Nikon D1 - The World's First True DSLR


I had never owned a Nikon before 1999, but I remember lusting after this camera when it launched. Although I wouldn't call myself a fanboy (I don't use Nikon any more) I totally get the attraction to Nikon gear now. The focus on ergonomics, image quality & design is a wonderful balance with these machines.

The D1 predating a classic film camera

Although based on the Nikon F5 / F100, the D1 was a unique and specifically digital design. Prior to this, DSLRs were literally modified film cameras. This made them ugly, bulky, heavy, slow, awkward and expensive. If you're thinking "but this D1 is big" - check out the Kodak DCS 620 that it competed with at the time. This used an actual Nikon F5 as a base (the 5xx series used Canon bodies). Before the D1 these behemoths were around $30,000, but soon after their prices shot down to desperately compete. At £5000, the D1 marked the end of the digital modified film SLRs and eventually the end of Kodak.

 I got into digital cameras in 2001, with the a compact Fuji (6900z). Having been used to tactile SLR dials (Pentax), it wasn't long before I upgraded to a DSLR. Part of the reason I chose the Fuji S2 Pro was that it looked a little like a Nikon D1. Since Fuji DSLRs used the Nikon lens mount it eventually lead me to buying a second-hand Nikon D2H in 2005. I was immediately hooked on Nikon cameras.

A few years after I bought the Nikon D3 (2008) I began to realized the significance of these early DSLRs as collectibles, so I started looking for a D1 in good condition. It took me almost a decade, but I finally found one. All the images in this article are of (or from) the D1 that I bought in the summer of 2020. It was originally purchased at launch by an amateur photographer living in Sweden, carefully used for a year and then put in to storage until late last year (20th anniversary?). At that point the owner bought a new 3rd party battery for it, played with it a while longer and then decided to sell it on Tradera (a wonderful auction site purely for Sweden, we don't have Ebay). This is probably the best case scenario to find this camera, whether you want to use or collect it.

Specifications

  • Resolution:

  • Sensor:

  • Shutter:

  • Flash Sync:

  • AF System:

  • AF Points:

  • Sensitivity:

  • Burst:

  • LCD:

  • Memory:

  • Data Cable:

  • Battery:

  • Weight:

2.7mp (2000 x 1312)

23.7 x 15.6mm CCD

30 sec - 1/16,000th

Up to 1/500th

Multi-Cam 1300

5 (1 cross type)

200, 400, 800, 1600

4.5fps (up to 21 shots)

2" 120,000 dot

CF type I/II (2GB max)

Firewire 400

EN-4 (ni-mh,  7v DV)

1.2Kg

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Initial Impressions

The Nikon D1 is a fascinating camera to use in 2020. If you're used to any Nikon DSLRs (especially the pro models), you'll feel right at home when you pick it up. The buttons and dials remained largely consistent over the 2+ decades. The mechanism to open the card door, the mode dial and the way you format the card (by holding two buttons, marked in red) were firmly established on day one.

Looking at the screen can be a little jarring these days due to its small size operating speed, but it works and the resolution is not as bad as I would have expected. If you need to change something in the menu it's a little more "stone age" however. It essentially copies the system from the Nikon F5, using a separate LCD and buttons at the bottom left of the camera's back. A bunch of numbers represent a setting, which you'll need a chart to decipher. Then a second number represents its state (eg. 0=No, 1=Yes). There are about 30 options in this menu. It's kinda fun to see, but one of the things that ages the camera most. The use of this secondary screen is something that remained however, how you interacted with it got much improved over the years.

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Image Quality

Although the D1 is still surprisingly usable considering it's a million years old (in digital camera years), there are of course a few aspects that have moved on a bit in 21 years. You might expect resolution to be the biggest issue, but I found it to be dynamic range (DR). Although the main camera I use today is still 8 years old (Sony A7R - 2013) it has nearly twice the effective dynamic range of the D1 (11.7 vs 6.5 stops). That really is a night and day difference. Realistically you can only nudge values here a little before encountering problems. I rather expected this, but it's still the more shocking aspect.

