through the F-Mount -  photography by Jürgen Becker
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20-year-old Nikon E2N and Kodak DCS 420 DSLRs

March 15, 2015

In 1988 Nikon released the QV-1000c, a black and white still video SLR. The imager delivers 380KP. It is an ancestor of our modern Nikon DSLRs but the QV-1000c itself is not a DSLR: the images are stored analogue on small floppy disks. Nikon's first real DSLR was introduced in 1994: the E2 and the "high speed version" E2s. It was a collaboration between Nikon and Fuji. The cameras of the E2 series where also sold by Fuji with different names (DS-505 instead of E2, DS-515 instead of E2s). In 1996 the E2 cameras were slightly improved and got new names: E2N and E2Ns (DS-505A and DS-515A). The next and last improvement came in summer 1998 and brought us the E3/E3s (aka Fujix DS-560/DS-565). Just one year later Nikon announced the D1 and in January 2000 Fujifilm introduced the FinePix S1 Pro.

Kodak is a pioneer of DSLRs. In 1991 they introduced the DCS 100, which is based on the Nikon F3. It is a real DSLR which delivers 1.3MP colour images. Drawback: you have to carry around a huge memory unit. Kodak's next model - the 1.5MP DCS 200, introduced in 1992 - is based on the F-801s (N8008s). An external memory unit was no longer necessary, the DCS 200 has a built-in 80MB HDD. In 1994 Kodak announced the DCS 420 discussed here. It is based on the Nikon F90/F90x (N90/N90s) and also delivers 1.5MP. In the following years Kodak continued to build DSLRs based on Nikon or Canon SLRs reaching its climax around 2002 with the 14MP full-frame models based on the Nikon F80.

Two DSLRs of the mid-90s.

The early DSLRs were extremely expensive cameras (around 10K$), targeting professional customers like e.g. news agencies. Just ten years later they had been clearly beaten by D2, D70, D100 and so forth and were sold cheap on ebay. In 2005 I paid only around 100 euros for each of these two rare cameras.

The special focussing screen of the DCS 420: only a small rectangle is covered by the imager.

The digital part of the Kodak DCS 420 offers only a very few controls.
Dominant is the 25-pin SCSI connector.

Nearly every early DSLR - including D100 and D1 - was based more or less on a film body. Looked at that way the Kodak DCS 420 is a typical early DSLR and the Nikon E2 series is very unusual.

Both cameras use small sensors: the 3:2 imager of the Kodak has a size of 13.8x9.2mm and a base sensitivity of ISO 100. In the Nikon E2 there works a 4:3 sensor with a size of 8.7x6.8mm starting at ISO 50.

The Kodak has a crop factor of 2.6 which is very similar to today's Nikon CX sensor. For example a 17mm lens has a full-frame equivalent of 44mm. Thus, a wide angle lens was not available for the DCS 420. The Nikon F90/N90 series has got a very good viewfinder, but for the DCS 420 only a very small part of it counts. The matrix metering of the F90 makes no sense in conjunction with the small imager and is therefore disabled. Usable are ISO sensitivities in the range from 100 to 400.

The Nikon E2N is a completely different construction. It is a full-frame DSLR - wide angle lenses are wide - no crop factor! How does it work considering the small sensor? Well, the camera has built-in reduction optics, which bundles the light of the full-frame rectangle down to the small sensor. Thanks to this optics, around 16 times more light hits the sensor! That increases the base sensitivity for about 4 f-stops, which means the E2N has a base sensitivity of ISO 800! Alternatively, the camera can be set to ISO 3200. It sounds great, but the built-in optics implies some drawbacks, too.

First of all: optically many lenses overall work fine in conjunction with the reduction optics, especially the fast professional lenses like the f/2.8 zooms or the f/1.4 primes. But slower lenses often show hefty vignetting. Moreover, even with the good lenses the E2N often produces slightly soft images. Mostly, the images from the Kodak appear sharper to me.

The E2 series cameras always hold the lens wide open! The reduction optics has an integrated aperture which is controlled by the camera. Too bad: the greatest aperture is only f/6.7 for lenses with an original speed between f/1.2 and f/5.6! That relativises the increase of ISO sensitivity.

At last: the reduction optics is the main reason for the bulky body. Nevertheless, in term of ergonomics the Nikon E2N is well-made!

Do you need a DSLR that allows you to use AI and AI-S lenses even in P and S exposure mode? Here it is!
Please note: the actual position of the aperture ring doesn't matter because the camera doesn't use the lens' diaphragm!

The E2 - not the F5 - was Nikon's first SLR with two command dials. Just like the F4: the E2 has got a 3-pin remote control socket.

