Updated: Sept 22, 2003

  Nikon D100

The affordable Nikon digital SLR. In some ways, it's better than the D1 series.

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The 2002 PMA (Photo Marketing Association) trade show was a dream come true for many photographers. Four camera manufacturers announced high quality, modest cost digital SLRs (Canon D60, Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro, Sigma SD-9, and the Nikon D100). The digital world was suddenly abuzz. Would these manufacturers really sell 6-megapixel SLRs at US$2000? Could the CCDs in these cameras leapfrog over the existing king of the hill, the D1x? Would they really appear before summer 2002?

The answer to those questions were yes, mostly, and yes. But there are plenty of other questions to be asked and answered, and this review will try to address them.

[Update: Canon has since introduced the 10D to replace the D60. The 10D has a street price of $1499. Nikon lowered the price of the D100 so that it's street price is typically $1699 (and can be lower if you buy lenses with rebates on them at the same time as a body). Fujifilm lowered the price of the S2 Pro so that it streets at around $1795. And Sigma, not to be outdone in the repricing scheme, now has the SD-9 priced so that it appears for about $1399 including two lenses. From a quality standpoint, of course, nothing has fundamentally changed. Indeed, the fall 2003 introduction of the Canon Digital Rebel (D300) means that the image quality produced by these cameras can now be found at an even lower price, though body build is less robust and a number of advanced features were dropped. In short, prosumer digital SLRs have gotten much more affordable since the hubbub at the 2002 PMA show.]

 

Side by side, from the front, the D100 and the N80 look nearly identical, with only the extra bulk at the bottom of the camera to give the D100 away (well, the model number is an important clue, too ;~). And yes, you do get a real body cap with the D100.


Nikon caused a great deal of confusion when they kept denying that the D100 was based upon the N80 at PMA. "It uses the magnesium alloy chassis of the F100," they kept saying, as if that made all the difference in the world. Virtually all of the components in the camera come from the N80 parts bin, with the only visible exceptions being the Coolpix-like autofocus sensor pad and a few reworked parts, such as the Mode dial. Inside, the situation is similar: aside from the F100-derived chassis, virtually all the critical components are from the N80.

Indeed, from the front, the only thing to distinguish a D100 from an N80 is the extra bulk at the bottom of the camera and the stenciled model number. The body itself, however, on close examination deviates quite a bit in very subtle ways from the N80: the flash head is a little longer (as is the viewfinder prism underneath it); the depth of the body is slightly enlarged and not quite as flat as the N80; the Mode dial has changed shape and the items that appear on it; the list of changes trickles on, and on, and on. The LCD on the top panel is larger, and contains more information. The contours have been subtly reshaped, with some buttons moved and changed in size. The autofocus direction pad is small and stiff compared to the one on the N80.

Regardless, the primary DNA comes from the N80. The shutter is the N80's, the viewfinder technology is the N80's, the autofocus and metering system is the N80's, the control interface is mostly the N80's (with some modest changes we'll get to), the internal flash is the N80's. The general build quality falls somewhere between the N80 and F100, though I'd place it closer to the N80 than the F100.

The primary things the D100 sacrifices over the D1 models are:

  • The D100 has a 1/180 sync speed compared to the D1's 1/500. (The D2h lowered this back to 1/250.)
  • The D100 has a 10-sensor matrix meter instead of the D1’s 1005-element color matrix meter.
  • The vertical release, extended grip, and 10-pin remote connector are an option (MB-D100) on the D100.
  • The D100’s top frame rate is a claimed 3 fps compared to the D1h’s 5 fps. (The D2h now reaches 8 fps.)
  • The D100's buffer is smaller (7 frames max compared to the D1x's 9/25 frames or the D1h's 40 frames).
  • The D1 has a self-monitoring shutter (and uses all-electronic shutter for speeds above 1/250), the D100 doesn’t.
  • The D1 uses IEEE 1394 (Firewire) for computer connection, the D100 uses the much slower USB 1.1. (The D2h uses USB 2.0.)
  • The D1 has a nicer body texture, a better build quality, and (I think) better sealing. Example: the CompactFlash card door lock on the D1, the flimsier and loosely spring-loaded door on the D100.
  • The D100 does not have a built-in eyepiece shutter (to keep extraneous light out when you’re not looking through the viewfinder). Instead, it comes with a small plastic accessory that is easily misplaced.
  • The D1 can meter with AI and AI-S lenses, the D100 can't.

