Nikon D2Xs Review: Serious color and performance for a not so serious price.

The D2x (and its slightly tweaked cousin the D2xs) was Nikons last DX pro body before the full frame D3 was introduced.  The D2x was released in early 2005 and the D2Xs in mid 2006.  The first question in the mind of most is "why would I be interested in a 12 megapixel camera that was introduced a decade ago?"  It is a valid question since we now have entry level camera bodies with 24 megapixel sensors and full frame bodies that have low light performance unheard of just a few years ago.  But cameras, and especially megapixels, don't make photographs.  Photographers make photographs and this old war horse may still have what it takes to make some nice photographs.

I saw a D2x for a great price on Craigslist and decided to try one out, at the price paid I believe I can get my money back out of it if need be.  To be frank I had a hard time imagining where it would fit into my camera bag.  Currently I shoot a Nikon D800 for the bulk of my photos and a Nikon D3s for sports, or anywhere I feel the 9 frames per second this allows will come in handy.  The D2x compares nicely on paper to the D300 and D90 cameras, but how would it perform?  I've always heard that the D2x is a base ISO (100 ISO) camera only.  It also has less consumer friendly controls and no built in flash.

Image Examples.  Yesterday afternoon I went to look at the venue for an upcoming wedding I'll be shooting and carried the D2x with a Nikon 55-300 DX lens just so I could try it out. The venue was beautiful but the weather was not. It was cloudy with a steady light rain, but since the D2x is weather sealed I decided to carry it with me anyway.   There were a few birds in the trees that I could not get a good view of and the venue was in use for a party so I'd pretty much decided that there were no photos to be had.  As I walked back to my truck I saw a few brightly colored leaves and a rose that would make a good test for the camera/lens combination.  The D2x has a reputation for outstanding color, some well known internet camera gurus even claim that the D300 and D3 are a slight step backwards in base ISO picture quality.  They also state that at anything other than base ISO these more modern cameras leave the D2x completely behind.  But I like to see things myself, so I decided to take a few quick test shots even though the light was not cooperating and I had to bump the ISO several stops.  Below are a few samples, click the images to view larger.

Nikon D2x, 300mm, 1/125, F5.6, ISO 400, Auto White Balance Nikon D2x, 110mm, 1/125, F8, ISO 400 Auto White Balance
Nikon D2x, 130mm, 1/160, F8, ISO 400 Auto White Balance Nikon D2x, 300mm, 1/180, F8, ISO 400 Auto White Balance
   

As you can see the D2x has some serious color.  These were shot hand held with no real thought or time given to framing or artistic value, I just wanted to get something on the memory card before I was rained out.  After uploading these to my computer I was really surprised at the amount of detail and edge definition provided with a "mere" 12.4 megapixels.  And the color, well maybe there is something to the D2x legend.  After all there was a firmware option available for purchase to D300 and D3 owners so they could mimic the D2x look.  My thoughts?  A very "film like" look with absolutely gorgeous color and a near 3D feel to the images.

My friend and coworkers daughter stopped by to show off her new hair cut, and I just happened to have the D2x with a Nikkor 80-200 F2.8 handy and was not afraid to use it.  The wall she is leaning against is off pink, so it has thrown the color off a tiny bit, but the D2x does an admirable job as a portrait camera.

Portrait Example

My friends daughter stopped by right after having her hair done, so I took a few quick shots of her for my friend.  180mm, 1/350th, F2.8, ISO 160 and color mode I.

Portrait Example

My friends daughter stopped by right after having her hair done, so I took a few quick shots of her for my friend.  180mm, 1/250th, F2.8, ISO 160 and color mode I at just a few steps closer.

 

Back Yard Heron Full Image

This heron conveniently flew up and stood still for a few shots.  200mm, 1/500th, ISO 320, F2.8 and Color Mode III.

Back Yard Heron 125% Crop

A 125% crop of the same photograph

This heron flew onto the grate for the constructed wetlands behind our house, so I grabbed the D2x with the same 80-200 lens and snapped a few photos.  My plan was not to create a masterpiece, but to have an opportunity to see how the camera performs in mixed lighting and see if the old war horse is up for a little cropping.  On my HD monitor I can clearly see some pixilation in the background, but the heron is surprisingly detailed right down to the eye color and iris.  This camera could easily make a quality 20x30 print if I did my part.

Look for examples as I take more photos with this camera.

Auto Focus Performance.  With 11 AF points, 9 of them cross type, the D2x sounds a little sparse in that department by todays standards.  Even the base model cameras have 11 AF points now, but these cover more of the frame than the 51 AF points on my D700 and far more than the 39 AF points on my D600.  How does it perform?  In a word great.  I am a fan of the back focus button, but I've used the camera both ways and the lenses snap to focus much faster than with my D600 or any of the consumer cameras I own.  The performance is comparable to my D800 or F5 cameras.  It is always dead on and focuses well in low light, again comparable to my D800 and better than my F5.

When I need to focus manually it does not disappoint either.  Instead of the simple one dot focus confirmation on lesser cameras it has the three dot system.  This has two arrows showing you which way to focus and one round dot to confirm you've found focus.  Often I just manually focus by sight, but when shooting at the razor thin depths of field my large aperture lenses afford it is nice to have the option of looking down at the confirmation array.  This is identical to my D800 and most high end Nikon DSLR bodies, which is a good thing.

ISO Test.  Even though the above images were shot at only ISO 400 I can still see some noise creeping in, especially in the darker and the out of focus areas.  This led me to believe that the camera should probably be used like a 35mm film camera when it comes to sensitivity.  Since I can see some noise creeping in at only ISO 400 I decided to do a test at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 in my office.  This is the corner of a print I purchased many years ago in the Bay Area from an artist selling his work next to Coit Tower.  It's one of my favorite pieces of art and since it is stationary it worked fine as an ISO test target.  Images were taken in manual exposure with manual focusing.  If you'd like to see the examples larger click on the image to go to the gallery and choose slide show for full page viewing.

