By Alexander Mustard
This isn’t the first D3 and Subal review here on DPG. Gabriele Donati discussed this housing back in May and Jason, himself, published his thoughts on his Sea and Sea D3 housing in April . However, we feel that this camera is such an important milestone for Nikon users and that my review was different enough to warrant yet another D3 review!
Ever since the first “full frame” digital SLR appeared, debates have raged as to their pros and cons versus the smaller APS-C or DX sensor cameras. Many of the arguments focus on dry statistics, theorizing or pool tests with smudgy corners. I find these discussions interesting and useful, but as an underwater photographer what I really want to know is how a camera performs with the subjects I want to shoot – rather than swimming pool tiles. So for this review my intention was take a full frame camera underwater, under a range of normal diving conditions and take photographs of real subjects. It’s a less objective approach that a strict A versus B in the pool review, but I hope more relevant.
I tested the D3 in the dark, chilly waters around Canada’s Vancouver Island. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F13 @ 1/60th.
I was keen to test the D3 in a variety of conditions, and in particular in some cold, dark temperate diving, where I hoped its high ISO capabilities would shine. For the first part of this review I shot the camera in Port Hardy, BC, Canada, often cited as the world’s best coldwater diving. I also wanted to shoot the camera in bright tropical conditions, so I travelled south down the East Pacific to Guadalupe Island in Mexico to photograph the great white sharks.
The D3 is Nikon’s first full frame camera and the same sensor is used in the D700. This review is unashamedly aimed at Nikon users who currently shoot DX and are considering FX. For that reason I took my Nikon D2X along, and while I did not shoot any side by side DX vs FX images it was clear when I used the D2X the areas of difference between the cameras.
My over-riding first impression was how easy this camera was to get used to. For any Subal/Nikon user there is close to zero acclimatisation time to the kit. The Subal ergonomics are superb and consistent with previous housings and every control is exactly where you would expect it to be. It is evolutionary design, rather than revolutionary. The ND3 is a big housing for a Subal, but easy to handle. I should mention that there are many housings by other manufacturers that have been just as big, yet have housed far smaller cameras!
The Subal ND3 will immediately feel familiar to any Subal shooter.
The D3 has a 400 page instruction manual, the Subal ND3 has 27 controls yet both are so intuitive that I found no obstacles to just jumping in and taking pictures. I took strong images on my first dive.
The rear view of the Subal ND3 housing. I did not have the Subal GS viewfinder, shown here, on my shoot.
On DX, the 60mm is definitely the go-to focal length for macro flexibility. However on FX, despite being able to focus to 1:1, it is not. Both in Canada and on dives in California, my DX shooting buddies would be able to shoot a much wider range of subjects than I could with the 60mm. It just happens that nudibranchs sized critters are just the wrong side of the limits for this lens on FX and just the right side on DX. To shoot these subjects well on FX you need to get down close to 1:1, where the camera to subject distance is so short that it compromises lighting - I am talking small differences here. Of course it is still possible to light subjects at 1:1, I just feel that you do not get the same quality of lighting as you would on a longer lens at the same subject magnification. And who wants to take compromised images.
Of course what you loose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts. On FX, the Nikon 105mm VR becomes much more of the all-rounder, particularly when paired with a 5T dioptre. This weak dioptre shortens the minimum focus distance of the lens should you need to get closer than 1:1, without restricting the maximum focal distance too much. In fact the 5T would be a great teaching aid. If something is too far away with the 5T it is probably not worth shooting. Annoyingly the standard Subal 105mm VR port does not provide room for useful supplementary lens. I used it with my own port.
The Sigma 150mm with the 500D is something of a niche lens on DX. I use it regularly to achieve shots of common macro subjects with a fresh perspective. But I would be the first to admit that the difficulty of aiming a lens (with a film equivalent focal length of 225mm) generally means that I get a much lower hit rate than any other macro lens. However, on FX it gives the same field of view as a 105mm gives on DX, an angle most have found so suited to so many underwater subjects since converting to digital.
I will talk much more about the high ISO capabilities of the D3 when addressing wide angle. However, while shooting macro I was not creatively inspired by this ability and shot almost entirely on base ISO 200. On a couple of occasions I tried using ISO 800 to shoot balanced light macro, but found this quite a hassle. First you have to adjust ISO, then shutter speed and then flash power. With cold hands, in the chilly waters of British Columbia, my enthusiasm quickly waned for this technique. If this is a technique that appeals I would recommend ensuring you have TTL strobes, it is one less thing to adjust.
