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Nikon D1H D1x Review Test: Pitfalls

Film vs. Digital     About these reviews

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get the D1X here or here and D1H here or here.

Nikon D1X D1H

get the D1X here or here and D1H here or here.


These are fantastic cameras with no real competition for professional use as of February 2003. As of October 2004 they lie on the scrapheap of progress, with me personally preferring my $999 D70. All these pages were written in 2002 and 2003 when these cameras were still hot stuff.

Even these D1 series cameras, however, have room for improvement. If you know me, you know I can find flaws in anything that others often don't, so don't let this stop you from buying one. Remember, I bought one just for kicks with my own hard cash and love it to death!

Here are the three biggest issues, in order of severity:

1.) These cameras, like all of today's digital cameras, can have problems when highlights overload, since there is no shoulder in the characteristic curve. This is simply the limitation of today's state of the art. This usually is subtle and makes large highlight areas that are just a little darker than 100% white (or FFFFFF or 256/256/256) look more like yellow pizza cheese than nice neutral highlights. More below.

2.) Color rendition of digital cameras is limited by the narrower range of colors represented on computer monitors than you see on film. Details at film vs. digital pages.

3.) You may see CCD dirt as specks in your images. More below.

Here now the details:

Highlight Problems

Like many digital capture systems, the D1 series have a serious problem with highlights. It has NO shoulder in its characteristic curve, unlike film. This means that large, light areas may take on a weird, uneven color tinge just before it completely washes out. You will see this most obviously on a large area of light color that washes to full white, like a stucco wall in afternoon light. As the area gets lighter and lighter the colors may do screwy things before they turn completely white. On film the wall would just get lighter and go white as it got overexposed. On the D1 series, as many digital cameras, it gets lighter, then turns a funny color as soon as one R, G or B channel clips, and eventually goes white when the last color channel clips.

I need to play with the Nikon Capture software and see if I can program in a filmlike shoulder. $100,000 TV cameras have these as settings, the $5,000 Nikon still cameras may not be able to do this. Film is superior for this. The D1 gives awful color for a lot of what I like to do in the setting sun. I'm unsure if other digicam makers have this same problem or not, but it doesn't matter since the D1 series has no real competition. The amateur Canon 1D for instance has a serious problem with noise banding at EI1600 and also lacks any zoom on the image preview, so as you see your only choices are D1x or D1H.

Film and digital are very different media requiring very different techniques. If you are an artist as opposed to a journalist you know that you will never be able to duplicate the look of one medium in the other, although you can try and get close.

See also film vs. digital.

Dirt on the CCD

Any dirt you get on the CCD stays there, and gets in every image you make from then on. Even brand-new D1 series cameras have enough crud on them to be made visible if yo know how to look. It only gets worse with use. Oh oh!!!!

By comparison, film is manufactured in special dust-free environments and you use a new frame for each image. Therefore unless you shoot 4x5" film you've probably never seen dirt in your exposed negatives. You will now with the D1 series SLRs!.

The three brand-new D1xs and one brand-new D1H I've used all had dirt on the front of the CCD. (OK, actually the low pass anti-aliasing filter in front of the CCD). This dirt is visible as dust shadows in the brand new camera's images.

This effect is most visible in flat, blank areas and photos made at small apertures (f/11 and smaller). It is not visible in areas with detail or at large apertures (f/2.8 and bigger). Once you see where your dirt spots are you will never miss them and it will drive you insane!

To test your camera, make a photograph at the smallest lens aperture (f/16 or f/22) of the blank sky or an out-of focus backdrop at about +1 compensation. You want a smooth image with no detail so you can easily pick out the dirt shadows.

The first D1x in which we saw this defect was returned, as Nikon claimed this "must be a defective sample." Hmm, Nikon always claims consistent manufacturing or design defects are "unusual" when I see them, because I see subtle things that usually go unnoticed by the Nikon USA staff. Well, the replacement camera has the same defect. This is a defect in design in every interchangeable lens SLR digital camera, not just in one sample. One nice thing to say about the nonexistent Sigma/Foveon X-3 SLR camera is that it claims to have a dust stopper at the lens mount to solve this. Of course you have to be careful not to smash this while mounting lenses, a reason Nikon didn't bother for a professional newsman's camera.

