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Review: Nikon D3 and Subal ND3

by

Alexander Mustard

INTRODUCTION

I think that BSoUP handled the transition from film to digital better than any other underwater photographic society I know. We kept up with the changing times, but didn’t immediately turn our back on the past. And now most of us have made it to digital. But just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, we have a new transition to face: the transition to full frame digital. But is this really an upgrade?

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 bright, clear blue and shark filled waters of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. D3 + 15mm FE + 1.5x TC. ISO 400. F8 @ 1/125th. And also in the dark, chilly waters around Canada’s Vancouver Island. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F14 @ 1/30th.
Image 1: I tested the D3 in the bright, clear blue and shark filled waters of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. D3 + 15mm FE + 1.5x TC. ISO 400. F8 @ 1/125th. Image 2: And also in the dark, chilly waters around Canada’s Vancouver Island. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F14 @ 1/30th.

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 brighter 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 now used in the D700. This review is purposely 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.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

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!

Image 3: The Subal ND3 will immediately feel familiar to any Subal shooter.

Image 3: The Subal ND3 will immediately feel familiar to any Subal shooter.

Image 4: I took this photo of a grunt sculpin hiding in an empty barnacle shell on my first dive with the D3. The unusual face of the grunt sculpin is thought to mimic the shape and colour of a barnacle. D3 + 150mm + 500D. ISO 200. F16 @ 1/250th. 

Image 4: I took this photo of a grunt sculpin hiding in an empty barnacle shell on my first dive with the D3. The unusual face of the grunt sculpin is thought to mimic the shape and colour of a barnacle. D3 + 150mm + 500D. ISO 200. F16 @ 1/250th.

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 D3 feels just like any other Nikon, albeit with sharper reflexes. Adjusting to FX is not a big deal. Just as the format change from 35mm to DX was something you adapted to immediately you looked through the camera, so the change from DX to FX is a minor issue. Film to digital is a massive adjustment compared with DX to FX. The shallower depth of field of FX means that you have to be a bit more precise with your focus particularly with macro, and given the minor trade offs of bumping the ISO up you have a new creative tool to consider for wide angle. More about those later.

I often feel with housing reviews, the less there is to say the better the housing. A housing is a conduit to the camera and the less obstructive it is the better. I realise that this slogan belongs to another company, but when it comes to a Subal I find “it just works”. And goes on working. I have shot over 100,000 trouble free underwater images with my Subal ND2 housings and the Subal ND3 has identical built quality and I have no reason not to expect the same bullet-proof reliability.

Image 5: The rear view of the Subal ND3 housing. I did not have the Subal GS viewfinder, shown here, on my shoot.

I found all the controls easy to operate with bare hands (Guadalupe), 5mm gloves (San Diego) and 7mm 3-finger mitts (Vancouver Island). Depth rated to 70m (240ft), this system is well suited to just about any diving conditions. On the ND3 the controls have excellent feel - even through 7mm gloves, with numb fingers, it was easy to feel the auto-focus bite point on the shutter. This is particularly important with this housing because the D3’s strengths show most in darker waters, which are often cold.

I was also impressed with the gearing of the command dials. You are not accidentally skipping between apertures, nor are you spinning the wheel endlessly just to change shutter speeds a between a balance light and black background. Many housings get this wrong.

Image 5: The rear view of the Subal ND3 housing. I did not have the Subal GS viewfinder, shown here, on my shoot.

My only disappointment with the ND3 was the standard viewfinder. I felt that this gave an inferior view to my ND2 (which also has a standard viewfinder) despite on land the D3 having a noticeably better viewfinder than the D2X. I presume this is a reflection that nearly everyone specifies the GS180 or WS45 these days and Subal puts less effort into the standard option. I was not able to get as comfortable a view of all four corners of frame through my normal facemask on the ND3 as on the ND2.  If you are considering this system I recommend investing in the excellent GS180 viewfinder or at least checking you are happy with the standard view through your facemask.

MACRO

Macro shooting is one area where I felt the D3 would have some advantages and some disadvantages compared with a DX format camera. It turned out that way, but the differences were harder to spot than I expected. I used the D3 with three macro lenses: Nikon’s 60mm AF-D and 105mm AFS VR and Sigma’s excellent F2.8 150mm macro lens.

The FX sensor on the D3 returns the 60mm to its full angle of view. A main weakness of DX cameras for macro was that the 60mm had an equivalent angle of view on 35mm-film to a 90mm, which is a bit long for some subjects. This has driven quite a few of us to experiment with other lenses (such as Tokina 35mm, Sigma 17-70mm, and fisheye-teleconverter) on DX cameras to fill the gap. However, while on the one hand it is great to have the old 60mm back, on the other, I found myself surprised by the lack of versatility this lens offers on FX compared with DX.

