by Jim McGee

The jousting in the digital arena is getting interesting. Last fall at Photo Plus Expo in New York the big news was the introduction of full frame image capture chips by both Kodak and Canon. Of course everyone walking into the Nikon booth wanted to know when Nikon was introducing a full-frame version of the D1X/H cameras. “We’re not” was the response and by the end of the show the guys in the Nikon booth had answered this question so many times that they were looking downright surly.

At the time it made no sense that Nikon wouldn’t respond to Kodak and Canon upping the ante in the digital arms race. Now we understand.

Nikon has announced a new DX series of f-mount lenses designed specifically for digital SLR cameras. D1X/H shooters can now produce images Nikon claims are equivalent to or better than what Canon and Kodak shooters can produce using their new full-frame cameras.

Both Kodak and Canon have had to struggle with design issues in building digital cameras with full size image chips. (see What’s the Big Deal About a Full-Size Chip?)

Canon designed a series of micro lenses that are placed in front of each pixel on the sensor and at least one lens designed to control the angle of incoming light is in the works. These measures are necessary because silicon is much more sensitive than film to the angle of incoming light.

What about the Kodak 14n? The Kodak rep we spoke with at Photo Plus told us that light angle wasn’t a problem for the 14n. But through the grapevine we’ve been hearing reports that some lenses do cause problems with the 14n. The result is odd artifacts and soft focus at the edges of the frame. The consensus seems to be that the position of the rear lens element is the culprit. We’ll reserve judgment until we get our test 14n (shortly) and we can see for ourselves.

Given these problems Nikon decided to take a different approach. Rather than increase the size weight and complexity of it’s lenses or try and redirect the incoming light rays by placing something in front of the CCD (Nikon uses CCD rather than CMOS chips), they’ve designed an all new 12-24mm f/4G DX lens that produces a smaller light circle optimized for the smaller (than 35mm) digital sensors used in it’s digital SLRs. This is the first in a series of lenses that will be optimized for digital. The resulting lens provides the equivalent coverage of an 18-36mm lens in 35mm format.

The design decision allows Nikon to design smaller, lighter and less expensive super-wide angle lenses without worrying about light angle issues.

Combine this new lens design with D1X firmware upgrades and upgrades to Nikon Capture 3.5 and you can now produce 10 megapixel raw files using lenses covering 18mm to 1500mm that open up to 60MB TIFF files.

While pricing has yet to be released one wag at Nikon commented that the cost of a new wide-angle lens would be a lot less than the cost of and EOS 1Ds ($8,000).

We’ve talked about the significance of the lens as the start of a new line of Nikon lenses but what about the lens itself?

Let’s just say you won’t be finding it in the bargain rack. The 12-24mm is a fast focusing AF-S lens utilizing Nikon’s silent wave motor. It utilizes ED (low dispersion) glass to eliminate chromatic aberration, aspherical lens elements to minimize distortion and has a rounded diaphragm to give out of focus elements a more pleasing look. Final specs on number of elements, size and weight aren’t yet available. Expect to see the first lenses available in the U.S. sometime this spring.

Yes the digital arms race is indeed getting interesting indeed.

DX Series Lens Compatibility

DX series lenses are fully compatible with the Nikon D1, D1H, D1X, and D100 cameras.

Since they are F-mount lenses they will fit Nikon 35mm camera bodies. Nikon does not recommend using DX lenses with 35mm bodies since the projected image will not fill a 35mm frame, causing vignetting.