You think I'm kidding? For years we've all known that dust accumulates in our viewfinders, and for years we've had to tell the innocent non-photographer that of course that dust does not appear in the photos. We have a new age here with digital, and now dust that collects on your CCD and will be visible in your images. Get used to it.

This is the reason you see so few digital cameras with interchangeable lenses. Fixed lens cameras are sealed so no dust gets in, and this is why most digital cameras have to use external attachments to get different lens effects instead of completely removable lenses, duh. The tiny CCDs used in most fixed lens cameras are even more susceptible to dust since any piece of dust looks bigger on their microscopic CCDs. Therefore it is unlikely that you'll see many interchangeable lens digital cameras for consumer use in the future.

This problem is seen on every D1 series camera. It is obvious shooting a blank area like the sky at small apertures. It is invisible in busy areas of the image and less severe at large apertures.

I've seen this problem on all four cameras I've used, and it's also obvious looking at the images here. Click on some images with light blue skies. You'll see dark spots in the same positions on different images. Specifically, open the images in Photoshop and look at the area at 2,087 pixels from the left and 500 down vertically on Photoshop's rulers (or in the info palette.) You'll see the same dark spots in the same places in different images, caused by the same pieces of dirt.

This is ironic. It is Nikon who makes scanners that remove all the dirt and scratches from film in their scanners, and now their digital camera, that you'd think would make us immune to those film defects, actually has an uncorrected dirt problem.

The dirt in a new camera is only a little annoying, but with use you will get some specks that are obvious. After two months of use some obvious specks were on the CCD.

The manual has a scary, contorted procedure to clean the CCD which in essence says "send it to Nikon." This is good advice, it is easy to screw up your D1 series trying to do it yourself.

Well, we tried cleaning it ourselves and here's what happens:

1.) The manual says you need the AC adapter to do this. We tried it with just the battery and couldn't get the shutter open using the procedure in the manual, so we just:

2.) Put the camera on BULB and held the shutter release to expose the CCD with no lens attached!

Once you have the CCD bare, use a blower bulb to blow air on it. We tried this and the big specks went away!! DON'T touch the CDD with any brushes or cleaning solutions, you'll probably really screw it up.

I'm unsure if we were lucky or not getting the dust off using the blower bulb. Remember that when you are blowing air around you may blow just as much crud from the front of the lens mount onto the CCD as you blow off. In any case, our first try was successful.

Here's an idea: if you shot a job and a piece of dust did ruin the entire shoot, you could create an action in Photoshop for one image, and presuming all the other images had the same pieces of dust in them, just run the action on every image in the whole job.

Also you may try shooting a blank image and get crafty with Photoshop to take the difference between the reference dust image and the real image. Hey, I don't care personally so don't ask me. I'm an artist and have better things to worry about.

Oh well. This camera is designed for journalism where this may be ignored in the name of expediency.

Want to read more? See this, written by a guy who writes even more like me than myself! Heck, if he was as stupid as I am to make his backgrounds all yellow I would think he was me!

(D1X only) The actual CCD has fewer pixels vertically than the final image (1,324 Vs 1,960) and has more pixels horizontally than the final image (4,024 Vs 3,008).

The D1x has to interpolate (stretch) the pixels vertically to make 1,960 pixels out of 1,324. This reduces the vertical resolution from what you think it ought to be; it is at best the same as an image of 1,324 pixels. Ignore salesmen, I've been studying this since 1973 and doing it for a living full time since 1988. You always can make fake pixels to fill in, but you can't make detail. The boring websites confirm this: the vertical resolution of the D1x is identical the the D1 and D1H.

Therefore real resolution will be a little different horizontally and vertically. Television has been this way for many years, so don't worry about it.

The viewfinder image is tiny. The image sensor is much smaller than 35mm film, and Nikon got lazy and just masked off the finder to the size of the small sensor. Nikon did not increase the finder magnification give the same size viewfinder image as 35mm SLRs have. They also used a focusing screen from a 35mm camera, so the AF points are in the same place, making them effectively closer to the edge of the image. Also the center weighted circle is still a 12mm diameter circle, which is almost from top to bottom of the image. If you use center-weight metering you need to guess the area used! The good news is that the D1x retains the F5's huge viewfinder peephole and eyepiece blind. This is not a problem except for manual focusing; if anything, the teeny image forces you to compose more strongly.

