Magazine Article


Driving Nikon's New D3
An Automatic Problem-Solver

A leap of faith: This dancer was photographed with a 200mm f/2 lens at ISO 6400 in a tiny community theater in upstate New York.
Joe Mcnally

Taking the D3 into Times Square, in New York City during rush hour, the camera is positioned two inches off the sidewalk on a hand-pulled golf cart. A feed ran out of the camera to a little video display positioned on top of the golf cart.
Joe Mcnally

Joe Mcnally

When I was asked to review the new Nikon D3 in Japan last summer and give some of my feedback, I told the Nikon folks that it looks like a Nikon, but there's definitely a different engine under the hood. Having been associated with the company since 1973, I would say that there isn't a heck of a lot of difference in the feel of the D2Xs compared to the D3, but in terms of the similarities and differences the camera has to past models, it's hard to know where to start-you kind of have to throw a dart at the wall and say "here we go," because it's a whole new ride.

The camera differs radically in its responsiveness. Its acutely sensitive response serves me not only in terms of the mechanics, which would obviously be the color engine and the auto white balance, but mostly in the fact that if I see something, I can go; I don't have to think so much about the setup, the preliminaries, or any other difficulties because the camera is actively solving all of these problems for me.

We took the camera out in the middle of Times Square during rush hour; I flew a D3 prototype two inches off the sidewalk on a hand-pulled golf cart (much to the consternation of the Nikon folks I was with). I then ran a feed out of the camera to a little video display positioned on top of the golf cart. We put a small fill card on an SB-800 and positioned the camera down low-from a ground perspective. We brought in a leggy model with three little show dogs, and I used a couple of different varieties of the autofocus, dynamic, and auto-area AF with face recognition. I wanted to portray a prim and proper lady with her little lap dogs in the hurly-burly of Times Square. I pulled the camera through crowds of people, so I wasn't looking through it; I wasn't controlling it; I wasn't able to change the settings on it; and I couldn't adjust the flash. But the camera just did its thing.


In the world of digital, you have to take every scrap of advantage and every detail into account. My results using the full-frame sensor are sharp, edge-to-edge shots. I can't produce something for a client that has dead zones-I want to get something full frame. The results that I've had with the FX format and the new lenses, principally the 14-24mm and 24-70mm, are just astonishingly sharp.

Because I'm a photojournalist and often work in low-light situations, I like short, wide, fast glass. I've also always been a very big fan of primes, and my prime lenses with these new zooms are back into play. I've even been using some of my older lenses, like a 20mm and a 28mm f/1.4. I can't tell you what a revelation the 14-24mm was for me, because the 14mm is a fast, rectilinear lens (f/2.8) and sharp edge-to-edge with no lens aberration. I'm a feature photographer, not a football guy shooting with a 600mm lens every day-I'm close to you, so to have the kind of focal length that the D3 provides at such an optimum level of performance is astonishing.


At the end of the day, I'm principally a color photographer. The RGB sensitivity of this particular digital machine finds color nuances that I've never seen before. One of my very early experiences with this camera was on a really colorful set-we had different models with varying skin tones, snakes, elephants, butterflies, and just a gamut of color. When I went home after shooting that day and checked out the images, my jaw hit the space bar-it was my first "aha" moment with the camera.

The multifunctionality of the D3 allows me the opportunity to achieve really crisp images. For PhotoPlus East one of the images I'd made of a New York City firefighter was output into a 4x6-foot print. Surprisingly, nothing was lost in the image: the detail was still in the ax, in the blade, and in the face. Knowing that the texture and detailing is there and that information is being transferred effectively to the strobe, I can go out and intuitively follow my nose, confident that the camera is with me.

The quality of the D3 obviates the need for a larger format. You can choose the size of your image area and you not only have the full frame, but you also have the 5:4 ratio. I like a square format for portraiture, and I've always loved my 2 historically because I could shoot square or I could shoot 6x7, but now with the 5:4 aspect ratio, it gets me close to that feel of an older style of portraiture. I don't mind giving up a little bit of the surface area of the sensor because I know that the camera's level of quality is such that I can explore these options. I anticipate doing a series of black-and-white portraits at the 5:4 format to have a certain stylistic continuity that is a little bit different than your standard FX or 35mm full-frame format.

One of the things I have done consistently throughout my career is shoot dance and theater, and this camera gave me more flexibility than I ever had before.

I shot a leaping dancer with a 200mm f/2 lens, which is my favorite telephoto lens, at ISO 6400 in a tiny community theater in upstate New York, where the light was real rough. The camera's AF, high ISO, fast glass, and full-frame sensor gave me a picture that just wasn't going to happen with any other camera.


A cautionary note: the autofocus is different and does take some getting used to because there are different modes, so I really advocate learning the camera methodically. There are many different modes that are at work in this camera: you have 9-area, 21-area, and 51-area modes; you can go into dynamic [AF] and a number of [specific] cursors.

If you gang up the focus with a bunch of active points, and somebody has got their shoulder pointed at you, there's a chance that an autofocus point is going to take off on that shoulder and stop critical focus short of the eyes, so you really have to be careful in the management of the AF system. I think the D3 offers another generation of autofocus that will require some education on the part of photographers who are going to want to rip this puppy out of the box and go to town with it.

This is a very smart machine-you have to familiarize yourself with it so that you can drive the train and make this camera take you where you want to go. It will get you there-you just have to know the way.