This article was originally published in 2017 as part of our ‘Throwback Thursday‘ series.
In 2007, after several years of lagging behind Canon in the enthusiast and professional DSLR market, Nikon was doing alright. Not spectacularly, but they were hanging in there. The D200 was a popular and capable enthusiast model, and the professional D2x was a significant advance on the muddled ‘h’ and ‘s’ releases of the past. But it was their biggest competitor that seemed to have all the momentum. While Canon had been using APS-H and full-frame sensors for years, none of Nikon’s DSLRs offered sensors bigger than APS-C, and Canon still ruled the roost in terms of autofocus1 and high ISO imaging capability.
But around that time, we had an inkling that Nikon had something big on the way. Not a company prone to grand gestures, Nikon invited the world’s press (and I do mean the world’s press) to Tokyo, in the sapping humidity of a Japanese heatwave for a top secret announcement…
|The magnesium alloy-bodied D3 was as tough as anything that Canon ever brought to market, but offered a combination of speed, sensitivity and autofocus performance that the industry had never seen before.|
Ten years ago, camera technology was advancing continuously, and quickly. For quite a long time, it seemed like every new generation of digital cameras was better than the last in ways that camera buyers (and reviewers) actually cared about. Obviously, each new cycle brought more megapixels, but equally as important were the ergonomic and performance improvements that made each new generation of cameras easier to use, and more effective than the last.
|Buzz Aldrin, in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.|
Nowhere were these advances more obvious than in the professional DSLR segment. Compare the original EOS-1D of 2001 to the EOS-1D Mark IV of 2010. They look similar, but in terms of usability and image quality they’re worlds apart.
Let’s take usability, to start with. If we look at just the screen interfaces alone, in less than a decade, LCDs got bigger, and much sharper. Live view became standard, and, camera menu systems evolved from messy lists that looked like Windows ME error messages to friendly tabs and mobile-inspired icons.
|My personal D3S, nestled alongside a D810 and several lenses in a Pelican case. It’s still great, and I still use it.|
The 4MP Canon EOS-1D is still capable of turning out decent-looking images for web and limited print use, and it can do so impressive quickly (8 fps ain’t bad for a sixteen year-old DSLR). But the EOS-1D Mark IV offered four times the pixel count, better image quality across the board, including a far superior high ISO imaging capability, a faster continuous shooting rate, and a much more sophisticated autofocus system – plus live view and movie mode.
|High Barn, not far from where I grew up, in North Yorkshire. 12MP might not be much by 2017 standards, but it’s enough for a high quality 13-inch print.|
All of this is by way of preamble. The point (finally! He gets to the point!) is that even by the fast-paced standards of the professional DSLR market in the mid 2000s, the Nikon D3 was a major technological achievement. Arguably, (and I admit it’s a big ‘arguably’) the EOS-1D Mark IV and its successors might not have been quite such advanced cameras without the technological game-upping that Canon had to do in the years following the launch of the D3.
Nikon D3 Sample Images (2008)
As a working photographer and photography writer at the time, the D3 was (and remains, actually) the single most impactful product to be released during my career. Before Nikon’s presentation in Tokyo had even drawn to a close,2 our industry’s expectations of what a DSLR could do had been shifted.
Until the D3, you could either have a fast cropped sensor DSLR, or a slow full-frame one – not both. Until the D3, the maximum ISO sensitivity setting that you might be able to shoot at was either 1600 or 3200 (depending on the model), and even then, not particularly confidently. Until the D3 (and its sister model the D300) came along, if you wanted the best autofocus performance, there was no question – you bought Canon.
|Melody Gardot, performing in London. The D3’s shutter sounds like someone just dropped a cribbage board onto a marble floor, but the D3S introduced a fairly discreet ‘Q’ mode.|
I was happily shooting with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II when the D3 was released. For the kind of photography I was doing at the time, the Mark II was one of the best cameras on the market, and did the job perfectly well – or so I thought. I felt the same way about the 1D Mark II in 2007 as I did about my Nokia 3210. Solid, reliable, and elegant in its own way. A useful and streamlined tool.
