The Nikon D1, D1h, and D1x Cameras


The start of the true digital SLR revolution.


Note: this is a completely reworked review that replaces my earlier D1 Review and D1x Review.


The D1 series bodies all look pretty much alike. Without turning the camera on, the only telltale sign is the model ID on the right front of the camera.

Once turned on, a few differences do make themselves quickly known, since the menuing system on the color LCD on the camera's back has been completely reworked on the D1h and D1x.

Repeated use reveals a few other anomalies: the original D1 is very modal (Play means Play) while the D1h and D1x are always ready to shoot a new picture, regardless of what else you might be doing (i.e., the shutter release has priority, as it should on a professional camera).

 

   

The Basics

When Nikon introduced the D1 in September 1999, the initial reaction was surprisingly lukewarm. First, there was the US$5500 price. Close examination of the specifications revealed that the recently introduced 3-megapixel consumer digital 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. One question on everyone's mind was why did a camera whose CCD sensor was slightly smaller than the APS frame need to be as big as an F5?

Early adopters of the original D1 complained about magenta tints, especially on skin tones, and a strange diagonal "banding" noise that appeared in low light, usually in the Green channel, especially at high ISO values. All in all, not an auspicious start to the digital SLR revolution we've now come to embrace. Still, if you think about it in retrospect, what Nikon introduced to the world in 1999 was nothing short of a revolution. Compared to previous DSLRs that were cumbersome, resolution-constrained, and hugely expensive (e.g., from Kodak, and the Fujifilm/Nikon collaboration), the D1 seemed remarkably inexpensive, and on closer examination, was better integrated and handled better than any previous product in the category. Looking back, it's easy to see that the D1 was the critical introduction that started the current rush towards digital replacing 35mm SLRs. Indeed, Nikon was so far in front of the pack that they suddenly claimed a larger market share in an SLR market than did Canon, something that hadn't happened in decades. Even as I write this (spring 2003), Canon only just caught up to Nikon in DSLR market share, and that's despite iterating their lineup at a frenetic pace. In years ahead we'll look back at the D1 as the Nikon F of the digital generation: the workhorse professional body that first penetrated the press and led to mass adoption by the public.

Today, those that joined the D1 bandwagon early will let you in on a secret: the D1 rocked. The subsequent D1h and D1x addressed many of the few complaints of the original D1. Indeed, I'll go out on a limb here and say this: a D1x NEF processed by a skilled practitioner through the 10MB capability of Capture stands up well against the output of any current DSLR at any size an Epson 2200 can print. (Think about that statement for a moment: we're talking about a digital camera that was introduced over two years ago!). In a skilled photographer's hands, any of the D1s are quite capable of capturing better-than-slide dynamic range, excellent saturated colors, and enough resolution good enough for a full magazine page. If you doubt that last claim, grab the last two year's worth of Sports Illustrated and look at the Up Front two-page photo spreads. Now tell me which ones were done with film, which with digital, and which of the digital ones are D1h, D1x, Canon 1D, or Canon 1Ds images. You might be able to pick out the film versus digital images, as there are differences in artifacts that can be obvious (noise versus grain), but you won't find enough differences to make any camera judgment. (Indeed, I can usually only tell which camera took each image only if certain lenses were used. It's the lens defect that gives away the camera!)

For those trying to figure out if they really want to spring the thousands of extra bucks for a D1 model over a consumer digital camera (such as a Coolpix or Canon G3/G5), the most common differences are these:

