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last update: February 22, 2001

  Nikon D1 Review

The digital pro SLR from Nikon (with comments about the D1x). In a word: Rocks!

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.
When Nikon introduced the D1 in September 1999, the initial reaction was surprisingly lukewarm. First, there was the US$5500 price. Then, close examination of the specifications revealed that the upcoming 3-megapixel cameras (e.g., the Coolpix 990) seemed to deliver more resolution. The lack of wide angle support put others off, while the size and weight (basically that of an F5) had a few more folk scratching their heads. Why did a camera whose CCD sensor was slightly smaller than the APS frame need to be as big as an F5? Early adopters also complained about magenta tints, especially on skin tones, and a strange diagonal "banding" noise that appeared in low light, usually in the Green channel.

Today, those that joined the D1 bandwagon early will let you in on a secret: the D1 rocks [and the D1h and D1x appear to address a few of the remaining complaints; initial JPEGs from my D1x are nothing short of extraordinary. The D1x rocks louder!]. In a skilled photographer's hands, the D1 is quite capable of capturing better-than-slide dynamic range, generating Velvia-like saturated color, and can produce resolution good enough for full magazine page images. No wonder Moose Petersen and other pros have switched to all digital kits. I fully expect to do most of my future shooting on a D1x.

For those trying to figure out if they really want to spring the thousands of extra bucks for a D1 over a Coolpix 990, the D1 is (far) better than the Coolpix 990 in the following ways:

  • The D1 can produce 12-bit color images (4096 shades of each color), the Coolpix 990 only 8 bit (256 shades of each color).
  • The D1 is robustly built, and will take the wear and tear of every day professional use. The Coolpix 990 is a consumer camera, and built to a different standard.
  • The D1 takes Type II CompactFlash cards, the Coolpix 990 doesn't. While Nikon doesn't endorse IBM Microdrive cards (the primary reason to use Type II) in the original D1, as long as you don't format the card in the camera or delete images using camera controls, the current Microdrives work fine. 1GB of storage goes a long way, even shooting in the non-compressed NEF format (~4MBs per image). [The D1h and D1x support all but the original 384MB Microdrive model. These newer models write to the disk significantly faster, too.]
  • The D1 has film-like depth of field, while the Coolpix 990's smaller CCD and lenses result in a harder to use (and calculate) depth of field.
  • The D1 will shoot 21 images at 4.5 frames per second without nary a burp (assuming ISO 200, shutter speed of 1/250 or faster, no flash, and a few other settings). [The D1x produces only 9 images at 3 fps, while the D1h produces 40 images at 5 fps.] The Coolpix 990 can take a low-resolution JPEG movie, but tends to produce long buffer-saving delays at high resolutions. Moreover, the shutter lag--time between pressing the shutter release and the picture being taken--is a blisteringly fast 38ms on the D1, faster than most 35mm SLRs, while the Coolpix 990's response can be as much as a second, depending upon settings (and is almost never 35mm fast).

In short, the D1 is a professional's camera, the Coolpix 990 is a prosumer camera, at best.

Note: Much of this review is also applicable to the D1h and D1x models. I've added information about how they differ in brackets within this review, and will have new reviews of those cameras once I've had a chance to use them for awhile.

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The Basics

The D1 has a feature set that sounds a bit like a professional 35mm SLR. Indeed, most of its "camera" features are derived from either the F5 or the F100 bodies (curiously, the D1 is described by Nikon as having the F100's viewfinder, though it includes the F5's 1005-pixel CCD for exposure calculations). In physical size and appearance, the D1 closely resembles the F5, though careful observation shows that virtually every little curve and button has been tweaked.

The autofocus system is fast, and features five sensors (CAM 1300) that can track rapidly moving objects, or direct autofocus to a specific area of the frame. Autofocus detection works from EV –1 to EV 19 (specified at ISO 100, though the camera doesn't shoot at that speed! Nikon should have restated this into ISO 200 values if the film speed makes a difference). The metering range extends from EV 0 to EV 20, not quite as wide as the N90s, for example, but plenty wide for virtually any shooting you might do. Note that the spot metering range is slightly lower, from EV 2 to EV 20. Unless you make a habit of spot metering in unlit situations at night, you're not likely to encounter that limit.

Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/3 stop increments from 30 seconds to 1/16000. However, note that these are not physical shutter speeds. While the D1 has a shutter curtain in front of the CCD (so that the normal Nikon exposure and flash metering works as usual), the curtain itself doesn't have any impact on shutter speeds. All shutter speeds are handled electronically on the D1. Single shot and continuous firing at 1 fps, 2 fps, 3 fps, and as high as 4.5 fps are supported, though Nikon made several unwise decisions about how this is controlled (see Handling, below). [The D1x shoots only up to 3 fps, mostly because of the added amount of information it captures; the D1h shoots at up to 5 fps, and has an increased internal buffer suited for sports photography.]

A 1005-cell CCD in the prism is active in all metering modes in order to calculate automatic white balance, plus it's used in matrix metering mode to tweak exposure. [The D1h and D1x both use the 1005-cell CCD slightly differently than the original D1. The net result is slightly better automatic white balance, though it is still isn't perfect.] The matrix metering also incorporates information about the focus point you’re using if you’ve mounted a “D-type” lens. Nikon also lists “subject positioning,” “overall scene brightness,” and “scene contrast” as factors in the matrix metering calculations. In short, it’s hard to second guess the camera as there are so many factors being considered. If simplicity suits you, the centerweighted and spot meter options are better choices, but even there, it isn’t the same-old Nikon metering. Custom settings allow you to pick how centerweighted the center weighting is, and spot metering is done at the autofocus sensor in use.

As befitting a professional camera, Nikon keeps the mode selection simple: Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual are the full lineup. Program mode is easily adjusted by spinning one of the control dials, thus there is no “Program High” or other special automatic modes as there are in some other Nikon bodies.

An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 5-stop range in 1/3-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at one-third, two-thirds, or full-stop values. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls. ISO values from 200 to 1600 can be set directly, plus 3200 and 6400 can be set via custom settings if you're really ambitious (random noise patterns are easily detected at ISO 800 and 1600, and are hideous at 3200 and 6400, but if it's the difference between getting the shot or not...). [The D1X has an ISO range of 125 to 800.]

Flash sync works to 1/500 of second. Flash metering uses five TTL sensors and can be balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear curtain. However, if you want to shoot in any TTL mode, you'll need either the SB-28DX (not the older SB-28) or the SB-50DX Speedlight. That's because Nikon's TTL modes normally use reflections off the film surface during exposure to determine when to turn off the flash. The D1's CCD is not very reflective (and certainly not the same reflectivity as film stock), thus only flash units designed specifically for the D1 (the DX suffix) work in TTL mode. (Some readers have asked why Nikon can't adjust the reflectivity measurements to match what comes off the CCD. I suspect the problem is the filter array that sits atop the sensor. Unlike the flat, untextured surface of film, the filter array is composed of an uneven, textured surface that probably scatters reflected light in ways that don't work well with the available locations for the TTL sensors.)

It's important for those migrating from Nikon 35mm SLRs to the D1 to understand the operational differences in the flash system. With a DX-type flash on the D1, the camera performs the same matrix and preflash adjustments as, say, an F5. However, the D1 doesn't alter any flash decision once the shutter is opened (i.e., it doesn't monitor the light reflected back during exposure to fine tune when to shut off the flash). This difference is subtle, but can show up if you have a moving object with high reflectivity in the scene (e.g., jewelry, metal surfaces). Also, rapidly changing light conditions can produce strange results. For example, in a situation with lots of other flash photographers with my F5, I found that rarely did another photographer's flash mess up my exposure (well, at least not too badly). With the D1 in the same situation, I found one frame where it was obvious that someone else had fired a flash while my shutter was open--the resulting exposure was unusable. In short, you've got to be a little more careful when you've got moving subjects with high reflectivity or rapidly changing light conditions.

