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First Thoughts on Nikon's Big Announcement

The long period of gossip and rumors about a possible Nikon full-frame DSLR came to an end this week with the announcement of the new Nikon D3 featuring the new FX format sensor (24 x 36mm). Nikon also announced the DX format D300 body as a successor to the D200 as well as a crop of great new lenses. Here are a few first thoughts on what these new cameras mean.

First off, the D3 does not mean that the doomsayers' predictions of DX obsolescence have been proven right. Nikon is not abandoning the DX (1.5x crop) sensor but is instead responding to the market and providing choices. If you want a full-frame sensor body, Nikon has now provided one. What's amazing is that at around $5000 list price, they have done so at a price point not too different from that of its predecessor the D2Xs. Most people considering a possible upgrade though will need to factor in upgrading any DX lenses they may have as well of course, but the body price itself has come in at far less than I would have initially predicted. However, this needs to be put in perspective with the price versus features of the new D300 which should go for around $1800 and includes most things the D3 has with the exception of the sensor size. Indeed, comparing the D300 to my current D2x shows just how far prices have dropped over the last couple of years in the digital camera market. But dollars are still dollars and if I can buy nearly three D300's for the cost of a D3 and won't need to trade in my 12-24mm DX wide angle, I'm having to think long and hard about which really makes sense for my needs.

This will likely hold true for many Nikon users. If they can keep buying better cameras for less money each time they upgrade, that's a good thing. Market competition will continue to drive the trend towards lower prices so it seems inevitable that Nikon will continue with their new dual format strategy, creating new full frame bodies for those who want/need them, while also creating new DX format bodies for those who find them a better fit for their needs. And as long as the market for digital cameras continues to expand as it has been, everybody wins.

These same trends should help DX gear retain its value in the used market so even if you decide down the road to upgrade to a possible D4 or D5 full-frame body, you should have no trouble selling your existing DX-format body and lens at that time.

Yes, none of the lenses announced by Nikon this time around are DX-lenses, but that does not mean that Nikon won't release any more in the future. It only makes sense that when the first FX body gets announced that all the lenses that get announced with it support the full frame format. In fact, they have already stated that new DX lenses are in the works, so just be patient.

Now, let's look briefly at some of the features the new D3 and D300 will have.

If you've seen the pictures, the first thing you will likely have noticed is the bigger LCD screen. We're talking a lot bigger. Nearly the entire back of the camera is the LCD. Resolution has gone from 230,000 pixels to a whopping 920,000 "dots". 920,000 dots is refered to by most people as 307,000 pixels, but Nikon's marketing department counts each red, green and blue "dot" that make up the pixels. Still, this is a big step up, whatever they want to call it. The higher resolution should help a lot when reviewing images in the field.

Nikon has finally delivered on a long requested feature by providing what they call "live view" where the LCD screen can be used as an image preview before pressing the shutter. This is a common feature on point-and-shoot cameras but is relatively new for DSLR's since the mirror blocks the normal path of light to the sensor.

Technically, one of the most significant advances is that raw-format shooters will now have a choice of traditional 12-bit NEF format or a new 14-bit per pixel NEF format. No, this does not mean you will get expanded dynamic range. Just as with the difference between 8-bit and 16-bits for RGB images, what this means is that you will have more accurate colors, not a wider gamut. This should make the ability to extract shadow detail from raw images even better than before but it will also of course mean that raw images are bigger than before. The larger size will also affect frame rates at least on the D300, dropping it from 6 fps to only 2.5 fps. That's still plenty for most of my needs. If you shoot sports or wildlife, you may want to stick with 12-bit NEF.

Both cameras use the same battery and viewfinder accessories as their predecessors, even if these aren't shared between the D300 and D3. The D300 continues with the EN-EL3e and rectangular viewfinder just as the D3 continues with the EN-EL4a and round screw-on viewfinder. As far as I am concerned, it would be nice if Nikon would standardize on one battery and viewfinder or the other so that they are interchangeable, but at least they seem to have standardized on two formats. No need to upgrade them this time around. Both bodies continue with the long-standing 10-pin remote cable connection.

One odd difference from prior bodies is the change to using ISO 200 as the standard low ISO rather than 100. This harkens back to what used to be the case with the D100, but newer bodies have gone down as low as ISO 100, something I prefer since it can be difficult at ISO 200 getting shutter speeds slow enough to blur waterfalls in broad daylight, no matter how much you stop down the lens aperture. I used to encounter many more situations where a solid neutral density filter was needed to compensate for the lack of a low ISO on my D100. The ISO 200 value though would have been derived from the base ISO of the sensor being used and should produce the cleanest images the new cameras are capable of. Both the D300 and D3 do include a "LO" ISO setting below their regular minimum that should provide the equivalent of ISO 100 for occasions when it would be needed, but you may get more noise on LO than at 200.

