last update: April 7, 2003

  Nikon D1x Review

I've been using it for months; it's about time I told you my experience with this pro camera.

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Previously, I reviewed the D1 with parenthetical comments added after brief experience with the D1x and D1h. If you're looking for an introduction to the Nikon digital SLRs, start with that review and come back here after you've read that. Here I intend to give some very specific handling impressions based upon months of field use and experience with multiple bodies (my DC workshop had all four of us shooting with D1x's!).

The D1x has a substantial body that holds up in rough use. Think F100 with the MB-15 vertical grip in place. This is the view that more and more politicians and newsmakers are seeing these days, as D1, D1h, and D1x models have been adopted by many news organizations.
Out of the camera, this NEF looked significantly underexposed (you couldn't even make out trees in the lower half). But I continually am amazed by the amount of shadow detail that can be pulled out of the sensor data. The only drawback: if the exposure "push" is too much, you'll sometimes see either a slight banding of noise in the shadows or a slight bit of color fringing. Both can be the devil to fix if there's also fine detail in that area, as there is here. (Sigma 15-30mm, D1x, ISO 125, NEF exposed for the highlights.)
One thing that continues to amaze me is the level of detail that is present in scenics. When I first made the switch to digital, one of the common postings I saw was that "wide scenics probably won't hold enough detail." After all, the camera only has 1324 pixels in the vertical and 4024 in the horizontal. With a maximum angle of view of 92 degrees with a 14mm, that's only about 44 pixels per degree. But as it turns out, this is about the same as you'd get from a 20mm lens on a 35mm body if you scanned it with a Coolscan at 2700 dpi. What can't be seen from downsized JPEGs shown here is the impressive subtlety of some D1 images. (Nikkor 18-35mm, D1x, ISO 125, 2-stop Gray Grad, -1.3 stops fill flash on tree in lower left.)

Note: This isn't so much a review as an addition to my original D1 review. Read that review first if you haven't already.

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The Basics

The D1x has a feature set that is at the top of the heap in digital SLRs (as this was written in January 2002). Even Canon's 1D, the upcoming Contax's 6 megapixel full frame sensor, and Fuji S2 6-megapixel camera are arguably either the equal or only slightly better in some specifications than the D1x. [Here in April 2003 the same is still basically true; the 10mp output option for RAW files in Capture puts the D1x near the top of the heap, with perhaps only the Canon 1Ds being its better resolution-wise.] It's a testament to Nikon's engineering that they beat Canon to the punch on a pro-caliber digital SLR. (Of course, to be fair, Canon beat Nikon to the punch in a more modestly priced SLR targeted towards serious amateurs.) Still, if Nikon only continued upgrading the sensor resolution and buffer size of the D1x, it would remain competitive with virtually all the rumored cameras I've heard about that might appear in 2002 or even 2003.

Having used the D1x for six [now 20] months, 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. Unfortunately, the camera has to go back to Nikon for that update; it's not a simple "plug-in-some-memory" operation.]
  • 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%.
  • A slightly larger sensor size (say 1.3x instead of 1.5x) would be welcome to us nature and scenic photographers, though wildlife and sports photographers might not agree.
  • 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.

 

Handling

I've slowly gotten used to the D1x. As I noted in my D1 review (and in my book), 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.

A number of D1x users complain about getting nose grease on their LCD (i.e., they don't like the left-side placement), but frankly, it doesn't bother me. Replace the Nikon-supplied cover with a Hoodman, and clean it regularly. It would be nice to have the front-reflective LCD pioneered by the Compaq Ipaq (so we can see the image outdoors), but I suppose that the extra battery draw might not be worth it.

Speaking of the battery, it's a shame that Nikon picked Nimh for the EN-4 used in the D1x. While Nimh doesn't have the memory effects of Nicad, a Nimh battery loses more of its charge just sitting than does Nicad (at least 30% a month), and doesn't have particularly good cold weather properties. The state-of-the-art battery technology these days is Lithium Ion, which work well in cold and have better storage properties. But here's a tip: when you get tired of recharging the three EN-4's you need for a full day's shooting (more in the cold), get a Digital Camera Battery. Not only will you get by on one (external) battery a day, but you can power your SB-28DX from the same battery and get faster recycling, as well. Of course, the DCB is also a Nimh battery, so life isn't perfect. [Third party replacement batteries are now available for the D1 series, but they're still NiMH, though half the price of Nikon's.]