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.

Image 6: The Subal ND3 setup for macro with the 105mm, twin INON Z240 strobes and Fisheye FIX light for focusing.
Image 6: The Subal ND3 setup for macro with the 105mm, twin INON Z240 strobes and Fisheye FIX light for focusing.

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.

Image 7: The 105mm is a much more versatile lens on FX versus DX and is suited to many subjects. In this case an amphipod riding on a jellyfish. D3 + 105mm. ISO 200. F13 @ 1/250th. Image 8: The Nikon 105mm lens was my main go-to macro lens, here used to photograph a china rockfish portrait. D3 + 105mm. ISO 200. F18 @ 1/250th.
Image 7: The 105mm is a much more versatile lens on FX versus DX and is suited to many subjects. In this case an amphipod riding on a jellyfish. D3 + 105mm. ISO 200. F13 @ 1/250th. Image 8: The Nikon 105mm lens was my main go-to macro lens, here used to photograph a china rockfish portrait. D3 + 105mm. ISO 200. F18 @ 1/250th.

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.

Perhaps my most surprising finding was that all three of these lenses were highly useful. On DX I could contemplate leaving the 150mm at home unless I had specific images I was after. On FX I would want all three with me on most shoots.

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!

Image 9: 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.
Image 9: 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.
Image 10: 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.
Image 10: 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.

In conclusion I found the D3 a fine camera for macro shooting once I had selected the appropriate lens for the subject. I didn’t feel that if offered any obvious advantages over a DX camera, but I was also pleased to discover it was not inferior in any way. Nikon’s new high-resolution 3 inch LCD is exceptional (and also found on the D300, D700 and D90) and leaves you in no doubt that you have nailed the focus and exposure.

AUTOFOCUS

I use autofocus for almost every underwater photograph I take and I value AF performance above many other factors when selecting a camera. On this shoot, I used a Fisheye FIX Light on all but one dive while in the dark waters of Port Hardy and San Diego and perhaps unsurprisingly the D3’s autofocus proved fantastic. It quickly and accurately locked onto just about every subject I wished to photograph. However, the wide, soft illumination from Fisheye Fix Light is so good that even poor AF will be flattered. So I made one dive in San Diego without the light and took the camera down to 20m (85ft) in viz of less than 5m (15ft) with no illumination and still found the AF very capable for macro. Nobody else on the boat considered shooting macro without a focus aid in these conditions, but the D3 could. In Guadalupe, photographing large subjects close to the surface it was unsurprisingly faultless.

Image 11: 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.

Before trying the D3 underwater I had two concerns about the D3’s AF system. First I was frustrated that Nikon had decided to do away with the 5-point grouped AF that I use about 80% of the time on the D2X and second, I felt the poor frame coverage of the D3’s 51 point Multi-Cam 3500 AF module was limiting. I would happily have less points and more frame coverage.

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.

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.

Image 11: 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.
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. Image 12: 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.
Image 12: 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.
Image 13: By opening up the <A title=Aperture I made use of the shallower depth of field of FX to isolate subjects and blur busy backgrounds. D3 + 150mm + 500D. ISO 200. F6.3 @ 1/250th." width="300" height="450"> 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.
Image 13: By opening up the Aperture I made use of the shallower depth of field of FX to isolate subjects and blur busy backgrounds. D3 + 150mm + 500D. ISO 200. F6.3 @ 1/250th.
Image 14: 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. Image 15: A comparison of the AF coverage in the D3 (top) and D2X (bottom) frames. For me the D3’s focus points are far too clustered in the centre of the frame and don’t cover the all important third intersections..
Image 14: 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. Image 15: A comparison of the AF coverage in the D3 (top) and D2X (bottom) frames. For me the D3’s focus points are far too clustered in the centre of the frame and don’t cover the all important third intersections.

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.
Nikon users coming from cameras like the D2X and D300 are likely to be disappointed by the AF frame coverage of the D3. But I should mention that the D3’s AF coverage is similar or superior to either of Canon’s FF cameras, the 5D Mk2 and 1DS Mk3

WIDE ANGLE

The main reason I chose this particular shoot for the D3 review was I felt that the high ISO capabilities would provide exciting possibilities for wide angle in the dark temperate waters of British Columbia. I also thought that higher ISOs might also be beneficial in Guadalupe, particularly later in the day when the sun typically dips behind the island. Whatever the outcome the trip would provide diverse challenges for underwater wide-angle photography.
For wide angle I used two lenses, the Sigma 15mm fisheye and the Nikon 17-35mm. I prefer the Sigma 15mm to the Nikon 16mm because it focuses so much closer (10cm closer). I also believe it is a little sharper than the aged Nikon, although both are sharp lenses. 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.

