The New Nikon Hotness

Nikon has announced two new digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. One of the things promised in their press materials is that their new top-of-the-line camera, the D3, will feature a CMOS imager approximately the same size as a 35mm film negative. Nikon has resisted, to this point, the call to provide a “full-frame” imager. They have instead produced a series of high-end cameras using the so-called “DX” format, which is about 23 by 15mm instead of 36 by 24mm. Since the same lenses that were used for 35mm film photography get used on the Nikon DSLRs, this led to the “crop factor” of 1.5x: if you use, say, a 50mm lens on a DX DSLR, the view you get is the same as a 75mm lens on a film SLR. This has been a boon for those shooting long; suddenly, telephotos seem to have more reach. However, wide-angle photography with a DX DSLR requires some exotic glass to deliver those wide-open views. Even kit zoom lenses for entry-level DX DSLRs now feature wide ends of 17 or 18mm, something that was in the exotic ultrawide glass range just a few years ago when film ruled. Of course, the trade-off is that the entry-level kit lenses are specially designed for the DX format, and will not “cover” a full 35mm film negative at the wide end of the range.

The Nikon D3 promises something for everyone, though. Continuing the notion of “crop modes” used on the Nikon D2X and D2Xs, the D3 offers a “full-frame” mode, or what Nikon calls “FX” format, of 12 megapixels; a crop mode delivering a 5×4 ratio, or “ideal format”, which I think gives somewhere around 10 megapixels in the image; and a “DX” mode, with about 5.7 megapixels in the image. The camera automatically recognizes the specialized DX lenses and puts itself into DX crop mode.

The Nikon D2Xs, like the one I use, has a 12 megapixel imager. What are some of the differences? 12 megapixels spread over a lot more imager real estate has allowed Nikon to do some cool things. First, the photosites are larger. There are two results that come from this: higher sensitivity and lower noise. The D3 specs say the low ISO available will be ISO 200. OK, so what about the high end? It goes up to ISO 6400 in normal mode, and then from there it uses “boost” modes to go up to ISO 25,000. There are some sample images available. One of those is an ISO 6400 shot. If the production model maintains at least the quality of the sample camera, I think that we are entering a new era in imaging. I was disappointed that Nikon did not include a boosted sample at the extreme end of the ISO range, but I can hope that that lack will soon be remedied.

Another change they’ve made is that the imager can be set to use 14-bit digitization instead of 12-bit. There’s all sorts of caveats that go with that, but the potential is there to have seriously extended dynamic range if that feature is used. Fuji’s approach to extending dynamic range was to add photosites to collect highlight tonality. Nikon’s was to change the analog-to-digital conversion range. It will be interesting to see how that works in practice.

The other DSLR Nikon announced is the D300, a DX format camera offering a 12 megapixel imager, with ISO up to 6400 with boosting. It also features the new 51-point autofocus module and a bunch of options that even last year’s D200 doesn’t have.

But it looks like the D3 has the potential to be something other than a simple step in imaging technology. It could be a leap, something that will change the way photography gets done.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.