The Best Nikon for Night Photography
Ever since Nikon released their new camera bodies last year I have been debating which body to upgrade to. I am an avid night photographer and have strong interests in how the bodies will perform for this specialized field. Night photography (especially for capturing the Milky Way) requires extremely high ISO’s of at least 3200 and up to 12,800. With the D700 I am generally limited to ISO 3200 and sometimes push the limits of the camera at ISO 6400. I rented some cameras from BorrowLenses.com to compare and, hopefully, find the ultimate Nikon camera for night photography.
Best Nikon Cameras for Night Photography
For night photography, full frame is the way to go. I selected the following bodies for the ultimate showdown:
I left out the D3x because it is not in the same league as these bodies. The high ISO performance is not stellar, it would fare worse than the D700. I also left out the D3 since it has the same sensor as the D700.
Ergonomics and Controls of Various Nikon Bodies for Night Sky Photography
Each body is designed for a different use, so they have many differences and quirks. I will only be covering what is relevant for night photography, so you won’t find anything here about frame rates, bracketing, etc.
The backlit buttons on the D4 are the greatest idea ever. This feature made it my go-to camera. Every time I switched on the lights I grinned a little and fell in love with the D4 even more. Granted, this would become less important as you learn the controls of your camera. I can operate my D700 blindfolded because I have memorized the location of every button. Nevertheless, it is still hard to hit the right buttons in the dark with gloves on, the backlit buttons made this much easier.
- The small-info rear LCD on the D4 and D3s are very handy for changing
- ISO and white balance on the fly. I only wish it showed shutter speed and ISO as well! Everything about the D4 controls felt right.
- The new XQD card slot on the D4 is not a great addition, in my opinion. I would prefer 2 CF slots, but I understand they have to move to future technology at some point.
- Zooming in on a photo with the D3s is a two handed operation. You have to hold down the normal zoom button and scroll the control dial. I despised this feature while working on a tripod. I can see where this would be okay working hand-held, but I much prefer the one-handed operation of every other model. Also, the OK button does not return you back to a fully zoomed out image like every other model–you have to scroll all the way back out. These features were obviously not well received, as the D4 has gone back to having two dedicated zoom buttons and the OK button works as expected again.
- The Live View button on the D3s was the hardest to find out of all the new models (the D700 does not have a Live View button, but I have programmed the AE-L button to be Live View). I constantly had to turn on my headlamp to find it.
The D800/D800E were a joy to use. The controls are where I expect them to be, the buttons have a nice raised or inset feel to them. Everything was very easy and intuitive to find in the dark. My only gripe is the switching of the zoom buttons from previous models, but it didn’t take me long to reprogram my brain and I’ll get over it. These are insanely well-designed cameras–the D4 is only slightly better. Zooming and panning is surprisingly fast considering the 36MP images.
As expected, the D600 was the least enjoyable to use due to the lack of dedicated buttons. This was quickly overcome though, and overall, it’s not badly designed in any way. It’s just not as pleasing to use as the other bodies. Zooming and panning works as expected and is very snappy. There is not a dedicated large OK button as it’s been relegated to the center button of the D-pad. Not terrible but a little clunky to use with gloves on. SD-only card slots is the other downfall and, thankfully, SD cards are half the price of CF cards so investing in new cards isn’t a huge problem.
Virtual Horizons and Live View Quality Compared for Night Sky Photography
One thing I love about Nikon is the Virtual Horizon (VH) feature. I use this constantly to quickly level my camera, which is especially handy for doing quick panoramas without a panoramic head. Nikon is obviously trying to figure out the best way to implement this feature because every single camera is different!
- D700: I assigned VH to the Fn button on all the bodies. When the Fn button is pressed they all stay in this mode until the button is pressed again except for the D700, which you have to hold down to keep active. The D700 uses a simple side-to-side level that you can see in the viewfinder and top LCD, which uses the meter gauge. This works great for night photography.
- D3s: The D3s is nearly identical except the gauge in the viewfinder has been moved to the right, is vertical, and larger. I would call it a small improvement and still works very well.
- D600: The D600 works the same as the D700 in the viewfinder but it does not show on the top LCD because they removed the meter! The top LCD meter/level is very nice to have when you can’t look through the viewfinder for some reason.
- D4: The D4 has an interesting implementation of the VH–the focus points light up into the viewfinder and changes to show if you’re level from left to right and the large meter (which is similar to the D3s’) now shows if you’re level up and down. A very creative solution that works well! They did remove the VH from the top LCD panel, however, even though there is a meter that they could have used. This is possibly the only negative about the D4.
