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Monochrome Kodak DCS 760m
This review was written by professional fine arts photographer Pete Myers in 2004, and has been previously published on luminous-landscape.com. For historical purposes, Pete has kindly agreed to let me republish this unique article (the only 760m review I've seen anywhere) on NikonWeb.com.
My name is Pete Myers. I am a fine arts photographer by profession - www.petemyers.com (external link will open in new window). I reside in Santa Fe, New Mexico with my wife, Kathy. My work is centered on landscape photography of the West.
Two years ago, I took delivery on a very unique and nearly one of a kind digital camera - the Kodak DCS 760m (monochrome). What makes this camera so unique is that it is a pure monochrome camera - not a color camera. It does not "see" in color, but in black and white.
Michael has been very gracious in allowing me to share my experiences with the 760m on his web site. However, in writing this article, I have suddenly found myself in disbelief as I once again describe how Kodak is failing to see through another important technology, which they pioneered.
I am not sure how Kodak keeps managing to shoot themselves in the foot, but I find it crushing to watch. There are quite a number of great people and technologies at Eastman Kodak and it's astonishing to see it often all for not. Allow me to share with you the back-story of this camera and a bit about my work. I think you will find it all the sadder in seeing Kodak once again stalling out on a great product.
At 45 years of age, my career as a fine arts photographer has spanned more than a decade with the use of digital postproduction. While my postproduction work has been all-digital, until recently my image making was still film based. With film, I preferred the use of small format photography by means of the Leica M6 TTL.
Over the years my frustrations mounted with film because of the digital scanning issues with silver based negatives. I found that professional scanners were geared rather strictly towards their use with transparency material and not silver negatives. Even with pyro development of my silver negatives and push processing two or more stops for increased contrast, I still was not satisfied with the scanning issues and artifacts.
As the digital camera era started to pickup steam in professional image making, there were fewer and fewer options available for quality scanning. Expensive drum scanners, so common to the industry just a few years ago, quickly became dinosaurs of a forgotten era.
It soon became obvious that a convergence zone had formed in which support for conventional black and white image making was suffering - fewer labs, less equipment and primary suppliers quickly going out of business. I was aware early on that Kodak was developing a monochrome version of their professional DCS cameras for supporting alternative markets (military, scientific and European press). In the mid-1990's Dick Pignetaro, who headed up the developing DCS camera side at Kodak, leant me a DCS 420m monochrome camera for evaluation. It was a 1.5 megapixel camera.
The DCS 420m quantized to 8 bits. I had to stand in a fog bank out on the Pacific Coast to get the contrast low enough to make an actual landscape photograph. The CCD was painfully small and required a huge correction factor with the lens. It was not possible to shoot "wide angle" with this camera.
I sent a long "squawk" sheet back to Dick with the camera. It was obvious that a linear TIFF file with full 16 bit data (from a 12 bit sensor depth) would be required before a monochrome camera would be even usable in the field. Needless to say, increased resolution, a larger CCD sensor area and more control in viewing the raw data on a camera-back LCD display were critical in moving this product out of the lab and into the field.
I watched carefully as the DCS 420m advanced to the DCS 460m, with a true 6 mega pixel sensor. And soon there were further advances in DCS monochrome versions leading to the 660 series. But it was the announcement at PMA in February of 2002 that finally pushed me over the line. Kodak released the DCS 760m. The camera could support Linear Tiff output at full CCD depth (12 bits), comprehensive monitoring and control from the rear LCD (including zone based histograms) and it was built on a professional camera body, the Nikon F5. I was finally convinced that the time had come for me to go digital in the field.
At least the DCS 760m looked good on paper! What I needed to do was to test an actual production camera in the field before I made the commitment. To get a "loaner" camera from Kodak for field testing became an expedition in its own right. If it were not for Jay Kelbley, then at Kodak, and Mike Woodchek at Imaging Spectrum, it would never have happened. By the early summer of 2002, a demo unit was in my hands.
I wish I could say that my field-testing went well. It did not. At the time, we had raging forest fires in New Mexico and the air was choked with smoke. The sunlight was as flat as a pancake and none of my test images had any depth. I did not own any Nikon lenses at the time and the cheapy 28mm AF lens provided with the camera body was dreadfully poor. No one had ever shot the camera or lens with a contrast filter before and it was soon apparent that the fancy RGB 1005 pixel matrix metering on the F5 was worthless for monochrome photography with a contrast filter attached.