  • The D1 models produce 12-bit color images in RAW modes (4096 shades of each color), most consumer cameras are only 8 bit (256 shades of each color).
  • The D1 series is robustly built, and will take the wear and tear of every day professional use. I've dragged my bodies through deserts, into the back country, up mountains, into rivers (literally), across snow, and virtually every other "landscape hazard," and other than clean them, they've stood up to the abuse amazingly well. Indeed, my D1x, which has gotten by far the most use, still looks new, though I've made no attempt to shield it from abuse.
  • The D1 models have 35mm-like depth of field, while the consumer camera's much smaller CCD and shorter focal length lenses result in very deep, difficult to use (and calculate) depth of field (e.g., difficult to isolate subjects).
  • The D1 will shoot 21 images at 4.5 frames per second without nary a burp, the D1x 9 images at 3 fps (up to 21 with the buffer upgrade, which is now included in the price), while the D1h produces 40 images at 5 fps. (All these figures assume base ISO, shutter speed of 1/250 or faster, no flash, and a few other common settings).
  • Shutter lag on a D1 model is in the 50ms range most of the time (it can sneak higher with certain AF and other camera settings, but it is still quite fast). Consumer digital cameras don't come close, as most have incredible shutter lags (half second or more) and buffers that wimp out after a couple of frames.

Compared to other DSLRs, the Nikon D1 series also stands up well. You can get a DSLR that shoots frames faster than the D1h (8 fps on the Canon 1D), but the buffer differences come into play here. I've sat next to a Canon 1D user shooting sports who's head snapped around when I fired off an 8-second burst to his 2. In some sports, I'd rather have the faster motor drive of the 1D, in others, I'd rather have the longer sustained burst speed of the D1h. Resolution-wise, the D1x is way underestimated by many. As long as you don't have strong slightly diagonal lines or greater short axis detail than long (the natural landscapes I mostly shoot tend to have neither), you can consider the D1x a 10mp camera shooting RAW. Moreover, it's 5.4mp images are very noise and artifact free up to about ISO 500. With the expanded buffer that comes with the latest D1x shipments, I much prefer the D1x over any other camera except perhaps the Canon 1Ds for landscape work. I'll put my D1x images in 11 x 17" prints against any other current DSLR without hesitation.

A used original D1 can often be found for less than a new Canon 10D, but the original D1 model has three image quality issues that now make it not hold its own against the current bodies: it had no defined color space, it alters RAW data with white balance information, and the 3-megapixel output can't hold its own against the 6mp cameras once you go behind 8x10" prints. But we'll come back to all this in the performance portions of the review. For now the point I want to make is this: the current models in the D1 series, despite being over two years old, hold their own against the current crop of DSLRs. Remarkable.

The D1 has a feature set that sounds a bit like a Nikon professional 35mm SLR. Indeed, most of the D1 series 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 color CCD for exposure and white balance calculations). In physical size and appearance, the D1s closely resemble 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 125 and ISO 200 values if the film speed makes a difference). The metering range extends from EV 0 to EV 20, which is 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 1/16,000. However, note that these are not all 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 faster than 1/250. All fast 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 on the original D1, 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 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 center weighted 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 center weighted the center weighting is, and spot metering is done at the autofocus sensor in use.

As befitting a professional camera, Nikon keeps the exposure 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. Adjusted programs (called Flexible Program by Nikon) remain in effect until you cancel them, by the way.

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, with 1600 and 3200 available via boost.]

Flash sync is 1/500 of second. That's right, 1/500. (In actuality, this is an arbitrary limit: on the PC Sync socket you can sync at any shutter speed.) 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 a D-TTL capable Speedlight (the SB-28DX, SB-50DX, or SB-80DX). 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 a D1 to understand the operational differences in the flash system. With a DX-type flash on a D1 model, 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. Moreover, anyone who's read my posts on any of the digital forums will know that I'm a strong advocate of avoiding the Balanced Fill-Flash modes on the Nikon digital bodies. It's a bit out of the scope of this review to get into the "why," but suffice it to say that Standard TTL with the appropriate Flash Exposure Compensation will give you more control and consistency in flash results, especially if you're in low light. When set correctly and mounted on a D1, the DX Speedlights display D-TTL on their LCD as the flash mode, by the way.

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. I've not seen or heard of this problem with recent D1h and D1x bodies or the SB-80DX--every complaint I've dealt with those combinations has turned out to be user misunderstanding or user error. It seems clear to me that Nikon made some adjustment to internal camera and flash settings some time after the D1 and SB-28DX first appeared.)

