Nikon D300 and D3 real world test

Ok, so I finally got the D3 out on a wedding last night. Clare also shot 2nd camera with me using the D300, so we have feedback from both cameras. Our previous camera's were the D200, D2xs, Fuji S5, and most other Nikon based. This was a good wedding to test the low light capabilities as we were shooting mostly inside a club house with existing light up until just after the ceremony, when the sun set and the rooms were lit mostly by low lights and candle light. We also were able to go outside, where it was overcast, slightly rainy mixed with some snow, for some of the portraits.

I have to be honest. I really did NOT want to like the D3. Why? Because I love the 1.5 magnification sensor of the D300! I love my light weight DX lenses and the fast, extra long focal lengths I got. I got spoiled and didn't want to go back to a full frame where my lenses were actually what they were. I had the wide angle covered with new DX glass, so was missing nothing - but the extra weight.

Before I cover the "on the job" feel of the cameras, there are some new features that really make these cameras great. One of major significance is the ability to fine tune focus via the custom menus! Wow, this is a tremendous tool that solves one of the long standing issues with all brands of digital cameras - focus inaccuracies with different lenses. Now we can not only adjust the focus to dial it exactly right, but we can save adjustments for EACH lens that we use and the camera will automatically remember it! SWWEEEEET! My first task upon receiving the cameras was to put each lens on and check the focus. Indeed, a few of them were ever so slightly off. It is REALLy easy to adjust and save the focus fine tune, and only took a few minutes to calibrate each of my lenses. Nice going Nikon.

Next, the D3 has dual CF card slots which can be configured so that the extra slot is backup to the first, used for JPG copies of the RAWs on the first, or simply as overflow when the first is filled. I set it to overflow and popped in a 16GB card in the first and a 4 GB in the second. Those two cards lasted my whole wedding. No changing cards! Incidentally, the 16GB card holds 1508 (compressed) RAW files. All together, I shot 1809 images and my battery was still on 2/3 when I left. I also used my VR lens quite a bit (which drains the battery) and I spot checked images more often than usual since it was a new camera. Overall, great batter life!

I also love the custom buttons. Nikon has included this since the D2x, and it is still one of my favorite features. There are two buttons on the front of the camera, one is the traditional depth of field preview button, and another just below it. I program my lower button to turn off the flash while it's held - great for when I want to take a few flash images, then mix in a natural light shot or two, then back to flash. It's soo much faster than turning the flash off...then back on again. I program the second button to activate spot metering while I hold it. Perfect for those quick, tricky lighting situations where I want spot just for one quick shot. How many times have you turned on spot metering, then forgotten it was on and ruined a bunch of subsequent exposures? I know I have more than a few under my belt. You can program these buttons to do several other cool features of your choosing. These are just my favs.

The D300 has a nice, smooth, fairly quite shutter. The D3 is a bit louder, but blazing saddles Wally, is it ever fast! Firing this camera is like speed shifting a race car. It's instant and precise. It's an amazing feeling that you have to experience to understand. Get your hands on a D3 and fire it off. Bam!

I also like the new "My Menu" that allows you to pick your most used settings and store them in one consolidated menu. This is a great time saver if you switch often. For example, I put my Auto ISO control, flash minimum shutter speed, self timer settings, Flash commander mode, and a few others in there. Speaking of auto ISO, this has also been one of my favorite Nikon features for a long time and it's better than ever. It allows you to set the maximum ISO and the minimum shutter speed that you want to use and the camera will pick the best ISO for a given lighting situation. So, I can shoot inside and it might select ISO 680, then I run outside to bright light and it will drop it down to my normal ISO 200. Love it!

I also like the quick zoom feature on playback. One button and you're zoomed in tight to inspect for fine focus. You can even preset the zoom level you want it to jump to, from med to super close. It even knows what focus point you used when you captured the image and it will zoom in to this focus point. Smart. This is a great time saver when you want to spot check images really quickly - like I do.

Ok, so there are other great features, but let's get to the wedding test.

The camera is heavy. Maybe I'm just outa shape from carrying a D200 around lately, but once you get a big lens on there it really requires some workin' out to wield it all day. That's about the only gripe I have, so there.