ISO 1600 JPEG straight out of the camera other than resizing for the web ISO 1600 from raw file, noise reduction and White Balance adjustments made in ACR
ISO 3200 JPEG straight out of the camera other than resizing for the web ISO 3200 from raw file, noise reduction and White Balance adjustments made in ACR

 I was surprised at the ISO performance at 1600 and 3200 ISO.  The ISO 3200 photo appears brighter, but that is due to me exposing it a little differently.  The in camera noise reduction was set to normal and White Balance to Auto.  Clearly the camera has a good bit of noise at either ISO setting straight out of the camera.  It is also clear that the Auto White Balance setting tends to add a good bit of warmth to the images.  This would likely be great in portraits, but is not so great in a photo with a white print mat featured.  ISO 1600 is very useable, I even made an 11x17 print of this photo to verify what my monitor was showing me, and ISO 3200 would work in a pinch as long as print size was reasonable.  I would feel completely comfortable setting this camera at ISO 800 for a portrait session if I was willing to do a little noise reduction in post processing.

Handling

If you have never handled a professional camera this will be a completely new experience.  When you compare this to a consumer camera, no matter how many megapixels it has, you will immediately notice a lot of differences.  It brings my old F5, the king of 35mm action cameras, immediately to mind.

The big, beautiful chassis and grip fall immediately to the right place in your hand.  Everything just feels right, with the camera never getting in the way of making a photograph.  The shutter release is surrounded by the on/off switch and is in a near perfect position for my medium sized hands with the Exposure Compensation and Mode buttons residing right next to it.  The Exposure Compensation button is a little close to my hand and requires a finger bend and the Mode Button is just about perfectly placed, requiring only a slight shift of the finger to depress the button .  The Command Dials fall easily to the finger as well.

One handling aspect that I'm not as happy with is the placement and assignment options of the Depth of Field Preview Button and the Custom Function Button.  The DOF button is well placed, but there is no way to assign a custom function to it as I can in my more modern Nikon bodies.  It is a well placed DOF preview button, but that is all that it can do.  I rarely use this function on any of my camera bodies as I have a pretty good feel for the depth of field I can expect with a given focal length and aperture so it is normally assigned a custom function.  When compared to my D700, D200IR or a D300 the custom function button is a little lower on the body.  You can access it with your right ring finger, but the button is a tiny bit lower on the body as it is on a higher end consumer camera body.  This may be nit picking, but it is something I noticed.

Choosing the metering method is accomplished via a rotary switch.  For those who have never used a professional camera before this will be quite a change.  When you are shooting and need to switch from Matrix to Spot or Center Weighted metering it can be done without diving into menus.  While this sounds less than important I find it to be of real value.  If I am shooting a bride, a model or my family and I am not nailing the exposure as I'd like I often switch to Spot metering.  When you have heavy back or side lighting the camera will tend to under expose the face of your subject in Matrix metering, but switch to Spot metering, focus and meter on the part of the subject you find most important and you will be making exposure decisions instead of your camera.

In summary the handling lends itself to the experienced photographer.  The controls are well placed, logical and simple.  There is not a lot of "auto everything", this camera expects you to make the decisions for it and if you make those decisions well you'll be rewarded with beautiful photographs.  This is not a camera for the casual user.

The LCD screen on this camera was lauded as the best in the world at its introduction, but the DSLR world has changed a lot in the last decade.  What was once considered great color now looks faded and greenish compared to my Gen II Nikon or late model Canon DSLR bodies.  Worse yet the exposure of the photograph is not always properly represented on the LCD. Often I'll make a photo and be disappointed that the image on the LCD looks over exposed, then after uploading the image to my computer it looks great on the monitor.  This seems a little inconsistent, most of the time the LCD is pretty accurate, but if an image appears a little over exposed don't panic and delete the image until you view it on your monitor.  On the positive side I've not experienced an image that looks great on the LCD but not on the monitor, this should give the user a bit more confidence.  The viewing angle is slightly more restricted than the newer models but this is not even an inconvenience, just something that I notice if I'm really looking for it.  Overall the LCD is fine, other than occasionally showing too much exposure on the image, but not outstanding.

Conclusion.  As mentioned this is not a camera for the casual user, however if you have an auxiliary flash and a little time to learn the D2x it will reward you with great stunning photos at base and low ISO assuming you do your part.  The D2x is an amazing image making tool that a few years ago was as good as anything in the world. This camera feels like, for lack of a better description, a Nikon F5 on which you can adjust the film speed without changing film.  This camera is less demanding than a film camera, but if you are looking for a body you can set on Auto and just have fun look past this beast.

Pros

  • Excellent color
  • Full color RGB 1005 segment matrix meter
  • Ability to use fully manual lenses with full EXIF data and matrix metering, but do not mount pre-Ai lenses
  • Pro build quality
  • Integrated vertical grip
  • Responsive auto focus with excellent frame coverage
  • Good frame rate at full resolution, great frame rate (8fps) at reduced 7MP resolution
  • Excellent fill performance and metering with flash (tested with SB-600, SB-700 and SB-900)
  • Voice memo.  Not something I was excited about, but once I used it wondered how I get by without it

Cons

  • Pro build quality means it is also very heavy
  • No built in flash
  • LDC is not state of the art
  • Back focus button on vertical grip too low 
  • ISO performance poor above 400 ISO.  This can be corrected very well in post processing, but I'm used to much better performance from my newer cameras.
  • Lacks many automated features basic users take for granted 
  • Resolution adequate for large prints, but it will require very good technique to get the results you are looking for