When Kodak announced the DCS Pro 14n digital SLR (dSLR), we had trouble deciding what was most exciting about it: the 13.7-megapixel effective resolution, the 36mm-by-24mm sensor (the area is essentially the same as a 35mm-film frame's), or the sub-$5,000 street price. Offering those specs at such a low price did require some compromises, however. Many of the 14n's components are from an amateur Nikon body, and the CMOS sensor suffers from poor high-ISO performance and a tendency to produce artifacts, though those are usually correctable. The end result is a pro camera that can--under the right circumstances--deliver superbly detailed images to portrait, school, commercial, and architectural photographers who own Nikon F-mount lenses.
In an unusual cooperative effort, Nikon Japan builds many of the 14n's subassemblies and delivers them to Rochester, New York, where Kodak adds the sensor, the other digital components, and a black outer shell of magnesium alloy. The result weighs a relatively modest two pounds without a battery or media, but it looks and handles a bit like Frankenstein's camera: it's both bottom-heavy and left-weighted, making for a slightly insecure grip if you don't use the included hand strap, which we dislike. The broad base is, however, a wonderfully stable platform for tripod mounting--the best we've seen on a 35mm-style model. Unfortunately, that doesn't compensate for the irritating main LCD on the back, which protrudes so far that getting either eye snug against the viewfinder eyepiece is nearly impossible.
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The dial on the left side is for changing exposure, autofocus, and white-balance modes.
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The main status LCD shows current settings, and buttons conveniently placed near the shutter release let you quickly apply exposure and flash compensation.
The 14n's overall construction feels solid but is not quite equal to that of top-tier pro dSLRs such as Canon's EOS 1D and 1Ds or Nikon's D1 series. Control placement is similar to that of Nikon's N80 and . The layout is generally sensible though cramped in places, especially the viewfinder diopter adjustment. And we don't like having exposure modes, ISO settings, and autofocus-area options on the same dial.
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With these controls on the back, you can select a metering mode, lock exposure and focus, and navigate the LCD menus.
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Autobracketing, flash, menu, and playback controls fall on the left side of the camera back.
You access the functions mainly by operating command dials with your right thumb and forefinger, and you navigate the well-labeled and responsive LCD menus using a four-way controller on the back. A second shutter release on the lower-right corner is for vertically oriented shooting.
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Dual media slots offer CompactFlash, Microdrive, and SD/MMC compatibility. You can even save JPEG images to one card and RAW files to the other in RAW+JPEG mode.
The 14n's slightly odd feature set mixes midlevel specifications with innovative, flexible digital capabilities. Exposure controls include all four main modes, compensation to plus or minus 3EV in 1/2-step increments, and three light-metering systems: 3D Matrix, center-weighted, and 1 percent spot. As with most professional digital cameras, you can check exposures with the review mode's histogram.
Almost any Nikon F-mount lens made in the past 25 years will work on the 14n. All the functions are available when you use autofocus lenses, but some limitations apply with manual-focus optics. Because the CMOS sensor measures 24mm by 36mm, the lenses produce the same angle of view as they do on 35mm-film cameras, a big benefit for wide-angle shooters.
For white balance, there are 5 presets, as well as Kelvin temperature selections. You can also save up to 10 custom settings, which you create by measuring a neutral patch in a captured image with a movable eyedropper on the LCD.
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The secondary status LCD on the lower rear provides explanations of many features and quick access to selected settings.
The 14n can save images as RAW or JPEG files, or in both formats simultaneously. In an unusual twist, the camera lets you shoot RAW files at three different resolutions: 13.5, 6, or 3.4 megapixels. At the highest resolution, your light-sensitivity options range from ISO 80 to ISO 400, and you can go as high as ISO 800 at the two lower resolutions.
When you're in RAW+JPEG mode, you can set the resolutions of the two formats independently, so you can capture high-resolution RAW images along with low-resolution JPEG copies for quick browsing, sorting, or e-mailing. You can also record JPEG shots in Kodak's innovative and useful ERI-JPEG format; ERI stands for extended-range imaging. With the aid of a free Adobe Photoshop plug-in, ERI-JPEG offers some of the exposure and white-balance flexibility of RAW while retaining the smaller file sizes and nearly universal compatibility of JPEG. Kodak's free, downloadable Photo Desk is a fairly powerful RAW-processing program with good batch features for efficient handling of multiple photos. And Kodak appears committed to constantly upgrading Photo Desk and the 14n's firmware.
