The Nikon D1x: An Exceptional Digital Camera for Pros
Imagine a professional SLR (single lens reflex) digital camera that generates smooth, artifact-free color images, 11x16-inch prints (or larger at 240 ppi) and full-page or crossover color separations for magazines.
It's also affordable - at least for those serious about photography and digital cameras.
I tested such a digital camera for a month, the Nikon D1x, and came away impressed. In fact, I concluded that to be competitive in magazine photography, I needed to sell my D1 (which I did on eBay in less than a day) and purchase a new D1x (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Front and rear views of the Nikon D1x, a 5.47-megapixel digital camera. Being marketed to studio and magazine photographers who need higher resolution and more accurate color.
The D1x ($6,310) released in mid-2001 offers significant improvements over the popular 1999 D1 model. The revamped D1x CCD has twice the resolution (5.47 megapixels), a redesigned matrix metering system, ISO options between 125 and 800 (1/3 EV steps) and a 3-frames-per-second shooting rate for up to 9 consecutive buffered shots. The original D1 is a 2.66-megapixel camera; the D1x uses the same-sized CCD, although it is completely re-engineered.
A new sister camera, the D1h ($5,350) features a 2.66-megapixel CCD, the same matrix metering system as the D1x, ISO settings between 200 and 6400, and a 5-frames-per-second shooting rate for up to 40 consecutive buffered shots. The D1h is aimed primarily at photographers who shoot news and sports, even under low light.
These latest Nikons compete against several digital SLR cameras that accept interchangeable lenses, including Canon's 4.48-megapixel EOS-1D ($6,499) and the older 3.1-megapixel EOS D30 ($3,000). Canon also is set to release a 6-megapixel EOS D60 later in 2002 (see figure 2 for a rundown of some other competitive cameras).
The 6.3-megapixel Kodak DCS 760 ($8,000) SLR camera, which produces 18MB TIFF files, is a modified Nikon F5 film camera, as is Kodak's 2.8-megapixel DCS 720x ($5,700 street), which produces 5.6MB files. Fuji Photo Film offers the FinePix S1Pro ($2,999 street) that marries Fuji's 3.4-megapixel Super CCD sensor to a modified Nikon N60 SLR film camera and actually delivers 6-megapixel files using octagonal-shaped pixels and sophisticated interpolation algorithms. Fuji may become the first to release a 12-megapixel SLR. The new S2 Pro, slated for July 2002 delivery, does use a new 6.17-megapixel Super CCD III sensor and is based on the Nikon F80/N80 body, which supports use of professional Nikkor lenses (AF-D, AF-G and AF-S).
Sigma's new SD9 uses a Foveon 3.43x3 CCD that employs three layers of photodetectors to record RGB colors instead of the single layer and interpolation used by other CCD cameras. Contax is set to announce a new 6-megapixel camera that employs a sensor the same size as 35mm film -- which would be another first for digital SLRs. The smaller sensors in use to date have multiplied the focal length of 35mm lenses -- usually by a factor of about 1.5x (good for telephoto lenses but problematic for wide-angle lens needs).
Finally, Nikon also has announced the D100, a 6.1 megapixel SLR camera (ISO 200-1600). Loosely based on the Nikon N80 and compatible with Nikkor F-mount lenses, the D100 is targeted for the market between $1,000 consumer cameras and the $5,000 professional models.
Improving the D1
Nikon's D1 was the first professional digital camera available for around $5,000, undercutting the competition of the day (largely Eastman Kodak) by about $10,000. Its lightweight titanium body, ergonomically superior to anything on the market, handled like a familiar 35mm SLR. Finally, it accepted most Nikkor 35mm SLR lenses, which reduced the cost of converting to a digital workflow for longtime Nikon owners. Photojournalists also appreciated the D1 for Nikon's thoughtful combination of image resolution, high-speed shooting, custom camera controls, wide ISO range (200-1600) and wide dynamic range (12-bits of data per pixel).
