The Nikon D3

I was always an F kind of guy. My first Nikon pro camera was the original F – a 1971 black body FTN. It supplemented my FM2 and I had it until just a couple of years ago when I sold it to a close friend, who bought it with the understanding that I might occasionally need to fondle it… call it conjugal visits.

A few years later I found a really nice F2 that I still have… I skipped the F3 and F4 entirely – I thought they were kind of growing-pain cameras… the F5 was the result of the growing pains… to that era, arguably the finest 35mm film camera ever produced. 

I don’t have a clue how many tens of thousands of rolls of film went through my F5, but it was heavily used. Then the " D’s " hit…

I was unimpressed with the D1 and skipped it as another growing pain. The D1X I got and loved. For many uses it equaled film with its mighty 5.47 megapixel sensor. I successfully made 20×30 poster prints from jpg captures with it, and the client loved them. I wish I could remake them now with my considerably greater Photoshop knowledge, but at the time they equaled the best reproduction I could have gotten from any film in my F5.

Have I mentioned that I tend to ramble? I really will get to the D3 soon… right after I talk about what a great camera the D2X is… I have the D2X and boy, Nikon once again did it right. 12 megapixel, bigger, better, faster, stronger. Well, maybe not stronger, the D1X was pretty tough. In fact, in terms of camera reliability, the D1X was more reliable than the D2X I have. The D2X has had to go to the Nikon spa three times, maybe four, only one time for something the stupid photographer and gravity did to it. The D1X went in for a buffer upgrade and, at about 70,000 shutter actuations, got a new shutter that it may or may not have really needed. Not too shabby… in my opinion this is F sturdiness. But sturdiness wasn’t the only criteria I would apply for a digital body equaling a film body… there was the thorny issue of sensor size.

Ah, now the D3 with the mythic full frame FX sensor. The incredibly fast motor, the tremendous sensor that gives amazing color fidelity with minimal grain, allowing serious shots to be done up to ISO 1600 (yeah, I know it goes higher, but I haven’t really tested it yet). I would have been happy to stay with the D2X, maintenance issues aside, forever. 12 megapixels surpassed anything I could ever do with 35mm film. The only downside for me with all of the cameras before the D3 was that I really needed my wide-angle lenses to see like they were intended to on film bodies.

  • #069 – Spring’s first leaves are just coming out in Minnesota. Nikon’s multi-pattern metering handles scenes with ease… I occasionally bracket but usually end up using the exposure that the camera shoots at N (normal exposure).

Since I shoot a lot of building exteriors and less frequently interiors, I rely on my Nikon gear to give me the quick shots, many hand-held. I run into situations frequently where I just can’t back up any further from a large building, and have to resort to a super wide-angle lens to save the day. A super wide lens on the D2x was the 12-24mm zoom…  a lens with the equivalent range on the D3 is an 18-36mm lens (almost exactly the range of the tremendous Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8). On the D2X my 28mm PC lens became a 42mm; it was nowhere near wide enough to cover many buildings from up close. The 28mm PC on the D3 gets me back in the game… and since Nikon finally (don’t get me started on the rant about how Canon had a 24mm tilt/shift a dozen years ago) made a 24mm lens with perspective control with both tilt and shift, I am now able to do over half of my location photos of buildings with my Nikon.
Why, you ask, why would you want to leave the medium format view camera and the 22 megapixel back in the car?

  • Speed. I can shoot more views faster with the Nikon on a tripod with the 24mm or 28mm PC lenses than I can with the view camera.
  • Weight. The whole rig of the D3 with PC lens and the other PC lens in a case on my belt is less than half the weight of the view camera.  When I pull in the legs of the tripod and put the tripod with the view camera on my shoulder, I really feel it.
  • Quality. With the new FX sensor the D3 really produces great image quality. The palette is to my eye slightly more neutral than the D2X.