The 14n's feature set contains a few other miscellaneous bonuses, including an intervalometer shooting mode, a PC terminal for external flash units, and myriad custom settings for tailoring the camera's behavior to your style. You can also record sound annotations for captured photos. Finally, the 14n can run on AC power with the included adapter.
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Shooting mostly in RAW+JPEG mode, we got more than 180 shots per charge from the proprietary rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack.
The 14n's performance reflects its midlevel heritage and Kodak's evident intention to target commercial photographers rather than action shooters. For instance, start-up takes about 5 seconds. And if the sensor's temperature changes radically, or if you cross certain thresholds (namely, ISO 160 and ISO 400) when changing sensitivity, the 14n will pause to recalibrate itself for 7 to 9 seconds--just enough time for the Loch Ness monster to slip beneath the waves.
Our evaluation model came with a 1GB IBM Microdrive and an optional 512MB buffer ($595); the standard one is 256MB. With the upgrade, you can take slightly more than twice as many pictures before the buffer fills. In single-shot drive mode, there's no shot-to-shot delay. We were able to fire off 19 to 20 full-resolution RAW photos, 13 to 14 full-res JPEG files, or 6 RAW+JPEG images before we had to pause: 15 seconds for RAW and RAW+JPEG, 18 to 20 seconds for JPEG. In continuous drive mode, the camera captured about 20 full-resolution RAW shots at a leisurely 1.7 frames per second before it had to stop for a 15-second buffer clearing.
The 14n's shutter release performs adequately but is slightly mushy and not instantaneous, although the delay is very short--both problems are typically found in midlevel SLRs. The five-point autofocus, apparently borrowed from Nikon's N80, functions quickly and decisively in good and bad light, but it definitely can't match the superb tracking AF systems in top-level Canon and Nikon pro dSLRs.and 35mm
The viewfinder shows you only 92 percent of the actual scene, but its image size nearly equals that of the 35mm sensor, so manual focusing is easier than it is on a dSLR with a smaller sensor. The 2-inch LCD is quite sharp and clear even in daylight. Because the camera renders RAW pictures progressively, a slight delay occurs before they display completely, but then you can quickly zoom and scroll for close inspection.
The flash-synchronization speed of 1/125 of a second works fine in a studio, of course, but it will force you to use narrow apertures in many outdoor fill-flash situations. Only Nikon's DX-series shoe-mount flashes enable the 14n's through-the-lens (TTL) flash-exposure system; all others function in regular auto mode. There's also a built-in flash; its guide number of 39 feet at ISO 100 makes it useful for short distances and handy for fill-flash.
The 14n's images are unlike those of any competing dSLR. We shot studio and environmental portraits, products, and architecture at ISO 80, and the pictures showed superb detail with virtually no electronic noise. Curiously, we did encounter occasional luminance noise in certain midtones. Our files made beautiful 16x20 prints, and we expect they could go much larger. Compared with 35mm slides digitized on a 4,000dpi CCD scanner, our test images were at least as detailed and much smoother. Among current 35mm-style dSLRs, only the Canon EOS-1Ds can produce photos with a similar level of detail.
Unlike nearly all competing sensors, the 14n's CMOS chip lacks an expensive low-pass, or anti-aliasing, filter, which blurs fine detail but reduces moiré and color aliasing, an artifact resembling Christmas-tree lights that sprouted at the edges of highlights in many of our test shots. We removed the latter problem and the aforementioned luminance noise with a few minutes of fairly easy software processing. For us, the image editing was a tolerable inconvenience, but you may feel otherwise.
Results from the Portrait Look color setting are flat and lifeless, but Product Look produces pleasing skin tones and fairly accurate if somewhat muted colors, so we chose it for nearly all our test images. In the 14n's brief product life, Kodak has already tweaked the camera's color-reproduction software and firmware at least once, and further updates are inevitable. We used version 4.3.1 of the firmware and Photo Desk 3.1.
Microlenses boost light-gathering capability and facilitate better high-ISO performance. To cut costs, Kodak didn't put microlenses over the 14n's individual photosites, or pixels. As a result, noise quickly increases at ISO settings higher than 80, and images are quite noisy by ISO 400. Photo Desk's noise-reduction function can counteract the problem to some degree, but like nearly all such processing algorithms, it often produces a smeared, unrealistic look in some parts of a picture. Therefore, you can't cleanly enlarge higher-ISO photos nearly as much as ISO 80 shots. Excessive noise also imposes limitations on long exposures; we couldn't snap anything usable with a shutter speed longer than two seconds.