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 original D1, 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 consumer camera 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. Indeed, it's better than that of any consumer digital camera I'm aware of.

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). Apertures aren't really affected by this change. But 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. Note that the focal length is still the same (so that's what you use in DOF calculations.
  • 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. (See Michael's recent article on MTF and look at what happens as you go further from the center of the lens.)
  • 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. The new 12-24mm DX lens gets us closer to ultra-wide (effective 18mm angle of view), but we still don't have full-frame or regular fisheye lenses or a true ultrawide. Also problematic is that all the 14mm lenses have a significant tendency towards flare and contrast reduction when light hits their pronounced front elements (the 12-24mm is a much better choice, especially if you use the hood).
  • 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). Basically, if you follow the Carl Zeiss depth of field conventions, you need to change the Circle of Confusion to 0.016 in all your DOF calculations (it is normally 0.025 for 35mm).

The CCD sensors the D1 models use are unique to Nikon The D1 and D1h consist of a 2012 x 1324 array, and it has massive 11.8 micron photosites. That's just one reason why the D1 and D1h 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 D1x uses a unique array that is 4024 x 1324 with non-square photosites, which it then resamples into final image sizes of up to 3008 x 1960. The D1x images are remarkably noise free. Most users of D1x's that use RAW formats use an upsampled format that provides 4024 x 2648 pixel images (10mp).

Like virtually all digital cameras, a filter array is placed over the D1's CCD. This filter has four 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. Provides an anti-aliasing component. Anti-aliasing (similar to a softening filter) is used to slightly blur detail before it hits the sensor. This is done for a number of reasons, but primarily to cut down on color aliasing effects that might occur due to the use of a Bayer pattern. The few cameras that don't use anti-aliasing filters (the Kodak DCS760's is removable, the Kodak Pro 14n doesn't have one) have a slightly more pronounced tendency to generate moire.
  3. Filters out deep infrared. CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, and to keep infrared energy from biasing colors and exposure, most of this light is filtered out. Near infrared is still present in the D1 series, so you can use Wratten-type filters to shoot "infrared" images.
  4. Realigns the light. CCDs don't like light hitting them at any angle other than 90 degrees, so the filter also has small "microlenses" on it that focus the light rays from the lens more directly into the sensors.

The Bayer array is one of the reasons why so many hypothesized that the original D1 would have terrible resolution. After all, you started with 2012 x 1324 photosites, but the filter array effectively reduces that to 1006 x 662 if you wanted a full RGB value at each position, which doesn't seem like enough resolution to produce professional results. But the camera's 12-bit tonal range, coupled with a very 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 tonal 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 (well, that's true of the D1h and D1x; the original D1 does some processing of the RAW data)! Unfortunately, you need computer software program to use this format. At present, the primary choices are: Bibble (Mac and PC), QImage (PC), CaptureOne DSLR (Mac and PC), Adobe RAW Converter for Photoshop (Mac and PC), or Nikon's own Nikon Capture (Mac and PC). Nikon has begun including Capture in some countries with the D1x, and demo versions of all these programs except Adobe RAW are available on the net. I'll address RAW conversions more in the Performance section, but the difference between a D1 JPEG and a processed D1 NEF is remarkable in skilled hands. 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's come 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 at the same time (though the F100's batteries are a different shape, the charger works just fine with the D1 batteries and Nikon sanctions this use; the actual charging is done sequentially). 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. And here's two tips regarding the D1's batteries: (1) First, you should condition new EN-4's by using them, then Refreshing them the first three cycles; after the third cycle, just charge the batteries; and (2) When the End light comes on, the battery is NOT fully charged; don't remove it from the charger until it has cooled to the touch.

