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

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October 1, 2008 11:01 PM

Nikon D3: A New Way to See (and Shoot) at Night.

Posted by Rod Mar

In my last post, I marveled at the low-light capabilities of the Nikon D3.

At that high school football game, I was shooting with a 400mm/f2.8 lens. Forever, f2.8 has been the "magic number" of aperture. Technically speaking, opening the lens to that wide of an aperture allows enough light into the camera so the operator can shoot at a high enough shutter speed with which to successfully freeze action. In most cases, we are looking at a minimum of 1/500th second shutter speed. Any slower allows noticeable motion blur.

That's a lot of technical mumbo jumbo. Cutting to the chase, f2.8 used to be the magic aperture. The problem with f2.8 lenses is that in lenses longer than 100mm, the lenses require so many glass elements that the lenses become really freaking expensive.

Now, the low-light capabilities of the D3 and the quality of images it delivers at high ISO's makes f2.8 no longer the holy grail of aperture.

I know this because at last weekend's University of Washington football game against Stanford, I shot lenses with an maximum aperture of f4.0.

Specifically, I shot a Nikon VR 600mm/f4.0 lens and also their superb VR 200-400mm f4.0 lens.

Both were mainstays of my Olympics coverages, and I was excited to try them out at night football.

(Note that high school fields are far too dark for shooting at f4.0, but college and pro fields have better lighting.)

I shot at ISO 4000, although I could have shot at ISO 6400 as I had the night before. The images at ISO 4000 are just slightly underexposed.

I know, "what was I thinking?", right? I'm asking myself the same thing.

However, another photographer knew right away. "Who the heck shoots a college game for a Sunday paper at ISO 6400?

He was right -- anything over ISO 1600 is previously unheard of.

The camera got its first test when Washington running back David Freeman stretched out on a diving catch that he just couldn't complete, despite the fingertip effort.

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 4000, 1/1000th sec.,f4.0)

That frame looked okay on the histogram (graph that tells me where the light and shadow fall within a captured image), but I was a little nervous so I slowed the shutter speed 1/3 of a stop from 1/1000th sec., to 1/800th second. Later Freeman tried to fend off a Stanford defender with a stiff-arm along the sidelines.

(Nikon D3, VR 200-400m/f4.0 lens @ 250mm, ISO 4000, 1/800th sec., f4.0)

Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse leaps for a pass in the end zone as Stanford's Wopamo Osaisai defends in the first half.

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 4000, 1/800th sec.,f4.0)

After Washington's starting quarterback Jake Locker was injured, redshirt freshman Ronnie Fouch took over.

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 4000, 1/800th sec.,f4.0)

Here's both the full-frame and cropped versions of Stanford tight end Austin Gunder looking for yards after the catch.

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 4000, 1/800th sec.,f4.0)

Here's another example -- Stanford's Wopamo Osaisai breaks up a pass intended for Washington's Jermaine Kearse in the fourth quarter. I think if I'd cranked the ISO a bit higher, the exposure would have been more on the mark and the noise would have been even further reduced. But in the end, this frame is more than usable for publication in either our print product or online.

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 4000, 1/800th sec.,f4.0)

As you can see, I'm very pleased with lots about the Nikon D3's low-light capability. I usually don't do a lot of writing about equipment, but this camera is a "game-changer", to use a sports cliche'. Canon will most certainly catch up soon (their new Canon 5D Mark II is supposed to have incredible low-light capabilities).

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