Kodak's Pro SLR/n
Kodak Roars Back With A Revised Digital SLR

Look familiar? Sure it does. Cosmetically the new and vastly improved Pro SLR/n looks nearly identical to the old DCS 14n, but inside it's a whole new day for Kodak.

The digital SLR world is a jungle. Just days after Canon announced its earthshaking 11-megapixel, full frame, EOS-1Ds SLR in September of 2002, Kodak blew them out of the water with their 14-megapixel SLR, the DCS 14n. The Kodak digital SLR was not only offering a bigger sensor (full frame like the Canon), Nikon lens compatibility, and a smaller and lighter package than the Canon competitor, it was also $3000 cheaper!

Well, the DCS 14n didn't really manage to compete with the EOS-1Ds for the high-end commercial photographers, but it has become the main camera for tons and tons of pros out there, mostly wedding and portrait photographers. The big sensor, great Kodak color, and excellent included software package made the DCS 14n a compelling camera, and a bargain to boot. Of course, it was not all wine and roses for the new megapixel champ from Rochester.

The grumblings began almost right away. Web forums began to buzz with reports of uneven color shifts, incompatibility with some Nikon mount lenses, noise at higher ISO settings, poor long exposure performance, and a host of other problems. No one disputed that in a portrait studio or on location with good strobe lighting the DCS 14n was second to none. The beef was in using the DCS 14n as an all-around camera.

Then suddenly, Kodak announced that it was discontinuing its entire line of medium format digital backs. This left the DCS 14n as the only pro-oriented digital offering from Kodak. While the DCS 14n remained popular, Kodak did what Kodak always does--they listened very carefully to their customers, issued frequent firmware upgrades for existing DCS 14n owners, and then went back to the lab and came out with a totally re-engineered camera that costs the same!

I think that most users of the Pro SLR/n will be people shooters--whether it's wedding, portrait, or commercial. Here we have three images all shot within moments: the two on the left are from the Pro SLR/n, the far left image processed in Kodak's Photo Desk, the middle image processed in Adobe Camera Raw, and the far right image from Canon's EOS-1Ds. Color, contrast, and tonality are all a matter of personal preference, but I would have to say that the Pro SLR/n files processed properly in Photo Desk produced simply the best skin tones of any digital SLR that I've used.
Photos © 2004, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Familiar Face, New Innards
The new camera really looks just like the old camera, but now is named the "Pro SLR/n." According to Kodak every single piece of the camera, aside from the Nikon mechanicals (based on an F80 prosumer body), is brand new. The redesigned sensor, digital and analog boards, and other Kodak specific firmware make for a very different device. The plan, according to Kodak, was to address all of their customers' issues, and throw in a few extra treats besides. DCS 14n owners might be a bit upset to learn that their camera is now a doorstop, but the picture now looks a lot brighter since Kodak has offered a complete camera update for around $1500. This update essentially turns an old DCS 14n into a Pro SLR/n. Sweet! It's this level of commitment that has endeared Kodak to so many digital pros.

As soon as a working Pro SLR/n was available, Kodak shipped it to my studio. Unboxing a brand-new Pro SLR/n is a case of déjà vu. The camera looks and feels just like the DCS 14n, which is both a good and bad thing. The decidedly "prosumer" Nikon mechanicals do a decent job, but are no match for the F100-based Nikon D1X body, and forget about comparing it to the flagship EOS-1Ds body or the older 6-megapixel Kodak DCS 760.

Popping in a CompactFlash card and firing the camera up reveals a few new wrinkles. First of all, the new camera has a roomy 512MB buffer and finally a "sleep" mode. These two changes are reason enough for many pros to go with a Pro SLR/n. Now you can bang off up to 19 shots in a row before the camera slows down to process files, and the auto sleep mode will reduce the number of times you pull the camera out of the bag only to find it stone dead.

Kodak DCS cameras have always been favored by pros for their comprehensive
and powerful software, and the new version of Photo Desk is no exception. Color, sharpening, noise reduction, and color space are all assignable "on-the-fly.".

Image Files
I shot with the Pro SLR/n for several weeks, often using it as my main camera for client work. The most striking thing about the files produced by the new Pro SLR/n are their incredible details. Not only do images shot with the Pro SLR/n best the acclaimed EOS-1Ds files by a little bit, in my tests they compared very, very favorably to my own $28,000 medium format digital back.

Kodak has done some very clever things with the sensor design of this camera, most notably the radical new cover glass. All digital sensors need to filter out the heavy infrared that is present in most scenes. Without an IR filter most images lose color saturation and reds tend to drift toward orange. In past cameras, Kodak has used a fairly standard IR filter that simply reflects back to unwanted IR light. This is the standard filter found in all other cameras on the market today. The new filter actually absorbs the IR light, not merely reflecting it back to bounce around the mirror chamber. The result is an image that is noticeably sharper than the previous camera, and a substantial lowering of blue channel noise.

