Nikon D3 vs. Canon EOS3

Canon vs. Nikon

The Story

It wasn’t an intentional test drive for either system… The harsh reality of shooting professionally,  is that ability overcomes harsh situations. This story outlines just such an event. Neither the Nikon D3 vs. Canon EOS3 is my primary system, my main “gun” is the Nikon D2X. Keep in mind, I am an old film guy who has taken on the learning curve of the digital world.

In all fairness to the tech geeks seeking out technical reviews on the camera systems, this story isn’t going to go there. It is more of an emotional walk with the camera systems just as a creative working a brush on their canvas.

Let me set the stage. I will qualify my shooting style to help set what features are important to me and why. I grew up shooting action sports and more specifically snowboarding. I was a senior shooter for SNOWBOARDER magazine for 13 years and traveled the globe chasing the snow. Powerful motor drives, reliability, access to rental gear in foreign cities, fast auto focusing, accurate metering and lens quality and selection are all key to needs in a camera rig. The funny part of brand loyalty is it starts with that first camera. I started on a Nikon FE 2 back in the day and have sequentially gone thru each new model, F3, F4 and so on to my current body the D2X. In my pier group, my buddies are on the Canon systems and they love them. There were points along the way I felt the need to convert but the financial hit to do it kept me from leaping over to the Canon side of the fence. I swear the companies talk and decide who is going to have which special features first to keep everyone buying. That is another story.

Jump ahead to the week of April 17th, 2008. I had an assignment thru my friends over at JDK, to shoot active lifestyle here in Oregon. Mountain, biking, kayaking, running and bungee jumping. April is hit or miss for weather so I wanted to rent a back up body in case the trusty D2X went down in the rain. Greg over at CLUTCH rents Canon systems so I grabbed the Canon EOS3 as a back up. I was nervous about not knowing it intimately and excited to actually field test the Canon to see what the hype around Canon was all about.

Back Focusing is a four-letter word
The drama and the test of being a professional started on the first shot. It is 5:50 am under the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland. The story is to capture a group of friends on an early morning run. The weather was misty, at best, and cold. To add to the confusion in analyzing the camera problem later, John Siddel the Art Director on the shoot, wanted some pan blurring to capture the speed and honesty of the morning run. We started with simple stretching all yoga style. I am locked down on a tripod and using some fill light to separate the subject from the background. It was a basic 101 shot and as Jonah Sutherland, our digital tech for the shoot was “souping” the images he reported some focus problems. I blamed myself as the eyes are going soft in my ripe old age and the low light tends to cause motion blur. I kept shooting. As the afternoon rolled around I noticed the problem didn’t get any better, I became even more frustrated and my confidence started to dwindle. I finally did a test to prove to myself it wasn’t me and it had to be the camera. I locked in on a street sign and had the speed and F-Stop at more than generous numbers to insure a sharp focus on the text. Bam, there it was! Jonah processed the shots and we noticed the top of the sign was in focus and the bottom was soft. Troubleshooting, I tried a different lens and it happened again. The body on the D2X was messing up; it had a symptom called BACK FOCUSING. I had never had this problem and don’t really want to go to deep into it for this story. 

Deliver the D3
In the pandemonium of the D2X shitting the bed, I had Kari Rowe, my assistant that day, scrounge up another back up body for the Canon as the weather forecast was for rain and snow and we had kayaking in the river, yet to go. In these remote location there was no way I wanted to be left with one camera body. She was all amped on the Nikon D3 and jumped at the chance to run to the local shop to rent it. It was in the quiver but the spot lot for now was on the Canon.

