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Nikon D3 Performance:
Capture and Display

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Nikon D3

The Nikon D3 with 50mm f/1.4 AF-D. enlarge. I got mine from Ritz. Just as well I'd get another from Adorama, Amazon or B&H Photo Video. It helps me keep adding to this site when you use these links to get yours, thanks! Ken.


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January 2008

White Balance

White balance in the D3 and D300 is superb. It is easy to adjust, and allows more flexibility, fine tuning, and a greater range of compensation than any previous Nikon, or possibly any other DSLR, ever.

Not only can WB be tweaked in +/- 6 steps vs. Nikons old +/- 3 steps, it now can be tweaked in green/magenta as well.

Not only can it be tweaked in the named settings like Auto and Cloudy, but it also can be tweaked in the manual white-card settings! Yes! That means I can shoot a white card, and warm or cool it from there!

The D3 has an uncanny ability to get correct gray-card WB even in dim home lighting. I can shoot a white card in almost complete darkness under a dimmed incandescent light, and it reads it correctly. Yeah! Now I can shot at home and not get orange pictures, even when the 2,500K setting was too orange.

When setting WB to a gray card or white napkin, the D300 is able to adjust itself over a range far broader than 2,500 - 10,000 K.

Manual Preset Gray or White Card Setting

Manual gray-card (white napkin) WB really impresses me. For the first time I was able to get decent available-light results under the mixed pink lights at an Outback Steakhouse chain restaurant.They use a mixture of dimmed white and pink incandescent bulbs, which overall is very, very, very red due to the pink paint and strong dimming. Every other camera I've used there at night looks awful, since it either comes out all red (auto WB) or simply gives up in gray-card WB. Cameras that can adapt this far in their manual preset gray-card settings usually look horrid from all the noise in the greatly boosted blue channel, while the D3 just makes good photos.


Not happy about the results with Auto WB under dimmed, mixed, pink light bulbs.


Happy and ready to order after daddy set the PREset WB to a white napkin on the table. ISO 6,400, blurry kid from motion at 1/30 exposure with slow f/3.5 lens. The D3 simply works and looks great in these crappy shooting conditions. AF is fast, even without an assist light. Shooting at ISO 12,500 (since I had only my lightweight 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 D with me from the day) I got swell results.

Auto WB

Auto WB usually works great. It's especially impressive in how it gives warm skin tones shooting in shade and lit by cloudy window light.

In Auto WB, the D3 can occasionally be tricked by green if there is no white.

Ryan in magenta

Way too magenta; AWB was fooled in this rare case by green shirt.

In two situations photographing my kid wearing a green shirt and then later sitting on a dull green couch, the AWB tried to make green into white, and made images far too magenta. No big deal, a few clicks and I shot a manual WB off another white surface for great results (not shown here).

High ISO WB Consistency

I'm unsure if the fixed WB settings, especially the gray-card presets, shift slightly at very high ISOs. They do in many cameras, since it's hard to keep the colors calibrated at insanely high gains. I saw this happen shooting a party indoors, but I can't be certain if it was the D3 or the home's lighting.


By hitting the vertical release by accident, I shot a manual WB off our tan carpet.

AHA!! It was perfect for indoor shooting, since our walls are orange. Our downlights rarely hit a subject directly: subjects at my house are usually lit by light bouncing off tan carpets and warm walls.

If I shoot a white card properly in the direct light, the results are way too warm. Shooting a white balance off the carpet gave a better result.

I suspect an Expodisc would do the same thing, since it will integrate the light hitting the subject instead of being placed in the direct beam of our downlights.

Sensor Dirt        top

After 13,000 shots and hundreds of lens changes for my lens tests, I had some dust visible at f/32, which I use when shooting macro in my studio.

I put my D3 in Bulb, jammed a small Shop-Vac hose into the lens mount, and it cleaned off the most heinous offenders.

If you do this, you could suck out your shutter. I do this to report on it. If I were you, send your D3 back to Nikon or use a blower bulb as Nikon suggests.

Image Sensor Areas        top

The D3 can shoot with three different sensor sizes:

FX: 24 x 36mm

5:4: 24 x 30mm

DX: 16 x 24mm

These are selectable via the menus (Menu > Green camera Shooting Menu > Image Area), or I can reprogram the depth-of-field button to allow instant access (MENU > Pencil Custom Settings menu > f5 > Assign Preview button > Preview + Command Dials > Choose Image Area).

