Saturday, 3 December 2011

Nikon D1: A Cunning and Most Feline Thing

Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon D1, which was launched to great fanfare in June 1999 and went on to revolutionise the professional digital photography market. In 1999 the only other credible player in the pro marketplace was Kodak, whose DCS cameras were the default choice for digital photojournalists, despite prices of $15,000 or more. For that money you got a two-megapixel, APS-C sensor embedded into a Kodak digital back, which was bolted onto a top professional 35mm film SLR - and in 1999 that meant the Canon EOS 1n and the Nikon F5. The DCS cameras were huge, and although they produced sharp files, their output wasn't pretty at higher ISOs. The Frankenstein nature of their construction didn't include weather seals, and the batteries and memory cards were bulky and expensive.

In contrast, the D1 had a 2.7mp APS-C sensor in a relatively compact, sold metal body, with environmental gaskets. It had the same lighting-fast autofocus as the Nikon F5, and it cost $5,000. A hefty sum nowadays, even moreso in 2000. It was more than twice the price of an actual Nikon F5, but this is 1999 we're talking about, and film is dead. The 1990s killed it off. It's still dead. The Nikon D1 is dead, too. Kodak is dead. Everything's dead, Dave.

Nikon D1 / ISO 800 / Samyang 85mm f/1.4

The D1 was the first digital SLR to leave much of a persistent trace on the internet. It was released just as the major photographic review websites were getting established, and their reviews are still online today. Kodak's models - and the earlier Nikon/Fuji collaboration, and Minolta's Action Cam - belong to the 20th century internet, a shadowy place where people talked to each other with plaintext. Although the D1 wasn't aimed at you or I, it was the camera that you and I aspired to own, and nowadays it's easy to fulfil that dream because used examples sell for pennies. Their rubber has fallen off, their screens are scratched, they're full of dust, the batteries are discharged. Nowadays the camera's sole positive attribute is its unlimited flash sync speed, but this is shared with the higher-resolution D1x, and for that matter several of Nikon's later consumer-level digital SLRs, so in practice there's absolutely no rational reason to own and use a Nikon D1 in the modern era. But we are not rational people.

I Knew Nothing of the Horses
Nikon is generally thought of as a very conservative company. Nonetheless it spent considerable time and money during the 1980s pondering life without film. In 1986 the company exhibited a prototype electronic still camera, and a couple of years later Nikon launched the QV-1000, a staggeringly expensive still video camera that sold in tiny quantities to top press agencies.

Still video cameras were a late-80s, early-90s thing. The resolution was just good enough for newsprint, and the workflow was faster than film, although for most newspapers the speed did not outweigh the poor image quality. They never really took off, and were snuffed out in the 1990s by digital SLRs, but Nikon didn't put all of its eggs in one basket. It put them in several baskets. The very first digital egg-basket, the Kodak DCS 100, was based around a Nikon F3 chassis, and almost simultaneously NASA picked the F4 as the mechanical component of its Electronic Still Camera, which eventually flew on the Space Shuttle.

Kodak and Nikon had good relations with each other, and Kodak subsequently gravitated towards Nikon N90 and F5 bodies for a series of ever-more-sophisticated DCS models. These included the NC2000, a modified DCS model built for and sold by the Associated Press itself. In its day the NC2000 cornered the digital SLR market, which at that time was exclusively a professional one, a small one too.

Ironically the NC2000's main competitor was another Nikon, the Nikon E2. This had originally been unveiled in 1993 as the Nikon D1, but for whatever reason the company decided to hold that name back for later. The E2 was actually co-developed with Fuji, and was sold in parallel as the Fujix DS-560. It was never a huge success, and had a number of technical quirks. Rather than put up with a field of view crop, Nikon instead used an optical relay system to allow for full-frame lens coverage. Unfortunately this caused heavy vignetting at focal lengths wider than 50mm or so, which more or less defeated the point, and it sucked up a tonne of light. Nikon sold the E2's successor, the E3, until as late as 1999, at which point both Nikon and Fuji went their own separate ways. The later Fuji S-series has a fascinating history of its own.