Since the top-of-the-line Nikon F5 film camera sells for about $2,300, the D1's price prompted newspapers, wire services, and even some magazine companies to accelerate the transition to digital. Eastman Kodak lowered digital camera prices to add fuel to the transition.
However, the D1 was not perfect:
- The camera was released with a 2.7-megapixel CCD (not a significant advancement at the time), even as Nikon was set to deliver consumer cameras with 3.3-megapixel CCDs.
- The D1's 23.7x15.6 mm CCD used comparatively large, square pixels designed to improve image quality, but the camera produced noticeable bands of high ISO pattern noise that required filtering with third-party software.
- At least some early D1s tended to record human skin tones with a noticeable magenta cast.
- True TTL exposure control with flash did not work well with the D1.
- Nikon's imaging software, a bundled browser called Nikon View DX, and an optional and well-conceived studio control package called Nikon Capture, each lacked key features and suffered from slow operation. And Nikon View DX did not support one important file format -- the company's own proprietary .nef files containing 12-bit raw data.
The D1 was grist for other improvements as well. Battery life was short: It degraded quickly when using the fluorescent backlighting on the main 114,000-dot LCD and long autofocus lenses. So users needed three $99 batteries and an automobile charger for heavy daily work. The display (for reviewing images and setting default menu options) cropped a small portion of the image captured, and it lacked a manual zoom control. Color management was missing. (Images could be saved only in the sRGB format with a smaller gamut more suitable for consumer cameras and Web publishing.) While much better than other SLR cameras of 1999, blooming and moiré effects occasionally were visible in images. However, these concerns did not derail D1 sales, which were driven by the camera's design and aggressive pricing.
To its credit, Nikon set out to improve a very good and popular product. The results: two new noteworthy cameras -- the D1x and the D1h.
Camera Design and Controls
Besides the D1x, the camera kit includes a neck strap (with an obnoxiously large Nikon logo), video cable, body cap, semi-transparent LCD monitor cover, EN-4 NiMH rechargeable battery (7.2V 2000mAh), an MH-battery charger, power cable, warranty card and manuals. It also includes Nikon View 4 browser/file transfer software and Canto Cumulus 5 for Macintosh and PC (one computer license per package). A studio camera control package, Nikon Capture 2, is optional.
The 2.5-pound magnesium body is tough. A rubberized grip eases handling, and weatherproof rubber connectors protect most electronics (see figure 3). The exterior has some 50 dials, buttons, terminals and connectors along with three monitors (1 color TFT and 2 alphanumeric LCDs). Interfaces include IEEE 1394 (FireWire), RS-232C (for GPS units) and NTSC or PAL video. The main LCD resolution is now higher (130,000 dots) and uses white LED backlighting that consumes less power.
Figure 3: A top view of the Nikon D1x, sans an interchangeable lens. Top controls include On/Off switch, Trigger, Mode and Exposure Compensation buttons on the right. The ISO, Auto Bracketing and Flash Sync Mode buttons are on the left, along with a dial to select various camera Modes (Self-Timer, Single Frame, Continuous, Playback, and PC connections). An alpha-numeric LCD shows camera exposure value, shutter speed, ƒ/stop and other settings.
The camera provides three through-the-lens (TTL) metering options: Center-Weighted, Spot, and a 3D Color Matrix that's reliable under the most difficult lighting, although it works only with newer Nikkor "D" lenses that have a built-in CPU to relay information about camera-to-subject distance. This system also simplifies balancing fill-flash with an ambient light exposure. The D1 does not produce accurate fill-flash; but the D1x incorporates better technology that allows the use of TTL rather than Automatic settings on Nikon's companion SB-28DX Speedlight flash.
Like most digital cameras, the D1x has four Exposure Control modes: Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual.
There are too many D1x/D1h features to note here, but several viewing tools illustrate the extraordinary attention to detail Nikon has put into this camera series.
