There have been more and more talks about older generation Nikon DSLRs on the web recently. Main cause for those discussions seems to be a certain unhappiness regarding the color rendition of newer cameras. Whereas “newer cameras” is quite relative – complaints go back to the D300.

Overall the dividing line for good vs. not-so-optimal colors is drawn between the D2-generation of cameras (D2h/x and D200) against the D3-generation (D3 including D700, D300) and everything that came after that in the entire Nikon lineup.

Especially the D200 gets a lot of love for having a very nice color rendition, that is then often associated with the CCD chip that was used at the time.

Since the conclusion is drawn rather quickly, the color debate suddenly becomes a CCD vs. CMOS debate, which is entirely misleading. D200 and D2x are both put forward for excellent examples in color performance, but the D200 is CCD and the D2x is CMOS.

So it can’t be the underlying sensor technology. What is it, then?

Differences CCD vs. CMOS

As already said, it can’t be the basic sensor technology. A CCD sensor is as “color blind” as a CMOS, they are just devices to capture light levels in form of a charge. The key differences come down how the data is read from the sensors and where the conversion from analogue charge to digital signal is happening.

CMOS allows converting the analogue information directly on the cell-level into a digital signal, whereas the CCD sensor has to do it externally. With CCD sensors the readout does not happen on cell-, but rather on parallelized level.

A key advantage of CMOS is therefore the high read-out speed due to the individual cells directly delivering a digital signal.

If we now are talking about colors, the differences can only be related to the signal processing and the optimization that the designers of the cameras had in mind. And I think that most of the dilemma is related to those design choices.

Design choices and tradeoffs

Looking at the group of cameras on either side of the division line, one thing is very easy to notice: different noise performance.

Older generations of Nikon cameras had the stigma of being noisy at higher ISO values. Back at the time the question of sensor technology was already discussed, since Canon mostly used CMOS sensors and already achieved low noise levels, while Nikon continued with CCD for a very long time and always got in trouble from ISO 800 onwards.

Maybe this difference in the period between 2001 and 2007 still sticks to people’s minds and is a key factor for the misleading color/CCD discussion.

Let’s turn to the D2x for a moment. As I already mentioned above, this camera is often adored for the color reproduction at lower ISO settings – despite being a CMOS design. Differently to today’s CMOS design, this sensor has an unusual way of converting the signal from charge to a digital signal – it is also done externally. While this might have an impact on the color reproduction, I don’t think that this little design anomaly leads to the better color reproduction.

Looking at the difference in noise performance compared to Canon’s CMOS sensors at the time, it must be a design decision. The sensor is optimized for color reproduction and not for high ISO shooting – the D2x already maxes out at an official ISO value of 800.

If you flip the coin and take a look at the D300, there is suddenly a dramatic increase in ISO capabilities, while people start complaining about colors.

Besides the tradeoff between noise performance and color accuracy, there simply might have been a decision of Nikon to overall change color reproduction across all DSLRs.

Putting it in a nutshell: It’s not a technological difference, it is a design decision. Nikon was always criticized for having a poor high-ISO performance. With the introduction of the FX D3 and DX D300 the game changed fundamental, even putting Nikon in the lead in this category. The decision to optimize for higher ISOs seems therefore rational.

ISO differenes D200 vs D2x

Reading the above you might have noticed that I don’t question the superior color of the D2-series of cameras at all. Keeping in mind that something like color and it’s representation is always something that also comes down to personal preference, I generally agree with the perception that the older cameras have a more pleasing color rendition.

What I absolutely don’t agree on, is the general consensus of which of the D2-cameras has the better high ISO behavior: D2x or D200. I neglect the D2h for this, as it has a third type of sensor unique to this camera (LBCAST) and the resolution of just 4 MP does not seem to be sufficient for today’s use.

Most describe the D200 as being better in the high ISO department – it is one year younger, has 2 MP less resolution and goes officially up to ISO 1600 instead of ISO 800. Therefore it is one stop better than a D2x – really?

I have shot thousands of frames with a D200 and I am playing around with a D2x since last December. What I can say is that I prefer the ISO 800 output of the D2x over the D200 at any time. In general terms, for me ISO 800 on the D2x is perfectly usable with correct exposure, while I try to avoid anything above ISO 400 on the D200. The latter holds colors a bit better at ISO 800, but the noise pattern is much more “blotchy” and more colored that that of the D2x.

If you are interested to try one of those cameras, go for a used D2x or D2xs. It is double or triple the price of a D200 right now, but the autofocus improvement is worth alone the difference.

Color mode emulation

In case that you have a D3, D3x, D300 or D700, you can also try a close mimic of the D2x color reproduction by using the D2x color mode files. Those are available for download at Nikon’s website. Once installed on your camera, you have the options to choose from the D2x color modes I (recommended), II or III. While this gives a good impression of the color profile, it however does not match the D2x completely.

To avoid any misunderstanding: I am completely satisfied with the colors from the D700 and D800, but I can see that the D2-series is very special and pleasing in this regard.