Perhaps the most common argument in favour of 12MP FX sensor over a 12MP DX sensor for macro underwater photography is diffraction at smaller apertures. In studio tests its possible to show that the more densely spaced the photosites on a sensor the more diffraction will occur reducing the detail captured at smaller apertures. While I do not doubt diffraction occurs in our underwater photos, I feel that in the real world there is so much else going on that influences sharpness (not least of which is shooting through murky seawater) that it is not the main limiting factor. When I shoot my DX underwater camera I do not see any significant reduction in sharpness between F11 and F22 (or more) – I just see more depth of field. And neither when I shot the D3 did I suddenly find that shots taken at F16, F22 or more were sharper than I had seen on DX at the same apertures. In respect of diffraction I did not find any practical advantage for using FX for macro on real subjects. I don’t believe that this is a factor that underwater photographers should be overly concerned with.
That said the D3 produced excellent image quality for macro. The pictures looked great on the LCD and even better on my Mac. I was actually surprised when I pulled up some D2X pictures and started examining them at 100% that there was not much to choose between the 12MP RAW files from each camera. The D3’s LCD had me convinced there was a step on in image quality!
Two photos of Red Irish Lords (scorpionfish-size fish), left D2X + 60mm and right D3 + 60mm, both base ISO. There were not taken on the same dive, but are taken at about the same camera to subject distance.
Below are 100% crops of the skin detail from around the mouth of each. For macro I feel that both the 12MP DX sensor of the D2X (left) and the 12MP FX sensor of the D3 (right) are recording a similar level of detail.
I was very impressed that the D3’s AF, which was able to pick up exactly what I wanted in focus. D3 + 105mm. ISO 200. F22 @ 1/250th.
To my pleasant surprise, the lack of a grouped AF mode was not a big deal. Unlike the D2X where I can generally stick to Grouped AF so much of the time, I found that the D3 worked best switching between the three AF Area modes for different scenarios, but once I got used to this I was very impressed. Jumping ahead to wide angle I found that Auto-Area AF worked very well on every subject I shot. Perhaps, only when shooting strongly backlit (into the sun) compositions might you need to switch to Single-Area AF. I also found that Auto-Area AF worked very well for many macro subjects too. The D3 has a rare ability to pick a subject out of the background and focus on it, with red squares blinking on the viewfinder to confirm the exact point of focus.
The switch (1) to the right of the LCD screen alternates the AF Area modes. On the D3 I found all three very useful for different types of shot, and regularly changed between them.
When shooting macro with an FX camera, the depth of field will be less than with a DX camera, with the same framing at the same aperture, and therefore it is important to focus accurately. Shooting FX is a reminder that when shooting DX we can develop some bad habits particularly sloppy “near enough is good enough” focusing. For this reason I would also use Single-Area AF when wanting to be very certain of focus.
Port Hardy is an amazing dive destination with vertical rock walls plastered with super colourful sessile invertebrates (sponges, anemones, barnacles and soft corals). Hiding within this multicoloured jungle are lots of photogenic critters (nudis, crabs and characterful fish, such as sculpins and warbonnets). From a photographic perspective one of the biggest challenges is getting good subject isolation. We would all spend a lot of time searching for angles that would allow us to place subjects against open water. None of us believe in picking up and moving subjects for the sake of a shot. One appealing aspect of FX was the naturally shallower depth of field and I shot a large number of narrow depth of field or bokeh shots as Martin Edge classifies them, to include the colour of the background, but not the distracting details. I found the Sigma 150mm particularly affective, when opened up to F4.5-F6.3.
The final AF mode is Dynamic-Area AF, which I used with all 51 points activated and 3D tracking switched on in continuous mode. Initially we did not get on well, but the more I persevered with it, the more useful it became. By the end of the trip this was my main macro mode. In this mode all 51 AF sensors are active, however the 3D tracking can recognise the subject and track it, keeping it in focus around the frame. This works underwater, however, it does not work on all subjects particularly if they move fast. In other words don’t expect to be able to track an Anthias flitting around the frame in the current. I identified two main uses – both more to do with camera rather than subject movement! First is intention camera movement, this mode is a great tool for recomposing a macro shot. You leave the main focus point in the middle of the frame, focus on the subject, recompose and the camera tracks the subject “movement” and then fire. The second is in high magnification macro with longer lenses where it is impossible to keep the camera totally still. Here the 3D tracking is excellent and following the small movements resulting from camera and keep the subject sharp. Remember that in both cases I was making use of the illumination from the Fisheye FIX light in the dark Pacific waters. However, in the bright tropics I would expect this system to be even more impressive.
