Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nikon D3 First Impressions

This is a quick review of the Nikon D3, the first full-frame Nikon DSLR,* from the point of an amateur/hobbyist. The D3 has been around since 2007, but at around $5,000, was priced beyond the reach of most amateurs.  With the introduction of the latest generation of Nikon full-frame DSLRs, the D3 has for the first time come within reach of a greater number of hobbyists.

*Not counting the Kodak DCS-14n, which is technically the first full frame DSLR with a Nikon F-mount. :)

For the longest time, I had wanted to upgrade to a full frame DSLR.  I like to study photos by photographers I admire and I have often seen photos with a very shallow depth of field that I found mesmerizing.  My friend and co-author mshafik had once dissuaded me from getting a full-frame camera, providing me with several examples that showed that even with a relatively inexpensive telephoto lens, a crop sensor camera was capable of producing images with a similarly shallow depth of field.

For a while, I was content with using my Sigma 50-150 to get portraits with shallow DOF, although I had pretty much decided on getting a full frame and was closely monitoring D700 prices.

At one point, I became impatient enough at the stubbornly high prices for the D700 that I started looking into switching to Canon, which has less expensive full frame cameras.  Even the original 5D seemed tempting to me.  However when I calculated the cost of switching systems, including the loss on selling gear, it was just as expensive as buying the D700.

This past January, Nikon finally announced the D4 and a few weeks later, the D800.  Not long after that, Nikon also announced a $500 price drop for a new D700.  I was thankful that I had sold my D300 just a few days before the D4 was announced.  Now, I was salivating at a realistic opportunity to upgrade to a full frame.  Surely the price of a used D700 would drop to about the same price as a high-end APS-C such as the D300S?

I certainly found some D700s that were sold for just a little more than a new D300S, but they were quickly snapped up.  There were plenty of other D700s that were being offered but they were around $2000 or a bit less, which to me seemed very unappealing, given that the price of a new D700 was officially $2200.  On the other hand, the stocks of the D700 at $2200 never seemed to materialize, and used D700 prices stayed high.

Meanwhile, I started looking into getting a used Nikon D3.  It turns out that the price of a D3 had decreased significantly.  Whereas a new Nikon D3 used to be almost double the price of a new D700, a used D3 was now just a little more than the price of a used D700.  Moreover, when the cost of an MB-D10 battery grip is factored into the cost of a D700, the price is almost the same.  So, although a D3 is slightly more expensive, I thought it was a better value and got one instead of a D700.

Here are the biggest advantages of the D3 over the D700.
  • Much more ruggedly-built, as in this example and this.
  • 100% viewfinder.
  • Longer life shutter (rated for 300,000 instead of 150,000)
  • Built in vertical grip (with a vertical shutter, customizable AF-ON button, and command dials)
  • Dual memory card slots.  The second card can be used as overflow or for backup.  For me, this is the biggest advantage of the D3 (I have had a corrupted memory card before when I took my Exilim skiing, and if I take on a project for a client, I would want to have the safety net of a backup card).
  • Longer battery life (27.75 Wh vs. 11.1 Wh).
  • a D3 is smaller than a D700+MB-D10 combo
  • Continuous shutter: 9 fps vs. 5 fps (8 fps with grip)
  • Voice memo.  I thought I would use this a lot but I haven't used it much.
  • Possibly slower depreciation when bought used compared to a D700.
On the other hand, the D700 does have some advantages over the D3:
  • Popup flash with commander.   I had used my popup flash a lot and had always chosen bodies that had built-in commander capability.  However, lately I have been using a TTL cord more often than the popup flash and I now have more than one wireless-capable speedlight, so losing the popup flash is unfortunate but not disabling.
  • Self-cleaning sensor.  It seems my D300's self-cleaning sensor wasn't that effective, so this one is not a big deal.

Having gotten a D3, did it live up to my expectations?

There were only two reasons I wanted to get a full frame camera: a shallower depth of field and better high ISO.  These advantages are discussed further in the Full Frame FAQ.