Image 16: In Canada the subject matter was ideally suited to the fisheye. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F13 @ 1/50th.

Ultra-wide angle rectilinear lenses have always been troublesome underwater. Once immersed in water a dome port creates a virtual image that we must focus on, which is both closer to the camera than the true subject and also curved. A dioptre helps the camera focus on this closer virtual image. Land lenses are designed to produce flat images of flat planes of focus. The curved focal plane created by the dome has corners that are closer to the camera than the centre. Typically, we focus on the centre of the image and rely on depth of field to keep the corners as sharp as possible.

Rectilinear lenses are much more sensitive that fisheyes to corner sharpness. One reason is that they have pincushion rather than barrel distortion. This means corner detail is stretched out, rather than squashed in, making flaws more obvious. Furthermore, FX chips are bigger, yet the same distance behind the lens as DX ones, so light rays from the lens are striking the photosites at more acute angles, making light gathering tougher. Perhaps most important, FX cameras have narrowed depth of field at a given focal length and Aperture so we struggle more to keep those curvy corners sharp.

Dioptres are useful for two reasons. First, they help the camera focus on the virtual image, which is surprisingly close to the camera (infinity focus is only three times the dome’s radius). And secondly, and rather fortuitously, single element dioptres actually introduce a bit of field curvature to the lens’s plane of focus, which helps offset some of the curved focal plane created by the dome. So the big question is would the 17-35mm, with dioptre attached perform behind the dome?

Image 16: In Canada the subject matter was ideally suited to the fisheye. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F13 @ 1/50th.

In Guadalupe I was very happy with the performance. I used a +3 dioptre on the lens (I tend to favour the +3 for pelagics and the +4 for reef wide angle with these lenses) a port extension ring and a Subal FE2 port. This review is about shooting real world subjects, and the shark images with the 17-35mm are all very acceptable. I was satisfied that wide rectilinear was working for me on FX and did not even try any other port/dioptre combinations.

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.

Image 17: The 17-35mm produced very pleasing images of the sharks, but of course with little or no detail in the corners they are not ideal pixel peeping corner sharpness. That said if you want to take photos like this the D3 and 17-35mm work very well. D3 + 17-35mm & +3 dioptre. ISO 400. F10 @ 1/200th.
Image 17: The 17-35mm produced very pleasing images of the sharks, but of course with little or no detail in the corners they are not ideal pixel peeping corner sharpness. That said if you want to take photos like this the D3 and 17-35mm work very well. D3 + 17-35mm and +3 dioptre. ISO 400. F10 @ 1/200th.

Image 18: The Sigma 15mm worked very well on the D3. I feel it is as least as sharp as the Nikon 16mm and its more modern design focuses much closer. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F13 @ 1/25th.

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.

I shot the Sigma 15mm in Guadalupe and was pleased with the spacious images it produced. But such images always look better alongside the high impact face shots, so I needed something longer. With the straight 15mm the white sharks just got too tadpoley – all head and no body at all. With a Tokina 10-17mm you can just zoom in, but on FX I had to find a different solution. I settled on the 15mm with a 1.5x Kenko teleconverter. It does not offer the flexibility of the Tokina, but it did allow me a tighter view.

Image 18: The Sigma 15mm worked very well on the D3. I feel it is as least as sharp as the Nikon 16mm and its more modern design focuses much closer. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F13 @ 1/25th.

The 15mm Sigma and 1.5x TC has a similar angle of coverage as the 17-35mm at 17mm – about 110 degrees. I would say that the 17-35mm is ever-so-slightly sharper in the centre of the frame, but the corners of the fisheye-TC are better and I much prefer the barrel to pincushion distortion. The TC crops out much of the fisheye distortion. On any shoot I’d imagine I’d use both depending on the subject and affect I was after.

Image 19: 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 19: 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 20: The Sigma 15mm FE with the 1.5x teleconverter provided an ideal angle of coverage for the sharks in Guadalupe. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 400. F8 @ 1/160th. Image 20: The Sigma 15mm FE with the 1.5x teleconverter provided an ideal angle of coverage for the sharks in Guadalupe. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 400. F8 @ 1/160th.