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 dials. 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 on the original D1 and require too much button-pressing navigation on the D1h and D1x (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, and you'll find yourself wanting to take it off to get a better look at the LCD (the original D1's cover is opaque). A better solution is that produced by Hoodman, which is a $19.95 protective cover that doesn't have to removed. More recently Hoodman introduced a more elaborate, collapsible cover which screens the LCD from external light, making it easier to see in bright conditions; some people love this rubber bellows, some think it gets in the way. But it does make it easy to see the LCD in bright light.

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning with Nikon DSLRs. 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. The method I outline on my site works well, and others have adopted variations of it.

Still, 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 on the original D1 (these are fixed with the D1h and D1x). 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.
  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. The original D1 is notorious for this, while the current D1h and D1x don't seem to suffer the problem except that once in a blue moon.
  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. Some white balance options are not overly accurate (the fluorescent values in particular), so you really should be using PRE. Auto rarely produces a true white, while 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. If you shoot NEF files, you can usually ignore white balance in camera and apply white balances after the fact (except for the original D1). But if you shoot JPEG, you'll need to experiment with various settings (my book contains a handy cheat sheet). Most of us end up shooting with white balance set higher than you'd expect. For example, when I measure 5400K with a color meter, I find I usually end up setting something more like 5800K to get clean whites. Moreover, watch out for Nikon's misdirection on flash color temperature. The camera sets 5400K, but not a single Speedlight Nikon ships starts out at that color (they tend to range from 5800 to 6000K out of the box, and drift slightly downwards with use).
  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 original 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 have it a bit better: Nikon 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 general 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.

For the past two years, a D1x has been my main camera. The D1x's outer body design seems to have been slapped together when compared to the Italian-designed F5. The differences are subtle, with ridges and humps that aren't quite as nicely placed as on the F100 or F5. Fortunately, Nikon wisely retained most of the control locations of the F100 and F5, so picking up a D1x after using a film body isn't a rude shock, just a small adjustment in hand positions. Still, when I compare the D1's hand positions and grip to other Nikon-based bodies, I feel something lacking.

Having used the D1x for over two years, the list of specification changes or additions I'd ask for is relatively minimal:

  • The 6-frame NEF buffer is easily filled when shooting action. Even a 3 or 4 frame addition would be useful, but doubling it would make me more than happy. And Nikon did exactly that in late 2002, offering a buffer update that doubles the buffer size. Older cameras have to go back to Nikon for the update, but new D1x's coming from Nikon since April 2003 have had the extra buffer pre-installed.
  • It would be nice to have ISO 100 (to match all the charts published in Nikon flash manuals!), and a less noisy ISO 800. Any improvement in the ISO 1600 and 3200 speeds would also be welcome.
  • TTL flash really needs a "during exposure" measurement capability, just like the 35mm bodies. It would also be nice if the TTL sensors were scaled down to only see the CCD area (they currently include an area that extends into the black frame around the CCD).
  • Why a 96% viewfinder is acceptable to Nikon, I don't understand (especially when it's ever so slightly off center in most samples; fortunately, mine seems dead on). Since the viewfinder has been re-masked for the smaller sensor there really are no excuses why it shouldn't be 100%.
  • The area in which the sensor is set needs to be widened to allow easier cleaning.
  • I'd give up the TIFF mode in a second for a mode that saves both NEF and JPG of the same image (it would take less time and space than that TIFF!).
  • The external battery connector location should be changed. If you use an external battery, the cable comes out right where you want to put your left hand. And the battery itself needs to be lithium, not NiMH.

(For a far more detailed wish list, see my D2x Wishlist.)

Despite all that's been said, I don't have substantive handling complaints about the D1h or D1x. The transition from film bodies to digital was relatively painless, and all the things that have made Nikon 35mm SLRs some of the best cameras for pros have been passed on to the digital bodies, as well.

