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Nikon D100 Preview

by Patrick Hudepohl, May-02


Pending a full review of the D100, this preview article attempts to illustrate the features as well as the strong and weak points of this newly announced camera from Nikon.

The Nikon D100 is a 6 megapixel digital SLR, supporting Nikon's extensive array of (AF) lenses and accessoires. It is targeted at the advanced amateur ("prosumer") and the professional user. The D100 fills the gap between the cheaper and simpler Coolpix cameras (such as the Coolpix 5000) and the more expensive, professional D1 series (see the reviews of the D1, the D1H and D1X cameras).

At the moment, pricing is not yet certain.

The main features are:

  • 6 megapixel ( 3008 x 2000 pixels) CCD imager
  • 1/4,000 sec. top shutter speed and flash sync speed up to 1/180 sec.
  • USB 1.1 interface and Nikon View 5 software for computer connectivity.
  • 8 bit-per-channel JPEG and 12 bit-per-channel RAW formats
  • supports Compact Flash type I and II cards, as well as IBM Microdrive.

Expectations

The D100, as seen on Nikon's website and in their brochures, looks like a digital N80 (F80 outside the USA). This is somewhat confusing, since the D100 name seems to imply it is a digital F100. Instead, the D1H and D1X look like digital F100s. I guess it is reasonable to expect N80-like build quality and (AF) performance. Some interesting features of this camera, particularly when compared to the D1H and D1X series, are:

  • 6 megapixel resolution: this is much better than the D1H and actually even better than the D1X, although we will have to wait and see if the image quality is as good as well. Perhaps the D1 series cameras will provide better results at higher ISO speeds or longer exposure times.
  • On-demand grid lines: as in the N80 / F80, these can be very helpful when taking photos of architecture.
  • Smaller, lighter body: the vertical grip is optional and leaving it out (and mounting a lens like the AF 35/2D) will make the D100 a small and yet powerful package. If the D100 can manage a full day shoot on a single battery, it would be a super package indeed. A D1 series camera, because of the larger body and non-removable grip, is always going to be very bulky and heavy.
  • Built-in flash: although generally speaking on-camera flash is probably the worst lighting you can have for your photographs, a built-in flash can be a great help. If it is too dark for available light photography, the flash helps to at least get a shot. But more importantly, a built-in flash can provide a little fill flash for an outdoor portrait. This can be very important as high contrast can easily overpower an 8-bit JPEG.
  • Use of a simple cable release. The specifications are not very clear on this point, but it would appear that the D100 has the same threaded shutter release button as the N80. This would enable the use of a simple, mechanical cable release (available for EUR 15, versus EUR 100 for an MC-30). I admit this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine...

The CCD is the same size as the one in the D1 series (23.7 by 15.6 mm), which is considerably smaller than 35mm film. It means that focal lengths are effectively multiplied by 1.5, resulting in a tighter crop of the image. An 80-200 zoom becomes a 120 - 300 zoom with more telephoto power, but a 24-85 zoom becomes a 36 - 128 lens with a somewhat disappointing wide-angle coverage.

For their APS SLR cameras, Nikon has designed a couple of special IX lenses. It surprises me that they have not made a special "DX" series for their digital cameras. A true wide-angle, a compact standard lens and a nice portrait lens would be welcomed by many, I believe. Perhaps they expect to launch a full-size sensor camera soon enough not to be bothered with an intermediate solution like this?

The most appropriate lenses for this camera are the modern AF, AF-D and AF-S lenses. Older lenses without a CPU can be used, but then the built-in exposure meter does not work. This applies to certain modern film cameras as well. I think a camera in this class should support older lensesa s well -- every now and then I still use an old AI 50/2 or AI 24/2.8 lens on my Nikon F100.

The optional MB-D100 vertical grip allows the camera to run on 6 AA-size (penlight) batteries. Unlike the MB-15 for the F100 and the D1H built-in grip, this one does replicate both the command wheel and the subcommand wheel (the subcommand wheel is used to set the aperture, particularly with AF-G lenses which do not have an aperture ring). It also features a voice/memo recording / playback function and a 10-pin connector for an (MC-30) remote control.

The D100 supports the latest in Nikon flash technology, but only with a new DX-type flash, such as the SB-28DX or SB-80DX. With older flashes, only non-TTL (i.e., primitive) flash is possible.

Nikon film users

The big question for many Nikon film users is whether or not to go digital now. Except for professional photographers, the D1 series is too expensive for most and the D100 might just be cheap enough to buy it.

I am not going to order a D100 right away. Obviously, I want to test it first, or at the very least read a few reports by others. But something else is important for me as well. I have invested quite a bit in film-specific equipment over the last couple of years (F100, MB-15 grip, SB28 flash, Coolscan III scanner) and I do not want to "dump" that gear for a digital substitute just yet. Also, if a complete D100 kit is going to be priced similar to the Canon EOS D60 pro kit (currently $3400 here in the Netherlands), it will cost too much to be considered an extra body.

I do not spend over $1000 per year on film and development and I even like editing -- a Schneider 4x or 10x loupe really makes a properly exposed Velvia slide look great. If, however, you do spend $1000 or more and do not mind staring at a computer display, buying a D100 makes perfect sense.

As an aside, I also like working with digital images, using Photoshop to make them look as good as possible and sharing them on the Web. In fact, I do not particularly enjoy the scanning process itself, nor am I too keen on sleeving negatives and pasting pictures. So, one day I will probably switch to digital. I also do not expect to buy more film-specific equipment, such as a second F100.

Competition

The most obvious competitor is the Canon EOS D60. In many ways the cameras are likely to give similar performances. It is not unreasonable to expect similar pricing as well (though Nikon cameras tend to be slightly more expensive than their Canon counterparts).

How to decide between D60 and D100? If you already own Canon lenses, consider the D60. Likewise, if you own Nikkors, consider the D100. If you own neither, the choice may be quite difficult. Carefully take into account the entire system; you may like to have a Nikon FM3A as a backup film camera, or you may like Canon's MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens. Also, be sure to try the cameras in a photo shop. Camera handling is very personal and very important.

The older and more expensive D1X and D1H cameras are competitors as well. The D1H, while offering only 2.6 megapixels, is surely going to be much faster. Sadly, it is beginning to look outdated and most people except photojournalists, will probably not buy it. Both D1X and D1H have a FireWire interface for faster image transfer, offer faster maximum shutter and flash synch speeds and will undoubtedly have a better build quality. They may also have better image quality. However, for many "prosumers" and even professionals, the D100 may well prove to be equally good in actual use.

In fact, I would not be surprised if, after the launch of the D100, Nikon will introduce a new professional model (perhaps at Photokina 2002?). Combining D1H speed and D1X resolution, and perhaps improving on both by having a larger sensor, would ensure a clearer disinction between prosumer and professional.

If you do not mind depending on Sigma for lenses, the Foveon X3-based Sigma SD9 is a valid alternative too. Although it offers only 3.5 megapixels, the X3 chip may yet surprise us with image quality.

More information

Image of the D100 at the top of the article courtesy of Nikon USA. Patrick Hudepohl ( email).