BitDepth 596 - October 02

Nikon introduces its first digital full-frame camera.
At the high-end, digital nirvana

Well, Nikon has finally seen the light.
Fans of the best of Nikon's products will need to start saving their cash for the new D3, the first full-frame digital camera from the 90-year-old Japanese company that takes a Nikon lens.
Canon was first out of the gate with a full-frame sensor, a light gathering device that spans the same surface area that a piece of 35mm film did in the old days when we loaded that stuff into our cameras.
Canon's first full-frame camera, the EOS 1DS, was released in 2002. The 11 megapixel camera sold for US$8,000, a price point that the company has maintained for its top of the line digital offering as it has evolved. 
The 1DS Mark II was introduced in 2005, adding features, speed and five megapixels to the size of the capture.

Last month, Canon raised the digital capture ante with the 1DS Mark III; a 21 megapixel revision to their premium model that's due for release in December.
Nikon's D3 (USD$5,000) is conservative in comparison at 12 megapixels a capture size that puts it more clearly in competition with Canon's 5D (USD$3,000), a lightweight 12 megapixel model that thrived in the fiscal shadow of the 1DS series.
The race to full frame capture has more resonance for photographers than simply the size of the files the camera produces.

Why full-frame?
For one, a full-frame digital camera doesn't have the odd magnification that most professional and semi-pro digital cameras impose on shooters with a stock of quality lenses.
On most of these cameras, the smaller sensor crops into the lens, making telephoto lenses longer by a factor of roughly 1.5, but that magnification also cuts the effectiveness of wide-angle lenses.
Pro shooters with a taste for wide-angle views have had to either buy very expensive wide view lenses or choose new lenses offered by both Nikon and Canon which are tailored for these "multiplier" cameras.

That has led to its own problems. 
These special lenses (Nikon's DX series, Canon's EFS), are smaller, lighter and cheaper than traditional professional glass but they don't work on Canon's full-frame cameras. There's some buzz that DX glass will work on the D3, but only in its special reduced resolution mode, which speeds up the camera's capture by using a DX sized chunk at the centre of its sensor.
By finally taking the plunge with a new full-frame sensor, Nikon is finally acknowledging the other big issue with smaller sensors, the noise they generate in low light shooting situations.

Chips n' noise
Simply put, as megapixel counts have increased steadily, the sensor points on these chips have been packed more tightly together, making captures less accurate and pure. Noise, as technical folks will tell you, is anything that isn't signal, and signal in a digital camera is the picture.
The chips in point and shoot cameras are even smaller than those in a half-frame pro digital camera, and as those tiny cameras started to pack more than eight megapixels into their tiny form factors, low-light shots began to show multicoloured snow that made them unsightly at best.
Pro shooters using Nikon's excellent D2X in low light situations like performance and sports photography will probably be the first to trade up to Nikon's new D3, which has been tested online at speeds up to 6400 ISO with acceptable noise levels. The D2X tended to show its sensor's poor low-light pedigree at sensitivities of 800 ISO.

I'm a Canon guy, having taken the plunge after a few years of dabbling with digital capture using perfectly acceptable prosumer cameras, the Nikon Coolpix 990 and 5000, and Minolta's 7X and A2. I actually chose Canon because of the headroom of the full-frame option, as distant and hopelessly expensive at it seemed at the time and bought full-frame capable lenses as I went along. If the D3 had been around when I was deciding, well...

Nikon folks would just sneer and claim that their cameras were using the "sweet spot" of their lenses, but the D3 may be an acknowledgement from Nikon that Canon had something useful going on all along with their insistence on a full-frame sensor at the leading edge of their camera line.
For the average photographer, these high budget acquisitions are a pointer to the improvements that inevitably filter down from the stratosphere of the new to everyday use. Perhaps one day we'll look back on half-frame cameras with the same amused nostalgia we reserve for green phosphor computer screens today.
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