May 6, 2005

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.

Source: New York Times
Written By David Pogue in his Circuits Newsletter

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.”

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Editor’s Note: The last paragraph of Mr. Pogue’s article has the following: “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.” so maybe there is hope.

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