D3, RadioPoppers change the way I shoot

Celebratin' the ability to shoot at high ISO values.

Frankly, this is a revolution, as far as I'm concerned.

Why the D3 and D700? Before getting those cameras I was fairly well contented with using my D200 and my S5 (which I still love) and I pushed them pretty far in trying new techniques. But I was, frankly, disappointed at the amount of sensor noise that I saw whenever I went above about ISO 400 on each camera.

I should note that I shoot RAW, so I have not had the cameras performing any noise reduction on the files as would be the case if I shot JPEGs. That may have given me files that looked a little rougher when they came out of the camera, but it gave me more flexibility to work with those files later on.

But the first time I shot with my D3, over the summer, my jaw just dropped when I saw the files. I was at a wedding in a fairly well-lit church but I cranked the ISO up to 5000 for some shots in the middle of the aisle, and I just couldn't believe how good they looked. Even in those shadow areas where you transition from areas of detail-to-no-detail, the tones were smooth and there was nary a speck of noise. (You like that? “Nary?” Sounds British, huh? Classy.)

ISO 6400, 1/6oth @ f/4. Nary a speck of noise,
and a shot I might have been unable to pull off with my D200.

So, that's a big deal, right? How nice is it to walk in to a terribly-lit room and know that you can pull out not just a useable image but quite possibly even a good one?

Even better, you can use these high ISO capabilities with your flash, and when you add in the amazing flexibility that comes from using RadioPoppers you end up being able to do some cool things.

ISO 1600, 1/200th @ f/5. RadioPoppers firing SB-800's hidden to the sides.

For starters, if you're in a room that's already got moderately good light, you can crank up the ISO and then dial down the power on your flashes. Why is that good? Because you save lots of battery power, and you also speed up your recycle times. Go all night on one set of AA's! And it's nice not having to wait 3, 4, 5, 6 seconds in between shots for your flash to get back up to power. And you get to take advantage of whatever ambient light is already floating around.

And if you're in a place that hasn't got very good light, you can make pictures comfortably and easily. I was at a wedding recently where a good number of the guests spent the evening chatting in the garden, where the only light source was tealights strung up here and there, combined with the little bit of light coming out of the windows. But as people talked in the near-utter darkness, I was able to get my assistant off the side and then bounce a light from the side... OFF THE TREE CANOPY.

ISO 2000, 1/25th @ f/4, assistant bouncing off the tree canopy at right.

Why were the RadioPoppers important here? Because my assistant was well out of the line-of-sight that would have been required for regular i-ttl to work, and because I could adjust the flash's power output from the camera. So I shoot a picture, chimp it, and then refine the settings until I get it right.

I was so impressed with the D3 that I also bought a D700. Though both cameras have the full-frame sensor, I think the D700 doesn't quite have the high range that the D3 does, and I don't really like to set it higher than ISO 3200 at most. Still, compared to how I used to cringe at the noise from my D200 after I passed the ISO 640 mark, 3200 is an unbelievable luxury.

Early on in my experience with digital photography I was told that cameras have an “optimal ISO:” that is, an ISO setting where the sensor is best able to capture and interpret the most information. Generally, this is the lowest ISO setting on your camera. After that, you're just getting software to do the work for you. So, for the same reason that I used to like to shoot Fujichrome 50 film instead of Ektachrome 200, I tried to shoot as much as I could at the lowest ISO settings on my digital cameras. Now I routinely set my D3 and D700 at ISO 1250, 2000 or 3200 without batting an eye, because the sensor performs so well at those ranges and even higher. Maybe some of that is software (remember, I'm shooting RAW) but I think the full-frame capture area has something to do with it and maybe it's just a better sensor than Nikon has made in the past.

ISO 6400! 1/125th @ f/4.8. Smooth tones in skin & shadow areas. Sweeeeet.


LarisaK said...

The Dunmire's made the blog! Woo hoo!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I have no idea what you're talking about, but your photos are fantastic!

Shaun Lee said...

Yeah, the photos are really awesome. Are these taken with Nikon lenses? There is very little mention about lenses that you use throughout this blog. Perhaps you could kindly share? Thanks.

Thomas said...

Hi, Shaun -

These are taken with Nikon lenses. My main workhorses are the 17-35mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8. I also carry around an older 35-70mm f/2.8 but will probably soon get the 24-70mm, if they ever have it in stock.

Since I started shooting, I've only used Nikon lenses. I don't want to cast aspersions on Sigma or any other lensmaker, but I just trust the Nikon glass and it's always worked flawlessly for me.

Shaun Lee said...

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for sharing.

Recently, I have been looking for an used 35-70mm f/2.8 but with no luck; they either had scratches on the glasses or had internal paint-peeling.

As for 70-200mm, I read that it has vignetting problems. Is it true?

Thomas said...

Hi again, Shaun --

Not to be a shameless huckster, but I might be putting my 35-70 on the market before long. It's in great shape, but I just got the 24-70 three days ago so that I wouldn't have to carry the 35-70 AND the 17-35. I'm trying to be as efficient as possible anymore, given that I have to carry my stuff around all day, and one less lens to juggle makes a difference even though I lose a little range on the wide end. It might be best if you hit the "ask me anything" button on the blog if you're interested in buying it.

Anyway, the 70-200 is my other workhorse lens. I've had no trouble with it vignetting, and it's tack sharp. So, I can't complain about it at all, really. I sometimes attach a 1.4 extender on it and that gives me a little extra throw without much extra weight. Great lens.