The LCD display on the back is right where your nose goes. Nikon includes a translucent Tupperware shield they expect you to pop on and off as you photograph. No matter how hard you try, you are going to get nosemarks on the LCD. Always use the Tupperware cover, or better, by all means buy the Hoodman version. Heaven help you if you wear makeup! The LCD is low resolution and its contrast and brightness vary greatly with vertical viewing angle. This means that you cannot rotate the camera to see a vertical image on the color LCD because each of your eyes sees a slightly darker or lighter image. This is annoying. The color and contrast at the correct viewing angle is quite good.

The camera has no shoulder for the highlights, meaning highlight areas will take on a funny color shift just before they go white. This can make light stucco wall look awful in warm sunlight. This problem happens when one color channel, usually red, clips (goes to full 255 value) before the others do. The histogram on this camera is defective in design, since it only shows the histogram for the green channel. Therefore, the red channel can be clipping and you won't know it until you see the results back at the studio! In this way film is far superior to digital.

The Histogram and Blinking Highlights displays are useless

The Histogram display is useless because it defectively only reads the green channel. Because of this design wimp-out you can have severely clipped reds (or less likely clipped blues) and not know it! You can make a much better exposure judgment in color just by looking at the picture. Use the Histogram only for B/W.

The Blinking Highlights display is also less useful than just looking at the image itself.

Flakey TTL flash performance. I've found, as have others, that the TTL flash performance of the D1 series is nowhere near as good as it is for the film cameras. In fact, the TTL mode is so flakey that many (and even some at Nikon) suggest using the primitive A flash mode instead for better results.

The A mode was invented in the 1970s and most every flash made since then works fine in it. The exposure sensor is in the flash itself, not through the lens. In other words, your 20 year old Vivitar 283 may give BETTER and more consistent results than a new SB-80DX flash. So don't sell your current SB-28 till you try a DX series flash in TTL mode. If you prefer the A mode, then any crappy old garage sale flash works fine and the original SB-28 (non-DX) is among the best flashes ever.

The D1 series TTL flash exposures are screwy since it cannot measure off the CCD during the exposure; it has to measure off a pre-flash from a gray shutter curtain, and then predict the imaging exposure based on that guess. The film cameras actually measure the imaging flash off the film during the actual exposure. Nikon's film cameras are superb for TTL and fill flash, and because of the high standards set by the film cameras these D1s look so bad. My D1H requires constant manual compensation. It also gives very different results with D and non-D lenses, also unlike the film cameras that give great results with either. Honestly, I get better results with non-D lenses, and usually have to add a stop or more of compensation with my D lenses.

See the here for a technical explanation of why the TTL flash system is this way.

No multiple TTL flash capability!

A secret from the small print of page 115 of the D1H manual is that you can't even use multiple flash in TTL mode!!!!! Forget macro work with two flashes with the D1 cameras, unless you want to cripple your style with manual mode, in which case again any crappy flash is great. The D1 is for action, not static art. For action like sports and news this one-flash-only issue is not a problem, since you are only going to run on-camera flash anyway, and studio strobes are manual anyway.

The rubber grip covering sometimes comes off.

Mine was OK, but others are constantly having to glue theirs back on.

I had a veterinarian friend in Africa who specializes in elephant care send me some phallus hide from the Loxodonta Africana (known for its flexibility and grip when wet) which I then had a local taxidermist apply to my camera in place of the original rubber. It took a lot of paperwork with the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Game but at least it doesn't peel off on my D1H as the rubber does.

Frame counter off by one

The frame counter hearkens back to the days of film. Thus the counter always reads one higher than the number of photos you've made. Film cameras used to advance after each frame, thus after the first frame the camera advanced to frame two, and that's what the counter showed. The D1x and D1h duplicate this to be familiar to old film shooters. Don't worry about it.

Annoying flappy metal door over some of the buttons

For some unknown reason there is a metal door that covers the five rear buttons for WB and quality etc. This door has to be flipped down out of the way to make these adjustments. When the door is flipped down is is sort of held down by a magnet. When it is down it can catch on your clothing, and often flips back up to cover the buttons so you have to flip it out of the way again to press the buttons. I have not done this myself, however my suggestion to you is to take a pair of vice grips and rip the thing off the back of your camera.


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