Advantages of the D100 over the D1 are:

  • The D100 weighs only 25 ounces, compared to 2.5 pounds for the D1x. (Those are the weights sans batteries, which further distorts the difference.)
  • The D100 uses a small, light lithium battery; the D1's use a large, heavier Nimh battery. (The D2h uses batteries similar to the D100's.) The D100 also has an optional extension (MB-D100) that takes six AA batteries; the D1 models do not have this option.
  • The D100 has white balance bracketing, the D1's don't (though they have more flexible exposure bracketing).
  • The D100 has a built in, low-power (59 GN [at ISO 200 in feet], 18 GN [at ISO 200 in meters] flash. The D1's can only use external flash units, though they have a built-in PC Sync socket.
  • The D100 has the N80's on-demand grid lines in the viewfinder; this is an extra cost option on the D1 models.

Minor things that are different on the two cameras:

  • The D1 has a secondary LCD display, which shows things like the ISO value and white balance setting. The D100 crams all this into the top LCD.
  • The Dynamic AF control is on the back of the D1 along with an AF sensor lock; the control is on the Mode dial of the D100 and it’s not as convenient to change from single area to dynamic AF.

It's clear that Nikon has learned a few things along the way, though. (The D100 is Nikon's sixth DSLR design.) There are some very nice subtle touches that will probably not be appreciated until you use the camera for awhile.

Table of Contents

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Canon or Nikon?
Many folk considering the Nikon D100 are also either considering the Fujifilm S2 Pro or the Canon 10D. These DSLR bodies are all in the same basic price range and have mostly overlapping feature set. Image quality differs a bit between the three, though in most users hands, that wouldn't be noticeable, especially if you never printed beyond the size that the desktop inkjets are capable of. I regularly produce excellent 13x17" pictures from my D100 that are virtually indistinguishable from much more expensive cameras (or film).

If you already have Nikon lenses, the D100 (or S2 Pro) is the obvious choice, therefore.

But if you don't yet have any investment in lenses and accessories, I usually suggest a different approach. the Canon and Nikon bodies have quite different user interfaces, so I generally recommend that you try them both in a store and choose the one that seems more comfortable and intuitive to you. This approach has a bit of pot luck to it, though, as many salespeople you encounter simply can't enumerate the main controls of each and point out the primary differences.

I'm overly generalizing here, but the Nikon approach is what I call button-and-dial. Press a button and spin one of the dials (front or back) and something gets changed. The approach is direct and easily learned. Canon tends to use an interface technique called "overloading"; one button may have multiple functions depending upon which dial you turn or what the camera is currently doing. Some photographers swear that the Canon approach means you can change settings faster, but I personally haven't found that to be the case. Still, one of the two approaches will tend to appeal to you more than the other, as will the button and dial locations. That's probably the body you should pick.

 

The Basics

The D100 has a feature set that sounds a bit like the D1 (or any other serious digital or film SLR, for that matter). Indeed, most of its "camera" features are derived from either the N80 or the D1 bodies. In physical size and appearance, the D100 closely resembles the N80, though careful observation shows that virtually every little curve and button has been tweaked.

The autofocus system is fast (especially on central subjects), 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, though the camera doesn't shoot at that speed! Nikon should have restated this into ISO 200 values if the ISO rating makes a difference). 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, you're not likely to encounter that limit.

Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/3 stop or 1/2 increments from 30 seconds to 1/4000. All shutter speeds are handled mechanically on the D100. Indeed, the shutter sounds pretty much like the N80's in action. Single shot and continuous firing at 3 fps is supported, though I have not found any condition that allows my D100 to achieve the stated maximum frame rate. The best I've been able to obtain is a wee bit over 2 fps. And it's relatively easy to (inadvertently) turn on features that would make motor drive even more leisurely in pace.

