Classic Digital Cameras
Kodak's Vintage DCS 520 Digital SLR Is Now A Bargain...
But Is Tech From 1999 Just Too Outdated?

The D2000 sits next to its replacement, the EOS-1D (left).

Without a doubt, 1998 was an important year for the digital camera industry. For it was in '98 that the first really good, really usable, really portable digital SLR camera hit the shelves. A joint venture between Japanese camera maker Canon and American film giant Kodak, the camera hit the marketplace like wildfire. In an interesting joint marketing experiment, Canon released the camera as the D2000 with Canon badging, while Kodak rolled it out as the DCS 520, badged a Kodak but with the Canon logo clearly visible. The twins were based upon the defacto pro camera of the day, the Canon EOS-1N, and offered a big (for '98) file, 1728x 1152 pixels--a whopping 2.0 megapixels! For photographers using older DCS 420, DCS 410, and DCS 200 cameras, everything about the DCS 520 was revolutionary--especially the big LCD on the back!

Yep, the D2000/DCS 520 was the first pro camera with an instant review LCD, and it is the camera that invented "chimping"--the act of constantly reviewing what you just shot, rather than looking in front of you at what you're about to shoot. At a retail price of around $15,000, it was considered a reasonable investment by most daily newspapers, event imaging companies, and commercial photography studios. Certainly the 2 megapixel was plenty for newspaper work, and the big 6-megapixel sensor on the big brother DCS 560/D6000 would set one back $30,000. Ouch!

Canon picked up Kodak's technology and carried on, making the back panels and menu systems surprisingly similar on the D2000 and EOS-1D.

Way Back In '99
My involvement with the DCS 520 started in early '99. I had just spent about two hours playing with one at the Kodak booth at the big PMA show, fighting off other interested parties while I marveled at the DCS 520's speed, incredibly bright LCD, and deep, deep menu and custom functions. I was head over heels in love with this thing, and the 2-megapixel file size seemed just enough for a lot of the catalog jobs that I was shooting at the time. A few months later I managed to work a deal on a "demo" DCS 520 from a Boston camera shop, and $11,000 lighter I headed home with my new toy.

Over the course of about two years I banged out well over 100,000 shots on the DCS 520, eventually replacing it with a series of newer and better Canon digital SLRs. When I sold off the DCS 520 in early 2001, I got just enough dough back to buy a spanking new Canon EOS D30 body. With a bigger sensor, the ability to shoot JPEGs right in the camera and handle smaller CompactFlash cards, the EOS D30 seemed like a much more mature product.

Missing My 520
My first few months with the EOS D30 made me miss the DCS 520 worse than I thought. The DCS 520 had a great FireWire tethered mode, while the EOS D30 supported only dog-slow USB. The DCS 520 used Kodak's excellent PhotoDesk software, while the EOS D30 had Canon's amateur-oriented Zoom Browser. Most importantly, the DCS 520 was a real EOS-1N body, with a full 3 frames per second and that excellent, super accurate predictive autofocus. The EOS D30 was good for what it was at the time, but really couldn't match the DCS 520 for build quality, autofocus, and file handling. Currently I shoot with EOS-1D and EOS-1Ds bodies, and certainly they are a major advance over the older DCS 520 cameras.

So what happened to those tens of thousands of DCS 520 bodies that were sold over the course of the late '90s? Even though I have the latest and greatest Canon bodies, I thought I would look into a cheap DCS 520 body to keep around the house while the newer bodies stayed in the lockup at my commercial studio. With DCS 520 prices now hovering at or in some cases well below a grand, how could I resist?

Comparing "Old" And New
Compared to the EOS-1D or even a newer Canon EOS 10D, the DCS 520 really is a beast. It's bigger, heavier, much, much louder, and the LCD seems horribly grainy by modern standards. That said, even an old beat DCS 520 still autofocuses faster and more accurately than every D-SLR out there, short of an EOS-1D or Nikon D1H. Given the price on a used DCS 520, it's really comparable in purchase price to a good point-and-shoot camera, and the operational difference is stunning. I don't know if you've ever tried to shoot a sporting event or an active child with a point-and-shoot digital camera, but it's nearly impossible due to focus lock and shutter lag issues. That's not the case with a used DCS 520--focus is quick and perfect and the camera happily shoots along at 3.5 fps until its 12 frame buffer is filled.

