Impressions on the Nikon D3: High ISO Performance


Just from its specs, the D3 seems like an ideal tool for concert photography, where light is so often at a premium. In August, I posted an article highlighting my picks for the camera's top features for low-light work, as well as other notable advancements. Naturally, the question is, does the camera live up to the hype?

Now You're All in Big, Big Trouble

I took receipt of the D3 just a day after it's worldwide release and have since had the opportunity to photograph about a dozen bands under a variety of conditions, from dim dives to sold-out theatre venues. This is the first in a series of posts that will compile my initial impressions of the new camera, from new features to image quality, of interest for concert photography. With much of the buzz surrounding the camera's performance at high sensitivities, we'll start there.

High ISO Performance

After years of Canon's domination of the high ISO game, the Nikon D3 is uniquely poised to de-thrown the king with record breaking extensions up to sensitivities you didn't even know existed six months ago. I don't know about you, but I can barely count up to 25,600.

By my estimate, the D3 holds a full three-stop advantage over the Nikon D2x for high ISO performance. Here's a breakdown of the image quality as it pertains to concert photography for me and the venues in which I shoot:

ISO 800:

This sensitivity is just about the lowest I go for indoor concerts, and here the D3 performs flawlessly. On the rare occasion when there are double spotlights from the balcony, or the house lights are on high, it's a rare luxury to dial down to this setting.

At ISO 800, the D3 renders pristine files that display essentially no objectionable noise or loss of detail.

ISO 1600:

This setting is basically where I lived at for shows with the D2x, and, while acceptable, the image quality from the old camera at this ISO was hardly ideal. With the D3, images shot at ISO 1600 are exceptionally clean, with a very tight noise pattern and excellent color fidelity. The quality rendered at this setting with the D3 is easily what the D2x rendered at ISO 400. These files also hold up very well to pushing in post.

ISO 3200:

At 3200, the D3 sees just a small increase in noise from ISO 1600, while still retaining great color, fine detail, and a very fine, tight noise pattern. Compared to the D2x's equivalent HI-2 setting, the image quality at 3200 is nothing short of spectacular. Overall, images a clean and detailed, and the color fidelity looks great.

ISO 6400:

Image quality at ISO 6400 begins a noticeable yet fine decrease from the very nice ISO 3200 from the D3. Highlight detail is very well preserved, while the shadows begin to block up slightly. In-camera noise reduction does take a jump at ISO 6400 and begins to compete with fine detail. Still, the digital noise is still a very fine pattern and requires very little reduction, if any, for general use.

I anticipate that I'll be using ISO 6400 completely without reservation – the sensitivity is simply that clean. As has been Nikon's unspoken claim with their previous camera, at ISO 6400, the last in-spec sensitivity listed, the D3 performs exceedingly well. It's only beyond this setting that image quality really declines.

ISO 12800 (HI-1):

For me, this is the new ISO 1600, as the D3 renders roughly equivalent quality at this high setting as the D2x did for its HI-1 sensitivity. Image saturation takes a slight hit, but is still quite good, and better in this regard than what the D2x rendered at HI-1.

Random white pixels begin to register in the image around this sensitivity, and the sensor also begins to exhibit some horizontal banding in underexposed areas. The latter seems minimal enough, but is more noticeable than any similar symptom from the D2x.

I've also noticed horizontal banding for latitudes that contain a bright light source that is blowing out. This would be highly problematic if it were visible at lower ISOs and I will have to look into this further. Luminance noise increases from ISO 6400 and chrominance noise also shows a noticeable increase.

ISO 25600 (HI-2):

This setting, along with ISO 12800, is a first for a DSLR, and as expected, displays the camera's worst image quality. Maxing out at 25600, the HI-2 setting, the saturation takes a nosedive and excessive noise begins to really take a bite out of detail as the camera struggles with a spiraling signal-to-noise ratio.

Still, this setting is surprisingly good for such an exotic sensitivity. From my quick tests, this highest setting may be useful in a pinch, but I'll be trying to avoid it whenever possible for color work. For black and white images, the decreased saturation and higher noise levels would be much less of an issue.

If I'm going up to ISO 25600, I'll most likely be doing so as a Hail Mary anyway, so this setting for the camera will be an interesting option for image making in the most dire of conditions. On the positive note, the noise pattern is overall very pleasing as digital noise goes; for anyone who ever shot film, you may even get a little nostalgic.

End Notes:

Even before the camera debuted, the hype machine was in full effect, with much of the buzz surrounding Nikon's positioning of the camera as the definitive low-light solution. Between the staggering extensions to ISO 25600, a monster 8.45µm pixel pitch, and a promise of an 300% in dynamic range over the last generation, the D3 had a lot to live up to on its release. And as many hoped (and some prayed), Nikon delivered.

For concert photography, the D3 is nothing short of manna from heaven for the Nikon shooter. Coming from the Nikon D2x, the image quality of the new body at high ISO is
staggeringly good and immediately convincing. Having shot several gigs with the new camera already, I'm very excited to see what else the camera can do. I'll be posting images from those shows soon, as well as other impressions on some of the new features that have been a boon for concert photography.