Unlike the D1, the D100 manages matrix metering the old-fashioned way, with a 10-segment metering pattern. Likewise, the white balance is not set by a CCD in the viewfinder, but from data from the main imaging sensor during exposure. This results in a more complex and confusing Preset white balance procedure (though Nikon has made it more complicated than it need be).

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 and sees outside the CCD frame size, making it not overly useful.)

As befitting a serious camera, Nikon keeps the mode selection simple: 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 +/- 5-stop range in 1/3-stop or 1/2-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at one-third, two-thirds, or half-stop values. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls (though this takes some reading of the custom functions to understand completely). ISO values from 200 to 1600 in one-third stops can be set directly, plus 3200 and 6400 equivalents can be set (random noise patterns are easily detected at ISO 3200 and 6400, but if it's the difference between getting the shot or not...).

Flash sync works to 1/180 of second. Flash metering uses five TTL sensors and can be balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear shutter 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 [also the SB-800, though the D100 can't use any of the SB-800's new i-TTL features]. 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 D100'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. (Some readers have asked why Nikon can't adjust the reflectivity measurements to match what comes off the CCD. I suspect the problem is the way Nikon designed the filter array and CCD frame. Since Fuji allows during exposure TTL measurements on the FinePix S1 and S2 Pro, it isn't impossible; it's only something that Nikon specifically did that caused the change. Pity.)

It's important for those migrating from Nikon 35mm SLRs to the D100 to understand the operational differences in the flash system. With a DX-type flash on the D100, the camera performs the same matrix and pre-flash adjustments as, say, an F5. However, the D100 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 D100 in the same situation, I've had troubles I didn't have with the film bodies (or the 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.

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 also supports advanced TTL modes (as well as full-power Manual flash). When set correctly and mounted on a D100, 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 95% of the full frame, which means you're not seeing between 50 and 75 pixels worth of information at every edge. Shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering method, focus indicators, exposure compensation, flash ready, and frame counter 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 often recover shadow detail that blocks up, but blown highlights are obnoxious to the eye and not easily fixable). One thing Coolpix users will complain about when they switch to a D100 is that the color LCD on the back doesn't display a preview of image before you take the shot (the D100's CCD is blocked by a shutter curtain and mirror, after all). Frankly, I don't find this to be a drawback at all, and a bit of a plus (the power-hungry color LCD is only on when you're reviewing pictures or making camera adjustments). The regular viewfinder is just fine for determining composition and focus, though the image is a bit smaller and darker than the N80's. On the plus side, the eyepoint is slightly better for eyeglass users.

The D100 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 D100, and a few specific lenses won't work on the D100, usually because they have elements that stick into the mirror box and require mirror lock-up). Non-CPU lenses don't allow metering and must be used in Manual exposure mode. When you mount a lens on the D100, the effective focal length* is increased by about 1.5x (e.g., a 20mm lens shows roughly the same angle of view as a 30mm lens would on a 35mm body; note that the 1.5x is a rounded figure, the actual increase is slightly more). Apertures aren't affected by this change. Because only the central portion of the image circle formed by the lens is used, if you've been making any exposure adjustments at maximum aperture to account for light falloff, you should not do that on a D100. The field of view change has several good points, and a couple of bad ones:

  • Free teleconverter. Your 300mm f/4 lens now produces the angle of view of a 466mm f/4 lens! Wildlife and bird photographers love the extra "oomph" the D100 gives to their lenses.
  • Better optical quality. The fact that only the central area of the image circle is used means that chromatic aberration is lessened, light falloff is reduced, corners are sharper, and even consumer-oriented lenses (such as the 18-35mm Nikkor) produce professional-looking results.
  • Wide angle options are limited. The widest rectilinear lens made is the 12-24mm DX, which produces basically the same results as a 18-36mm lens when you mount it on a D100. Beyond the 12-24mm, the only other very wide angle option are the 14mm f/2.8 and the upcoming 10.5mm full-frame fisheye. This is adequate, but your choices are limited and there are few third-party options that get you true wide angle.
  • Depth of field judgment isn't quite right. The real key here is that you're likely to blow up the original image area (sensor size) by a greater magnification than you would with 35mm, so you shouldn't use the 35mm standards, despite the fact that it may appear that you should (Nikon doesn't address this issue in their documentation or marketing materials; I do in my book).

