D3 or D300?

Some ways of thinking about the differences between the two cameras.

Original: 11/18/2007

Since Nikon's announcement, a persistent theme in my email InBox has been torturous grappling with which one to get. After all, they are both fast-shooting cameras with 100% viewfinders, the same new AF system, and 12mp sensors. Indeed, the differences are few:

  1. FX or DX. The D3 is FX (~24x36mm capture area), the D300 is DX (~16x24mm). If you're a mid-range shooter (28-200) I just don't see the frame size difference making any difference to you. The problems come with the wide angle and extreme telephoto ends. By now most of you know you'll need DX lenses to really do wide angle on a DX sensor, and that DX tends to get more pixel density on distant subjects with extreme telephoto lenses. But one thing you should note in this difference that doesn't get much talk: the AF sensors are more tightly packed to the middle of the frame with the FX sensor. Are you a focus-and-reframer (FX) or do you want the focus system to "do magic" while you're concentrating on composition (DX)?
  2. High ISO capability. We don't have any hard and fast numbers yet, but let us suppose that my initial impression is correct. First, some historical numbers: the D200 maxes out at about ISO 800, the D2xs maxes out at about ISO 400. I almost never will set ISO values higher than those numbers because the compromises are too great above them. Here's my initial impression about the new cameras: the D300 has perhaps a one stop advantage over the D200 and two stops over the D2xs; the D3 boosts that by perhaps as much as another stop. (Please note that I'm not suggesting that you always shoot at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200; there are still compromises that come into play at higher ISO values; always use the lowest ISO you can to maximize image quality.)
    • But what doesn't get talked about here is how the focal length equivalences come into play. If DOF isolation is your game, FX has a one stop advantage: you need an equivalent f/2 lens on DX to match an f/2.8 lens on FX. If DOF reach is your game, the situation reverses. So which one of those are you?
    • And the relative of noise is dynamic range. The D3 simply has a deeper electron well than the D300. That ought to translate into slightly more usable dynamic range, especially at higher ISO values where the dynamic range tends to get clipped due to increases in noise. But we're not talking about S5-level increases, but rather modest boosts that are probably less than a stop. Still, the FX camera is going to have better dynamic range handling than the DX camera, all else equal.
  3. Size and weight. The D3 is a three-pound camera. Add most any zoom lens and you've got a four-bang anchor hanging from your neck. And it's physically large, as well, meaning that it doesn't fit into some of the smaller bags easily. If you add the MB-D10 to the D300, there's little difference. But if you don't add the extended grip, while the D300 is lighter and smaller, you're also giving up substantial battery capacity (even with the decreased power consumption of the D300, the EN-EL3e is no match for the much higher capacity EN-EL4a).

Sure, there are some other minor differences between the two cameras, but nothing that is going to generate a clear pick of one over the other.

So let's look at the differences a different way. Take the following items and rank them in terms of your need for them: High ISO (especially above ISO 1600), Pixel Density, Wide Angle of View, Focus without Reframing, Small Size and Weight (or Flexibility in Size and Weight), DOF Isolation, DOF Maximization, Price.

Here's what happened when I did that for my work:

  1. Flexibility in Size and Weight. D300. I need a body that I can strip down to low weight for backpacking.
  2. Wide Angle of View. D3. So many options between 14 and 24mm on the D3 and so few on the D300. Moreover, no tilt-and-shift WA option for the D300.
  3. DOF Maximization. D300. Goes along with that high use of wide angle lenses, and an apparent contradiction to what I just wrote. But I'd rather have the angle of view than the DOF, thus my rankings.
  4. Pixel Density. D300. When I do shoot wildlife, even a 600mm lens might not be enough, so pixel density on subject becomes the key issue.
  5. DOF Isolation. D3. Also with wildlife, I tend to want to isolate the backgrounds from the animal. But I have to get the animal in the first place before this becomes important, thus my ranking here.
  6. High ISO. D3. The only time I dial up ISO is with wildlife (and the rarer sports shoot). And ISO 1600 is enough for the wildlife (though not enough for sports).
  7. Focus without Reframing. D300. I can go either way with this, actually. I'm probably more of a manual focus override kind of guy, anyway, so it doesn't make any difference to me when camera is better here.

So let's add up our scores and compare. I'm going to drop #7 here, as it's totally unimportant to my decision as to which camera to get (as would be price). The D300 scores: 1, 3, 4 (total 8, average 2.7). The D3 scores: 2, 5, 6 (total 13, average 4.3). It ought to be clear from that assessment that I'd be more interested in the D300 than the D3. It should also be clear from my prioritization that wide angle lens choice and flexibility is going to be my big issue with choosing the D300.