Here I used 3D tracking to maintain focus while I recomposed the frame. Initially I focused on the Red Irish Lord’s eye while it was in the centre of the frame. With the 3D tracking ON I simply recomposed and the blinking AF points AF followed the eye to its new position within the frame ensuring it remained the point of focus. sD3 + 150mm + 500D. ISO 200. F13 @ 1/250th.
The AF frame coverage is perhaps my biggest complaint with the D3, the outer limits only just reaching the thirds of the frame. I feel that this is the only area where the D3 really falls below state of the art with its specifications. You can’t help conclude that the Multi-Cam 3500 system was developed for the D300 and then fitted to the D3.
Of course the camera has an AF lock button, with a lever that falls right below your thumb on the Subal housing, but I do not favour such a solution. Particularly with macro shooting, I want to have my AF point right on a key feature, such as an eye, ensuring it is razor sharp in my preferred composition. Surely this is more desirable that focusing, locking focus and recomposing while all the time trusting that neither you nor the subject moves. I hope that improved AF coverage will be on of the main upgrades when the D3 is replaced.
For wide angle I used two lenses, the Sigma 15mm fisheye and the Nikon 17-35mm. I selected the 17-35mm over the newer 14-24mm for two reasons. First, I own one! I was offered a 14-24mm for the trip, but that combined with a D3 is a lot of someone else’s kit to risk below the water. But secondly, I was concerned about the corner sharpness with the 14-24mm particularly because it cannot take a dioptre. So I am afraid there is no test of that lens here.
Shark photography is not the toughest challenge for corner sharpness. Firstly, most shots do not have any important corner detail. Moreover, corner softness is accentuated by short camera to subject distances, which you would get with reef CFWA, rather than shooting pelagics. So for those who like a bit of measurebating, this thread on wetpixel has some photos of the cage grid. Normally I would have used the +4 dioptre for such shots, but in any case, these shots are not too bad at all. The corners suffer more with fringing than sharpness and the problems only manifest right in the corners at FX.
There is one important further feature of the D3 that is worth mentioning in respect to dome performance. The D3 has an in-camera AF fine-tune feature, which can remember specific settings for certain lenses. I tried setting a slightly closer focus (than the true distance) for the 17-35mm, to bring the plain of focus forward slightly relative to the curved virtual image to help corner sharpness. I felt this improved matters, but I was not able to achieve any quantifiable results, mainly because the 17-35mm was already working well. When I own a camera with this feature I will experiment further.
Despite getting technically acceptable images with the 17-35mm, I have to admit that I just don’t like the pincushion look of the shots. I am a fisheye guy. Give me cuddly, curvy barrel distortion any day over spikey, pointy pincushion. To me the underwater world looks so much better that way. So most of the time I put the fisheye on and added a 1.5x teleconverter when I wanted a narrower view.
Optically the Sigma 15mm was superb. There is no doubt that fisheye lenses perform very well on FX, and if like me that is what you like to shoot, then you will be very happy. Up in Port Hardy it was without a doubt the lens to have. The full 180 degree view is definitely what is required for wide angle photography. It allowed me to photograph the colourful walls with a diver or a colourful foreground with the bull kelp towering above as a background.
Well, the Sigma 15mm is the lens to have if you are not lucky enough to be shooting DX and have a Tokina 10-17mm. The 10-17mm fisheye zoom has so many devotees these days, I shan’t waste space singing its praises here. However, since most of my dive buddies had this lens, I noticeably missed it on this shoot, particularly when I saw their pictures after the dive. For some wide angle subjects you just need the full 180 degree coverage, other times, particularly for wildlife you need to zoom in a bit. With the Tokina you can, with FX you cannot. To save you thinking it, the 14-24mm, if you could get it working behind a dome, is no substitute as sees only 114 degrees at its widest, which is a long way short of 180.
With some subjects a 180 degree fisheye is just too wide. On DX you have the Tokina 10-17mm, which gives you both 180 degrees and the ability to zoom in a bit. With FX you do not. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F13 @ 1/200th.
Image 21: This photo of black bass in a bull kelp forest is taken in mainly available light, with just a little fill flash. Being able to capture seascapes, like this, in dark conditions was new to me, thanks to the D3. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F10 @ 1/125th.