The CCD sensor the D100 uses is currently unique to the D100, though it is made by Sony and will probably be made available to other camera manufacturers (it's the rumored sensor in the Pentax digital SLR, for example). It's not one of the Sony-produced megapixel sensors that the majority of consumer digital cameras use, which are physically smaller and have miniscule photosites. The D100 sensor consists of a 3008 x 2000 array, and it has massive (compared to the consumer cameras) 7 micron pixels. That's just one reason why the D100 can produce 12-bit RGB images with rich color and low noise. Like virtually all digital cameras, a filter array is placed over the D100's CCD. This filter has four purposes:

  1. Provides the Bayer pattern. The Bayer pattern is named after the Kodak engineer who invented it. Basically, this is a set of color filters that results in an alternating pattern of RG (on odd-numbered rows) and GB (on even-numbered rows) pixels. The final image is rebuilt by interpolating the actual pixel values at each position.
  2. Filters out infrared. CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, and to keep infrared energy from affecting image quality, most (but not all) of this light is filtered out.
  3. Realigns the light. CCDs don't like light hitting them at any angle other than 90 degrees, so the filter also focuses the light rays from the lens directly into the sensors.
  4. Provides a low-pass anti-aliasing filter. Digital sampling is subject to color fringing (artifacts) when high frequency detail in a scene approachs that of the sensor pitch. [Originally, this review stated that the D100 had a much more agressive anti-aliasing filter than the D1 models. After a lot of close examination of variables, I no longer believe that. The so-called "softness" some people see in the D100 results is almost entirely due to the JPEG rendering engine, not the filter. Yes, the filter is slightly more aggressive than the D1 series, but not enough to make for a the visual difference most people see in JPEGs.]

The D100 produces several different types of files: JPEG, TIFF, and NEF. 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 D100's tonal range in the process. The JPEG engine also softens edges a bit from what you'd get with an unsharpened NEF file. TIFF formats are available to prevent the compression loss, but they, too, produce only 8-bit RGB. The NEF format is the only one that retains the full data the D100 is capable of acquiring. Indeed, the NEF format contains exactly the data that came from the CCD, with no interpolation or camera processing. Unfortunately, you need an extra software program to fully use this format. At least the Photoshop import filter supplied with the camera allows you to do some of the post exposure adjustments users like to do with their NEF files (exposure, white balance, and rotation, in this case). To get the most from NEF files, you need a converter program such as Nikon Capture, though.

In the US, the D100 comes with the required EN-EL3 lithium rechargeable battery pack and the MH-18 quick charger. You'll want at least one extra EN-EL3. Battery life is quite dependent upon a number of factors, and can range from a couple of hundred shots to a thousand. Note that IBM Microdrives use more power than CompactFlash cards, and thus, exhaust the batteries faster. Still, battery life is impressive by any standard of measurement. With a nonvolatile CompactFlash card, I can often shoot all day without worrying about changing batteries; no other Nikon-based DSLR matches that at present [the D2h appears like it might, though].

The camera weighs in at 25 ounces, and that's without a lens or the battery, so it's a lot lighter than the D1, but significantly heavier than the N80.

Handling

The D1 was like a Mack truck compared to consumer digital cameras. The D100, well, maybe rates a heavy duty Dodge RAM pickup level. For the most part, it seems rugged and reliable. The plastic color LCD cover, the autofocus sensor direction pad, and the door over the CompactFlash slot all seem a bit "cheap" relative to the rest of the camera.

While most of the controls fall naturally under my fingers and can be easily found by touch, the overall grip on the body seems a bit, well, unrefined. You only have to pick up the very similar Fuji S2 Pro to see what I mean. The ridge on the CompactFlash door just doesn't "fit" in my hands, as it does on most Nikon bodies. Moreover, the move of the autofocus sensor direction pad (and the change to a small, stiff controller) wasn't a good choice. It seems Nikon moves the controller's location on every new camera body they make, regardless of whether they got it right on the previous one or not.