I aborted the tests early and sent the camera back with an apologetic note to Jay. I was certain that the DCS 760m was not for me. It was a huge camera in comparison to my sleek Leica M6 TTL. I found the experience "jarring". The rest of my summer turned to turmoil. My wife nearly disown me. Every conversation with her revolved around my thoughts of going with a new Leica M7 and a new film scanner - and then five minutes later switching back to thoughts of the DCS 760m.
Something kept pulling me back towards a future with the DCS 760m. It made no sense. My tests had gone poorly with the digital monochrome. The Kodak camera was a $10K body decision, which would surge even higher with the required accessories and new lenses. That is a lot of money when your work in the field involves mobility over very rugged, camera killing terrain. I had nightmares in watching a DCS 760m tumble out of my hands and plunge down the face of a cliff, to become bits and pieces hundreds of feet below.
The last decision I made of this magnitude was when I met up with Kathy, who became my wife. She was so "bothersome" 16 years ago that all I could do was think of her all day long with out a hint of peace - and so too, the DCS 760m. I finally decided in the late days of summer to jump in with both feet and commit to the camera.
In early September of 2002 a big box arrived from Kodak. I was very impressed with all the power cords that were included in the box, assuring that the camera batteries could be charged anywhere in the world. It was obvious that this indeed was a camera that was designed for professional use.
However, the camera is only a part of an entire SYSTEM that is required for use in the field. My first disappointment was with the Nikor 28mm f1.4 AF lens that was delivered to me with the camera body. The first lens arrived with three major bubbles in the primary glass and its out of focus areas broke up into harsh cross-eyed bokeh. I immediately longed for my Leica M glass. The replacement lens arrived in no better shape. The lens simply would not focus to infinity. At $1600 per lens, there was not going to be a third try. Quality control was obviously not in place with this lens series.
My test shots with the 28mm f1.4 AF lens did reveal one truth - the DCS 760m was going to be a powerful image-maker. We immediately ordered a 60" print of one of my first test images. The Lightjet print came back breath taking. But it was obvious that optics would be a prime consideration in my continued work. I needed to find the right glass to take advantage of the camera's resolution. Without an anti aliasing filter and no Bayer color matrix, the resolution of a 6 mega pixel monochrome camera is astonishing. In monochrome, 6 mega pixels effectively does what it takes 12-24 mega pixels with a color matrix.
Bending light around the corner of a lens is a difficult art. Most manufactures can readily make a normal to telephoto lens with outstanding performance. But just ask them to start bending light around the corner and it's easy to find out how difficult designing a lens can be.
Nikon has made some solid designs in wide-angle lenses in their manual focus, AIS series. But in the USA, the distributors are limited to the higher cost f2 AIS lenses - not the f2.8 versions. I purchased both the 24mm and the 28mm f2 lenses, which with the 1.3X correction factor of the 760m CCD results in a just "wide" focal length.
The first difficulty was getting the lenses to work with the DCS 760m. With this camera body, IR filtering was achieved not on the chip, as is commonplace today, but rather with a filter at the entrance to the camera body. The only problem was that AIS lenses extend further back into the camera body than the newer AF Nikon lenses. I had to remove the internal IR filter from the DCS 760m and front filter for IR in order to get the lenses to mount up without interference.
That was easier said then done. It was certainly simple enough to get the IR filter out of the Kodak body - a few loosened screws and out it came. But the front filtering requirement turned into a quest for the rare and elusive "digital filter".
Both B&W and Heliopan make "digital filters" - that is to say, a high pass filters that eliminates IR light from hitting the CCD. Each company makes a different kind of filter.
B&W makes an absorptive filter. The glass has a dye in it that absorbs the IR wavelength light as it passes through the filter. The response curve of the filter using this method is a bit gradual in slope towards the stopband. I soon found in my shooting that not enough IR light was filtered out and I had some tale tail traces of heat signature in my images. But since it had taken about 6 weeks to find ANY IR filter that would fit my lens, I really wanted this filter to work. I wanted to keep shooting my new camera, so I kept at it with the B&W.
