Nikon likes incremental upgrades. Just as the company issued the D70s before moving from the D70 to the D80, they made a handful of upgrades to the 12.4-megapixel D2X to create the D2Xs. In addition to improving the LCD viewing angle and tweaking the autofocus performance, the battery life, and a handful of other minor features, Nikon also modified the high-speed crop function to make it more intuitive to use. They've also added a new black-and-white mode, added Adobe RGB as an option when using the camera's various colour modes, and added 1/3 stop steps between ISO 800 and Hi-1 (Nikon's equivalent to ISO 1600).
If you've made it through reading the last paragraph, you've at least started to realise that the D2Xs is geared toward professional photographers. Just like Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark II, Nikon's D2Xs represents the pinnacle of the company's SLR line. As such, it's probably more camera than most people need and has a price tag that would make even Donald Trump sit up and pay attention.
Once the Donald does start paying attention, he'll notice that the D2Xs' image sensor isn't the same size as a frame of 35mm film (meaning it's not a full-frame sensor). That means, like most less-expensive dSLRs and all other Nikon dSLRs, the D2Xs has a 1.5x crop factor. While this can be useful if most of your shooting involves telephoto lenses -- in which case a 200mm lens ends up with an equivalent field of view of a 300mm lens -- it also limits the camera's wide-angle capabilities, because a 16mm lens ends up with an equivalent field of view of a 24mm lens when used on the D2Xs. Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark II and its EOS 5D both offer full-frame sensors. Nikon says that they decided to standardise a 1.5x crop factor across all their dSLRs in an effort to avoid confusion and maximise lens interoperability among their digital models, but some photographers insist on nothing less than a full frame. You'll have to decide how important a full-frame sensor is to you if you're looking for a dSLR of this caliber.
Built to last, with a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body, the Nikon D2Xs sports the same thoughtful design as its predecessor. Its built-in vertical grip helps make this model larger than the average SLR. It measures 157.5mm by 149.5mm by 85.5mm without a lens, and at 1.07 kilograms (with its battery and a CompactFlash card), it's not exactly light either, though it's still 145 grams lighter than the EOS-1Ds Mark II. That said, the D2Xs is extremely comfortable to hold, with a fully rubberised grip that's very nicely contoured. It even has a slight indentation on the inside of the front of the grip that, along with the curved ridge on the camera back, keeps the camera feeling secure in your hand no matter what angle you hold it at.
Buttons and dials are conveniently located for the most part, and Nikon paid close attention to making sure that any controls that might be susceptible to accidental switching have some sort of locking mechanism. For example, you have to pull the diopter dial out before turning it, just as you have to pull a wristwatch's pin to set the time, and the second shutter release (on the vertical grip) and the menu navigation rocker can both be locked. In our field tests, we were able to quickly and easily change any of the shooting parameters without confusion. The one slightly counterintuitive control involves playback. To navigate through images you've taken, you have to press up or down on the rocker control, but pressing left or right would make more sense. Nikon's big, bright viewfinder makes framing and manual focusing more enjoyable than they are on some less-expensive SLRs.
Current shooting information, such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance, are spread between two LCD screens, one on the camera's top and a smaller one below the 2.5-inch LCD screen on the camera's back. The smaller one is dedicated to ISO, white balance, and image-size and -quality settings, and it has corresponding buttons below it to access those controls. This system ends up being a bit quicker and less contorted than Canon's equivalent system of holding down pairs of buttons to access functions, such as ISO, on the EOS-1Ds Mark II. To change shutter speed and aperture, you use the two scroll wheels built into the body on the front and back of the grip.
At the heart of this imaging machine is a CMOS sensor with 12.84 total megapixels, though only 12.4 megapixels are used for image capture. As mentioned above, the sensor has a 1.5x crop factor. This jumps to a 2x factor if you choose to engage the D2Xs' high-speed crop mode, which crops the edge of the sensor, dropping the pixel resolution to 6.8 megapixels, but boosts the continuous shooting speed from 5 frames per second to 8fps. Nikon makes this feature more convenient in the D2Xs by graying out the edges of the viewfinder when in high-speed crop mode, to make it easier to frame your shots. The D2X just had small markers. Also, Nikon tweaked the metering system to use only the cropped area when metering in this mode.
Speaking of metering, Nikon includes its 3D colour Matrix Metering II. In this case the system has a 1,005-pixel sensor, which compares what it sees with a database of images to determine the proper exposure for the scene. The same system, with fewer pixels in its sensor, is used in the D80, and as we saw with it, the camera does a very nice job of determining exposures, even in complex situations.
The 11-area autofocus system includes nine cross-type sensors, all of which are active in high-speed crop mode. The AF system is rated to work down to -1 EV, which is to say that this camera will focus automatically even in extremely dim situations, as long as you point it at something with a modicum of contrast.
