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.
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.