Nikon D3 Digital Camera Reviewed

by Bjørn Rørslett  

4. Image Quality and Fields of Applications for the D3


Image Quality

A discussion of the concept of "image quality" without taking the intended use of the output is a rather futile exercise. What would do for a newspaper or weekly magazine might not be up to the demands for a fine-art gallery exhibition. Or vice versa. The Nikon D3 has 12.1 MPix available and can deliver approx 40 x 60 cm (16 x 24 ") prints more or less straight off the camera, or you can go the entire way up to 100 x 150 cm (40 x 60") prints with careful post-processing. All of these will have a technical quality that should satisfy even critical viewers under realistic viewing conditions. If you plan on making billboard-sized prints that are to be scrutinised up close, you might need a handful more of those high-quality pixels, though. So there is still a niche for an even high-resolving companion to the mighty D3.

To exploit fully the potential of D3 imagery, using raw (NEF) files is the optimal approach. However, only a few software applications this time of writing supports D3 NEFs and the outputs do vary in the quality attained. Nikon Capture NX 1.3 is what Nikon themselves recommend and a free license is given with each camera. This program must have the worst speed performance of any RAW converter that I ever have used, and the user interface is marred by stupid quirks and odd properties. To round up the bad news, NX is a memory hog of the worst kind imaginable. Just to zoom into a NEF file takes half a gigabyte of memory (the processed TIF file is just 35 MB !). Yet, despite this massive resource drain, the zooming itself proceeds at a snail's pace and even on my 4-CPU high-end machine it takes 30 seconds to alter the zoom amount. Horrible is the only apt description. However, it is undeniable that NX can extract more details from the D3 files than the alternative programs manage to do. The D3 files also carry with them an instruction set that is read and acted upon by NX, so you obtain very clean files with massively reduced noise and almost perfect CA removal. A real pity the software is made so unattractive and counterproductive, a feat in itself.

If you chose to rely more on jpgs from the camera than using NEFs and thus suffer the painful NX, you should go carefully through the jpg settings of your camera. Firstly, only jpg (Fine) should be considered. Secondly, the camera should be set to optimise jpg quality not file size. Thirdly, and likely the most important point to address, is configuring the Picture Control options. The default settings will give jpgs that are optimised for printing, thus the sharpening needs to be cut back or even set to 'none' if you plan on doing further post-processing work on such files. There are also colour controls with which you should experiment to get the final results you are pleased with. Shooting a known reference target such as a GretagMacbeth Colour Checker is strongly recommended. If Active D-Lighting (ADL) is enabled, this setting will influence the jpgs, but in practice not NEFs unless Capture NX is employed later in the work flow. The camera's exposure is adjusted if ADL is set to "Normal" or "High", generally by less than -2/3 EV and in many cases even less. You might think this leads to the dreaded "underexposure" we knew from the old days of film, but as long as the scene itself has a certain dynamic range (and what motif hasn't, that's why you shoot it in the first place) and you are within the dynamic range of the sensor, a mild underexposure won't affect the RAW data much at all and using subsequently a RAW converter that ignore the ADL settings, you'll end up with a pretty much identical output file anyway.

I have yet to observe a significant dfference between shooting NEFs with 12 or 14-bit depth. The EXPEED engine internally uses 16-bit all along, so it is the the output stage that would be influenced by the bit depth choice. One can speculate that the 14 bits add a little more highlight headroom, but for field situations this is hard to observe. All D3 files seem to share the same velvet-like texture and smooth, delicate tonalites. I also tried to find tangible differences between using uncompressed and losslessly compressed NEFs and can only conclude that I can't find any.

Compared to output form other Nikon models, the files from the D3 will need careful sharpening as they are prepared for their final output destination. The jpgs at default camera settings are good to go for being printed directly, so are not the best starting point for pixel-peeping activity unless you are familiar with pre-press work. Unless you rush the files to a news desk, resizing and a good deal of sharpening are necessary ingredients in the work flow to make the D3 images exhibit their inherent quality.


Categories of applications

Below is an overview of various fields of photography and how I envision the Nikon D3 will fit in each category. It should be fairly obvious that I don't see the D3 as the panacea and one-camera-can-do-all solution. As such it never was conceived by Nikon. What's more important is that the D3 can be applied to a variety of photographic tasks and do many of them very well. Due to its complexity and wide range of features, the D3 clearly demands that the photographer spends sufficient time to master it - just like any other professional-calibre gear.

