|Nikon D1 and D3S: find the differences|
|More than benchmarks | RIP Film | Glass | Auto Focus Leap | GPS | Conclusion | The Best Nikon|
With 2010 recently started, and many of us awaiting at least one important Nikon launch this year, I’m looking back on a decade that has seen jaw-dropping advancements in photography hardware.
Revolution upon revolution.
Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed dramatic improvements in camera technology, an epoch that I believe we will not see again.
Nikon kick-started the digital decade with the launch of the groundbreaking D1 in June ’99, featuring a 2.7 Mp. CCD sensor at a third of the price of its nearest competitor, the 2.0 Mp. Kodak DCS 620.
And slammed it close last October, with the launch of the groundbreaking Nikon D3S, sporting a 12,5 Mp. CMOS sensor specifically optimized for clean high ISO performance, making it the first camera on the planet with standard 12.800 ISO, extended 102.400 ISO, and high sensitivity 24 fps. HD video capture with auto focus.
I believe the D3S to be yet another Nikon milestone, bound to reshape the DSLR battle ground top-down...
Having trailed Canon during the best part of the decade when it came to high ISO performance, Nikon turned the tide decidedly in its favor with the launch of the D3/D300 at the end of 2007.
Likewise, and however late Nikon may have been in moving from CCD to CMOS and full-frame (FX), the D700 – introduced that same year – is still the Nº 1 performer in low-light ISO with a DxOMark of 2303, with the D3 trailing only ever so slightly (2290).
The D3, D3S and D700 are all 12.5 Mp., meaning that – at least for now – industry leading high ISO performance is the result of low pixel densities and comes at the cost of relatively modest resolution.
In spite of it’s comparatively low price tag (around USD 2.600), the D700 also takes 5th place overall in the DxOMark sensor performance ranking, preceded only by two twenty thousand dollar-plus Phase One Mid Format cameras and the flagship Nikons D3X and D3 (2nd and 4th respectively), models that cost up to USD 5.500 more.
With the D3S not yet ranked, space is going to get tight in the DxOMark top-5…
Equally noteworthy are the 15th and 16th positions in the ranking, taken up by the Nikon D90 and D5000 respectively. Both these “amateur” cameras outrank all other APS-C (DX) models – including the Nikon D300S – and even Mid-Format and full-frame cameras.
Remarkable also is how Sony – with a comparatively short track record in DSLR – have managed to wriggle two of their cameras into the DxOMark top-10, especially the full-frame Alpha 850 (8th), which – with it’s USD 1.900 price-tag – is by far the cheapest of all top-10 models.
I am unaware if this is due or not to Sony’s tight collaboration with Nikon in the area of sensor development, but it is still remarkable that relative newcomers on the DSLR battlefield – like Sony and Korean Samsung – have quickly made their way into the top 20.
For more on DxOMark Sensor, click here.
More than just benchmarks.
There is much more to a camera than mere mega-pixels or laboratory top performance, and anybody seriously considering paying serious money for a camera should at least ponder a number of other factors.
Many people still consider pixel count as the single most important deal-maker or breaker. For me, on the other hand, the mega-pixel race has long ended.
Even though I consider around 16 Mp. “ideal”, I am perfectly happy with 12,5 Mp., which is more than enough to give me excellent results in pre-press, the most demanding (and best paying) part of my workflow.
For the Internet and casual photography I consider a 6 Mp. DSLR more than plenty, and 90% of users do not need much more than that.
Thus, I am focusing on other features, such as cleaner high ISO, better auto-focus and improved sensor performance, be that in speed, quality or fidelity.
Apparently I am not alone.
The fact that the Nikon D3S has “only” 12,5 Mp., proofs that there are more photographers out there who do not care for the additional pressure that 24 Mp. 14-bit RAW files (at least 40 Mb. each) exert on their workflow.
An other important factor to consider is that most top DSLR brands offer so called camera-systems: a broad range of accessories, lenses, flashes, etc., which is decisive in how far users can gear a camera to their personal needs, and at what cost.
Samsung, for example, offer only 6 lenses and no flashes for their GX-20, which, albeit its DxOMark is close to the Nikon D300S, seriously hampers its competitiveness.
Nikon’s current assortment consists of no less than 64 lenses – over half of which AF-S – covering a focal range from 10,5 to 600 mm., and if we count in all the Nikkor models lauched since AI in 1977, Nikon users can choose from a total of around 500 lenses...
Ergonomics is next: how a particular camera handles, it responsiveness and the layout of its most important buttons. There is nothing more distracting than having to look away from the viewfinder to find the right button to push.
