After proving that I could still take good photos with my Pentax I started to think more about older digital SLRs. I started researching the Nikon line all the way back to the 2003 D1 and became interested. I thought it might be cool to own one of the early examples of a digital SLR and compare its capabilities with what is available today. If I could pick up an old Nikon for a low price I could use it with all of my current lenses, which would not only be cool, but might also provide me with an extra body to use for real photos. I collect old computers, so why not cameras?
Enter my D2Xs. The single-digit D series (D1, D2, D3, … D6) represents Nikon’s highest tier professional camera. These cost between $4,000 and $6,000 and are designed for pro photographers: high-volume wedding, studio, and product photographers, the kind of people who need cameras with built-in servers and Ethernet ports. These cameras have demanding users and are big and built like tanks as a result.
I was initially looking for a D1 or D1x, the “first” mass-market digital SLRs, because they represented the time when a DSLR were still basically film SLRs with digital guts, a battery, and a screen tacked on. I thought it would be interesting to see what features were missing and how they evolved. I couldn’t find a D1 series in good condition, but I found its successor instead: a D2Xs.
Specs & Stuff
The D2Xs was released in 2006 and cost $4,700. That bought you a 12.4 MP camera using Nikon’s first CMOS sensor (at a 1.5x crop), ISO 100 -800 sensitivity (up to 3200 with boost), 11 selectable autofocus points, up to 1/8000 second shutter speed, continuous shooting at 5 fps or 8 fps (cropped), and a single CF card slot (it can even take a microdrive). Nikon didn’t offer a full-frame sensor yet, live view wasn’t a thing, and video was for point-and-shoots. Despite this, the D2Xs was a top of the line piece of equipment at the time.
The body is huge, measuring almost 6″ square, 3.5″ thick, and weighing 2.4 lbs. That’s much larger and nearly a pound heavier than my D750, which has a larger sensor (and mirror, and pentaprism, and screen)! It’s so big because it has a built-in battery grip and so heavy because it’s made out of magnesium. It has a big, beautiful LCD on top to display standard shooting information; an auxiliary LCD on the battery grip to display ISO, quality, and white balance; and a super-detailed viewfinder. It has buttons for everything including redundant command dials and a shutter button on the battery grip.
Controls & Customization
Almost every setting you need to change on a regular basis is available via a dedicated button or knob – bracketing, exposure compensation, metering mode, ISO, white balance, image quality, autofocus mode, AF-On, exposure lock, drive mode, and focus point select. If it doesn’t have a button, you can most likely customize one of the existing buttons or the Function button on the front of the camera. There are extra plugs for fancy remotes and even a dedicated power adapter! As this is a Pro camera, there are several things missing as well. There are no fancy scene modes – just aperture priority, shutter priority, program, and manual. There is no flash. There is no helpful guidance about how to take a picture. You better know what you’re doing.
It’s really fun to play around with the D2Xs and learn that many of the features of my D750 came from this camera or earlier. For instance, the ability to set the command dial to change exposure compensation while shooting is available on the D2. That is the only way I engage exposure compensation on my D750; I never use the actual button. Most of my favorite features from my D750 are available on this camera including command dial menu control, focus point wrap around, two-button card format, ⅓ EV steps, minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO, group autofocus, high and low continuous shooting speed (customizable), detailed battery status and health, and auto illumination on button press.
All of the buttons are responsive, the viewfinder is beautiful, settings are easy to change, and it is super solid. The extra controls on the battery grip are useful, though they take a bit of time to get used to. Even the illumination on the top and back LCDs is phenomenal – they are electroluminescent (remember Indiglo), not side-lit like on my D750 and every other SLR I’ve owned. They light up bright and evenly in any situation!
The most surprising thing to me is how at home I feel with this camera. It has as many or more customizable functions as my D750 and I’ve set it up to be a nearly exact match for shooting experience. Except for one thing… This vintage of Nikons use an inverted exposure scale where overexposure is on the left and underexposure is on the right instead of the way that makes sense. None of my Canons, Pentaxes (including my 1970s K1000), or D750 do it this way. That means that the command dials work backwards for me and result in overexposed photos when I intend to underexpose. Ugh.
