With the big announcement from Nikon heralding the D2H, we would naturally want to test one. Given that one of the primary markets for this new marvel is sports photography, we went in search of some fast-moving action to try it out
The Nikon D2H at work. Victor F. Newman 2004.
Using monopod with 400mm f/2.8 AF-I Nikkor at f5.6, 1/640s ISO 800.
Our good friends at ePhotocraft.com were kind enough to go to great effort to obtain a demonstrator model for us to test. For comparison, I brought along my D1 and D100.
The first stop was the VIRginia International Raceway. That same day, at night I was up the road to the University of Virginia to catch the Cavaliers in action on the basketball court. Since that initial test, a trip to the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race and some other events with my own personal D2H has provided additional experience with this awesome camera.
START YOUR ENGINES
Shooting motorsports has been a passion of mine for many years. Beginning with a Nikon F4, I've also used a Nikon F5, D1, and D100 in this pursuit (sorry, no pun intended). When the Nikon D2H was announced, no one was more interested in this camera than I was. While the most talked-about feature, the 8 frames per second shooting rate, was certainly of interest to me, the 40-shot buffer and next-generation Multi CAM 2000 autofocus module were even more appealing. Those features, along with things like a new Li-Ion battery, vertical orientation sensor and automatic file rotation when downloading with Nikon Transfer, better TTL flash (including TTL FP-synch) were enough to have me very anxious to try this camera.
The 3.27-mile natural-terrain road course of the VIRginia International Raceway, hosts everything from amateur sportsman racers to the Professional ranks of the AMA Superbikes and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car series I. The day I had the D2H there, I was able to catch two "Formula TR" cars testing. These small open-wheel cars are agile and fast, and proved to be a good test subject. My primary goal at VIR was to test the capabilities of the CAM 2000 AF system. I was not disappointed.
Using an 80-200mm f/2.8D ED AF-S zoom Nikkor, handheld, or an AF-I 400mm Nikkor on a monopod (at times with a Nikon TC-20E 2x teleconverter) I positioned myself as far down of the track as I could, on the front straight, in order to catch the cars at the highest speed. A hand-held radar gun measured the cars' speed at 120 mph and increasing as they passed my position. I tried the same shots with the Nikon D1, D100, and D2H. But even at these high speeds, the AF performance was superb and immediately obvious. The camera was designed to handle this and more.
As the cars turned onto the straight, all three cameras could easily and quickly lock on and track the car as it approached. The difference was when the cars were closest. The Nikon D1, with the Multi CAM 1300 AF module, can keep focus locked on a car much closer than the Nikon D100. But as good as it is, the Nikon D1 still can't reliably keep a fast-moving car focused all the way up to the camera position as the Nikon D2H did.
AT THE RACING TRACK WITH THE D2H
The Nikon D2H was a different story altogether. With or without the Nikon TC-20E 2x teleconverter on the AF-I 400mm f/2.8 Nikkor, the Nikon D2H was able to keep focus locked on the car until it was impossible to pan the camera fast enough to keep it steady in the viewfinder. The newly engineered 11 AF areas system delivered fast and crisp focusing.
The Nikon D2H at the track. Monopod, 400mm f/2.8 AF-I Nikkor + TC20E Nikkor, f/11, 1/250s, ISO 400.
In the sequence at right, I was trying to keep the driver's helmet centered, but obviously failed. The camera, in continuous dynamic AF and with almost nothing on which to focus by the end of the sequence, was nevertheless able to keep the wing of the car in focus right up to the end.
I didn't have sufficient time to fully evaluate the relative strengths of the four different modes (Single-area AF, Dynamic-area AF, Group-dynamic AF, and Dynamic-area AF with closest-subject priority). I stayed with the two modes that I use most often with the Nikon D1 or Nikon D100: Single-area and Dynamic-area. I'm not sure how anything could work much better than these anyway. Hunting is minimal and lock-on is quick.
At the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, the performance was just as good. Under mostly gloomy and rainy conditions, the Nikon D2H was reliable and accurate. The Nikon D2H has an improved auto white balance system, with three sensors: real-time off-imaging, reflected, and a new external sensor on top of the prism housing. I found this to work very well as conditions changed from sunny to cloudy to rainy and back, as well as under mixed artificial lighting, throughout the course of the weekend.
