). When the camera resets, you're ready to shoot with the new software.

It appears, too, that Kodak did a good job in making the in-camera software extensible and changeable. As new firmware updates have appeared (we're on the sixth such update already), features have moved around, gotten extensions, been reworded, and just about anything else you might expect from a flexible code base. (This has the one drawback of making the manual not match the camera, though.) In all, a very nice job on the software design and flexibility, one that no other digital SLR comes close to matching.

Performance

Performance boils down to a few things: autofocus speed, battery life, motor drive performance, and image quality. I'll tack on one other: start-up speed.

The bad news is that you can't just flick the power switch to ON and shoot immediately. Like me waking from a nap, it's best not to prod it when the 14n is first turned on. We're only talking about a few seconds here, but compared to the Nikon digital bodies (or even the Fujifilm bodies), the Pro 14n is just a grumpy waker.

This leads one to leave the camera on, but then we get to another slight issue: the camera's electronics are always on and using power if the camera is left on, so you get less battery life (measured in shots per charge) when you do this (the SLR/n partially fixed this, by the way). The batteries are light, charge fast, and have decent performance if you're constantly shooting, so it's not all bad news. With those 14-megapixel files you're going to be changing CompactFlash cards a heck of a lot more than you are batteries, anyway, so I just don't see this as a big issue. If you want a DSLR that can shoot all day on one battery and one card, get a D70 and shoot one of the smaller JPEG sizes on a 4GB card. If you want lots of resolution like the Pro 14n provides, then get ready to card swap (shooting RAW+JPEG gives you 23 images on a 512MB card; you'll swap that card at least 10 times before you change batteries if you're shooting constantly).

Okay, so how is the battery performance, you ask? (Darn, I thought I was finessing the question in the last paragraph.) Well, it's not as bad as some make it out to be. The problem, of course, is that there are so many variations in shooting style, tempo, and options use that everyone will get somewhat different results. But here's some empirical evidence for you: I put a new card into the camera and formatted it. Then I placed the camera on Intervalometer and had it take 3.4MP JPEG images at 10 second intervals. While there was no autofocusing going on (static shot), I did leave the camera set so that the color LCD was on during all but the shooting period. Thus, this is a maximum drain situation: camera always active, color LCD on more than 80% of the time, and constant image processing and card writing. I ran the trial three times with two different batteries (six times total). The fewest number of images I got on a battery charge was 450. The highest count was 462 (the difference could be explained by me getting more efficient in the setup and by one battery being better conditioned at the time of the tests). That's not bad, actually. But, as with many things with this camera, there is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on: more than half of those pictures were taken with the battery indicator showing low.

Autofocus is the old N80 story: great if you restrict yourself to the central sensor in low light. In bright light, all five sensors function adequately. But do yourself a favor and cancel Closest Subject Priority in Single Servo AF right from the get-go. You'll be glad you did. If you have to ask why, go read my other Nikon body reviews or one of my books on a Nikon body that supports this feature.

Motor drive performance gives you a bit less than 2 frames per second for about four seconds before you hit the buffer wall on the basic camera (longer on a body with the extended buffer). Obviously, this is not a sports camera (the add-on buffer really doesn't fix the problem, as the 1.7 fps speed just isn't up to the task for sports).

One thing caught me by surprise: the gridlines in the viewfinder are misaligned to the sensor (or is it vice versa) by a little over 1 degree. If I align a horizon to the gridlines, it'll be downhill right in the image every time. Kind of makes the point of gridlines pointless, doesn't it?

So the only thing left to talk about is what you've been waiting for all along: image quality. Do all those extra megapixels shine or suck?

Welcome to the home of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Come right in and make yourself comfortable. Would you like a drink or a snack whilst we discuss the matter at hand. No? Okay, but should you decide you need one as I run on about this subject, feel free to help yourself.

Oh my, where to begin?

As I write this, the Pro 14n is on the sixth iteration of its firmware (4.0.0, 4.0.2, 4.1.2 [which is what most other reviewers used], 4.2.2, 4.2.3, and 4.3.1). [There have been several additional iterations since I wrote this review.] Some of these revisions were just to add features that were incomplete when the camera was shipped (since that still applies, we know there will be more updates). A few included image quality "fixes." In particular, the latest version of the camera firmware and Photo Desk seem to address the blotch problem and the color saturation. Unfortunately, Kodak's descriptions of changes tend to be vague (e.g., "Improved in-camera JPG color...").