When you shoot in DX or 5:4, the finder automatically crops itself down.

When you play an image shot in DX or 5:4, there is a yellow icon that shows on the D3's LCD to let you know.

The D3 tags files internally so the file names come up in yellow if they've been shot in DX or 5:3 to warn you as you play back.

DX Format

DX works great on the D3. By default, the D3 magically recognizes DX lenses and shoots accordingly. If you insist, you can force the D3 to shoot full-frame and get black or fuzzy corners.

The D3 also magically correct lateral color fringes its DX mode, so even though the numerical resolution is lower than a D40l it's sharper with many lenses.

5:4 Format

This setting simply cuts off some of the left and right sides of the FX image.

I love being able to crop off the ends and shoot in 5:4. Most subjects aren't as wide or tall as the elongated 3:2 35mm format was, so the squarer 5:4 ratio lets me shoot and fill more of the frame with many subjects.

Not only does 5:4 save file size when the shape of the subject warrants it, but it also lets thumbnails occupy more screen space in iView when sorting.

Astounding but True D3 Observation: While selecting shots of the family in iView, I was amazed when I noticed that vertical shots, two-up in the Light Table (full-screen comparison) mode, fit perfectly on my 30" screen with the D3 set to 5:4 aspect ratio. Weird, but true!

I immediately did the math: 5:4 two-up sideways is 4:5, twice, or 8:5, or 1.6:1, the same aspect ratio as most Apple monitors like my 30" Cinema Display. Everyone deserves a 30" monitor, and they are a lot cheaper today than when I got mine. Not only are they cheaper, but a 30" display will last you for the lives of two computers.

I keep a D3 function button set to Select Image Area, and often crop my verticals. The long, skinny 3:2 rectangle of DSLRs is just too long, especially for vertical shots.

High ISOs        top

see also High ISO Comparison vs. Canon 5D for examples.

High ISOs are for real. At 100% on my 30" monitor, I can't see any noise even at ISO 800. ISO 800 looks identical to ISO 200.

At ISO 1,600 I first can see some noise, but only in flat midtone areas. Noise at ISO 1,600 is pretty much invisible; you really have to be looking for it.

There's more noise at ISO 3,200, but it's still only visible in flat midtones, not in highlights or shadows. ISO 3,200 has about as much noise as a scan of a 35mm Velvia 50 transparency! ISO 3,200 is the first setting that has any hint of being shot at a high ISO.

ISO 6,400 is noisier, and the blacks are crushed a little to help hide the noise. At ISO 6,400 the highlights are still clean, and the shadows too dark to see any noise.

ISO 6,400 is great, I'd use it any time I need it and not worry about noise. ISO 6,400 looks like it's shot at a higher ISO, but heck, earlier cameras looked like crapola set at 6,400, and the fastest films ever sold had to cheat to get to ISO 3,200. If it's dark and ISO 6,400 means getting a sharp shot, just shoot at ISO 6,400.

ISO 6,400 on the D3 is about as grainy as scanned ordinary ISO 100 - 400 print film!

ISO 12,800 (H1) looks similar to ISO 3,200 from my D40, which is noisy enough to avoid it unless I really need it. "Really needing it" means it's still better to shoot at ISO 12,800 than to risk motion blur.

ISO 25,600 (H2) looks bad. It's speckled with red hot dots. Then again, ISO 25,600 is an insane last-resort before using night vision intensifiers. ISO 25,600 is noisy, but it's still sharp!

Ryan's First Birthday

Ryan's First Birthday! (Nikon D3, 50mm f/1.4 AF-D, ISO 3,200, 1/125 at f/1.4 (manual exposure), available light. Manual White Balance set off a napkin, STANDARD and +2 saturation picture control.)

This is a dim restaurant. f/1.4 at 1/125 at ISO 3,200 is LV 3, which is about the same as a street scene at night. It's the same as f/16 at one minute on Fuji Velvia 50 on a 4x5!

Bad Examples: See photos from Tim's Birthday Party, all shot on my Nikon D3, 50mm f/1.4 AF-D,1/125 at f/1.4 or f/2, AF, manual exposure, manual white-napkin white balance, ISO 4,000 and dim, mixed available light.

