Nikon D2X and Subal ND2 Review

Image Quality Tests
These first tests were done on the excellent new liveaboard MV Snapdragon on a typical “best of the Northern Red Sea” Itinerary – i.e. a normal week of diving rather than photographic diving. The aim of my trip was simply to get to know the camera, and so I tried every lens/lighting combination I could. I shot with 10.5mm, 12-24mm, 28-70mm, 60mm micro and 105mm micro (and extra dioptres). I shot with strobes (Subtronic Alphas), in available light, both with and without filters, and I also tested the cameras ability to shoot sunbursts (although the rough conditions were not always ideal). I mainly shot ISO 100, but I used ISO 200 for filter photography and even ISO 400 on the deeper wrecks. An important area I was not able to assess is the quality of the RAW files – as ACR cannot currently read them. I shot RAW + JPG Basic (in Adobe RGB mode III) and even the basic JPGs blew me away…

The D2X offers a massive image quality jump from the cameras I have used before. My previous camera was a Nikon D100 and more recently I have been using the D70. I was also able to verify my views on this improvement because my travel companion, UWP Magazine Editor Peter Rowlands, was using a D70. As soon as you open a D2X file the difference in image quality is immediately obvious, indeed Peter jokingly banned me from showing him any more D2X files zoomed to 100, 200 and 400%! Many people may focus on the 12 vs 6 Megapixel numbers, but it is the quality of the D2X image at 100%, not the size that is most impressive. The colours are rich, saturated and reminiscent of slide film, and the images are sharp and clean.

So to the underwater tests. The 10.5mm performed very well through the Subal FE2 Dome when shooting both with strobes and in available light. I have always found that this dome is also excellent for split levels. I felt that the D2X also did a very good job with sunbursts without the need for ultra-fast shutter speeds. I only shot sunbursts on 2 dives (and even then, conditions were not ideal) and would like to make some more tests, but first impressions (shooting at f9-f11 @ 1/250th) are very encouraging. Blue water, in the JPGs, was also captured with a pleasing hue and saturation. I only shot the 12-24mm on one dive (borrowed from Peter Rowlands), but I felt it suffered a bit in the corners. This may well be attributable to my poor dome port setup, but whatever the reason the 12 Megapixel DX sized sensor requires good optics to fulfil its potential. Manual white balancing is easy and works effectively on any neutral subject. Indeed I got good results by just white balancing on the subject I was about to shoot. Both the 60mm and 105mm macro lens were excellent for sharpness, with the 60mm just edging it. AF much faster than the D100/D70. The saturation of these macro images was also impressive. Finally my trusty Sigma 28-70mm f2.8, used behind a flat port, did a good job. This lens is not as sharp as the macro primes, but I felt the sharpness and saturation was better than the 12-24mm. I have posted a gallery of 24 images on my website, with more detailed comments on the performance under different shooting conditions, see: http://www.amustard.com/d2x/

The Subal ND2. Image courtesy of Underwater Photography Magazine.

The Housing
The Subal ND2 housing is well weighted in the water (although negative with my heavy Subtronics) and the housing ergonomics are first class. Every control is correctly geared (i.e. one click for one stop) and weighted. Throughout, you can sense the care and craftsmanship that has gone into it. The housing offers 29 controls for the camera and the main ones fall immediately to hand. Lenses (using the lens release lever) and memory cards can be changed without removing the camera from the housing. Although the D2X must be slid back on the mounting tray to change the battery, but I found that it always lasted a full day of liveaboard shooting. The camera must also be slid back slightly to download pictures via the USB2 cable.

My biggest surprise of the week was that I did not notice the increased size of the housing over the Subal D70 I was using 6 weeks ago (the Subal D2X is much larger). But I still hold the opinion that a good small camera is better than a good big camera for underwater photography (so long as the housing is appropriately smaller). My only criticism of the ND2 is that it is not the most attractive housing, and can look a bit boxy from the front when fitted with a small port!

The D2X has exceptionally good Auto Focus, using an improved version of Nikon’s Multi-CAM2000 11 point Auto-Focus sensor, which is a generation beyond the F5, F100, D1 series Multi-CAM1300 5 point sensor and two steps up on the D100, D70, S2 and S3 Multi-CAM900. The D2X AF is amazing, but underwater in the shadows, on low contrast subject it can still hunt a bit. So it is not perfect, but it is awesome and way, way, way better than the D100/D70.