Nikon D1 digital SLR camera review

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  • Price When Reviewed: £3,499 plus VAT; £1,499 for lens

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The idea of a single lens reflex (SLR) digital camera that accepts interchangeable lenses isn’t new. Kodak has been building them since 1992, based on modified Canon and Nikon film cameras, while six years ago Nikon and Fuji collaborated on the bulky E2/DS-505. Nevertheless, D1 is a very important model that will almost certainly knock Kodak’s £5,000, two-year-old, two-megapixel DCS 520 and 620 converted film models from top spot as the digital pros’ favourite camera. Although the D1 closely resembles a film camera, it’s a new all-digital design. It has a similar magnesium-alloy body to the £1,000 F100, plus the electronics and exposure system from the £1,500 F5 model. This means it’s tough but fairly big and weighs 2.3kg when fitted with its excellent but expensive dedicated 17-35mm f:2.8 zoom lens. Lenses see a different angle of view on the D1 than on a 35 mm camera. The CCD sees a narrower angle of view that in effect increases the lens focal length by 1.5. The D1’s 17-35mm lens gives the same view as a modest 25.5-52.5mm lens. D1 accepts most Nikon Nikkor and (much cheaper) third-party lenses plus accessories such as flash guns and remote controls. For full through-lens flash exposure you need the dedicated Nikon SB-28DX flash at £400. The ‘pure camera’ features, controls and user interface are exactly the same as the F100 for functions such as exposure, mode (shutter/aperture priority, manual or programmed) and focusing. The F100’s metering patterns (3D colour matrix, centre-weighted or spot) are used. The spot metering point can be linked to any of five aiming points for the continuous (or locked) autofocus in the viewfinder. Most of the ‘top panel’ buttons and control dials are common to the F100, except for new options to switch on the monitor, format memory cards and play back through a computer. The only giveaway that this is a digital camera is the two-inch colour LCD playback monitor on the back, which is protected by a clip-on cover. You can’t preview images before exposure because the CCD is blocked by the viewfinder’s mirror, but you can optionally display and delete images immediately after exposure. A secondary set of five buttons (protected by a neat magnetic hinged cover) and a smaller LCD on the back let you alter the ‘digital’ settings such as the playback display, CCD sensitivity, white balance and image quality. There are 32 custom controls available to fine tune most aspects of operation. The D1 body is built for heavy duty use and is fairly waterproof. The FireWire (IEEE 1394), video-out (PAL and NTSC) and main power sockets are protected by rubber flaps. The Compact Flash Type I/II card compartment’s door has a rubber splash-proof seal, and even the door release button has its own small protective spring door. The D1 is supplied with a healthy 64MB CF card, good for up to 44 images at ‘Fine’ JPEG quality, 88 at ‘Norm,’ or just eight with uncompressed RGB TIFF. One of the most important attractions for pro photographers is the camera’s high shooting speed – it can sustain 4.5 frames per second in bursts of up to 21 images. Equally important is the instant response to pressing the shutter button – vital for news and sports photographers. Also vital is the switchable CCD sensitivity: the D1 default is ISO 200, but can be boosted to 400, 800 and 1,600 at the expense of increasing noise. At 200 ISO with ‘Fine’ JPEG compression, the image quality is absolutely superb, proving that raw resolution isn’t the only important measure of a digital camera. Output resolution is 2,000-x-1,312 pixels. Nikon says it has developed new signal processing algorithms, and a subtle antialiasing (blur) filter on the CCD helps to hide the ‘staircase’ pixel effect. The resulting smooth, artefact-free files can be printed far larger than the resolution would suggest, and respond well to up-interpolation in Photoshop. When shooting a step-wedge test chart the Nikon has a very impressive ability to detect subtle highlight and shadow tone differences. The white balance can be switched between automatic and several pre-sets, plus user-definable based on a white card. The auto setting was confused by mixed artificial lighting, but the overrides were fine. The camera can automatically apply tone compensations and three levels of sharpening, though you can switch these off. JPEG compression can also be switched off, in which case images are recorded as YCbCr-TIFF (8-bit), RGB-TIFF (8-bit), or raw data (12-bit). Images can be downloaded from via a CF card reader on a computer or via FireWire cable. The Nikon View software mounts the camera or card as an external volume with thumbnail previews of all images, and you can drag files straight onto disk. In terms of versatility, controllability, image and build quality, the D1 is probably the best portable digital camera you can buy. It’s a true professional’s tool and is ideal for photo-journalism. The only minor worry is the resolution, which has already been overtaken by 3.3 megapixel consumer models.

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