Friday, March 19, 2010

Nikon Professional DSLR camera system: D3x, D3s, D700, D300s – a personal review

Let me start by saying what this review is not: It is not a blow-by-blow description of camera specifications, or a limited field test. There are plenty of places on the internet where you can find that kind of information. Instead, this review is written from the perspective of someone who uses these cameras daily in a professional work environment shooting almost exclusively traditional stock images.

That said, you will want to know what criteria I require from a camera. I am a professional photographer who shoots mainly (99%) commercial stock images. My subjects are varied: lifestyle with models, scenics, still-life, travel, animals, sports – in other words, the gamut. My final images must be 50mb in size, in Adobe 1998 color space, with no artifacting or noise in the image. Needless to say, the images must also be sharp at 100% all the way into the corners. So when I review a piece of camera equipment, I am looking for these requirements. If I were not so demanding, my editors would reject my images -- something that i
s not very good for my bottom line.

When the Nikon D3 first came out I thought it was the greatest camera ever made -- and it was, until the Nikon D3s came out. First off, I applaud Nikon for waiting to bring out a full-frame camera until they had the lenses to support it. Full frame 35mm digital sensors put a greater demand on the optical system, particularly the wider angle focal lengths. Long lenses are not nearly so problematic. It’s easier to compute these, but the short zooms were so awful that on my earliest Canon 1Ds system, for instance, I abstained from shooting them until Canon finally replaced them with newly formulated short zooms. Nikon, on the other hand, introduced new 24-70mm and 14-24mm zoom lenses at the same time as the advent of the FX D3. These lenses are so superb with corner sharpness that they surpasses even prime lenses. Recently, Nikon has reformulated its 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom to improve corner sharpness that was apparent in the earlier model.

Another surprising innovation from Nikon was its adoption of a lower megapixel rating for its sensor. This flew in the face of the high megapixel trend. The D3 (and D3s) have 12.3mp sensors. This enabled the camera to work incredibly fast at 9 frames-per-second, and to shoot at very high ISO settings. And guess what? Once the image was interpolated up to 50mb, as it must be for commercial stock, it still surpassed the output from all other DSLRs on the market. This was coupled with a high buffer rate of 40 RAW images on a D3s (same with a $500 buffer upgrade on a D3). For the first time since digital photography began a digital camera not only met but finally surpassed what was possible from the top 35mm SLR film cameras. With film we had to stop to change rolls after 36 exposures. Now we could shoot 40 frames at 9fps, wait a few seconds, and do it again.

Why do we need this speed? The answer is obvious when shooting sports and animals in the wild. Surprisingly however, well done lifestyle photography often requires the same speed, especially if you want to take photos of people in motion. If you have ever attended one of my lectures, you have heard me say that an image where the model is in motion will outsell an image where the model is static. Lifestyle photography is at its best when the subject is animated. This is not to say that we need the subject jumping and running. A model laughing in reaction to another model is enough to create motion, particularly if the model is continually moving during the scene. This sort of spontaneity is very difficult to capture consistently. The Nikon D3s makes this job a breeze, and the rapid focusing Nikkor lenses keep every shot in focus.

In addition to the motor speed, the D3s has a very easy to use focusing grid in the viewfinder. The grid of 51 focus spots is widely spaced over the entire viewing area and is readily selected with a simple to use thumb wheel to the right of the rear screen. Nikon has standardized this system on all of its professional cameras making it easy to switch from one body type to another.

When we couple the D3s with the fastest focusing professional lenses on the market, we have a system that has reached a pinnacle of capture speed for digital cameras. I can also tell you that the focusing accuracy of this camera-lens combo almost always results in 9 fully-focused images per second. I don’t know of any other full frame camera that can do this.

When Nikon lowered the mega pixel rating to 12.3 means it meant that each pixel area was larger than, say, a 24mp rated sensor of the same size. That results in more captured information per pixel, which in turn results in less noise. This is the only camera I know that can be used at ISO 6400 and still produce an acceptable 50mb, 300dpi image. I’m not saying that you won’t need to run some noise reduction software to massage the photo. You will, but you won’t require a lot of tweaking. A routine run through Neat Image should do the trick. I have actually used the D3s as high as 10,000 ISO with complete success – and this is from someone who used to preach on the merits of Kodachrome 25. That said, I prefer to keep the ISO level to below 3200 on the D3s if possible.

The D3s has a completely different sensor than the D3. I am finding the new sensor to be a big improvement. In addition to the benefit of extended ISO range, the color palette is much more accurate and pleasing. I always shoot a gray card for every scene so I have a starting reference point for color correction. I rarely need to apply it with the D3s.

The Nikon D3s is a rugged camera, as are all the professional grade Nikons (D300s, D700, D3x). I have no compunction about taking them out in the freezing snow, in soaked environments, or excessively hot desert sands. In fact, I have done all of those things and more. These cameras can take a beating.