Performance

Everyone wants to know good the images that the D1 produces are. The short answer is “great.” Each of the three models varies, of course, but the D1h and D1x can accurately reproduce color with enough resolution to satisfy most uses. A few generalizations before we move in deeper:
  • The 3-megapixels of the D1 and D1h are now a bit long-in-the-tooth, but still quite adequate. At the usual 240 dpi most of us run to our Epson inkjets, that's 5.5 x 8.4" without any resizing. And I have no problems getting artifact-free 8 x 10's out of either camera. Once you get to 11x17, though, even the best resizing practices won't be enough to hide some loss of detail, though. But how many 11x17's did YOU print this year?
  • The 5.4-megapixels of the D1x holds its own against any of the current 6-megapixel cameras, and on many subjects and with proper NEF processing, the D1x can hold its own against ever higher resolution bodies. At the 240 dpi mark, you can get a 11 x 17" image out of the D1x without resizing. Frankly, it took two years after the appearance of the D1x for another body to clearly eclipse it in resolution (the Canon 1Ds and Kodak Pro 14n are the only two bodies I would agree do that; the Fujifilm S2 Pro doesn't get there, even with its 12-megapixel output; and yes, I put that in practice: I use my D1x over the S2 Pro where resolution is key).
You want image quality? You'll get it in spades with the D1x. The D1x has been my primary camera for over two years, and I'm continually amazed at how much detail it can grab in landscapes, as it has here at the classic Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park. Moreover, dynamic range is quite good--and I was using every bit of it here in this shot. Nikon D1x, Sigma 15-30mm, ISO 125, NEF file converted using Nikon Capture and then further converted to black and white via Photoshop.

 

As already noted, the D1 produces 12-bit images in its raw NEF format, but 8-bit in JPEG. Frankly, after trying all the different formats, I won't work in anything except NEF in the future, the difference is that dramatic when you're paying attention to every bit of pixel-pushing.

Early users of the D1 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 a camera profile using NEF, I haven't seen the magenta problem others have noted. I have seen it in quite a few JPEG images, but it is easily correctable, and I suspect that better attention to white balance might produce less magenta drift. Some of the color problem is due to the fact that the original D1 doesn't have a defined color space (Nikon apparently used NTSC-calibrated monitors to guide color development, so NTSC is the closest color space that works). To get around this issue, you really have to individually profile the original D1s. The banding noise doesn't appear in the recent original D1 I've used, and owners who've complained about it to Nikon and had their D1 serviced seemed to have oscillators replaced in their cameras, which mostly fixes the problem (at high ISO values, there is still a faint pattern to the noise, though). Software products have appeared to take care of the banding problem, but, at this stage, I'd have my camera serviced if I found this problem in my original D1.

You probably wonder about what size picture you can produce with the D1's and D1h's "limited" resolution. I've seen 11x14" prints from a D1 that are indistinguishable (to me) from film (and I've seen 24 x 36" prints from a D1x that are better than I typically have gotten from 35mm slide 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 due to the more limited exposure range. Let me put it a different way: you cannot recover lost highlight detail and it's pathetically difficult to pull out more highlight detail if an image is exposed at the margin. But you can almost always pull up shadow detail (at the expense of more noise, which can be dealt with).
  2. Attention to depth of field, focus, and shutter speed 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. (I hypothesize that this has something to do with the fact that film has overlapping grains, while digital bodies have light sensors that do not cover the entire imaging area. That's right, not all of a photosite is "photo-reactive." And you've got microlenses on top of them redirecting the light, which also adds to the slightly different "look.") Flat-plane subjects rendered in sharp focus are great on any D1. Highly detailed landscapes that require huge front to back depth of field are difficult to achieve well on a D1 and D1h (and remember, DOF is smaller due to a smaller Circle of Confusion value). The D1x seems to render natural landscapes quite well. As for shutter speed: learn to use the anti-mirror shock function (on the D1h and D1x) at shutter speeds less than 1/30 shorter than 1 second.
  3. Subtle adjustment of Photoshop Curves produces superb shadow detail, though there's a balance that you need to get it right between contrast and the curve settings. Indeed, one of the complaints Canon DSLR users have about Nikon DSLRs is that the Nikons produce "more drab" images without "color saturation." Personally, I think the Canon users are seeing too things: first, the Nikon DSLRs have long dynamic ranges that are not compressed; and second, Nikon has picked a rather lower contrast default for their linearity curve. I'd rather work from lower contrast and a linear exposure than from the higher contrast and curved exposure the Canon bodies seem to use. It's easier, I believe, to put contrast and saturation back into an image than it is to pull it out. Moreover, I think the Canon's produce a "plastic looking, cartoonish" color and exposure that's a little too boosted and in your face. Of course, I prefer Provia slide film over Velvia, for much the same reasons. That said, I've never been unable to crank up the color and contrast in Nikon D1 images to get that exaggerated look when I wanted it. I just don't want it most of the time.

