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.

Image Quality

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.”

Autofocus

(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. =)

  1. Oh, a link to the article might help.. Stupid fingers. http://tinyurl.com/7obs73

  2. Thanks for your thoughts comparing these two cameras and their systems. I think Nikon and Canon have very different design philosophies that play out in their flagships, and it’s interesting to get your perspective on them.

  3. i know the canon has 40 something af points, and d3 has 51. is it helpful having extra af points? do you typically use all 51 or do you prefer to use less? have you tried the 3d tracking feature? i find it a bit unpredictable but then again my camera is such a baby compare to d3 not to mention that i got no skill haha.

  4. JMD

    Chris,…this was a nice read on two strong workhorses of the digital capture industry. Note, that I did learn one thing from this,…and that is the ability to change SS and Ap while maintaining your index finger on the SR button. I tried it with my D3 and was able to do this…though it felt a little brainey for a second or two. I will now practice this techique and make it second nature.

    Thanks for your time…stay focused!

    JMD

    PS: Pls don’t release my email adrs to spammers!

  5. very nice review, I went the same way you did a year ago, though from two markIIns. You kinda hit every thing that I observed back then. When I had my first day with the MarkIIs I lost an eyecup because I thought that when it was so new it would be tight… no way. Replacement eyecups must be canons largest export.

    Rumle

  6. Regarding lenses, I would anticipate that, following the new 50mm f/1.4, an AF-S 85mmm f/1.4 should be coming down the pipe in the next year.

    That, and a wide-ish fast prime, and more distantly, perhaps an AF-S portrait lens like a 105/2 or 135/2.

  7. I really liked reading your comments here, Chris. When I was deciding to ungrade recently I went with the D300 and I am really happy with Nikon’s line of bodies and lenses out right now. Not to say Canon stuff completely blows, I just like the physical interface of the Nikon gear. Glad you’re likin it!

  8. Wayne

    Hi Chris, this is a great article. This is probably one of the best articles I’ve come across comparing the two high-end cameras. Btw, was your 1D3 from the faulty batch, or the AF was fixed already yet you still found it to be under-performing?

    Would like to find out more about the colour of the images that are straight out of the camera, for example when both cameras are on Standard preset or Neutral preset.

    And also flash performance between the 1D3 and the D3?

    Thanks!

  9. Wayne

    Thanks Chris for the very detailed reply! :)

    I do agree on the Canon flash being somewhat inconsistent. I’m currently a Canon shooter, but am seriously considering to switch over to Nikon because I kind of prefer its out-of-camera color rendition (could you share a bit more about the D2X color as well?) and the better flash system.

    Autofocusing speed wise, is the D3 comparable to the 1DM3, be it center point alone, side points (non-cross points) and all 51 points activated? I haven’t handled Nikon extensively but the Canon AF seems quite a bit snappier to me, especially under bright conditions. My apologies for throwing so many questions here!

  10. Jôn

    Nice write up, Chris. I was on flickr and noticed your D3 tag on some photos I was admiring (I remembered some of your other shots w/Canon)… so I figured I’d check out your site to see if you had anything else to say; I guess you did ;).

    I was checking out your info section. “It’s a disposable camera right” section needs updating! Oh, and where can I get a medium-sized can of Whoop Ass?

  11. Nikon D3 Initial Thoughts http://tinyurl.com/7obs73

  12. Izzy

    I just switched from a Canon system to a Nikon D3. I have never had a camera that can focus so quickly and stay focused no matter the situation. I shoot sports and this is the only camera that gets the job done.

    I have used Canon equipment for over 20 years. this was an expensive change but it appears that I made the right decision.

  13. Love the article Chris, although I am a Nikon shooter for the past who know’s, I had the opportunity to shoot the D3 for a youth ice hockey tournament and was blown away because using only my 2.8 300mil, switching from FX format to Dx was a god blessing.
    That D3 was a rental cause I had drop my 2.8 300mm- D2hs gear on ciment floor stadium seatings….Yeah, My back up rig was my 2.8 400mm on a D200! THAT was a lousy set up for that kind’a job :(
    The D3 was set so a hold on the bottom front button and the back wheel it went from normal 24 X 36 to crop DX without putting the camera down.
    That took me about 2 seconds to master and on it went….

    Besides, you’ve got to drool for that 200-400 f4 too!