The original D3 sounds like a machine gun going off when you hold the shutter down. Nikon managed to dampen the sound considerably in the D3s so it is much quieter. I never minded the sound of the D3. If fact there is something perversely romantic about it. I recall a shoot I did out west of cowboys galloping over a hill top. While the frequent cry from other photographers yelling, “I buffed out”, was heard after only a few seconds of shooting, the staccato sound of my D3 shutter carried on until the cowboys finished their run.

A professional photographer never travels without a backup camera body. The high price of the top DSLR models adds a steep economic curve to this procedure. Thankfully, Nikon introduced the D700. This camera has the same sensor and image results as the D3 but without the speed and buffer. Adding the relatively inexpensive extra battery pack to the bottom of a D700 increases it to 8fps – fast enough to make it a good backup camera when speed is required. Without the battery pack the D700 is a much smaller camera than the D3 making it a nice choice for walk-around travel where you don’t need the speed or buffer. Hopefully, Nikon will introduce a D700s soon to complement the D3s. The one annoying thing I find for the D700 is that it does not have a 100% viewfinder.

The Nikon D3x is a whole other animal. After shooting with the 24.5MP D3x for awhile the results were so impressive that I sold off my medium format digital system and replaced it with this. My chief use for this camera is shooting scenics and still life.

Something you should know about this camera is that while it is rated at 5fps, this speed is only approachable if you have the camera in 12-bit mode. Nikon professional cameras can switch between 12 and 14 bit mode. Naturally, 14 bit mode contains far more information and will slow down the camera processing time. In most cases with the D3x this is not a problem because I only use it for scenic and still life shooting where speed is not a factor. If you do require the speed, however, be aware that this camera slows to a crawl in 14-bit mode.

Most of the time I use Nikon cameras in 12-bit mode. My decision for selecting one mode over the other depends upon the exposure range of the scene I am photographing. In a controlled studio or location environment where I am supplying the lighting, I use 12 bit. There is no reason to collect extended exposure data where none exists. Photographing a scenic environment on a bright day with deep shadows and extremely bright highlights is another matter. Here I switch to 14-bit processing. When the scene is very extreme I also process the image in Nikon’s Capture NX2 software. This takes full advantage of the Active-D lighting of these cameras.

Active-D lighting adds a dynamic range to the scene that is lot like HDR processing an image, but Nikon has the advantage of being able to do it in camera with one shot. I menu-set my Nikons with Active-D on “auto”. This gives me the option of applying it later with Nikon Capture NX2 software and selecting whatever range I find appropriate.

The D3x has a native ISO of 100 compared to a native ISO 200 for the D3s. While the D3x is rated to a high ISO of 1600, I never push it that far. In fact 99% of the time I use it at ISO100. I acquired this camera to exclusively shoot highly detailed images, similar in result to a medium format digital system. If I’m going to be pushing the limits of available light, I reach for the D3s.

Some photographers have wondered why I added a Nikon D300 (now D300s) to my overall system. After all, it is a DX camera with a smaller sensor. Why would I use it when I could have the D3s instead?

The reason is simple: I use it because of its frame factor. The D300s is a 12.3MP camera with the same sensor as a D3. HOWEVER, both cameras produce exactly the same RAW image size. That is the key. A D300s has a magnification factor of 1.5x. For example, a 400mm lens used on a D300s is equivalent in focal length to a 600mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. I find this very handy when doing animal photography. The D300s is better than carrying along a tele-extender. It serves to dramatically increase my focal length without sacrificing the image sharpness or aperture of the lens. Physically it has the same body type as the D700.

The D300s takes the same extra battery pack as the D700 that boosts the motor speed from 7fps to 8fps – more than enough to capture fast-moving, telephoto action.

I don’t push the ISO limits of a D300s, rarely using it over 400ISO. It already begins life with a smaller frame size. That doesn’t provide as much wiggle room as the image from a full frame sensor.

The D300s has a 12.3MP sensor, and the D3s, and D700 have 12.1 MP sensors all resulting in about a 35MB image size. As mentioned above, I require a final 50MB image for professional commercial stock. That requires interpolating the image up from its original size. I bring most of my RAW images in through Photoshop Bridge (except as noted above when I use Nikon Capture NX2) where there is an option to save the image at plus one or plus two size. After trying many software solutions for image interpolation, I have found that Adobe Bridge produces the best results. Plus one brings the image in as if it were a 17.4MP size, which is almost a perfect 50MB tif file. When I compared these images to those of 35mm digital cameras that actually produce that size, I detected no difference at all. The only camera I found that produces a superior image is the 24.5MP Nikon D3x, and for stock uses that image has to be interpolated down to 50MB.

The bottom line here is that Nikon has produced a professional camera system where each body works as a complement to the others in the series. Because of the extreme variety of my subject matter I use all four cameras – each for a different purpose. Nikon might have been a little late to the party with a full frame sensor, but it instantly became queen of the ball with its impressive, integrated lineup.