They Will Hunt You Down; Then They will Kill You
The D1 was announced at the Photo Marketing Association's annual Las Vegas bash, in February 1999, and a non-working mockup was on hand for people to look at and post rumours about. It was formally launched later in the year. By 1999 digital photography was starting to dominate the world of professional photojournalism, and was making huge inroads in the consumer marketplace. The kind of digital cameras that you or I could afford in those days were paltry things, fit only for snapshots or Geocities websites - the PMA report linked in the previous sentence is full of the most awful tat - but Nikon was right on the cusp of this inroad too, raising the bar. Older readers might have fond memories of the swivel-bodied Nikon Coolpix 990, for example, which coexisted with the D1 and was a cut above the competition. It was part of Nikon's Total Imaging System, which included the 950, the D1, and the Super Coolscan 2000 film scanner.

Is it possible to be on the cusp of an inroad? Do roads have a cusp? I love the word cusp. It's soft and smooth, but you can also use it as an insult. "You absolute cusp". Nikon's digital egg-basket balanced on the cusp of a perfect storm.

EDIT: They finished it in the end. Not many people rejoiced. There was a time when the Shard might have been embraced as an iconic addition to the skyline, and perhaps it will be one day.
This was shot with an Olympus OM-2 with Kodak Colorplus; shortly after writing this blog post I switched almost entirely to film. To hold its hand as it dies.

But there was more to Nikon's broadside - the egg-basket was a ship, see - because the D1 also introduced a new Nikon flash system, D-TTL, which necessitated a new flash unit, the SB-28DX. In later years D-TTL acquired a bad rap, and Nikon ditched it ASAP, but at least they were making an effort. The D1 also introduced Nikon's take on the APS-C sensor format, with a 1.5x crop factor and a 3:2 aspect ratio. To compensate for the crop factor Nikon launched the D1 alongside a new lens, the 17-35mm f/2.8, which used Nikon's relatively new AF-S ultrasonic in-lens focus system, although the D1 was also compatible with Nikon's older screw-drive system. The lens was perfectly at home on Nikon's 35mm film SLRs, and served double duty as a moderately wide zoom on the D1. It's still on sale today and is apparently pretty good, superior to Canon's contemporary 17-35mm f/2.8.

This kind of integrated approach was beyond Kodak's means, and temporarily it was beyond Canon's means, too. As a consequence the D1's era was perhaps the only instance in the last twenty years when Nikon held a crushingly superior position in the professional digital marketplace. The D3 turned a lot of heads, but Canon can at least put up some kind of competition; in 1999 Canon seemed to have been caught napping. They were gearing up for the three-megapixel D30, which was a technically clever camera based around a novel CMOS sensor, but hobbled by an awful autofocus system and a slow interface, and it certainly wasn't aimed at pro photojournalists.

There were rumours at the time that Kodak and Canon had an agreement whereby Canon would not step on Kodak's shoes until Kodak had worn those shoes out, but no-one ever produced a shred of proof for this, and it seems unlikely that Canon - Canon! - would sign any agreement of that nature. Kodak technically had a higher market capitalisation than Canon in 1999, but not for much longer, and never again.

The D1 was a huge technical challenge for Nikon, in terms of design and cost engineering, and sourcing a company that would make APS-C sensors in bulk was not a straightforward prospect in the late 1990s. Kodak had its own sensor business; Nikon didn't, and in 1998 there were few off-the-shelf APS-C sensors. The company spent two years ensuring that the camera's power consumption was within reasonable limits, and used a mixture of parts from their F100 bin. Physically the camera was a blend of F100 and F5, with a weather-sealed, magnesium alloy body and the general interface (and some of the very same buttons) of the F100. The interior still had space for film spools, and the rear cover appeared to have been engineered from a removable film back. It's fascinating to speculate whether Nikon intended to launch a pro film SLR in parallel with the D1, a kind of early F6, but we may never know what was going through Nikon's collective mind and I'm just making this up, really.

On a physical level the D1 was the first Nikon professional SLR not to have a removable prism. Nikon's early F-system cameras were famous for their modular approach, but over time the motor drives and exposure meters had been integrated into the bodies, and the prism was last for the chop. The shutter and imaging pathway could cope with twenty-one-shot bursts at 4.5 frames-per-second, which was less than the 36-shot, 8fps Nikon F5, but more than the twelve-shot, 3.5fps Kodak DCS 620.