- D800: The D800 has a completely different way of showing the VH. They have added dedicated displays in the viewfinder just for this information. My first reaction when testing this in daylight was pure joy, a perfectly implemented feature. I was disappointed when using this at night, though. This is due to the fact that these displays are not lit up, they are shown the same way the focus points are–a dim gray until you activate the meter and then they are displayed in red but only for a moment. So you are forced to continually half press the shutter button to reactivate the meter until you have your level set. The top LCD display has been removed as well. Overall the D800 has the worst implementation for night photography, yet the best for daytime use. This could easily be fixed with a firmware update by simply having these activated (displayed in red) when the Fn button is pushed.
Of course the other option is to use Live View, which you can set to display the VH by pressing the Info button. This works very similarly onall the bodies. Pitch and roll is visible in Live View on all the bodies except the D700 and D3s. I generally try to avoid using Live View for anything beyond focusing because of the drain on the battery. This is generally what I defaulted to on the D800 because of the viewfinder display issues.
My preferred method for focusing at night is to use Live View, zoom into a star and manually focus until the star is a sharp point of light. I have found this to work well on all the bodies when using a fast lens like the 24mm f/1.4 because it lets in more light. When using a 14mm f/2.8 lens, though, I have found that only the D4 and D3s have high enough ISO capability to show the stars to focus on–a major plus in my book!
Handling-wise the winner is the D4. It’s nearly perfect. With that said, the other bodies are all very good and most of the negative things are just small nits. I would be happy with any of them!
Night Photography Image Quality for Various Nikon Cameras
On to the real meat of the review! Due to the differing megapixel counts of each camera, I struggled with finding the best way to compare the images. Do I downsample to the smallest size or upsample to the largest? What is the intended use, web or print? What size? I quickly realized there was no good answer so I tried to provide a little of each.
For this particular test I found ISO 6400 to be the best testing point since it is in spec for all of the cameras and was the best exposure (30 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400 with a 14mm Rokinon lens). Note that in some shots the stars are sharper than others. This is due to slight differences in focus and not caused by the sensor, so the sharpness of the stars was not taken into consideration.
Unless noted otherwise, all the images have been processed in Lightroom 4 with the settings below. The shadows slider has been pushed to 100 to show what shadow detail can be extracted from the raw files.
I opened each image in Photoshop and zoomed to 100%. These are not resized so you can see the difference in megapixels by how much is shown at 100%.
Next is the web version. These have been edited with all the same settings, opened in Photoshop and exported to 1600px using Image Processor. Click the images to see them larger:
Next up is a ‘print’ comparison. I started by opening all the images in Photoshop, resampling them up to 24×36 @ 300dpi and zooming to ‘Print Size’ (which I have calibrated to match my monitor). This gives a decent approximation of what an actual print would look like.
The following are unedited to show the noise from a straight raw file:
The following shots are taken at ISO 3200 with the exposure pushed 2 stops in Lightroom for an equivalent exposure of ISO 12,800. I found the results of this very interesting. The D800 produced a very bad purple
tinge in the shadows.
The next example shows the D4 and D3s at ISO 12,800. I didn’t take any shots at this ISO with the other bodies because this ISO out of spec. In retrospect I should have taken these shots but I was in a hurry to finish before sunrise and the brain doesn’t work too clearly at 4am.
After examining each image side-by-side using different methods, I graded each body on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) then totaled these up to find a winner
All things considered, I crown the D3s the king of Nikon night photography. It is such an amazing camera at high iso, and the most important factor to me was the very subjective category of Most Pleasing Image.
Every time the D3s image came up on the screen I thought, “Wow this looks great!” The color and contrast of the images simply stand out more. Unfortunately the D3s cannot be purchased new because it has been replaced by the D4. They can be found on the used market though for $3,200-$4,000.
- When price is taken out of the factor, the D4 is king. It is incredible in every aspect. It wins in overall performance–hands down. I found the images to be consistently clean, detailed, and with pleasing colors. If money is no object, get the D4 and never look back–it is truly exceptional.
- In my opinion the D600 is the best value for the quality. The results were consistently close to that of the D4 and for 1/3 of the price it can’t be beat.
- The D700 is the cheapest option (bought used) and is still a great option–it’s what I’m currently using! It is getting a little long in the tooth, though. The new technology is stunningly better above ISO 3200. The D700 still fares very well at ISO 3200 but I find myself using ISO 6400 more and more often.
- The D800E has a slight advantage over the D800. It consistently had less color noise and the D800 has a slight purple tinge in the shadows that the other bodies did not have.
- For extremely high ISO, the D4 produces an exceptionally clean image at ISO 12,800 with slightly more detail than the D3s.
What Camera to Buy for Night Sky Photography
I’m actually in the market to upgrade from my D700, so what am I going to buy? Given the fact that all the new bodies perform very similarly for night photography, I have to consider other factors that are important to me. I do a lot of landscape photography, so resolution and dynamic range is very important. I do a lot of hiking and backpacking, so weight is a big factor. I’m a full time photographer, so price is a huge factor! Taking all of that into account I will likely purchase the D600, although the D800E is very tempting as well. Such a hard choice!