D3s upgrade from D3

About three weeks ago I rather cryptically said that it was my last D3 day, but didn’t really follow that up with any more useful thoughts.  Since then I’ve been rather busy (or just stuck in traffic – not quite the same thing…), but I’ve had an interesting year in terms of new kit, and the most interesting bit of that has been the upgrade to the D3s.

As anticipated, it was virtually seamless – the camera is, for normal day to day pro use, virtually indistinguishable from the D3, so picking it up and just shooting the next job with it was no problem at all.  One of the key questions that’s been with me for the last year (since the D3s was announced) was ‘is there any point in upgrading?’.  The D3 was and is a stunning camera, in fact the camera that kept me with Nikon three years ago when I was looking very seriously switching to Canon. I’ve shot a lot with it – 200k clicks or so, and really had no need for anything different.  So the initial decision to look at switching up was business led – the D3 still had some significant residual value in trade-in, and if there’s a D4 or D800 or something that offers a real and significant jump in a year’s time, the D3s will also offer a meaningful trade-in too.  And if I get three years use out of it (as I did with the D3) then that’s fantastic too.

There are however four major differences from the D3, which helped me in my decision to upgrade. In no particular order:

1 Quiet mode – I wasn’t sure about this, and it’s certainly not perfect, but I was recently photographing a carol service, and a week later a lecture, and in both situations I found that switching into Q gave me just a hint less noise, which is a gain in discretion – not huge, but something.

2 Dust off shaky thing – the D3 was a bit of a dust magnet – and still getting dust on the D3s, but I’m hoping that the shaky thing it does on startup and shutdown will make shots a little cleaner, which is a time saver in post…

3 Low light.  And this does work.  The temptation here is just to try it out at 102000 ISO. So I did.  Because that’s an amazing number.  But the real thing I was interested in was whether there was any point.  My take, for what is worth, is that the images at 102k are workable (see below), which I was surprised by – this is with some noise reduction in processing in LightRoom 3.2 – I’m not so interested in theory, but what, if anything, works. I’m sure there’s more that could be done with these images – they weren’t the key things the client was looking for on this shoot, so were a little experiment, and just bashed through LR.  There’s two sets here, 102000 and 25000 – the 25000 are surprisingly good.  And below that is an image shot at a relatively slow 10000 ISO – unthinkable 18 months ago. And something of a distance beyond films outer dreamings.

The thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is the context these low light images are going to be shot in – it’s all very well actually getting an image (and there’s a lot of places where it’s just dark, and getting what’s there is fantastic) – but it raises a whole lot of problems particularly a recognition that if it’s dark, the lighting’s often pretty rubbish (could there be a more obvious sentence than that?) – the point being that you can get something, but it’s still a challenge to make the shot interesting.  I photographed a carol service (see the 10k shot below), but for the majority of shots of the speakers, I still triggered a tiny amount of fill light from a pocket wizard triggered speedlight on very low power next to a pillar at the front of the church – just to lift the shots, and give them a touch more definition. So, the low light thing is an amazing tool, but not something that’ll rescue every situation…

25000 ISO (small web file)

EXIF data for 25000 ISO image

100% crop (but 72dpi) of 25000 ISO image

102000 ISO image (reduced for web)

EXIF data for 102000 ISO image

100% crop (but 72dpi) of 102000 ISO image - also resized down by WP

So definitely usable, within obvious constraints.

On a practical level, how about 8000 ISO? Sounds a lot more reasonable, and looks fantastic:

ISO 8000 :: Livability Carol Service

That’s lit by some rather nasty overheads (yellow/green cast) and candles in Harrow School’s chapel  – event lighting at it’s most challenging… Shot from the balcony on the long end of the 70-200 (the new VRII – another upgrade this year, which has been hugely impressive in terms of results).

And up a stop:

ISO 10000 :: choir at Livability Carol Service

Fantastically usable image at ISO 10000.  That’s worth the price of admission alone. So overall, very happy indeed with image quality – in the same way that the D3 left me feeling that I couldn’t really see any desperate need to upgrade ever, this leaves me feeling that the most likely reason I’ll have to move on from this camera will be led by financial/business considerations rather than technology – the camera is meeting needs I didn’t know I had…

Saying that:

4 (remember, there’s a list going on here…) – video. I spent a couple of days down in the Bristol area a couple of weeks ago with The Image Consultancy (photographer Nick Wilcox-Brown, lighting cameraman Jeremy Humphries, editing guru Richard Atherton) on their ‘Stills to Video’ course – excellent training, exactly what I was looking for in terms of just spending a couple of days with the kit and seeing what it can do.  And what it can’t – which is really the point with Nikon’s early implementation of video in both the D3s and D300s (which by an odd insurance quirk I’ve also ended up with in the past week. But that’s another story…).

The video seems to work OK (and when I’ve finally managed to produce something I’ll post that too), but it’s a very limited operation on the Nikon compared with the Canon 5DMkII, which is certainly now a very flexible creature, with options that really make film making a possibility with it. For me, very much a stills shooter looking at video as an added value for certain clients, this is less of an issue, but it does seem like there’s a significant number of limitations with the Nikon system as it stands that mean it’s just not a hugely great offer for film makers.  But for what I’m likely to do with it – all’s good.  And I will post something that works here soon. The other thing that seemed pretty clear from the second day of the course was that if I’m going to do much video at all, it’ll be on a dedicated video camera rather than on a dSLR, as they’re incredibly hard to use well if you’re not an experienced pro video cameraman.  So in terms of the next step, video may, if it becomes a key part of my business, be the thing that moves me to the next body. We’ll see… But it did make me go out and buy a microphone, so there you go.  And I was interviewed on-camera by the legendary Adam Woolfitt (National Geographic, AoP chair, BIPP, BJP writer and on and on) in what turned out to be a slightly surreal experience. If the evidence ever emerges, I’ll post that too…

Is this what fame feels like...? Adam W and 5DMkII

So to sum up.  D3s as a stills camera – simply outstanding, quite possibly the greatest stills camera for the price in existence. Video – not so much. But that might not matter…