The snaps at Tim's Birthday Party are sucky because the light was very dim and it came from sources of all different colors. These snaps do let you see how ISO 4,000 looks perfectly fine for shooting action in sucky light with a D3 with no excuses about the noise. The biggest excuses will be as I just made, which is about the inconsistent color from one location to the next indoors.

Aliasing (also called moiré)        top

On very rare occasions, I can get aliasing on fabrics. When it has happened, it has been very subtle. I doubt this will be a problem for anyone, unlike on my D70, where aliasing could be a real problem.

Vignette Control (VC)        top

Nikon added this feature in April 2008. You turn it on in MENU > Shooting > Vignette control. It defaults to OFF, and you also may set it to Normal, Low or High.

It doesn't seem to do anything with blank test fields. I tried it with my 14mm f/2.8 AF-D, which has a load of falloff at f.2.8, and saw no improvement.

Then I tried it with my 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S, which has a decent amount of falloff at 200mm and f/2.8, and saw no improvement with test fields.

Roll mouse over to see effect of Vignette Control with a gray field.

All I see is a normal variation in exposure, but no rectification of corner darkening. This is with VC set to Normal. I didn't see any difference at High either.

VC is not shown in any playback menu, as are ADR and other options.

I also see no difference with real photos.

Rear LCD       top

Nikon D3

Nikon D3. enlarge.

The D3's LCD is so sharp and bright from every angle that it's almost three-dimensional. As mentioned at the top, it's behind a solid slab of tempered glass, eliminating the need for a condom to cover it.

The D3's LCD is the best on the planet; far better than anything from Canon. The D3's LCD has FOUR times the pixel count of any other LCD screen except the Nikon D300's identical LCD.

Running comparisons with my Canon 5D, I forgot how awful the 5D LCD is. The 5D LCD looks worthless, sick, weak, and almost as if it's broken by comparison to any of the Nikons, or even a Canon 40D.

Even if the D3 sucked, I'd get it (or the D300) just for the LCD.

The D3's LCD is way better than the computer screen on which you're seeing this Photoshop composite. Your computer is 100 DPI, while the D3 is 267 DPI. The D3 screen has such high resolution that it easily can display every pixel in the image of the complete camera above, fitting on just the 3" screen!

The D3's LCD is so good that for the first time it might make sense to hold a loupe to it.

Playback       top


When zoomed, the image fills the entire 3" screen.

This is much better than the Canon 40D, which even when zoomed, never removes the data bar from the top of the screen.

Instant Magic Playback Zoom

Yes, of course you can program the D3 and D300 to zoom into the selected AF sensor during playback. Simply do MENU > Pencil menu > f1 > Playback Mode > Zoom > Medium.

D3 Playback Buffer

The D3 hangs onto all the shots in a sequence and waits to play them back until I finally let go of the shutter. When it plays them back, it runs through all of them in sequence. Perfect!

Even better, I've discovered that while it's running through the shots, I can tap my center button, which I program to zoom into the active AF point used, and tap it again to unzoom, after which the D3 keeps on going through the sequence.

It's easier to do than to write about. Much more important is how fluidly this all works. Nikon has the firmware of the D3 set up so that it never gets in the way, unlike my Canon 5D which requires me to hit the PLAY button first to do anything at all to each displayed shot. Shooting both brands really drives home how well the Nikons work.

Fast Scrolling

Unlike the pokey D200, the RGB histograms come up instantly on the D3. They fly by as fast as you can switch among images.

HDMI Output

The HDMI output really works. Poke it into an HDTV and you instantly get get huge, detailed images.

If you use Live View mode, you now have live HDTV on your screen. Well, sort of live — it only updates at several frames per second, and it is extremely detailed.

The images don't usually fit the wider screen, but if you zoom in, your HDTV will brim edge-to-edge with the cropped image.

Data       top

New, 15 April 2008: Nikon D3 Firmware v1.10 update. In addition to a bunch of fluff, the main reason for this update is that we now can choose any shutter speed up to 1/4,000 as the limit below which Auto ISO increases the ISO. Previously Auto ISO was settable up to 1/250. I often set 1/250 when shooting action; I don't need faster, but it will be nice to have it.

Nikon has still not corrected the serious deficiency of having Auto ISO remain active when changing to Manual exposure mode. Maybe next time.

