Photo by Scott Bourne

Photo by Scott Bourne

I am primarily a wildlife photographer. My tools need to help me photograph action. Whether it be wildlife or sports, no camera has ever been able to deliver such consistent results for me. After several months of constant use, I have a better understanding of the value of this camera.

The key features include…

1) Tremendous autofocus

2) 9 FPS

3) Auto ISO

4) Unmatched high ISO performance

1) The D3′s dynamic auto-focus simply works better than any auto-focus system I have ever used. It’s complicated to learn how to get the most out of it, but having 51 auto-focus points when you’re shooting moving objects, really helps. It’s one of the big differences between this camera and others.

2) Nine frames per second is nearly twice as fast as most consumer or prosumer cameras. While you won’t need this kind of speed photographing landscapes, it sure helps when you’re dealing with moving wildlife. This can even be bumped up to 11 FPS, but I’ve never needed anything more than nine.

3) At first glance, Nikon’s Auto ISO mode looks like something that you’d see on a point and shoot. I’ve even seen respected reviewers pooh-pooh this feature as something for amateurs. Sorry, some folks just aren’t getting it. This is a PRO feature if there ever was one.

Nikon’s Auto-ISO allows you to set shutter speed and aperture combinations at pre-determined settings, then the ISO will adjust automatically as the light changes.

Here’s a typical scenario for me. I photograph lots of flying birds. They don’t always cooperate with the light. I might start shooting a bird in direct sunlight, only to have it fly out of the light into shadow, and then back into the light. The result might be a four or five stop difference in light on the subject. It’s impossible to change the ISO on the fly, while trying to capture the bird in flight and in focus. But using Nikon’s Auto ISO, I just set my shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second and my aperture at f/5.6 then the auto ISO adjusts automatically for the lighting condition.

The scene begins in the sunlight at auto ISO 250 with superb quality. The bird flies by me and into a shadow where my shutter speed and aperture remain fixed, but my auto ISO has automatically adjusted for the dark shadow to ISO 3200 with tremendous low noise/high ISO performance. Then as the bird flies back into the light, the ISO automatically drops down to ISO 250 again.

The entire scene will be perfectly exposed start to finish. I have amazing quality in the sunlit images at the start of the birds flight and still get publication quality in the images exposed while the bird was in shadow.

During my career I’ve probably lost thousands of images in similar situations because I couldn’t have any hope of adjusting the ISO on the fly.

I now shoot birds in settings I wouldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago.

4) High ISO performance on this camera simply has to be seen to be believed. I make very large prints from images captured on the D3 at 1600 ISO! I would have never dreamed that could work. In fact, I had friends telling me it worked and I didn’t believe it until I made my own prints. I have book sized-photos published from this camera that were shot at ISO 6400! While ISO 3200 is pretty much as far as I like to go, I’ll jump up to 6400 in a heartbeat if it means getting the shot. If I were a newspaper guy, I wouldn’t hesitate to go further. There’s simply nothing that compares with the D3′s high ISO performance.

Are there negatives? You bet.

a. Dust on the sensor

b. Too complex

a. Dust – Without a doubt, this camera attracts dust onto the sensor more than any digital SLR I have ever owned. My Canon DSLRs never needed to be cleaned more than two times a month. I have to clean the D3′s sensor twice as often – or more. The fact that there’s no automatic sensor cleaning mode on the D3, but there is on the less-expensive D700, is crazy.

It’s also harder to clean this sensor than any I have ever owned. I’ve finally worked out a system, but it’s more of a hassle then I’d like.

Even knowing this, I’d still buy the camera again. But it is something that I guarantee you Nikon will have to address in the next version of this camera.

b. Complexity – I counted 24 buttons and switches on the D3. Add to that dozens of menus, and nested menus, and you can go crazy trying to figure it all out. There has to be a better way. While the MY MENU function does help, someone at Nikon needs to sit down with these pro cameras and actually use them. While I don’t have the answer, I know that a few well-placed mutlti-function dials could help. The complexity of this camera can get in the way of its performance for the casual shooter.

CONCLUSION

There’s no perfect camera. I was very reluctant to switch from Canon. But for me, and the kind of photography I do, this was the right choice. I’m very happy with the D3 and expect it (or its progeny) to be my camera of choice for a long time.

If I were a landscape or product shooter, I might be tempted by the new Canon 5D MKII. But as a wildlife photographer, Canon doesn’t currently offer me anything remotely close to the D3 in capability. So I’m firmly in the Nikon camp now.
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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 0 Comments

  1. Very informative and much appreciated. I am curious if you have an opinion on the D700? The price difference from the D3 would allow me to get some very nice glass to go with it. I, too, shoot mostly wildlife and some portraits. I have a D300 and will keep that as my back-up camera.
    Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Hi Scott:

    Thanks for the insightful comments on the D3. One key question, when you say you use “the Auto ISO, and set my shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second and my aperture at f/5.6 then the auto ISO adjusts automatically for the lighting condition” do you mean you go to manual mode?