Thus, with all these changes we have a moving target. So take what I write as applying to version 4.3.1 of the camera software or later. I continue to play with processing images, and I find I'm still learning nuances of making 14n images better; some image samples and commentary follow this section.

Noise first: it's there, and it's a problem at long shutter speeds or high ISO values. And by "high ISO value" I pretty much mean anything over the base ISO. In very low, unbalanced lighting (incandescent produces very little blue spectrum), noise can be such a problem that it is easily seen on the color LCD when reviewing a picture! I actually think that Kodak may have made a design error that they might want to reassess. Noise most certainly lives in the shadows of any digital camera. But Kodak appears to be shooting for a very wide dynamic exposure range, wider than the other cameras currently produce, and this almost guarantees that they are going to push the noise into the visible range in many cases. On one of my early image experiments, I tried the Digital Velvia action that I included with issue #4 of my Nikon Digital SLR Report and, what the, a bunch of noise disappeared! Hmm. This led me to a long, close examination of a number of Pro 14n files. Noise isn't a problem in the highlights. Noise generally isn't a problem in the mid-tones. Indeed, it isn't usually a problem in shadows in well exposed images at the base ISO. But as you move to higher ISO values, use longer shutter speeds, or underexpose slightly, if you look down into the shadows, there it is. Blacks just don't register as blacks, but as black-a-dots. So I find myself doing the opposite with Pro 14n images than what I usually do with, say, D1x images. With a D1x, I'm always exposing to give the highlights some headroom and then pulling the low and mid-tones up with a Curve. With the Pro 14n, I'm exposing the highlights more aggressively and pulling down the deep shadows with a Curve. Interesting. Note that I'm not always doing this. When the dynamic range of the scene fits nicely into the range of the camera and I expose properly at the base ISO, I don't see any serious noise until I get beyond 1/2 second exposures, and even then it's usually manageable.

Now it very well may be that the Pro 14n was designed with studio photographers in mind. Heck, one of the styles in fashion these days is high-key lighting, which has very little deep shadow. The Pro 14n nails that type of exposure with no sign of noise and pretty darned good highlight rendering. (The Nikon DSLRs have problems with this type of shot--they tend to lose highlight detail if you push the exposure too much, so you end up having to really pump up the fill in the shadows to get the look.) But the design poses a more serious problem to a nature and scenic photographer like me. I find myself more often than not shooting in either low light or with very distinct shadow areas in very high contrast scenes. With the Pro 14n I've had to rethink my approach to contrast control in the field. I'm now less aggressive with the graduated neutral density filters and more aggressive with the fill flash. Still, I run into the second noise issue: long shutter speeds.

Curiously, FillFactory boasts of their CMOS design's abilities in dealing with this issue (Fill Factor is a term used to describe how well the photosite handles holding onto light photons and keeps them from spilling into adjacent wells). I'm not seeing it. The camera does just fine down to about 1/4 second, below which point you can see extra noise starting to "leak into" the pixels. The Pro 14n attempts to deal with this by applying some sort of dark current type noise reduction at 1/2 second (if you enable this function), but this does not produce the silky black we see from the Canon 10D or even the Nikon D100. If you're thinking of photographing star trails with this camera, forget it. On July 4th I shot fireworks with a Pro 14n and a Fujifilm S2 Pro side by side. The Fujifilm's night sky is perfectly smooth and black, despite 20 second exposures; the Pro 14n's sky got dotted with noise the minute I went beyond 1/2 second. You'll see less noise by sticking your nose up close to a painting done by one of the famous Pointillists. This, actually, is the most annoying image quality trait of the Pro 14n: if you shoot at long shutter speeds, you get difficult-to-remove and obvious noise. Keep the shutter speed in the "daylight" range and it goes away (except deep in the shadows, which can be controlled and/or hidden). [Kodak has addressed some of this with recent firmware updates--the new low ISO values allow for very long exposures with better noise tendencies, though still not perfect.]

