by: Howard Carson, October 2008
by: Nikon Canada Nikon USA
Requires: A serious interest in professional photography, or a lot of money along with a serious enthusiast interest in photography
MSRP: US$4,999.95, CAN$5,349.95
The superlatives and accolades accorded the Nikon D3 Professional Digital SLR (DSLR) camera are nothing short of spectacular. The D3 is Nikon's flagship (as of this writing) professional DSLR and sports a 12.1 megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor (Nikon's FX sensor), low noise performance at settings up to 6400 ISO, and 9 frames-per-second shooting at full FX resolution. The D3 has an integrated vertical grip complete with AF-On, command and master settings dials. The high resolution, 1 megapixel, 3" rear LCD monitor is protected by a tough, low glare, tempered glass outer layer. It's a serious shooter for pros and enthusiasts who intend to use their camera all day, every day, and in any sort of conditions you can imagine — terrible weather, temperature extremes, sporting events, news events, on location, in the studio and you-name-it. The D3 is fully weather sealed. The body also features the latest Nikon EXPEED processor chip programmed with decades of photo exposure knowledge stored and refined by Nikon's engineers. It is at once a revolution and an evolution in photography.
The Nikon D3 Professional Digital SLR clearly establishes Nikon's pre-eminence in outdoor, event, sports, news and photojournalism photography. A few pros are even claiming that the D3 is now replacing their trusty Canon EOS 5D or EOS 1D MK II or III. While I personally still believe that Canon has the edge for most landscape and a lot of studio photography, I also feel that the differences between professional DSLRs have narrowed to the point where choosing one brand instead of another comes down to how much you prefer the ergonomics, control and menu layouts of one particular camera over another. The qualitative differences in images captured by various brands of professional DSLR cameras have all but disappeared, save and except for the slightly different ways in which each camera maker records color and renders & compresses JPG files. In the end, when you're comparing shots, there's hardly a difference to care about.
With that in mind, Nikon upped the ante when it designed the D3. First and foremost, the D3 offers three significant improvements which set it apart from other pro shooters. At the top of the list is the D3's high ISO/low noise performance under adverse lighting conditions. If you're looking for something which can use available light in circumstances that you previously never even considered without a full lighting setup, the D3 is it. I can easily hand hold the D3 with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 or any other fast lens and get excellent, stunningly low noise images at 1/80s, without a flash, under dim street lights at midnight, inside dark churches, or in nothing but moonlight with the camera set at 6400 ISO. The first time you try it, the whole thing feels like a joke until you review the photos. Then the revelation dawns — Nikon has achieved something special.
Forget about low light photography for a moment and come back to the more normal early morning or late afternoon shooting situation. Imagine a rich blue sky, fluffy white clouds and the requisite dark grove of trees. Even with exposure compensation, most camera sensors are going to blow out the cloud highlights, so you have to resort to a graduated filter to rein in all that bright white. Not with the D3, although there are always exceptions. Most of the time, the wider dynamic range of the D3 sensor combined with the D3's built-in Active D-Lighting serve to control and properly expose many difficult high dynamic range compositions.
Forget about low light photography and high dynamic range capabilities for a moment and consider the full-frame FX sensor in its own right. At last, Nikon users can get back to the whole idea of what you choose in a lens focal length or range being exactly what the camera captures. The crop factor inherent in APS-C or DX sensors was hardly a burden to calculate (multiply the lens focal length by 1.5), but it also wasn't a natural photography calculation. With the advent of the full frame sensor in the Canon 5D, the battle was joined back in 2005, but the D3 provides the FX/full frame benefits to Nikon users now and that's one of the things they've been waiting for. Photography with the D3 feels more natural to me.
The benefits of full frame sensors constitute a rather long list. The essential improvement in image quality over previous top-of-the-line Nikon bodies (and near top-of-the-line bodies such as the wonderful Nikon D300) are directly tied to the fact that the same number of photosites found on the surface of the best APS-C sensors are now spread out over a much larger FX sensor area. Of course you still need an unusually powerful microscope to actually see the photosites and the so-called spaces between them. The point is that given the limitations of current sensor technology, the farther apart you position photosites in microscopic terms, the less likely they are to interfere electronically with each other. That translates into images with lower noise. Couple all of this sensible spacing of photosites with another round of improved image processing programming executed by a seriously powerful D3 processor (the EXPEED) and you end up with the ability to capture photos in greater detail, richer color and higher resolution than anything ever previously captured with 35mm film. The Canon 5D pushed the boundaries way out; the Nikon D3 kicks the boundaries out of sight.
Auto focus is an interesting and satisfying experience. The 51 focus points consist of 15 central cross-type focus sensors which aid low light auto focus. The other 36 focus point sensors are arrayed across a limited area of the viewfinder. However, focus tracking continues and remains accurate even when a moving subject travels outside the the visible focus point area in the viewfinder. In LiveView mode I noticed the same thing. Whatever Nikon has done, it works. Still, a number of landscape shooters are not going to be happy about the focus point clustering, and some low light shooters are not going to be happy about the central clustering of the cross-type focus point sensors. In manual focus point selection modes, holding down the joypad gets you a very deliberate and somewhat slow shift from point to point in your selected direction. It's a bit slower than I'd like, but extremely usable. There are a lot of focus options built into the D3 and you'll be wise to take some time to thoroughly study them all in order to take the greatest advantage of a truly advanced system. Whether you're letting the camera do the work or setting focus points yourself, the D3 and any decent lens (Nikkor, Sigma, Tamron or Tokina) nets you lightning fast target acquisition and focus lock in even absurdly difficult lighting conditions.