    Steve.

    Reply
  3. You touch on something very interesting—Canon versus Nikon. I have been Canon 100% since some of my first compact cameras and now have a Rebel XTi. I really need to upgrade a step. I have been strongly considering the very tempting 5D MKII, but everyone I know is Nikon. The main reason why I have not switched over is because of my lenses, flashes, and other ‘misc’ equiptment. Is it really worth it for the future? Will this Canon-Nikon battle ever end?!?!

    Thanks!
    Riley

    Reply
  4. @Steve I can do this in either manual mode or shutter priority mode. If I use shutter priority it will automatically set my aperture wide open and on my big lens that is 5.6. If I need 5.6 on a faster lens, then yes manual mode. In either event AUTO ISO takes over if there’s not enough ISO to make the shot at the desired shutter speed/aperture combo.

    Reply
  5. I thought that the increase of buttons/switches/dials on cameras was a funciton of their expensiveness/”pro”-ness. One of the major differences between a cheap point & shoot and a $5,000 DSLR is that while you have to drill down through many menus to adjust settings on the P&S you can flip a switch to do the same without leaving the viewfinder on the DSLR.

    Reply
  6. I agree on the auto ISO feature. I use it on my D200 for wildlife all the time (even though the D200′s noise sucks).

    Reply
  7. @Riley I like the competition/war between the main camera manufacturers… it delivers improved and innovative products for photographers AND drives down prices. I hope it never ends!

    Thanks for the review Scott… it’ll be nice when such high ISO performance makes it’s way into the slightly more affordable camera bodies!

    Reply
  8. Thank-you Scott for this information.

    I agree that you should use the best tool for your job, whenever possible. This summer my wife and I purchased our first SLR. I though I would end up with a Canon but after going out and HOLDING the cameras, and thinking about the shots I was going to take on our 17 day journey through the western US, the D300 was the camera for us. I wanted something faster than 3 frames per second, I wanted durable construction and I wanted the camera to fit in my hands. The D300 was an awesome choice. It became the right camera for me once I write down those specifications I needed for my shooting.

    Once I wear out this D300 I would like to get a full-frame camera. However, I am thoroughly enjoying my D300 and features like the “crop factor” which help me get a little more zoom for my amateur budget too!

    It sure is easy to get caught up in the gear we use and forget that it is about the picture, so use what you need/have to get the picture you want. If that is a Canon, great! A Nikon, great! A Kodak disposable film camera, great!

    One quick question Scott, how do you find the ergonomic difference to be between your Canon cameras and the Nikon? Also, how long did it take for your brain to switch to mounting lenses “the other way” and using the zooms “the other way” too?

    Reply
  9. @Karl I don’t find the ergonomics to be dramatically different. I still haven’t gotten my brain used to doing everything backwards. I don’t know if I ever will :)

    Reply
  10. Scott, wouldn’t your complaints against the D3 be answered by going with the D700? It’s essentially the same camera, if you use the battery grip.

    You’d give up a little under 1 FPS.

    You lose 5% on your viewfinder.

    Lose the second card slot.

    Gain a sensor cleaner.

    Fewer buttons.

    Same exact imaging.

    Save $1500 bucks.

    And it’s a nice walk around shooter when you take the grip off.

    That sounds like that might be the better answer, no?

    Also, can you relay your exact menu settings for ISO? There are several places you can tinker with settings and restrictions, I’m curious how you tell your camera your ISO preferences.

    Reply
  11. @Michael I do have a D700 and it’s a great camera – but it’s not a wildlife/sports camera. The second card is a big deal when you shoot like I do. And as I said, 9 fps is important to wildlife shooters. All those extra clicks wear out the shutter faster so the D3′s longer shutter life is important. I DO need a 100% viewfinder for bird stuff. And the price is $1200 less not $1500. I am not sure what you’re asking me about the ISO settings.

    Reply
  12. Wow this is very cool. Man im so excited for the future when D3′s are consumer level and chums like me can afford this kind of technology.

    Reply
  13. Scott said “I still haven’t gotten my brain used to doing everything backwards.”

    If you are referring to the control dial, there is a menu item that lets you change the rotation direction. If you mean the lens mount and focus ring, then I’m at a loss for you. Although the Sigma lenses go opposite the Nikon lenses. Having a Sigma 10-20mm in my bag of Nikon lenses gets me confused for a moment. But it’s been no big deal.

    Just remember when you can’t the the rear lens cap off, don’t force it….:-)

    Reply
  14. @Ken yeah I know but as you say, the lens still twists only one way :)

    Reply
  15. @ken Haha… i have a tamron 70-300 for canon mount, and weirdly enough it zooms the nikon way and not the usual canon way :) but still, it has never really bugged me too much.

