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Nikon D3 image quality

I’ve now had time to shoot some objective tests with the Nikon D3 and Canon EOS 1D Mark III. It will take many hours to analyze all the differences (color, dynamic range, detail, noise, etc) but my view now is that Canon 1D Mark III color rendition can be more or less pleasing than the Nikon D3, depending on subject matter and white balance and RAW-file processing—the two cameras are like two different films. Accumulating more experience will clarify the color issue.

I was in for a real treat today around lunchtime—just look at this stuff. This image is stunning with even a little sharpening, and could certainly make a first-rate 24 X 16" print, and it probably would hold up extremely well at 36 X 24". I scaled it up 200% using Genuine Fractals 5.0 and was extremely impressed with the integrity of the resulting file.

Nikon D3 + Zeiss ZF 50/2 Makro-Planar @ f/11

The way the D3 NEF images are processed results in widely varying contrast and color rendition (this is also true of the 1DM3, but the variants are so obviously awful in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional that I stick to Neutral or Standard). Nikon’s “D2x mode” Picture Control settings produce quite different results as well. I’ve now settled on very simple settings in Nikon Capture NX, and I’m liking the results a lot more: Picture Control=Neutral, White Balance=Daylight (or gray patch), Auto Color Aberration, everything else turned off.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make some statements here, some of which are not yet proven to my satisfaction, but which I suspect will prove to be true, or at least not very false (image quality is subjective and multivariate, not a binary thing).

1) Superb image quality on a per-pixel basis. Initial disappointments (due to a complex mix of lens/color/sharpening/focus issues) have given way to the view that the Nikon D3 offers superb per-pixel image quality, possibly the best yet seen in a digital SLR or at least as good as anything else. This includes astonishing quality when scaled up, probably due to its 14-bit pixels with exceptionally low noise and smoothness.

2) Beautiful results for black and white shooters. I’ve only done a few conversions, but the results suggest unusually smooth and tonally-beautiful results (color rendering issues are of course avoided in B&W). Confidence level: high.

3) Focus matters. Getting top results from the D3 means using its Live View at maximum magnification and nailing the focus precisely, and choosing the focus point intelligently so as to render the scene as a whole optimally. This presents a challenge in many situations. Best results demand technical perfection, just as with a 4X5 view camera. The results are commensurate with the care taken.

4) Lenses matter. I was astonished at how much better the new 24-70FX is over the 28-70 AF-S (outside the central 2/3 area), even though my 24-70 seems a bit blurred on the left side (see Brand-new Blur). The 14-24 is also impressive.

5) Useful features. The Canon 1D Mark III Live View looks lousy and feels like yesterday’s technology compared to the D3 implementation. Nifty goodies like the Virtual Horizon feature in the D3 are very useful, and Nikon’s intelligent mirror lockup implementation is useful constantly. On the flip side, I prefer the Canon menu layout; the D3’s layout hides too many items, forcing too much scrolling. There is much more to be said on ergonomics, but those are a few highlights.

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