On the plus side, the DX Speedlights perform preflash and full TTL capabilities even when the flash head is set to a bounce position (on 35mm bodies, setting the flash head to any angle other than normal or down -7 degrees cancels some of the more advanced TTL features). (Note: some D1 and SB-28DX users have reported problems when bouncing flash. First, make sure that the surface you're bouncing off of is neutral in color and not so far away that the flash's power is all gobbled up. If you're still having problems, it may well be worth it to send both the D1 and SB-28DX in to Nikon for servicing. More than one photographer has seen dramatically improved results after a service adjustment.) When set correctly and mounted on a D1, the DX Speedlights display D-TTL on their LCD as the flash mode, by the way.

In the viewfinder, you'll see 96% of the full frame. Shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering method, focus indicators, exposure compensation, flash ready, and frame counter are all visible in the viewfinder, even to eyeglass wearers like me. On the color LCD on the back of the camera, you'll see 100% of the short dimension, but only 95% of the long dimension (e.g., 50 missing pixels at each end of the frame). [This is fixed in the D1h and D1x, which show 100% of both dimensions on the color LCD.] Probably of most use on the color LCD is the ability to see a histogram of any picture you take, allowing you to tinker with exposure to get every last bit of dynamic range out of the sensor (like slide film, always expose so that the brightest highlight doesn't blow out--you can usually recover shadow detail that blocks up, but blown highlights are obnoxious to the eye and not easily fixable). One thing Coolpix users will complain about when they switch to a D1 is that the color LCD on the back doesn't display a preview of image before you take the shot (the D1's CCD is blocked by a shutter curtain and mirror, after all). Frankly, I don't find this to be a drawback at all, and a bit of a plus (the power-hungry color LCD is only on when you're reviewing pictures or making camera adjustments). The regular viewfinder is just fine for determining composition and focus.

The D1 takes any Nikon F mount lens. Non-CPU models don't allow matrix metering or the more advanced flash modes. When you mount a lens on the D1, the effective focal length is increased by about 1.5x (e.g., a 20mm lens shows the same angle of view as a 30mm lens would on a 35mm body; note that the 1.5x is a rounded figure, the actual increase is slightly more). Apertures aren't really affected by this change, though because only the central portion of the lens is used, if you've been making any exposure adjustments at maximum aperture to account for light falloff, you should not do that on a D1. The focal length change has several good points, and a couple of bad ones:

  • Free teleconverter. Your 300mm f/4 lens just received the angle of view of a 466mm f/4 lens! Wildlife and bird photographers love the focal length changes the D1 makes.
  • Better optical quality. The fact that only the central area of any lens is used means that chromatic aberration is lessened, light falloff is reduced, corners are sharper, and even consumer-oriented lenses (such as the 18-35mm Nikkor) produce professional-looking results.
  • Wide angle options are limited. The widest rectilinear lens made is 14mm, which produces basically the same results as a 21mm lens when you mount it on a D1. Also problematic is that all the 14mm lenses have a significant tendency towards flare and contrast reduction when light hits their pronounced front elements.
  • Depth of field judgment isn't quite right. The real key here is that you're likely to blow up the original image by a greater magnification than you would with 35mm, so you shouldn't use the 35mm standards, despite the fact that it may appear that you should (Nikon doesn't address this issue in their documentation or marketing materials).

The CCD sensor the D1 uses is unique to the D1 (i.e., it's not one of the Sony-produced megapixel sensors that virtually all the consumer digital cameras use). It consists of a 2012 x 1324 array, and it has massive (compared to the consumer cameras) 11.8mM pixels, with very little unused space between them (the consumer sensors actually only cover about half the physical area of the CCD!). That's just one reason why the D1 can produce 12-bit RGB images with rich color and low noise. If you wonder why the array is 2012 x 1324 but the final pictures are only 2000 x 1312, that's because the extra pixels are used to produce a "dark current" cancellation to reduce overall noise. [The D1h uses the same sized array, although Nikon claims that it has been improved; the D1x uses a unique array that is 4024 x 1324 with non-square sensors, which it then interpolates into final image sizes of up to 3008 x 1960. The D1x images are remarkable noise free.]

