Restoring Nikon NEF Thumbnails Under Windows XP Service Pack 2
Windows XP has a lot of nice features for digital photographers. Many are geared more towards amateurs than serious shooters, but it does support true color management, and the thumbnail image previews in Explorer's folder views are quite handy. As a Nikon user, I've grown accustomed to having Windows thumbnails of NEF RAW files courtesy of having installed Nikon View and Nikon Capture.
Installing Windows XP Service Pack 2 changed all that though — gone were the thumbnails for NEF files. Previewing other image files remains as it was, but it was the NEF thumbnails that mattered most to me. Searching online confirmed that I was not alone in feeling this loss after installing Microsoft's latest upgrade. People had contacted both Microsoft and Adobe and both are apparently "working on it," but no solutions were forthcoming.
Having experience programming, I decided to do a bit of rummaging in the Windows registry to see what I could find. Anyone familiar with this spaghetti maze of configuration settings can relate to what I was up against, but short of uninstalling Service Pack 2 I figured I didn't have anything to lose. It's probably my duty at this point to remind you that you should never directly edit the Windows registry, or if you do, to be sure you back things up before hand. You have been warned. Anyway, long story short, I couldn't figure it out. If I merely renamed a NEF file to have an extension of .tif instead of .nef, the thumbnails magically appeared, but something was keeping them hidden when the file had the correct name.
I was able to find a rather interesting registry hack that permitted you to get NEF thumbnails without even needing Nikon View or Capture, so long as you also did not have Service Pack 2 installed. If you merely create a key called ".nef" and add an entry called "PerceivedType" with a value of "image," Windows would happily display thumbnails for NEF files. Not that this probably does any good since it doesn't work with Service Pack 2.
In terms of helpful solutions, I have found two.
The first answer I came up with was NEFView from Softwhile. This $10 shareware program does a nice job of giving you back the missing thumbnails in the Thumbnail view as well as the larger preview in the Details section of the List view of Windows Explorer. Basic EXIF data such as shutter speed, f/stop and ISO are displayed by popup tooltips when you hover your mouse over a NEF file. All in all, a good solution to the problem and one that avoids mucking about in the registry trying to fix things yourself. Having spent more than the $10 purchase price in time and frustration trying to find a way to fix things, NEFView was a welcome find.
Then I found a program called dpMagic (Digital Picture Magic) from UCE Systems. It comes in two versions, the so called Community Edition and dpMagic Plus. The Community Edition is completely free and provides the same functionality as NEFView with the exception of tooltip EXIF data. In addition to supporting Nikon NEF files though, it also gives you thumbnail support for most other types of digital camera RAW files including Fuji RAF, Canon CRW and CR2, Kodak KDC and DCR, Minolta MRW, Olympus ORF, Pentax PEF and Sigma X3F files. Mind you, I don't have files of most of these types so I haven't extensively tested them, but I can confirm it does a good job of supporting NEF. For $9.95 you can upgrade to dpMagic Plus to get shutter speed, f/stop, focal length and other basic EXIF data in popup tooltips, a control panel applet to configure various settings, a slide show mode and various other goodies. If you right-click on a NEF file and select Properties, it gives you a new "Digital Picture Information" tab with more extensive EXIF data and a color histogram display. The thumbnails themselves read the embedded jpeg put their by Nikon so they display just fine, but I should warn you that the slide show and histogram display read the actual raw data and seem to be based on the "as shot" data without applying any of the changes to white balance or other settings you may have made in Nikon Capture or Adobe Camera Raw.
While it would be nice if Microsoft (or Adobe) would fix this, it is nice to find that there are answers available out there. I would have no hesitation in recommending either dpMagic or NEFView. You can download trial versions of both (all three if you count the two editions of dpMagic) so you can see what you think. All of them work fine under Service Pack 2. That's the important part. The rest is just icing on the cake.
To avoid confusing anyone who is not familiar with the display of thumbnails in general in Windows XP, the operating system can natively do it for jpegs, gif other common image formats, but not NEF or other raw camera formats. The options discussed in this article allow Windows to have this added ability. NEFView and dpMagic are not stand-alone applications such as Nikon View, ACD See or the Photoshop file browser that function as image organizers and viewers. The goal is to display NEF files in regular Windows folders in place of the standard file icons, not merely to display them in separate program you have to run to look at your files. While seeing your images in folder directory listings won't make you a better photographer or even take the place of such image browsers, they sure do make things convenient for general use.
One more thing worth mentioning while I'm on the subject is that you can change the size of your thumbnails by creating or editing another registry value. Again, edit the registry at your own risk, but this is an easy change. Simply add a "ThumbnailSize" value and you're done:
The value here is in hexadecimal so this is actually 150 pixels (decimal). Regedit.exe lets you enter values in decimal so you don't have to get out a calculator. Legal values are between 32 and 256 decimal. This change will affect only the current user. The same setting under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE will affect all users of the computer. Microsoft's own Tweak UI utility will allow you to easily change the per user thumbnail size setting.
Microsoft does publish an "Application Compatibility Testing and Mitigation Guide for Windows XP Service Pack 2" but it neglects to mention the Nikon NEF problem. I hope this tip will prove useful if you've been stumped by this one as I had been.
By the way, I've had no other problems with Service Pack 2 and have now installed it on three machines.
Update 09/08/2004 -Shaun Ivory, a Microsoft Software Design Engineer posted a fix today on another site. While it doesn't look quite as simple as the "PerceivedType" fix that used to work before Service Pack 2, it is still a fairly straightforward registry hack. Apparently, as of Service Pack 2, the thumbnail extractor would only work with images having known file extensions (JPG, TIF, BMP, etc). This fix explicitly tells Windows Explorer in a way that it understands that it is supposed to use the thumbnail extractor for NEF files.
Update 12/7/2004 - Nikon has now issued an updated to address this problem themselves. Third-party fixes such as dpMagic add support above and beyond the basic problem, but for those that want it, you can download the Nikon fix here.
Update 5/26/2005 - The same fix that Shaun Ivory from Microsoft published for NEF thumbnails also works to create thumbnails for Adobe's new DNG format:
| Registry hack to add DNG thumbnails|
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00
Update 06/26/2005 - Microsoft now also has a solution. The Microsoft RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer for Windows XP provides support for Nikon and Canon raw files.