All camera controls with multiple settings (flash mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, etc.) are set by holding down the appropriate button and rotating one of the knurled command dials. Unlike the D1 models, the unique digital controls aren't as buried on the D100. ISO, image quality and white balance use the Mode dial and command dials, and this seems pretty natural and straightforward.

The color LCD position is less vulnerable to scratching and nose prints than the D1, but it's still vulnerable, what with it's sticking out the backside of the camera. The cheap cover Nikon supplies is easily cracked. Mine cracked within a week of starting to use the camera, even before I took it into the harsh backcountry settings I usually shoot in.

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning. Unlike a film camera, where the photosensitive surface is replaced every image, the CCD just sits there, shot after shot. In dusty and dirty environments, you'll end up with some of that ending up on your CCD (heck, the sealed F5 prism eventually gets dust and grime in it). The question is, what can you do about it? Nikon's manual warns against using anything except a manual blower (the turkey baster type, with the rubber bulb): "under no circumstances should you touch or wipe the filter." [Curiously, Nikon's authorized repair centers use pretty much the same cleaning methods I do, which require you to touch the CCD. A case of "do as my lawyer's say, not as I do."] I'm pretty sure that some of the dust you get on the CCD will not be easily dislodged using the low-power bulb Nikon suggests. Check out my article on CCD cleaning for the best advice to date. Unfortunately, Nikon hasn't really improved the access to the CCD chamber, though it's not quite as tight as the D1. By comparison, the S2 Pro's filter is easily reached, and gives you plenty of room to move swabs off the edge.

My primary handling complaints on the D100 are these:

  1. Too many buttons. The backside of the camera has no fewer than 10 buttons (and three levers and a direction pad). The digital side of the camera is button-fussy compared to the shooting side. Curiously, the S2 Pro also has 10 buttons, but they are much better arranged and simpler to understand in use. I can change many settings and mark images a lot faster on the S2 Pro than on the D100. Many users won't complain about this, as it's not a big thing, but Nikon still hasn't gotten the digital control side perfected.
  2. Custom Settings potpourri. It seems that every new Nikon body has something new about the custom settings that I can complain about. For no apparent reason, the numbers of identical custom settings seem to change from camera to camera. For those of us who use multiple bodies, that is a hassle, as we are madly scrolling through dozens of custom settings to find the one we want, and now we have to read the text to find them. Self-timer should be CSM #16 on every camera! Period. [Actualy, it ought to be CSM #1, since it is something you set often, not irregularly like the others.] Again, the Fuji S2 Pro has a faster and easier way of setting custom settings than the D100. Pressing the down button 13 times to get to the self timer setting is annoying.
  3. A few gremlins. It's not repeatable, but on my camera, sometimes pressing the Menu or Monitor button doesn't work the first time. A second press works. Early versions of the camera (firmware version 1.00) had a particularly bad habit of not performing white balance bracketing when you asked it to (you'd think that something that was trumpeted so loudly by marketing actually would have been tested more thoroughly before shipping--but you can get this fixed by sending your camera back to Nikon for an update).

But to give Nikon credit, they have managed to improve a number of things in handling. For example, the exposure compensation button on the N80 was moved from the position it's been on every other Nikon body. On the D100, it's back where it belongs. (Of course, what Nikon givith, they taketh: the Flash mode button now sits next to the exposure compensation button. These two buttons should always be used for things that you can set while looking through the viewfinder [because their location makes it easy to do by feel], but Flash mode isn't something you can do looking through the viewfinder.)

The menus on the D100 have been rethought a bit and simplified from the D1. There's a bit less scrolling, and there's more consistency about how things are handled. Nikon has correctly figured out that the camera doesn't need a separate playback mode (as on the D1 models), and this, too, is reflected in the menuing system. Overall, a D1 user will find the controls familiar, though not exactly the same.

Finally, Nikon has put a decent rubber cover over the connectors on the left side of the camera. D1 owners are used to their covers popping off, curling up, and generally getting in the way. Of course, whether putting connectors on the left side of the body is the correct place is another question, but at least the cover locks into place and doesn't pop up easily.

 


 

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*By "effective focal length" I don't mean to imply that the focal length itself changes, but that the resulting angle of view produced by the lens/camera combination is equivalent to using a lens of that increased focal length on a full frame body.