Like virtually all digital cameras, a filter array is placed over the D1's CCD. This filter has three purposes:

  1. Provides the Bayer pattern. The Bayer pattern is named after the Kodak engineer who invented it. Basically, this is a set of color filters that results in an alternating pattern of RG (on odd-numbered rows) and GB (on even-numbered rows) pixels. The final image is rebuilt by interpolating the actual pixel values at each position.
  2. Filters out infrared. CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, and to keep infrared energy from biasing colors and exposure, most of this light is filtered out.
  3. Realigns the light. CCDs don't like light hitting them at any angle other than 90 degrees, so the filter also focuses the light rays from the lens directly into the sensors.

The Bayer array is one of the reasons why so many hypothesized that the D1 would have terrible resolution. After all, you started with 2012 x 1324 pixels, but the filter array effectively reduces that to 1006 x 662, which doesn't seem like enough resolution to produce professional results. But the camera's 12-bit dynamic range, coupled with a sophisticated interpolation routine, actually produces remarkably detailed and subtle images. I judge the D1 by what it produces, not by what I think the parts should be capable of.

The D1 produces several different types of files: JPEG, TIFF, and NEF. The JPEG options work as you'd expect, but you pay a significant penalty for using that format: the files are compressed and lose a bit of detail, plus they are converted to 8-bit format, losing much of the D1's wonderful dynamic range in the process. TIFF formats are available to prevent the compression loss, but they, too, produce only 8-bit RGB. The NEF format is the only one that retains the full data the D1 is capable of acquiring. Indeed, the NEF format contains exactly the data that came from the CCD, with no interpolation or camera processing! Unfortunately, you need an extra software program to use this format. Nikon will sell you Nikon Capture for US$500, or you can buy Bibble for US$99. Guess which one I recommend? (Hint: I've linked to it.)[Nikon has a special deal on Capture 2.0, making it a $99 accessory for anyone buying an official import body and returning the warranty card; it's a free upgrade for 1.0 users.] But golly, the difference between a D1 JPEG and a processed D1 NEF is remarkable. The former looks like a great consumer digital camera file, the latter produces a richly colored, highly detailed file that is a joy to work with in Photoshop.

In the US, the D1 comes with the required EN-4 Nimh rechargeable battery pack and the MH-16 quick charger. You'll want at least one extra EN-4, and if you have more than two batteries, get the F100's MH-15 charger, as well, as it allows you to charge two batteries simultaneously (though the F100's batteries are a different shape, the charger works just fine with the D1 batteries and Nikon sanctions this use). Battery life is quite dependent upon a number of factors, and can range from 100 or so shots to 400, at least in my observation. Note that IBM Microdrives use more power than CompactFlash cards, and thus, exhaust the batteries faster. One little item that Nikon doesn't note: it's perfectly fine to leave the camera in the ON position all the time; the camera doesn't use any more power while "sleeping" than it does when it is OFF, just like with the F5.

The camera weighs in at 2.5 pounds (1.1kg), and that's without a lens or the battery, so you might want to build up your neck muscles if you expect to leave this camera hanging on a strap all day.

Handling

The D1 is like a Mack truck compared to consumer digital cameras. Sure, it's heavy and large, but the build quality is impeccable. Most of the controls fall naturally under my fingers, and can be easily found by touch. Read my F5 review to get a feel for the camera's basic handling.

All camera controls with multiple settings (flash mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, etc.) are set by holding down the appropriate button and rotating the knurled control dial. Unfortunately, most of the controls that are unique to digital photography are not quite as accessible. Some, like ISO and white balance, can be set by the button-twirl method. Some, however, are buried in the Custom Settings menus, which require a roadmap to figure out (more on that in a bit).

