Nikon D1 - The World's First True DSLR


As a student and gadget freak in 1999 I remember wishing I could own this huge milestone in photography; The worlds first purpose built DSLR. It may have been inevitable given digital modified film SLRs had been around for about a decade, but the Nikon D1 was the camera to break that mould. After eventually managing to find one in good condition (without breaking the bank), I can now revisit this icon to see if it's still usable today and try to imagine what it was like to live with over two decades ago.

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Nikon D1, with 50mm f/1.8 AF-D lens (early version)

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 in Sweden, carefully used for a year and then put in to storage until selling it on a local auction.

Specifications

  • Resolution:

  • Bit Rate:

  • Sensor:

  • Crop:

  • Shutter:

  • Startup (s):

  • Flash Sync:

  • AF System:

  • AF Points:

  • Sensitivity:

  • Burst (fps):

  • Buffer:

  • LCD:

  • Memory:

  • Data Cable:

  • Battery:

  • Weight:

2.4mp (2000 x  1312)

12

23.7 x 15.6mm CCD

1.5x / APS-C 

30 sec - 1/16,000th

2

up to 1/500th

Multi-CAM 1300

5 (1 cross type)

200 - 1600

4.5

4

2" (120k dots)

CF type I / II

Firewire 400

EN-4 7v

1.2Kg

Digital History

Based on the F100 styling and F5 format; The D1 was a unique and specifically digital design. Prior to this, professional digital cameras were literally modified film cameras. This made them ugly, bulky, heavy, slow, awkward and expensive. If you think the D1 is still big, check out the Kodak DCS camera designs the preceded it (below). This one used an actual Nikon F5 as a base. Although some used smaller cameras, that didn't make them a lot smaller. Before the D1 these behemoths were around $15,000, but soon after their prices plummeted to desperately compete with the new standard professional digital price, set by the D1 ($6k). Digital modified film SLRs didn't last long after the Nikon D1 and Kodak never fully recovered from the continually declining film sales.

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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 reviewing images today. Interestingly; improvements in resolution and dynamic range have slowed to a crawl in the years since the Sony A7R however.

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 since the dynamic range you capture fits perfectly well in an 8-bit JPG. 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 mostly recommend it over RAW.

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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 below image is shaded by clouds and shooting away from the sun. An easy dynamic range to capture these days, but you can still see that the cloud highlights are blown here. To stop that I would have had to under expose and brighten the bottom, producing more noise there. Since you can almost never capture the entire dynamic range of a scene you'll have to be very careful with exposure. A safe bet here is to under-expose by 0.7 stops, further is better, but it will depend on how much noise you can live with.

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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 continuous burst mode to get that speed, single shot mode will give you about 1 shot every 5 seconds! That's 1/25th of the speed! If you're shooting RAW you'll be lucky to get 4 images out of the buffer and the worst problem of them all... If you turn off the camera while the green light is on and it's writing an image (flushing the buffer to memory) you will lose whatever images are in the buffer. I knew about this problem and still got caught out by it. So don't think about shooting a few images in quick succession and then turn the camera off straight away to save battery (which you will want to do).

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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 longer. We are used to pro DSLR batteries lasting thousands of shots and this is already true by the D2H/X series, so it's only really this first generation that was terrible on battery life for some reason. Some of this is due to battery technology but most is the cameras power efficiency.

 

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.

Conclusion

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 two decades. The card release door, the mode dial, the rear LCD and the way you format the card (by holding two buttons, marked in red, twice) were all firmly established here.

Looking at the screen can be a little jarring these days due to its small size, low resolution and operating speed, but it works and it's not as bad as I would have expected (at least after it processes for about 10 seconds). 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 and what info it showed got much improved in the 2nd generation.

Perhaps another Nikon swan-song for film landed as the D1 was being refreshed (D1H / D1X) was the FM3A (review here), which came out in 2001. With its 1970's styling (continuing from the original 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 D1 predating a classic film camera