The D3 focuses fast. very fast. I feel like my ratio of "frozen moments" went up at least approximately 22.56%. The focus was dead on in almost every case, and it's ability to focus in low light is amazing. I did find that it focuses much better with newer lenses. During the first dance, where the room was mostly candle lit, I was using an older 85mm f1.4 lens (which I love, btw) and had a hard time locking on. I couldn't figure out why as I hadn't had any trouble throughout the day. I realized I had been using the 70-200VR f2.8 most during the dark scenes, so I immediately switched lenses and had no problems locking focus in the candle light. Clare, who was using the D300 at the same time also had no problem focusing quickly in the low light.

Color balance is much improved over any previous camera I've owned (Nikon and Fuji) and I only found it had issues in very warm tungsten light where it still kept it pretty warm occasionally. Since I am shooting RAW, however, this is not a problem as I fix it very quickly in Lightroom.

Low light, high ISO noise is the biggest surprise. It's just not there. I shot during the ceremony, indoors at winter sunset with candle light and a low tungsten overhead light. The background was a black stone fireplace - which would typically be a blob of noise under these conditions with previous cameras. The shadows were very clean and detailed. Even the small amount of noise that was there at 3200 ISO was soft and much more organic looking – like film grain, if we must draw a comparison. the following image was shot at 3200. It was processed in Lightroom with NO noise reduction, only size reduction from the RAW file. 1663333-1247114-thumbnail.jpg
D3 at ISO 3200 Click to enlarge

The next image was shot at ISO 1800. Notice how clean the dark shadows are.

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D3 at 1800 ISO. Click to enlarge.I'll post some ISO 3200 images from the D300 later as I don't have them on this computer. They are not quite as clean as the D3, but still acceptable and a significant improvement over any previous Nikon.

Is the D3 sharp? Ouch, yes. Here's a cool shot with my new prototype Lensbaby. I can't tell you anything about the lens, or Craig will kill me, but the images are incredible. Zoom in on the eyes to "see" for yourself.

I think I can tell you that you're going to love this new lens. Zip, mum, can't say anything more.
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D3 with Lensbaby. Click to enlarge and look at the eyes.

So, I also used off-camera TTL SB800's and they worked flawlessly. I even synced up a white Lightning unit bouncing off the ceiling, filled by an SB800 on camera and another SB800 wirelessly off-camera and they all worked together beautifully.  

I'm glad Nikon did not get pixel envy and create a 20+MP behemoth. We don't need that for wedding and portrait work. I think that 10-12 MP is just right for any size enlargement we're likely to make and it keeps the file sizes manageable. With RAW compression on in camera, RAW files are about 10.5MB 

I mentioned the speed of the D3, but it's hard to describe just how instantaneous the shutter feels. The camera itself has an amazing build quality and feel that just can't be described. It's like driving a very fine sports car. You can talk about how well it handles and turns 0-60 times, but you don't realize how great it is until you actually drive it. It's just a feeling you get. The D3 has that feel. No other camera that I've ever picked up, from any manufacturer, has this same indescribeable feeling of quality and precision. Did I mention I also shot out in a light rain with it too? No problems, as expected.

I think this wedding was a very good "trial by fire" as I tried every technique I could think of for lighting, was challenged by very low light situations, shot under somewhat adverse conditions (rain, snow, no dust though) and had to be comfortable with it after only a short time of practice. Overall, I'm ecstatic, to say the least. I sit in bed and play with it. Did I just say that?  

I've left the D300 somewhat undiscussed, but I will report more on it specifically later. Right now I can't put down the D3. I can say that the D300 is nearly as good as the D3, except for: 1) not as clean as the D3 in high ISO. 2) Not as fast to focus and fire. 3) Not as heavy so you won't build any muscles. 4) doesn't have 2 card slots. What it does have in it's favor is: 1) very light and portable. Can add the vertical grip for more versatility. 2) Quieter shutter 3) Built-in pop up flash.

Here's one more image from the D3 with the multiple lights. Overhead White Lightning, SB800 on camera, SB800 wireless TTL off-camera.

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D3 with multiple flash units