Behind covers you will find more buttons and connectors. For its time the E2N is a very versatile DSLR.

The E2 series has a unique interface - AI and AI-S lenses work with no restrictions (except for AF of course). Non AI lenses and AI-modified lenses can be mounted, but can only be used in M mode without metering. The reason is that the E2 needs a lens with a speed post, see my article The difference between an AI-modified and an AI lens. Only with the information about the speed of the lens the camera can compute the effective speed which results from the combination lens plus reduction optics. On the other hand the camera shows aperture values starting at F6.7 when a lens without speed post is mounted. As mentioned above that implies the camera assumes a lens speed in the range from f/1.2 to f/5.6. Why not allow the complete exposure possibilities with the same assumption? Well, I think such questions were not exactly in focus when Nikon and Fuji developed this camera (17 years after the introduction of the AI system).

At first sight the mount of the E2 looks well-known, like the mount of the F4.
On the right there is the focal length switch, down there is the lever that reads the lens speed post.
But instead of the pin that reads the AI-S notch, there is just a hole: the E2 has no need to distinguish between AI and AI-S lenses!
The "aperture lever" on the left has just a spring mechanism in order to hold the lens' aperture wide open all the time.
Just like the F4: the E2 supports both screwdriver-AF lenses and AF-S lenses.

Bringing them back to life

The first problem to solve is power. The Kodak has a built-in battery while the Nikon has exchangable batteries (I have two of them). All these batteries are dead today. Fortunately, both cameras have the option to be operated directly by their power supply devices. I can not use these cameras in the field (unless I am carrying along a generator ;). For me, that is ok. I just want to play a bit for getting an impression of this 20-year-old technology. Good news: once connected to the power supply everything works fine - both cameras are high-quality products!

The Nikon E2 series has a very versatile power supply: the EH-2 Quick Charger (in US/Canada EH-1) can power the camera and simultaneously load two EN-1 batteries!
On the right you can see the battery chamber of the E2N and the ES-1 plug-in for power supply operation.

How to get the images from the camera into your computer? Both cameras work with PCMCIA memory cards (later called PC cards), a standard of the 90s. Depending on the thickness of the card three types exist: type I up to 3.3mm, type II 5 mm and type II 10.5mm. The Kodak takes each type, the Nikon only accepts types I and II.

10 years ago, the two cameras came with these cards: the 15MB Nikon flash card is a type I, the Viper card contains a harddisk with a capacity of 170MB.

The E2N only accepts the original EC-15 card. None of my other PCMCIA flash cards or adapted CF flash cards work in this camera! On the other hand nearly everything (only exception: the Nikon EC-15 card!) works in conjunction with the Kodak DCS 420. The easiest way is to use a CF card in a PCMCIA adapter. I tried a couple of older CF cards up to 2GB (both, flash and Microdrive) without any problems.

Getting the images into the computer is no problem with the Kodak thanks to the usability of CF Cards. But the Nikon is more problematical here because modern computers do not support PCMCIA. Hardware is still available at some dealers, but the prices are often a bit high. Luckily I have got an older stand-by notebook with a PCMCIA slot.

Easy: the DCS 420 accepts a CF to PCMCIA adapter. Not that easy: for transferring the images from the E2N you need older hardware.

Next problem: the TIFF files from the Kodak DCS 420 (TIFF is the only option) seem to be unusable! If you open such a 1.5MB file e.g. with PSE the image is black and white and has a size of 192x128 pixels. It is a special DCS TIFF format, I guess a kind of RAW format. Kodak delivered a Photoshop plugin that allows to open the images from the DCS. But this plugin does not work under newer versions of PS. Good news for Windows users: Jarle Aasland wrote a piece of software called "Kodak DCS File Converter for Windows" that converts the DCS files into ordinary TIFF files. This software works fine and can be downloaded from his website, see the bottom of this article.

Nikon's E2 series offers three quality levels of JPEG files and a TIFF format as a top-notch option. All these formats are readable with today's software without any problems.

Colours straight out of the camera (automatic white balance)
Nikon D700 + AF 35-70mm f/2.8 @70mm - Nikon E2N + AF 35-70mm f/2.8 @70mm - Kodak DCS 420 + AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 @28mm

The Nikon E2N offers the same white balance options like our today's DSLRs. In contrast, the Kodak DCS-420 has no options for white balance, it must be done in postprocessing. But in practice both cameras need a similar amount of postproccessing. Here are 100% crops of the final results:

Nikon E2N at ISO 800, F11 and 1/90sec.

Kodak DCS at ISO 100, F4 and 1/90sec.

If you want to learn more about these two DSLRs or about early DSLRs in general, I recommend to visit the following websites:

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