Last but not least, there is the user interface: how menus are accessed and organized, in how far a camera can be customized, how much – relevant - information is available in the viewfinder, during image review, etc..
All of these are factors that can notably enhance or hamper the experience with a particular body.
What sets Nikon apart from the rest, in my mind, is how its ergonomics and camera-user interfaces have been constantly improved over the years, to a point of near-perfection.
True: I’m biased.
Still, on Canons I’m always struggling to find the right buttons, I find the menus “illogical” and the most used options are always one button push farther away than on a comparable Nikon.
Although some might argue that it just takes some “getting used to”, I am a firm believer that tools – and a camera is just that, in the end – should be as intuitive as humanely possible.
Apple builds such tools, and so do Nikon. However, Canon do not, IMHO.
The recent arrival of the Nikon D3S, with its virtually clean 12.800 ISO and an extended “usable” ISO range of 102.400, has set a new benchmark for high ISO performance.
Clean 12.800 ISO is a blessing in many situations, like night scenes, concerts and weddings, but the real bone for me is being able to shoot long, heavy and relatively slow lenses (f/4, f/5.6) with greater depth-of-field and at blistering shutter speeds: 1/60 s. @ ISO 100 equals 1/8000 s. @ ISO 12.800!
In comparison, the Nikon D1X (2001), was already noisy at ISO 400 and useless at over ISO 800, while exposures in excess of 2 or 3 seconds would result in unacceptable noise and countless hot pixels.
With this new generation of fast ISO cameras, as well as with the D3X’s 24 Mp. sensor, Nikon are now treading where film could never possibly have gone.
In terms of resolution, 24 Mp. sensors – at least theoretically – out-resolve all but the very best lenses, while ISO over 100.000 allows us to shoot with virtual night vision, i.e.: in the dark.
Popular photog wisdom says that we’re always short of two things: light and glass.
It appears that, at least as far as the lack of light is concerned, Nikon have changed the paradigm, which is why I am feverously praying for the D3S’s sensor to trickle down to the next incarnation of the D700.
Given the choice between more mega-pixels or incredibly clean high ISO, one can’t really go wrong, can one?
OK, allright: more mega-pixels AND incredibly clean high ISO for under 3K.
Well, maybe some day. But not yet.
Glass is forever.
|AF-S 14-24 mm. f/2.8G ED Nikkor with Nano Particle Coating|
Nikon have managed to maintain their F-Mount unchanged since 1959, in spite of the amazing advancements in technology and the challenges imposed by the incorporation of sophisticated electronics like auto focus motors, electronic data coupling, vibration reduction, etc..
That this is no small feat, is particularly well illustrated by the fact that Canon have had to change their mount no less than five times in the same half century, leaving many a Canon user with at least a few incompatible lenses.
As a result of Nikon's constancy, virtually all Nikkor lenses produced since the introduction of AI (1977) can be mounted and used – at least in manual mode – on all Nikon SLRs available today, including the digital models.
In the past decade, digital bodies became obsolete roughly every 36-48 months, which has made the old adagio “the money is in the glass” truer than ever.
I still use most of my AI, AI-S manual focus lenses today, while the D1X – which I bought in 2003 – is collecting dust somewhere. That's why I’ve sworn to never ever spend that kind of cash on a body again.
The D40 I bought in 2007 is still very much in use today, but once I get the “Baby FX” (D700 or D800?), it will probably go either to a relative or to an auction site.
Due to my early – and justified – expectations that Nikon would have to come out with full-frame cameras some day, I currently own only 3 DX lenses, 2 of which are used exclusively on the D40.
|Angle of Coverage: APS-C (DX) vs. Full-Frame and Mid Format lenses|
Still, one of the major achievements of the past decade has precisely been the development of large number of DX Nikkors (currently 14), a category virtually non-existent only half a decade ago.
Because DX lenses are built to project a smaller image circle (AoC, Angle of Coverage), their optical designs are generally less complex and their optical elements smaller, which means they can be made cheaper, more compact and lighter.
Remarkable advancements in materials engineering and manufacturing, such as the Silent Wave Motor (SWM), Vibration Reduction (VR), Close Range Correction (CRC), new coatings, and hybrid (plastic on glass) or molded glass a-spherical lenses – amongst others – have made (very) good optics finally affordable for the majority of photographers.
As for what the "best" Nikkor lens is, the answer is not as clear cut as many of us would like. A lens that performs very well on camera A, might be only average on camera B.
A good example is the AF-S 17-35 mm f/2.8D Nikkor, which has always been considered a member of the "Holy f/2.8 Trinity" (17-35, 35-70, 70-200) and is priced accordingly, but performs rather average on anything from the D3 downward, according to DxO Mark.
