Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Nikon D1 "The Brick" Experience

A personal experience report by Uwe Steinmueller @photodotcom


You find our review methodology (or lack of :-)) here.


First this is a very personal view on the Nikon D1 with all it's strength and weaknesses. Now after 4 months and 4500 photos is time to summarize the experience and help those who might share our (my wife's Bettina and mine) goals on photography. You will not see any test charts, manual copies or numbers. Instead some photos you might like or not.

Our photographic work is shown in this gallery. If you don't like anything in that gallery you might not find that much interesting information in this review. As you can see in the galleries we mostly (could say exclusively use existing light) and work outdoors. Our skills in handling with flash are very poor as we never trained it.

My opening essay @photodotcom was "My Road to Digital Photo Heaven/Hell". It shows how the Nikon Coolpix 950 brought back my love to photography, the Nikon LS2000 film scanner a sense of quality in the digital arena and later the F100 the good feel of a modern SLR with AF and excellent metering. Quality wise I was very happy with the F100/LS2000 combination. But even with the addition of the SF-200 slide feeder the scanning process remains painfully time consuming. During a brief one week vacation I produced about 400 slides and at that moment I realized that the scanning process is making some trouble. At the time I got the LS2000 and later the F100 the D1 was pretty new and I thought also much to expensive. But there was also the fact that I found it too big. That is why I called it "The Brick" (I don't find it to be brick anymore).

You will also realize that this review is also closely bound to Bibble as our better skills and the involvement of Bibble brought us where we are today with the D1.


Getting Started

Los Gatos ParotEnd of March we ordered the D1 with 1 IBM Microdrive, a second battery and no Nikon Capture (I thought it was part of the kit but as we now know it was not). In parallel we ordered also 2 other Microdrives. We were aware of potential problems with the Microdrives (and we had our share). But 3 drives was the bare minimum I assumed to be necessary for one day of photographing as using the NEF format was clearly on my list. Bibble and Qimage were even on my PC before the D1 arrived. As you can expect I played around with the different formats the first couple of days.

The parrot shown here was a plain "JPG fine" shot with my Nikon AF 28-105 f/3.5-4.5 lens. But from some more theoretic insight (theoretic at that time) I believed that NEF files were the way to go. And if you have followed the improvements Bibble and Qimage made the last 4 months you could see that it was not that obvious at that time to bet on NEF files. Especially as these file take a lot of space on the Microdrive and also time to write to the disk. On the other side I learned from Silverfast HDR how much more you can do with 16 bit (real 12 bits) image information. That is why I mostly used Bibble as it provided the 16 bit advantage. A lot of time just was spent (wasted ?) to get as good as JPGs with the NEF files and Bibble. There are some files from April that I can now convert to a better level of quality than ever before with Bibble 1.09. Don't think of really huge differences but some which count for me. This is because of my experience that once you get into the color correction game in PS you easily get lost.

In our early photographic days (20 years ago with our F2s) we were mostly focussed on landscape and architecture. Here in California we were caught by so much wildlife (especially birds) that this got a lot of our attention.

Getting longer and better Glass

It is no secret that a 105mm lens (even 155mm with the 1.5 multiplier) is not very much for birds and also that birds are pretty demanding in fast focussing. Our 70-300 was slow and not really a great performer. I read that the AF-S 80-200 f/2.8 (makes it an effective 120-300mm on the D1) had a great reputation. $1600 for one lens and that after just spending much money for the D1? I made test shots with that beast and also with the Sigma competition. Interesting Bettina (she always tries to be more reasonable with my spending although she shares our love for photography) did not want to make a compromise. She wanted to stay with Nikon (color and contrast consistency) so we swallowed the pill and got the AF-S 80-200 f/2.8. Now I love that lens very, very much and shoot about 70% of my photos with that lens. Lesson 1: don't just plan for the body also plan for good glass. The D1 is capable to show the differences!

