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The Slow Passing Away of Nikon Color Modes

I've written before about Nikon's use of what they have come to call "Color Modes" to allow Nikon users to subtly tweak color rendition when shooting. If you've recently bought a D3 or D300, you may have noticed that Color Modes are gone from these new bodies. Yes, gone. Nikon really isn't explaining where they went and why, but I have a pretty good guess.

The original Nikon D1 digital SLR back in 1999 had no concept of color modes. Two years later, the new Nikon D1h and D1x featured Mode I and Mode II to allow users to have control over how colors were recorded in their images. Since these were really just different names for what those in the know called sRGB and Adobe RGB, it remains somewhat unclear to what extent Nikon was trying to avoid explaining color management to their users and how much was simply a concession to the limited space available in the menu system of such early camera bodies.

Either way, the story of Nikon color modes became increasingly convoluted with each new generation of camera. They added Mode III to keep Canon shooters quiet and respond to market demands for more saturated colors. They tweaked things further by adding even more color and an "a" to the end of the names of color modes used by consumer cameras such as the D70 while sticking to the basic I, II, III approach on pro bodies. Then came bodies such as the D2x where you could pick color modes independently from color spaces. While Mode II remained Adobe RGB only, no longer was Mode I tied to being sRGB.

All this while, Nikon tried to accommodate everybody post-capture in the digital darkroom with the controls offered in Nikon Capture. Even if your camera body didn't have Mode IIIa, you could convert to it using Capture. They hid this feature under "Advanced Raw" of course, and they still didn't have the color management aspect of this correct, but they were trying.

It was at this point that Nikon probably started realizing that they had made a mistake with this whole color mode thing. While the rest of the world standardized on color management, Nikon users had to contend not only with sRGB and Adobe RGB, but also with Mode I, II, IIIa and their ilk. By trying to make things easier they had ended up making them more complicated.

As they start to dig themselves out, we are now witnessing the slow but sure passing away of Nikon's use of Color Modes.

The Users Guide for the Nikon D70 dedicated an entire page to Color Modes, complete with reasonably good explanations. By the time the D200 came out, the subject of Color Modes had been relegated to a brief table and a footnote. It no longer even warranted a listing in the manual's index. The new Nikon D3 and D300 no longer even have color modes in the camera menus at all.

On the software front, Color Mode is still there in Capture NX, but in the latest release (version 1.3) it has migrated from the Base Camera adjustments to the new Picture Control menu where they sit along side a number of black and white modes. The in-camera choice for color mode is still honored for images shot on bodies that allow this, but now Nikon presents color mode in a way that works consistently for both old and new cameras.

Going forward, I would expect color modes to fade even farther into the background as more flexible ways of adjusting images take hold such as the Picture Control Shooting menu option and the new Retouch menu on the D300. Nikon Capture NX will probably still have I, II and III there somewhere since Nikon has a long history of doing what they can to support users of older models, but for most users color mode will fade into as much obscurity as did support for NTSC color space in the venerable D1 body.

By the way, those D3 and D300 users who miss the ability to pick Mode I, II and III in camera as they could with their previous Nikon body now have an answer as well. Nikon has made available Picture Control downloads for both new bodies to allow them to emulate the color mode options found on the D2x. Just pick the appropriate link below to Nikon's website and follow the directions to add these to your new camera:

These Picture Control downloads are entirely optional. You only need to to install one if you aren't ready to let go of color modes just yet.

Date posted: December 16, 2007


Copyright © 2007 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
The Story of Nikon Color Modes
Nikon Color Modes on Your Computer

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