The DCS 520 can handle two PCMCIA flash cards at once--in my case a whopping 900MB of storage!

Is File Size That Important?
Certainly the file size is a problem. I have a 5-megapixel point-and-shoot that fits in my back pocket that simply blows this camera away for file size. Can 2 megapixels compete in a modern world? Frankly, yes. I always told friends back in the day that a single DCS 520 pixel was easily worth two or three point-and-shoot pixels, and I think that has remained true. Compare a DCS 520 image shot at ISO 200 with a 4-megapixel image shot at ISO 200 from a really good $800 point-and-shoot camera, and in most cases you'll find that they will make comparable 8x10 prints. ISO 200 shots with these cameras are fairly noiseless, something that definitely cannot be said for point-and-shoot images from any manufacturer. The lack of noise means that you can re-size the images quite handily. I re-size every DCS 520 image into 2640x1760 files. That's a 4.6-megapixel image, and compared pixel for pixel with my 5-megapixel consumer camera files, I think the files hold up fairly well.

Anti-Aliasing Filter
One of the things that you'll need to get around with the DCS 520 is the whole Anti-Aliasing (AA) issue. Unlike newer cameras that employ a softening filter on the sensor and then automatically re-sharpen in firmware, the early Kodak cameras had a user-removable AA filter located just in front of the mirror. By softening the image just a bit, you increased the "circle of confusion" of very fine objects like individual hairs and fine detail, avoiding the typical RGB candy-cane aliasing. Of course, it was up to the user to sharpen after the fact, but this camera was built for pros, right? Most experienced pros at the time simply took the AA filter off, since the prevailing wisdom at the time was that it softened the image way too much. I'm of the no-AA school also. One of the big disappointments for amateurs buying used DCS 520s is the AA filter. They get their big pro camera bargain home, bang off a dozen shots that are really soft and lifeless, and put the camera back up on eBay.

Without the AA filter the DCS 520 images are tack-sharp, but of course there are some instances of moiré and aliasing. A great tool for removing aliasing from the era was Camera Bits' "Quantum Mechanic," which I used every day with my original DCS 520. Today I have found that the Photoshop plug-in that Phase One includes with Capture One is a fantastic moiré removal tool. It instantly removes any aliasing in my files without harming fine detail.

Buying Tips
If you're looking to buy one of these digital bargains today, look for the cleanest camera you can find. Since these cameras were custom designed for working photojournalists, most of them are quite beat. Guys who shoot hundreds of images every day do not baby their equipment.

In my quest for a good DCS 520 I looked at ex-Boston Globe and ex-Los Angeles Times cameras--some with 80,000 to 100,000 actuations (that's exposures in Kodak-speak). The Kodak menu allows the user to instantly check on the total number of actuations on every body, and that number is not resettable. Sure, my own DCS 520 was going strong in '01 with 111,000 actuations, but buying a high mileage DCS 520 is taking a calculated risk.

The first thing you'll notice in your search is that D2000 and DCS 520 bodies seem to show different levels of wear. That's because the DCS 520 was marketed directly to photojournalists while the Canon version was marketed more to studio photographers. While many, many more DCS 520s were made than D2000s, you'll find that D2000s are usually fresher. That said, it's worth looking for a DCS 520 that's clean enough. Why, you ask, if they're identical? Well there is one very interesting wrinkle--both cameras save images to one of the two internal PCMCIA flash card slots in proprietary Kodak TIFF format. While the files are about 2MB each, they open in Photoshop as tiny little preview files.

