B&H has the D3 in-stock. Get yours here, and it will help support our photography forum.
Nikon announced their current flagship digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) exactly one year ago today. However, Nikon has a long history of announcing products, and then taking forever to come to market with them. This is not so much of a problem though, as the products are usually well worth the wait. The Nikon D3 was no different in this regard. A week or so prior to its announcement in August 2007, there were many rumors and partial leaks as to what was going to happen. Nikon announces their products in predictable cycle patterns, and the last week of August is always when something major is announced, so we all knew to expect something grand. However, few expected something on the epic scale with which we were delighted.
I had my first interaction with the D3 in October 2007 while attending the Photo Expo at the Javits Convention Center. Kerry and I were there for conferences, catching up with friends and colleagues, and of course to check out the goods from all the manufacturers. Naturally my first stop was the Nikon booth to check out both the new camera bodies (they had announced the D300 by this time already as well) and the two new lenses they announced as well – the 14-24 F2.8 and 24-70 F2.8. Upon my first handling of the D3, it reminded me of the feel of my Nikon F5 film body which is what the professional D series is modeled after. After using a D100 and D200 for years because the specs on the previous D-series professional bodies were near identical and always twice the price, it never seemed warranted. I had put my F5 away 3 years ago and only take it out now and then to hold it, never putting a roll of film through it. Handling the D3 was a breath of fresh air, and this time Nikon designed it such that it just might warrant the purchase of the professional level body and leave the D200 series behind. I will discuss these reasons why in my report below.
To sum up this section – Nikon finally released the camera for shipment the last week of December 2007-and in extremely limited quantities. At this time it really didn’t matter for me, as I already had my new D300 since the end of October and was extremely pleased with it, already noticing huge advances over the D200. It wasn’t until mid-April that the camera body was is steady supply from the manufacturer, and I actually began to consider it for the type of product photography I have been commissioned to do more and more of. I also knew there would be a great many places I would be able to utilize the advantages of this remarkable camera during my then upcoming travels to Germany in June. I acquired my D3 the first week of May 2008.
My initial usage of the D3 consisted of a day at the Reeves Reed Arboretum in Summit, NJ, followed by a project for one of my clients, Distinctive Doors & Millwork in Madison, NJ. It was apparent from the first few shutter actuations – this unit was light years ahead of what even the new D300 could muster. A week before I left for Germany, there was a service issue with my unit, one that did not disable the camera completely, but one that made it very difficult to shoot in extremely low-light situations. I was willing to live with it for the trip, as I would be bringing my D300 as a backup anyway, but Nikon service guaranteed me it would be back in time for my departure on June 8. I shipped the camera out to them on May 30th and it was back in my hands on June 6th.
So, we can talk about all the nitty gritty technical specs on this camera for pages and pages, but it would be uninteresting to most people and it would never actually tell us anything about the ability of the camera to perform out in the field – and perform it can. On paper the camera looks amazing. In use the camera is beyond what words can describe, but I will try to describe it here through sharing photo samples and explaining the technical virtues of the camera by way of how they are useful out in the field.
Technical Brief (at least the important stuff)
- 12MP Full-Frame sensor
- 12-bit or 14-bit RAW mode
- Large & Bright Viewfinder with 100% frame coverage
- New Multi-Cam 3500 AF with 51 focus points
- 9 frames per second shooting capability
- Live View Mode
- ISO Range 200-6400 (boost to 25,600)
- Extremely long-life battery
Now don’t let this review of the D3 make you think I’m suggesting everybody go out and buy one. I would never recommend such a thing! The D300, D200, D80 (soon to be D90) are all competent cameras when used to their full potential. Owners of a D3 should be generating income with their camera, unless you are lucky enough to be able to drop several thousand on a camera and you like toys – go for it!
If you are the owner of a D300 like I am and you have at least tried out a D80, Canon 40D, or any incarnation of Canon Rebel, you know that your camera is a whole lot faster and responsive than the others mentioned. The auto-focus, the (lack of) shutter lag, and viewfinder blackout time are all superior in the D300. Once you’ve shot the D3, your understanding of fast is redefined. The D300 seems slow. There is literally no shutter lag on this camera, and you hardly have any viewfinder black-out time that you wonder whether or not the photo was even taken. It is.
Composition inside the viewfinder is easy and painless. It behaves just like your old film camera used to. Perhaps you’ve noticed with the smaller DSLRs the tiny, dark viewfinders which constrict your vision and ability to compose within the frame – not to mention taking away 50% of what you would have had in the photo with your film camera. The viewfinder is so bright, that even when in the darkest of scenes, you can still compose and even manual focus easily when looking through.
The fact that this camera has a full frame sensor is what has finally brought Nikon back into the digital race against Canon, and with the D3 surpassed them. Canon was the first to market about five years ago with a digital sensor inside of an SLR that was the same size as a 35mm piece of film. Canon’s price tag – $8000. At that time, Nikon said they were never going to make a full-frame DSLR, instead maintain and perfect the half-frame format and make lenses specific to that format. Well, they did, but then two years ago Canon released the 5D ($3200 at the time) and Nikon continued to lose sales to Canon. The advantages of full-frame are plentiful – 1) all of your older film lenses behave like the focal length they actually are. No more digital specific lenses, 2) the ability to make the viewfinder similar to your film camera’s, 3) better pixels, not more pixels, 4) higher ISO and lower noise capabilities. More on this in the article entitled, The Full-Frame Advantage.