I'm going to talk most about the D1x images, since that's the camera I've used continuously since it appeared, and it has, arguably, the best image quality of the D1 bodies. Here goes:


Subscribers to my D1 Report (now Nikon Digital SLR Report) will recognize the image at left. The top image is a full frame from the D1x. The bottom is a 100% view run through Adobe RAW Converter (ARC). Note that this is a very challenging NEF image to convert: the original scene has more detail than the D1x can render, the red channel has over saturated in this exposure, and the white balance is very tricky due to a low November morning sun reflecting off the walkway and grass into the wall.

Even though ARC isn't the best of the D1x converters currently available (see below), you'll see some things here that are important: (1) the reflection of the rose is actually accurately rendered in the granite wall (just above the rose); (2) the fact that the rose is plastic is clearly revealed by the "grain" in the petal; (3) the detail in the granite and the slight imperfections of the edges on the etched names is also clearly revealed; (4) colors are basically dead-on, despite the fact that the exposure blew out the red channel!

Now for a few negatives: (1) ARC doesn't clearly pull out all the detail here (and this is at the 5.4mp size); I have other conversions of this same photo that clearly demonstrate more and better detail in the granite, especially in the shadow areas; (2) very close look at slight diagonals shows some stairstepping artifacts (again, more obvious in ARC than in some other converters); and (3) the over saturated red channel has tended to produce some posterization in the colors in the rose, which the modest sharpening I applied has picked up along with the detail.

 

The attraction of the D1x model is the extra resolution of the doubled-up photosites on the CCD. Using Bibble, QImage Pro, or Nikon Capture to decode NEF images, the D1x effectively works like a 10-megapixel camera (4008 x 2624). Yes, I said works like a 10-megapixel camera. Indeed, I find slightly more validity in Nikon's claim of the D1x as a 10-megapixel camera than Fujifilm's claim that the S2 Pro is a 12-megapixel camera. In the case of the Nikon, the long axis resolution is real; in the case of the Fujifilm, neither axis' resolution is real. Note that there are problems with the D1x's resolving power, since it is not symmetrical. Long diagonal lines that are just off horizontal will often reveal obvious stairsteps when run through a 10-megapixel RAW interpretation (at the "native" 5mp this isn't the case--though note that "native" resolution resamples both axis). I worried that the smaller photosites of the D1x (half the area of the D1 and D1h, but otherwise essentially the same technology) would produce more noise, but Nikon has done something quite clever in the underlying technology, apparently. Noise is very, very low.

The 4th issue of my Nikon Digital SLR Report has a detailed look at the various RAW file interpreters and how they work on D1x images, but here's a short recap of my current thoughts, with the converters presented in ascending order of image quality ability on Nikon NEFs (in my humble opinion):

  • Bibble produces saturated but incorrect color. It can have problems with channel saturation. But if you're into lots of post-processing, using its linearity conversion function can produce detail from a D1x image that you didn't even suspect was there.
  • Qimage produces pleasant color and almost never produces stairstep artifacts (if anything, certain edges can end up a little too soft). It's a bit slower than most, though. If the UI of the program were better (read: understandable), it would be a no-questions-asked bargain pick.
  • Adobe RAW Converter is faster than the others, which is great for batch processing, and the colors are okay if you take the time to make sure you understand what all the various controls do (quick: do you know what the Tint control actually does to white balances and why that is important to know?). But I find that the converter sometimes produces images with unsettling lack of detail in some areas (especially true if you use the Sharpening and Smoothing controls together).
  • CaptureOne DSLR has an excellent workflow (and completeness) and is more mature as a software product than any of the others, probably because of its long heritage from the PhaseOne back's software development. But you pay a big price to use it for D1 images. Price as in mucho dinero.
  • Nikon Capture has consistently improved with each iteration, and produces very nice detail, accurate color, and now supports the 10mp D1x output that Bibble and QImage pioneered.