Now let's consider that my photographic career had taken a different turn, and that I still did primarily sports photography (as I did in college). I was shooting as a stringer for a major national organization, and they had me mostly doing college sports (naturally, as I had access to the facilities ;~). I shot football, basketball, baseball, and track and field for the most part. Here's what I'd be thinking with this direction:

  1. High ISO. D3. Sports requires motion-stopping shutter speeds, and basketball in particular is going to require ISO 3200 in dim college venues (even using ceiling-mounted strobes). Football sometimes gets played in heinous lighting conditions (including night games under Sodium Vapor lights), so ditto. Baseball and track and field are more fair weather sports, but they sometimes experience low light conditions, too.
  2. DOF Isolation. D3. Backgrounds can get very busy and distracting in sports, especially when you're shooting down low to the action (i.e. sidelines). You don't always want to remove the background, but you definitely want to have full control of it.
  3. Focus without Reframing. D300. It isn't a huge issue with me since I'm going to be using AF-S lenses and I'm always going to be considering overriding the camera's choice of focus (or locking it via the convenient buttons on the long lenses), but this is definitely an issue I would need to address. It just doesn't have as high a priority as the other two I've just listed.
  4. Pixel Density. D300. Since I've got good control over my shooting position and I'm bringing appropriate lenses, this isn't a huge concern, but every so often you're out of position for the action and still shooting it, thus pixel density is a minor concern.

None of the other factors come into play for my sports use, so we have D3 at 1.5 and the D300 at 3.5; it should be clear that I buy a D3 for my sport shooter alter ego.

Yes, I'm this anal about everything. (Redhead: +1; Blonde: -1; Right Woman: +infinity ;~). But Nikon's making two cameras that have so much in common means that you need to come up with a system by which you evaluate your decision. Anal is good in this case.

Now let's deal with some side issues:

  • DX is dead after the D300. No it isn't, and the great price differential between the two cameras ought to give you the clue as to why. The increase in high ISO efficiency over the D200 despite the added pixels should be another clue. I think we'll easily get to 16mp with DX format cameras, perhaps in two steps (14mp, 16mp). Beyond that, I suspect we'll see other approaches than straight Bayer. The cost advantages of DX are simply too great for the camera makers to ignore, since the vast bulk of the DSLR buying is done at under US$1799.
  • An FX D300-sized body will appear. Eventually, it will. And probably at a higher price than most people seem to expect. But right now Nikon has their hands full with the D3/D300 intros plus the need to reiterate (and perhaps extend) the consumer cameras again (D40/D40x/D80/??). The D300 is made at the Thailand plant, which is consistently at capacity, so an FX D300 isn't likely going to be built there. That leaves Sendai, which has a more limited production capacity. D3 demand will have to decrease before a smaller FX camera could be built there.
  • Is your choice even available? If you didn't get on a wait list for a D3, good luck. The D3 looks like it will be more popular than the D2x was, and it took three to four months to clear the backlog of orders for that model when it first came out. If you need a D3 sooner rather than later you have no alternative but to look for the pro authorized dealer outside the big metro areas that ends up with a stray unclaimed body (we pros call it Dialing for Dealer Roulette). The D300 is another story, as it is being made in much higher quantities; it'll clear it's initial backlog fairly quickly, though I do expect each new shipment to sell out before the next reaches the stores. If you can wait until next spring for a camera, no problem.
  • How much better than before? If you've got a D200 or a D2x, you have to evaluate whether there's something in the new models that really makes them worth upgrading to. Those things are actually quite limited. Basically: better autofocus system, higher ISO capabilities, 14-bit data, Live View, and a shooting speed boost. Don't need any of those things? Don't get excited about the new cameras, then. I'm always amazed at the rush to upgrade at each new model intro, as if some magic new feature of the latest camera is going to make you a better photographer. Yes, we struggle with some boundaries sometimes, but frankly, if you shot indoor sports like I did back in the 1970's, you realize that we're far, far, better off than we used to be (try pushing ISO 800 film to 1600 and using a manual focus lens for NBA-level basketball and you'll know what I mean).
  • Learning curve. Each new generation of cameras forces photographers back into a new learning curve. The nice thing about Nikon is that they've been relatively good about not arbitrarily breaking things that work. If you've used a D2 model then the D3 is going to have no big surprises in how you control it. Likewise the D200 to D300 transition. But the new AF system, new metering, new image quality properties, and Live View are all things that require new learning to master. Let me ask you this: would you rather have a camera in your hand for which you've mastered everything or one that you're still struggling to learn when that magic scene and magic moment presents itself to you? There will be photographers who take their brand-spanking new D3 out of a box and shoot a wedding the same day with it. That's called living on the edge. If you live on the edge, expect to fall off every now and then.

I hope the above gives you some useful thoughts on how to approach these next generation cameras from Nikon. Once I've used them long enough to know that I've mastered them I'll be back with more.


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