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Up close with the D1X at PMA  
Monday, February 12, 2001 | by
While a single, non-working mockup of the D1H sits under glass, its higher-resolution counterpart, the D1X, is in fairly ample supply above the counter of Nikon's Pro Digital SLR stand at the PMA 2001 trade show in Orlando, Florida this week.


Nikon USA tech rep Ron Taniwaki explains the finer points of the Nikon D1X

As attendees poke and prod the new model, many new details have begun to emerge about the D1X, most of which also applies to its speedier twin, the D1H. However, with the D1X said to be about 90 days from shipping, and the D1H 30 days beyond that, it's apparent that Nikon representatives are just now themselves learning the new models, and that numerous aspects of the cameras' interface and related software are just now being finalized too.


Nikon D1X

This article is a somewhat randomly-ordered compilation of information on the new models, gleaned at PMA this week, as well as at the DigitalFocus media event February 11. As you read it, please keep in mind that certain specifications may change before the cameras ship, and that obvious early firmware hiccups, including LCD display glitches and on-screen menu spelling mistakes, will almost certainly be fixed before the new models roll out several months from now.

Total Image Quality and the D1X

During a Sunday morning press briefing on the new cameras, Nikon VP Richard Lopinto talked extensively about Total Image Quality. It's a Nikon phrase used to describe the company's approach to ensuring that all aspects of the cameras' images - colour, freedom from noise, tonality, and so on - are first rate. Without production cameras on hand for testing, it's hard to assess whether Nikon's claim of Total Image Quality really amounts to better pictures than the D1 produces in all areas. It is obvious, though, that Nikon is putting a marketing emphasis on the image quality of the new cameras, which, one would hope, means that Nikon engineers and colour scientists have placed the same emphasis in the development of the cameras.

What is apparent in the D1X sample prints on show, and those being shown privately by senior staff from Nikon Japan, is that image sharpness and clarity is nothing short of spectacular. Really, if the 7 x 9 inch range and 11 x 14 inch (sizes approximate) Fuji Pictrography prints are an accurate indication of the fine detail rendering capabilities of the D1X, then I for one am sold on the interpolation hocus pocus the camera performs in delivering 16.9MB finished photos. The samples are truly among the sharpest, smoothest, most un-digital looking prints I've seen from any digital SLR. Though the D1H model is the more practical choice for press photography, the image clarity that results from the D1X's higher resolution promises to entice even the most motor drive-happy news shooter to look longingly at the D1X. Wow, the prints are crisp.

Note that Nikon is not permitting D1X/D1H images files to be released at PMA, nor have they announced when sample images will be available.

Thumbnail quality, in-camera image tagging

Many of the improvements in the D1H and D1X are impossible to assess without taking a camera out for an extended spin. Image colour, TTL flash accuracy, image noise, Auto WB - getting a handle on whether these aspects of the camera are a step up from the D1 will have to wait for now. But for Nikon to build a truly-improved D1, it has needed to look beyond improving the big stuff to other smaller but equally vital camera features.

First on my list are two things that really should have been there in the D1: a clear, sharp thumbnail inside each image, not the fuzzy one the D1 writes into each photo, and the ability to quickly tag images while viewing them on the camera's rear LCD monitor.

Better-quality thumbnails means more efficient editing in browsers like Photo Mechanic that can display the in-file thumbnails, and ends the sometimes painfully-long wait for certain image browsers to chug through the creation of clearer thumbnails. The D1X and D1H, says Nikon, create a clearer EXIF standard thumbnail in each file. In fact, the camera may actually create thumbnails at two or more sizes, perhaps to ensure that one of the thumbnails adheres to the 160 pixel wide EXIF standard, and another may be a resolution match for the rear LCD monitor. This may be true only with RAW .NEf format files, or may be true for the JPEG and TIFF files too. In other words, there's something interesting going on with thumbnails, but it's not clear exactly what that is yet.

Regardless of the number of thumbnails, previews and whatever else is tucked inside the new models' file, it appears that Nikon has addressed the problem of poor D1 thumbnail quality when designing the D1X and D1H.

The D1 can Protect files. This is the EXIF-standard equivalent of the tagging feature of Kodak DCS cameras, and it enables a photographer to do an initial edit in the camera, before sitting down in front of a computer. To Protect a file in the D1 means a time-consuming trip, in Playback mode, to the on-screen menus of that camera. This has all but eliminated the use of the Protect function in that camera by photojournalists. The D1X and D1H adds a dedicated, one-touch Protect/Unprotect button (below) that should make tagging images practical and useful.


Nikon D1X Protect button, centre bottom

Once an image is protected, a key icon appears inside the image on the rear LCD monitor (below).