When you use the ISO settings above 800 you do begin to degrade image quality - not much, but its visible. Therefore it is important to make sure that the ISO setting is getting you something photographically that could not be achieved at a lower ISO. Up to ISO 800 you can increase for free, above this you should not just be using ISO as a crutch for poor technique. I believe that there are many interesting and novel underwater images to come from high ISO shooting. I really felt that I only just started to make use of this potential during my shoot.
In Guadalupe the capabilities of the D3 at ISOs 400-800 were very valuable. Particularly early and late in the day, when the light is often most interesting. My buddy, shooting a D200 definitely found those conditions much tougher. Another advantage of high ISO was being able to use low flash powers, which meant that I could use the camera on continuous low (4-5 frames per second) shooting. Continuous high produces up a ridiculous 11 frames per second. This enabled me to produce a series of shots from a single pass. I also shot some images at ISO 1600 and the noise was much more noticeable in the blues. In the middle of the day I was shooting at ISO 200. In brighter tropical waters I doubt I would find many uses for ISOs above this.
A series of 6 photos, all taken within 1.5 seconds on Continuous Low, of a single pass by one of the sharks. Higher ISOs allowed me to shoot at lower flash powers and keep up with the action. All D3 + 15mm. ISO 400. F8 @ 1/160th.
The D3 can record RAW files at a bit-depth of 14-bit and perhaps equally important is Nikon’s Active D-Lighting, which is a bit like an in camera Shadows and Highlights, and is applied to the RAW file. Both of which promise better dynamic range for digital files. The big question remains is the D3 the camera to finally capture sunbursts just as they look on a tranny on a lightbox? No, is the short answer. I felt it was better than the DX cameras I was shooting alongside, but I would find this impossible to quantify with the real world shooting we did. I certainly do not feel that there is a day and night difference between the D3 and its 12-bit predecessors.
At times in Canada the D3 really struggled with the transition from the bright surface to the inky depths. In the blue water of Guadalupe is coped much better and I was much happier with how it recorded afternoon sunrays. These seemed to be a benefit for macro too. I shot several subjects amongst the bright while plumose anemones and I was very impressed with how the D3 coped with these scenes.
But that is all just opinion. Without some controlled conditions testing the different to 12-bit cameras is so small as to be difficult to discern. In conclusion, I have absolutely no complaints with the D3 image quality, which is as good as any underwater camera I have seen. But get feeling I don’t think I could prove to anyone it is any better.
So will I buy one? I am not sure, I have been hanging on for an FX camera in the 18-22MP range as resolution is more attractive to me than high ISO. I miss it. It is a phenomenal land camera, and a very capable underwater one. For anyone who made the transition of film to DX, DX to FX is much simpler. The Subal ND3 is an excellent housing, but I’d strongly recommend the GS viewfinder. I was much happier than I expected to be with the AF modes, which work really well. Nikon’s biggest job for the upgrade is increasing the AF coverage of the frame, which is currently insufficient (although does exceed many cameras out there).
I think that my shoot definitely played to the strengths of the D3 and particularly with wide angle I felt I was getting images I could not with DX. I might have been less impressed had this been a tropical trip, where the benefits of the D3 over a DX camera would have been more marginal.
The D3 excels at both macro and wide angle and I was satisfied with its performance with the tricky rectilinear wide-angle zoom, with the subjects I was shooting. That said, low ISO image quality (both for wide angle and macro) is very good, but not a step on from current DX cameras and even some that are several years old. If I were planning predominantly coral reef diving (low ISO wide angle and macro), the D3 would be hard to justify over a D300, for example.
So should you get a D3? As I have said above, a lot depends on the type of diving you do. If you frequently shoot wide angle in dark conditions then the D3 will open up new images to you. If you dive mainly in brighter conditions or if you are a macro fanatic then the D3 will offer you little to justify the cost of FX over DX.
To conclude, the D3 takes excellent macro and wide angle underwater photos. I love the D3’s screen (also on the D700, D300 and D90). I miss the Tokina! I miss the D3, now it is returned. FX is great and easy to adapt to. However, the advantages of FX really depend on what you photograph. If you shoot mainly in the tropics or shoot mainly macro then FX offers little over DX. However, if you shoot plenty of wide angle in low light, then the D3 won’t just allow you to take types of images you never could before, it will change your approach to photography in these conditions. This makes it a very exciting underwater camera.
Alex Mustard. September 2008.
You can see a gallery of more of my images taken with the D3, here.
His pros and cons regarding Fx vs. Dx are based on actual shooting conditions and I don't have to look at images of rulers/color charts.
For now he has also saved me some money because until I can make my D2Xs shots rival his, I don't need the D3!
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