Here's a shot that I couldn't take with the DCS 14n. With strobes set up all over the room, I needed a 6-sec exposure at f/22 to get the screen and monitors bright enough. This file is virtually noiseless, and on the DCS 14n (and many other digital SLRs) it would be peppered with dark frame noise.

ISO Speed And Range
The Pro SLR/n has a default ISO of 160--largely due to the slight light loss caused by the absorption filter, which knocks it down from its default ISO of 200. (The older DCS 14n had a default ISO of 100.) ISO 160 takes a little bit of an adjustment for those of us living in the ISO 100 or 200 world. That enhanced sensitivity over the older camera is welcome, and it is accompanied by an overall lowering of RGB color noise.

While Kodak's literature for the camera trumpets ISO speeds of 6-1600, I think that anything past ISO 800 is a stretch. Certainly high ISO images processed in Kodak's Photo Desk can produce acceptable prints, but the amount of noise still seems quite high, with diminished image sharpness and detail. I do think that Pro SLR/n shooters who regularly need a quick ISO 400 or 800 shot, especially wedding photographers looking for ambient light church stuff, will be quite satisfied with the results.

Full frame means just that--the sensor in the Pro SLR/n covers the same 24x36mm area as a standard 35mm film frame so your existing lenses work as expected. This means that wide angles remain wide angles.

Recording Speed
Shooting continuously is a better experience as well. While the camera is still a fairly slow shooter, the enlarged 512MB RAM buffer means that you can bang off 19 shots in a row before the camera begs for mercy. In my tests the camera routinely paused after 16 JPEG shots, but furiously wrote the files to the card, and I could keep shooting at a slower rate. It's the writing to the card that drags performance down. Using 40x CompactFlash cards it still took me nearly 11/2 minutes to flush the buffer, compared to roughly 35 seconds for an EOS-1Ds. I think that studio shooters, especially those who shoot fashion, need to carefully examine their shooting style and see if this camera can keep up with them.

Overall Impressions
The overall shooting experience with the Pro SLR/n is fairly good. While the Nikon body is based on prosumer gear, everything looks and feels like quality. Kodak's menu system is deep and the LCD is extremely bright. With the incredible level of control that the Kodak firmware offers, the bright LCD is a big plus.

Coming from a higher end EOS or Nikon body, the Pro SLR/n does feel particularly pokey. Autofocus is good, but not up to par with the higher end Nikon or Canon bodies. In my tests the camera routinely hunted on dark subjects, while a Nikon D1X using an identical lens had no trouble. The shutter release also shares a more prosumer feel. There's just that slight bit of delay between when you push the button and when the camera trips. It's hardly enough to be noticeable, but it prevents the photographer from having that "hard-wired" feeling.

Those operational issues aside, working with the images shot by this camera is a tremendously liberating experience. I think Kodak's basic premise was to cram as much technology into a reasonably priced SLR body, and let the pros get at it. Not a bad idea, because I was able to shoot some really tremendous work with it.

While I've heard some complain about the high ISO performance of the Pro SLR/n, whatever noise there is on a "huge" 14-megapixel file. Here's a wedding shot provided by Kodak shot at ISO 800--not too shabby, don't you think?

Software Set
Kodak's included Photo Desk software gives the Pro SLR/n shooter all of the great color, awesome sharpness, and leading-edge noise reduction of Phase One's Capture One program, but without the added expense. As with all Kodak software packages since the days of the DCS 100, Photo Desk offers the true "digital negative" user experience. The Pro SLR/n shoots in Kodak's familiar .DCR format. This "raw" file contains all of the pixel data shot by the camera, and then it's up to Photo Desk to create a usable TIFF or JPEG. With an exceptional four-stop exposure compensation, on the fly sharpening, toning and noise reduction, shooting raw is a luxury that you can't afford to live without. In addition, the Pro SLR/n also shoots in Kodak's ERI JPEG format--compressed files that still allow the photographer to perform after-the-shoot modifications in Photo Desk.

Working with the latest version of Photo Desk is tons of fun. I particularly like Kodak's "looks" profile, built into Photo Desk. Rather than mess around with levels and curves on your own, Kodak has built in a series of popular looks that give the Pro SLR/n unrivaled versatility. It's like having a dozen or so different kinds of film loaded into your computer--all instantly available at the click of the mouse. What fun!

You download all of the files from your photo shoot, and then have the ability to effectively correct for fairly large amounts of over or underexposure, gray balance, and other ambient light conditions, and then instantly click in a totally different "look." While Photo Desk is no match for Capture One when it comes to speed and overall workflow speed, it has enough tricks up its sleeve to better Capture One in overall versatility. Quick image modifications can be made, and then all files processed when you're done, or you can process each file "on-the-fly." Even better, Photo Desk comes free with every Pro SLR/n purchased.

