I’ve now used my new Nikon D3 for three separate shoots of three separate bands with three separate lighting rigs and my initial impressions are very favorable. As many of you know, I parted ways with my entire Canon system recently, including the infamous EOS-1D Mark III. Since the D3 and 1D3 are direct competitors, I’ll restrict my comments to these two bodies.
Feel and Handling
Compared to the Canon 1D3, the body of the Nikon D3 feels smaller and oddly heavy with the 24-70mm attached. The 1D3 has a large squarish grip that inspires confidence despite feeling heavier on the left side of the camera than the right. With its heavily contoured profile the Nikon D3 feels smaller and more dense. Though I irrationally fear the D3 might tip over, the slightly smaller footprint gives the camera a pleasant weight distribution that does not shift when moving between landscape and portrait orientations. Though they don’t look so different side by side, actually holding the cameras is a very different experience.
Need protection? Wrap it in Rubber – The rubber used on the Nikon is soft and thick feeling compared to the hard grips on the 1D3. While a soft and contoured grip might seem like a good thing, I am almost positive that the rubber used on the D3 is less durable than its Canon counterpart. Only time and the PH balance of my skin will tell.
Can too many buttons ruin a suit? – The buttons of the D3 are larger by comparison and give the back of the body a busy look. Though it doesn’t win any awards for beauty, the D3 controls are very easy to manipulate and can even be used with gloves on. The same cannot be said of the Canon 1D3.
Where the D3 really bests the Canon is in handling, size and placement of the control surfaces, shutter and rear AF-ON button. To my surprise, the front and rear control dials on the D3 can be used to adjust aperture and shutter speed without taking your index finger off of the shutter release.
The D3 also features oversized AF-ON buttons on both grips – a feature that is important to anyone who thinks that shutter release and focusing are two separate actions that shouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. The Nikon AF-ON buttons have a short throw that ends with a firm stop when the button is fully depressed. The action of the AF-ON buttons on the 1D3 feels overly soft and lacks a clear stopping point. Furthermore the feeling and position of the portrait and landscape AF-ON buttons are different which gives them a poorly implemented quality.
Gamepad versus Joystick – The multi-function controller of the D3 is sort of Canon’s joystick and Set Button all-in-one. Whereas Canon’s joystick is arguably their most immature control surface, the multi-controller is arguably Nikon’s best. Compared to the 1D3, hitting the diagonal focus points on the Nikon is very, very easy. (I don’t think Canon ever intended the joystick for use on the 1D3 as this feature was absent from the camera’s initial firmware.)
The Baby with the Bath Water – The placement of the Trash Button next to the Play Button is one of the only things that bothers me about the D3 controls. Did I mention that the Trash Button on the D3 is in the exact same place as the Info Button on the 1d3? Without going into detail, this coincidence has been initially very unfortunate.
Wider Throat – I’m finding that Canon lenses are easier to mount on the 1D3 than Nikon lenses on the D3. Some of this is certainly because I haven’t adjusted to the opposite mounting direction but I also think that the wider Canon EF mount and the little red bumps on Canon lenses are a big bonus.
Window on the World – Thanks to its 35mm sensor, the viewfinder on the D3 is larger and brighter than that of the 1D3. In addition, the D3 meter remains active in the view finder when adjusting the camera’s ISO setting (something that drove me crazy when using the Canon). In case anyone is confused – having the meter active in the viewfinder when making ISO adjustments allows the photographer to adjust the sensitivity without metering, guessing at the proper ISO and metering again.
I also think that the round, screw-type eyepiece and lockable diopter knob are nice features on the D3. If you’ve ever wondered why so many Canon press photographers have their eyepieces taped down to the body, it’s because they tend to come loose, crack and fall off. In the very worst case, the eyepiece will rub against your side, fall off and leave your carefully adjusted diopter to twist. When you bring the camera up to your eye to shoot, not only are you missing your eyepiece but you have a totally out of focus viewfinder. Guess who just missed the money shot…
Feel luck Punk? - The shutter release and the mirror blackout of the D3 are clear improvement over the 1D3. Although the two cameras are only tens of milliseconds apart in each of these specs, the difference is large enough that almost every Canon photographer I’ve let try my D3 is surprised at how quickly the camera acquires focus and shoots.
Is there a downside? Yes. The mirror slap of the D3 is like a machine gun and machine guns make Baby Jesus cry. The D3 also lacks the “silent” shooting mode found on the Canon 1-Series. I’m going to miss this feature the next time I’m caught at a quiet show without my blimp.
If all else is equal, the D3 is well matched to the 1D3 below ISO 1600. I’d say that the 1D3 is capable of extracting slightly more fine detail thanks to its higher pixel density but Nikon files have a certain three dimensional quality that only comes with a full frame sensor.
Above ISO 1600 D3 images processed with Nikon Capture NX 2 seem sharper, lower noise and move vibrant than those of the 1D3 processed with either Canon Digital Picture Professional or Adobe Lightroom. Though the 1D3 was no slouch above 1600 and there is little quantitative difference between the two cameras in terms of noise levels, the advantages of the D3 are clear to even the most casual of viewers at no more than 25% magnification.
While the D3 has a measurable advantage over the Canon in terms of noise, saturation, and dynamic range at high ISOs, the difference is fairly small. My (completely) subjective feeling is that the increase in image quality at ISO 1600+ is greater than the sum of its parts. I think it has more to do with the film-like character of noise on the D3 than any combination of measurable factors.
I am surprised that in some of the worst conditions, the luminance noise pattern of the D3 still looks a lot like film grain. Under similar conditions, the luminance noise pattern of the Canon 1D3 looks mostly smooth with random “pits.”
(you knew I’d cover this, so quit your whining)
Looking over the full sets from three separate shoots with three separate lighting rigs, I am shocked by two things:
1) how few totally out of focus images there are
2) how many critically in focus images there are. In fact, there are so few unacceptably focused images from the D3 that the new camera has actually made it harder to finish editing.
While I have no doubt that there are many satisfied 1D3 users out there, everyone must accept that I was not one of them. For the record, the problem with the Canon 1D3 was not that it couldn’t take a perfectly focused photo (of which I have many). It was that it couldn’t do it reliably.
My copy of the 1D3 would regularly and unpredictably confirm focus incorrectly resulting in a poorly focused image. My best guess was that the camera’s autofocus system is easily confused and prone to hyperactivity. In AI-Servo mode, I worked around this problem by reducing the maximum frame rate to 8 and turning the cameras focus tracking to the slowest setting. In Single-Focus mode I often pumped the AF-ON button to make sure the focus was locked before shooting. Even with these workarounds I shot many more frames than I needed because the camera continually demonstrated that it could not be trusted. I am very pleased to say that I have no such problems with the Nikon D3.
What do Inquiring Minds Want to Know?
Though switching to Nikon was not without its casualties (read no 85mmf/1.4 AF-S prime yet), I am very happy with my decision. If there is anything that I did not cover in this initial review, I’d happy write some more.
Want to condemn me for my brand disloyalty in a public forum? That’s fine too. =)