In general, I have found the auto WB to work very well. According to the manual, its range is from 8000 to 3500K. 3500 is still too high for typical indoor household incandescent lighting. The "Incandescent" mode or "Kelvin" mode should be used in this case.
The Nikon D2H performed much better than anything I had ever experienced with the D1 in terms of AF ability. With or without the 2x converter on my 400mm lens (always on a monopod) I could track cars coming straight at me at nearly 100 mph until the car more than filled the frame. I'm sure higher closing speeds would not have been a problem.
The camera handled the atrocious weather well, never having any problems working in dampness and rain. I did make an effort to keep a rain cover on it if conditions exceeded a sprinkle, but the camera invariably got wet at times. It became evident the seals have been greatly improved.
THE NIKON D2H AT DAYTONA AT NIGHT
Equally impressive was its performance at night. In the murk of the less-well-lit areas of the track, the AF system seemed to work just as well as in broad daylight, with no hunting and locking onto the cars with no difficulty.
Nikon D2H at night handheld with a Sigma 120-300/2.8D mit 190mm. f2.8, 1/80s, ISO 1600
The incredible Nikon SB-800 flash made it easy to get the perfect combination of ambient light and fill flash. I have printed several shots from Daytona at 8" x 10" and 12" x 18" with an Epson 1270 printer. The results are absolutely gorgeous.
I also took the opportunity to try the in-camera noise reduction of the D2H.
Putting the camera on a tripod with my trusty Markins M20 tripod head, I did a series of exposures up to 20 seconds (the longest I could get without overexposing) of the cars coming around the track.
The results were truly amazing.
At right, the full-size crop of a distant and small dark area of the image above.
Click on any of the two images for a larger view of the amazing results.
Moving to a different type of shooting altogether, the D2H was just as much at home on the basketball court as it was on the race track.
The Nikon D2H at basketball. Handheld using a Nikkor AF 80-200/2.8D. f2.8, 1/640s. ISO 1600
The D2H again showed that Nikon has built an incredible camera. The 8 fps speed and 40-shot buffer make the D2H such a pleasure to use for fast-moving sports like this. Rarely is 8 fps truly needed in my opinion -I prefer to pick my moment to shoot- but when the occasion presents itself, there's nothing like being able to hold the firing button down and blaze away. The 40 shot buffer, the same as the D1H and nearly double that of the D1, virtually ensures that shots won't be missed.
A critical issue surrounding all digital cameras is noise. With the announcement of the D2H, Nikon also introduced it's own "LBCAST JFET imaging sensor". Claiming "higher speed, higher resolution, lower power consumption, and minimal dark noise", the new sensor indeed produces clean and sharp images. While certainly not absolutely noise-free, performance at ISO 1600 (typical of what is required for indoor sporting events) is good. I have found that, while not absolutely necessary -depending on the final use of the photograph- using a noise-reduction program like Neat Image on images shot at ISO 1600 can help.
Autofocus performance was again excellent. In my somewhat limited experience, I have found that Single-area or Dynamic-area work very well. I was not completely pleased with Group-dynamic AF. Unlike Single and Dynamic, Group-dynamic AF seems to take a fraction of a second to "decide" where to first focus -way too much time to lose in fast-moving action like this. Working handheld with a Tokina 20-70 f/2.8 or an AF-S 20-200 f/2.8, I was very pleased with the results the camera provided.
For indoor sports like this I prefer to use preset white balance. As with the D1, the D2H does an excellent job taking a preset WB measurement. And as with the D1X/H, preset white balance settings can be stored and recalled later -a wonderful feature when regularly returning to a venue.
This quick test-drive doesn't even scratch the surface of this incredible camera. The advances Nikon has made in the user interface alone probably make this camera worth the price. If NOTHING else, the performance of the lithium-ion EN-EL4 battery is amazing. I've shot over 1500 exposures on a single charge, with image review turned on, and still had charge left in the battery -vastly better than the performance of the EN-4 battery used in the D1X and D1H. The flexibility of the custom functions is mind-boggling -at times to the point of being confusing. The D2H is far more evolved from the D1X and D1H than those cameras were from the D1. To truly be able to put all its power to good use one must invest a good deal of time learning its features. Once mastered, this camera is a truly fast, accurate, responsive, formidable tool.
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