The color LCD position makes it very vulnerable to scratching. Yes, Nikon supplies a cover for it, but that's a real hassle to get on and off all the time. A better solution is that produced by Hoodman, which is a $19.95 protective cover that doesn't have to removed. [Hoodman has recently announced a new, more elaborate, collapsible cover which screens the LCD from external light, making it easier to see in bright conditions.]

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning. Unlike a film camera, where the photosensitive surface is replaced every image, the CCD just sits there, shot after shot. In dusty and dirty environments, you'll end up with some of that ending up on your CCD (heck, the sealed F5 prism eventually gets dust and grime in it). The question is, what can you do about it? Nikon's manual warns against using anything except a manual blower (the turkey baster type, with the rubber bulb): "under no circumstances should you touch or wipe the filter." I'm pretty sure that most of the dust you get on the CCD will not be easily dislodged using the low-power bulb Nikon suggests. What you need is a compressed air canister designed for cleaning slides (generally only available at professional photo shops). When used properly, these canisters don't produce any liquid, as do most regular compressed air cans. The truly brave could consider using some of the CCD swabs that have appeared. Nikon apparently uses lint free cloth and 98% isopropyl alchohol to clean CCDs at their repair centers.

If you work in anything other than a well-filtered studio, minimize your lens changes, keep the camera pointed downward when changing lenses, and consider using a multi-bag approach when carrying the camera (e.g., camera in plastic bag with air removed, plastic bag in camera case, camera case wrapped in plastic garbage bag in dusty environs). If you don't, you'll end up using Photoshop's Clone tool on every image.

My primary handling complaints on the D1 are these:

  1. Nikon completely fuddled up the frame advance modes. With the camera set to continuous advance, even a brief press of the shutter release usually gets you more than one shot (the camera shoots at 4.5 fps by default). With the camera set to single advance, you can't take another picture until the internal buffer is saved to CompactFlash. Suggestion: set the frame advance rate to 1 fps via the custom settings and always use continuous advance. [This is fixed in the D1h and D1x.]
  2. The camera seems to have a problem deleting images from large capacity devices. In many cases, if you delete a single file using the camera controls, all files after that one on the CompactFlash disappear (they're actually still there--it's a directory error that produces this problem). Other storage problems seem to be related to the D1's write speed, which is relatively slow. Indeed, there have been enough complaints on the D1 message boards that I recommend that you never format CompactFlash cards on the D1 or erase individual files on the D1.
  3. White balance is not as simple (or as accurate) as it should be. Nikon, unlike Olympus and others, hasn't yet figured out how to implement a one-button manual white balance control. The other white balance options are not overly accurate, so you really should be using Auto or PRE. Auto rarely produces a true white, and PRE requires that you fill the frame with a neutral white card (hint: use a gray card instead--you'll get better results). [The D1h and D1x allow up to three custom white balance settings to be stored, which is helpful for photographers that always shoot in the same lighting conditions, but not much use to those of us that wander the planet.]
  4. The vertical release still doesn't provide all the accessory controls, although at least we now have a rear command dial and AF-ON button (the F5 lacks these).
  5. Custom Settings have gone from bad to worse. I complained loudly about the F5's custom settings. Well, the D1's are worse. Sharpening and tone compensation, amongst other key items, are set via custom settings. And, unless you're shooting NEF format pictures, I suspect that you'll want to at a minimum control tone compensation (by default in JPEG and TIFF formats, the D1 does so automatically based upon the pattern it sees in the matrix metering; I've found situations where I've wanted to do something differently). Always remember to bring your custom setting cheat sheet with you. [D1h and D1x owners can rejoice: Nikon has removed the cryptic custom settings function from the button/dial interface and moved it to the color LCD, where meaningful names can actually be found for all of the settings and variations. Of course, seeing the color LCD can be a problem in some light, and now the camera has a modal menu system that requires a fair amount of button pressing to get to individual options. But I'll take that any day over the original system.]