When I received this camera its ability to shoot RAW was disabled in the menu (not sure if that was default), so I had to figure out the very strange menu system for that. I thought being able to shoot RAW would be super important here, but it's actually not. Fun fact: The D1 was the first DSLR to shoot JPG, which sounds really strange these days. Sticking to JPG will help you a little with buffer speeds so I would recommend it over RAW.

 

The next most obvious thing to discuss is ISO quality. You can change it from the base value (200), but you probably shouldn't. It's pretty clean at 200, but if you push the shadows more than a stop you not only get noise, but sensor banding. The above image shows this mostly at the bottom left. The foliage and steps were pushed up 2 stops in Adobe Camera RAW (which handles these files well).

 

The below image is in a clouds shadow and shooting away from the sun so it's a much cleaner image, but you can still see that the cloud highlights are blown. To stop that I would have gotten more noise in the bottom left. Since you can almost never capture the entire dynamic range of a scene you'll have to be very careful with exposure. 

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Focusing

If you shoot mostly with the center focus point you'll likely be pretty happy with the auto focus of the D1. I assumed that going back to a focus system with only five points and using screw driven AF lenses it would be pretty lackluster, but I was wrong. You can use newer AF-S and G series hypersonic motor AF lenses fine here, but I don't have any. 

Speed

Shooting speed is a mixed bag. On one hand 4.5fps in 1999 is absolutely amazing, but there are a few awkward caveats to that. Firstly you have to shoot in burst mode to get that speed. If you shoot in single shot mode the speed is about 1 shot every 5 seconds. That's 1/25th of the speed! The other issue is that if you turn off the camera to save the battery while it's flushing the buffer to the memory card you will lose your image/s. I knew about this problem and yet I still lost about 5 images in a shoot.

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Mechanical Marvel

There are two mechanical features that will impress you, even today - maximum shutter speed (1/16000th) and flash sync (1/500th). These are still double what's on offer in the D6 for example. I really wish newer cameras had the higher shutter speeds for shooting fast lenses in bright conditions. This is something that you get on some mirrorless cameras in electronic shutter mode, but then you have to live with rolling shutter, which is horrible. Although having this faster speed here sounds great the base ISO of 200 almost makes that redundant, unless you simply need to freeze motion (rather than get a good exposure).

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Memory

Compact Flash (CF) cards are still in use today, but the D1 can only accept sizes up to 2GB. If you don't have something already laying around you'll need to look for second-hand options, since these sizes are no longer made. A 2GB card will give you plenty of storage for the D1 (about 500 RAW files), but if you're stuck with a 16MB card (like the old Nikon card, shown below) it's not so great. This will only hold 4 RAW files (or 16 fine quality jpgs).

 

16MB is a rather obscure amount of space in 2020. You can get over 60,000 times as much storage in something smaller than your finger nail (Micro SD). 

 

Getting the images on to your computer could also be tricky. I no longer had a CF reader, so bought a new multi-format one. I needed a USB-C reader anyway. The easiest way around this issue is to get a CF to SD card adapter (about £15), although the 2GB limit still applies. You can also use an SD to micro SD adapter inside the CF to SD adapter, if that helps, or you just want to make a Russian doll memory meme.

Cable

Transferring your files directly from the camera is possible, but unfortunately the old firewire 400 cables have not been used for a while, so you're unlikely to have these cables or connections on your computer. There are Firewire to USB adapters, but I have no idea how well they work.

Battery

The original Ni-Mh type EN-4 batteries were pretty poor. Any original battery it will almost certainly no longer work. New 3rd party Ni-Mh options are available which will get around 40 shots per charge. 3rd party Li-ion versions also exist and they will last considerably longer (about 400 shots).

 

We are used to pro DSLR batteries lasting thousands of shots, so this is something that has improved a lot over time. Some of this is battery technology and some of it is the cameras power efficiency. It's interesting to note that current mirrorless camera's battery life is somewhere in the middle (between the D1 and D6). Hopefully this is something that continues to improve over time, perhaps through solid state battery technology or something we haven't even seen yet.