    Good reading

    Eric D

  14. I’m glad I stumbled upon this article. I am planning to get a new camera (to upgrade my uber outdated Canon 350D) and have been debating between the Canon 5D Mark II and the Nikon D700.
    I’ve spoken to one other person who has converted from a 5D Mark II to a D700 and am getting more convinced to get the D700 because it’s better for shooting portraits esp. in low light.
    I realise you have a different Nikon camera, but if you don’t mind convincing me a bit more to chose Nikon over Canon, I’d really appreciate it.

    Keep up the good work!

    -Aisha

  15. Jason

    I am also in the middle of making the switch from Canon to Nikon. While I shot Nikon and other brands of film cameras prior digital, when digital came along I moved the Canon 1D. At the time I felt it offered me the most for my money and had the features I preferred. Of course I do not think there is any disputing that image quality of the original 1D was first class for its time period.

    I have to say to anyone considering doing the same, it is an expensive proposition to consider making the switch if you have pro bodies and glass. Of course when you buy an upper end body, you know that the value drops significantly with every new model released.

    So far I have sold my Canon 1D, 5D, and I currently have an offer on my 1DMKII. In addition I have sold off an E0S-3 that I picked up just because I like to keep a film body and the E0S-3 Eye focus always drew my interest. I even had an E-1 body I let go in addition to my 2 Canon Flashes and ST-E2 lens. I have also sold two lenses, and now I have my L glass to sell which does include a 300mm 2.8 Non IS L lens. I shoot a lot of sports but I am diversified in what I shoot.

    I decided on the D700 because it seems to offer the best of the D3 and still would offer me the focus speed that I enjoyed with my 1D and 1DMKII. Also the fact that I can increase the FPS by adding the grip made a lot of sense to me when I need that feature. I know from my experience I rarely shoot at 8fps unless I am looking to capture a quick sequence, so the 3 to 5fps is more than adequate. What I also realize is that the shot to shot time is on of the most important things to me so there is a grip in my future.

    So far I have purchased the D700 and a 50mm 1.4G AFS just to make sure I like the camera and solidify the commitment. I have had the camera 2 days and so far I am very comfortable with my decision. I held off selling all my L glass just until I reach a comfort zone but I think I am getting there.

    The new Nikon lenses with the Nano coated are expensive compared to what I originally paid for my Canon glass. I know both companies recently raised prices on glass. I can say at least Nikon offers a 5 year warranty on their glass compared to the 1 year from Canon. My lens list consists of the 14-24, 28-70, 70-200 AFS VRII, and down the road the 200-400. I will probably end up with a 105mm as well because by the time you add the 1.3 multiplier for the 1D sensor you get pretty close.

    While I know the 1DMKIV is on the horizon, I am of the opinion that Nikon is the best way to go for me. The fact that Nikon has finally gone full frame, put the work into improving their lens technology, and improving their focusing system. So far I have found the D700 features highly adjustable and I do look forward to what I feel is more accurate metering and flash system that Nikon provides.

    Sorry about the long winded post, but this was a huge decision for me to make and yes it is costing me money to make the switch but I feel confident it will be worth in the end in the enjoyment and image quality that I will be able to achieve in the end.

    Jason

    • Thanks for your thorough comment Jason. If it makes you feel any more comfortable with your decision, in the 13 months I’ve been using Nikon I’ve not once thought about switching back to Canon. Not once. Not even for the 1Dmk4.

      When I switched from Canon to Nikon I effectively lost one lens in the shakedown. It took a me couple of months to replace it (using rentals to bridge the gap).

      My current lineup is similar to your wish list:

      14-24mm
      24-70mm
      70-200mm VRII

      I would also eventually love to buy the 200-400mm. I’ve used it about 3 times for one-off assignments and it’s just awesome. Light, sharp and responsive.

  16. Hi Chris,

    I have a 1D Mark III and I use it with either a 24-70 or a 70-200 IS both f2.8.

    How do I compensate in camera for the overly saturated skin tones which tend to be too red and orange at times inspite of a custom white balance. I have read somewhere that one way is to use a cc filter. But which one? How do I determine which one to use and when? Is there another atlternative to resolving this inherent problem with the Canon Pro body?

    I shoot portraiture and color is critical to the service I provide. Let me know your thoughts… Thanx in advance.

    Angel

    • Hi Angel, a lot of the color reproduction depends on which color space you’re shooting in (Adobe RGB or sRGB), the color profile you’ve set up on your camera (portrait, standard, neutral) and the program you’re using to process the RAW files.

      If you can send me an email via the contact form with this info and a sample image, I may be able to help.