In common with most of Nikon's later digital SLRs, the sensor was made by Sony. It had an unusual design, with a ten megapixel matrix binned into groups of four photosites, apparently as a means of increasing production yield and keeping high-ISO noise within manageable levels. Nikon later pulled a trick with this arrangement for the D1x, which modified the binning arrangement in order to increase horizontal resolution, but that's another story. The D1's output file was 2.7mp, which was seen as slightly conservative at the time, but was more than enough for newspapers and websites. It wasn't much more than the contemporary Coolpix 950, on paper, although the D1 got a lot out of those 2.7mps.

Nikon D1 / ISO 800 / Samyang 14mm f/2.8

The D1 retailed for just over $5,000, £3,000 in the UK. Tantalisingly within reach of private buyers. At the time the most direct competition was the Kodak DCS 620, a two-megapixel digital SLR based on a Nikon F5 chassis. On a physical level the DCS 620 was considerably larger and heavier than the D1, resembling a Nikon F5 with a double-size portrait grip. Image quality was similar, with pluses and minuses for each camera; the D1 suffered from noise banding at higher ISOs, whereas the DCS 620 had ugly splotchy luminance noise in the blue channel, which ate away at colour fidelity. Resolution was similar, with the DCS 620 simultaneously cursed and blessed by Kodak's insistence on having the anti-aliasing filter as an optional extra.

The biggest difference was price. The DCS 620 was launched in early 1999 at a price hovering around $12,000, and despite several rounds of price cuts over subsequent years Kodak never managed to undercut the D1. This was a structural problem that Kodak could never solve, and the company eventually left the digital SLR market entirely.

Nowadays Kodak exists essentially as an intellectual property repository that sues people from time to time, and it also sells cameras. EDIT: I wrote this in 2011. In January 2012 Kodak became bankrupt, but had a plan to turn itself around by selling its patents for $4.5bn. But the sale turned into a disaster, fetching just over half a billion dollars, and Kodak is now one of those companies that ordinary people never interact with. It's hard to fell sorry for what eventually became a patent troll, but Kodak's fall was brutal.

Here's a Nikon D1 sitting next to a DCS 760, which used a Nikon F5 body, and was physically almost exactly the same as the DCS 620:

Kodak eventually replaced the DCS 620 with the 620X, which had a clever colour filter that boosted the ISO range to 400-4000, but it was too little, too late.

On a technical level the D1 was sound, although it had a number of oddities. Unlike modern cameras, the D1 didn't use a standard colour space, such as sRGB; instead, it was calibrated with NTSC colour monitors, and tended to produce JPEGS with a magenta cast, which made skin tones look flat and dead. Fortunately this could be fixed in software, although it was a bother.

The camera was usable at higher ISOs - it topped out at ISO 1600, with emergency-only 3200 and 6400 as custom functions - but suffered from distracting banding patterns in shadow areas. The early batch of cameras also had faulty components which amplified this banding, although Nikon fixed this for free, as part of the camera's standard service. In contrast, the competing Kodak DCS cameras suffered terribly from splotchy colour noise which made the images essentially unusable unless they were converted to black and white. Here's a shot taken with a DCS 520 (which used the same imaging system as the DCS 620, but with a Canon body) at ISO 1000, with a lot of post-processing to make it look natural:

Canon D2000 / Kodak DCS 520 / ISO 1000

Custom functions, there's another thing. The Kodak DCS cameras had all the custom functions accessible from the menus, as you might expect. The D1 did things differently; as with the Nikon F5, custom functions were set with alphanumeric codes via the rear status LCD. If you couldn't remember that 21-2 made the exposure lock button turn on AF lock only, you were stuffed; if you hadn't set custom function 28 to 1 you couldn't shoot raw. 31-1 made the camera shoot at ISO 3200, but only ISO 3200; you had to set 31 to 0 to re-enable the standard ISO range. If you wanted to manipulate the camera's images or format the card you had to turn the mode dial to PLAY, and if you quickly wanted to take some more shots you had to take it off PLAY, because when it was on PLAY you couldn't SHOOT. Also, the rubber had a tendency to warp over time. Little men came out of the lens mount and kicked over your plant pots. The shutter button was poisonous. The compact flash compartment was filled with blood. Black blood.