Dust, Dust everywhere

We enjoyed using the tele lens and tested it on a tour to Highway 1 (one of our regular weekend trips). But the photo of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse also made us very nervous as it showed some spots we did not know what it could be. I had read about dust on the CCD but could not believe it hits me just 460 photos on the road. Dust spots (not only one) like this here (original size) were visible in the sky. Fortunately such spots are not really visible in darker parts of the photo and as in this case can be corrected using Photoshops cloning tool. I tried the cleaning method recommended by Nikon in the D1 manual and it brought only very little relief. Lesson 2: You have to live with the dust on the CCD and thus to avoid lens changes as much as possible. There are other cleaning methods which some people recommend. I cannot and will not discuss these as they all might void the Nikon warranty (and please don't ask me about it). Dust is for me the problem #1 with the D1 and I have learned to live with it. Lesson 2a: Be very, very careful if you think you need to use canned air (not supported by Nikon as can get liquid to the CCD), I talk about my own experience!

Getting even longer Glass

300mm sounds a lot but once you see the distant birds, seals or otters this is not that much. What to do? I got a TC-20e tele extender and that makes it 600mm. I did not not know at that time that you get some problems with DOF (depth of field). I knew that the aperture got 2 stops down to 5.6 but not that it still had the DOF of a 2.8 equivalent. I think the TC-20e is an amazing peace of glass for an extender but be prepared that your quality is quite below the native 200 and probably other longer prime lenses. So for now it will be kind of a compromise for me. That is why we also got the TC-14E converter where both quality degradation and DOF not that problem. I think that is physics and we have to accept that. Bettina and I discussed a lot about getting a 300mm or even 500mm. We would like to have that range but the price and even more size and weight will prevent us from buying one of these lenses. We want to carry our equipment for longer walks and still enjoy the nature. So we have to be patient and find Sea Otters which are closer to us (we accept the limitation of our lenses). For the support of the 80-200mm lens I use a Slik Pro-Pro monopod with Linhof quick releases. The Slik is kind of heavy side but stable and of good height. Lesson 3: If you have an AF-S tele lens spend the money for a TC-14E. Lesson 3a: The TC-20E degrades your image quality.

NEF or not to NEF?

There are situations where there is no other choice then to use "JPG fine" files. If you need speed in capturing images (e.g. sports) and if you cannot afford the time required to convert NEF files. If quality of the photo is your main goal I would only use NEF files. Here are some Bibble highlights:

  • WB correction

  • exposure correction

  • 16bit

  • different tone curves

  • batch processing

  • comes with a Photoshop plug-in

  • Runs on Macs (I use a PC with NT4 and a calibrated monitor)

and the next Bibble will be even more powerful. It is very interesting that recently I don't feel very much urge to perform any color corrections (except a bit enhancing the saturation), all I do is adjusting the WB (white balance). Our cameras are mostly set to CLOUDY as I was not that successful with WB PRESET and would forget to set it most of the time. And Bibble allows me not so much to worry about this critical issue anymore. I corrected once a photo of a squirrel (outdoors) from "Incandescent" to "Cloudy" and that worked (great job Eric!).

At the moment the main drawback with Bibble is that it could be a bit faster (Nikon Capture is slow too).

To discuss issues about NEF conversion we created the NEF conversion forum.

Lesson 4: Dealing with NEF files is worth the trouble but it also takes its time and experience. Lesson 4a: Get Bibble or Qimage Lesson 4b: You might not need Nikon Capture (although it is probably a better than its reputation).

D1 on the Road

As the NEF files need a lot of space the D1 is a challenge on the road. Our solution is covered here.

Are we happy with the D1?

Hard to say:

1. Bibble made me lot more happy with this instrument

2. I always want more!

3. I don't think the same photos with film would be better

4. Our capabilities as photographers are more limiting than the D1 itself.

5. I do not see a practical alternative

6. We have now two D1s

7. Our photos are now a good basis to improve on.

8. Do I want a D2? Yes, but we are not in a hurry. What we learn now can be used whatever the next camera is called.


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