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Product: Nikon D2Hs digital camera

Manufacturer: Nikon

Relevance: The D2Hs is a professional quality digital SLR capable of 4.1 megapixel resolution photographs. Both its eight fps (max) burst rate and fast transfer speeds are advantageous for pro use. The D2Hs is also compatible with the wide range of Nikkor AF, D-type Manual-Focus Nikkor, AI-P Nikkor and non-CPU AI Nikkor lenses, making it a perfect base on which to build (or continue) many years of photography.

Review: Nikon's D2Hs is a digital SLR camera so packed with high end features that it may be the only camera that many pro photographers will need for their work. It is clearly aimed at professionals who need a reliable, powerful unit to work in a lens-interchangeable environment. It is solidly built and operates the way a professional SLR should operate: quickly, reliably and accurately.

The D2Hs comes as a body-only camera in the standard SLR form factor. It weighs in at approximately 2.4 pounds (just over one kilogram). To get an accurate idea of overall weight, however, you would have to add the weight of your choice of lens as well as any accessories such as flash or grip. In short, it's not a lightweight camera nor is it light.

Out of the box, the standard SLR-black colored D2Hs comes with Nikon's EN-EL4 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery, the Quick Charger MH-21, Nikon "hi-viz" camera strap, audio/video cable (Nikon part #EG-D2), USB cable (Nikon part #UC-E4), LCD monitor cover (a thin piece of hard plastic we actually left on all the time), and Nikon's PicturePerfect software CD-ROM.

Installation was a snap and the software seemed to be able to handle any modern operating system we could throw at it. We were quickly up and running. One thing all of our reviewers noticed immediately was the camera's fast power-up. With lower end cameras, we're used to seeing a few valuable seconds whiz by before the unit checks out all its bits and pieces and perhaps even runs a quick self-diagnostic.

Quick power-on and shooting
Of course, professional photographers know that in those few seconds, the shot of a lifetime – or perhaps, the shot of the week – can quickly evaporate in the blink of an eye. This is one of the many important distinctions between a lower end digital SLR (and certainly, most point-and-shoots) and higher end SLRs such as Nikon's D2Hs. This few-second gap that can make a huge difference between getting the shot and not getting it simply does not happen with the D2Hs. Once you flip the power switch, the camera is on. It's that simple.

We also liked the backlight feature of the D2Hs. Accessed by rotating the power-on switch slightly further than the standard "on" position, a pleasant green backlight color illuminates both the top and rear control panels. The backlight is instrumental in changing sensitivity/ISO parameters, quality and white balance in dim or no light. By having a backlight, photographers can save the trouble of fumbling for their Maglight in their camera bag or from their belt holster.

In a perfect world, however, we would have liked to see some method by which we could alter the brightness of the backlight as well as perhaps disabling the top control screen. One reviewer thought the backlight was a bit too bright for night work while the others thought it was too dark when they were shooting certain scenes. What can we say? We're a picky bunch, but the point is Nikon might consider a brightness adjustment in the next rev of the camera's firmware. We also found it a bit tricky to turn on the backlight with one hand. Perhaps it was our particular model, but we thought the power-on switch was a bit tight and difficult to turn.

Shutter lag
With some cameras, photographers can notice a significant delay between the time they depress the shutter release and when the camera actually takes the picture. Depending on the nature of your photography, this can be of absolutely no significance or of crucial importance.

If, for example, you're a landscape photographer and you specialize in mountains or tree scenes, it clearly doesn't matter how quickly your camera is able to snap pictures (obviously within reason). If, however, you're a sports photographer covering the NASCAR circuit, you likely have a very different perspective on the subject of shutter release speeds.

As best we could tell, the D2Hs has a near instantaneous shutter release. Technical types will love to learn that the camera has a super-fast 37 ms shutter lag, but we're content just to say it was certainly fast enough in tests. Of course, shutter lag is only one dimension in capture speed (including ISO and white balance settings, ambient lighting and, of course, subject matter and lens type). That said, we came to the conclusion that the D2Hs is a very capable (and fast) camera.

Before shooting, one has to decide on which format to save one's photos. For example, the D2Hs can save images out in 8 different image qualities and a total of 15 different image sizes. Selecting one file format over another requires you to understand what options are open to you, what tradeoffs are involved and how you intend to use each photo.

For example, there's obviously no benefit to save your images in the best format possible (more about formats in a moment) if all you're going to do is use your images on the Web. Conversely, if you're working for a glossy magazine you need the absolute most resolution your camera will deliver – and likely elect not to use any compression.

As we said, the D2Hs supports eight different image quality options:

1. NEF+JPEG Fine: Here, two images are recorded. One is a NEF (RAW) format image that can only be read by Nikon's PicturePerfect software, Nikon Capture 4 or Adobe Photoshop CS. File sizes under NEF+JPEG Fine can either be 8.0 MB or 8.9 MB.

2. NEF+JPEG Normal: Similar to the higher setting, NEF+JPEG Fine, NEF+JPEG Normal creates two files. In this instance, however, the camera saves a RAW image and a normal quality image. File sizes under this option are either 7.5 MB or 7.9 MB, depending on other settings.