 

Charger

Either Ni-Mh or Li-Ion battery types will charge via the original MH-16 charger. This charger is harder to find second hand so try to make sure you get a working one when you buy the camera, otherwise it might end up costing you more than the camera itself. 

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The rear of the D1, with original BM-1 LCD cover

Buying Used 

If you would like to buy a Nikon D1 yourself there are a few things to look out for. Unless you are lucky enough to find a new/old stock (BNIB) mint condition D1 it's likely going to have some wear. The D1 was mostly used by professional journalists. It was generally treated like a tank and often show a great deal of external wear. It's also common for some smaller parts to be missing:

  • The DK-14 eye piece

  • Rear LCD screen cover - the original was opaque (black)

  • 10-pin remote port cover

  • Sync terminal cover

The latter two are generic and easy to find, but the first two can be quite difficult to source. As far as I can tell the DK-17 viewfinder, as used on the newer Nikon DSLRs, seems to fit the D1 fine, it's just not a very cheap (£30). The transparent LCD cover (shown above) was an optional extra and isn't often seen with the camera. A hoodman version was a little more common to see. I was very lucky to find a new/old stock of the official Nikon BM-1 for less than £5, but either version is very difficult to find separately now.

Retrospective

In many ways the D1 was a timeless design. Although inspired by Nikon's pro film camera of the time it has an identity all of its own. In overall shape it feels a little more like a large F100, as does the angle of the shutter button. The F5's prism bump is just sexier IMO, but many other details were similar - the Portrait grip (with lack of front dial), battery door, signature red rubber grip, top LCD and custom menu panel etc. 

 

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Moving forward to Nikon's first full frame camera, nine years later (D3) - you can see that, aside from a few small details, nothing has fundamentally changed. This largely continued through to the D6. 

 

Post D1 Film

Nikon continued to develop film cameras for about five years after the D1. The Nikon F6 was the last. It was more of a semi pro model, lacking the vertical grip and removable prism staples of the time. A swan song that was more aimed at collectors or amateurs with deep pockets. Professionals had well and truly moved on by then, despite there not being a full frame digital option until four years later. The F6 was still a very good camera, it's very sought after and extremely expensive today. If you like the sound of it but the price makes you cringe - check out the Nikon F100 as it looks similar and gives you 95% of the features for about 1/5th of the price.

 

Perhaps another Nikon swan-song for film landed as the D1 was being refreshed (D1H / D1X). The FM3A (review here) came out in 2001. With its 1970's styling (following on from the FM) it's easy to overlook this camera as just another retro design. However this is really special on the inside. It's the worlds only fully functional mechanical / electronic hybrid shutter mechanism. A 1/4000th of a second vertical plane shutter that can be controlled automatically (in aperture priority) or without batteries in manual mode. All other cameras that attempted this could only offer some of the shutter speeds without batteries. Like the F6, the FM3A commands a high price on the used market today.

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The Future

I wish I could have stayed with Nikon when mirrorless came around, but it just wasn't an option back then (like Pentax wasn't an option when I went digital). I still have a special place in my heart for Nikon cameras. Over the last 7 years I have bought four Nikon cameras (FM3A, F, D1 & D3). I wish Nikon all the best for the future and hope the disappointing D6 is not a sign that they're in trouble, but just an acknowledgement that DSLRs are no longer competitive. If Nikon are finally focusing on mirrorless that is a good thing.

 

If I had any advice for Nikon it would be to keep focusing on the things that really matter - ergonomics, usability and image processing. I would point to the Sony A7sIII's success by polishing established standards and not getting distracted by things that don't matter... *cough* 8K *cough*...

 

I would love it if Nikon could put the final nail in DSLRs coffin and give us global shutter in a mirrorless camera, but it's unlikely that Nikon will lead the way here as they have been using Sony sensors for a long time now. 

 

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