Am I giving up something from my medium format 22 megapixel back down to the D3? Yep. I am giving up some image quality and certainly 10 megapixels of image information. The problem with my current rig on the medium format view camera is that it won’t allow me to focus a lens shorter than the Schneider 47mm Super Angulon, which is sometimes not wide enough… and the falloff on this lens can be a pain, so I almost always shoot with a 65mm lens… great for shots of houses from across the street, but not a wide as I would wish.

About 95% of the time the only movements I use on the view camera are rise and fall, since most of my shots of houses are product shots that have to show the exterior walls well – not too many extreme angles.

You already know I liked the D2X a lot. Well, the D3 only goes down to ISO 200 (shades of the D70).  I think the D3 image quality is better at ISO 200 than the D2X set on the lowest ISO of 100. The D2X topped out at "Hi 2", the equivalent of ISO 3200. The D2X on Hi 2 ISO failed the "get the image no matter what" clause from my photography training… no amount of noise healing ninjas or wizard’s magic can fix that image. The D3 is a potentially different story… my limited play with speeds over 1600 suggests that I could possibly make an image that would be usable.

 

  • #113 – This silo in Stewartsville, MN gives me the chance to put the D3 on auto white balance and auto-exposure with a 3 stop bracket… you can set the motor on low or high speed and it will fire off the number of shots in your selected bracket when you hold down the shutter release, then stop. As is usually the case, this shot is the N exposure.

So, lets take a look at the handling of the D3. I no longer have my F5 to make a direct comparison, but to my hands the D3 feels right.

Yeah, I have been a Nikon guy all along, mostly because my mentor used Nikon. He introduced me to the concept of a camera system… When I finally scraped and saved up enough money to get a Nikon body back in 1982, I couldn’t afford a lens, so Dr. Michael Roach loaned me a 35mm f/2 lens.

By the time the F5 came out I had been a working professional photographer for years… it grew to be an extension of my hand. When I picked up the D3 for the first time, it felt like it should be there. I almost stole the Nikon rep’s camera right then, but I was able to hold back and order one. 

  • The balance is excellent for my slightly smaller than average size hands.
  • The controls are almost all in the right places (I am still getting used to the slight repositioning of the AE-L / AF-L button).
  • Almost all of the functions that you actually need are on external buttons/dials, and can be accessed without digging into the labyrinth of menus.

Really, the menus are a little daunting – there is so much you can do… some of which you should not do. Nikon gives us an easy "factory reset" sequence with green dots… just remember that if you do a factory reset, it defaults the camera back to jpg capture. There are a lot more buttons than the F5… but they are not in the way.

  • #153 – This abandoned gas station in Stewartsville, MN allowed me to get a nice shot in failing late afternoon light. It was tweaked in Lightroom to make the highlights in the chrome go somewhat blue and increase saturation.

One minor gripe with the D3 is a D2X holdover from Nikon. They decided that to maximize the efficiency of hotshoe mounted flash units, they would tilt the hotshoe a few degrees down in the front… pointing the flash slightly down in the 90 degree head position.

Great for the grip-n-grin folks shooting a lot of on camera flash… lousy for guys like me that want to easily level the camera with a hotshoe mounted bubble level. So, I use the bubble level on the hotshoe to get the camera level left to right, then remove the bubble level and press it on the bottom of the camera (making sure I have the level touching the rubber body covering on both sides of the body) to level the camera forward to back.

But wait, Britt, you may say… the D3 has a built in level! Yes, if you dig into the menu, you can get a digital level… really pretty cool. What would be even cooler would be if it worked to level the camera forward to back, which it either doesn’t do or I am not smart enough to make it do. If someone has figured out a better way to level the camera, please let me know… the levels built into the Bogen heads I use are largely useless, since they are not really quite as accurate as I want to be, and are frequently too high for me to see when the camera is in position on top of the extended tripod. I guess the best situation would be for the bubble level manufacturers to make a model specifically for the Nikon D2X and D3.