One final comment on handling: if you're moving up from any Nikon SLR, you’ll find most of the functions familiar, just sometimes in different places or with additional options. Spend some time learning the controls before heading out to a critical shoot. This is a camera that requires careful study to master.

 

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Results

Everyone wants to know good are the images the D1 produces.. The short answer is “great.” Perhaps as good as any under US$6000 camera produces (the Fuji S1, based on the Nikon N60 body, produces remarkable color, though I'm not convinced that it has as wide a dynamic range, and the outdated, consumer-oriented body is a tangible drawback); I've not used the Canon D30, but images I've seen from it are quite good, just not quite as good as those I've seen from seasoned D1 users).

As already noted, the D1 produces 12-bit images in its raw NEF format. [This wasn't fixed in the D1h and D1x.] Frankly, after trying all the different formats, I won't work in anything except NEF in the future, the difference is that dramatic.

Early users of the D1 often complained about several specific problems in their D1 images: magenta color cast, a band-like pattern of noise at higher ISO values, and sometimes excessive red channel noise (which shows up as slightly mottled skies). With a correctly profiled monitor and NEF files rendered by Bibble, I haven't seen the magenta problem others have noted. I have seen it in a few JPEG images, but it is easily correctable, and I suspect that better attention to white balance might have produced less drift. The banding noise doesn't appear in the recent D1 I've used, and owners who've complained about it to Nikon and had their D1 serviced seemed to have oscillators replaced in the camera, which mostly fixes the problem (at high ISO values, there is still a faint pattern to the noise). Software products have appeared to take care of the problem, but, at this stage, I'd have my camera serviced if I found this problem in my D1.

You probably wonder about what size picture you can produce with the D1's "limited" resolution. I've seen 11x14" prints from a D1 that are indistinguishable (to me) from film. In fact, the color gradations and shadow detail made it seem as if the image had been produced from a high-quality drum scanner. But there are a few gotchas you need to watch out for, and I'd suggest that you learn Photoshop very, very well if you want to produce similar results:

  1. You'll need to adjust your exposure habits a bit. It's important to pay closer attention to highlight detail than it is to shadow detail in your exposures. Judicious use of graduated filters, polarizers, and fill flash can generate images with both highlight and shadow detail, something that is tough to do with slide film.
  2. Attention to depth of field, focus, and shutter speed use must be paid. Out of focus all-digital pixels just render differently than film grain, and Unsharp Mask and Gausian Blur tweaking never seems to achieve quite the same results I get even from digitally scanned film. Flat-plane subjects rendered in sharp focus are great on the D1. Highly detailed landscapes that require huge front to back depth of field are difficult to achieve well on a D1. And I've seen just enough blurred motion in moderate shutter speeds (1/30 to 1/125) that I'm now avoiding them (could this be something to do with the way the CCD pulls rows of pixels off the chip? It appears with other digital cameras, too).
  3. Subtle adjustment of Photoshop Curves produces superb shadow detail, though there's a balance that you need to get right between contrast and the curve settings.

Drawbacks

  • Custom Settings. Either learn to ignore ‘em or bring a cheat sheet. There is no in between. [Not applicable to D1X and D1H.]
  • Battery Life. With a Microdrive in the camera and reviewing every photo's histogram, I usually run out of battery before I do storage space. And the D1's batteries are unique, so it's not like I can swap my 35mm camera batteries in a pinch. And while the Nimh batteries have reasonable shelf life and fast recharging characteristics, they simply don't do as well in the cold as lithium batteries. The D1 is not a friendly camera at or below freezing.
  • Lack of Nikon Cooperation. This is a camera that should have wide third-party support. While Nikon has helped a few software developers with understanding the NEF format, there is no software development kit for this camera, and there should be. If there was, we'd have tons of Photoshop plug-ins for NEF, computer controls for the camera functions, and a host of other goodies that would make a great tool better.
  • Price and Availability. When Nikon introduced the D1X and D1H at PMA in February 2001, they also reduced the price of the D1 to "clean out supplies by late 2001." Low and behold, even at the hefty US$3750 street price, there wasn't a D1 to be found within two months. Given how good the D1 is, it's really a shame that Nikon didn't continue producing some and continue to sell them at the lower price. At US$5300, the D1X is one hunk of change to pay out (some have found models for as little as US$4600, but that's still a pretty stiff tag).

