The new Nikon Professional Digital SLR
by John Henshall
Nikon D1 professional digital SLR
Nikon, one of the leading Japanese film camera manufacturers, has announced detailed specifications for its forthcoming D1 digital SLR camera, expected to be shown for the first time in a fully-working state with software on Monday August 30 at the Seybold San Francisco digital photography special interest day and to be available by the end of September. The D1's formidable specification and low price are destined to shake up the digital camera market in a big way.
In perspective -- The Kodak connection
The Nikon digital camera project was first mooted at PMA Las Vegas on 18 February 1999 -- the day on which Kodak first showed its DCS620 digital camera, based on Nikon's F5 body and produced, its label says, "In Cooperation with Nikon". Not much cooperation now, it seems: Kodak staff at PMA certainly did not see Nikon's announcement as a friendly act. However, Nikon says that it will continue to honor agreements with Kodak. The Nikon D1 is clearly intended to be a Kodak DCS620 challenger.
The Fuji connection
In 1995 Nikon teamed up with Fuji to produce a joint digital camera, the Fuji DS515 -- also known as the Nikon E2S. Lower-featured models were known as the Fuji DS505 and Nikon E2. This camera produces good pictures but is large, boxy and unwieldy. Relay optics -- used to reduce the 36x24mm images to fit the small CCD -- are the main reason for this bulk. Shrinking the image gives an apparent increase in sensitivity because the smaller image is brighter, though this is offset because the relay optics limit the light passed by all lenses to a widest aperture of f6.7. Worse still, not all Nikon lenses will work with the relay optics.
The Canon connection
Although the first two generations of Kodak digital cameras (DCS100 and DCS200) were exclusively Nikon-body based, an increasing number of photojournalists were using Canon equipment. Consequently, Kodak made a Canon bodied variant of its third generation camera, the DCS420. When Kodak introduced its fourth generation cameras in 1998, the first products -- the DCS520 and its big brother the DCS560 -- were both based on Canon bodies, not Nikon. Canon market the DCS520 themselves as the EOS D2000 but, interestingly, do not market the DCS560. Canon have not done as much as Kodak to promote the EOS D2000 and it will be interesting to see how they react to Nikon's moves.
Going it alone
By 1998, the world of photojournalism was largely digital and yet the only Nikon-based digital cameras were obsolescent products. It took Kodak a further year to introduce the Nikon F5-based version of the DCS520, the DCS620. Nikon must have realised that this would lead to further loss of market share. They could not allow their future to depend on Kodak and had no alternative but to look elsewhere. But to whom?
What we do know about the CCD sensor
The D1 features a 23.7x15.6 mm CCD - a 2.74 megapixel area array CCD with 2,012 x 1,324 active pixels. Image size is 2,000 x 1,312 pixels, captured at a depth of 12 bits per pixel. No relay optics are used to "shrink down" the 36x24mm image produced by the lens to the size of the CCD -- as in Nikon's previous digital SLR collaboration with Fuji -- so there is an apparent lengthening of the focal length (narrowing of angle of view) of lenses by a factor of 1.5x when compared with their use on a 35mm film camera. The picture aspect ratio is 1.5 to 1 - the same as a frame of 35mm film -- and the CCD size is close to the 30.2x16.7mm frame size of APS.
This diagram shows the comparative sizes of the Nikon D1's CCD (pink), a frame of APS film (yellow), and a frame of 35mm film (blue). (On a 72 pixel per inch monitor this will be displayed at actual size.) Note that the Nikon D1 frame area is close to that of APS but less than half the area of a frame of 35mm film.
Above left: AF-S 17-35mm f2.8 IF-ED lens. Above right: PC Micro-Nikkor 85mm f2.8 D Lens
To offset the effect of apparent focal length lengthening, Nikon have designed a special 17 - 35mm f2.8 zoom lens which will serve as an excellent 'standard' lens for the D1. This ultra-wide zoom has lens angles approximately equivalent to 25.5 - 52.5mm on a 35 film camera. No price has been given for this lens. Although it's good to have a zoom, it will need a well-designed rectangular lenshood which takes into account the reduced format size.
The new digital Nikon has a strong, lightweight magnesium body. Although not waterproof it claims a "high resistance to penetration by water drops", implying use in the rain if not in the pool.
Fastest shooting speed is 4.5 frames per second in bursts of up to 21 shots in a continuous sequence. Sensitivity is equivalent to ISO 200, with "push processing" to ISO 400, 800 and 1,600.
auto mode with flexible program
priority auto Aperture
priority auto Manual
Program auto mode with flexible program possible
Shutter priority auto
Aperture priority auto
The D1 has three exposure metering modes: 3D color Matrix metering, Centre weighted and Spot. Exposure compensation is +/- 5 f-stops in half or one-third steps. An auto exposure bracketing facility enables up to three shots to be separated by 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 or a full f-stop. The facility to create users' own "custom settings" of combinations of functions is one of many features brought over from Nikon's popular F5 and F100 film SLRs. These functions include some which are exclusive to this digital Nikon, such as Tone Compensation and Edge Enhancement. Most Japanese cameras impose a level of edge enhancement as standard: the ability to dispense with this until images are prepared for pre-press will be a big advantage. USM should be applied to an image once only.
The top shutter speed is 1/16,000 second (one sixteen thousandth of a second -- we state this in words because one of Nikon's leaflets states it incorrectly as "1/1600" second). This very high top speed is made possible by an electronic shutter. The only mechanical shutter is a grey 'curtain' shutter, the primary purpose of which is to reduce smear and to act as a film tone/reflectance simulation for flash measurement in the focal plane. Highest flash synch speed is 1/500 second.
Images, menus and histograms are viewed on-camera using a 120,000 pixel two inch low temperature polysilicon TFT colour LCD screen. NTSC/PAL video output enables images to be soft-proofed on standard television sets. Connexion to the computer is by FireWire (IEEE 1394).
New SB-28DX flash gun
Film cameras calculate the amount of flash required for correct exposure by measuring the flash reflected off the film during exposure. But this technique does not work effectively when measuring flash reflected from a CCD.
If it's unusual to announce so many features of a forthcoming product so far in advance of the launch date, it's even more unusual to announce such an aggressive price point with such confidence at such an early stage of development. Manufacturers of important new products usually hedge when asked about prices of forthcoming products. They prefer to judge reaction and adjust the price accordingly. Then it's a matter of what they hope the market will stand. Nikon have not done this with the D1. But Nikon are very confident.
When dramatic change occurs, conjecture is understandable. How it is accomplished? At what cost?
Why choose the Nikon D1?
The D1 should please photojournalists, other professional photographers and serious amateurs when it delivers in October 1999. It's not just the low price of the Nikon D1 which makes it an important product, though the price will undoubted persuade many more photographers that now is the time to take the plunge.
Nikon Corporation Japan
Nikon UK Ltd
Nikon Inc USA
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