Retro Review: 23 years ago, Nikon’s groundbreaking D1 DSLR changed everything

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After a brief hiatus, Gordon Laing of Cameralabs is back with a new Retro Review, this time focused on Nikon’s landmark DSLR, the Nikon D1. First released in 1999, the D1 was the first DSLR Nikon designed and built by itself, following prior Nikon digital cameras built around Fujifilm bodies, like the Nikon E2 and E2S.

As Laing points out, the D1 also wasn’t the first DSLR on the market in general, nor the first to include a Nikon F-mount. Kodak released DSLRs using modified Nikon film SLR cameras, like the Kodak DCS 460, which has an industry-leading 6.2MP image sensor that had only a 1.3x crop, a minimal crop factor at the time. Granted, when that camera hit store shelves in 1995, it came with a $35,600 price tag, which is nearly $70,000 when adjusted for inflation.

The Kodak DSC 460 may not have been a Nikon camera, but it set in motion plans within Nikon headquarters to release a DSLR of its own, one at a much more affordable price point. Nikon’s E2-series, which had Fujifilm guts and smaller image sensors, weren’t quite satisfying pro users either. Nikon’s consumer-oriented Coolpix cameras, like the Coolpix 900 released in 1998, afforded Nikon a chance to refine its digital imaging technologies before it announced the D1 in September 1999. However, the D1 wasn’t readily available until 2000.

Nikon D1 image, straight from the camera. Image credit: Gordon Laing / Cameralabs

At $5,500 – nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars – the D1 wasn’t cheap, but it was within reach for professional photographers. The price also significantly undercut its competition at the time, the 2MP Kodak DSC series, which cost at least $12,000. In our review, we wrote, ‘The D1 is everything the professional photographer could need and a whole lot more, build quality is second to none, image quality is excellent with a few funnies which, as long as you know, you can work around.’

Nikon D1 image, straight from the camera. Image credit: Gordon Laing / Cameralabs

The Nikon D1 was undoubtedly good at the turn of the 21st century, but Laing wants to know, is it still good now, 23 years later? While the 2.7MP CCD sensor produces dated-looking images these days and delivers somewhat odd colors due to a lack of standardized color spaces and strange color processing, Laing was ‘struck by just how good it still felt and how quickly I could get shooting.’ Considering it was Nikon’s first in-house DSLR, the D1 was surprisingly refined in terms of design and operability. When doing his Retro Reviews, Laing often must contend with archaic controls and usability, but the D1 still feels decidedly Nikon.

Nikon D1 image, straight from the camera. Image credit: Gordon Laing / Cameralabs

The D1 broke a lot of new ground when it launched. The camera captured JPEG images at 4.5 frames per second with a 20-shot buffer, which was supremely quick at the time. It also shot 12-bit raw images. Considering its performance, price, design, and the rich catalog of F-mount lenses it used, the D1 wasn’t just a triumph for Nikon, it set into motion a significant change in the DSLR market. Along with Canon DSLRs like the 1D and D30, which were released after the Nikon D1, Kodak’s undisputed place at the top of the pro DSLR market was shaken. Kodak eventually pulled out of the DSLR market in 2004, and it’s impossible not to see the role the Nikon D1 played.

To read Laing’s full thoughts on the Nikon D1, read his Nikon D1 Retro Review. There you’ll find more photos and many more details about the D1. You can also see more of Laing’s videos on his YouTube channel, Dino Bytes.


All images courtesy of Gordon Laing / Cameralabs



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