Inspirations from older cameras: the Nikon D2H, part 1

Possibly one of the most unpopular Nikons ever, and certainly the most derided professional DSLR – the D2H had a mere 4.2MP (the 0.2 mattered, when you only had 4.2 in total) when launched in 2004; its direct competition, the Canon 1D Mark II, had double that at 8MP. Worse still, Nikon’s much feted low noise JFET LBCAST sensor was in fact extremely noisy and pretty much unusable at ISO 1600 and above; an updated version – the D2Hs – actually had very good high ISO performance, but by then, the damage was done.

What the camera did do well was be insanely responsive – from the lighting-fast AF system, to 40ms shutter lag and hair trigger buttons, to 8fps shooting, it just felt alive. It was also a great teaching tool, precisely because it was so unforgiving of exposure or WB errors that you just had to learn to get it right, or not get a useable shot at all. When you did get it right, the D2H punched way above its pixel class – it resolved about the same amount of detail as my 6MP D70, and had very clean, high-acuity pixels; the unique sensor architecture also made for a beautiful tonal response, which doesn’t seem to exist in any camera today – the closest we get is the Leica M8 and M9.

I shot nearly two hundred thousand frames with this camera – picking the best few is going to be tough, so we’ll do this in a few parts. Part one is here, and part two follows. Enjoy! MT

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Blue mountains

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Early watch work

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Scarlet ibis

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I wish it were real

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Umbrellas in Bangkok

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Rush hour in London

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It’s suspicious because the book is upside down

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Swords

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Inside the Arc de Triomphe

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Crowned pigeon

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Comments

  1. Brian Ruffier says:

    Just sold my beloved D2h… but only because my D2Hs is on the way. I have a D300 yet it’s rarely used…. not sure what it is, but I just always reached for the D2h. It seemed to know what I wanted to do (obviously I need to get out more) while the 300 is almost a chore to work with…..

  2. Carl Oak says:

    I do have a question! In 2014! I am looking for a camera that is built like a tank, fast, cheap and decent quality! Is this still a good option today? Cause I know today 2 years later they are even cheaper!

  3. MsBridgit says:

    I bought my Nikon D2H what seems many years ago, It is still my only 35mm Digital camera. It does ALL that I need. I bought it sight unseen, less lens for $3000 off Ebay but collected it in person. It has served me well. I do not need 50 Million Pixels I do not enlarge above 10×8 and I am not a professional.

  4. Ran across your site from Gene Lowinger’s “The World As I See It” blog. Then I happened on your inspirations from older cameras and saw the D2H. I have shot with D2H bodies (I have two) since 2003 when they first hit the streets. I, too, have shot more than 200,000 images with these cameras, most during my decade as a newspaper photojournalist. Your thoughts here have just made my life tougher.
    As I enter retirement, I started looking for a lighter camera with better high ISO capabilities than my D2H. I have purchased a Fuji X100S which is a real difference from my Nikons. The problem is I really like my D2H for several reasons. Even with the weight, they fit my hand perfectly and, having used them for almost 10 years, they are set up for my shooting style and I can manipulate them without thinking. My only real complaint with my D2H is, as you noted, its high ISO response. I have come to enjoy the Nikkor 18-200mm (original version) for travel shots and used it quite a bit for newspaper work (lower resolution requirements with only 200dpi rather than magazines’ 300dpi). But since it is a slow lens (f3.5-5.6), using it at night is problematic given the capabilities of the D2H.
    Your reminders here about the pros and cons of the D2H really resonate with me but also give me cause for pause. I may keep the X100S but giving up my D2H bodies is a problem because of the images they have produced over the years. I plan on bookmarking your site so I can return and thanks for your thoughts on the venerable D2H.

    • I actually think you’d be happy with a D3 and the 28-300…

      • I have actually thought about the D3 and just continuing to use my lighter DX lenses (18-200mm & 12-24mm) with the D3′s DX mode. But, at my age and the lack of available work since relocating, the thought of continuing to carry pro gear is no longer appetizing. I plan on doing some projects that will interest no one outside of the local area but that is ok. At some point in time, that is just the way things work.

        I have bookmarked your blog and plan on returning for updates. Nice work here, btw!

  5. I’m reading this with a smile. I bought one second hand for almost nothing and I’m happy I did as the D2H is one extremely responsive camera. I even use it more often than my D300.

  6. Ming, you succinctly described everything I like and dislike about the D2H, and why I’ll keep using it until it finally dies despite my occasional gripes. Getting good results is almost as challenging as confining myself to color slide film again, but the D2H is so incredibly responsive and almost intuitive to use. I’m on my 7th year of an ongoing love/hate relationship with the darned thing. And the Ricoh GRD IV impresses me similarly.

  7. Ming, outstanding shots! I picked up a D2H for next to nothing as my first pro body. And you are right, the responsiveness and heft of that old beast lets you know that it is not like any of my consumer-grade cameras. And although I initially dismissed the 4.2 MP as a disadvantage, I now find the smaller files a joy to work with when compared to the resource-intensive files of today.

    • Thanks Don. Yep, I miss 2mb raw files…my jpegs now are in the 20+ region. However I think my clients would probably scream if I delivered files that small though.

  8. Good Post Ming!
    The D2Hs files in my Lightoom Catalogue always Jump out at me with that special look. (acuity, tonality, and colors)
    I learned to loved it for what it was and wasn’t. Sadly I sold it for something ‘Better’.

  9. Thank you, this is indeed very inspiring. It is always good to remember how good photos can be taken with the older cameras. Digital age is somewhat sad in how things tend to be called obsolete the moment a new model comes along. -> back to shooting happily with my oldie cameras.

  10. As always, wonderful photographs.

  11. I like this kind of topic but I think that I couldn’t entirely understand this: “…and had very clean, high-acuity pixels; the unique sensor architecture also made for a beautiful tonal response, which doesn’t seem to exist in any camera today”.

    • Well-defined edges, and a very non-linear tonal response – more like film than the linear (in some ways, flat) look of today’s CMOS sensors. I am of course talking about raw files with all adjustment parameters zeroed out…

  12. Agreed – I loved my D2H – wrote about it here as well a while back. In fact I think that people even remotely considering anything like a D4 should buy one just to see what a “pro” level fast camera actually buys you in terms of responsiveness and handling…

    check it out – http://photo.rwboyer.com/2010/02/17/beater-camera-follow-up-nikon-d2h-the-beast/

    I actually still shoot mine when I do workshops so I don’t end up talking about the camera. Also agree that the tonal response was unique – very film like upper mids (slide film that is).

    RB

    • Perhaps not so forgiving as the current generation of cameras though – I think it’s probably as demanding as the D800, but in a different way. I’m sure you know this, but you really have to nail exposure…

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  1. [...] second part of the inspirations series in tribute to the Nikon D2H…part one was here. [...]

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