I believe Canon first came out with dual compact flash card slots… Nikon has duplicated this for the first time in the D3. There are several configurations you can set up (shoot RAW on one and jpg on the other, duplicate images on two cards, etc.)… For me, it simply means I can shoot on the first card and take it out and hand it off to an assistant and keep shooting on the 2nd card that was already in the camera. Since I shoot only RAW, this works great for me… I am now using Adobe Lightroom for processing my RAW images, although I previously used Adobe Bridge for most of my workflow. There are articles here on DigitalApplejuice on the RAW workflow I used with Bridge.

( Read: Bridge Over Troubled Image Management, Raw is to Cameras as Sushi is to Tuna )

  • #021 – This corn tower at the Libbey’s plant in Rochester, MN has to be a landmark… the only one of its kind I have ever seen. The Color saturation was tweaked in Lightroom.

So what is to like and what not to like on the D3?

Dislikes:

Well, it is pricey. Quality almost always is. I firmly believe you get what you pay for. Except, that when you pay about $5,000 for a D3, you don’t get a cover for the LCD – at least, there wasn’t one in the box. I bought the Hoodman clear cover for an additional $30.

Seth Resnick points out that the age of digital photography is much more expensive for photographers than the film era was. In the film era, you simply billed the client for film and processing costs. In the digital era it is more difficult to bill the client for digital processing. Clients think that since it is digital, you don’t have to do anything but download and burn to an inexpensive disk. Wrong.

The F5 camera sold for something around $2,000. The D3 sells for something around $5,000. Add to the cost of digital the investment in computer gear (desktop computer, laptop, card readers, memory cards, storage disks, blah blah blah) and it begins to add up in a hurry.
 

If you want to really learn the business of photography and a RAW workflow second to none, check out Seth’s workshops at www.d65.com – I highly recommend Seth as a teacher… and he is heavily involved in the development and testing of Adobe Lightroom. Hmm… this started out as dislikes of the D3, and ended up being a long ramble about unrelated stuff… I guess there isn’t too much I dislike about the D3.


Likes:

  • FX full frame sensor that equates with returning the original angle of view to my wide-angle lenses.
  • Image quality.
  • Nikon metering and autofocus is terrific. The D3 will mount almost any Nikon lens made in the last 25 years.
  • Nikon flash technology is years ahead of Canon in my opinion.
  • Excellent battery life, and the batteries from my D2X interchange.
  • Comfortable ergonomics.
  • Controls (mostly) positioned where I expect them to be. Most shoots I do don’t require me to delve into the menus.

Is the D3 for you? I can’t answer that… I have heard rumors of a D3X or D4 waiting in the Nikon wings. Accounts have it as high as 24 megapixel. Seems like to me that at that size, the chip will have really tiny wells for the sensors… smaller wells equals less depth of field, less sensitivity to light, and I am sure more problems which will be worked out sufficiently before such a camera is released.

When I look at the D3 image quality with the sensor being FX size but having the same number of pixels relatively as the D2X with a 2/3 size sensor, I see the best of all worlds. Big, light gathering wells equal great image quality. If I need to enlarge the image, I use Adobe Camera RAW to interpolate directly from the RAW data and make up to a 72 meg tiff file from the original RAW. That translates to an image larger than 20 inches wide by 13 inches tall at 300 dpi. My point of reference is a full bleed full truck brochure spread that trims to 17 inches wide by 11 inches tall at 300 dpi. Your point of reference might relate to your 13 inch wide Epson printer, easily being able to produce full 13 x 19 images in full bleed (with a little cropping).

One added benefit of the introduction of the D3 is that D2X prices have dropped somewhat… you can potentially benefit from the D3 even if you don’t buy one!
The D3 is the best digital tool Nikon has released. It makes sense for me. In my mind, the D3 is the first digital Nikon that directly equates to the F series.
 

Comments

  1. Britt Stokes says:

    Hello, Ed, thanks for your comments and questions. I never had the pleasure of playing with an F6, but I know a little about the Mamiya 7, and I think it is a terrific camera with better than average optics from Mamiya.

    Understand please that when I answer the questions, my frame of reference goes in two different directions; first, print quality in CMYK reproduction (high quality sheet fed Heidelberg presses), and second, printing to either a Lambda or Epson printer.