It seems that Nikon has finally standardized on i-TTL flash system since neither body lists support for D-TTL among its features. Most users have probably already upgraded to the SB-800 or SB-600, so this not pose a problem. Nikon flash control is currently far superior to Canon's, so hopefully i-TTL will be with us for some time to come.

Both bodies include a 100% viewfinder image. This is great news for those who have been stuck with 95% coverage from prosumer DSLR bodies in the past. There's nothing more annoying than reviewing your images on your computer at the end of the day only to find that a tree branch encroached on one side of several.

The D300 includes self-cleaning sensor technology similar to that which has been used Canon and others. By selecting a menu option, the sensor can be made to vibrate at a high frequency to shake loose any attached dust. This is great news for outdoor shooters where dust spots is more of an issue. Oddly, the D3 does not include this feature, something due more than likely to the engineering needed for the new FX format sensor.

The auto-focus system for both bodies has been improved once again with the introduction of the CAM3500 AF module featuring 51 focus points.

Other new techno buzzwords included with both new cameras include support for UDMA-enabled compact flash cards for even faster throughput and an HDMI connection for direct viewing images on newer high-def televisions and monitors.

All things considered, I'm more than pleased with what Nikon has announced. Hopefully you are too.

Update 08/29/07 — A few additional notes on Nikon's announcement of the D3 and D300 based on feedback and questions I've received on this article:

  • The "white dot" ambient light sensor that the D2x and D2Xs had is missing from the D3. It seems that this was an idea that just didn't provide enough added benefit to justify continuing with.
  • You don't actually have to get rid of your DX lenses if you buy a D3 since the D3 will indeed use them. You likely will want to replace your DX lenses though since their use forces the D3 into DX crop mode where it uses only the central portion of its sensor. This drops the resolution of the D3 from 12.1 megapixels in full-frame FX mode to only 5.1 megapixels in DX mode. That's a mighty expensive 5 MP camera.
  • The D300 continues with the pop-up flash of its predecessors. I have no idea why since these things are only marginally useful.
  • A new version of Camera Control Pro will provide a live view preview on your connected computer. That's great news for studio shooters.
  • Early reports are that the EXPEED image processing system produces excellent results but we'll need to wait for production sample images to see for ourselves. Based on what Nikon has managed to do with each previous generation of DSLR bodies, I'm expecting good things.
  • Apparently, the D3 does support D-TTL in addition to i-TTL. The D300 is i-TTL only. Most users are likely using i-TTL flashes only, so things should be fine whichever body you go with.
  • In-camera active D-Lighting may help with high and low contrast subjects, particularly for jpeg shooters. This has always been a hit or miss feature in Nikon Capture NX though, so you may need to experiment with it a bit to determine the best settings for your needs.
  • A new wireless WT-4 transmitter was also announced that will work with both the D3 and D300. It's a separate small box that connects via a cord rather than being an added base that goes underneath the camera as a vertical grip like previous WT versions were. It supports 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g.
  • I do not expect a D3h and D3x since the D3 itself does both fast and big. Previously, this was the rationale for the dual variants, but given the model number of what Nikon has announced, the D3 should be it. This seems like a good thing to me since it frees up Nikon engineering resources to solve other problems.
  • Both bodies are expected to be actually available in November 2007. Nikon generally has been pretty good at meeting the dates they announce, so this should hopefully hold true this time. Expect demand to exceed supply for some time though, so if you want one, get on a list, put down a deposit, or whatever you and your favorite dealer deem appropriate.

Update 12/03/2007 - I pre-ordered when they a D300 when they were announced and it arrived today. I really like it. More after I have a chance to play with it a bit....

Update 03/10/2008 - Reader JJ wrote in suggesting something that had not occurred to me regarding the pop-up flash on the D300. Given how well both the D3 and D300 do at high ISO settings up to ISO 3200, the small flash on the D300 in fact can work reasonably well for some night shooting situations. To keep the ISO as low as conditions will allow, you can set your D300 to Auto ISO with a max of 3200 and let the camera manage things. Results actually come out surprisingly good.

Date posted: August 26, 2007 (updated March 10, 2008)


Copyright © 2007, 2008 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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