It is also interesting to observe that newer models generally perform better than older ones in the same kind of focal range and price-bracket, which means that "optimized for digital" may be more than just a nice-sounding marketing phrase.
Click here for the DxO Mark Camera-Lens Performance chart (you might want to filter for "Nikon") and here for more on Nikkor lenses and technologies.
The Auto Focus leap.
Even if sensor development has been head-over-heels during the past 10 years, I believe it has still been leapfrogged by the advancements in auto-focus.
As far as lenses go, only compare AF Nikkors from the beginning of the decade with one of their posterior AF-S siblings – even the cheap ones.
A built-in focus motor (SWM) and internal focusing (IF) make an AF-S lens considerably faster and quieter than a lens driven by the camera – a feat that is very much independent of its price tag.
So much so, that Nikon actually decided to not incorporate focusing motors in the entry level “Baby-Nikons” D40, D60, D3000 (D3100) and even the not-so-entry-level D5000 (D5100).
The initial criticism on this move quickly died out after the launch of a number of very affordable AF-S DX Nikkors, most notably the “plastic duo” AF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6G (± USD 100) and AF-S 55-200 f/4-5.6G (± USD 200), which stunned many a reviewer with their excellent optical performance and unexpected mechanical resistance.
In comparison, the AF 35-105 mm. f/3.5-4.5 Macro is optically so-so (my MF sample is much, much better) noisy, slow and very prone to hunting, especially in low light. The AF 35-70 mm f/2.8D “pro-grade” (± USD 450, second hand) is quite a bit better, but still considerably slower and noisier in my experience.
People buy the 35-105 on e-Bay for between USD 150 and 250, which is significantly more expensive than the 18-55 or 55-200 “full-plastic jackets”.
Both are very light AF-S lenses and thus have a focusing motor and internal focus (no rotating front-end), are much faster, quieter and rarely hunt, while being pretty darn sharp too.
Meanwhile, a Nikon professional grade AF-S lens – like the AF-S 17-35 mm. f/2.8D, for example – is pin-sharp, blistering fast and virtually silent, independent of the camera used.
It might be slightly faster on the professional models, but on the D40 I’ve had no reasons to complain whatsoever.
This goes for my APO 100-300 mm. f/4D Sigma as well, by the way, as it uses a similar internal focusing system (Hyper Silent Motor or HSM).
Simultaneously, Nikon’s in-camera auto-focus systems jumped from Multi-CAM 1300 – with 5 sensors – in the D1 (12-1999), to Multi-CAM 2000, with 11 sensors and 4 dynamic area modes in the D2H (12-2003), to the current Multi-CAM 3500 system present in the D3 series (08-2007), the D700 and the D300S.
Multi-CAM 3500 features 51 sensors (15 cross-type) and 6 dynamic area modes, including automatic dynamic (RGB) focus tracking, which couples Nikon’s Scene Recognition System with the 1.005 pixel RGB sensor of the 3D Color Matrix II metering system.
|MultiCAM 3500 focusing screen|
Those who have never shot sports or wildlife will probably not quite appreciate the significance of these advances. However, for those who do and are used to older auto-focus systems, the difference is astounding.
For one, the fact that the focus points now cover the entire center part of the screen makes selective focus composition a breeze, thanks to very precise focus point selection.
Closest subject priority and dynamic area focusing, combined with a fast AF-S lens allow for virtually instantaneous focusing and tracking, especially handy for shooting fast moving subjects.
RGB focus tracking will maintain focus on subjects with a particular color – and a reasonable amount of separation from the background – throughout the entire frame.
Once the appropriate auto focus mode for the chosen scene is selected, last generation Nikon auto focus systems have very much become “set and forget”.
Much less fiddling with focus points, a focus-tracking capability previously unheard-of and almost instantaneous focusing with the appropriate lenses, means being able to concentrate on the shot, while reducing the risk of missing and/or discarding unique images due to bad focus.
A giant leap forward for photog-kind.
|Nikon D5000 with Promote GPS-D90|
With the rise of websites that allow the inclusion of geo-referential data, like Google Earth, map sites, Flickr, etc., geo-tagging has gained remarkable momentum over the past year or so.
In the DSLR segment, Nikon (and Nikon based Fuji) are currently the only brands capable of so-called “instantaneous geo-tagging”, which refers to the inclusion of geo-referential data (latitude, longitude, altitude) in a picture’s Exif data at the moment it is taken.
Nikon’s 10-pin remote terminal makes it possible to connect an external GPS device – either portable or dedicated – to virtually all Nikon DSLR cameras equipped with it (D1H/X, D2, D3 and D4 series, D200, D300(S), D700, D800 series), and also – with a dedicated connector – to the D90, D7K, D600, D5K series and the D3100. The D3300 includes GPS functionality without the need of an external device.