One of the great benefits of the camera’s full-frame sensor is its ability to operate at extremely high-ISO sensitivities. The D3’s sensor native ISO capabilities span a range of 200-6400 ISO – producing clean, noise-free images throughout this range. What’s even more remarkable is that the sensor can be boosted to sensitivities up to 25,600 ISO, which are of course noisy – but its 25,600. What do you expect? The technical capabilities of this camera have generated a revolution in the photographic world. Higher ISOs allow you to keep shooting as the light fades when others pack up and go home or in darker indoor situations where others just give up. It is able to produce images that were once impossible to capture.
High-ISOs are still no substitute for a tripod, and I always used to shrug at technological breakthroughs of high-ISO capabilities in the newest of cameras. When shooting film and up until about three years with digital, I was still of the purist mindset in that ‘if you can’t shoot it at f/8 on 100 speed slide film, then it isn’t worth taking a picture of.‘ Any film above 200 ISO looks terrible for real photo work, and when DSLRS first came out, any ISO above 200 looked awful. But as one matures, and technology improves you may begin to use higher ISOs and shoot in situations that might require them – and get better quality than what 100 ISO film can produce. See the following example of a 6400 ISO image from inside the Cologne Cathedral, Germany.
9 frames per second. Does the average person need something that fast? No, not at all. The 5fps that the D200 can muster is fast enough for any sports photography through the high school level. What is the speed for then? Well, for example when I’m shooting a wedding or doing travel documentary like I was in Germany, there will be times when you need to make sure you capture a moment, because that’s what you are being paid to do. At a wedding, you’re being paid to capture moments that are happening on the fly, unrehearsed. Super-fast autofocus, shutter response time coupled with the ability to shoot many frames a second, will guarantee you get that priceless facial expression on the bride’s face or the street musician frozen in stride.
Caution – the D3 is a heavy camera. Put a lens on it, it’s even heavier. It makes up for its weight, however in comfort and feel. It does not feel like a 5lb camera when a lens is attached. The balance is spot on like a well-made knife or sword. You don’t mind holding the camera, which is especially important for a pro who will be using it all day everyday – it has to be comfortable to hold. The button layout is roughly the same as any D-series pro model before it, and is quite similar to the D300. Just as the D300 is weather-sealed, so is the D3. The camera is made, like all pro series Nikons since 1967, to be able to live through a war.
Battery life? Don’t you hate those point and shoot digital cameras that suck through batteries? The DSLRs do a lot better – giving you between 300-400 photos per charge. (That’s straight shooting. The more you review your photos on the screen, the more power is used). I was in Germany for three weeks in the month of June. I left the country with a two fully charged batteries for the D3 and of course my battery charger. Throughout the entirety of my trip, I only had to recharge each battery once. We’re talking about shooting all day everyday for three weeks straight – flash photos, using the live view mode, changing menu configurations, and of course reviewing images. Oh, I shot nearly 4,000 images.
Further D3 advantages for me include its 100% compatibility with all Nikon lenses ever made. I still have very many manual focus film lenses that perform better in certain situations than the newest of computer engineered optics. For me, the D3 is the continuation of a fulfilled promise Nikon made 50 years ago – to never change their lens mount. For me, the D3 is my F5 film body with a 12MP sensor inside of it. Size, weight, touch, ergonomics are nearly identical. The camera feels like an extension of my hand. Will there be a Nikon D3x soon? Yes. Will there be a D4 later on. Of course. That is the way technology progresses and at a faster rate than ever! But here’s my reply. We actually know what the parameters for the D3x will be. It will have a full frame sensor with 24MP and all of the other features of a D3, probably minus some speed and minus some of the ultra-high ISO capabilities. But why would anyone need this unless they are making billboard-sized prints. I don’t know about you, but the largest I would ever think of printing is 40×60 inches, let alone the largest I’ve ever actually printed is 24×36 inches. Contrary to popular myth, the amount of megapixels does not equate to the ‘clarity’ of the image. It relates to the size which one can print a photo – that’s it! It’s the quality of the pixels that matter. If the sensor on a D3x is the same size as the sensor in a D3, and they are going to put twice as many photo collector sites on it, doesn’t that mean each photo collector site needs to be half the size…which means that sensor will not be able to collect light as efficiently. As far as I’m concerned, I am willing to remain at a full-frame 12MP for a good long time. No D3x for me. If I ever need more than that, I might as well just move to medium format so I not only get more mega-pixels, but then also a larger sensor to boot. Don’t let the marketing hype fool you. Whatever DSLR you choose today will take the same quality photos 10 years from now as it did today.
I’ll leave you with this last shot from a very difficult lighting situation in the Bavarian Alps.
You may see the rest of my Germany travels through the following links: