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testing, testing [D] 1, 2, 3

I had mentioned before we had the opportunity to test out the new Nikon D3 over Tallis’ Birthday for Matt’s Brother, who is currently serving abroad in the Military. I didn’t get a whole lot of time to play with the camera as I would have liked (sniff, sniff), but got a few shots in as I hastily made last-minute preparations for the Party. We have written him a big review, but I thought I would also share some Photography stuff here too, mostly to show the difference quality equipment makes, particularly lenses.

The Nikon D3 is the latest and greatest top-dog in the Nikon digital lineup. It is the [drool-inducing, camera-lusting, far-out-of-reach-of-my-wallet, that I will never own] Camera. Maybe someday, though I really have very little use for a camera like this unless I were to start shooting professionally full time to justify the cost. He also had a Nikon Nikkor 85mm f1.4D lens we tested out with it. In comparison, we have a far older Nikon D100, which is a great little digital SLR camera but nowhere near the quality and features the D3 boasts. It is great for me taking pictures of our kids and having fun with. This camera was given to us by said Brother-in-Law when he bought a D2 and had no need for this lower end body. Best gift ever. We have continued to use our arsenal of Nikon lenses which are made for film photography. They are fine, but the translation of information through the glass to the digital sensors is different than onto film, so there is loss of information. A new digital lens has been on my list for a while, it is the one thing that right now will greatly improve the quality of my photography, as demonstrated here:

Picture 1 :: Nikon D3 w/ Nikkor 85mm 1.4D taken at 1/60th of a second, f1.4

Picture 2 :: Nikon D3 w/ Nikkor 24-85mm 3.5 taken at 1/60th of a second, f3.5

The biggest difference that I noticed between the cameras was Autofocus and Color Balance (light temperature). Both pictures were taken indoors on a cloudy day with no flash at the same speed. You can see how much sharper the D3 photo is (more in a bit) and in particular, how much more depth and range of color there is in Tallis’ skin tones on her face. The D100 I usually have to spend a fair amount of time changing the color temperatures in Photoshop and balancing out the hues, often times needing to get rid of blue or yellow shades. The Orange wall behind Tallis in the first photo always makes my shots with the D100 turn out far too hot and I end up having to de-saturate the whole photo a bit to compensate for the high chroma of that wall. Not so with the D3, the skin tones are intact and the orange is still vibrant but not overly saturated. I did very little editing on the D3 photo, just changed some brightness and shadow levels. The D100 each photo has to be adjusted for exposure, color balance, tinting, brightness, and sharpness. Each is usually a bit different and takes time. Not that I wouldn’t also spend a fair amount of time editing the D3 photos, but the basics wouldn’t have to be calibrated quite as much to get the photo to look ‘right’. The autofocus on the D3 is of course lightning fast, makes the D100 feel like it is clanking around haphazardly. But it was the lenses that made the most difference in outcome of photographs, which will be the majority of my post.

Photo A :: Eye detail from D3

Photo B :: Eye detail from D100

Obvious, eh? The crispness of the eyes in the iris, the reflection, the hair, and the skin details (even her leftover snot or whatever around her nose) is just amazing in comparison. And the D100 photo isn’t really out of focus, that is just the best translation onto the digital chip that the lens can do when you zoom in up close. To note, these images are both Jpegs of the same size and same resolution and the same detailed area so it is a fair comparison. When it comes down to it, Glass makes the biggest difference in Quality, but people so often get hung up on Megapixels. I think you are better off to put money into a quality lens than a fancier camera, unless you need to blow them up really really big, which most of us don’t.

Detail 1 :: D3 focus area

The 85mm lens is a portraiture lens, it has a very small and very specific focal length. You can see in the above Detail that there is a mere inch or so between her hair (in focus) and her right eye (out of focus). If you look closely at the original Photo 1, you can see that her right eye is just out of the focus range of the lens and that just the slight turn of her head is enough to change the distance of one side of her face from the camera to be just barely out of focus. I would say that is the one drawback of this very specific lens. If the subject were to be immobile, this would be the perfect lens. But with subjects constantly moving (ie. Kids), the focal length is just too specific for me to want to drop over $1000 on this piece of glass. I need something with a little more grace, though the super-fast autofocus of the D3 body would be a huge advantage to me.

Another nice thing about this lens is that the background behind the subject gets a really nice blur. This is great so when you have something really busy behind the subject, the thing you are really trying to shoot is the main point and all the other stuff gets muted away really nicely. I am a huge fan of this look and my next lens will have this telephoto feature.

Also, the 85mm lens opens up to f1.4, while my older 24-85mm only opens to f3.5. This means the glass lets far more light into the film/sensor area which equates to better shots in low-light conditions, like the inside of my house in the winter. I have found the limitations of the higher aperture results in very grainy photos, many of which I end up just discarding. It isn’t as stark here, but you can see the difference between the grain, which is mostly found in the background and looks sandy, in these two details:

Photo cc :: D3 w/ 85mm 1.4D

Photo dd :: D100 w/ 24-85mm 3.5

See how sharpness and quality are affected by the glass you are shooting through? Pretty stark comparison. It reminds me how much better my photos could be. I do experiment a bit with my photography and play around a bit to improve my skills, so strive for betterment in how and what I shoot and produce. It is a hobby, it is fun and mostly it is an archive of where we have been and the things we have done. It is an art, a creative outlet which I very much enjoy practicing. I don’t think you have to drop thousands upon thousands of dollars on a great camera to get great pictures. Honestly, the D3 is far too much unless you do this for a living. But the advantage of a SLR system is the lenses are unbeatable. A point and shoot just can’t compare, and even more so, not all SLR lenses are made equal. Nikon has many consumer-grade bodies (like the D50, D70, D80, D100, D200) which are amazing cameras for a fraction of the cost of the D3 and take the exact same lens systems. Above that is the new D300, which is a little toned down from the D3 but packs a huge punch in the Autofocus realm with the 51-point focus system (in comparison our D100 has a 5-point system). I am all for buying used- is where I usually buy from, they have a very rigorous inspection process and I have been impressed even with their Bargain-rated equipment I have purchased. I am keeping my eyes out for a new Digital Lens, especially now that I have had a chance to test the waters a bit.

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