Full of Dead Leaves
The camera's interface had an air of generation zero about it. Image playback and histogram preview were slower than the Kodak DCS cameras, and in common with them there was no zoom. In single-shot mode the camera's buffer was disabled; the D1 refused to take a new exposure until the previous image had been fully written to the card, which took several seconds. In continuous shooting mode the camera shot and shot, but was incapable of displaying a preview image. Furthermore, if the D1 was turned off whilst it was still writing images to the card - which took about half a minute for a full burst of JPEGs - it threw away the images it hadn't yet written. Modern cameras write the whole burst and then shut down. Which makes a lot more sense. And shutting the camera down did very little to save battery life; it used a certain amount of current all the time when it was turned off, and not much more when it was in standby.

The camera had trouble using IBM Microdrives, and in fact I can confirm this, as I have a pair of 1gb Microdrives, and they don't work. The D1 throws a wobbly when it tries to use them. This is meaningless now - microdrives are history - but was a bother at the time, because flash memory was a lot more expensive, with a 1gb CF card roughly double the price of a $500 microdrive. They were little hard drives, you see. Cute idea, but prone to breaking. Used more battery power than flash. Sold to Hitachi, Seagate; went up to 8gb, used to find them in iPods. Gone now, all gone. "Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains."

At the time, journalists tended to shoot JPEGs. The D1's uncompressed .NEF raw files (each one 3,961kb) took a long time to write and a lot of space, and Nikon Capture was an optional extra that cost $500(!). Realtime JPEG shooting was one of the D1's key features, although it tends to be overlooked nowadays because it's so fundamental. The Kodak DCS cameras could only shoot raw files, and although they could process their raw images into JPEGS, it took time and drained the batteries.

In contrast, the D1 could produce pictures ready for immediate use, to be sent out then and there, and bear in mind that mobile data transmission in 1999 was not like it is nowadays; every megabyte hurt. In 2011 there's no reason not to shoot raw, although in practice it's only useful for setting the white balance, as there is very little extra headroom. Whereas my D1x seemed to be tuned to keep highlights within the camera's dynamic range, the D1 isn't afraid to blow the highlights into oblivion, as in the following image, where the exposure is correct for the building but has obliterated the overcast sky:

There's not even the tiniest wisp of detail in the clouds, they're all gone. The resolution is obviously behind the curve in 2011. The images are 2000x1312 pixels, which is only a little bit more than 1080 high-def video. Here's a shot that has a D1 image laid over a shot taken with a 21mp Canon 5d MkII:

On the other hand, on a pixel level the image is nicely crisp, just a little bit grainy. Here's another blown-out image, and on the right a 100% crop in which you can see people standing on that balcony:

Higher ISO values suffer from banding noise. Here's the same basic image, shot at ISO 800 (on the left) and ISO 1600 (on the right):

She looks very disappointed. The image quality was good enough for newsprint, but it's not pretty at 100%. The colours however are sound - the Kodaks would have turned that into a washed-out magenta mess.

I spent some time looking for news images shot in 2000, 2001 with that characteristic banding pattern, but drew a blank. Photographers back then had access to noise reduction software, just as we do nowadays. To be fair to Nikon, the Canon 1D of a few years later also had pattern noise, although it was less visible. Nikon fixed the problem with the D1h. The D1's colours are good but a bit washed-out, although blue tends to become purple (or cyan, if you apply the NTSC colour profile) and it loves green more than blue. Here are some colours:

There was another quirk; when the battery started to run down, the camera would seem to work fine, but would intermittently record black frames. This tended to accelerate over time, because the batteries were temperamental and needed occasional conditioning. Nowadays all the old Nikon batteries will have died, but replacements are widely available on eBay.

With all these quirks you might think that the D1 was a disaster, and some people hated it, but the Kodaks also had quirks, lots of them, and they were much more expensive. The D1 was good enough for NASA, and became one of a few cameras to be used in space. NASA and Nikon had been pally since the early 1970s. NASA's F5-based DCS 760s were eventually replaced with D1s, D1xes, D2xs's - this famous photo of an astronaut gazing out of her living room window was taken with a D2xs - and nowadays the ISS is stocked with D3s of various hues.