As with my *ist DL I took a bunch of photos to evaluate the quality. Since the D2 has about 50% more resolution than my *ist DL and its a pro camera I expected the quality to be better. It definitely is. It is also my first crop-sensor Nikon which gave me the opportunity to see my images at higher magnification and crop out the worst part of my lenses (the corners).
I shot a variety of images around the house both indoors and out. I took photos with my 35 mm AF-D (52.5 mm equivalent view on this camera), 28 – 300 mm AF-G (42 – 450 mm), 24 – 120 mm AF-S (36 – 180 mm), 50 mm AF-D (75 mm), 90mm macro (135 mm), and a few with my 150 – 600 mm (225 – 900 mm) super telephoto. Outdoor images were shot at ISO 100 – 400 and indoor images were shot mostly at ISO 800, with a few at ISO 1600.
The shooting experience was easy and I felt very at home with it. The first big thing I noticed is how loud the shutter is. It makes a crisp and audible “clack”; it sounds very heavy duty. Though the burst rate is 1.5 fps slower than my D750, it’s still reasonable enough. Autofocus is more limited than my D750 but is still very fast and accurate when it likes the lens. It doesn’t seem to like my 50mm AF-D lens or my Tamron macro, but gets along well with my AF-S and super telephoto. Many of my 35 mm images are soft, but that is due to the lens.
Image stabilization worked correctly on all of the lenses that have it, but long ones like the 150 – 600 were nearly useless without a tripod. A 600 mm focal length is magnified to 900 mm, making any small hand movement blur the image. I tried continuous shooting but it wasn’t great because the D2Xs doesn’t have 3D tracking. I didn’t get many usable photos out of it.
The biggest challenge was really the screen because it isn’t very large and washes out quickly in bright sunlight. It also has a weird magnification interface that requires multiple button presses and a command dial scroll to zoom in on an image. Outside of that, the camera is pretty awesome, with every setting I need at arm’s length. It’s rather heavy though, especially with a giant lens like my 150 – 600 mm. This is not something I’d want to lug around on a trip.
Image quality so far has been good. Outdoor images are very well saturated, which was surprising since I’m shooting RAW. Many of the outdoor images barely needed adjustment and some were perfect right out of the camera. They were stunning, actually. I much prefer them to the JPEGs it generates – compared to RAW they are dull and soft. JPEGs are generally softer but better saturated and dynamic than RAW images. It was surprising to see better saturation in the RAWs. Maybe I had JPEGs set to the flat color profile. Either way, I didn’t like the JPEGs, so I kept shooting RAW.
Natively the D2Xs is limited to ISO 800, and noise is very well controlled at that speed; it looks more like film grain. ISO 1600 is a boosted mode and is usable but has much more noise and a bit of vertical banding. Don’t bother with ISO 3200. Fourteen years and a larger sensor allow my D750 to win out here – ISO 12,800 images look about the same ISO 1600 on the D2Xs, without the banding. Colors are reproduced well and white balance is OK but it has a tendency to skew green when there are a lot of green tones around. My D750 is much better.
The RAW files do provide some editing headroom, mostly in the shadows. There is a tiny bit of recovery from bright highlights but if they are blown they’re pretty much gone. I used the highlight warning mode when taking pictures and often had to underexpose to keep the highlights. It’s nothing like the 5 stop dynamic range of my D750, but it’s something.
While 12 MP is almost nothing by today’s standards, it’s rather usable in practice. Images are 4288 × 2848 pixels, which is more than 4K, and provide reasonable room for cropping. 14 MP would give it 5K resolution. I took numerous shots of birds that benefited from the cropping room it provides. Again, nothing like the 24 MP of my D750, but not bad for a 14 year old camera.
I think it’s really neat to own a piece of photography history, especially one that is still so similar to the cameras I use today. Will I use it again? Maybe. The resolution is still useable, the colors are fantastic, the camera is fun to use, and it zooms my images in further than my D750. I’m really excited to own a “professional” camera and all of the luxuries that come with it!
If you are on a super-tight budget and want something that is robust and high quality for still life, studio, and light candids, this isn’t bad for $200. That said, the same money could go to an older full-frame camera like a Canon EOS 5D or to a higher-resolution, but less robust crop-sensor camera like a Nikon D3200. Plus you need lenses. It’s all about what you want. I’ll be keeping it for my collection and probably using it on occasion. Maybe it’ll be a good teaching camera for the boys 😉