Nikon's Professional Digital SLR: The D1 Debuts

The D1 is a Nikon engineered and built digital SLR that Nikon that combines all the best of Nikon's years of experience in camera engineering and design with state-of-the-art digital features and functions. If the need is for digital images, the Nikon D1 offers a familiar route into the expanded opportunities and possibilities of the medium. It does so without interfering in what we call the D1's "camera-ness" and the way that Nikon photographers have come to rely on the company for quality, performance and ergonomic camera design. In designing the D1, Nikon's approach was one where a photographer can reach into his or her bag and bring out the D1, the F5 or F100 and never skip a beat.


Back in the 1990s, we saw a number of digital SLRs aimed at the professional market that were developed by teams. For example, the 1996 pro magazines were showing the Fujix DS-505, a Fuji-Nikon Hybrid that captured 1.3 million pixels, and Kodak had the DCS 410, a Nikon N90S body with a special digital back, that captured 1.5 million pixels and cost a little under $10,000. So, in about four years, we've seen the price of pro digital SLR models halved, while the image capture power has nearly doubled.

For Nikon, the development of the D-1 took quite some time. For example, a prototype model was displayed inside a glass box in Nikon's booth at the 1999 Photo Marketing Association show in February of that year. At that time, few details were available about exactly when the camera would become available or what it would cost.

A year later, at the 2000 PMA Show, the D1 was a reality-and some customers had already taken delivery on the camera. It's here, it's real, and it's a Nikon.

Let's first explore some of the camera features of the D1--many will be familiar to Nikon F100 and F5 users. First there's Nikon professional construction--the body is constructed of a lightweight magnesium alloy that offers high resistance to penetration by water drops and dust. The D1, like the F5, has three light meters built in--3D Color Matrix, Variable Center-Weighted, and spot metering with five different selections. Exposure modes include Programmed Auto, Shutter and Aperture-Priority and Manual.

The D1 accepts Nikkor D-type lenses; AI-P Nikkor lenses and Non-CPU lenses. Naturally, some functions such as 3D Matrix metering and autofocus will not work with the latter two types of lenses, which were first marketed by Nikon before the innovations of autofocus and sophisticated auto-exposure metering.

While the D1 adheres to Nikon's ongoing policy of keeping older lenses compatible with newer camera bodies, there is one major difference. Lenses used on the Nikon D1 will have a focal length ratio of 1.5 compared to their focal length with 35mm film. This is because the CCD chip in the D1 is substantially smaller than a piece of 35mm film. Thus, a 24mm lens has an equivalent focal length of 36mm; a 100mm lens has an equivalent focal length of 150mm, etc...)

In autofocus performance there's Dynamic AF with Focus Tracking and Lock On. There's also manual focus. Framing rates are up to 4.5 frames-per-second up to 21 consecutive frames, an amazing burst rate for a digital SLR.

The D1's comprehensive exposure metering menu includes Nikon's new 3D Matrix Image Control which consists of 3D Color Matrix Metering, TTL White Balance and Tone Compensation. There's also TTL flash exposure control using a 5 segment TTL sensor with Automatic Balanced Fill Flash in all exposure modes. The new Nikon SB-28DX Speedlight (see accompanying product information in this issue) will also provide FP sync with manual exposure control for use with fast shutter speeds. The camera's front curtain shutter protects the CCD plus supplies an 18% gray reflectance surface, providing TTL flash control in "near real time" at the instant before exposure. There's also bracketing control in flash and ambient light exposure, and auto-bracketing as well.

The flash sync is 1/500 second, and the camera's shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to a top shutter speed of 1/16,000 second! Power is supplied by a NiMh battery, a clear competitive advantage in its performance and lack of "memory effect" over NiCd models. (If you're not up to speed on the different types of batteries used in digital cameras, see the article about battery drain in this issue of Digital Diary. When shooting in Normal mode with normal use of the LCD and advance functions a fully charged battery Nikon specs say that the camera will deliver up to 1000 images.

As to the D1's "digital-ness", the first item is in exposure control. As mentioned, the D1 incorporates the 3D Color Matrix Meter. The Nikon D1 now adds new features to exposure control in a system we call 3D Digital Matrix Image Control. This includes TTL White Balance that takes full advantage of the 3D Color Matrix Meter. This offers true auto white balance in any ambient or artificial lighting condition, including incandescent and fluorescent lighting. That balance can be automatic, pre-set or customized and memorized. In this respect, the CCD sensor gives the digital photographer the same flexibility to adapt to different lighting situations that video cameras have had for years.

Then there's Tone Compensation, a control only dreamt of by film photographers. The tonal compensation feature allows for customization of gamma curves for normal, high or low contrast renditions of a scene. Like white balance settings, these can be stored in memory to match whatever shooting conditions and needs are at hand.

Until now, the user of a 35mm SLR had to match film type to lighting conditions and the need for greater or lesser contrast to render a scene.

The CCD sensor in the D1 is 2.74 megapixels, with a 2.66 effective megapixel delivery. It can capture a 2012 x 1324 pixel image in full 12-bit color. The sensor can be set for variable ISO sensitivity--from 200 to 400 to 800 to 1600; in short, any sensitivity the conditions require. It can capture in JPEG with variable compression rates (1/4, 1/8 and 1/16) or in three uncompressed file formats-12-bit Raw, 8-bit YCbCr-TIFF and RGB TIFF. It can also capture in monochrome (black-and-white) mode.

Images are stored in the camera on a CompactFlash card, and there's no upward limit on the card capacity. With Nikon's 64MB card that's 16 frames of raw, uncompressed image files; in Basic JPEG mode that's 195 images. In Normal mode, depending on compression, the 64 MB card can hold anywhere from 48 to 195 shots.

Once images are captured they can be previewed right on the D1's 2-inch, 114m000 dot, low temperature polysilicon TFT LCD as single shots, as a screen of 9 thumbnails and as a continuous slide show. Images can also be viewed as histograms, showing graphs that provide instant analysis of tonal spread and ensuring that the photographer has nailed the exposure. That LCD screen has a three-step backlight/brightness adjustment that ensures that the display can be read in virtually all shooting conditions.

The D1 has both NTSC and PAL interfaces for downloading images as well as a IEEE1394 "Firewire" interface for fast movement of images to your computer or storage device drive.

In short, the Nikon D1 Digital SLR combines the best of both worlds with features that take full advantage of Nikon engineering and design in the way the camera functions and the digital capabilities it delivers.
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