Now many of you are probably thinking at this point "well, that pretty well bullocks it, then, don't it?" Not necessarily. The thing is, the Pro 14n has pixels to spare for most uses. At the full 4500 x 3000 resolution we're talking about handing an Epson 2200 enough pixels to print beyond it's largest print size. A little bit of dot gain, a rise of the black level to 20, and a matte paper and, hmm, the noise is impossible to see at viewing distances. Yes, it's still there. Yes, if you get your nose up to the print you might see it. But frankly, I rarely put my nose against a 11x17" print these days (my belly hits the wall too soon, and I can't quite get that close). Moreover, the character of the Pro 14n noise is a bit different than what I see in other cameras. At least at the base ISO, when noise shows up, it shows up like grain, not the colored mosaic fringing I typically see in other digital bodies. Thus, some amount of noise is sometimes tolerable on the Pro 14n, just as some amount of grain is often tolerable with film.

There's another interaction going on here, too: even with no sharpening Pro 14n images have a lot of detail in them. There's no anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor on the Pro 14n as there is on most other digital SLRs. Those filters are what force us to run aggressive Unsharp Masks on our photos (to get back the edges the anti-aliasing filters blurred). Thus, shooting with a Pro 14n you don't tend to sharpen up the image as you do with other cameras, though you still tend to sharpen a bit due to the digital nature of the beast. And thus you don't push that noise forward. Indeed, I think, but am not yet sure, that there are actually post processing techniques that help here. I've been experimenting with initially blurring Pro 14n images instead of sharpening them. (An aside: I think Kodak's noise reduction technique in Photo Desk must have been doing something along these lines: if you first run a Median filter or other blur tool on an image and then sharpen it, you tend to get that sharp-but-blotchy effect the original Kodak software produced.) The trick is to find the right balance and type of manipulation, and that's something I haven't quite yet nailed down. The closest I've come to something I like is sort of the opposite of the Edge Sharpening technique (see Sharpening 101). In short: find and select the edges, invert the selection, and blur. Of course the trick here is distinguishing between edges and noise, which is no small feat.

One thing that is a concern with the Pro 14n is high contrast edges. If you have a dark tree limb against a bright sky, for example, there's a slight tendency for the camera to produce a bit of colored (purple) fringe at the boundary. This problem isn't as bad as I first feared it would be, but it is a problem.

With JPEGs and the default camera settings, the color is relatively accurate, though I've noticed a few minor drifts and saturation isn't always exactly where I'd like it to be. When you run images through Photo Desk, you get a number of "looks" by which you can process the image. None of the supplied looks are perfectly accurate for my work, and several definitely reduce color saturation a bit. Others pump up the color. Many seem to show slight cyan shifts in the skies and a slight magenta shifts in trees/leaves, though neutral colors seem to stay neutral (i.e., whites don't drift cyan/magenta). But, then again, these looks are labeled with things like "Product," "Portrait," and "Wedding," and I'm out taking pictures of landscapes. Perhaps when I get a chance to play with them more I'll be able to speak with greater certainly about the relative merits of the various looks. But for the moment, I need more experience with a wider variety of images before I can do that. I will say that the Pro 14n seems to get violet and purple flowers slightly more accurate than I've been able to get out of the Nikon bodies. Indeed, my one nemosis with the D1x has been getting violet right (without everything else going bonkers). This afternoon I was shooting fields of small purple flowers, and the Pro 14n came close to getting the color right, though still not perfect (at least through any of the looks that I can apply via Photo Desk at the moment).

Getting white balance right on this camera is a snap, so there's really no excuse not to get good starting color. I don't see much harm in the color rendering as it comes from the camera. I know other's have reported color shifts, especially in the reds, but I've yet to see that in the pictures I've taken to date (admittedly not a great number yet). One thing that I'm going to have to investigate more thoroughly are the Kelvin numbers that Photo Desk is reporting. In almost every case, the number Photo Desk is reporting is lower than I'd expect. I haven't yet had a chance to run a color meter against these numbers, but they seem low to me. For example, at noon today I shot several images in sunlight. Click balanced, Photo Desk is telling me the color temperature was 4800K. Based upon my experience as a videographer, I'd have guessed it to be substantively over 5000K, maybe even the 5500K average for noontime sun in these parts. My Nikon tells me that the white balance was 5600K. That's an odd discrepancy.