Depth of field
In the real world, I believe the difference in depth of field between an APS-C camera and FF is not immense.  It's not like the DOF difference between a point-and-shoot vs. an APS-C camera, which is easily noticeable even by non-photographers.  Between an APS-C vs. FF, the difference in DOF when using lenses with equivalent field of view (e.g. 75mm for FF vs. 50mm for APS-C) should be around 1.3 stops (i.e., the FF aperture would have to be stopped down by 1.3 stops to yield a similar DOF).  In my tests, the difference seems to be a little more than that but I will have to do some more tests to confirm (click to zoom in):

APS-C at 50mm, f/2.8
Full frame at 75mm, f/5.0
In real world shots, the difference in DOF is immediately noticeable to me.  I think it's because I had gotten used to seeing the shots from my APS-C cameras.  In any case, I was not disappointed.  In the shot below for example, the focal length was 31mm (about 20mm APS-C) and the subject wasn't super close, yet the DOF is noticeably shallow (aperture was f/2.8).

High ISO Noise

The other reason I wanted to upgrade to FF was because of the high ISO capability.  The ability to shoot high ISO helps me use a higher shutter speed to help make my shots sharper.  It's also useful for bouncing flash at farther distances.

This wasn't as significant of a reason as the shallow DOF because technology is improving all the time and the current generation of DSLRs such as the Nikon D7000 have exceptionally low noise.  According to DXO, for example, the low light ISO noise of the D7000 (30db signal-to-noise at 1167 ISO) is close to that of the first generation of FF DSLRs such as the Canon 5D Mark I (1368 ISO).

The D3 was a significant leap from my previous camera, the D300, but it can't do miracles.  The D3 certainly can provide low noise even at very high ISOs.  However, in shadows, luminance noise is quite visible at high ISOs, especially when those shadows are lifted in post-processing.

In the shot below, I used my Sigma 10-20 on the D3 and used 12,800 ISO.  It looks very usable to me even though the noise here is essentially magnified because of the DX crop (the Sigma 10-20 is a DX-only lens).
12,800 ISO
I took a shot of my family in the same scene at the same ISO.  However, unlike the display, we were mostly in the shadow and I had to lift the shadows in post.  Noise is apparent on those previously shaded areas, even without zooming in.  The noise here can't be easily removed by noise reduction, unless the NR is so aggressive that the subjects look plastic.  In my opinion the noise is sufficiently distracting that shots under these conditions would be usable only for personal albums.

12,800 ISO
In general, when selecting the ISO for the D3, I would observe whether any important compositional element is in shadow.  If nothing important is in shadow then I don't mind using 6400 ISO or if necessary 12,800 ISO.  If on the other hand, something important is in shadow, I would probably limit myself to 3200 ISO or I would use flash.  In either case, it's a significant difference from the D300, when I would usually limit myself to 1600 ISO or when necessary, 3200 ISO.

Coming from the D300, I actually didn't find many other differences with the D3.  I would say the D300 has almost all of the features of the D3.  Here are my observations:

Autofocus.  The D3's autofocus is not magical the way Ken Rockwell makes it sound, but it is reasonably good.  When I try to focus in what I consider to be challenging conditions - very thin depth of field plus rapidly moving subject, the focus is not always on the perfect spot but is close enough that the shot is usable.  In the shot below, for example, the camera focused on the far eye instead of the near eye (or was not able to focus fast enough before the subject moved), but in my opinion the focus is acceptable.

105mm, f/2.8

It also seems that the D3 has more reliable continuous autofocus, although I don't have the D300 anymore to do a side-by-side comparison.
Continuous AF.  Again, the focus isn't perfect but it's close enough so that the shot is usable.
One big difference between the D3 and D300 is that the D3 can autofocus in really low light even without an AF-assist light.  I find this useful, because an AF assist lamp can often cause subjects to blink.
The D3 can focus well in dim light even without an AF assist light. 
Handling.  One feature I really like in the D3 is that it's very easy to check the focus.  When reviewing images, the middle button in the directional pad can set to zoom in at 100% at the part of the image where the camera was focusing.  I can quickly determine if the D3 picked the wrong spot to focus on, or if the spot was correct but the focus was not accurate enough.

I also like the ease of selecting AF points.  The D300 has the same 51 AF points that the D3 has but selecting the right AF point required quickly tapping the directional pad.  With the D3, using the directional pad is more similar to controlling a joystick.  Whereas with the D300 I would sometimes switch to 11 AF points for speed in selecting the AF point, I feel no such need with the D3 and always keep it in 51 AF points.