The optical viewfinder uses a fixed pentaprism to provide TTL viewing (96 percent coverage) and metering. An adjustable, built-in Viewfinder diopter compensates focus for photographers who normally wear glasses; an eyepiece shutter prevents stray light from striking the CCD during long exposures, and the focusing screens are interchangeable. Focus, shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering system, frame counter, ready light are among the data displayed in the Viewfinder. Finally, five strategically positioned focusing brackets also are visible through the Viewfinder. A clever multi-selector on the camera back allows the primary autofocus area to be defined or changed while shooting.
All three Nikons accept Compact Flash cards (Type I/II) the removable media standard that offers the highest capacities and fastest processing. Nikon also sanctions use of the 512MB or 1GB IBM Microdrive for the D1x/ D1h.
Higher Resolution, Better Color
The heart of the D1x is a redesigned, 12-bit CCD (23.7x15.6mm) about 2/3 the size of 35mm film. CCD resolution is twice that of the D1 (in the horizontal, though not the vertical direction: 4028x1324 pixels instead of 2014x1324). This means that D1x pixels are not square like the D1 or D1h, but rectangular. In-camera processing converts 4028x1324 pixels (5.33 million usable pixels) into a 3008x1960-pixel image (5.9 megapixels). Vertical pixel interpolation and horizontal compression adds more accurate detail, and Nikon asserts that little or no image degradation is visible.
It's tough to argue with the math, judging from the results (see figure 4).
Figure 4: Original set (middle). Image shot as 7.7MB RAW file (top) and a 17.3MB TIFF (bottom). All sharpened with 300% Unsharp Masking, 67% Fade, and saved as JPEG Maximum quality.
The new D1x CCD produces larger files and doubles computer storage requirements over the D1. Opening and saving files and processing times on my G4/400 with 7200 RPM hard drive slowed considerably. An updated PowerMac G4 (800 MHz to 1GHz) with an Ultra-SCSI hard drive may be in order.
Nikon has improved noise suppression in the D1x and D1h; and the high-ISO shadow noise and banding of the D1 has been reduced. A low-pass filter in front of the CCD subtly reduces sharpness, but it also limits objectionable color aliasing and moire´ effects otherwise visible on high contrast edges or detailed patterns. Color detail recorded by the CCD is vivid with excellent saturation, although my tests showed the D1x produced over-saturated red values under some lighting conditions, resulting in a loss of subtle highlight and shadow details. Shooting under a red spotlight at a rock concert could be problematic, for instance
In addition to sRGB, the D1x and D1h can save images using the Adobe RGB (1998) color space, which provides a wider dynamic range for print work.
The D1x, D1h and original D1 all save files in a variety formats: two versions of TIFF (.tif), three levels of JPEG (.jpg) compression and a RAW (.nef) format (uncompressed). The new models also offer a compressed RAW option (see figure 5). I usually use the uncompressed RAW option for the smaller file sizes and for its post-processing flexibility.
The D1x/D1h on-board software for editing camera settings is redesigned. The menu organization and color scheme are improved, and some button and dial commands on the camera body are reprogrammed. The interface is greatly improved, easier to use and navigation is faster, but Nikon should be wary of making wholesale changes like this with every camera generation.
The D1x and D1h each are bundled with two computer software packages, Nikon View 4 and a single user, limited edition copy of Canto Cumulus 5.
The original Nikon View DX, conceived as a contact sheet browser, has been renamed Nikon View 4 and is being repositioned as a beefed up file transfer utility, perhaps because it lacks many features available in competing browsers. Nikon View 4 offers an optional contact sheet view, and editing file management data is limited. What version 4 does is allow you to set up a destination, folder and file-naming scheme; it then automatically opens a file transfer window anytime it detects a connected camera or Compact Flash card in an attached reader.