Shifting from a yellow or orange contrast filter to a green filter helped in cutting off a bit more of the IR and the red response of the CCD. Suddenly my pictures started to have a good feel to them in tonal balance. I was in the prime wavelengths of the lens design in being in the green zone and the lenses started to work better for me.
Never the less, I felt that the 24 and 28mm f2 Nikor AIS lenses were not up to snuff. I was used to Leica M glass and I just could not get over how the Nikor lenses just killed off the depth and contrast of my image making. Rumor had it that the f2.8 versions of these same AIS lenses were much better performers. Obtained through the gray market here in the USA, it turned out to be true. In particularly the 28mm f2.8 AIS performed very nicely, though I must say that the lens coating of the Nikor's in this AIS series were just not in the same league as Leica and Contax - and even Canon on their L series lenses.
I still felt that I was getting too much heat through the B&W IR filter. I went to Heliopan for a solution. Their "digital filter" is a broadband interference filter - not an absorptive glass filter. The stop band of this filter is abrupt and strong. I was concerned that as the angle of light shifted "around the corner" with the wide-angle lenses, that the interference filter would not work correctly. Only one way to find out!
I remember getting the head of USA Heliopan on his cell phone on the PMA show floor just before the 2003 show. I was desperate to get my hands on a filter and there were rumors of ONE unit in stock somewhere the USA in the size that I needed. The Heliopan rep gets my award for the nicest person of 2003. He did not flinch at my call and he made it happen from the floor of the show.
When the filter arrived, I treated it like a long lost treasure (and still do!). I found it to work wonderfully with the DCS 760m and I finally found myself "dialed in" with the camera as a system after six months of setup.
With a contrast filter on the front of the lens, the 1005 pixel RGB matrix metering hosted by the DCS 760m's Nikon F5 body was hopelessly "confused" and useless. The color of the contrast filter simply rendered the metering without reference and pushed the exposure computer into unknown territory. After all, the matrix metering was designed for color photography of chromes, not digital monochrome photography. I would have to manual meter the monochrome - or better yet, guess my exposures. After years in the field shooting, it's often easier to guess an exposure and refine one's guess then to rely on the camera. With the use of the zone-weighted histogram on the back of the DCS 760m for exposure confirmation, setting accurate exposure manually was pretty straightforward.
Correct exposure for my work meant not clipping the whites. I ended up in shock at watching exposure times go from 1/60 or 1/125 of a second with my Leica M6 and film, to 1/800, 1/1200 and even 1/1600 of a second for the same aperture with the DCS 760m. With a base ISO of 400 exposures times are brisk - another advantage of a digital monochrome over a color based sensor.
I am a monopod shooter, so the faster speeds were certainly welcome. I also found it a great help in high winds. I have made images with this camera in 40+ mph gusts and the day looks calm in the picture. Score one for the 760m!
Image making soon came to a boil with the digital monochrome and I really put the 760m to the test in the field. It is not an easy camera to use in the field. The camera is large, weighs a lot and is not all that well sealed to the environment. I soon learned how to spend my quality time cleaning the CCD.
Two thousand exposures is a lot of shooting for a fine arts photographer (and seemingly little to most other forms of photography). But with two years of work with the DCS 760m under my belt, I can say that digital monochrome photography is real, wondrous and an important aspect of digital photography.
Portfolios 10, 11, 12 and 13 on my web site were all shot with this camera. It's hard to see from the limited image size available by the web, but the images are truly outstanding to view directly. The image quality certainly beats the pants off of anything I have seen on film in medium format and often what I have seen in large format in terms of resolution, gradation and dynamic range.
So why am I crying in my soup at this point?
Along the way, a serious problem came up with the images from my 760m. There is a form of "banding" horizontal to the frame as the data comes out of camera. The banding shows up under certain lighting conditions in clear skies. The banding issue is generated in the camera hardware and not in the software. In short, the problem cannot be fixed.
We know this after my camera was at Kodak repair for a quarter of a year this summer (2004). Much to Kodak's credit, they switched out the CCD, tuned up the camera and reconditioned my DCS 760m to "as new" specs. Engineering stood on their heads trying to get rid of the banding problems. Even though the camera was out of my hands for three months, I had no gripes and only admiration in the attention they gave my near one of a kind camera. The front line people at Kodak have been fantastic to me - and I am grateful.
