Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
D1x: Nikon's flagship 5.33 megapixel digital SLR
by Vivid Light Staff

Nikon D1xOverview
It's a little before 6AM in Rockport Mass. A damp cold wind is blowing steadily off the ocean onto the bow of the lobster boat I'm shooting. The temperature is finally climbing up into the high 30s. For the last hour I've been telling myself that if I don't think about the cold I'll forget about it but my fingers are telling me I'm a friggin' nuts. My body just hasn't adjusted to this winter stuff yet.

But what's really on my mind is the fact that shooting with a D1x is just like, well, shooting with any other pro camera. A fact that is pretty startling for a digital camera. So much so that I'm beginning to think there may finally be a permanent place for a digital in my camera bag (well maybe if a spare six grand shows up in my wallet). One of the things that has me convinced is that I'm shooting the D1x side by side with an F100 (to get matching comparison images) and switching between the two cameras is virtually seamless.

Nikon D1xThe D1x operates just like any pro film camera. All the tactile cues are there - the way the dials work, the way the lens mounts, the feel of the shutter, and the sound of the shutter all feel right. Many digital cameras simply feel foreign in the hands of an experienced photographer. I remember reading an article by one pundit who claimed  digital would be liberating. You could change every part of the camera's controls because you weren't married to the limits of the film SLR design. But what we've discovered is that many of these so called "improvements" actually made cameras harder or less satisfying to use. There is a reason SLRs grew to work the way they do and their shapes have been sculpted by utility. Hence the movement to make digitals more like SLRs. With the D1x the transition between digital and film is nearly seamless.

Nikon D1xOne very pleasant surprise with this camera was learning that in most situations you can trust it's meter. With many digitals photographers wind up doing a lot of "chimping" - flipping the camera over and checking the LCD between every shot (watch someone do this and you'll understand the reference to looking like a chimp). Photographers get into this habit for two reasons: first because they can, second because they've learned to be a bit suspicious of their meters. 

The D1x uses Nikon's 3D matrix metering with a 1,005 pixel RGB color meter (from the F5) that is extremely accurate in in most situations and gives you three metering modes to choose from; 3D matrix, center weighted, and spot. You can choose to shoot in Program, aperture or shutter priority and you can dial-in plus or minus 5 stops of exposure compensation in 1/3rd or 1/2 stop increments.

Nikon D1xIn Salem we came across an old church converted to a private residence for someone with "unique" architectural tastes. The church had been painted black, it's stained glass blacked out. Four large black gargoyles were placed on the steps. In open shade the D1X had no problem correctly metering the black gargoyles against the black doors to maintain detail in both. The same was true in the soft morning light with the lobster boats and in bright sunlight later in the day. 

Where the meter did show a bias was in strongly backlit scenes where it tended towards under exposure - even in spot meter mode. We found that a full stop to a stop and a half exposure compensation was necessary to get proper exposure with one particular strongly backlit subject. As we became more familiar with the camera we found that strong backlighting was the one time when we really needed to use the LCD to check exposure otherwise we had faith in the meter. Where we bracketed exposures we found that the meter's original reading was best. 

We had a similar experience with the auto white balance control. The D1x evaluates information from the color meter along with information from the CCD to measure the color temperature of the available light. From that information it sets what it feels is the optimum white balance. We found this system worked well in almost all conditions we shot under. Almost because it didn't always detect indoor lighting correctly, requiring the photographer to switch over to the incandescent setting manually.

Focus speed and tracking were fast and accurate as expected. The D1X uses the same Multi-CAM 1300 focus system that has been well tested and proven in the D1, F5 and F100. Focus tracking was unperturbed when stationary objects came between the camera and the subject even when shooting in low light.

All this technology conspires to capture a sharp, correctly exposed 5.33 megapixel image. 5.33 megapixels translates into a 3,008 x 1,960 pixel image. More than enough resolution for magazine work, including full and multi-page spreads. Teamed with Genuine Fractals, images from the D1x can be blown up to 11x14 and even wall size prints with stunning results. At these resolutions it starts to become impossible to tell if the origin of the image was digital or film. 

Nikon D1x

Images can be captured and stored as JPEG, TIFF, or NEF files. NEF is Nikon's proprietary raw data file format. The D1x is bundled with a PhotoShop compatible plug-in that allows you to bring NEF files directly into your image editing program (a somewhat slow process). But the real power of raw files can only be exploited if you purchase the optional Nikon Capture 2 software (more on that later).

Interestingly the CCD actually captures 5.47 megapixels of data to create the 5.33 megapixel image. The additional information is used for metering and image quality control. Speaking of image quality, Nikon has gone through this camera from top to bottom eliminating any areas where noise might creep into the image during long exposures. The result is nearly noise free night images even at ISO 800.

Nikon D1x
Nikon D1x

One question that comes up a lot is whether the difference in effective focal length is an issue when shooting with digital SLRs. Because the CCD is smaller than the size of a 35mm frame the effective focal length is 1.5x the actual focal length of the lens. In other words a 20mm lens on the D1X is the equivalent of shooting with a 30mm lens and a 300mm lens is the equivalent of shooting with a 450mm lens. In actual use it simply ceases to be an issue provided you already have a lens or lenses to cover the super-wide focal lengths. If not you'll want to add one to your arsenal for use with the D1X.