Unfortunately, the automated file transfer function regularly crashed a G4/400 and a PowerBook G3/300 (each running OS 9.1). Eventually, I turned off the extensions that enabled the automation feature. (Among other problems, crashes seemed to occur when large numbers of .nef files were being moved between hard drives or to DVD-RAM discs.)
In early 2002, Nikon finally began offering a long-overdue Software Development Kit to qualifying commercial vendors. Fortunately, a few companies already had developed better browsers using reverse engineering, including Camera Bits Photo Mechanic Pro. And at least one product is available to edit Nikon RAW files: Bibble Lab's Bibble and MacBibble for PCs or Macs respectively. (Nikon View 4 also comes with a plug-in for opening and processing RAW (.nef) files from within Photoshop, a long overdue feature. However, it does not allow editing of RAW file data, as MacBibble does.)
While these third-party tools represent a "hidden cost" of purchasing a D1x/D1h system, their mere existence is an indicator of the success of the product line. But there is another reality: the Nikon View 4 shortcomings leave a gaping hole in the software bundle. (See the sidebar "Hot Nikon D1x Accessories" for more suggested add-ons for the D1x.)
Canto Cumulus 5, not reviewed here, is a good, general-purpose database for archiving and tracking images and captions. However, it is not designed as a speedy production browser with the sophisticated features a deadline-oriented studio or photojournalist in the field needs on a laptop.
Happily, Nikon View 4 (and the optional Capture 2) has been updated to fully support RAW files. But when this improved software was released with the D1x and D1h, Nikon erred by not notifying original D1 customers that these updates were available and not offering free or low-cost updates to long-suffering Capture 1 customers, who already had paid a higher price ($560) for unperfected software. Capture 2 now is only $225.
In effect, the software strategy forces customers to purchase another browser product and then alternate among three different interfaces to transfer, browse and tag, or archive images -- a functional but confusing software system. Nikon historically has been a service-oriented company, and these lapses are out of character.
The Bottom Line
The Nikon D1x digital camera offers substantial improvements over the original D1, including twice the resolution, more accurate color and reduced noise in high-ISO files. Support for RAW files now is available in Nikon View 4, and from within Photoshop via a new plug-in.
In fact, between the D1x and the D1h, Nikon has addressed most of the shortcomings of the D1 that profoundly changed SLR photography. But Nikon has long offered cool, if expensive, cameras and lenses, and so loyal Nikon customers have high expectations for more advancements.
The D1x still uses a CCD smaller than 35mm film (which increases the focal length of lenses by a 1.5x factor). While much higher, the resolution still falls short of what some photographers see as the holy grail for SLR digital photography -- a 16-bit, 24-36mm-sized CCD. However, attaining this depends on faster computer chips, increasing Compact Flash storage capacities and less costly sensors.
Nikon still does not provide (or sanction through other vendors) an effective method to easily clean the CCD, which attracts dust particles when lenses are changed. The company offers no long-term warranty or service plan. Telephone support is excellent, but the support Web site is poorly designed and confusing. It offers no user forums (others are available) and cryptic file names on downloadable software updates can be difficult to decipher.
These are minor issues. Nikon's need to improve the software bundle, the only real Achilles Heel of the D1 series, is more important.
The company should consider purchasing and integrating one of the better third-party browser utilities into the software package and, in the interim, bundle a discount coupon for a professional browser. Capture 2 should be bundled with the D1x, and D1 owners who purchased Capture 1 should receive a free Capture 2 upgrade, especially since version 1 cost much more than the current package while providing only limited functionality. (Or perhaps the new image browser built into Photoshop 7 will rectify some of these issues.)
The good news is that the D1x is a welcome advancement that can be purchased for nearly the same price as the original D1. Nikon dealers selling used cameras accept the D1 as a trade-in, although a classified newspaper or Web ad will yield a better return.
On balance, the D1x is an exceptional camera, and an exceptional value for its time.
Read more by George Wedding.