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning. Most early D1x users were scared off by Nikon's legal disclaimers and warnings in the manual, and either tolerated dust specks or sent their camera to Nikon for cleaning. As readers of my D1 Report know, it doesn't have to be that way. All you need is some lint-free cloth, some methanol (Eclipse solution), and a plastic knife from Wendy's. I also use a Kensington keyboard vacuum purchased at Staples to gently suck dirt out of the mirror box (remember, I travel in the backcountry and subject my camera to some worst-case situations). The first time you clean the CCD it'll take you an hour or more, but with time and experience, it becomes a relatively quick, two-swipe process.

Finally, something needs to be said about CompactFlash handling. The D1 was notorious for corrupting cards under certain circumstances. The D1x has fixed many of those problems, but it is not perfect. As I'll be reporting in the second issue of the D1 Report, formatting a card on a D1x produces a slightly different result than on a PC. And the camera is still sensitive to having cards moved to and from other types of digital cameras (including a Coolpix!). Write speed has improved over the sluggish D1, but it still isn't as fast as state-of-the-art would allow. The D1x represents an improvement in CompactFlash handling over the original D1, but could still use a few more tweaks.

In short, I don't have substantive handling complaints about the 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.

 

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Cleaning the CCD

I've now posted an article on how to clean the CCD.

 

 

Results

The attraction of the D1x is the extra resolution of the doubled-up photosites on the CCD. Using Bibble or QImage Pro to decode NEF images [and now Nikon Capture], the D1x effectively works like a 10 megapixel camera (4008 x 2624). Both programs have been in almost continual improvement since their introduction, with the latest version of QImage probably retaining a slight lead on color accuracy and some types of detail rendering, Bibble having better color saturation and less aliased high frequency detail. Nikon's own interpretation of the NEF format (through the optional Nikon Capture or the supplied Photoshop import filter) renders at just shy of 6 megapixels (3008 x 1960 [now also supports 4008 x 2624]), and is no slouch, either. Well exposed and managed images from NEF files using all three software products produce images that are startling in their detail and freedom from all but frequency-induced artifacts. [The 4th issue of the D1 Report has an expanded look at the various RAW file interpreters.]

Note that I said "well exposed." The very first thing every D1x user needs to learn is that any overexposure produces significant loss in highlight detail. 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.
  • Above middle gray there's 2.5 to 3 stops of usable range.
  • Below middle gray there's 4 to 5 stops of usable range.

This asymmetrical balance means that you need to 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 again, you won't be able to reduce highlight values as easily (or as much) as you can raise shadow detail. [Note: "adjusting the exposure" in NEF format isn't really adjusting the exposure but is the application of a different linearity curve to the underlying data.]

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 for the brightest highlight (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 exposures 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. High levels of in-camera sharpening tend to push some types of highlight detail over the edge with JPEG, as well; you lose the detail and/or gain artifacts.

Frankly, after trying all the different formats, I won't work in anything except NEF in the future, the difference is that dramatic. The problem, however, is that the NEF workflow isn't exactly convenient. To produce the highest quality images, you need to deal with each NEF file individually, selecting white balance and exposure settings carefully before letting your software (Bibble, Capture, QImage) do the interpolation of the sensor data. (Yes, I know you can batch process NEF files, but programs such as ACDSee haven't fully caught up to handling NEFs gracefully, so I rarely batch images for preview. Digital Pro offers hope in this respect, but is still a relatively immature program as I write this.)

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.