Field of application Comment
Action and sports Outstanding. High burst firing rate and excellent ISO performance are benefits
Available-light, candids and feature work Outstanding. One might rephrase this to have "available darkness" replacing "available light"
Portraiture and studio shooting Very good to excellent. Skin tones and rendition should comply with stern requirements. The resolution on its own is more than high enough to show every flaw of the model’s make-up and skin irregularities. However, the file sizes may not suffice for making extreme enlargements
Landscapes Very good except for the users insisting on using super-wide lenses for landscapes. Since this drawback relates to the small FX format and is shared with 35mm silver-halide technology, it is questionable that this should be hold against the D3. But anyway this field shows where higher-resolving and/or larger-format cameras always can do the job better.
Nature photography Very good. The high-ISO performance is beneficial for wildlife and birding
Close-ups Very good. The rich tonality will enhance virtually all close-up applications. LiveView occasionally can be useful if you can eschew the limitations of its implementation
Night Photography Good if you employ Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LNR) and can make do with exposures less than 109 minutes. Bad if you insist on not using LNR, or need exposure duration longer than 109 minutes
Astrophotography Probably not suitable for deep-sky photography since the NR has to be active. Stacking applications such as startrails should go well, since individual exposures are short
Photomacrography Good to very good, but resolution can be slightly limiting. The LiveView feature can come in very handy for such applications, but has its quirks and drawbacks (see discussion here)
Technical photography; involving the use of tilt and/or shift lenses Very good-excellent. In particular I was pleased to see that no untoward amount of light fall-off, or ugly asymmetric chromatic aberration, were in evidence. With the DX format one tended to get both in abundance
General walk-around use, non-specialised photography If you can handle the camera and don't complain about its weight or bulk, it'll do for you. If you have the money and the inclination to purchase a D3, but don't know exactly why, then something else should be on your shopping list..

Now it's high time to show some examples of what the camera can achieve. The pictures below are meant to illustrate the quality you can expect from a D3. Most are derived from jpgs straight off the camera, unless otherwise noted. My conclusion is that you will get image quality from D3 to satisfy even the critical needs, for almost any application to which the 35 mm systems can be used.

Nature Photography Example illustrating the delicate tonality of D3 images

  White on White, by D3

White on White

Nikon D3, 200-400 mm f/4 Zoom-Nikkor AIS, f/8 at 1/30 sec, ISO 200

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

Getting this kind of shades of white in the white snow, for a picture shot under heavily clouded and dull conditions with a totally "flat" lighting, is a tribute to the imaging system found in the D3. The original has remarkable detail and tactile structure in the snow pack in the foregorund, too.


Technical Photography Example Using Tilt/Shift Lens

  Spruce Cones on Mossy Forest Floor, by D3

Spruce Cones on Mossy Forest Floor

Nikon D3, 28 mm f/3.5, modified for tilt and shift, f/22 at 15 secs, ISO 200

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

Using the Scheimpflug principle for close-ups can yield a surprisingly useful distribution of the available depth of field, yet there is just so much you can achieve when the subject has depth in itself and you approach it closely enough. So there is always a balance to be struck in terms of the DOF and its distribution throughout the scene. In this case I gave priority to the cones and let the background forest go softer. The details are sharply rendered despite the small f/22 aperture. For applications like this, critical focusing is the decisive parameter and having the big finder of the D3 at my disposal did help a lot in my securing this shot.


Photomacrography Example

  Venation Patterns in Dead Leaf, by D3

Venation in Dead Leaf 6 (X magnification)

Nikon D3, 65 mm f/4.5 Macro-Nikkor on Nikon Multiphot, f/9, 2 sec, halogen cold-light illumination, 10 frames stacked with Helicon Focus

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

The D3 camera, mounted atop my rock steady Multiphot stand, was remotely controlled for this capture. I used Camera Control Pro 2.0 and remote LiveView to shoot a sequence of 10 frames with a slight shift in focus, later to be assembled by stacking software. I might have gotten somewhat better outcome by opening up the Macro-Nikkor a tad more and instead added more frames to the stack.


Low Light Applications Become a Breeze with the D3

Going Home After Work Hours

Nikon D3, 24 mm f/2.8 AIS Nikkor, 3200 ISO, f/2.8, 1/30 sec (NEF processed in BibblePro 4.9.9b)

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

Shooting dark winter streets at high ISO settings with the D3 running on Auto white-balance and Matrix metering is a tough and realistic system test. In this case I revived my old favourite wide-angle lens, the 24 mm f/2.8 Nikkor AIS, that I had put away for many a good year now since it did not work well with my DX-format DLSRs. I was genuinely surprised by the excellent results of this lens on the D3. Bibble does not read the attached instruction set of the NEF so the lack of vignetting toward the corners and the very low CA are the fashion in which D3 captured the shot. Also noteworthy is the great amount of shadow detail present, and the excellent balance of the different light sources (sodium vapour street lamps, fluorescent tubes and incandescent lamps inside the bus, very blue light from the night skies above). This is in fact the exact same colour rendition that the associated jpg delivered.


Nikon D3 Reviewed

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Last update 2 January, 2008