Besides Photo Desk there is now another way to open and process raw DCR files. Adobe's new Photoshop CS has finally put a patch on their website to allow CS to open DCR files using Adobe's quick and easy Adobe Camera Raw software (built into Photoshop CS). As powerful as Photo Desk is, there are plenty of times when the Adobe Camera Raw software makes sense. First of all, you're already in Photoshop, so for
one-at-a-time image editing this is clearly the way to go. Secondly, the Adobe Camera Raw engine now includes tons of really well-designed digital imaging tools. I especially think Adobe's sharpening and noise reduction algorithms work very well with Pro SLR/n files.

Skin Tone Superiority
In side by side comparisons, I found the Adobe Camera Raw processed files routinely showed incredibly smooth backgrounds with no trace of noise, crisp and realistic detail, and the kind of eye-popping sharpness usually reserved for expensive medium format backs. Photo Desk is certainly capable of fairly similar results--especially when the noise reduction box is set to "Expert" and sharpening is manually applied, but I never could reproduce Adobe Camera Raw's unique combination of stunning sharpness and silky smooth
solid areas.

Using Photoshop as your main raw conversion tool isn't a slam dunk. The main reason why many choose Kodak digital cameras is for the color. From the DCS 520 on I've found Kodak pro-oriented digital SLRs to have the most natural skin tones of any cameras out there, and I think the Pro SLR/n continues to lead the pack. I liked the skin tones on the DCS 14n, but on the Pro SLR/n it's really gorgeous.

Caucasian skin tones are rich, creamy, and never red, pink, or yellow. African American skin is warm and glowing, without the deep cyan shadows that plague so many other digital devices. It's really a fantastic camera for shooting people, but you really need the power of Photo Desk to unlock its potential. No matter how hard I tried I could not get Photoshop CS to reproduce the glowing, natural skin tones that I got easily with Photo Desk. For that matter, the four other high-end digital cameras I had available to me during my test period had a tough time recreating the Kodak's gorgeous skin tones.

Long-Time Exposures
Pushing the limits of the Pro SLR/n produced some interesting results. Since I shoot some architectural work I tried a few long exposures. Kodak offers an amazing stretched ISO range--all the way down to ISO 6 for long exposures. To produce sharp and virtually noiseless long exposures the Pro SLR/n actually takes a short 1/2 sec exposure to use for "dark frame subtraction"--a method used in many cameras, but it's particularly effective here. Twelve-sec exposures looked very clean, a radical departure from the DCS 14n. High ISO results were also a surprise.

While I had heard lots of crabbing about the Pro SLR/n's high ISO results from online web gurus, in my extensive testing I found the files to be useable. ISO 400 and 800 results were quite good. Photo Desk automatically deals with the noise created in these files, and while some details were slightly smeared, I found the overall results to be really pleasing. The same files processed with all noise reduction set to "off" produced files that were pretty rough, about what you would expect from a consumer-level digital camera. At ISO 1600 I found results that were marginally usable, with lots of RGB color noise and a fair amount of image softening.

After a couple of weeks of actually using the Pro SLR/n on a daily basis I began to get a good sense of its considerable strengths. Obviously this is not the perfect camera for all pros, but I found the incredible detail, glorious color, uncanny skin tone rendition, and versatile Photo Desk software to be industry-leading. Never
mind the fact that this camera has a street price that is about $3000 cheaper than the competition! Certainly this is not the camera for the photojournalist, nor is it intended to be. For Nikon lens owners shooting in controlled conditions and especially with studio lighting, this is the sharpest and best file available. With Kodak's ongoing commitment to support its users at a level not found elsewhere, I think the Pro SLR/n is a wise investment for the seriousphotographer or working professional.

For more information on the Pro SLR/n, visit Kodak's website at: www.kodak.com.

Kodak's Return To Canon: The Pro SLR/c Offers Big Performance For Canon Shooters
As we went to press Kodak threw its hat back into the Canon-mount SLR world. The Kodak Pro SLR/c utilizes the same sensor and electronics as the Pro SLR/n, but couples it to a custom-designed Canon EOS lens mount body.

What is particularly shocking is the news from Kodak that the camera bits--the "Canon" stuff--are not from Canon at all, but rather a "new, custom magnesium body." Custom? My best guess is that there's a camera manufacturer behind this body, and with Kodak's recent business dealings with Olympus who knows.

What is known is that the new camera is an EOS-mount digital SLR that accepts all the EF lenses, EX flashes, and Canon accessories, with a full-frame sensor with more resolution than Canon's flagship offering and a street price about $3000 less. It will share the Pro SLR/n's 14-megapixel sensor, Kodak electronics, and proprietary .DCR raw files, as well as the ability to produce standard JPEG or ERI-JPEG files in camera.

Obviously the Pro SLR/c will be no match for the EOS-1Ds when it comes to shooting speed, high ISO performance, or handling, but Shutterbug has run files from the new 14-megapixel Kodak cameras up against EOS-1Ds files, and in many instances the Kodak is a better performer. Kodak claims improved EX-series flash performance over existing Canon digital SLRs, as well as the frequent firmware updates that Kodak owners have become accustomed to.

It's about time that Kodak found a way to get back into the Canon fold, and Rochester has promised us one of the very first cameras to run through its paces. Stay tuned.