HIGH ISO

Few would argue that the most exciting photographic capability of the D3 is its noise free performance at high ISO. I was interested in investigating how useful this was beneath the waves. Underwater I found that I could shoot up to ISO 800 without any noticeable degradation in image quality. ISO 1600 could still produce excellent double page spreads and ISO 3200 would be good enough for covers or single page spreads. Incredibly impressive. Nikon users have never known anything like it. The D3 simply changes how you think about light.

Perhaps my biggest surprise with the D3’s high ISO performance was how I struggled to find subjects that really made use of ISO 1600 and above. On this trip I dived in some pretty dark waters. Below the kelp, in the gloomy waters of British Columbia on a rainy day is not bright. Its a place where the weather takes after the first part of the name. The conditions are pretty similar to home waters. A little, colder and but a little clearer. However, shooting typical wide angle scenes with flash, I found that I never needed an ISO higher than 800. Sure, I could dial in higher ISO settings and they worked, but at ISO 800 I was able to use all the Aperture and shutter speed combinations I wished. In other words you have to do some pretty unusual diving to really “need” ISO 1600 to 6400. The obvious examples would be deep or dark available light shots, such as wrecks, particularly with filters. 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.
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.

Image 22: I took this shot of a large Puget Sound king crab in the kelp on both ISO 800 and ISO 1600. The ISO 800 shots, despite being at slower <A title=shutter speed still looked better. In Port Hardy I struggled to find anything that justified shooting above ISO 800 or higher. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F14 @ 1/25th. " width="450" height="300"> 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.
Image 22: I took this shot of a large Puget Sound king crab in the kelp on both ISO 800 and ISO 1600. The ISO 800 shots, despite being at slower shutter speed still looked better. In Port Hardy I struggled to find anything that justified shooting above ISO 800 or higher. D3 + 15mm FE. ISO 800. F14 @ 1/25th.

The high ISO capabilities of the D3 are revolutionary for the Nikon shooter and allow you to produce types of underwater images that would be impossible. However, these capabilities only come to the fore the right conditions. If you dive entirely in tropical conditions or shoot macro such abilities will rarely be of any use.
Image 23: 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.
Image 23: 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.

DYNAMIC RANGE

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.

Image 24: I was impressed by how the D3 capture the sunburst in this image, but it is difficult to quantify what improvement this is over older cameras. D3 + 15mm. ISO 200. F8 @ 1/100th. Image 25: The D3 sensor impressed me with how is handled the bright white plumose anemones, which are notoriously difficult to expose. D3 + 15mm. ISO 800. F14 @ 1/80th.
Image 24: I was impressed by how the D3 capture the sunburst in this image, but it is difficult to quantify what improvement this is over older cameras. D3 + 15mm. ISO 200. F8 @ 1/100th.
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.
Image 25: The D3 sensor impressed me with how is handled the bright white plumose anemones, which are notoriously difficult to expose. D3 + 15mm. ISO 800. F14 @ 1/80th.

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.

SUMMARY

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 my DX camera. 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. Or indeed if my DX camera was a D300 with very good ISO performance.

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.

Also in evaluating the D3 I cannot ignore the D700, which makes the same FX arguments at a more compelling price. The only significant feature it does not equal the D3 for underwater photography is the 95% versus 100% viewfinder. Is this worth $2000? Plus it will travel lighter and take a smaller housing.
So should you get a D3? As I have said above, a lot depends on the type of diving you do. Future FX cameras will certainly bring more resolution, but at the moment, as a Nikon shooter, the FX versus DX debate really comes down to high ISO. If you shoot mainly in the UK and enjoy a lot of wide angle, then the D3 will allow you to take images that have simply not been possible before. For UK wrecks this camera, and its ilk, promises to revolutionise the images we produce. However, if you dive mainly in brighter conditions or if almost all your UK dives are macro 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 and D300).  I miss the Tokina! I also miss the D3, now it is returned. FX is great and easy to adapt to. However, the advantages of FX in Nikon’s current range really depend on what you like to photograph and where. Of course, buying a D3 might just change what you like to photograph! Its capabilities in low light will change your approach to photography in these conditions. This makes it a very exciting underwater camera.

Alex Mustard. September 2008.
www.amustard.com
 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am extremely grateful to Ryan Canon of Reef Photo Video for lending me the Subal ND3 housing and to Craig Jones of Wetpixel for trusting me with his D3. I would also like to thank fellow photographers Rand McMeins, Todd Mintz, Jeff Hartog and Allison Vitsky for helping me through the complex itinerary of this trip (UK-USA-Canada-USA-Mexico-USA-UK).

You can see a gallery of more of my images taken with the D3, here.
www.amustard.com/?page=D308_gal



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