Canon EOS 1 Mark 3 back up to the rescue.
In a weird way I was stoked to try the Canon in a real shooting situation and really put it thru its paces. I huge relief was lifted from my shoulders knowing it wasn’t it and me was the camera. The creative mojo was on the mend. The first thing I noticed was focus was opposite of Nikon. Other dials are also opposite of Nikon so the challenge was to try to think backwards to get the flow of the focus going again. The grip with the motor drive on the Canon was very mechanical feeling for me. The rounded handgrip was less ergonomic than the Nikon. The Canon glass was excellent. They had plenty of lenses to play with. The shutter made an OK noise, not as cool as the Nikon motor drive noise. The image quality at 1600 ISO was good. What came up short for me was the processing speed. I would click off a sequence of action and the drive would stop, as the camera needed more time to process the images. The large RAW images I understand take a little longer to process but this was unacceptable for me. I slowed my shooting down to compensate for the camera. No one wins in that situation. The first negative feedback on the Canon. I had heard the Canon had an amazing auto focus. When it was tracking it was Ok. What I found out was how clunky the button placement was on the body and how it wasn’t laid out intuitively to the users experience. You can pick an auto mode and it picks a point to focus on. To switch the areas of focus to match your composition you needed to pull your finger off the shutter, reach for the button for focus on the right side of the camera and roll the dial on the left side to move the points of focus. Clunky at best. I did like the auto sensor cleaning as I inserted a new card. Reviewing images was excellent, as well. The histos came up and you only need to push the INFO button to gather information and zooming in to check the focus was easy.

Enter the D3
The rumor on the street was the D3 had a full sensor and was able to shoot in dark situations and hold the quality of the digital image. I stuck the 14mm on with the on camera strobe to get running action in the parking lot of a Shilo inn. We had been shooting for 14 hours already and the talent was ready to relax. I promised a 10-minute session and we did it. The Nikon felt great in my hand and because I am a “Nikon guy” it was good to be back behind the Nikon. We popped off some action and headed to the motor home to process the images to see the results. Amazing!  I was blow away with how sharp and noiseless the night shots were. The Nikon D3 was bumped from the bench to playing in the game. I had decided to keep the Nikon close at hand for the rest of the shoot.

The Nikon D3 is the best camera ever made by Nikon. It was announced on August 23rd, 2007. And as of the beginning of 2008 it’s just starting to trickle into the hands of photographers.

The Nikon D3 excels for news, sports and event photography where you need it to work under any condition. If you get knocked over and knocked out, you’ll come up shooting with the D3 even if you’re still seeing stars. The D3 just works as an extension of your imagination.

D3 really can crank at 9FPS

The D3 works in more crazy lighting conditions than any previous camera. I can shoot at ISO 6,400 without any excuses. I can get good color rendition in any crappy lighting, even in low light action situations, due to the astoundingly large range of accommodation of the manual PREset (gray card) white balance. This is HUGE. For the first time, I wasn’t making creative excuse for difficult lighting situations. On this shoot I was in a rubber raft drifting in a shady canyon. The kayaker was dropping a small waterfall and I was able to choose a high speed with a large F-Stop to cover both crisp action and depth of field. Normally I would drag a ProFoto lighting kit into stop the action and whatever F-Stop I got was what I had to live with. The D3 opened up so many more creative solutions. The idea that I am not handcuffed to the heavy, 1200-watt portable lighting kits is liberating! The 2-mile hikes into location with all this gear could kill a camel.

Ross Henry drops in

Auto Focus
The AF system just works. Set to the All Areas dummy mode (the big white rectangle), it really just finds the correct sensors and uses them without you or I having to jack any switches around for each shot. This opens up the number of compositions I can get in a situation. During the kayaking, the park ranger showed up to kick us out of the area. She granted us one shot at the waterfall drop. I had a vertical composition with the action but wanted a horizontal shot as he paddled toward me. The thumb toggle made it easy to flip back and forth. With the Canon, too many steps and buttons are in non-intuitive places.

Ross Henry face shot kayak in Washington

From a convenience aspect, the larger 3″ LCD screen is nice, but far nicer is how much faster playback responds to button presses. I can scroll around a magnified image much faster, and RGB histograms come up instantly.

In a head to head real life test, the D3 was the winner in my mind!

Leave a Reply