Positives

  • It's the image, stupid. Better than your average digital camera at low ISO values, NEF images have rich tonal detail. [The D1x produces state-of-the-art JPEG images and very film-like raw format images].
  • Rolls Royce Body. With only one modest exception, as good if not better than an F5 in handling.

Note: Thom has a D1x update to this review. Read it here.

 

 

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Highly Recommended , get the D1x if you can afford it; but used D1's are still a good value (perhaps even an excellent value if you never print larger than 11x14.

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performance
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Charles J. Jacoby writes:
Excellent article. Nikon, like so many Japanese companies, receives the lion share of their revenues from the U.S., and yet ignores the professionals that buy their equipment. I believe that when you make an investment in a piece of equipment like the D1 and they turn around and obsolete the product in just over a year, they should offer some form of upgrade or trade in allowance on the improved equipment. Quality is not the only way to improve customer loyalty.

Thom's response: Nikon is a very traditional Japanese company, and as such, doesn't really understand the somewhat American notion of marketing and customer-centric focus. The Japanese side of the company is basically engineering based. Product creation really follows the whims and desires of the engineering teams. While many of them are photographers, their product design rarely involves trying to understand their customers' needs. Indeed, early on in the Coolpix cycle I was at a company that was approached by Nikon for software. Nikon's decisionmaking was solely based on two things: price, and ability to perform a set of very specific set of functions (many of which were gee-whiz rather than functional).

Nikon prides themselves on being a company that engineers its own solutions and discovers new technologies. Indeed, on that latter point, Nikon often seems to be more interested in holding patents than building products--witness how long it took them to introduce a VR lens, despite owning most of the patents in this area. Japanese engineers have told me several times that the F mount has contacts for features that haven't been introduced. Okay, so what are they and why haven't products supporting them appeared?

The US arm of Nikon, as in many of the larger markets, is a wholly owned subsidiary, and generally doesn't have much in the way of direct influence on products and product design (again, a very traditional Japanese method of operation). They aren't very involved in product development (although this has changed a bit since software became a big part of camera design), and even if they communicated that the number one need for the US market was a firmware upgrade for the D1, it's unlikely that this would change corporate's decisions. This, of course, puts Nikon USA in a position of weakness vis-a-vis its customers--customers can ask for something, but Nikon USA doesn't really have the ability to make that happen. Nikon USA can, and does, communicate what they see as the customer's needs to corporate, but changing anything is a slow, long process that involves nudging opinions, not changing them.

As for your view that Nikon should make some sort of trade-in allowance for the D1, I disagree. The D1 is a professional tool, and remains one even after the introduction of the D1h and D1x. As with autos, most (good) dealers would be happy to make you a deal where you trade up. And used D1s are selling for quite hefty prices on eBay. If Nikon wanted to be "customer-friendly," I'd suggest that all they'd need to do is offer a $250 "previous owner" rebate to existing D1 owners who bought a D1h or D1x. That would be more than fair, and would encourage loyal users.

As for an upgrade, I do believe that it's a shame that Nikon (or any other digital camera manufacturer, for that matter) doesn't seem to get the fact that they'd sell more cameras if the camera manufacturer didn't act as if the cameras were "disposable." When potential D1x buyers notice how D1 owners were treated, they hesitate to purchase a pro digital camera until they believe that the technology has stabilized to a point where any new model is likely to feature mostly cosmetic changes and firmware updates aren't needed. Nikon's a little better off than Canon in this regard, as the changes from D1 to D1h are mostly minor, and only apply to a few users (though one has to wonder why the D1h's firmware can't be retrofitted to a D1). At this point, it's unclear what Canon's next prosumer digital camera will be like, so it's hard to guess how a D30 owner is going to feel when the D100 (or whatever) comes out.