 

Exposure

One common complaint I see from new D100 users is that they believe that the camera is underexposing. But compared to any other camera I have available to me, the D100 is setting the same exposures, so it's not the meter that I think is the issue.

What is the issue is the rated sensitivity of the CCD (ISO 200 base) and the regularity of the exposure curve of the CCD. Like the D1 models before it, the D100 tends to bunch up values at the dark end of the spectrum. This is a common problem of CCDs, and has to do with the linearity curve that's applied against the data coming off the ADC. It's nothing that a little bit of Curve manipulation in Photoshop (or something like Fred Miranda's linearity action) can't easily fix. If you have Nikon Capture, you can also come up with your own Custom Curve to change the linearity--samples of that were provided in Issue #4 of my newsletter.

I'm still trying to figure out just how the D1 and D100 compare on overall dynamic range and how shadows and highlights are handled. My preliminary assessment is that both the D1 and D100 have about the same amount of trouble holding highlight detail at the metered exposures, especially if you're shooting JPEG or TIFF (the 12-bit to 8-bit reduction tends to lose all subtlety at the highlight end). But the exposure range is wide enough (especially shooting NEF) that you can adjust for that. I'm tempted to say the D100 has a tougher time holding highlights than the D1, but every time I think I find an example that shows that, I find another that doesn't. What I do like is that if I control exposure to hold the highlights and have to bump up the shadow areas with Photoshop, the D100 usually has less visible noise in the shadows than the D1x. [I have come to the conclusion that the D100 has every so slightly less usable range in the shadows than the D1 series due to noise build-up; but this difference is small and probably beyond the discipline level of most photographers to reproduce regularly.]

The D100's output in general looks less noisy in JPEG shots than the D1 models at the same ISO values. Coupled with the slight softening the JPEG engine tends to add, the camera is fully capable of handling subtle gradations without introducing objectionable noise. Skies look a bit cleaner on the D100 than on my D1x, which is to say, outstanding. With long-exposure noise reduction on, the D100 can also handle very long exposures without throwing in stray hot pixels. I'd be comfortable shooting 10 and 20-second exposures with the D100 that would have me headed for a long cloning session on my D1x (and, of course, the higher ISO value makes this even more impressive). Even longer exposures are still pretty darn good with the D100, though I don't think we've yet reached the level where we can shoot noise-free 2-hour star trail shots with a digital SLR. For NEF images, the D100 is a little less capable than my D1x; I see slight noise issues with the D100 that I don't see with the D1x. These are easily removed with a product such as Neat Image, but do expect to spend a bit more effort with post production of NEF files on the D100 than you would with the D1x to achieve the same noise-free results.

In JPEG files, the D100 seems to be more sensitive to control interaction than the D1 models. For example, if you turn sharpening to high and contrast to high, much of the subtlety of the D100's images is lost (highlight detail disappears, contrast is way too high, and the whole picture looks a bit too artificial, not filmlike at all).

Color rendition is quite accurate with AdobeRGB, a little less so with sRGB. The special sRGB mode tends to help greens a bit, but none of the color modes produce anywhere near the green saturation I see in the Fuji S2 (and you may not want that, anyway).

 

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Autofocus

I've seen posts that claim the D100 has faster autofocus than the N80. It doesn't. What it does have is different default settings. Nikon has finally turned the Closest Subject Priority off as the default. In all modes. This makes a significant difference, especially in low-light conditions with the way most users set the camera; CSP had a tendency to make the camera pause before focusing in certain conditions.

Using the central autofocus sensor only, the D100 is as fast at autofocus as any Nikon body. AF-S lenses "snap" to focus using the central sensor. The only times you'll see a difference between the D100 and the D1 is in low light and off center subjects.

I think Nikon must have taken my "Nintendo-like" controller remarks in previous reviews to heart. The D100's autofocus sensor direction pad is even more Nintendo-like than ever before. GameBoy like, not optional pro-gamer controller-like. The control is small, stiff, poorly placed, and will most certainly spark a reaction by long-time Nikon users. If you've got a big thumb, good luck, you might not be able to distinguish between directions the controller is so small. Worse, the left edge of the sensor is very close to the LCD cover, which sticks out further than the controller.