As in all the company's dSLRs, Nikon expresses the D2Xs' highest sensitivity settings as "Hi." This time, Nikon added third-stop increments between ISO 800 and Hi-1, so the D2Xs includes Hi-0.3, Hi-0.7, Hi-1, and Hi-2. Hi-1 is essentially equivalent to ISO 1,600, while Hi-2 can be thought of as ISO 3,200. Nikon has also added more control over the camera's Auto ISO setting. By delving into the custom function menu, you can select the highest ISO the camera will use in Auto ISO mode, as well as the minimum acceptable shutter speed. The maximum sensitivity options are limited to ISO 200, ISO 400, or ISO 800, and the minimum shutter speeds range from 1 second to 1/250 second.
The D2Xs is compatible with Nikon's i-TTL and D-TTL flash systems. That means you can use it with any of Nikon's wide array of creative lighting products, such as the SB-800 and SB-600 flash units, and the R1C1 Close-Up Speedlight Commander kit for macro photography.
Fans of black-and-white shots should appreciate the D2Xs' new black-and-white mode, though this option is only available when using the sRGB colour space. Colour-film fans may get a kick out of the Tone Compensation setting, which lets you choose from three contrast curves, or up to three custom curves, which can be made to mimic certain types of film, such as Fuji Velvia or Kodak's now-defunct pop-culture favorite Kodachrome. As usual though, Nikon makes you buy the Camera Control Pro software in order to make your own tone curves. It's not an insignificant purchase, and when you've just bought a camera for well over AU$6,000, it seems silly for Nikon not to include it. The same goes for the company's Capture NX software.
All told, the D2Xs includes 42 custom functions. To list them all here would be excessive, but suffice it to say that you have a vast amount of control over the systems in the camera and how they operate together. To get the most out of the D2Xs, you should plan on spending a significant amount of time tweaking the custom settings.
Since the camera isn't available with an official kit lens, we used the Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 D ED-IF AF-S lens in our lab tests. To quote a close friend, "The Nikon D2Xs is a rocket ship." The camera took 0.2 second to start up and capture its first image. Subsequent Fine (highest quality) JPGs lagged 0.63 second between shots, and RAWs and TIFFs took 0.7 second between shots. Shutter lag measured 0.35 second in bright conditions and 1.1 seconds in dim light.
Continuous shooting yielded 5.5fps when capturing 3-megapixel, Fine-quality JPGs, and yielded 3.1fps when capturing 12.4-megapixel, Fine-quality JPGs. In high-speed crop mode, the D2Xs lived up to Nikon's claims. We captured 6.8-megapixel, Fine-quality JPGs at a rate of 8fps.
The metering system does an excellent job of finding a proper exposure, even in tricky situations such as backlit or unevenly lit scenes. The AF system is extremely fast. More than once, I was surprised at how fast the camera was able to achieve focus and grab an image. I found myself checking to make sure that it really did properly focus, and sure enough it did.
Nikon has upgraded the battery to the new EN-EL4a lithium ion rechargeable, which offers 2,500 mAh of power. In our field tests, that was more than enough for a couple of days of heavy shooting, resulting in thousands of frames per charge. Nikon rates the battery at between 1,150 and 3,800 shots, depending on a variety of conditions such as the lens used, the shooting mode, and the AF mode.
Images from the Nikon D2Xs are stunning. Under optimal conditions you can capture oodles of sharp detail with extremely accurate colour and a wide dynamic range. The automatic white balance yielded a very minor yellowish cast under our labs' tungsten lights, though the tungsten preset was much more neutral. The manual white balance provided the most neutral results.
Noise was practically nonexistent all the way up to ISO 400 in our tests, and even at ISO 800 it was extremely minimal, manifesting itself as a very fine grain that didn't appreciably detract from image sharpness. Even at ISO Hi-1 we only saw a minor softening of sharp details, though our images lost a more noticeable amount of shadow detail. By ISO Hi-2 a significant amount of shadow detail is lost and noise becomes readily apparent, detracting from the overall image quality. Still, we were impressed at the amount of sharp detail that remained. Though we'd shy away from using Hi-2 for large prints, it can provide passable prints at smaller sizes and is a welcome option for shooting in extremely dark conditions. Hi-1 is a better option for dim situations and can yield pleasing prints under the right conditions. Shooting RAW or TIFF files at these higher ISO settings can help you eke out a tad more detail.
Overall, the Nikon D2Xs is an amazing camera. It is an extremely responsive, powerful imaging tool meant to tackle even the most challenging photographic situations, and it lives up to the task. Though there are other cameras that can top it in certain areas, you'd be hard-pressed to find a camera that is as versatile as this one. True, Canon's 8-megapixel EOS-1D Mark II N can shoot at up to 8.5fps, but it doesn't have the option of bumping up to 12 megapixels. Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark II will always retain an edge for some photographers because of its higher pixel count and, more importantly, its full-frame sensor. But for Nikon shooters, you can't get any better than the D2Xs.