Nikon is in Hall 17 at Berlin’s IFA trade show
IFA is the Internationale Funkausstellung, taking place Aug. 31 – Sept. 5 in Berlin, Germany. It’s one of the world’s largest consumer electronics shows and all of the major camera manufacturers have a presence here. Nikon is attending with a large booth and has on hand working D3 and D300 cameras for visitors to play with. This is the first public appearance of these camera models since they were announced last week and as you can imagine they are hot commodities with visitors to Nikon’s booth. I spent some time carefully handling and exploring both models and my observations are listed further down. Rather than reiterating all the new features and technical details of these 2 cameras however, which can be found elsewhere, I’m just going to concentrate on my perceptions of the image quality delivered by the new sensors, judging strictly from their LCD preview screens (compact flash card access was not allowed, as is standard with pre-release cameras at trade shows).
Production note: all of the photos on this page were shot with a D200 in available light at 1600 ISO. All photos © Paul Vachier
Another view of Nikon stand
Checking out the new offerings
Nikon D3 – Low light superstar!
The star of the show is definitely Nikon’s new flagship DSLR, the long awaited D3. This is Nikon’s first “full-frame” digital SLR and inherits the “FX” moniker (to distinguish it from the DX series of cameras which offer a 1.5x crop). Upon examination the D3 feels almost exactly like the D2X, which will continue to be sold along side it. Handling the new D3, there is no question that this is a PRO camera, as its $5,000 US price tag also attests to. It is solid and well-crafted in the Nikon tradition of Giugiario designed D2 bodies which offer splendid ergonomics and handling. The D3 however is a truly ground-breaking camera for Nikon because it is Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR and their first serious attempt at matching rival Canon in the all important area of high ISO sensitivity. In fact, the D3 offers normal ISO settings up to an amazing 6400, with extended settings all the way up to 25,600 ISO! But what really matters is the level of noise control Nikon has been able to achieve with its new in-house designed full-frame sensor. From my brief exposure to this camera (which it must be admitted is a pre-production prototype and limited to viewing on the LCD screen), I’d say that Nikon has at least matched or even exceeded Canon’s best offerings in this area; the results are ASTOUNDING! Again I could only judge by examining images on the 3″ LCD preview screen, but this camera delivers breathtaking results never before seen on any Nikon digital body. Even at ISO 6400, the levels of noise are extremely low, perhaps even better than 1600 ISO on previous models (this Chinese website has some online examples with 100% crops). What’s more impressive though is the amount of detail retained at high ISO, which is clearly visible on the 922,000 pixel VGA LCD screen when fully zoomed in. There is almost none of the detail loss you normally see with noise reduction algorithms in other cameras. It’s obvious that the sensor is doing most of the work here and not noise reduction software. Nikon have really made a breakthrough with this sensor and I predict the D3 will become THE professional photojournalist and sports shooting body for Nikon photographers needing low light capabilities. Mark my words, this baby is hot.
D3 pictured with the new 24-70mm f2.8G ED lens
Attached to the D3 was a working sample of Nikon’s new 24-70mm f2.8G ED lens. This is a true pro-caliber lens with an expected price tag of $1,699 US. While it doesn’t include VR image stabilization, it does offer NIkon’s new nano-crystal coating which is designed to reduce internal reflections in the lens and makes it ideally suited for digital photography. On the D3, it handles beautifully and feels a lot like Nikon’s 17-55mm DX pro lens, though it’s a bit longer and narrower than its DX format sibling. This lens will be a terrific match for the D3 since there is no field-of-view crop and it will offer a true 24-70mm field of view, perfect for photojournalism. Price-wise this combo is out of the reach of the majority of non-working pros, but for those who make a living with their equipment, this is a terrific setup.
Nikon D300 – loads of new features, but what about the sensor?
Checking out the new D300
Also on hand at Nikon’s booth is a preproduction D300 camera. While the D3 may have been the star of the show, the D300 camera is of greater interest to me because it’s in my price range (suggested retail $1,799 US) and is a logical upgrade to my excellent but somewhat noisy D200. The D300 in fact looks and feels almost exactly like the D200 and it would be easy to confuse the 2 were it not for the different model numbers on the front. This similarity is a good thing because the D200 is an amazing camera body that everyone seems to love, so no unpleasant surprises here.
While there are a whole host of new and improved features offered with the D300, putting it a notch above the D200 in both price and performance, what I was really interested in was the how well the new 12MP CMOS sensor (rumored to be made by Sony) would perform in terms of image quality and low-light noise compared to the D200. Once again, I could only judge by the results of previewing images on the built-in LCD screen since no compact flash compartment access was available, but I would have to say that I was not particularly impressed by this D300’s low-noise performance. Shooting off a bunch of available-light images at the Nikon booth, with 10.5mm DX lens attached at 1600 ISO and above, I found this sample D300 to perform not much better than my D200 at high ISO. Particularly disappointing was the amount of detail loss in high ISO images, meaning that Nikon must be using a lot of software noise reduction in this camera. I tried shooting with different noise reduction settings and didn’t notice a big difference either way. While it still remains to be seen what this camera and sensor are capable of in a real production unit, what I saw on the floor, particularly in light of the stunning results from the D3 only 20 feet away was not so impressive. Time will tell though and let’s hope Nikon can offer some improvement over the D200 in this department (high ISO noise), as it is my only real quip with the otherwise excellent D200.
Nikon rep discusses advantages of D300
To the D300’s credit though, it is not meant to be a low-light camera like the D3 and many people might find its performance in this department acceptable, or its performance may even improve in the production version. The good news is that the D300 also offers SO many new and useful features/improvements over the D200 like dust reduction, live preview, faster frame rate, better battery, bigger/better LCD, etc, etc., that these things alone can justify an upgrade regardless of the noise performance. What I really can’t wait to see though are some real test results from both cameras which should be appearing in the next month or 2 since both cameras will hit the stores in November. I’m sure that Nikon will sell every D300 and D3 body they can make, but as for my experience with these cameras at the IFA trade show, I was so impressed by the D3’s performance that I am now very busy thinking of ways that I can afford to buy one instead of a D300;) The D300 is a compelling camera for sure, but the D3 is going to set a whole new standard for Nikon.