Taking Nikon's D1 For A Field Spin

By Bjørn Rørslett

Review date 12 December, 1999

Nikon's new digital pride, the D1, is the object that everybody wants to have, but yet cannot get. Demand for this super-camera by far exceeds supplies and this situation is likely to remain so for the near future. Having tried the D1 briefly just after it being shown to the press in June, 1999, I finally managed to borrow a D1 camera to give it a realistic field day under bitterly cold Norwegian winter conditions. This D1 was a very early production camera (#5000205) as opposed to the pre-production sample camera I've earlier tried out. That sample camera certainly had its share of digital bugs and I was anxious to see if Nikon had sorted out these gremlins in their production cameras.

Details of the camera have been presented earlier and those eager to learn about the D1 and its main features can examine these here. I shall not delve into such details here - suffice to say that the camera is similar in size to the F5, handles much the same way and operates even more silently. The big difference is the large LCD display on the rear of the D1 that gets its share of grease marks during a long field day. Nikon supplies a plastic cover that alleviates the problem unless one wants to study the LCD data.

I programmed D1 to capture images as 12 bit raw files, that is, storing the full sensor output from the CCD chip without any alteration at all. The raw format is economical as far as storage goes because the colours themselves neither are stored nor computed when the image is taken. Transforming these data into full-blown RGB images is done with the Nikon Capture Program. This software, mandatory for working with the raw files, still is in a pre-release version. It works by performing complex matrix operations on the raw data and adding the primary colours by interpolation. The data files are stored in the D1 camera on flashcards until downloaded to a PC as proprietary NEF files (the acronym possibly denotes Nikon Economical Format? officially, however, it's the more mundane acronym for Nikon Electronic image Format - what a pity). These NEF-formatted files subsequently have to be run through the Nikon Capture program, which converts the data to standard RGB or CMYK images. This software is capable of storing these image files as 24 or 48 bit RGB TIFF, equalling 7.51 or 15.0 MB worth of data, respectively. Pure CMYK images occupy 10.0 MB. These TIFF file sizes bear little relationship to the sizes we use for scanned film-based images, because the true digital images are virtually free of noise and grain structure and hence stand much bigger magnification than ordinary pictures. Nikon Capture also can store image data in JPG or BMP format.

The Nikon Capture software, in its pre-release version 1.1a, works as per specification and packs a number of sophisticated features. Amongst these, an extremely advanced unsharp masking(USM) method stands out. This USM runs directly on the original pixel data and takes into consideration colour tones and intensity, shadows, midtones, and highlight areas, besides contrast differences between neighbouring image elements. It makes true wonders with the image data from the D1. Raw files load quite fast from the camera to be shown on the PC, and they screen even quicker if the NEF files are downloaded to disk beforehand. This speed however is of little significance because the Nikon Capture Program likely is the slowest-running program I have ever used. Even on my potent NT dual-CPU Pentium III/600 MHz machine with 1024 MB RAM and 100 GB worth of disk space, screen redraws take ages. Even worse, some extreme settings of the USM filter effectively hang the machine because the program is trapped in endless loops or whatever. I sincerely hope the production version of this otherwise excellent program gets quite a lot speedier! Also I hope for some way of saving all the nifty and highly detailed image exposure data that accompany the NEF files, but which seem to be lost when they are converted into TIFF or JPG format.

For field use, I loaded the Nikon Capture software onto my more modest Toshiba portable (Pentium 233MMX with 64 MB RAM) running Windows98. To get acceptable performance on this system, I constrained the program mainly to downloading raw files from the D1 and saving these to disk. This is quickly accomplished by inserting the Flashcards into a Flashcard/PCMCIA adapter. Occasionally I did a quick review of an image without using any zooming or sharpening features turned on. This approach worked quite well under field conditions and thus I downloaded images from an 80 MB Lexar flashcard in just a few minutes. I soon realised that having a huge disk drive, or other means of auxiliary storage, is a must if one is working long sessions with D1 in the field. The NEF files occupy 4MB and a period of fast shooting fills up the disk space at an alarming pace. Next time I am prepared for this and will hook up a 650 MB Fujitsu MO-drive to the portable.

I was initially worried about the batteries of the D1 when the camera was exposed to rough Norwegian winter conditions. However, during a long working day under subzero temperatures, they took the strain without problems. This presumes the batteries being freshly charged, of course. The LCD display got a little sluggish in the cold, however. Another issue was the frequent formation of a thin ice crust on the display (from my breath), that had to be scraped away ever so often. Well, ain't we Vikings so this we can cope with ...

Shooting with the D1 proved to be sheer fun. The camera is fast and very responsive. I mounted old manual lenses and my recently acquired AFS lenses and D1 took all in its stride. The TTL metering falls back to centre-weighted mode when an MF lens is mounted and I saw no problems whatsoever using my favourite 300 mm f/2.8 ED-IF Nikkor on D1. With either AFS 17-35, AFS 28-70 or 85 PC-Micro Nikkor all the advanced metering capabilities of the D1 were available. Running D1 on automatic 'A' mode, I got virtually perfect exposures with the these lenses under a wide variety of shooting conditions. I switched back and forth between my F5 and D1 and these two are highly interchangeable as far as operability is concerned. Being able to recall the histogram of pixel intensity distribution is a tremendous asset and a bullet-proof way of getting the exposure dead-on with the D1. There is all sorts of bracketing features as those known from the F5 and the advanced colour matrix metering system of D1 surpasses that of the F5. The camera's ability to recalibrate itself according to the tone range of the scene undoubtedly contributes to the near-perfect end results of the D1.

I was truly blown away by the unprecedented quality of the digital images delivered from the D1. Prints 20 x 30 cm looked as were they obtained with an 8x10" camera. Period. There is a tremendous clarity to the images that truly is breathtaking. Accustomed as we are with film-based pictures and their inherent graininess, we simply are not prepared for the impact of virtually grainless images. On a further notice, it can be seen that the superior shadow rendition of the digital images greatly contribute to the perceived sharpness.

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN 1999

A small, 4x5 mm section, of the full image frame shows the exquisite results that are given by the D1's colour metering system. The snow crystals are perfectly exposed while the bands of the small snail's shell take on perfect darkish tones. The image was taken with the 85 mm f/2.8 PC Micro-Nikkor at 1:2 magnification and D1 set to 'A' mode, no bracketing.

Test shooting (of my "favourite" object, a brick wall) indicated that the digital quality attainable with D1 easily matches or surpasses traditional ISO 100 quality on the F5. Examples are given below. Each image is a small section of a full frame, both taken with AFS 17-35 mm f/2.8 (at f/8 @35 mm) from an identical standpoint. The loss of shadow detail and increased graininess of the film-based image are very evident in these comparison shots. Before their publishing on the Web, both images were run through a standard unsharp masking filter in PhotoShop at identical settings so should be directly comparable.

Test shoots with Nikon D1 (upper image) and F5 (lower image, using Kodak E100VS film). Both images obtained using AFS 17-35 mm f/2.8 Nikkor (f/8 @ 35 mm) and represent a 4x5 mm section of the full 24x36 mm frame. Note the virtual lack of grain in the D1 image and the enhanced rendition of shadow detail.

Needless to say, I'm eagerly looking forward to getting my own D1 in the very near future. This camera will change the way I'm working with photography and might even open new avenues for my photographic perception. The prospects for the forthcoming Millennium certainly look brighter than ever before.

PS. I did get my D1 (camera #5008559) a few days later and have since been busy putting it through its paces. Read here for more impressions. DS.

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Last update 12 January, 2000