Finally, the Pro 14n offers a 6mp output in addition to the 14mp. While others have touted this ability and proclaim the output excellent (and I'll admit I want this option left in the camera), let's put this in perspective. Yes, when you shoot at 6mp on the Pro 14n you end up with better overall noise characteristics than at 14mp. But if you wanted to shoot at 6mp in the first place, why didn't you just buy a D100? And the lack of an anti-aliasing filter means that you have to watch very carefully for moire.

So what am I to conclude from all this? Well:

  • Hope that the software keeps improving. If Kodak could make another improvement as big as the one that came with the 4.3.1 firmware, this camera would be dead on competitive with anything, including medium format digital backs, in moderate and bright light. [They did with the 5.x.x versions. And for the most part I was right. Still, the camera works better in bright light than dark.]
  • Put it away at night. The low light capabilities just aren't there. If you regularly shoot at 1/2 second shutter speeds and slower, this is not the camera for you today, and may never be. [The 5.x.x firmware has helped some, but not enough to make the Pro 14n a camera I use at night.]
  • Learn the tools. With the right settings and post processing, this camera can indeed produce stunning full-sized images out of an Epson 2200. Few of us need more resolution than that. But you may find that to do this, you need to do it Kodak's way, not the way we've been doing it with other DSLRs. Everything you learned about Unsharp Masking will need to be relearned, for example, and the Curves and other processing you apply will be different with when you use this camera. [I'll admit that improvement in my post processing skills with Photo Desk and Photoshop CS have improved my finished Pro 14n images. But not everyone can spend the time working the nuances of post processing every image.]

Image Samples

What follows is a pass at trying to point out some of the characteristics of the Kodak Pro 14n's image quality.

Let's start with a full frame of the image we're going to be examining. I picked this particular image for a couple of reasons, but the primary one being that it has an enormous dynamic range, which the Pro 14n (barely) held, and the wide range of saturated color and neutral areas. With my D1x, for example, my choice in exposure would be to let the sky and white stripes blow out completely or the brass plaques lose all detail in the shadows. And while it looks as if there's plenty of light, I used ND filters to get down to 1/4 second with this exposure (at ISO 80) in order to test noise. Overall, color is punchy, dynamic range is wide, detail is good, and noise well under control. But let's examine each of those assertions individually.

 


Let's begin with the level of detail the camera can capture. The top is an unsharpened sample at 100% from the left edge. The bottom is the same area sharpened. Either way there's no denying that this camera produces enormous detail. One would think that we'd see color moire here if it were a real problem, but there's very little (the worst is in the "N" in Chapman). In actual prints, this level of color fringing just can't be seen.

There is a slight falseness to the smallest detail, something that is better with the current software than it was with previous versions, but it's still there. Some have described it as a plastic look, I tend to call it a slight flattening of detail. I have not tried to reduce or hide it in this example--generally you can do better than this by not using PhotoDesk's sharpening. Note: diffraction can be an issue, too, and add to the faux look of edges. Avoid apertures above f/11 if you want the full acuity the Kodak cameras are capable of.
One thing the Pro 14n was criticized for early was it's color fidelity. But I just don't see that problem. Here's a 100% crop (no sharpening) from the lower right corner. I've yet to see any other digital body hold neutral (gray), saturated red, and violet at the same time. On my D1x, the violet goes a bit blue if the red saturation is correct, for example.

One common problem of the Pro 14n, however, is that very high contrast edges tend to pick up a purple "bloom." Note that the width of this bloom decreases substantially once it is gray granite against green foliage. This is the one image fault of the Pro 14n that bothers me, actually. On straight edges like this, it's easy to remove, but on complex edges it can be quite dicey to get rid of.

 


Most of you want to know about noise, since that was the primary fault attributed to the camera. Well, here's a spot where it should show up (remember, this is a 1/4 second image, at ISO 80). Moreover, I've turned noise reduction off in PhotoDesk in this image. The top is a 100% crop at the levels the camera produced. Since noise often rears up when you adjust curves, the bottom crop is done with a very aggressive Curve. Yes, there's a wee bit of noise there, but nothing more than I'd expect with the D1x in the same situation. Moreover, I like the character of this noise a bit better. Still, this is unsharpened, so I do find that I often have to run my images through Neat Image to denoise them prior to sharpening, especially if I'm using long exposures or high ISO values.