I believe that geo-tagging will turn out to be one of the biggest trends in photography in years to come, and Nikon is way ahead of it, ever since the D1H/X (2001).
Read this article for more information.
The decade in a nutshell.
Over the past decade Nikon (and its competitors) have decidedly changed the course of photography. The camera has advanced more in the first 10 years of this millennium than in the previous 50.
Digital has not only saved Nikon from possible bankruptcy, but also spurred innovation in areas as widely different as sensor development, electronics, optics, software and materials engineering.
Prices of both cameras and lenses have been constantly driven down, while their overall quality and usability have been greatly improved, providing both professionals and amateurs with ever better and more reliable tools.
Today, unlike during the first half of the decade, a serious photographer has no more compelling technical arguments for film, except for – legitimate – artistic reasons.
I cannot think of a better demonstration of the speed of change than this: a Nikon D40 (11-2006) including lens can still be purchased today for one-tenth of the original sticker price of a D1X body alone (02-2001, discontinued), while outperforming it in all relevant areas: resolution, shooting speed, high ISO, long exposure performance, noise reduction, usability, etc., etc., etc..
Apart of big improvements in resolution, auto focus, optics and digital workflow, we have also seen countless “small” enhancements, such as movie mode, 14 bits RAW, auto sensor cleaning, VR, micro auto-focus adjustment, “self-help” user menus and in-camera processing features like chromatic aberration reduction, contrast correction (D-Lighting), red eye reduction, RAW processing and distortion control, to mention just a few.
Metering has also improved dramatically. I have always felt that the D200 was my first Nikon to “think” digital rather than film, resulting in more balanced exposures and – more importantly – better protection against blown highlights. Since then, technology has unstoppably moved on…
Pro-like Photography for everyone.
All these advancements plus ever lower price-tags have allowed more people to enjoy the essence of what photography is all about: the creation of stunning images.
Less and less technical knowledge and skill are required for a person to turn out almost flawless “professional looking” images, while the instantaneous feedback of a digicam puts users in a permanent “self-education mode”.
I believe this to be a blessing.
First, because it puts more pressure on the pros to innovate, while elevating outrageously creative but “uneducated” newbies to instant – Flickr – fame.
Second, because it allows us all to focus on what – to me – is the essence of photography: creativity, a personal view and the sheer pleasure of capturing the world around us with stunning fidelity, virtually free from the bounds dictated by deficient technology or steep learning curves.
What is the best Nikon so far?
I believe the answer is simple: the best Nikon so far, is the latest Nikon that fits your needs, shooting style and budget. Period.
Don’t “hold out” for a newer model, because there will always be a newer model on the horizon. Just grab the best camera for your needs, go out, shoot & enjoy.
Any Nikon DSLR anno 2010 delivers plenty of resolution, has very sophisticated metering and auto focus systems, is virtually clean up to at least 1.600 ISO, while most now also include movie capability.
Any DSLR bought in 2010 is also a far better investment than one bought in 2001 or even 2005; it will definitely not become obsolete in 3 years more, except – maybe – for the very few who make their living with one.
Once a technology has become mature – and I believe the DSLR now is – improvements become inevitably more marginal. There is preciously little left in need of improvement that I can still think of.
Being a D200 owner, the D300S is the only current Nikon that I’m not too crazy about. I believe it should have improved more over its predecessor, and – at almost twice the price – at least theoretically outperform the D90.
Which it does not, according to DxOMark.
However, if you are not upgrading from a D90, D300 or even a D200, I guess it could be worth the premium, depending on what and how you shoot.
Finally: in spite of what I said earlier, there is one Nikon that I do believe to be worth waiting for.
The D700 (launched 07-2008) next generation model is expected to arrive sometime in the second semester, and I sincerely hope this new camera (D800?) will inherit its sensor from the D3S.
So much so, that I’d be willing to pay a premium for that feature alone.
Still, even if it does not get the D3S chip, it will at least improve on the sensor, live view AF and include HD movie mode, at more or less the same price point.
Reasons enough for some patience.
And, in the unlikely case that Nikon does not fulfill on my wish list, the alternative is simple: I’ll just get a D700 at a reduced price. –smile–
Yup: that's how far we've come. In 2010 you may buy a previous generation camera and not regret it for a second...
My personal picks (updated 03-2012):
< USD 700: Nikon D5100 (kit)
< USD 1.500: Nikon D7000 (kit)
< USD 3.500: Nikon D800E (body alone)
< USD 6.000: Nikon D4 (body alone)
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