Having run my D1x through a number of rigorous tests, and comparing it against D1x bodies brought to my workshops, I've come to the following conclusions:

  • The maximum exposure range captured by the D1x is no more than 8 stops. Usable range is probably 7 stops. Pulling up that 8th stop will definitely give you noise to deal with.
  • Above "middle gray" there's 2.5 to 3 stops of usable range. Of course, that's defining middle gray as 128,128,128, when it actually (correctly) registers lower than that with proper exposure. Read on.
  • Below "middle gray" there's 3.5 to 4 stops of usable range. In other words, there's more "exposure" below 128,128,128 than there is above it. One natural outgrowth of this is that most Nikon users "pull up" the curve at the 1/4 point slightly.
  • Channel saturation is a killer and severely negates what I just said (unfortunately, there's no way to preview that on a D1x, as there is on an S2)

This asymmetrical exposure balance means that you need to absolutely respect the "expose for the highlights" mantra (see Histograms). Failure to do so means highlights show up as paper when you print your image. If you shoot NEF, you can adjust "the exposure" somewhat after the fact, though this is not exposure change as every converter seems to want to make you believe, but rather linearity change. Any channel saturation can't be dealt with, so once you lose a highlight detail or channel detail, it's lost, regardless of how much "exposure adjustment" a converter allows.

Getting to "exposure perfection" isn't a lot different with a D1x than it was with slide film:

  • If you have a broad area of brightness (sky, for example), use a graduated neutral density filter to hold it back.
  • (Optional) Use a polarizer to reduce highlights caused by unwanted reflections.
  • Set your overall exposure to include the brightest highlight in the dynamic range (i.e., the histogram shouldn't show any detail spilling off the right side).
  • Use a reflector or fill flash to brighten up the shadow areas.

JPEG shooters need to heed the same advice, except you don't have the same ability to adjust after the fact. You must get your JPEG exposures dead on, as the reduction from 12-bit to 8-bit data and the instantiation of the camera settings (tone, contrast, sharpening, white balance, etc.) pretty much lock in your pixels in the camera. Selecting high contrast on the camera while shooting JPEG is not a good decision unless you absolutely know that you've got a narrow exposure range and need the boost (indeed, the D1's tend to avoid high contrast in the Auto contrast setting except in very low contrast situations; Nikon has chosen very, very well in the subtle software traits of these cameras, though, as noted, that means you don't always get the "punch" out of a D1 that you see in some other DSLRs out-of-camera shots). High levels of in-camera sharpening tend to push some types of highlight detail over the edge with JPEGs, as well; you lose the detail and/or gain artifacts. In general, I avoid sharpening in the D1 cameras, whether shooting JPEG or NEF (this isn't true of a D100, by the way, just the D1s).

A properly exposed and processed NEF file prints easily on my desktop printer at 13 x 17 inches, with stellar detail and color fidelity (the AdobeRGB color space profile built into the camera seems reasonably accurate, and makes managing color a lot easier than with the original D1). Indeed, I've compared images off my D1x with drum scans of Provia F from my 35mm body, and I prefer the D1x's rendition in most cases. If I were printing larger than 13 x 17, I might want a little more resolution, but for my work, the D1x has plenty. And I have to go back and say something about "color fidelity." The D1h and D1x are the only DSLRs I've used in which I've been able to shoot a known color reference such as the MacbethGretag ColorChecker chart, run it through the computer and print it, then take the print, cut it up, and drop the printed chips on the original ColorChecker and have them all disappear! I can get mighty close with other DSLRs, but the D1h and D1x models are the only ones that I've managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible: perfect color rendering and exposure camera-to-print. Nikon did not get this right with the original D1, but boy did they fix their mistake with the subsequent models. If you're not getting controlled, accurate color with a D1h or D1x, then you're doing something wrong in the exposure or color management chain. And to figure out what, you do exactly what I did: shoot a known reference and walk it through every step checking for where it deviates.