3. NEF+JPEG Basic. Also creates two files, a RAW file and what Nikon calls a "basic" JPEG. In this case, file sizes are either 7.2 or 7.4 MB, depending on other settings.

4. NEF (RAW) only: For photographers not wishing to store two images to their camera's CF card, this option creates and stores one single NEF (RAW) format to their D2Hs. The file size here is 6.9 MB. It is noteworthy that white balance bracketing (more about this later) cannot be used with NEF (RAW) images.

It should also be noted that the size of the NEF (RAW) file is fixed at 6.9 MB; it's the size (and quality) of the accompanying JPEG that changes. In NEF+JPEG Fine, for example, lossy compression is at its least. With NEF+JPEG Basic, the D2Hs uses lossy compression at its maximum.

5. TIFF (RGB). This option creates a single file, compatible with most photo image software packages (including lesser versions of Adobe Photoshop than Photoshop CS). Although arguably the best compromise between the semi-proprietary NEF (RAW) format and the lower resolution (due to their lossy compression) JPEGs, TIFF (RGB) saves images at approximately 12.0 MB. Because we wanted compatibility between our various test machines (and wanted to simulate the situation we thought most prevalent), we tended to use the TIFF (RGB) format for image storage.

6. JPEG Fine. According to Nikon, this option records JPEG images at a compression ratio of approximately 1:4. Due to this compression, the D2Hs will create images from 1.1 MB or 1.9 MB.

7. JPEG Normal. This option saves files at either 0.99 MB or 0.57 MB, but the image compression ratio leaps to 1:8.

8. JPEG Basic. Suitable only for Web work or FPOs, this file option saves files at 0.51 MB to 0.30 MB by boosting the compression ratio still further to 1:16.

Due to the lossy nature of the compression used in the camera's firmware, most photographers will eschew all JPEG settings unless storage space is at an urgent premium. Still, it is nice to have the option to put more images on your CF card so we certainly can't fault Nikon for adding them as options.

As an example of the differences (and trade-offs) involved in storage, a 512 MB CF card is able to store only 39 images in TIFF (RGB) format. The same card is able to store 1300 images in JPEG Basic format.

Impressive buffer
Another thing that impressed us occurred when one reviewer turned off the D2Hs in preparation to download the camera images to his Mac. Prior to this, he had burst-shot approximately 20 shots in rapid succession. Realizing his 512 MB card was nearly full to its capacity of 39 shots, he turned the camera off, plugged in the USB cable into the camera port and attempted to start the download process.

Imagine his surprise then, when the number of shots remaining that registered on the top control panel was "3" and the number of shots taken was "17". What was even more puzzling was that the Mac would not recognize the camera automatically as it had done every time before. The memory card we had loaded in the D2Hs previously held a maximum of 39 shots; if 3 remained, it meant there should have been 36 shots taken (and not only 17 as indicated). What was going on?

A few moments later, the camera reported there were 18 shots in the camera and 3 shots remained! There was still no obvious signs of communication between the Mac and D2Hs, but somehow the camera had gained one image. Again, a few moments later the 19th shot and then the 20th shot magically appeared.

Then the "ah-hah" moment: the camera had been turned off prior to the pictures being saved to the CF card, but the camera's buffer was sufficiently powerful to not only store the images until the camera could store them successfully on the CF card, it was able to survive being turned off, USB connected and turned on again. Quite the trick!

With a lesser camera, our reviewer would likely have lost those shots as soon as he turned off the camera in preparation of the USB connection. Instead, after a few minutes of transfer between the D2Hs' built-in buffer and the CF card, the camera communicated with the Mac and our reviewer was able to successfully download all 36 images. And that impressed us.

White balance
White balance is very important for all good photography. Professional photographers know this; amateurs do not. The problem is this: the color of an object (or more precisely, the color of the light reflected by an object) varies directly with the color of the light source. The human visual system has evolved over time to compensate for various light sources and still keep objects correspondingly colored.

This is why a yellow banana, for example, always looks like a yellow banana whether we're in bright sunlight, under a dense forest canopy or in near darkness. Our brains compensate for the available light and automatically adjust for the "yellowness" of the banana.

Amateur photographers are often puzzled when some of their shots "look wrong" or have the wrong colors or are washed out. This is because their eyes have made the appropriate color adjustments and balance for the "whiteness" of the available light – but their camera has not.
Pro photographers, however, know all about white balance and will look for a camera that either automatically compensates for the different temperatures of "white" light or lets them do it manually. The D2Hs has nine different white balance modes.

The Auto mode (symbolized by an "A" in the rear control panel (and viewfinder LCD), adjusts the D2Hs' white balance using a combination of your target image, a 1005-pixel RGB image sensor and an ambient light sensor. To gain the maximum efficiency under this mode, Nikon suggests photographers use a Type G or Type D lens. The most suitable Speedlights to use with this mode is either the SB-800 or the SB-600.