A protected image

Of course, browsing software will have to add the ability to recognize the Protect tag inside D1H and D1X files. But this should be a trivial change for programs like Photo Mechanic and FotoStation.

Nikon View 4, Photoshop file format plug-in

Details about the software for the D1H and D1X are sketchy at best, probably because feature sets are still being determined. Still, a few things are known:

Despite its name, Nikon View 4 will not really be about viewing (i.e. browsing) photos, at least not once the photos have been moved from the CompactFlash card. Instead, the primary function for the Mac and Windows application bundled with the new cameras will be to transfer images, either over FireWire from the camera or from a mounted card. It can copy all photos on the card, or ones that meet specific, user-selectable criteria. The criteria, at least at this stage in the software's development, will be whether the file is Protected or Hidden. That is, Nikon View 4 will copy all Protected files only, or all files not Protected instead. Or it will copy all Hidden files only, or all files not Hidden instead.

As the files are copied, Nikon View 4 will apply IPTC-format text information to the files, though apparently the only IPTC field it will support is Keywords. Files may also be renamed based on some simple parameters as they're copied.

The Mac/Windows Photoshop plug-in to be supplied with the new cameras is a file format plug-in, not an acquire plug-in. This distinction is important, because it means that the new plug-in will not provide a browser function, a la Kodak's acquire software, but will simply enable Photoshop to understand the RAW .NEF format of the D1H and D1X. That way, when a RAW .NEF file is double-clicked on in a folder, Photoshop will be able to process the RAW data into Photoshop.

It's not clear at this point whether the plug-in will have an interface. File format plug-ins can present a window as the file is being opened: Photo Mechanic's DCS Photo plug-in does this for Kodak RAW files, as does Bibble/MacBibble's plug-in for D1 RAW files. The early Windows versions of the software Nikon is currently using to handle D1X RAW files are window-less. Several Nikon staffers indicate, however, that there is discussion, and perhaps actual development on, a window in which certain RAW file processing parameters could be adjusted as the picture opens into Photoshop.

It's expected that the plug-in will support the D1's RAW format too, in addition to the D1H and D1X. But it's not clear what colour processing path D1 RAW files might take through the plug-in.

It's also not clear whether the current, limited-functionality SDK for the D1 will be expanded upon for the D1H and D1X. A full-featured SDK would better enable third party developers to add support for the D1X and D1H RAW .NEF format.

Though many software questions remain, I'm not optimistic at this point that Nikon places any more of a priority on good software, including a thorough SDK, for D1H and D1X photojournalists than they did for the D1. Too many feature questions are being answered with nebulous responses, including "we're studying that" or "that's under discussion." This is in direct contrast to many, many camera questions, in which all levels of Nikon staff on hand are able to give detailed and complete answers. Nikon is demonstrating an intent to build a great digital SLR; that same drive doesn't seem to extend to the post-camera photojournalist's workflow. This has been a sore spot for me since the D1's release, and I'm not anticipating being much happier with Nikon's software efforts for the D1H and D1X.

Rear LCD monitor and on-screen menus

Nikon is boasting not only about the clarity and brightness of the new 130,000 dot TFT LCD monitor built into the camera's back, but also about its colour accuracy. It's not clear what Nikon has done, beyond the selection of a different screen than is found in the D1, to improve colour accuracy. Being able to make somewhat-critical colour assessments on the rear LCD monitor would be great, if it will in fact be possible. Every other LCD display of this type that I've worked with has one or more colour biases - faces are overly red, purples look royal blue, and so on - so it would be quite a feat to make the D1H and D1X's monitor colour-accurate.

The new LCD displays 100% of the image, even though the aspect ratio of the rear LCD monitor is still not the same as the image itself. It does that by making the image fit the screen horizontally, which means the entire vertical range of the screen is not used. The result is a black band across the bottom that shows the frame number or other image information (below).


Nikon D1X, rear view

The image's proportions also appear to be distorted slightly, in one dimension, when displayed on the rear LCD monitor. This may be an early camera quirk, but it has more likely been done deliberately, to ensure that as much monitor area as possible is being used to display the photo, on the probably-correct assumption that most users won't notice or be bothered by a slight distortion of the image when using the screen, for example, to check an exposure. This might also explain why each image file contains two or more thumbnails, one of which is perhaps a slightly-squashed one only for viewing on the rear LCD monitor.

The menus on the D1H and D1X are a complete overhaul of those found on the D1. Their design is similar to the Coolpix 990, in that they are divided into several different groupings: Playback, Shooting, Custom Settings and Setup. Navigating the menus is straightforward, and their design is clean and easy to read. In the firmware version 0.30 D1X camera I handled earlier this week, the English menus contained some fun spelling mistakes, including PLYBACK and FLUOURESCENT. Look for the correct spellings to make it into the final revision of firmware.

