Nikon D3: Top Low-Light Features

nikon_d3.jpgA week after the announcement of the Nikon D3, photographers are still abuzz over the new flagship DSLR. With a slew of new features, in many instances matching or exceeding the specifications of the competition, the D3 looks great on paper. Here are a few thoughts on the most interesting advancements for low-light event photography.

New FX Sensor
In a first from Nikon, the D3's 36mm x 23.9mm sensor marks a departure from the company's single line of APS-C cameras. Nikon is calling this format FX, in contrast to the smaller-format DX sensors.

Lens considerations aside, the most exciting aspect of this is the ability to utilize larger photosites for a better signal-to-noise ratio, thus allowing for improvements in image quality at higher amplification. With this shift, the D3 has the potential to feature the best high-ISO performance we've seen from a Nikon yet.

With an industry-leading pixel pitch of 8.45µm at a modest 12mp, all specifications indicate that Nikon's new flagship should be able to deliver very good image quality at high ISOs. By keeping resolution moderate, all in a large sensor, the increased size of the photosites would seem to indicate a highly capable low-light machine.

ISO 6400-25600
With Nikon's seeming modesty when it comes to specifying ISOs (the D2x only specs ISO 800 in the conventional range, and with good reason), the specification of native ISO 6400 marks an exciting move by Nikon in the D3. As a conservative company with a history of reserve, I would hope this new boldness simply indicates a high confidence in their new flagship, rather than a marketing maneuver.

On top of an impressive native ISO range, the D3 offers a full two-stops of sensitivity above ISO 6400, with 1/3-stop increments up to ISO 12800 and a full-stop increase to ISO 25600.

Given Nikon's history for conservative specs, these industry-leading sensitivities are an unexpected and welcome direction – so long as the bravado are backed up, Nikon has everyone's attention.

Early samples indicate that Nikon may have indeed made a huge leap in high ISO image quality.

EXPEED Image Processing
Nikon has finally branded their proprietary image processing chip, following in the footsteps of Canon's successful DIGIC line, though this naming is essentially meaningless beyond marketing. What is really of more interest is the higher definition image processing the new system incorporates.

Promising smoother gradations and better tone production, the D3 and D300 alike boast a 14-bit DAC and 16-bit processing. This seemingly marginal increase actually signifies significant jump in tonal spectrum the D3 records, jumping to 16,384 values up from 4,096 tones in a 12-bit system.

Bit-depth aside, Nikon engineers are also claiming the EXPEED system, together with the new sensor, is capable of expanding dynamic range by 0.5 to 1.5 stops, or up to 300% over the D2x. For stage lighting, which can be mercilessly harsh, this increase in dynamic range, combined with 16-bit processing, sounds like a great advancement.

Aside from these features and advancements, all of which seem to indicate the Nikon D3 will be a competitive low-light tool, there are a number of other improvements featured on the new camera that are of note. In an interview with Inside Digital Photo, Vincent Versace claims the EXPEED processor is as fast as two DIGIC processors combined.

AF Fine-Tuning
Again matching an innovation in Canon's new 1Dmk3, Nikon D3 quietly features AF fine-tuning for front or back-focus for individual lenses. For individual lenses that are mis-calibrated or otherwise misbehaving on a single body, I think this step to give users more control by both Canon and Nikon is very commendable.

3″ LCD w/ Live View
Again, just like the Canon 1Dmk3, the Nikon D3 features a massive 3″ LCD. However, more interesting than the size of the display is its resolution, which, at 922,000 dpi, packs in twice the linear resolution as competition.

In addition, just like the 1Dmk3, the D3 offers a Live View with the LCD. Going one step further, the D3 also offers the ability to use AF in this mode, which opens up some new possibilities for composition and focus confirmation.

CAM 3500 AF System
Improving on D2x's already highly responsive AF, Nikon's new autofocus system also seems like an interesting direction. The D3 and D300 alike sport a 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors. If this system

Dual-CF Slots
With a pair of CF slots, I think it's possible that the era of changing cards during a performance may be over. With two 4GB or 8GB cards and a three-song limit, it's hard to imagine a need for more card changes, even with my own high-count shooting.