Two different types of indoor lights can be balanced: Incandescent (with an approximate color temperature of 3000°K) and Fluorescent (with an approximate color temperature of 4500°K). Flash (for use with Nikon's own Speedlights), Cloudy (for use in daylight with overcast skies) and Direct Sunlight (for subjects hit by direct sunlight).

Three other white balance settings are important: Shade (used during the daylight under shady conditions), Choose Color Temp (the photographer chooses a value from 2500°K to 10000°K from a list of values) and "Pre" (which allows you to use a subject, light source or even an existing photograph as a reference point for the camera's own white balance).

The D2Hs also lets you choose from 11 different focus areas of your image frame. Of course, you can select the camera's focus area manually, letting you compose the shot as you want and then selectively focus on the chosen position. Alternatively, you can let the camera choose the object closest to you within the composition and focus on it, after giving it a target position upon which to focus.

But auto focus does not work well in certain conditions, namely when: there is little contrast between your subject and the background; the subject (such as a structure) is dominated with regular patterns; the subject is behind something you want to shoot through (the classic example is shooting zoo animals behind bars); the composition contains sharply contrasting areas; or the subject contains a similar pattern over the entire focus area (such as what could be found in a large field of wildflowers).

Thus, it's essential that professionals have a wide range of focus options – and we found the D2Hs gave us plenty. Under the AF-S focus mode, you can select from single-area AF, dynamic-area AF, group-dynamic AF, and dynamic-area AF with closest priority. In AF-C mode, you can select from the same set of AF-area modes, namely single-area AF, dynamic-area AF, group-dynamic AF and dynamic-area AF with closest priority.

And the main difference between the AF-S and the AF-C modes? In the former, shots can be taken only when the camera is in focus (essentially giving priority to the focus of the shot). In the latter mode, the camera gives priority to the shutter release and enables photography to take place even if the camera recognizes the shot may be out of focus.

Pro accessories
During this review, we haven't given any digital ink to the lens we used with the D2Hs because we thought it was best to talk about the camera on its own here. Nikon's AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 17-55 mm f2.8G IF ED lens helped us achieve our impressive results and we were very happy with its feel and operation.

The DX -class lens is specifically designed for the D2Hs and Nikon's other digital cameras with special wide-angle coverage compensating for the specific construction trade-offs inherent in all digital cameras.

You can read our separate review of Nikon's AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8G IF ED but overall, we found Nikon's lens the best in its class, and would resist using other third-party lenses with this camera.

Even the D2Hs power adapter generated some interest from us. Unlike lower end cameras, even the power charger for the D2Hs is of professional quality. Nikon's Quick Charger MH-21 gives direct feedback on its charging cycle. So while a traditional charger will signal when it's working and perhaps, when its charging cycle is complete, the MH-21 has three green lights: one indicating a 50 percent charge, another at 75 percent and a final light at 100 percent.

Nicely, each percentage charge directly correlates to an approximate number of hours of use. We found that a half charge of 50 percent, for example, equates to about two hours of use; a three-quarters charge indicates enough power for around four hours of work; and a 100 percent charge gives enough power for almost six hours. Of course, these are only estimates, but we thought pro photographers will love knowing – even approximately – how much of a charge a particular battery pack has stored before they head out on a story.

Nikon has thoughtfully designed the camera to accept a wireless capability option into the D2Hs. Nikon's optional Transmitter WF-2/2A supports IEEE 802.11g for faster transfer than standard 802.11b. Wireless security options are provided by Nikon's PTP/IP protocol. The D2Hs is also compatible with the Wireless Transmitter WT-1/1A.

Professional photographers can also connect their D2Hs to an external GPS unit (requires Nikon cable #MC-35) to ensure they are in the same place every shooting episode. While we felt GPS capability is a bit over the top even for many hard-core professionals, for some specialized applications, the GPS is wonderful.

Nature photographers, for example, can ensure they visit the exact same place from month to month (or from year to year) to prepare advanced time lapse shots. Environmental photographers can track changes in mountain ranges, water levels and other natural phenomena. Photographers on assignment for legal purposes will also welcome the GPS option; after all, the GPS tracking can be attached to each shot, providing documentary evidence for possible legal support.

GPS units from both popular manufacturers, Garmin and Magellan, are supported provided they conform to version 2.01 of NMEA0183 (National Marine Electronics Association) standards. Communications is provided by the D2Hs 10-pin remote terminal using Nikon's MC-35 GPS adapter cord. Nikon reports that Garmin eTrex series and Magellan's SporTrak series have been specifically tested with the D2Hs.

Photos taken with a GPS unit connected will include an additional page of information for each shot taken. This information includes the picture's recorded latitude, the longitude, the altitude and the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Very sci-fi, and very useful for the small percentage of photogs who need this functionality.

We were very taken by the D2Hs. It has so many features it is difficult to catalogue them all, let alone play with them, even for experienced professionals who are used to pushing the proverbial photographic envelope. For serious photographers, the D2Hs is an excellent entry into the world of Nikon's high end digital cameras. Photographers looking for more resolution will gravitate further up the company's camera family to offerings such as the D2x. For the rest of us, however, this is plenty of great camera. Highly recommended.

End of Review

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