To open the full 2-megapixel image you'll need Kodak supplied software. The Canon version only uses a Photoshop Twain plug-in called the Acquire Module, while all Kodak cameras are supported by the latest version of Kodak's PhotoDesk software. The ability to open and edit images outside of Photoshop is an advantage, and really makes it worth your while to look for a DCS 520 over a D2000. If you can live without the +/- four stops of exposure compensation, excellent white balance control, and quick rotation of images in the Kodak software, you can quickly and easily open the Kodak TIFFs using the new "File Format Module," which allows Photoshop to open the full resolution file.

Bringing It Home
In my case I found a very clean D2000 for well under $1000 with only 17,000 actuations on it. Since that's about a month of my typical shooting, I knew that I should be able to get years of use out of this body. Once I had my camera home I searched through my "technology closet." Every photographer has one of these, and mine is stuffed with broken strobe heads, dead camera bodies, and lots of old computer stuff.

Finding Media
I found my old drives for the DCS 520 and figured I'd see if they still worked. To my surprise my old 320MB Calluna cards worked like a charm. A single card takes up two PCMCIA slots, so it fills the D2000's internal slots completely. Since I don't have a reader for a two PCMCIA slot card, I simply plugged the camera into the same FireWire cable that I used with the EOS-1Ds and bingo--the camera became a card reader! Of course, you must use either PhotoDesk or the camera's Acquire Module to access the images, so that might slow you down a bit.

I decided to find some more modern flash media so I looked online, where I found nice flash cards--single-slot PCMCIA cards with big 448MB capacity--at a ridiculously low $25 each. I figure that 900MB of storage (about 450 shots) for $50 is a pretty good bargain, and with a $9 USB PCMCIA reader I could now just dump files from the cards to my hard drive.

For my money I got the super-clean body, all of the original manuals and software, the AC adapter to run the camera from regular wall current, and the Kodak fast charger with two new-style batteries. These cameras are only a bargain if you can find a complete kit like this, because good luck finding the stuff after you buy a naked body! When it comes to batteries avoid the original batteries, which are simply marked "Kodak Professional." These are older NiCd packs and really are useless. Look instead for either "Premium Plus" batteries or "Gold" batteries, since these are the Ni-MH high-capacity batteries.

Don't be swayed by a seller's included flash cards, since these cameras can accept standard CompactFlash cards with an inexpensive adapter. A great advantage of buying into the Kodak family of digital cameras is the incredible support that Kodak offers for even older legacy products. I found all the latest updated drivers on Kodak's website for instant downloading, even the latest firmware for the camera and a Windows XP FireWire driver. All for free!

The latest firmware is a must, since it allows you to set up to 10 custom white balances in the Acquire Module, and then save them to the flash card for use in the camera. This gives you a ton of custom white balances "canned." Very sweet. The new firmware also finally allows for good old-fashioned JPEG files to be produced in camera. In fact, I often shoot a ton of stuff, then plug the camera into the AC adapter and have the camera process the JPEGs. Now I can just dump the files into my computer to view using any software.

My D2000 is a great camera. It looks totally pro, functions beautifully, and produces very acceptable 8x10" prints on my Epson 2200P. While there are plenty of newer cameras with much larger sensors, this camera was designed for a rugged pro usage. I use mine as my primary weekend camera, and I've filled a small gadget bag with a couple of batteries, a couple of decent EOS lenses, and an older Canon flash, all for around $1200.

Some Straight Talk
Let's get this straight: Finding a bargain on a used Kodak DCS 520 or a used Canon D2000 is not for everyone. This is older technology, and everything about this camera other than the sterling EOS-1N body is a bit dated. That said, there is no cheaper way to get a good pro camera in your hands that accepts the full EOS lens line and can produce usable digital images.

I know a handful of pros who shoot for small daily papers that still use these cameras on a daily basis and swear by them, and plenty of event photographers who still operate a fleet of these things. Practically all of your favorite news and sports pictures from '98 though '01 were shot with these cameras. As a collector's item or curiosity piece, the DCS 520 and D2000 cameras are fun and reasonably affordable pieces. As working cameras, their performance still beats much of the current amateur and prosumer offerings on the market today.