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This Nikon Digital Fills a Big Gap
by Stephen H. Wildstrom 

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Bigger is Better

Read the Manual


The $2,000 D100 has the quality and flexibility of a serious 35mm that until recently were found only on far pricier digital cameras.
Stephen H. Wildstrom
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek

As the digital photography revolution has rolled on, serious amateur photographers have largely missed out. Lots of capable digital cameras are available in the $1,000 price range, but they lack features that serious photographers consider critical, such as a true through-the-lens optical viewfinder and, above all, interchangeable lenses. And while professional single-lens-reflex digital cameras can do just about anything, their $5,000-and-up price tags put them out of reach for all but the most dedicated and well-heeled amateurs.

Now, a new breed of digital SLRs -- complete with interchangeable lenses --is coming on the market with features and prices that make them attractive to serious hobbyists, products such as the Canon Eos D60 and the FujiFilm FinePix S2. One of the most appealing is the Nikon D100, a worthy digital heir to the legendary Nikon F series of 35mm film cameras.

At $2,000 without a lens or even a memory card, the D100 is hardly a casual purchase. Weighing over a pound without lens and considerably bulky, it's not a camera you can stuff in your pocket. You're going to take it with you only when you mean to do serious picture-taking. The payoff is a digital camera that can replace film cameras in all but the most exacting of applications.

BIGGER IS BETTER. One reason that affordable interchangeable-lens cameras have been so slow to come to market is the technology and economics of the charge-coupled device (CCD) sensor, a semiconductor used to capture the digital image. Even the 4-megapixel sensors widely used in better digital cameras are tiny. I'll spare you an optics lesson, but the bottom line is that on most digital cameras, the equivalent of a 50mm "normal" lens on a 35mm film camera has a focal length of just 10mm to 12mm. So, lenses designed for film cameras are effectively unusable on digital cameras with these very small CCDs. 

Nikon's D100 gets around this limitation because its 6.1 megapixel sensor is much bigger, about two-thirds the size of a 35mm film frame. Lenses built for 35mm Nikons, therefore, can be used on the D100, although they won't behave quite the same as they do on a film camera. A 90mm short telephoto lens gives about the same coverage on a D100 as a 135mm lens on a 35mm film camera. 

That correspondence is close enough to be workable with some minor mental adjustments by the photographer, and the buyer of a D100 who already owns a collection of Nikon lenses will be able to use them on the D100 body. (Only the newer lenses designed for autofocus and autoexposure will work in automatic mode on the D100, but everything can also be done manually.)

READ THE MANUAL. The D100 offers a CompactFlash slot for memory, allowing the use of either flash memory cards or an IBM Microdrive mini hard drive. A 1-GB Microdrive costs less than $400. When you consider that the storage is equivalent to nearly 10 rolls of 36-exposure film at the normal storage setting and that the Microdrive can be reused as often as you like, it sounds like a bargain. 

The D100 can also be set to emulate films with ISO speed ratings of 200 to 1600. Electronic noise causes image quality to degrade with faster settings, the digital equivalent of graininess in high-speed film. 

In my experience, even the simplest Nikon digitals require a thorough study of the manual to take maximum advantage of all features. The D100, with its profusion of buttons, wheels, and switches to control its many functions is certainly no exception. The beauty of it, though, is that anyone familiar with the basic operation of a 35mm SLR camera should be able to pick up the D100 and start taking good pictures. 

Inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras will always dominate the market. But the appearance of more capable cameras that close the gap between limited consumer products and much more expensive professional gear is welcome news for hobbyists. And while the D100 is intended primarily for advanced amateurs, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see plenty of pros with these digital Nikons hanging around their necks.

Copyright by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. All rights reserved.

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