At risk of overstating the point, the D3 was to my EOS-1D Mark II what the iPhone was to the Nokia 3210: a paradigm shift.3
|Florence Welch, shot with the D3’s successor, the D3S. The D3S added some welcome tweaks over the D3, including in-camera sensor cleaning, and slightly improved high ISO image quality.|
Using the D3, I could shoot quickly and without a crop factor for the first time. I could capture full-color images in light so low that my own eyes couldn’t fully discern what I was looking at (and the AF could usually keep up). I could shoot at ISO 6400, and marvel at the moderate film-like grain – a grain pattern that wasn’t distracting at all, and showed no banding. The D3’s autofocus system was at least a generation ahead of what I was used to in terms of tracking too, allowing me to reliably use AF-C, even with off-center AF points in poor light.
Nikon D3S Sample Images (2010)
In practical terms, this meant that I could capture images of performers in light so marginal that none of the other photographers working alongside me were able to get a sharp exposure.
A couple of times during my first few months of shooting with the D3 (when I had the camera for review, but before it was shipping in significant numbers) I found myself alone in the photo pit at a small venue, still shooting in punishingly low light after the other photographers had given up and left.4
But it wasn’t just performance photographers that were amazed by the D3. Wildlife photographers, too, were raving about this amazing new camera that let them shoot in full color, in situations where previously they would have been limited to infrared. Like I said, it was a paradigm shift.
|The D3S has accompanied me on a few shooting trips in 2017, including a protest against the Trump administration’s attempted travel ban, back in January.|
So of course I bought one. I sold all my Canon gear, took a hit on the exchange, ate tinned food for a few months and picked up a D3 with a 24-70mm F2.8. I added more lenses over the following couple of years when I could afford to, and ultimately traded the D3 for a D3S. The D3S added in-camera sensor-cleaning (one of the D3’s few deficiencies), even better high ISO image quality and a basic HD video function. That was around the same time I started to write for DPReview, and about a year after that we moved to America and I mostly stopped shooting live music.
My life has changed a lot since then, but I still have my D3S and I still use it – mostly now as a second camera for event photography. And no, Dan Bracaglia – I’m not selling, so stop asking.
|A still from a commercial shoot for a young singer-songwriter, Anna Sinfield, in 2008. She’s a producer, these days, for UK radio.|
One last anecdote…
Not long after the D3’s launch, back in London, I spoke to a young Nikon engineer who had been heavily involved in the design of the new camera. He was visiting from Tokyo. He brought with him two sets of prints – one set from the then-current Canon EOS-1D Mark III, and an equivalent set from the D3. Pointing to the shots from the Canon, he said “in my opinion, these look like digital images”. Turning to the images from the D3 he said “but these look like photographs”.
That might sound like hyperbole, but the thing is – he was right.
1. Setting aside the much-reported and in my opinion overblown autofocus woes of the EOS-1D Mark III.
2. In addition to the cameras, the presentation was also memorable for a closing appeal from a very senior Nikon executive to the assembled US press. Please – he requested – please pronounce ‘Nikon’ correctly as ‘Nick-on’ not ‘Nye-con’ – a plea that was of course completely ignored by all concerned. That trip was also the first time I encountered a Geisha (it would not be the last).
3. If the D3 had come loaded with ‘Snake II‘ it would have been perfect. Actually, given the amount of time professional photographers spend just waiting around, I’ve always wondered why simple arcade games weren’t pre-loaded on professional DSLRs.
4. The Pogues – I’m looking at you. Or rather, I was trying to…
If you have a piece of gear that you’d like to write about, we’d love to hear from you – and you might even get featured on the DPReview homepage. Leave us a short note in the comments and if you have a longer story to tell, send it to us, and we’ll take it from there.
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