Here's a look at some of the menus in the D1X. They should be substantially similar to those found in shipping D1X and D1H cameras, though of course Nikon has several months in which to make changes.


Shooting Menu: Selecting
White Balance submenu

Shooting Menu: Selecting
the Flash WB setting from the
White Balance submenu

Custom Settings Menu: Selecting
Color Saturation submenu

Custom Settings Menu: Selecting
16 seconds in Auto Power-Off
Delay submenu.

Custom Settings Menu: Selecting
Off in the Disable Shutter If No
CompactFlash Card submenu

Custom Settings Menu: Selecting
sRGB in the Color Setting
submenu

Custom Settings Menu: Selecting
Compressed in the RAW Image
Save submenu

Custom Settings Menu: Selecting
Normal in the Image Sharpening
submenu

Playback Menu: Selecting
Options

Playback Menu: Selecting
Normal in the Options submenu

Setup Menu: Selecting Off in the
Serial Settings submenu

It appears to be a snap to view an image's histogram, and other shooting information as well, simply by pressing the left and right positions of the four-position navigation toggle on the rear of the camera. The D1X and D1H layer the information over top of the photo, in several different screens (below; note that the green bars on the sides appear to be an early firmware display glitch).


Reviewing images: Washington,
DC-based photographer Kevin
Gilbert, shown full screen

Reviewing images: One of two
image information screens

Reviewing images: The second
of two image information screens

Reviewing images: Histogram

The D1X and D1H image magnification playback feature should make it easier to check if eyes are open, and if the picture is sharp. There is only one magnification level. It isn't known how much the image is magnified, or whether the magnification level changes with the D1X's two resolution settings. The D1X I tried broke the image down into 25 overlapping segments; pressing the navigation toggle on the camera enables navigation around the image.

The magnified view is a welcome improvement over the D1, and it seems reasonably quick too, but it's not as smooth as that of a Coolpix 990. It also lacks that camera's ability to zoom up to the maximum magnification level in fine increments. That's apparently because the D1X and D1H lack the 990's digital zoom; the same hardware component that controls zooming beyond the optical limit of the lens in the 990 also provides the near-stepless playback zoom function in that camera too. Without that bit of hardware in the D1H and D1X as well, no zoomed magnification is possible.

The camera still has a distinct Playback mode, only there's apparently little reason to use it. All the key features of the Playback mode, including the onscreen menus and image viewing functions, are available in the shooting modes too. I'm not sure if there's anything that can be done from Playback mode that can't be done from one of the shooting modes, but Nikon is emphatic that when reviewing images on the camera, simply pressing the shutter button returns the camera's priority to shooting pictures.

And finally, the D1H/D1X monitor is said to consume less power than the D1's monitor.

Other observations

ISO is now settable in either 1/3, 1/2 or full stop increments. Going beyond ISO 1600 in the D1H, or beyond ISO 800 in the D1X, is, like the D1, still done via a Custom Setting, though now that Custom Setting is choosable on the rear LCD monitor. The upper ISO limit, when set through a Custom Setting, is ISO 6400 for the D1H (same as the D1) and ISO 3200 for the D1X. In addition, the top dial features a button that allows quick changing of the ISO, in place of the Dynamic AF button in the same location on the D1 (below). Dynamic AF settings are now controlled through the Custom Settings menu.


ISO button on the D1H and D1X

The compressed RAW .NEF format is expected to trim RAW files sizes in half. The compression is described as numerically lossy, but visually lossless. In other words, the RAW data, when decompressed, will not be pixel-for-pixel identical with the RAW data before compression. Since whether something is truly visually lossless or not is definitely in the eye of the beholder, it remains to be seen whether the compressed RAW .NEF option will be as useful as I really want it to be in the D1X and D1H. I'm choosing to be optimistic, however, that the quality differences between the compressed and non-compressed RAW format options will be slight.

The colour processing improvements in the D1H and D1X depend in part on data resulting from a complex analysis of the scene, as interpreted by the D1H and D1X's 1005 pixel exposure/colour CCD. Nikon is extremely tight-lipped about the sort of analysis being performed, saying only that it results in a dramatic improvement in the colour, perhaps regardless of the white balance setting chosen. That is, information from the 1005 pixel CCD is used to determine the colour not only when the D1X and D1H are locked to Auto WB, but also when Preset WB, and perhaps even the manual WB settings, are chosen too. The impact of this approach, wherein the camera tries to go beyond simply setting a neutral point to actually trying to adjust, on the fly, where the other colours are falling in the scene also, won't be known until the camera ships.