    Reply
  16. I meant nothing challenging in my post– sorry if it came off otherwise. I can see how it might.

    I didn’t think the extra card is so much of an issue, because I’ve never had a card fail (I tend to stop using them before they get a chance) and I’ve shot with one card cameras for years without trouble. That said I’m knocking on every piece of wood in my house! But two cards is a relatively new inclusion in pro DSLRs, so having only one slot doesn’t seem like that much of a drawback.

    To me, a 1 fps difference just doesn’t seem like that much of a hinderance, seeing as the pro Canon model is so much slower. I can see your point, I just look at your gorgeous Canon shots and think the tradeoff might be worth what the D3 is missing.

    The ISOs, I asked because my camera seems to always gravitate toward the max ISO setting when I go auto, and I was wondering if I was missing a setting somewhere. Not a huge issue, I use Nik d-fine with incredible results to remove grain. But I find myself going full manual a lot of the time, and I need to get more disciplined about watching ISO more closely.

    Hey, I wanted to take a second to give thanks for the community with TWIP. It’s made me think a lot more about what and how I shoot, and encouraged me to share my work more with others. (I’m mobyavid on Flickr). Thanks!

    Reply
  17. @Michael I don’t know why you act like somebody thought your post was challenging. I sure didn’t. I simply responded to your points. I think you’re mixing arguments tho. First you say the D3 compares favorably against the D700 and then you bring Canon in the mix – so I lost you there. Since I don’t understand your point I guess I won’t comment further. Glad you like TWIP.

    Reply
  18. As usual, an outstanding review. I really appreciate your “straight to the point” reasoning as well. At 9 fps, did you switch CF cards to improve write performance? I have a D90 and after seeing Rob Galbraith’s performance numbers on the Extreme III, I’m very tempted to step up. Thanks not only for a great review but a great bear pic to going along with! Great perspective

    Reply
  19. @Doug thanks I did switch to the Hoodman UDMA 16 Gig Cards.

    Reply
  20. I really appreciate your review, Scott. As I have learned more about you from the podcasts it is remarkable that you are willing to devote the time to TWIP. I appreciate it.

    I’m a happy newbie and D300 owner who has learned that I will probably never aspire to a D3. The distinctions this discussion has drawn between the D3 and the D700 are a bright line for me. My emerging craft will most likely always suffice with the D700 or its successors. Less than half of my glass is DX format so I am well prepared when the time comes. I will always have the D300 as a backup.

    Someday the D700; someday… For today, I’ll focus on my craft.

    Reply
  21. The auto-ISO thing is key. What is good for birds is also good for moving children.

    Reply
  22. I think your review was dead bang for the most part with my experience with the D3. I have found that the D3 is a bit of a dust magnet, but cleaning it has no been a major issue for me. But that may because I live in a dry climate in Fresno.
    But for me it is easier to clean than a D2x or EOS-1D Mark II. The good thing is it doesn’t focus backwards like Canon. :)

    Reply
  23. Scott,
    I’ve been listening to your podcast weekly even though I’m staying in Singapore. Thanks for sharing so much information thru your podcast especially on the new technologies in digital photography.
    One observation from your show, seems like you guys are just focusing on Canon and Nikon as the main DSLR maker. The rest are like non existence.
    Recently Sony A900 was launched and from my experience, it’s indeed one of the best DSLR in the market now.
    The details from the camera is amazing and frankly I will not say that features wise, it’s the best.
    I hope that you can spend some time trying out the camera and will like to listen to your opinion on this camera.. since you can switch from Canon to Nikon, I hope to hear your opinion on this new SONY A900 in one of your show in future.

    Reply
  24. @TW glad you like the show but you must not be following very closely. We won’t be covering Sony. We have made several attempts to work with them but their marketing and PR is amongst the worst I’ve ever encountered. Since none of us plan to buy one of their cameras, and since they won’t send us review units, we won’t be covering them. Unlike most photography sites – we don’t just reprint press releases here and we don’t jump onto the echo machine either. If we don’t have personal experience with something – we don’t cover it. Now if you’d like to buy us a Sony A900, we’ll gladly review it. Lastly, since 94.5% of our audience uses Canon/Nikon, we can never go wrong when we decide to focus on those brands. And anything we say about photography in general applies regardless.

    Reply
  25. Hi Scott! I’m all with you with the auto ISO. I think this is one of most overlooked features of Nikons. Funny though, it’s been available on older and even entry level Nikon DSLRs (e.g.D40x) for some time. I guess the low iso performance of the D3 just makes it even better. It’s a great feature of have and i use it the most while taking pictures of my kids and comes handy while waiting for the flash to recycle. Cheers!

    Reply
  26. What method do you use to clean your D3 sensor?

    Reply
  27. [...] cameras soon. I wrote about this as one of the reasons I like the D3 in a post you can find in our TWIPPHOTO.COM archive. Here’s the salient passage in that [...]

    Reply

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