The 20 Year Anniversary

June 15th marked the twenty-year anniversary of Nikon's announcement of the D1, the camera that most feel kicked off the DSLR era. The camera actually didn't ship to customers until early 2000, but a number of us got a chance to use it briefly in 1999.

Upon initially handling the D1—despite its many modal UI flaws (all fixed in the D1h)—I knew that the serious photography world was about to change.

Yes, I'm well aware of and even used some of the Kodak SLR conversions and the Nikon/Fujifilm E2 experiment in the 90's. I don't dismiss those products, but it was clear with the D1 that something different was about to happen: a new era of cameras you would find in every camera store and which carried on the mantel from the SLR bodies. 

It's illustrative to look at the specifications of that original D1 to see just how far we've come.

  • 2000 x 1312 megapixel images (3mp). 
  • A top ISO of 1600 (base of 200). 
  • An APS-C sized CCD image sensor producing 12 bits per photosite. 
  • A 2" LCD with 130k dots. 
  • A claimed top frame rate of 4.5 fps. 
  • The F5 autofocus system. 
  • All for US$5500. 

That frame rate turned out to be not quite true with the then current CompactFlash cards, particularly with the old Microdrive cards. Plus the buffer really worked out to be less than a dozen raw images (less than two dozen JPEGs). 

Still, as limiting as those specifications might seem today, for photojournalists in particular there was clear promise here, to the point that the D1 really changed serious photography as we knew it very quickly. 

Canon shot low, with the consumer D30 DSLR as their first effort in 2000, and feeling a bit rushed to market at that (sound familiar here in the mirrorless transition?). Nikon shot high, with the D1 being followed by the very solid D1h, D1x in early 2001 and the also serious D100 in early 2002. Canon responded with the 1D—featuring a stitched sensor from a non-Canon source, again a sign of rush—in 2001 and the 1Ds in 2002. Those six cameras pretty much were the kick-in-the-butt that blasted the DSLR era into high growth and killed the SLR.

I note that dpreview gave the D1 a Highly Recommended rating in its review. I didn't. I declared the D1 as being too modal and likely to trigger you to miss shots. It wasn't until the D1h came along that I could recommend to others that the DSLR era had truly arrived with a highly usable camera.

So twenty years on, what have we gotten from the DSLR iteration highway?

  • A transition from CCD to CMOS. That didn't come without complaint. Both semiconductor approaches have their pluses and minuses. That said, anyone in the silicon business knew that CMOS was going to be the winner if you could address its (then) image quality  shortcomings. That's because of the ability in CMOS to address cells individual and to add additional electronics into the image sensor itself, things we have in spades in today's cameras, and which make them better.
  • More and better pixels. A lot of people don't know that the original D1/D1h were actually 10.4mp sensors. Say what? Nikon took some Sony Semiconductor pixel technology and had them bin it! An individual pixel in the D1/D1h was actually four sub pixels binned together. The D1x saw a different binning approach, with only two horizontal pixels binned together. When people today talk about the camera makers being beat to the punch in computational photography by the smartphones, that's not exactly true. That D1x in 2001 used computational methods to build JPEG images that were bereft of short axis pixel information yet still looked quite good. That's because of computational work done in the imaging ASIC chip of the D1x.
  • Bigger and better LCDs. One of the primary benefits of the digital camera was its ability to let you immediately review what you just shot and evaluate if you need to change a setting or shoot again. As I've written before, this was one of the things that, once discovered by consumers, triggered the rapid change from SLR to DSLR. It's kind of amazing that this was clear even with a 2" display that only had 160k dots (today's screens are typically a minimum of 3" and a minimum of 1m dots, so larger and much more detailed).
  • More images faster and for longer periods of time. The D1 was effectively a 4 fps camera with a 2.5 second buffer (and remember, this is for a top-end professional camera). Today the D5—despite the extra megapixels and bit depth—is a fully functional 12 fps with a 17 second buffer. I remember clearly the first time I was on the football sidelines with a new deep buffer Nikon body standing next to a bunch of Canon shooters and I just decided to hold down the shutter release (as you all well know, I don't shoot long bursts to "save my butt," but am much more selective about timing and bursts). Every Canon user's head turned my direction in disbelief. That's basically where we are today with current cameras: anyone using an old one is going to wonder how it is that you're still shooting, should you care to fill you card up.

Looking at a D1 today, you see that the D5 isn't all that far from it, other than the things I just mentioned. Sure, Nikon added some additional controls (e.g. the thumb stick) and buttons, and changed card formats. But the bones and muscular structure are all there and are still being inherited today. Indeed, the D5 is really just another continuation of the all-electronic design Nikon put forth with the F5 in the 1990's. The things that weren't broken weren't fixed. Things that were missing were added. A few things have been fleshed out and made better.

You'll note that most of the changes and benefits we've gotten in the 20 years post D1 are internal. Indeed, that's something to consider in these days of transition from DSLR to mirrorless. 

Anyone who has been involved with the technology industry knows that the primary thrust in true tech product change comes from the silicon inside (and by inference, the software). That's because there are huge benefits to reaping the results of Moore's Law to combine, group, and simplify into fewer and fewer components that can be mass produced and assembled using automation. 

We got all the major changes in the DSLR I outlined above because of semiconductor advancement (yes, even the LCD addition). The transition that's going on right now in ILC is mostly a logical continuation of that. Mirrorless cameras remove most of the mechanical parts from DSLRs and put more emphasis on parts that can be mass produced on automated machines. The good news is that the constant push in semiconductor technology continues and will result in even more happening inside our cameras (see my other article today on where cameras are headed).

I haven't run into anyone lately still using a D1 era camera (e.g. the D1h). I have encountered one recently who was still shooting a D2Hs. And I still see quite a few dragging D3's around. D4's are almost as common as D5's when I look around the events I shoot at. 

Which tells another story about this anniversary: while we've had 20 years where Nikon (and Canon) has put out new and better iterations every four years, our DSLRs have proven to be long-lived even as the potential technology inside started to pass them by. I fully expect to see folk still shooting D500, D850, and D5 cameras (and similar Canons) four years from now. 

So happy birthday, D1. It's been a long and wonderful journey you started us on.

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