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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

TECHNOLOGY

Nikon's full-frame camera aims at the 'Canonistas'


Special to The Japan Times

For many professional photographers, their camera is a friend, a trusted companion and colleague. When an important story hinges on the functioning of their "partner," they want a product that is, above all, trustworthy.

Nikon D3
The Nikon D3

As a result, photographers are often loyal to their chosen brand. Even if a shooter doesn't care for the ongoing Canon vs. Nikon rivalry — a conflict between fans of the two leading manufacturers of single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras that is akin to the zealous debates over the virtues of Mac and Windows — changing allegiances is tricky once you're used to the ergonomics of a certain brand and using its software, batteries and lenses.

This is all about to get much more complicated. Nikon is trying to up the stakes with the launch of its new D3 camera, believing that loyal "Canonistas" will suddenly want to pick up Nikon's ambitious new product in place of its direct competitor, Canon's EOS-1DS Mark III.

Nikon's literature boasts, "with the fastest startup time, shortest viewfinder blackout time and shortest shutter lag of any digital SLR camera, as well as the capability to shoot up to nine frames per second at full FX-format resolution, the D3 is the world's fastest digital SLR camera in its class."

The camera offers Nikon's "full-frame" digital setup, which provides a larger, cleaner frame, hoping to win back clientele it lost when Canon introduced its full-frame cameras and accompanying lenses. Other users have been with Canon since the early 1980s due to the quality of its lenses and its superior metering system.

Nikon's first consumer digital camera had a sensor, called the DX, that was smaller than standard 35 mm film, which meant that even if the same lens was used, a smaller area would be captured, so some of the image was "cropped" in the process. Whatever lens you used, you always had the same angle of view.

The new Nikon full-frame sensor, named FX, is 36 mm wide, like the exposure window inside a 35 mm film camera, which is great for wide-angle photography as it offers the same picture angle vs. depth of field as film.

ISO is the digital equivalent of film sensitivity. A low ISO setting is used for shooting in daylight, while higher settings enable slower shutter speeds and are used when there is lack of light. However, a high ISO — perhaps ISO 800 or above — results in "noisy" images that have a speckled, colored grain.

Kyoto shrine
A scene from a Kyoto shrine shot with a Nikon D3

This problem has been substantially rectified by the larger image sensor and noise-reduction technology in the D3. It has a normal ISO range of 200-6,400 with clear results; the camera, however, can shoot at an unparalleled "ISO Hi-2" of 25,600 and, even in low light, the images are exceptional.

This may not be incentive enough for the regular weekend shooter, especially given the camera's ¥578,000 price tag (then again, it could be a dream come true for saucy snappers seeking less savory shots in the dark). Night-shooters such as police officers or photo- journalists, however, could really benefit from the image quality that this camera produces in pitch-black conditions.

Canada-based Michael Reichmann, photography instructor and Webmaster of the popular online photography resource Luminous Landscape ( www.luminous-landscape.com ), tested the Nikon D3 and seems happy with the results, saying the D3 "appears to offer lower noise than Canon (at least against its flagship EOS-1DS Mark III) and higher available speeds as well. . . . The D3 matches it or surpasses it in IQ, sensitivity and resolution."

The camera's automatic functions, such as auto-exposure (whereby the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed and aperture according to the amount of available light), has also improved — so much so that Reichmann calls it "dead on perfect."

Reichmann adds, "Possibly the most advantageous feature for me that the Nikon D300 (a cheaper full-frame model) and D3 have, and most current Canon models do not, is auto ISO capability. The way Nikon implements it is to allow the user to set the lowest ISO that he or she wishes to use, and also the highest. The lowest automatic shutter speed also may be preset.

"Imagine that you're walking down the street on a sunny day photographing people in the shade as well as bright sun," he continues. "The camera is set to ISO 200, an appropriate sensitivity setting for the situation. All of sudden you look into the dark doorway of a building and see something worth photographing. With the Nikon you simply frame and shoot. If the camera needs to run the ISO up to 1,600 or 6,400, whatever is needed to give a usable exposure, you've got the shot. With the Canon and no auto ISO, you need to take the time to judge what ISO setting might be required, to set it, and then to take the shot."

The speed and performance of the D3 suits press and sports shooters — at full resolution, it can shoot continuously at up to nine frames per second on its FX format. With a DX lens or telelens, the camera can shoot up to 11 frames per second, as the smaller frame creates a smaller file.

People with a real need for speed will love such a fast camera. American Dave Black is one of the world's top sports photographers, having covered the Olympics 12 times for many publications and the United States Olympic Committee. He also shot content for the Nikon Tokyo brochures for the D3.

"It is a revolutionary piece of equipment for me," he says. "Its exceptional low-noise capabilities at extremely high ISO settings like ISO 3,200 and ISO 6,400 are perfect for my work in the sports industry. The Nikon FX-format sensor offers uncompromising sharpness, color tonality and clarity over other cameras. Its one-two punch of 3-D auto focus tracking and a shooting rate of nine frames per second is ideal for any photographer who shoots sports and action, especially in low-light situations."

All the new gizmos in the D3 add up to quite a bulky size, and a camera this big can draw unwanted attention to the photographer; subjects tend to either find it scary or pose for the shot (although other photographers like the professional feel of a big camera). That ¥578,000 price tag, however, may seem a veritable bargain compared to the ¥900,000 Canon EOS-1DS Mark III, but it's still quite an investment.

Gerhard Joren, a Hong Kong-based Swedish photographer of 25 years' standing who does corporate and reporting work, is less than impressed.

"Most photographers don't want to have a motor (in the camera) that takes eight to 10 frames per second, only sports or press people. I'd be much happier to cut weight when traveling. They (Nikon) would benefit enormously from doing this, but of course they want to sell and be as broad as possible.

"Clients do want (a high density of) pixels though," he jibes. "They are all pixeled up in the head. Like, how many million do you have? The pixel rate is mind-blowing."

As to whether the D3 can eat into Canon's full-frame market — the latter's original EOS-1DS camera has been around since 2002 — Joren suggests, "It's almost too late, when you think about the costs to switch over. Nikon shouldn't try to compete, they should try something on their own terms (such as) a full-frame, lighter camera."

Thailand-based British photographer Martyn Goodacre, who uses a Nikon D200 (an early pro-consumer digital SLR) and is known for some of the most iconic portraits of rock 'n' roll luminaries ever taken, such as classic black-and-white shots of Kurt Cobain, agrees with Joren.

"I would love a D3 and certainly would use it, but it's very pricey and big," he says. "I'm happy with my D200, at a third of the price and weight, but then again I'm not shooting football matches or Formula 1. It's only a camera, and basically they all do the same thing. I took my most successful pic on a secondhand $160 film camera with a standard lens."

Of course, this technology may well trickle down to a smaller, more affordable camera that appeals to both the pro and the hobbyist. Anyone would love to have a point-and-shoot that takes clear nighttime photos without a flash — think of what fun the otaku (obsessive) perverts would have! Unfortunately, up until now, bigger image sensors need a bigger, more expensive lens — and therefore a bigger body, for light to hit the sensor directly. Then again, the march of technology suggests that small image sensors will continue to improve.

Joren contends that he and his colleagues seek simplicity. "Sometimes the companies are not listening to what photographers want. They think consumers want to walk into a cockpit. We just want to take photos!"

Nikon has made an incredibly sophisticated tool — great for people who want a pro-level camera that can do the lot — and it has industry professionals raving about the image quality. Its niche, however, is so extremely specialized that we'll have to wait and see what this means for the regular Joe.



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