Even Kodak doesn't seem to "get it," and they spend quite a bit of time trying to understand customer needs. If I were designing Kodak's pro cameras, I would have long ago tried to modularize the sensor and camera firmware. Since Kodak uses Nikon and Canon bodies as a base, I would have opted for a system that would allow me to "plug in" new technology without making any changes to the underlying body, allowing me to offer sensor and software upgrades. (I suppose now I'm going to get some Kodak engineer writing me telling me why my suggestion is impossible. To that I reply: in 1995 every video expert on the planet told me that creating an under $100 digital camera to hook to a computer was impossible, yet nine months later I was doing just that, and at a profit. If you think something's impossible, it is.)

Seth Rossman writes:

I approached your review as "another Nikon-supported writer" coffering a glitzy review. I was surprised at how well you covered problems. What is missing, however, is an in-depth report on the noise and silent upgrade issue . As to the D1X/D1H moving the custom settings to the LCD, this has pluses, although the camera has "trained" me by now. The issue I foresee is the incredible amount of battery drainage the LCD will take if changing custom settings much.

Thom's Response: I have never been a "Nikon-supported writer." Heck, I'm not even a member of Nikon Professional Services, though I probably should be. One of the reasons I write reviews is because I long ago discovered that much of the popular press is simply afraid to write critically about equipment. In the US, about the only photographic publication that sometimes serves up constructive criticism of products is Popular Photography. Reviews in publications like Practical Photography and even Shutterbug tend to be along the lines of what I call "anecdotal summary of features."

I suspect the "silent upgrade issue" you refer to is Nikon's replacement of a key oscillator component on many of the D1's that are returned for servicing (even if they are in for just a regular cleaning). It's clear that most of the earliest D1 bodies had a problem with a regular pattern of noise (usually referred to as "banding"), usually in the green channel, and only encountered at higher ISO values. Japanese manufacturers long ago learned that the US marketplace is quick to litigate on any admission of product "faults" (witness the huge settlement Toshiba made for floppy disk controllers that were never shown to have caused a substantive data loss in actual use). They've essentially been taught to treat product defects like this: "Our products don't have any design defects, but if one is returned for servicing and we see component failures unrelated to the reason for service, we'll fix those things, too." For what it's worth, American car manufacturers (amongst others) do the same thing. Every dealer service department has a binder full of service bulletins that describe commonly-needed repairs and replacements that the manufacturer will make for free, but hasn't communicated to the public. What's clear to me is that Nikon looks at all D1s that come in for service and makes appropriate replacements or adjustments to bring older bodies up to their current manufacturing standard. The few problems that have been seen with the D1 are all common knowledge on the D1 bulletin boards, and it's easy enough to see if your camera might exhibit them. If it does, have Nikon service it. So, I see the silent upgrade issue not so much as a Nikon problem, but a societal one.

One thing that does please me about Nikon's treatment of current D1 owners is that they've announced that Nikon Capture 2.0 will be a free upgrade for those who purchased the ($500!) earlier version. Further, the new version is effectively a $99 software product for those who buy official import products and return their warranty cards. While that still amounts to charging extra for a feature built into the camera (you can't use RAW mode without additional software [well, with the D1h and D1x you get a Photoshop plug-in that understands NEF files, but it's a band aid, not a tool]), at least the charge is more in line with the value provided.

As for battery drain due to use of the LCD when using custom settings on the D1h and D1x, well, we'll have to wait and see [so far, I haven't really noticed extra battery drain on my D1x, though I'll be the first to admit that I don't change my custom settings often]. Personally, I don't tend to play with the custom settings much, since I always shoot in RAW mode. Only the tone and sharpening (and maybe the ISO push) settings are likely to be changed on an image by image basis, and that's only if you're shooting JPEG. Most the camera control settings I set once and leave that way.

   

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