As a newsgathering camera the D1 was a big hit, cheaper and smaller than the Kodaks, with instant JPEG and a well-built weather-sealed body. It's surprisingly compact and lightweight - the photographs make it look huge, but it's smaller than a lot of conventional digital SLRs with an additional portrait grip. There are numerous articles on the internet by news photographers and individuals who picked up D1s, sometimes switching from film, sometimes not, e.g. 1 2 3 4 5. Nonetheless I'm not sure if any famous pictures were taken with it. The camera's time in the spotlight was brief, and coincided with a period of relative world calm. It was around for the Sydney Olympics, but judging by Kodak's press releases this was still split half and half between film and digital journalism, with half of the digital shooters using Kodaks, and in any case the Sydney Olympics didn't really produce any iconic images. The Gore / Bush election was dramatic, but again there aren't any key photographs from the period. By the time of the September 11 attacks - and all the awesome, visually striking news that followed - professional photojournalists had largely switched to the D1h and D1x.

The World Press Photo award winners were apparently flitting around boring old Kosovo during the D1's time, using film cameras. This series was taken with a D1h, but really, what does it matter? They drag the man out of the ditch, into the road, and shoot him dead. Tyler Hicks was standing there with his D1h, perhaps the chap in the ditch had a glimpse of it before he died, but what does it matter what camera he used? If there's a famous photo taken with a Nikon D1, I haven't heard of it, and the camera's image quality wasn't skewed or distinctive enough for it to matter.

All told Nikon sold roughly 40,000 D1s, if the serial numbers are to be believed. The camera was replaced in 2001 by the 5fps, 40-shot D1h and the 5.7mp D1x, which used the same body. They both sold well, the D1x in particular - again, if serial numbers are sequential, Nikon shipped at least 45,000 D1xes and 17,000 D1hs. By that time Canon had entered the game, with the 8fps, four-megapixel EOS 1, which no doubt chipped away at D1h sales, although for a while the D1x held a unique place as the only relatively affordable pro-level high-resolution digital SLR. Nikon's contemporary consumer-level SLR, the D100, was a popular digital backup, although by the time of its release, in 2002, Canon was stepping up its game.

Nikon had terrible trouble coming up with a replacement for the D1 generation. The D2h was competent but unspectacular; the D2x was clever, and made the D2h seem even more unspectacular, but it wasn't full-frame, dammit. Fortunately, the company got its act together again with the Nikon D3, which was a terrific success.

Nikon and Canon remain locked in mortal combat, with Nikon the Mercedes to Canon's BMW. Class and heritage and performance versus businesslike efficiency and performance. As of 2011 Canon seems to be at a loose end, but no doubt they're working on something. Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regard Nikon with envious eyes, and slowly and surely they draw their plans against them.

I can see the director waving his hands at me. The director who lives inside my head and guides my actions. With his hands. Despite its quirks the D1 gave Nikon's eggbasketship a convincing foothold on the summit of the professional digital SLR marketplace, and helped kill off the main competition. It sold tens of thousands of units in a marketplace where the monopoly player had hitherto achieved sales of thousands of units.

Ultimately the D1 was overshadowed by the D1h and D1x, and it's a terrible used buy nowadays. But, in the day, it was a breath of fresh air, a howling wind. With a poorly-thought-out interface and banding pattern noise.

Nikon never updated the firmware, by the way; the D1h and D1x had a completely different and much more sensible menu system, but the D1 remained a time capsule. Any more?

Obviously a homage to this famous image by Rudolf Koppitz

Oh yeah, as a postscript, I'm genuinely curious to know what Canon photographers did when the D1 came out in 1999. Bearing in mind that they had been switching from the F4 and F5 to Canon's EOS-1, and that the Canon-bodied Kodak DCS 520 was for a short time the only truly modern digital press SLR. Did they switch from Nikon to Canon and then back to Nikon and then back to Canon again? I have no idea. Perhaps you know. Probably not, but I live and dream, and when I am not dreaming I am awake, and dreaming.