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). None of these things have plagued my D1x. As just noted, color fidelity is quite good--I've actually managed to take pictures of Macbeth ColorCheckers with the D1x, make only two modest adjustments in the printer driver settings, and print them out with an exact color match on a Fuji Pictography printer. Noise is mostly unnoticeable up to about ISO 500, and doesn't have the distinct pattern the original D1 did. I have noticed a fair amount of dark current noise in long exposures (5 seconds or longer taken at warm or hot temperatures), but nothing that isn't easily handled.

On the resolution side, I still see occasional moiré and color fringing in high frequency detail. This varies a bit with lenses, too. That's not surprising--we'd need well more than 10 megapixels to get to the range where these common digital problems would be minimized. Ironically, I find less fringing off the 18-35mm Nikkor than the more expensive 17-35mm AF-S Nikkor when used at the wide end at maximum aperture (the inverse is true at 35mm, though).

Drawbacks

  • Workflow is cumbersome with NEFs. You can automate some of the process using products such as DigitalPro, but there's no perfect NEF workflow yet. Most cataloging programs don't quite know how to handle NEFs, and those that do don't always "fully" support them. [Things have gotten better with recent iterations of Nikon's software and the introduction of Adobe's RAW converter for Photoshop, but workflow is still a problem, especially if you seek the best possible results from your images.]
  • Battery life is only okay. I can usually spend a full day shooting with only two charged batteries. But all bets are off when it is cold or I don't have access to a charger for a few days. We really need a Lithium alternative for the D1s.
  • Unbuffed buffer. If you're in candid situations shooting more than a handful of photos every minute (e.g., sports, event, party photography, and so on), you're going to bump up against full memory buffers. Deliberate shooters (nature photography, close-up work, etc.) won't find this a problem, though. [The buffer upgrade helps a lot, but adds to the cost of the camera and must be done at Nikon (i.e., you can't buy a pre-upgraded body).]
  • No room at the top. Highlight detail can usually only be maximized with a bit of underexposure and post-processing of the shadow detail. You absolutely have to watch histograms and highlights lest you capture an exposure whose top-end can't be fixed.
  • Wide isn't wide. If you do scenic work, as I do, the smaller size of the CCD compared to the 35mm frame means you will need to get a 14mm lens, period. And that only gets you near the equivalent of a 20mm on a 35mm camera. [A 12-24mm DX lens designed especially to deal with this issue is expected in Spring 2003.]

Positives

  • Better than film results. If you can't get "better than film" results at up to 11x14", then you're doing somethng wrong. There, I said it.
  • Durability. I've shot with my D1x in torrential rain, dragged it through dusty backcountry, dropped it on sand, and had it submitted to dozens of airport security inspections. It still looks and works like new.
  • Nikon compatibility. With very few exceptions, if Nikon made it for the 35mm cameras, it'll work on a D1x. I've used old AI lenses and accessories on the D1x. Older flashes such as the SB-26 still work in Automatic mode (and an SB-50DX on the D1x triggering a remote SB-26 may be the most flexible two-flash combo to own). Yes, some think the limitations on older equipment should make this a liability, but I don't. The digital camera revolution could have been built around all-new mounts and accessories (consider what Olympus has done with E series).

 

 

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Highly Recommended, even as new digital SLRs are announced, the D1x remains quite competitive.

features
performance
build
value

 

Khai Tran writes:

Have you had any problems with the front plastic flap that covers the Video out and AC/DC IN? Mine (from day one) does not stay closed and hopelessly flaps around and is just plain annoying as it gets in the way quite a bit during shooting.

Thom's Response: Every heavy-duty D1 user (D1, D1h, or D1x) I know has voiced the same question. Because of the design, the cover has a tendency to "curl" a bit, which makes it prone to pop out of the socket. It doesn't help that your left hand grasps the camera at about that point. My solution has been to use gaffer's tape to hold it closed, but that isn't a very elegant solution (and isn't a solution at all if you need to access the plugs regularly). Your email reminded me of another annoyance (external battery plug location), which I've added to the review, above. [For awhile, an accessory called the FlapCatch was made by a third party, which addressed the flap issue. I still use mine. But another possibility is to use hook-and-loop tape-backed fasteners in the flap; you have to cut them very small, but it works.]

   

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