I am less enthusiastic about the D3's dedicated buttons for ISO, Quality, and White Balance.  I prefer the approach used in Nikon's smaller cameras such as the D300 and D700 where ISO, Quality and White Balance were assigned to the buttons on the side of the LCD where they performed other functions (e.g. zooming in or out) depending on the context.  On the other hand, I find the extra LCD display below the main LCD screen to be useful.  It helps me see the ISO more conveniently than looking at the top LCD display.

Battery Life.  One of the useful features of the D3 is the battery life, which is rated at 4,200 shots.  However, in real life,  it seems that with the way I use it (always shooting in raw, reviewing the images frequently), I get only about 1,200 shots or so from the battery.  I've only exhausted the battery once (after a few days' worth of shooting) so I might get a better estimate with future use.

Size and Weight.  One thing that I find a bit off-putting with the D3 is the size.  In the few weeks that I've had the D3, I still haven't gotten used to it.  All my previous DSLRs were about the same size.  Even the D700 is about the same size as the D300.  On the other hand, the D3 is much larger and heavier.  It feels like a phone book.  It's large enough that it feels awkward in casual settings, like watering your lawn with a fire hose or lighting a birthday cake with a flamethrower.  Anyway, it's probably just in my head and I'll get over it.  (My brother-in-law used his D3S everywhere and it didn't seem unusual to me.)

If you have been using DX lenses like I have, you may be concerned about the cost of upgrading to full frame lenses.  The Nikon triumvirate (14-24, 24-70, and 70-200 VR II) and 1.4G primes (24, 35 and 85) are indeed quite expensive.  I don't think I could afford to cover all the focal lengths I want with these lenses.  However, I don't believe there is a need to.

First, there are decent alternatives to some of those lenses.  In particular, a reasonable alternative to the 24-70 2.8G ($1889) is its predecessor, the 28-70 2.8 AF-S (around $1100).  I will be reviewing that lens as well as another constant 2.8 lens with a one-of-a-kind focal length range, the Tamron 28-105 2.8.

As for a fast telephoto zoom, there is no real alternative to the Nikon 70-200 VR II, except perhaps the Sigma 70-200 OS, which is not quite as sharp as the Nikon 70-200.  This brings me to the second point, which is that I don't plan to abandon the APS-C format.  Instead, I will continue to use my APS-C Fuji S5 and Nikon D70 to cover wide angles and telephoto focal lengths, using the Sigma 10-20 and Sigma 50-150 respectively.

With ultrawide angles, I won't really have a shallow depth of field anyway so I don't see a need to use full frame.  In fact, I would probably want a deep depth of field in most cases, making an APS-C camera a good alternative.  With respect to longer focal lengths, the depth of field will be shallow in any case.  Indeed, a 70-200 2.8 on a full frame might have a DoF that is too shallow.  On the other hand, the 50-150 on APS-C can render the background as a blur while still keeping the subject sharp.  See here.  BTW having a second or third APS-C camera is possible at a very reasonable cost.  An older APS-C camera is not expensive (there are used D70s on ebay for around $200 or sometimes even less, and even a Nikon D3100 which has a relatively current sensor can be bought on ebay for around $350 or less).

Canon 5DII First Impressions
Full frame DSLR FAQ

Here are a few more samples from the D3, all shot with the Tamron 28-105 at f/2.8 except the last sample.

Is the bokeh smooth enough for you?  Review coming up on the lens I used for this.
  • If you'd like to upgrade to FX but D700 prices are still high in your area, you may want to consider a D3 instead, which in my opinion is a much better value at current prices.
  • A high-end APS-C body such as a Nikon D300, D300S or D7000 already has most of the features of the Nikon D3.
  • You may want to use both an FX and a DX camera to get the best of both worlds.


  1. Thanks XiaoLi! I'm really enjoying the shallow dof and high iso!

    Best regards,

  2. Why u dint move to d800?

  3. My biggest concern with the d800 is the resolution. I dont need anything more than 6mp so the extra resolution is a waste. Plus it would take a much more powerful pc to process those huge files. If the d800 had an sraw mode that pixel binned the 36mp to about 16mp or so it would have been ideal. I know the jpeg can take lower reso shots but i really need raw.

    Best regards,


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