    I don’t know what your photo lab guy is comparing in the way of film… for my money, the best film reproduction historically was Kodachrome. National Geographic staff photographers used a lot of Kodachrome. I also don’t have any idea what kind of equipment he is printing on – analog enlarger or digital scan to etched photographic print… C print, R print or Cibachrome (equivalent). Hmm… he could be talking about black and white… but I’m going to stick with color for my reply.

    First, for my CMYK reproduction, digital in the form of a D3 blows film away except PERHAPS for a really excellent quality Kodachrome 25 transparency shot with the same high quality lens as on the D3. I say perhaps because there are several problems. The first problem is, of course, that Kodachrome 25 is discontinued. The second problem with the excellent Kodachrome transparency is getting an equally excellent scan made. The third problem is that the D3 image is a first generation image, where the transparency is now a 2nd generation image since we have scanned it. The limitation here is that my largest image would print about 11×17 inches full bleed. I really think that the D3 can produce an image that will rival or exceed Kodachrome in print.

    Second, for my prints made either on a Lambda (laser etched photographic paper) or directly on an Epson (mine is the R2400 that goes up to 13×19 sheet size), I think that the D3 probably beats our perfect Kodachrome transparency at sizes up to 20×30 inches. There is a caveat… if you are printing a large group photo at 20×30 inches, you will probably get an image that subjectively has more detail in the faces from a perfect transparency. It boils down to an analog image being more continuous tone when blown up to its grain size than a digital image is when blown up to its captured pixel size. I don’t know about any of the negative films much any longer, for the last 10 years I shot film, it was almost exclusively Fuji NPS. At the 35mm size, Fuji NPS was disappointing to scan for me. The D3 easily beats it. In 4×5 inch size, the Fuji NPS will hold its own with the D3, and probably surpass it. From your Mamiya 7, it might be just about the same. I always overexposed my NPS about a stop to get a nicely dense negative. That gives it a working ISO of about 80 versus the native ISO of the D3 at 200.

    Scanning any negative or transparency should be done at the highest possible bit-depth. Working with this in a program like Photoshop gives you much more information, and some printers can actually take advantage of this… the Epson comes to mind. All other true photographic prints can’t use this advantage to the fullest, as they don’t operate at bit-depths over 8 bit. The digital side of this is using Adobe Camera RAW or Adobe Lightroom to use a workflow in 16 bit-depth with ProPhoto color space to edit and (in some cases) print. Epson printers can actually print color in ranges that almost none of today’s monitors can display.

    Here is what I would do if I were you… contact your local Nikon rep and tell him that you’re still on the fence about digital versus your film cameras. Arrange to have him let you shoot some frames with your favorite and sharpest Nikkor lens on a tripod with your F6 and the film of your choice; then shoot the same scene with the D3. Thank him profusely and then sneak your Mamiya onto the same tripod with the lens that closest matches the equivalent focal length of the Nikon setup. Tell your photo lab guy that you want to test his hypothesis – ask him to make 8×10 prints full frame of each of the three images, then make the largest enlargement he can make on 8×10 paper from each of the images on glossy paper. There are some problems with this test, things like output sharpening from the digital file, but I think it will tell you what you want to know.

    Dust off your loupe and share what you find with me. I suspect your findings will be that the D3 does indeed beat 35mm film images, pretty much across the board. I further suspect you will be surprised at how well the D3 holds up to the Mamiya. I do shoot a medium format 22 megapixel digital back from Sinar, but in the field I am using it less for my architectural subjects since I acquired the D3.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed that article in terms of writing style and information. By the way, I would really like your take on picture quality comparison between 35mm film and the D3 at various sizes. I asked a photo lab guy a couple of days ago what he thought, and he said that

    1.35mm film still beats digital full frame,

    2. that negs scanned at 16-base beats digital.

    Would really like your opinion on this. I’m an F6/Mamiya 7II user myself and am considering getting my paws on the D3.

    Thanks for the article!

    ed