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Nikon Digital Image Processing Technologies and the D200

As digital cameras continue to evolve rapidly a key player in the development of digital imaging technology, since the beginning of the digital imaging age and the launch of the Nikon D1 digital-SLR camera, discusses the enormous advances achieved from a developer's standpoint.

SHIBAZAKI, Kiyoshige
General Manager, 1st Development Department,
Development Management Department, Imaging Company
PROFILE:
Mr. Shibazaki's 23-year career in electronic imaging began in the 1980s with his development of video cameras—first for consumer use, then for ultra-high resolution steppers.  After accelerating the evolution of industrial analog high-definition cameras, he applied his expertise to the advent of electronic camera image processing and customized sensors.

The Nikon D1 camera transformed the standard wisdom of digital imaging.
The path to supreme image quality was paved with hardship.

We've looked forward to this opportunity to speak with you, Mr. Shibazaki, because you have been developing image sensors and imaging technologies for digital cameras since the birth of the electronic camera.  First, we would like to know a little about the development of the Nikon D1, considered at its release a revolutionary product.

SHIBAZAKI, Kiyoshige:

Development of the Nikon D1 began in 1996, based on our goal to create a camera capable of the highest performance by any standard, whether film or digital.  At that time, only the military and aerospace industries used image sensors that met the strictest performance standards possible.  We wanted to use such devices in products to be sold for just a few thousand dollars.  Can you imagine how difficult that was?

Do you mean it was difficult to settle on a price?

No.  We were unable to find a manufacturer.  None of them believed that a product using such high-performance sensors would sell in volumes of thousands of units per month.  Even when we did find a manufacturer that agreed to produce our image sensors, problems presented themselves even with the initial trial products.

What kind of problems?

For example, the trial product was a sensor requiring several watts of electricity.  Initially, we were sure that it would be impossible to power the sensor with a battery.  However, unable to wait until high-speed continuous shooting performance could be achieved with those specifications, we began developing circuitry for the sensor ourselves.  At first, we couldn't even drive the sensor, but by applying transmission line and distributed constant approaches to the drive circuitry, and with elaborate wiring patterns, we finally succeeded.  I accumulated the technological know-how needed to achieve this while overseeing development of industrial analog high-definition cameras in the early 1990s.

Weren't the technologies used in industrial high-definition cameras useful for digital still cameras?

Of course.  In fact, the D1 employed the same circuitry used in industrial high-definition cameras.  Actually, I think that it was these technologies that made it possible for us to release the first truly professional-class digital-SLR camera a full one-and-a-half years before our competitors.

I see.

Nikon image sensors continue to make history in the field of digital photography.

This was just one example of the sort of difficulties we faced.  You can imagine, then, how excited I was when I saw the first beautiful image produced by our image sensor.  I was so very proud of our success in developing that first image sensor.

Did it take long to finally succeed in powering the image sensor?

Yes, it took about two years.  After that, we worked to ensure stability and high quality with mass production.  Our primary concern was with the size of our image sensor.  It was so big that we really began to doubt ourselves.  “We've never produced such a big sensor…”, “Will we be able to power this sensor?” and “I don't think Nikon has this kind of drive technology” were the reservations running through our minds until all those cooperating in the development of the sensor saw the images it produced.  Everyone concerned was so enthusiastic that our doubts quickly disappeared.

So, the D1 had the power to move people even before its release!

It would seem so.  After its release, things definitely took a turn for the better.  Those in the market had the faith in Nikon to believe that we could sell the image sensors themselves.  This certainly made development of our next large image sensor much easier because suppliers became more willing to satisfy our specific requests.  This was a huge step forward for us because at that time, the biggest problem in digital-SLR camera development was the lack of sensors that met the necessary demands.  Looking back, I now remember what at the time seemed like a path of hardship as a great learning experience.

I guess that it's now safe to reveal that the D1 image sensor, with specifications noting a pixel count of 2.7-million pixels, actually had a pixel count of 10.8-million pixels.  The technical reason for an actual pixel count four times greater than that indicated publicly lies in the need to achieve high sensitivity and a good signal-to-noise ratio.  Unlike current cameras, for which final pixel counts account for individual pixels, we had to include multiple pixels in each pixel unit with the D1.  In short, our development of an image sensor with so many pixels at such an early stage in the history of digital cameras indicates the importance placed on SLR camera development at Nikon.  Keeping all of this in mind, our ability to offer high-speed drive technology that made five frame-per-second shooting of 10.8-million pixel images possible is something I am truly proud of.

Digital imaging has progressed dramatically in six years.
Accumulated technologies have supported this growth.

Your hard work was rewarded by the great sensation that the D1 created. Did your substantial expansion of the product lineup following release of the D1 mean that you had no time to rest?

Absolutely.  The first big challenge we had to tackle after release of the D1 was improving image-processing technology developed for video cameras for use in still-image processing.  We initially applied video camera image circuitry and image processing technologies to still cameras without any change.  This resulted in images that looked like a single frame from a movie rather than an actual photograph.  We found that for still camera image processing, we had to develop parameters and algorithms different from those used for movies.  Actually, we had received many comments and requests regarding the quality of images captured with the Nikon D1, which utilized image processing that was based on the technology used in movies.  For example, we received indications that faithful color reproduction was very difficult with the D1, which utilized the NTSC*1 color space standard used primarily in video.

  • *1National Television Standards Committee; a television broadcasting image signal system generally used in the U.S. and Japan

I thought that the Nikon D1 had a good reputation for its wide color gamut.

It did.  Professional photographers especially appreciated it. But honestly, we cannot say that it was user-friendly, since there isn't much in the way of digital imaging equipment or software that supports the NTSC video standard.  Still, I think that the adoption of the NTSC color space was worthwhile because it helped spread awareness regarding color space (laughter).  Until release of the D1, few people understood the difficulties involved in faithfully reproducing colors with RGB data, the data used for color images.  After the release of the D1, people began to recognize the importance of specifying RGB type for faithful color reproduction.  Discussion regarding color space was widespread throughout the market until the launch of the D1H and the D1X.

It seems that there was a great deal of trial and error just in dealing with color reproduction.

The expressive power of digital photography grows with each advance in Nikon technology.

Yes.  It was not easy to develop something new.  But the result of our trials and errors is that more and more of the world can be expressed with digital still cameras.  For example, we often hear mountains described as being blue in literature.  This comes from a phenomenon in which the atmosphere's spectro-penetrating characteristics cause tall mountains to appear more blue the farther away they are.  Precise tuning of imaging parameters now makes it possible for digital cameras to express this phenomenon.  I feel a great reward for all of our struggles whenever we realize such achievements.

Digital expression.  That sounds exciting.

Numerous possibilities are emerging, not only in color reproduction, but in other areas, as well.  For example, a well-known photographer took a picture of a snow-covered mounted with the Nikon D2X.  The main feature of the image is the remarkable contrast, very difficult to capture with a film camera, between the sunlit snow and the shadows of the trees.  The D2X, though, did an excellent job of capturing this contrast.  It even managed to reproduce light reflected off of individual snowflakes!  This photograph is one of my personal favorites, but the photographer's comment regarding the picture made me feel truly proud to be a developer of Nikon digital-SLR cameras; “It would have been impossible to take this picture with a film camera.  Only the D2X digital camera could inspire me to attempt this photo.”

Has the image quality available with current digital-SLR cameras advanced significantly since the Nikon D1?

Most definitely.  The Nikon D2X captures portraits so sharp that you can see the camera's Nikon logo reflected in the subject's eye when the image is enlarged!  It has been six years since the D1 was released. The difference in quality of images taken with the D1 and the D2X is patently obvious with side-by-side comparisons.  I think it is clear that our six-year accumulation of technology has definitely advanced the possibilities available with digital imaging.