It's easy to do, the A update took 40 seconds in-camera (much faster than the minutes about which Nikon had warned) and the B update took a minute or two..

For those of you familiar with doing this, the odd part is that the the A and B firmware needed to be updated as two separate operations.

Hilarious to me, seeing how buggy Nikon software usually is (firmware is what runs inside the camera, software is what you run on a computer), is that my computer's browser crashed right after downloading the new firmware. Ha ha!

File Sizes

I shoot in Large or Medium JPG Basic, Optimal Quality. The file sizes are always about 1MB in Medium and 2.25 MB in Large.

These are smaller than the same resolution JPGs out of my Canon 5D, but the Canon 5D JPGs are also sharper and are smart enough to optimize their file sizes by subject.

Shots Remaining Indication

As usual for Nikon, it usually reads 40% too low. No big deal, but not elegant either, especially considering how the files are all almost the same size anyway. Canon does a much better job here.

What's really weird is that one day it read 2.1 times higher than usual! With a 4GB card, it always reads 1.4k images at Optimum Quality JPG Large Basic and 2.5k images at Optimum Quality JPG Medium Basic. One day it was reading 2.6k and 5.6k images at the same settings! Once I took out the card and put it back in it went back to the usual indications.

The correct readings should be 1.7k and 3.9k at those settings.

JPEG Compression Engine

The Nikon D3, like other Nikons uses a dumber compression engine than Canon.

Even when set to Optimum Quality, file sizes vary little with subject complexity. This is wasteful because I have to select JPG quality manually depending on the subject.

Canons have always been smart enough to set the file size perfectly for each shot, which saves hard disc space and also ensures I never have an image with artifacts from too low a JPG quality setting. Canon file sizes vary wildly, as do the subjects. Nikon file sizes are almost always the same, so rarely are they optimum for the subject. That's why Nikon's JPG engines are stupid.

On my 5D, I can read the size of the JPG files in the appropriate INFO screen to determine which of a sequence is most sharp, simply by looking for file size. I call this the use Canon Digital Sharpness Meter.

On my Nikon D3, when I fire a three- or four-round burst from which to select the sharpest, I have to do it at home by looking at the images because 1.) file size doesn't follow image sharpness (even a slightly blurred image is still 2.3 MB), and 2.) Nikon can't read file sizes in-camera as Canon does.

In fact, sometimes the D3 file sizes have grown mysteriously to 2.6MB in a sequence, while the 2.2 MB image is sharper!

This my seem silly to casual shooters, but when you shoot 5,000 images each month, file size costs you money in many more ways than you might think,s accounting for transfer time, storage, backup and archiving.

Dual CF Card Slots   

The dual slots just work. Now I want this on every one of my digital cameras! A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity.

Poke a card in either slot and it just goes. The top display and the bottom display always tell you which card is doing what; and on playback the card being read is shown on-screen. Brilliant!

Poke a card in each, and if card one fails or gets full, the D3 just writes to the second card.

If you bend the pins in one card slot, just use the other.

On playback, the D3 makes it clear on which card the image lies.

Nikon D3 CF Cards

Nikon D3 Dual CF Card Slots.

By default, the second card is used only when the first card fills up ("overflow"). You can set it instead to record the same thing on both cards simultaneously ("backup").

You also can select to record different formats on each card, or copy between them.

How to use the second card as backup (click)

Download Speeds from D3 via USB

Pros download from fast card readers like the SanDisk Extreme IV, not from their cameras. Just for grins, I tried it anyway.

Using a 95% full SanDisk 4GB Extreme IV card, I can download it all into my Quad G5 Mac:

Direct from D3 USB port
7 minutes
Transfer from iBook over Firewire 400 in Target Disk Mode. (downloaded to iBook with card reader in field, not timed here).
5 minutes
Direct from CF card in Extreme IV reader via Firewire 800
100 seconds

Default DPI

Nikon D3 files are fixed at 300 DPI, a pain for my web use in Photoshop, since I need to set it to 72 DPI to get my text overlays the correct size.

My Canon 5D sets its JPGs to 72 DPI as I prefer.

Shutter Actuations

Graphic Converter, a program which came free on my Mac, reads the total number of shutter actuations on my D3 in the EXIF of every JPG.


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