Thoughts on the Nikon D3

A while ago, before Herman finally settled on a D7000, I wrote a post on the D7000 vs. D90 since I used the latter for quite some time before upgrading to the former, providing a few reasons why I thought the choice for many would come down to those two (though the D5100 wasn’t available then).  I also mentioned, in talking about lens selection, that full frame just doesn’t make sense for most people, and thus not to buy lenses with the assumption of going to full frame.

Of course, all that was before buying that big batch of equipment, which temporarily put a full-frame D3 in my possession – which I’m still using for the moment. This has actually turned out to be pretty handy, because I’ve had to send my D7000 back to Nikon again due to oil spots appearing on the sensor; this is an issue that some D7000 users have encountered, and while Nikon cleaned it up the first time I sent it back, the problem has recurred. Since it can take Nikon a while to service anything (customer service is definitely not their strong suit), it’s pretty fortunate to have two bodies!

So, what’s the experience been like with the D3? In short, despite that it’s closing in on being 4 years old (which is about 80 in camera-years), it’s still a fantastic camera. It’s not all good, but here’s what I noticed most:

  • What I said before about it being too big, too heavy, and too expensive is still all true. Even used, a D3 in good condition with a low shutter count is more than $3,000, and it’s monstrously large. The price tag is even higher for either of its updated siblings, the D3s and D3x. The weight is still something I can manage; it’s much lighter than either of my two kids!
  • Performance wise, its 12MP full-frame sensor (same as in the D700) is still great; even after all this time, modern crop sensors like in my D7000 still can’t match it at ISO 3200 or 6400.  The D3 sensor also seems to preserve highlights better. It’s just amazing that this sensor was introduced so long ago and still beats any crop sensor. If this was any other type of silicon (e.g. a CPU or GPU), it wouldn’t even be close.
  • A pro lugging a bag won’t care about this, but the fact that there’s no built-in flash is somewhat inconvenient; and if you want to do off-camera flash, you need at least an SB-800 to act as a commander. I’d definitely favor the D700 even if you just want the improved sensor.
  • I still like the full-frame look; I don’t know whether it’s the shallow depth of field or just the color rendition, but it seems to have the edge over the sensors in either the D90 or D7000, even when low light is not an issue.
  • While my most used lens – the 24-70/2.8 – is useful for me on both full-frame and crop sensors, I like it better on the full-frame D3 than on the crop sensor D7000.
  • Autofocus; see below.

Autofocus Performance

What’s actually better about the D3 than anything else I’ve ever used? Quite simply, the speed of its auto-focus (while still maintaining accuracy, I suppose):

If you click to zoom in, you’ll see that while it’s not perfectly pixel-sharp – this is an object clearly in motion, after all – the focus is really where it should be (you can see based on the non-moving grass).  Usually I have to take 10 shots like the above hoping for one sharp one, or try and pre-focus and hope for the best, but the D3 really nailed things on almost every shot.

Even more remarkable, it’s not that it just locks on for the first shot, it’s able to keep things in focus even in continuous burst mode:

This is the same jump as the first picture; all I did was just hold the shutter down. I’m sure I’ll be missing this kind of speed once I switch back to the D7000 on a more permanent basis, but at least it suggests there’s still things to be improved on the consumer bodies.

Now I can understand why dedicated sports shooters might pony up the big bucks for a D3-class body; it’s not enough for me that the D3 makes sense as a primary camera, but at least I know that at least some D3 owners are definitely getting what they paid for.

Firmware Updates

Ironically, I’ve used these bigger cameras when the cameras I’ve actually owned for the long term have been in for repair. I got the D700 when sending my D90 back into Nikon (it was completely dead till they replaced a circuit board), and now I’m using the D3 exclusively while the D7000 gets cleaned again.

And just yesterday, I ran into “dead battery syndrome” with D3, in which with a perfectly good battery the camera just displays a battery warning indication and refuses to function.  This post was almost a gripe about how Nikon DSLRs make great images, but seem to be lacking in reliability or quality control.

Fortunately, this D3 battery problem was corrected with new user-installable firmware (I had 1.00, 2.00 fixes the problem, and 2.02 is the latest for the D3). But I’m writing this because I ran into some real quirks installing the firmware.  The D3 has two firmware files, an ‘A’ file and a ‘B’ file. The ‘A’ file installed per Nikon’s instructions; copy it to the root of a CompactFlash card, put the card in the camera, then select firmware update in the menu – simple!

The ‘B’ file didn’t work this way for me, though. The camera saw the file, gave the option of doing an update, said it was upgrading… and then dropped back to menus. No error message, no information, and no change to the ‘B’ firmware! I tried reformatting the card in the camera, reformatting it in the computer, changing batteries, changing cards – nothing worked.

Finally, I decided to try formatting the memory card in-camera and then transferring the file over USB (with the D3 connected to my PC via USB), in case something about how the file was being written by Windows 7 using my card reader was incompatible. Bingo! This actually worked, and got the ‘B’ firmware installed.

This is all pretty boring, but since I found nothing on this in my own Google searches, I’m hopeful that someone else encountering this issue might be fortunate enough to stumble upon this thanks to the magic of Internet search!

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