A year with the D3

A year has passed since I rushed out of work to pick up my Nikon D3 at Lens and Shutter and arrived 10 minutes before closing time.  I had previously filled out the application form (aka Customer Worthiness form) that Nikon Canada was requiring all prospective purchasers to fill out and send in.  At the rate the camera was selling worldwide I had expected to receive it months later so I threw my hat into the ring just for fun.  To my surprise, only a couple of weeks passed before I got contacted to pick it up, so I ended up being one of the early adopters.

So how has it been?  Simply marvelous.  Nikon pretty much bet the farm on the D3, hoping to regain the pro market it squandered away in the 90’s film era to Canon, and yet again with the D2 generation of cameras.  The result is a resurgence of black lenses at major sporting events and a huge presence in professional circles.  The killer feature is the incredible sensitivity and dynamic range of the sensor.  The sensitivity allows shooting in ridiculously low light conditions, while the huge dynamic range allows for a wide range of flexibility in post-processing.  Images can be exposed a little under to preserve highlights and the shadows can be lightened later without incurring noise.  This dynamic range also allows for wonderfully smooth tonal transitions for skin.  Though very much branded as a sports and low-light camera, this is a gorgeous studio camera as well (a little more resolution and lower base ISO wouldn’t hurt there of course).  The camera has revolutionized my work and for the first time I don’t miss film.

The sensor is so revolutionary that I bought the D700 to act as a backup camera, replacing my D200 in that role.  It’ll probably see more action at family events since it’s just that much easier to tote it around without the vertical grip and I can leave a more compact prime or consumer zoom lens on it and get acceptable snapshots.  But when I do something serious, it’ll be the D3 I take out.

Ergonomically, the D3 fits very well with the way I do things.  There’s consistency throughout all of Nikon’s pro and prosumer bodies dating back to the film days (F5/F100) and it’s very easy for me to pick up a Nikon and start working with it.  I like the grip and controls and even though it is a bigger camera, I find it more comfortable than the D700.  The bulk helps to stabilize the large lenses that inevitably end up attached to it; the vertical grip I couldn’t live without for an extended shoot.  It just works, which is great praise for any tool. 

It’s a fairly well-traveled body so far – UK, all over North America and it’s held up well.  The only flaw is the paint on the corner of eyepiece shutter lever is wearing off and I’m not sure what it is in my camera bag that might have done that.  I recently brought back the camera to Nikon service to remap out a couple of hot pixels that showed up at high ISOs.  Nothing I couldn’t really live with, but I figured I may as well get in a last checkup before it’s out of the 1-year pro warranty.  Nikon fixed it in a few days and cleaned the sensor and I have to say that Nikon Canada’s service in Vancouver has been top-notch the rare times I’ve had to use them as well as through anecdotal evidence from others.


Joe McNally’s lighting workshop

I attended a 5-day lighting workshop in Vancouver (organized through Vancouver Photo Workshops) with Joe McNally a couple of weeks ago.  Joe's a great, down-to-earth, self-effacing guy, pretty much as he comes across in his blog, and he worked us and himself hard.  Beyond his huge volume of published work with National Geographic and Life magazines, he's well known for his mastery of flash photography, in particular the use of Nikon's Creative Lighting System.

Probably the best part of the workshop was seeing the thought patterns and the methodical approach he uses — sizing up a location, working one light at a time, tweaking, and adding more lights as needed.  As an event photographer and photojournalist at heart, I'm used to having to work quickly with what I'm given, and it's instructive to watch something done methodically, one element at a time.  I plan more creative shoots in future and to work this way.  Also, I plan to work harder to nail the picture in-camera to reduce the amount of post-processing work; Joe's ability (and National Geographic's requirement) to deliver completed shots in-camera would shame everybody.

The workshop was well equipped with all manner of lighting gear, from C-stands, reflectors, softboxes (including an Octa) to Elinchrom monoheads and Ranger portable packs.  As a result, there was little need to wait for other teams to finish with certain limited bits of gear.  I did find the Elinchrom bayonet system a bit frustrating to work with, so I feel better with my decision to go with Hensel.  There are a lot of nifty little things I ran across that I'd consider picking up in future, including some small flash softboxes, and various clamps and modifiers.  I brought several of my SB-800 flashes and my SU-800 commander, which ended up being valuable additions to the arsenal.  In the midst of the class, I also picked up a D700 and SB-900.

Each day was spent working in teams along with various models and areas in the studio and small or large flash.  Our last day was spent on mock assignments that Joe set for us.  Ours was to photograph a self-absorbed Bollywood star newly arrived in North America.  We spent 3 hours setting up for just two shots.  Joe's a hard marker when he puts on his photo editor hat, but I appreciate that!

All in all, it was an exhausting but tremendous experience.  It was a great opportunity to network with Joe and the other photograpers.  Kudos go to Marc, the organizer, and to my various team mates over the last week!   It was definitely worth the price for the smaller class size and overall quality of the instruction.