 

 

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Drawbacks

  • It's not a D1. If you need fast flash sync, fast motor drive, or larger buffer size, a D1h or D1x is what you want. [Or a D2h]
  • JPEG quality. The JPEG engine generates slightly soft JPEG images. Turning up sharpening isn't necessarily a good choice, though JPEG artifacting is actually quite well controlled even with sharpening set to High. But I don't like the "look" of highly camera sharpened JPEGs--there's just a bit of an unnatural edge to them that looks artificial compared to sharpening done right. This means you'll spend more time post-processing images than you might like.
  • Manual lenses. AI and AI-S lenses and accessories can only be used in Manual exposure mode, and the meter is inoperative.
  • The D-TTL flash system. Now that Fuji has shown us that you don't have to make changes to the Nikon TTL system for digital cameras, the limitations of the D-TTL system just seem annoying. Here's a camera with a built-in flash that would be perfect for triggering wireless remotes, but you can't do that in any automatic mode (you can on the S2 Pro).

Positives

While I wouldn't take my drawbacks lightly, they are minor compared to the pluses. The D100 takes beautiful photos when used well, and can give any digital SLR on the market a run for the money. We may quibble about slight differences in color, or noise, or aliasing between different models, but these discussions are no different than the Provia versus Ektachrome type of debate. In short, expect to produce darn good results out of this camera.

  • D1x image quality at half (or less) the price. I'm getting results out of the D100 that equal or exceed those from my D1x (though sometimes that takes a bit of post processing I don't have to do with the D1x). The more I use the camera, the more I discover how to eek out a bit more quality.
  • Nikon is learning. Some design mistakes have been banished (though a few new minor ones have cropped up). In general, the D100 handles better than all the cameras that preceded it. Battery life, in particular, is excellent.
  • Light, small, mostly comfortable. The D1 doesn't fit into most chest pouches. Heck it barely fits in the depth of the larger LowePro backpacks. The D100 is a much more manageable size, and you won't feel like you've been carrying an anchor around your neck if you shoot all day.

D100 Summary

A step forward from the D1 models, with few compromises despite the significantly lower price. A true prosumer camera.

 

Features:

Reliability:

In the field:

Value:

Bottom line: Who needs a D1? Well, a few photographers might, but the D100 is the Nikon digital SLR for the masses. A well-rounded camera that will make many a digital newcomer happy. [Value rating was increased when the cost of the camera was reduced to US$1699 street, especially for those who buy lenses with the body and get extra rebates from Nikon as I write this.]

 
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NC asks: What are the advantages of shooting in the RAW mode versus TIFF?

Thom's Answer: I wish Nikon hadn't put TIFF mode on the camera. JPEG FINE is quite good, much faster, and would give you photos that are pretty much indistinguishable from TIFF. If you want all the quality the camera can deliver, you shoot NEF (RAW), though. The NEF format gives you a host of things you don't get elsewhere:

  • The original sensor data: The sensor outputs 12-bit data through the ADC. JPEG and TIFF reduce this to 8-bit. Thus, at a minimum you've lost tonal subtlety. But the real kicker is that after-the-fact interpolation programs (e.g. Capture, Bibble, QImage) have gotten better and better, while with JPEG and TIFF you're stuck with what the camera's electronics were coded to do. It's the difference between taking Polaroid instant photos and having a negative. With NEF you've got a negative, and if enlargers and printing technologies improve, so does your work. With a Polaroid (and JPEG/TIFF), your original defines the maximum quality you'll ever get.
  • The ability to override the camera's settings: There's a lot you can get wrong, but the most common problem is getting the white balance incorrect. NEF allows you apply white balance settings after the fact, while with JPEG and TIFF you'd have to use color controls in Photoshop to fix shifts, which isn't as easy or as intuitive. Ditto contrast, hue, and sharpening.
  • The ability to nudge exposure: Since we have the original sensor data and plenty of excess tonal information, we can apply different linearity curves directly to the data. This works great for recovering underexposed images, less so for overexposed images (a blown highlight is gone forever).
 

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