(Yes, there's just a bit of chromatic aberration in this example, which I haven't made any attempt to remove.)

Drawbacks

  • Noise. When it's there, it can be bad. If you need high ISO values or long shutter speeds, this isn't your tool.
  • Changing Target. The software never seems to get done, and each little increment means you have to pay attention to the changes and perhaps learn new tricks.
  • Expensive. You're paying a premium over a D100 to get more megapixels and full frame. That better be what you need. (Some would say that the Pro 14n is less expensive than the Canon 1Ds, the other high resolution, full frame DSLR. True, but I see that as a flaw of the 1Ds, not a virtue of the Pro 14n; once cameras get into the price range of high quality used cars, we demand more).
  • Handling Quibbles. The bulges annoy, the lithium battery could last longer, the startup time could be shorter, and the viewfinder could actually show me the full frame, not 92%.

Positives

  • Megapixels, baby! You'll be downsizing your output to get 8x10 prints! The Pro 14n had the highest resolution of any DSLR when it was introduced.
  • Full Frame. Wide angle is back. So are fisheyes. What you learned in framing, focus, and perspective with 35mm cameras applies perfectly.
  • It's a tank. I can't complain about the body build. Robust.
  • Handling Pluses. Nicely designed software with excellent menuing and help. Easy software updates. Exposure lock. A nice hand strap. Lots of little things that other camera companies should notice and fix on their offerings.
 
Quick Evaluation


Recommended with qualifications
; in bright light with the new software and at the base ISO value, this camera produces state-of-the-art DSLR images. Low-light or high ISO users will be less impressed, but can still produce decent images. Be sure to read the caveats, below.

features
performance
build
value

Competitors to consider: the Canon 1Ds, if you don't mind a second mortgage. Nikon D2x.

Update: August 23, 2003
Update: 1/14/05
Update: 8/15/07


Table of Contents
Caveats

Things to Watch Out For
The 14n isn't the perfect camera for everyone. Here are the primary caveats to be aware of:

  • Noise goes up with ISOAt just about anything higher than the base ISO value, it isn't too difficult to see the noise build-up. I happen to like the "quality" of the noise, as compared to other DSLRs, but if you want noise-free images you need to stay at the base ISO. Available light shooters beware.
  • Long exposures get iffy As you get beyond 1/2 second you'll start to see changes in the images. The noise reduction feature, if turned on, helps, but doesn't eradicate long exposure noise. Moreover, remember this is an N80-based shutter; at anything less than 1/15 mirror slap can also get in the way. In short, not my camera of choice for long exposure work, though passible. (Note: Kodak has addressed both these issues thru firmware updates, with decent success).
  • The Leno chin gets in the way. The lower front of this body has a chin that make's Leno's look dainty. I don't know if an 85mm PC lens could be used on Leno, but it won't work on the 14n without using a tube and losing infinity focus. You also might not like what the chin does to the usual handholding position.
  • Not quite at-your-ready. If you turn the camera off when you're not shooting to conserve battery life, you'll hit the slow wake-up time issue, especially if the temperature has changed and you also trigger the dreaded calibration routine.
  • Nikon D-TTL lives on. D-TTL pretty much rules out multiple TTL flash use, though it isn't as unreliable in exposure as some seem to think. The big issue is that it pre-flashes, which causes premature (and unsyncronized) release of slave lights. See my Wireless TTL article.

That may seem like a lot of caveats for a US$4995 DSLR. Indeed. Yet, this is not a camera to be dismissed lightly, as some have done. If were a studio shooter or used multiple light rigs on location (those infamous prom photos), none of these caveats would really apply, and I'd be loving the images and workflow.

 

Will There Be a Complete Guide book for the Pro 14n?
No. With three Nikon variants of the camera on the market (Pro 14n, Pro 14nx, SLR/n), I needed tactical support from Kodak in order to do justice to the three and run side-by-side comparisons. I didn't get it.


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