      Best,

      Chris

  17. Hi Todd, thanks. I defintely agree that Nikon and Canon have two very different philosophies at work. They old statement that goes something like “Nikon cameras are built for photographers by photographers and Canon cameras are built for photographers by engineers” still holds true in a lot of the little details.

    Canon ergo made a huge leap forward with the 40D and 1D3. For instance, I think Canon has a nicer menu layout and a better AF selection system when using only 9 points.

    I would even go so far as to say that I was shocked by how bad Nikon’s menus still looked the first time I turned on the D3.

    One of the first things I did with the D3 was set up the customizable My Menu to exactly mirror the list of settings I had in the Canon My Menu. However I soon found that I didn’t have to change the same settings because the Nikon was doing more for me without the small tweaks. My Canon My Menu had about 8 settings that I changed fairly regularly. My Nikon My Menu has only 3 (Toggle AF-ON, Format Card and Battery Info).

    Some additional things I love about the D3 vs. the 1D3 are:

    1) That the focus mode can be changed from Single to Continuous with one finger without lowering the camera.

    2) That the focus pattern can be changed to single with one finger without lowering the camera.

    3) That you can bracket with the shutter speed when shooting in manual mode.

    4) That half pressing the shutter will lock exposure when using spot metering.

    5) That changing the AF point, shutter speed and aperture are all one step operations.

    6) That the camera will confirm focus in both single and continous focus modes.

    7) That there no difference in AF accuracy between single and continuous mode when shooting a static subject.

    8) That the LCD can be used to confirm critical focus at 100% magnification.

  18. Hi John. The Canon has 45 points, but only 19 of them are user selectable and f/2.8 spec. All 51 points of the Nikon array are user selectable but only 15 are f/2.8 spec.

    That being said, I haven’t found any benefit to actually using all 51 points for concert photography even though I have all of them turned on.

    In practice I really only need 9 points that are accurate when focusing at f/2.8. If you’re shooting slower than f/2.8 a lot of people will say you only need 1 accurate point.

  19. Thanks for your comments JMD. I know using your middle finger to turn the front dial could feel a little odd at first but it can come in handy when you don’t have a millisecond to spare. The first time I did this, it was an accident. I was in a panic to get the shot and put my fingers in the “wrong” position.

    The decision to switch wasn’t an easy one, but I had to make the choice I felt was better for the work (and my business) in the long run. The D3 is the most versatile 35mm camera on the market right now and for the photographer that shoots a little bit of everything, it’s damn close to perfect.

    P.S. Email address? What email address? =)

  20. Thanks Rumle (I love your gravatar btw).

    I’m a bit curious why you sold off your MarkIIns. I always regarded that camera as one of the best sports bodies ever made. To support this, I’ve met a few press and sports photojournalists who tried the 1D3 and went back to the 1D2mkIIn. Best, Chris

  21. I think the story with updated Nikon primes is a matter of “when” and not “if.” I think we’ll definitely see the 85mm soon and I would hope something like a 23mm as well.

    It’s too bad that Nikon tends to sit on this things.

  22. Hi Keith, thanks for the note.

    I think that Nikon has a great thing going with their lineup right now. From the D300/D700/D3/D3x, they’ve got a ton of things covered.

    The best thing about all of these camera bodies is how similar they are in terms of performance and features. For instance, they didn’t leave the “cool stuff” out of the D300 just because it’s not the “flagship” model. Gotta love it. (I sure do.)

  23. Thanks Wayne. I’m fairly sure my 1D3 was part of the faulty batch. However the problems I experienced with the AF had very little to do with the “bright and sunny” conditions that the “fix” was supposed to address. It was definitely still underperforming.

    My feeling was that the ground-up redesigned AF that Canon put into the 1D3 and 1Ds3 was just a lemon, fix or no fix.

    There is still a difference in the color of the images straight out of the camera but it’s not the huge difference that existed one generation ago. I did not for instance love the color rendition of the D2x.

    Nikon’s color came closer to Canon with the D300/D700/D3/D3x and Canon’s color came a bit closer to Nikon. If I had to characterize the color bias of each camera it would be as follows:

    Canon cameras are bias towards redish tones. I would characterize Canon skintones as generally “pink.” I would often shoot on the neutral picture style as I thought standard was too contrasty and too red for me.

    Nikon cameras are slightly bias towards orange in terms of skin tones. Under Auto White Balance skin tones tend to have a warm look. I also find that greens and blues are slightly more saturated. I tend to shoot on Stardard.

    The flash performance between the 1D3 and D3 will vary wildly depending on what flash you have on top.