User controls are, as we said, straightforward. The top deck is virtually the same as the F100 with controls for exposure compensation, flash, and ISO clearly visible. The most used functions are controlled by the now familiar combination of pressing a button while turning a control dial. Less used digital functions are controlled using menu buttons located behind a small metal door on the back of the camera under the LCD. These buttons bring up a menu on the LCD that you navigate using the touch pad and buttons to control settings such as image quality, white balance, sharpness, and saturation. If you've ever used a digital camera before you can navigate around the D1x's menus and only rarely need to go back to the manual for confirmation on controls. 

Image previews are obtained by pressing the preview button just above the LCD which now shows 100% of the captured image.

The D1x is bundled with a single EN-4 NiMH battery and a MH-16 charger. Additional EN-4 batteries are available as well as the MH-17 car charger. We found battery life with the D1x to be a virtual non-issue and when the battery indicator showed signs that the battery was getting low, 90 minutes on the charger (often less) brought it back up to full charge.

The standard flash for the D1x is the SB-28DX. This flash is functionally identical to the SB28 when used with any of Nikon's non-digital cameras. But the DX version is required for 3D Multi-sensor balanced fill flash with the D1x and D1h. This flash also provides a speedy 1/8000th of a second flash sync speed. Also compatible with the D1 series of cameras is the compact SB-50 DX flash. We would expect that all new Nikon flashes introduced from here on will be DX flashes, compatible with both film and digital SLRs.

Nikon D1xWhen using one of these two flashes, the D1x uses a five-segment TTL multi-sensor to read a series of monitor pre-flashes off the shutter's gray surface. Programmed reflectance values are compared to the flash reading in order to determine the subject's reflectance and compensate for potential over or under exposure. The D1x allows you to vary both exposure and flash exposure to get the desired image.

The camera is bundled with Nikon View 4.0 for reading images directly from memory cards or from the camera itself using firewire (IEEE 1394). This software allows you to view image thumbnails and move files off the memory card directly onto disk. Additionally Nikon offers software called Capture 2. This software allows you to work directly with raw mode files. The advantage here is that many of the digital settings (such as white balance, and tone) are applied to the image after it is captured. The raw mode file captures the original image as it was captured by the CCD with the camera settings included in the file format. The Capture 2 software allows you to manipulate these settings hours, days, or years after the image is captured, and perhaps, after you have a better understanding of the effects of these settings. This utility doesn't come cheap however. The Capture 2 software has a list price of $225. Given the list price of the camera and the immense utility of the software you do wonder why Nikon didn't simply include it with the D1x.

A potential downside for many photographers is the cost of the camera. List is $6,300 and we found street prices averaging around $5,500 with prices as low as $5,350 being fairly common. While that sounds pretty pricey at first blush you have to consider the fact that you are, in effect, eliminating film costs. Let's say your average cost for film and processing for a roll of slide film is $12. Assuming a cost of $5,500 that means the D1X pays for itself after about 460 rolls of film. If you're shooting 38 rolls a month, not a lot for many pros, that means the D1X pays for itself in the first year (not including the cost of additional memory cards).

Nikon D1x The experience of using the D1X is more like using a "camera" than any other digital we've tried so far. It's chief competitors will be the new Canon 1D. Which camera appeals to you the most will probably depend to a great degree on what system you're currently using.

If you're a working pro the economy and practicality of the D1X are immediately obvious. It looks, feels and handles like a high end SLR which shortens the learning curve in moving to digital; and the ability to have what is in effect post processing control can be nothing short of a Godsend if the worst happens. That's why we can say that even at $6,000 the new generation of digital cameras and the D1X in particular are a bargain.



SB-28DX AF TTL SpeedlightSB-28DX AF TTL Speedlight

We also got the chance to try out the SB-28DX with the D1X. There are really no surprises here for anyone who has used Nikon's current top of the line SB-28 flash. Externally it is virtually the same unit except for the color of the buttons - a useful visual cue if you're carrying both units in your bag as we were. The instructions included with the flash are even SB-28 instructions!

Used with film cameras such as the N80 or F5 the SB-28DX functions identically to the SB-28. Used with the D1x or D1h however the SB-28DX allows you to use 3D Multi-Sensor balanced fill flash - unavailable with the either of the D1 cameras and a standard SB-28. For those of you unfamiliar with the SB-28 here is a short summary of it's features:

  • 3D Multi-sensor balanced fill flash with monitor pre-flash with compatible Nikon bodies using D lenses.
  • Multi-sensor balanced fill flash, Matrix balanced fill flash, TTL and manual flash modes supported.
  • Slow sync, rear curtain sync, and red eye reduction modes with compatible camera bodies.
  • 1/4000th of a second high speed flash sync with film cameras, and 1/8000th of a second flash sync with D1 series cameras
  • AF assist illuminator LED to assist focus in up to total darkness.
  • Repeating flash mode
  • Auto zoom head from 24mm to 85mm and flash diffuser for use with wide angle lenses.
  • Built in bounce card
  • Tilt/rotate flash head
  • Recycle time approximately 4 to 7.5 seconds depending on power source

Power: Four AA batteries or optional power pack
Guide Number:

Subscribe to Vivid Light 
Photography by email 













Vivid Light Photography, monthly photography magazine online

Site search Web search

Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online