Sadly, the banding problem cannot be fixed. Because of the nature of my work and how hard I press the images in postproduction, the banding shows up specifically in my work. The issue would likely not matter very much to more conventional forms of photography. But again, that is the nature of my work as a fine arts photographer. I am pushing what I have to the breaking point to get my image making up to the highest possible artistic level. If there is a technical issue amiss in a camera technology, I am likely to find it first through my work.
This, therefore, is the sad part of the story. Hardware problems like what I am experiencing with the DCS 760m are normal in the advancement of a technology. The solution is to keep going forward with a next generation product.
But soon after I took delivery on my DCS 760m in September of 2002, Kodak stopped production of the DCS monochrome series. And wouldn't you know it, as soon as I started to report in on my work with the camera, I started hearing weekly from professional photographers around the world asking how they could obtain a monochrome.
The interest in DCS monochromes has fallen on deaf ears with Kodak management. A full frame CMOS monochrome camera was prototyped, but was never put into production. My pleas with Kodak for a forward path in digital monochrome photography have resulted in unreturned faxes and emails. The door seems to be closed. At management level, my work does not seem to be welcome or viewed as an asset in moving DCS monochrome forward.
Over the years I have often been accused by manufactures and retailers of being "too picky" in my equipment requirements - more or less being shown to the door in the process. It is difficult for most people to understand the absolute requirements needed for making 30" or 60" prints as a bases of ART and not just commercial photography. I find it sad how readily companies strive for mediocracy when they are within shouting range of exceptional performance. The thin line between the two is often just caring enough to get it right and seeing it through.
Its is very sad for me to see yet another flag ship product from Kodak being overlooked and tossed aside in an increasingly desperate corporate attempt to chase pixel counts and price points - and NOT image quality and professional build features. Kodak walked away from professional camera bodies after the DCS 760 series (which were based on the Nikon F5). Then they walked away from medium format backs before they had ever developed a large area sensor to support true medium format work. And now it appears that they have also walked away from DCS monochromes.
Kodak is laying off 15,000 people from their company worldwide over the next three year as film fades into the sunset. These are good people with families that have given a lot to this company. Although the company is working very hard to make the migration from the film to digital era, I still see a lot of management arrogance in watching their activities. Management is still not listening and they continue to blame their customers instead of getting their professional products right. There are many, many professional photographers, some right here on this web site, that have advocated for Kodak and have suggested a rosier future path for the company. But I keep forgetting - as the end users, we really don't know anything that would be of value to Kodak. Sorry for the sarcasm.
Try calling Kodak sometime and talking with anyone other then in customer service. It's easier to get a hold of your US Senator than to get through to Kodak management. Lack of communication and listening to the customer is what is killing this company. Kodak is so worried that the Japanese will steal their next thought that the company has become a secret society. Maybe that worked in the film era, but it sure doesn't work now. All they have to do is LISTEN - the information is right in front of them.
As for me, I am contemplating my next move. I love my DCS 760m camera, but have reached the limits of what I can do with it. It's a rare camera and I may end up selling it off to a collector after a bit more use. I am hoping that my knowledge can be brought forward in digital monochrome photography with another company. Kodak isn't listening. There is certainly a need and a place in professional photography for a true digital monochrome camera. The conversion from a dSLR color camera to a dSLR monochrome camera is readily achieved through a sensor switch out and software change. No hardware redesign is required. There is little reason why a high end dSLR camera maker can not pickup the monochrome market share with only an additional expenditure.
Vertical market penetration will become increasingly important as dSLR technology matures. Digital monochrome will be one of those vertical market segments. This is a point that Kodak fails to recognize once again. It takes time to develop and then hold on to a vertical market - perhaps a decade or more. The Japanese understand this and are willing to pay the price today for a long-term market share tomorrow.
All I can say is that it would be an honor for me to work with a camera maker that listens and values the lessons learned from my fieldwork with the digital monochrome. (In case Canon is reading, you should know that Kathy and I really like sushi.)
All photos on this page © 2009 Peter H. Myers
Since writing this article, Pete sold his 760m and went back to film. Today (April 2009) he's once again transitioning from film to digital - this time with the Nikon D3X. You can follow his journey here: www.reddogjournal.com
UPDATE: This camera was sold once again, on eBay, for $5600, in August 2009 (2 bidders, start price was $5000). When sold, total actuations (shutter count) was still at a modest 4166.