    I used the 1D3 with the 580EX II and the CPE4 Battery pack. The 580EX II is a very good flash with plenty of power. The combo worked well for the most part but would sometimes overexpose the subject at random. I never figured out why this was. The metering was also confused by reflective surfaces in the background. A number of professional photographers I know much prefered the original 580EX to the mark II because they felt that the original was more durable. They also liked that it was far less complicated to use in Master/Slave modes.

    Part of this could have been user error as well. One of the things that drove me crazy about the metering on the 1D3 was that you could not get the shutter to lock the metering in spot or center weighted modes. So even though you could link the spot meter to whatever AF point you were using at the time, you had to keep that AF point exactly on skin to get a properly exposed shot. This was particularly hard when tracking a moving subject like a groom in a black/white tux. Yuck.

    If you’re using an SB900, the flash system on the D3 is great. Unlike other Nikon flashes the 900 can be rotated 180 degress in both directions. The exposure is extremely accurate and the character of the light is amazing. It’s got approximately double the power of the SB600 and in some circumstances, the flash is actually overpowered. The best thing about the SB900 is that it’s dead simple to set up the master/slave settings.

  24. Hi Wayne,

    I think out of camera color rendition is totally a matter of personal preference. I personally found D2x color a little too cool and magenta for me. By contast the 1D3 was considerably warmer, especially in the reds. I’m loving the out-of-camera color on the D3.

    Nikon autofocus speed might be very slightly slower on the very first acquisition, but it’s dead reliable and dead-on accurate which is more than I could say about my 1D3 even in the best conditions.

    In addition, the shutter release and mirror blackout are faster on the D3 which more than makes up for any techical difference.

    Technical specs aside the best thing about the Nikon AF system is it’s character. I find that the Nikon AF system gives much better feedback than Canon. The Nikon lenses tend to “snap” rather than “ease” into place when the AF locks on. The snap is strong enough that you can feel it in the finges of your left hand when holding the lens. The Nikon AF system is also much more reliable when shooting stationary subjects using Servo focus.

    One of the things that drove me crazy about using the 1D3 on Servo focus was that it was very hyper reactive. A burst of 5 frames focused on a stationery subject using the 1D3 in Servo focus would often return 5 different focus solutions with only 1 critically sharp. Canon’s technical advice in this regard was to “dumb it down” by lowering the max FPS and lowering the focus sensitivity.

    The D3 will confirm focus in the viewfinder in Single and Servo focus modes. Canon only confirms in Single.

    A few days after using the D3 I was surprised by how well the camera works right out of the box. No tinkering, no adjustments, just pick it up and shoot.

    Since switching brands is so costly and there are definitely upsides to using Canon, I would rent or borrow a D3 with one of the new zoom and use it for a couple of days before making any snap decisions.

    Don’t apologize for asking questions, I’m happy to answer them.

    Chris

  25. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for the kind words and for the reminder! I’ve updated the gear list. You can purchase Whoop Ass at any Duane Reade pharmacy. Cans come in medium, large, and I-pity-the-fool. =)

  26. Hi Izzy,

    Thanks for the comment. I would love to hear your reasons for switching to Nikon after 20 years. I really admire sports photographers – you guys know what the players are going to do before they do it – amazing.

    I am also impressed by the tenacity of the D3 servo-focus system. There are times when I’ve shot a quickly moving performer and I’m sure that I missed the shot. When I look at the photos later, low-and-behold, the D3 nailed it.

    The D3 autofocus performs better than I previously thought was possible. It’s almost magic.

  27. Hey Eric,

    I have my FX/DX toggle on Back Button/Front Wheel and it’s awesome.

    The 200-400 would be my next lens purchase if I had $6K to throw around =)

  28. Hi Aisha,

    The Nikon D700 and Canon 5Dmk2 are very different cameras. The D700 is a better camera in almost every single regard except for resolution and video capability.

    My disappointment with the 5Dmk2 was THE REASON I switched to Nikon from Canon. Mainly, I was angry that they put such a crappy autofocus system into it.In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if you have an 85 f/1.2 lens and a 25mp photo if it’s out of focus because the camera screwed up.

    If you’re taking a lot of portraits in low light, then the D700 and the right lenses will definitely focus more accurately than the 5Dmk2.

    That being said, it’s hard for me to advise you without knowning how much Canon equipment you own. If you own a lot of Canon lenses and accessories, you might not want to switch. Even if the focus isn’t the best, the 5dmk2 would be a huge improvement over your 350D any day.

    I’d be happy to answer your specific questions over email.

    Chris

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