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Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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September 26, 2008 11:23 PM

Nikon's D3: Low Noise in Low Light.

Posted by Rod Mar

I've been shooting the Nikon's newest flagship professional camera, the D3, for most of the summer.

Never before had I heard so much hype about a camera before. Fellow photographers from around the country started whispering about how great it was supposed to be, and as the camera trickled into the hands of people earlier this year, the hype only grew.

This is not the spot to get a complete technical review of the D3, or any piece of equipment. For that, try Digital Photography Review or Steve's Digicams. I'm sure there are many more great sites that cover equipment comprehensively, but these are an excellent place to start.

While I am not qualified to discuss the virtues of certain image processors or the associated algorithms (confession -- I'm terrible at math, and just the word "algorithms" sends me quivering into the corner), I can provide you some real world examples of how the camera functions.

One of the things I'm most impressed with on the D3 is the ability to shoot at high ISO's with relatively low noise.

As any newspaper photographer will tell you, shooting high school sports is one of the most technically daunting challenges we face. This mostly has to do with the light -- the poor quality of it, the inconsistency of it, and the simple lack of it.

High school gyms and football fields are described two ways by photojournalists -- "caves" or "dungeons".

You get the point.

Back in the days of film (yes, you little punks, cameras once used film, not flash cards), we had to walk barefoot five miles in the snow just to get a photo.

Whoops. Let's try that again.

Back in the days of film, ISO 400 was once fast, and one had to "push" (overdevelop) the film from ISO 400 to ISO 800. There were specialized developers like Acufine and Edwal's FG-7 (omigod -- they still sell it over at Amazon!) which helped push film. Still, the results were noisy (read, grainy).

When Kodak introduced their amazing P3200 film, sports photography went through a little revolution. But P3200 was a black-and-white film and had the misfortune of arriving just about the same time that newspapers started moving to color.

Color films were much slower, and even when Fuji introduced a ISO 800 press film, it still couldn't match the speed of the P3200.

To get any sort of decent exposure you needed to use flash, which caused all kinds of harsh shadows, red-eye, and horrible, unflattering light. Shooting in natural, or ambient light is always preferable as it is closer to what the human eye sees.

Because of this, the demand for low-light lenses was huge. Nikon had a humongous old 300mm/f2 lens that was as amazing as it was heavy.

One of the many advantages of the move to digital is that technology has allowed us to shoot at high ISO's than ever. Even the earliest digital bodies were better in low light than their film predecessors.

For the longest time, the flagship camera for both Canon and Nikon topped out at ISO 1600, and even that was a bit sketchy. Yes, some of you will argue that it was fine, but really, the noise in the shadows especially, was plain gross.

The D3 is the best low-light, high ISO camera I've ever used. Earlier this spring I received emails from shooters using it easily at ISO 6400 and Nikon was showing off photos shot at ISO 25,600.

I can imagine *some* scenarios where ISO 25,600 would be called for, but those would be extreme spot news situations where the subject matter was more important than the quality.

Tonight I was shooting a prep football game at a place called French Field, in Kent, WA. I actually wrote a post about it last year. Using Canons at the time, I was using fill-flash.

ISO 6400 used to be unthinkable when shooting in color, and even with the recent digital cameras shooting that high was guaranteed to leave one with noisy, ugly images.

With the D3 in hand, I simply cranked the ISO to 6400 and let it fly with a 400m/f2.8 lens.

Here's a sample frame, just so you can judge for yourself how great this camera is at shooting in low light. I have done absolutely no post-processing to any of these. No auto-levels, no color correction, no messing with levels or curves, and no noise-reduction or sharpening.

(Nikon D3, VR 400mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 6400, 1/500th sec, f2.8)

Let's start cropping:


Tighter still:

And once more. Note how much of the frame we've cropped to and the relative lack of noise in his face, and also the shadow areas. This is pretty impressive to me:

Obviously, if I need to be cropping photos this drastically for use in the paper, I either need to take more photography lessons or get a little closer to the play. But knowing that you can shoot a digital camera in a dungeon or cave and still get natural results is a huge advancement in our profession.

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