Nikon D3 - Nikon's First Full Frame DSLR


In 2007 I had been a Nikon fanboy a few years earlier and switched to a Canon 5D for it's full frame sensor, so I was super interested in the launch of the Nikon D3. By this time I had owned 6 film cameras and 8 digital cameras. Although I didn't still own them all I decided to sell every other camera I owned to be able to get the D3 and I didn't regret it.

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The Nikon D3, with 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens

Full Frame

I had a few auto focus Nikon lenses at this point. The above (85mm f/1.4) lens was like a 127mm f/2 on the D2H I had previously. Being able to use lenses as they were intended for the first time on digital was like lifting a veil, not only on your images, but viewing the world through the viewfinder as well! The improvement in focal length when using primes was one thing, but the depth of field was perhaps even more impressive to me. I had owned the Canon 5D for a year or so before this, so I knew roughly what to expect, but I was clearly a Nikon fan as it was so nice to return to Nikon's ergonomics and image processing on the D3. 

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Ergonomics

After owning the Nikon D2H for several years and loving the main and portrait grip of the camera the D3 felt like a natural evolution of that high end feel. Every button seems to fall at the natural / comfortable placement of your fingers and thumb. This might sound obvious, but it's not a feeling that I got from using Canon DSLRs for some reason. The logic of the control combinations, pressing a button and rotating a dial together, just made so much sense once I figured it out. Also the holding down of two buttons marked in red to format the memory card (now two of them) was also very intuitive and safe from accidental pressing. This is something that Sony could learn a thing or two from today, as going into the menu to format a card is annoying as hell!

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Build Quality

The tank-like build of the pro DSLRs is firmly established by this point. I hear people joke about hammering nails with these camera bodies and when you hold and use this camera that feels totally possible, with one exception - the LCD screen. I almost wish there was a metal cover to put over it or something. In fact the D3 was the first Nikon to not have any cover on the screen at all, not even as an option. 

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Speed

By using a lower than average pixel count (at the time), the D3 managed to push the FPS pretty high. With the AF off it could manage 11fps, which is pretty impressive even today (14 years later), although the buffer would seem rather small as it runs out after only a couple of seconds. With autofocus this speed would drop to 9fps, which is still not bad for a DSLR. Even in 2020 Nikon only managed to get this to 14fps, but this is largely a mechanical limitation. Since DLSRs need to not only move the shutter but the mirror out of the way of the focusing sensors long enough for them to identify, lock and track subjects it's a miracle they work as well as they do.

 

Modern electronic shutter mirrorless cameras are currently curb stomping the best pro DSLRs in this regard, which is why we won't see any new DSLRs from now on. The future is firmly mirrorless only. 

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Redundancy

The Nikon D3 was the first camera to add a second memory card slot (CF). They both supported type I & II, as well as UDMA for fast storage. This allowed for overflow or redundancy during shooting. Professional photographers never wanted to work without this feature again as they never had to worry about a card failing and losing all of a wedding shoot for example. 

 

Battery Life

The Nikon D3's battery was rated at 4300 shots per change (CIPA) and that seemed pretty conservative from my use. This was a huge step up from the original D1, not so much from the D2 series, but DSLRs haven't really managed to push this any further. Modern mirrorless cameras struggle to get anywhere near this due to the "always on" nature of their sensors, although you can routinely get significantly more than what is stated there. 

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Lenses

All of the lenses I had for the D2H were AF-D type and I was very happy with them. I eventually bought one of the more modern AF-S (G series, hypersonic motor) lenses, with the 14-24mm f/2.8, other than the 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D, this was the only zoom I felt could compete with the optical quality of a prime lens. I stuck to Nikon's own lenses after being burned by a really poor Sigma wide zoom, when I bought my first DSLR back in 2004 - Fuji S2 Pro. 

Using lenses like the Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA (when I switched to Sony mirrorless, in 2014) I noticed another big step up in optical quality. Conversely, today I use almost exclusively Sigma lenses on the Sony A9 due to their amazing balance of optical quality, build quality, size and value. Even if Sony's own lenses could match these on price I would still choose the Sigma. How things change!...

Here are a few images from my time with the D3. This is the longest time I have owned and used a digital camera (6 years)...

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Image Quality

The 12mp files from the D3 are very clean, even today. The dynamic range suffers a little, but it's surprisingly competitive for a 14 year old camera, which shows how ground-breaking it was back then.

 

Infrared

The Nikon D3 can be used to shoot infrared without conversion, albeit with some long exposure times. The internal infrared blocking is so minimal that you can even get away with shooting 830nm images like this one. This exposure was 4 minutes, shot on the 35mm f/2 AF-D lens - a very, very good 35mm lens for IR!

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Bokeh Panoramas

I discovered the bokeh panorama technique all on my own using this camera in 2009. I wasn't quite the first, but I didn't know about the Brenizer Method back then. It happened while I was using the 85mm f/1.4 to shoot everything, while being addicted to bokeh. I started to find the focal length restrictive, so I began combining images using the panorama technique and the rest is history.

It is not easy aligning frames hand-held with a DSLR. Trying to get the correct rotation you can't hold the camera up to your eye and rotate around your neck. I started by moving myself around behind the camera, but this is extremely awkward, so I ended just guessing the motion as it became muscle memory. Although the Nikon D3 does have live-view it's so slow and badly implemented that it doesn't really help for this technique. 

All of the following images were shot using the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AF-D lens. They consist of between 20-40 images each.

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Conclusion

The Nikon D3 was a beautiful camera to use. It gave me years or enjoyable and reliable service. Many of the lenses I chose were amazing and I still use them today on mirrorless due to their high performance in infrared light (35/2 & 85/1.4 AF-D). I have recently gone back to the D3 in 2021 and am amazed by how usable the camera and its files are today. It's a heavy beast by todays standards but it's a very comfortable grip and the buttons still make so much sense.