Pushing the Limits: The Nikon D3

When Nikon first introduced the D3 with a full frame (FX Format) 36 x 23.9mm 12.1MP CMOS Sensor, I knew I'd need to try it. Even though Nikon has introduced new models since then, Nikon's D3 is still the "low light champ". If you want to shoot in tough conditions, you just can't find a better choice (and that's coming from a Sony user, as my current camera is a Sony A700).

Nikon really hit a home run with the D3's new full frame sensor by keeping the pixel count at 12 Megapixels, bucking the trend brought on by the current "megapixel war". This sensor design allows for larger photosites that are able to gather more light, allowing lower noise levels as ISO speeds are increased. The D3's specifications and features are nothing short of amazing, with ISO speeds up to 25,600 available as a boost option, a 51 Point Autofocus Sensor, superb image processing with tunable noise reduction, a 3" 922,000 pixel LCD, a kevlar/carbon fiber based shutter that's rated at 300,000 actuations, a very fast 9 frames per second continuous shooting with sophisticated 3D Autofocus Tracking using subject color. In short, it's a class leading camera.

The D3 looks terrific on paper. But, can it deliver? Absolutely. It delivers. The D3's Autofocus System is superb, with an uncanny ability to rapidly lock on to a subject, even in very dim lighting. There are many easy to use options for focusing, including single or continuous servo AF, single focus area, dynamic AF, or select from up to 51 focus points on the fly. Full manual focus is available, too. Custom Settings are provided to specify Release or Focus priority for both single and continuous AF modes.

Hand held at 70mm, ISO 6400, f/4, 1/125 second, downsized from JPEG Fine and saved at 85% JPEG Quality with no post processing:

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The D3's predictive focus works extremely well, with almost effortless focusing in demanding conditions, performing better than expected. Like the D300, Nikon's new D3 has a Focus Tracking with Lock On feature that allows you to tune the camera so that it ignores abrupt focus changes for user specified periods of Short, Normal or Long. This helps the camera maintain focus on your subject when it is briefly obscured by another object passing through the frame. The D3's Focus Tracking also uses Color information for even better subject tracking. It's an extremely fast and reliable system, giving a high percentage of in focus images in the toughest of conditions.

But, even if you're not trying to shoot moving vehicles at night and use a single AF Point, the D3's AF system has an uncanny ability to find your intended target quickly and lock focus, even with a "busy" foreground and background that would could prove difficult for lesser systems.

Hand held at 70mm, ISO 800, f/9, 1/60 second, downsized from JPEG Fine and saved at 85% JPEG Quality with no post processing:

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As someone that loves existing light shooting without a flash, often pushing the limits of a camera's available sensitivity settings, Nikon's low light king did not disappoint.

The D3 has exceptionally good image quality with very low noise levels at most ISO Speed settings. But, even better, you can still get usable images at ISO speeds that you'd never even consider using with most cameras. In low light, the D3's performance while using a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G EF-S lens was nothing short of amazing, allowing me to capture images in much dimmer lighting that I would normally be able to shoot in using a dSLR with a zoom lens.

Have you ever tried to capture live music in a very dim bar at night with no stage lighting, only to put your camera away because trying to take photos was fruitless? At smaller viewing or print sizes, even ISO 25.600 images from this camera can be usable. If you want the best possible dSLR for low light shooting, look no further than the D3.

Hand held at 70mm, ISO 25,600, f/2.8, 1/10 second. Converted from .nef with Bibble Pro 4, Noise Ninja Noise Reduction set to 20, using the "as shot" white balance. Downsized and saved at 85% JPEG Quality:

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In better lighting, this camera produces images that maintain a delicate balance between retained detail, contrast and sharpening; while allowing you to select from a wide array of in camera processing parameters, so you can easily tune the output to match your work flow, without the overly punchy, cartoon like colors you sometimes get from lesser cameras.

Hand held at 55mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/160 second, downsized from JPEG Fine and saved at 85% JPEG Quality with no Post Processing:

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If you're accustomed to a dSLR with a smaller APS-C size sensor, the D3's large optical viewfinder is a pleasure to use, with a full 100% frame coverage, displaying a wealth of information allowing you to keep your eye on the subjects, confident of your results, thanks to in part to the rapidly responding Autofocus system with active Autofocus points highlighted in the viewfinder. When combined with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S lens, the lens I used with the D3, you get a "killer" low light system. Even though the D3 with this lens has a hefty size and weight, I found this combination to be comfortable to use, offering an amazing amount of stability for hand held photos in low light at slower shutter speeds, which really surprised me since this lens is not stabilized.

Hand held at 70mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/8 second, downsized from JPEG Fine and saved at 85% JPEG Quality with no Post Processing:

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Conclusion

In my opinion, the D3 represents Nikon's best effort to date in producing a Professional Level tool that any photographer can appreciate, especially when used in demanding conditions. It's rugged build quality with weather sealing, a superb Autofocus Sytem, excellent image quality, and ultra fast performance should make it the camera of choice for many photographers wanting the best equipment available. The D3 allows a photographer to capture high quality images in the most demanding conditions and I applaud Nikon's design. I have no reservations giving the D3 my highest recommendation.

(This column was written by JimC)