Camera Corner: Nikon D3
March 2008

by Chick Harrity

At long last: Nikon's first full-frame camera with a 36 X 23.9mm CMOS sensor that produces amazing quality images from ISO 200 to IS0 6400.

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Some of you might remember that in December I raved about the Nikon D300 and its incredible performance at 3200 ISO. Then along comes the D3 and as you have most likely heard, its high ISO performance is even better!

Forget 3200; ISO 6400 is a breeze for the new flagship of the line, producing sharp, well defined images that don't need any extra noise reduction. Want more speed? You can go further. Nikon states in the manual that the settings HI.03 to HI2 correspond to ISOs from 8000 to 25,600 equivalent but they also add that "pictures taken at these settings are more likely to be subject to noise and color distortion." That's very true and I wouldn't recommend shooting a magazine cover this way, but there could be a situation or two where you are able to make a usable image where no one else can and that's a pretty big deal.

Napa Valley Mustard Grass in Bloom
ISO 200; f6.3 at 1/400th

During my testing I shot at all ISOs but I did do a lot of images at 6400 in low-level light situations to see if it was as good as claimed. It is. I think the image quality is really amazing, all the way from 200 to 6400. Most of the pictures I've included with this review are full-frame but the girls' basketball shot at 6400 is a crop of less than 1/3 of the frame!

While some will complain that the D3 is only a 12.1-mega-pixel camera, they are big, beautiful, accurate, and sharp pixels that, coupled with the new EXPEED image processor, produce a 4256 x 2832 file with your choice of 12 or 14 bits/color in RAW mode.

Terry Ellege
ISO 800 F3.2 @ 1/50

The camera is designed to be fast, shooting up to nine frames per second using a new 51-point Multi-Cam3500 FX Auto Focus Sensor that tracks by color, using information from the 1005-pixel AE sensor. It also has a New Kevlar/carbon fiber composite shutter with 300,000-exposure durability. Add to that a startup time of only 12 ms, shutter lag of 41 ms and a mirror blackout of only 74 ms.

Sure it's big and heavy, coming in at about three pounds without lens, but it's built like a tank with a magnesium shell, excellent weather sealing and buttons that can be used with gloves. It feels good in the hands with soft rubber on the grips and all the needed controls, including a vertical grip with shutter release and focus button, all within easy reach. The 3-inch, 922,000-pixel LCD Monitor, the same as on the D300, is a joy to use and you can easily magnify portions of the image to check for sharpness. The clarity is so good you can be confident that the image you're looking at is sharp rather than just the result of guessing.

The Lithium-Ion EN-EL41 battery has a lot of power; at one point during a shoot I checked Battery Info in the menus and it showed that after taking 1092 pictures and doing a lot of LCD checking, I still had 56 percent battery life left. I also like that the charger that comes with the camera can hold two batteries and charge them one after the other.

A first for any DSLR, the D3 has Dual Compact Flash card slots that can be configured for overflow, back-up or Raw on one and Jpeg on the other.

Fun at the Hydro Grill
ISO 6400 F2.8 @ 1/20

I really like the Virtual Horizon feature, especially when copying artwork on a tripod. It's accessible through the setup menu on the LCD and gives you a display that looks much like an aircraft horizon simulator in a video game. You can also set up the Function button at the bottom right of the lens mount to change the electronic exposure display in the viewfinder and on the top control panel to act as a horizontal level. My preference in the past has been to have the function button trigger the spot meter so I don't have to take my eye off the subject to switch metering modes but in situations where you're not working on a tripod and want to be perfectly level, this feature can be a big help.

Speaking of the viewfinder, it is a bright, clear penta-prism with 100 percent frame coverage, excellent eye relief and a locking diopter adjustment dial. The camera also has Live View through that big LCD with both handheld and tripod modes. Handheld uses the normal TLL phase-difference AF but Tripod mode uses a focal-plane contrast AF on a desired point within a specific area. In both modes you can magnify the Live View for focusing using the same button and wheel combination that you use to magnify your playback images.

Most of the pictures that I have taken with the D3 have been with the new Nikkor 24 to 70 f2.8G ED lens. It is very sharp wide open with good contrast and color rendition and, surprisingly, a little bit smaller and lighter than my old standby, the 28 to 70 f2.8. I can't wait for the VR version.

High School Basketball
ISO 6400 F2/8 @ 1/640 cropped image less than 1/3 of file

And yes, the camera is expensive but to put it in perspective I pass on a quote from Nikon's Lindsay Silverman: "An amazing thing happened on the way to Flagship Nikon D-SLRs; they have all been priced at $4999.95 when they were introduced." The D1 was announced in June of 1999 and it was a 2.6 mp camera with 5-point auto focus and could shoot 4.5 fps and you "chimped" on a 2-inch screen with 120K pixels. The new D3 gives you all the great features and improvements I talked about above for the same price, nine years later.

So I have to think the D3 is the best pro camera that Nikon has ever made and I have used them all, starting with the original F way back in 1959.

Famed Napa Valley Photographer Chuck O'Rear
ISO 6400 F2.8 @ 1/20

That said, there is always room for improvement, I would love to see that beautiful 3-inch LCD be able to articulate so you could use Live View for Hail Marys and low-level shooting without putting your face on the ground and of course I have heard from a few people out there who still think they need more megapixels.

Keep at it, Nikon and try your best to keep the next one at no more than $4999.95!

© Chick Harrity

Chick Harrity has been playing in photojournalism for 51 years, 34 of them in Washington, D.C. His first staff job was in 1956 with his hometown newspaper, the Reading (Pa.) Times. He moved to New York City with The Associated Press in 1965 and worked in Albany and Chicago for a year each before moving to the AP Washington bureau in 1968. In 1981 he had a chance to try the magazine business at U.S. News and World Report where he stayed for 20 years, being named chief photographer in 1985. On April Fool's Day of 2001 he left U.S. News to move to Northern California where he is now the Photo Coach and contributing photographer for the Calistoga Tribune, a new and thriving 1,250-circulation weekly at the top of the Napa Valley. Highlights along the way include receiving the Associated Press Managing Editors' award for Excellence in Photography; being named the White House News Photographers' Association Photographer of the Year, and being awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence for Photojournalism. His first camera was a Kodak Baby Brownie Special. He worked his way up to a 4x5 Speed Graphic and then down again. He was last seen playing with Nikon D200s and D80s.