Pixels and Protocol

"How can you review a Nikon camera without mentioning that the company is now encrypting its photo files? Nikon apparently thinks that my work belongs to THEM, not to me! If they someday decide to change the format, they can hold my photos hostage forever!"

OK, whoa. What?

Warning: Wiggling toward the truth of this tale involves very technical language, eye-glazing terminology and a whole lot of overheated emotion.

Thomas Knoll, co-author of the original Photoshop, ignited the firestorm on an Adobe bulletin board a couple of weeks ago. "Nikon made a significant change with the Nikon D2X and D2Hs cameras," he wrote, referring to two popular professional models (costing $5,000 and $3,500, respectively). "They decided to ENCRYPT the white balance data inside the NEF file for these cameras."

The English translation of this shocking statement requires a few more sentences, but it goes something like this: Most expensive digital cameras can save files in a format, called RAW, that's white-hot in the photographic community these days. When you transfer a RAW file to a computer and open it in a program like Photoshop, you can miraculously "reshoot" it with different exposure, sharpening, white balance and other settings. (That's because a RAW file contains all of the original camera-sensor data, before it's been processed and compressed into the more common JPEG files.)

The trouble is, there is no one standard RAW format. Each camera maker — and even each individual model — produces a different RAW flavor. (Nikon doesn't even call them RAW files; it calls them NEF files.)

It's the never-ending task of software companies like Adobe, therefore, to keep their software updated as new camera models come along. (No wonder Adobe is promoting a single universal standard called the digital negative format, or DNG, which would offer the same advantages of RAW files but eliminate this Tower of Babel effect. So far, few major camera makers have embraced the idea.)

Nikon admits that it has encrypted parts of its RAW format in the D2X and D2H (as well as the upcoming $900 D50 model) — including the white-balance data. (White balancing is when a camera compensates for the color cast in a photo, correcting it for the differences in lighting conditions: sunlight, overcast, indoor incandescent, and so on.) "We built certain levels of protection into those files to protect proprietary intellectual property about how our cameras work," says a Nikon rep. "It's an industry-wide practice. All other camera manufacturers offer varying levels of protection."

That may be true, says Kevin Connor, Adobe's director of product management. "But this is the first time we've encountered encryption on a major camera that we didn't have help from the manufacturer on working around."

So who cares?

People who use Photoshop, for starters. Without knowing how a Nikon photo's data is structured, Adobe is forced to improvise, writing its own auto-white-balance algorithms into Photoshop. "Sometimes it's better; sometimes, it might be worse," says Mr. Connor. "But it's not what people expect. You can still go in and adjust it to get the right result. If you're experienced, great. But others might not know which way to drag the sliders. You have to do more work."

Some photographers are accusing Nikon of implementing this encryption as a way to boost sales of Nikon's own, extra-cost RAW editing software, which is not, ahem, best known for its speed.

Nikon protests that it has offered Adobe, and everyone else, a solution. "We offer an SDK [software developer's kit] that's available to any legitimate software company, including Adobe."

Unfortunately, using Nikon's SDK it isn't a palatable option for Adobe. "It does give you consistency, so anyone using that SDK will get exactly the same results," says Mr. Connor. "But it doesn't let us add extra controls — like highlight recovery, a Photoshop feature. By using all our own algorithms, we can offer some different controls, as well as consistency across all RAW formats."

If all this sounds like a lot of technical babble, the emotional outcry among professional shutterbugs is much easier to understand. "WAKE UP IDIOTS!!!! You're allowing Nikon to hold your data hostage into the future! " writes one shocked customer. "It's a tax to control a Nikon purchaser. Do not buy Nikon pro devices until this is reversed," writes another.

The reaction seems a bit overblown. You can still open these camera files in Photoshop or several other RAW editors, and you can still adjust the white balance; you just lose the "as shot" setting as a starting point.

Nikon's sole public response has been a weirdly worded statement that acknowledged none of its customers' unhappiness and defended its own actions. The company seems to have missed the lesson of, say, the Tylenol and Intel disasters: Once a PR disaster blows up in your face, you don't stand firm and say, "You consumers don't know what you're talking about" (even if they actually don't). What you do is cave in and fix the problem.

I was delighted to hear that, only two days ago, Adobe and Nikon were, at last, on the phone with each other to discuss a way out of this mess. May the pixel gods smile on their conversation.

Full product information on the Nikon D70.

Full product information on the Canon Digital Rebel .

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