Okay, I've put off the bad news long enough. There is one aspect of the D1 series performance that is sub optimal compared to recent DSLRs: long exposure noise. Hot pixel noise is just something you need to anticipate with a D1h or D1x in exposures longer than 1 second. And this problem can be quite obnoxious by a 5 second exposure. Do yourself a favor and take a second shot at the same shutter with the lens cap on when you get into the above-1-second exposure range. At least that way you can do a manual Dark Current removal adjustment that'll make the hot pixel situation more manageable.

Drawbacks

  • Custom Settings (original D1 only). Either learn to ignore ‘em or bring a cheat sheet. There is no in between. (D1h and D1x) Too much button pressing, and no rationale order to the settings.
  • Battery Life. With a Microdrive in the camera and reviewing (chimping) every photo's histogram, I sometimes 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 and are bigger and heavier than an equivalent lithium battery would be. The D1 is not a friendly camera at or below freezing.
  • Lack of Nikon Cooperation. This is a camera that should have wider 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.
  • Hot Pixels. Watch those long exposures; they'll get freckles that make every face look like Dennis the Menace.
  • Wide Angle Limitations. Despite the 12-24mm DX lens, we still don't have fisheye or fast wide angle optics. When Nikon rounds out the DX lineup with a full frame fisheye, a circular fisheye, a perspective control lens, and one or two fixed focal length and f/2 or faster wide angles, there will be nothing to complain about. But until then...
  • Not the Latest and Greatest. Funny how just being good isn't enough in the DSLR marketing wars. The fact that the D1h and D1x are now two years old seems to work against them, despite the fact that both are more than enough camera in specs and image quality than most users actually need.

Positives

  • It's the image, stupid. Color fidelity, wider-than-slide-film dynamic range, low noise at low ISO values, and with the D1x, 10-megapixel output that works well with many subjects (something that just boggles the mind when you consider this camera was introduced over two years ago).
  • Rolls Royce Body. With only modest exceptions (the battery comes to mind), as good if not better than an F5 in handling, quality, and durability.
  • Before its Time. I'll tackle just about any assignment with a D1h or D1x and be perfectly happy, despite newer DSLRs with more resolution or faster frame rates (the Canon 1D and 1Ds come to mind). All things considered, the D1 series is holding up quite well, actually.
  • Software. As we move further into the DSLR revolution, it's the post-processing and workflow that becomes more important, and Nikon's now on version 6 of its browsing software and the fourth iteration of its RAW converter. And each subsequent version has gotten better. Macintosh users, especially, will appreciate Nikon's more robust software. And third party products, such as DigitalPro, goes further than the Breezebrowser or other offerings most Canon users point to.
 
Quick Evaluation


D1: Conditionally Recommended. If you purchase a used D1, make sure it is an officially imported model, not a gray import. Also, be prepared to profile the camera to get accurate color and don't expect to go beyond 8x10" prints without seeing artifacts.

features
performance
build

value

D1h: Recommended. The only significant drawback is the 3-megapixel output, which limits your ultimate print size. Would be Highly Recommended if Nikon hadn't increased the D1x's buffer size.

features
performance
build

value

D1x: Highly Recommended. At virtually any size you're likely to output from commonly available printers, the output can be stunning and state-of-the-art. With the increased buffer size, you can even use the D1x for sports (as long as the 3 fps motor drive is good enough for you).

features
performance
build

value

Note: values reflect current prices and state of the DSLR market (7/03). These things change from time to time, as do my ratings.



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