Nikon D1 - The World's First True DSLR
By 1999 professional digital sensors had been shoehorned into film SLR bodies for nearly a decade. Nikon broke this mould with the D1 - the first purpose-built DSLR. This pioneering model brought down the size and price for professionals, while enhancing user experience. This new segment became largely responsible for ending Kodak's reign in the professional camera market.
Nikon D1 + 50mm f/1.8 AF-D lens (early version)
4.5 fps / 4 frames
30 sec - 1/16,000th
5 (1 cross type)
200 - 1600
0.8x / 96%
2" / 120k
CF I (up to 2GB)
Build & History
You'd be forgiven for thinking that purpose build DSLRs already existed in 1999, with models like Nikon's E2/E2N that were partnered with Fuji (from 1995). However, they used Nikon F4 film bodies covered in a larger plastic chassis, but perhaps more importantly they were not technically even SLRs at all, since their small sensors did not look directly through the lens. Prior to the D1 all professional digital cameras were modified film bodies. These franken-cameras were ugly, awkward, bulky, heavy and very expensive.
"Based" on the styling of the F100 and format of the F5; The Nikon D1 was a uniquely digital design. If you're a modern mirrorless user and think the D1 still looks large (well, you're right, but...), check out the Kodak DCS cameras that preceded it. Prices of pro D-SLRs before the D1 were around £13,000, but soon after they plummeted to desperately compete with the D1's £5,000 price tag (over £11,000 today). Digital modified film SLRs didn't last long after proper DSLRs and Kodak never fully recovered due to their dogged reliance on film sales.
When the D1 first came out it was way out of my league, but I remember lusting after one. Recently I was fortunate enough to find a well kept second-hand one and without breaking the bank. Now that I can finally test this photographic milestone; Let's see how usable it is nearly quarter of a century later. Before I go any further, here's the technical info for this iconic piece of camera history...
Many aspects have moved on over the last 24 years of digital photography, but the D1 is surprisingly usable. You might expect the lowly resolution to be the biggest issue, but if you're posting to Instagram it's pretty ok. The bigger issue is dynamic range (DR). At 6.5 stops, you can only nudge values a little before encountering problems. You can change ISO from the base value (200), but you probably shouldn't and if you push the shadows more than a stop you not only risk getting noise, but sensor banding as well.
I thought RAW would be super important here, but the dynamic range fits perfectly well into an 8-bit JPG anyway. Fun fact: The D1 was the first DSLR to shoot JPG, which sounds really strange these days. Sticking to JPG will help you with buffer speeds, so I would mostly recommend it over RAW here. TIFF (as always) seems largely superfluous. Colours look surprisingly good out-of-the-box, when editing the D1's RAW files in Adobe software. This was not the case with the Kodak DCS 760 in Adobe Camera RAW software (likely the same as Lightroom). There I needed to calibrate the colours manually (using an X-write colour chart), but the D1 had no issues.
24 Years Of Progress
Nine years on, the Nikon D3X had achieved 10 times the resolution and 4 more stops of dynamic range (16 times better), compared to the D1. Fifteen years on (to 2023); Progress has slowed to a crawl, with resolution and dynamic range barely doubling again since. The Nikon D1 & D3 models were huge milestones in image quality value, but outside of that things have been largely iterative.
If you shoot mostly with the single, center point focusing you'll likely be ok with the D1's autofocus. 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.
The 4.5fps burst speed might sound pretty impressive for 1999... and it is, but that's only for the continuous modes. 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 (when it's writing an image to memory) you will lose whatever is left in the buffer. I still got caught out by this issue despite knowing about it. So don't think about shooting a few images in quick succession and then turning the camera off straight away to save battery (which you will want to do).
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 horrible rolling shutter, unless you're using an expensive stacked sensor. Although having this faster speed sounds great, the base ISO of 200 makes that redundant, unless... no it's simply worthless.
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.
Compact Flash (CF) cards are still in use today (sort of), 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).
Getting the images on to your computer could also be tricky. I no longer had a CF reader, so had to buy a new multi-format one. I needed a USB-C reader anyway so I didn't mind too much. The easiest way around this issue is to get a CF to SD card adapter (about £15), although the 2GB limit still applies so which option is easier is up to you. 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.
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, whether you're using a Mac or PC. There are Firewire to USB adapters, but I have no idea how well they work. This is not a rabbit hole I wanted to go down.
The original Ni-Mh type EN-4 batteries were pretty poor. Any original battery that was used 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 hamstrung on battery life. Some of this is due to battery technology and some is due to the camera's power efficiency. I was lucky (again) here and managed to find a new/old stock (BNIB) Nikon EN-4, which worked really well.
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.
The rear of the D1, with original BM-1 LCD cover
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 shows a great deal of external wear. It's also common for some smaller parts to be missing, so if you're after a complete set for a collection check that the following items are included:
The DK-14 eye piece
Rear LCD screen cover - the original was opaque (black)
MH-16 battery charger
10-pin remote port cover
Sync terminal cover
The latter two items are mostly generic and easy to find, but the others can be difficult to source. As far as I can tell the newer DK-17 viewfinder seems to fit the D1 just 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, but both are rare as rocking horse shit now. I was extremely lucky to find a new/old stock of this official Nikon BM-1 LCD cover and EN-4 battery.
The Nikon D1 is a fascinating camera to use in 2023. If you're used to any Nikon DSLRs (especially the pro models), you'll feel right at home here. The buttons and dials remained largely consistent over two decades. The card release door, mode dial, rear LCD and the way you format the card, were all firmly established here. The build quality and design are almost as top notch as pros from later models have come to expect. Yes, the resolution and dynamic range are poor by today's standards, but they're probably not as bad as you've come to assume from years and years of "improvements".
It's obscure to think that something like the Nikon FM3A actually came out two years after the D1. Although this was actually a very advanced camera underneath (electronically & mechanically) it looks like something that would have come out many decades earlier.
Here are some more samples from the Nikon D1's photo shoot with squirrels (all taken with the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens). If this tells me anything, it's that lenses and sensor sizes are still the only thing that truly matter for pure image quality. Even looking through these samples on a 4k monitor it's not obvious that images from my modern mirrorless camera has twenty times the resolution and double the dynamic range! Sure I can spot the difference, but it's nowhere near what you would expect! You can compare these to the Sony A9, or Sony A1. Hmm, maybe I should revisit the Nikon D3 review, since I still have that camera in the display cabinet...
More D1 Shots
Some more shots of the D1 so you can appreciate the pretty design....