There is some confusion over the number of RAW .NEF frames that can be shot in a burst with the D1H and D1X, relative to the number of JPEG and TIFF frames. While the consensus seems to be that finished cameras will be able to shoot approximately twice the number of JPEGs and TIFFs as they can RAW .NEFs, it's hard to test for this definitively. That's because some of the early D1X cameras at the show only shoot RAW, while others only shoot TIFF, and so on. One Nikon tech rep indicated this week that the number of RAW, TIFF and JPEG frames in a burst was to be the same, but this seems both unlikely and at odds with information passed on at Nikon's Sunday morning press briefing on the new cameras.

Choosing between the D1H and D1X's three storable Preset white balances should be easy enough. While holding in the WB button, the sub command dial is used to choose between the three (below). The only trick will be remembering which one is for the hockey arena and which one is for the basketball gymnasium. It's still necessary to fill the frame with a neutral object when setting a Preset with the D1H and D1X.


"d-3" means the third storable Preset is currently selected

The D1X and D1H take the same EN-4 battery as the D1.

Both models have the same 58ms shutter lag as the D1.

The early D1X units at PMA still go to sleep (now called Auto Power-Off) after no longer than 16 seconds, though Nikon is actively exploring whether it's possible to extend this time to something more useful for two camera shooters in particular. At issue is not whether it should be done, but whether the change can be done without modifying the hardware, since the time has past for most if not all hardware tweaks.

Sound recording, similar to Kodak DCS cameras, did not make it into the D1X and D1H.

When the D1H and D1X automatically power off, they don't shut off power to the card slot like the D1 does. This should solve the startup delay that D1 users that shoot with Lexar Media cards have been experiencing, and for which Lexar is currently offering a fix.

The 512MB and 1GB Microdrives are officially be sanctioned by Nikon for use in the D1X and D1H. Official support for the new-design 340MB Microdrive, a version of the 340MB model that includes the architectural changes of the 512MB and 1GB, is also expected to be compatible when that card ships later this year. Interestingly, the original-design 340MB Microdrive, at least ones that are currently shipping, should also work just fine. The key to compatibility is a firmware revision that IBM made to the 340MB model perhaps 6-9 months ago. At about the time the D1X and D1H ship, IBM has indicated that their web site will describe how owners of 340MB Microdrives currently can determine, by examining the model number, part number and one other numeric designation on the card, whether the card is set for use in the new models.

Though the resolution and physical size of the D1H CCD is the same as that of the D1, the CCD itself has been redesigned and is therefore not the same one that's found in the D1. It is also produced, in conjunction with Nikon, by the same manufacturer as the D1's CCD, though Nikon will not reveal who that manufacturer is. Sony's name is most often mentioned by industry pundits, but this is just as likely to be rumour as fact.

Nikon has been trumpeting the fact that the D1, D1H and D1X feature micro optics over the pixel elements of the CCD that perform tele-centric correction of the light as it enters each pixel. As Nikon's Richard Lopinto likes to says, this feeds the CCD "light it likes." In practice, it means bending the light so that it enters the pixel directly, and not at an angle. The actual performance benefits of the micro lenses Nikon employs, relative to those used by other vendors of the cameras that use Interline Transfer CCDs, are not clear to me. But tele-centric correction sounds cool, and I'm going to try and work the phrase randomly into conversations over the next few days.

Colour saturation is adjustable via a Custom Setting.

The display of items on the cameras' lower rear LCD have been changed slightly, while the QUAL and ISO buttons of the D1 have been removed altogether. The ISO button has moved to the top of the camera, while the functionality of the QUAL button, which enables the selection of the file format, can be assigned to the multipurpose FUNC button, or the file format may simply be selected under the Shooting menu on the rear LCD monitor. The range of WB settings remains the same as the D1: Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Sunny, Flash, Cloudy, Shade and Preset.


Nikon D1X, rear view

The new cameras' GPS capabilities will be able to be exploited with several different models of GPS units from Garmin, Magellan and Lawrence.

The "H" in D1H, and the "X" in D1X, are just product designations, they don't stand for anything in particular.

Nikon has slightly revised the ship dates for the D1H and D1X since the cameras were announced last week. The D1X is now scheduled to ship in about 90 days at a price of about US$5500; the D1H, 30 days after that, for about US$4500. Final prices are of course set by dealers, who don't know yet what the price is that Nikon will charge them for the camera. For more information on the new models, see Nikon officially unveils D1H, D1X digital SLR cameras. The Nikon Japan web site features a page of photos of the Nikon booth at PMA, including a shot of Nikon Japan senior manager Naoki Tomino, one of the key players in the development of the original D1.

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