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A Monster of a Camera…

Jan 10

In Equipment at 10:43am

Remember in Jurassic Park, when there would be the distant thud of the stalking T-Rex, and the water glass in the jeep would tremor? Or in Saving Private Ryan, when they felt the earth shake well before they saw the tank?

That’s kind of the way I feel about the D3X. It’s out there. You can hear the distant rumble. A monster of a camera.

I can’t really comment on the camera intelligently (regular readers of this blog are saying to themselves, “Uh, Joe, tell us something we don’t already know.”) cause I’ve had it in my hands for precisely one shoot. I can say a couple of things….

It feels and acts exactly like a D3, except slower, due to the size of the files it is pushing. My D3’s are buffer upgraded, and even shooting NEFs on consecutive high, they rock and roll. The D3X is, well, more suited to a waltz.

The files are eye popping. I was looking at them on my bedraggled Macbook Pro, and I felt like an extra in a horror movie. You know the ones, where the mirror in the bathroom starts morphing and making eerie, groaning sounds? Mr. Movie Extra gets ridiculously quizzical, and like a curious cat, cocks his head to the side and stares at the wacked out mirror, which is obviously not supposed to be moving or muttering guttural, satanic curses. Instead of running, he stays rooted in front of his reflection, eyes getting wide, his jaw going slack, and then little slurpy things with yellow eyes and seventeen rows of razor sharp teeth explode outta the mirror and bore through both his eyeball sockets like evil little wood chippers and feast noisily on his brain matter. Of course, they don’t find much to chew on ’cause anybody stupid enough to stare at the mirror instead of running hasn’t got much of a meal up there in the first place.

That didn’t happen to me. Though I have to admit, when a D3X NEF finally boiled to the surface of the screen, I cocked my head, my eyes got wide and my jaw slack, just like in the movies. My standard for detail has always been Kodachrome 25, and the D3 zoomed past that pretty handily, and now this thing gives you a file that is like frikkin’ Stargate. Who knows what’s on the other side of this?

Hadda give the camera back. Probably a good thing, cause lawdy, lawdy, the files positively gave me the vapors, and I don’t wanna like my pictures that much. I never wanna be seduced by all those pixels to the point that I confuse a detailed picture with a good picture. All this technology (which is fantastic, and I love it) is like the Sirens on the rocky shore-come closer, wayfaring photographer, we will drown you with more pixels.

We got pixels aplenty. What we need at the camera is a beating heart and an ability to see. In terms of being a shooter, I’ve always figured I’m like the frikkin’ plumber—when the valves are popping and the waters are rising, sometimes I get the call cause I’m a halfway decent problem solver. But you know, how fancy a wrench do I need? As Magnum shooter Donald McCullin once said, “I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”

Here’s where I see this camera playing huge. Most of the covers of LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Time, or Newsweek— what I would call the newsstand magazines— I’ve shot over the years were shot 6×7 medium format. As opposed to the Geographic, which has historically let a cover evolve naturally out of a coverage, those magazines often specifically assign a cover, either the subject or the theme. For those kind of jobs, portraits, illustrations, what have you, it was time to drag out my Mamiya RZ Pro II system. (Which I sold a year or so ago, before it turned into rust. Thank you Equipment Lady!)

The detail of the D3X for me, obviates the need for a medium format approach to just about anything I would tackle. (Note I said, “I would tackle.” I’m not out there shooting DeBeers campaigns, much to my chagrin. The studio, still life, beauty, car shooting crowd are most likely very intrigued by this camera. It opens new DSLR doors. Shoot huge files, and couple this monster machine to Nikkor glass. Schweeeet!) And, here’s where the technology gives us a gift we didn’t even know we wanted—the D3X, just like its cousin, the D3, has a 4×5 aspect ratio you can click in. That’s not too far off from my old 6×7 cover comfort zone. For the cover job, the job needing excruciating detail, the set of pictures that needs to leap off the page, this camera will be an astounding tool. Maybe, just maybe, if I ever get another crack at one of those pictures inside a yellow border, I just might use this camera.

Can I say a word or two about my aforementioned “bedraggled” Macbook Pro? This poor computer has been through it. It’s been in deserts, the woods of Northern Spain, knocked around in production vehicles from Istanbul to Berlin to Rome to God knows where. When I have tethered to it, at least twice I have yanked it off its platform and seen it fall to the floor. It has dents galore, and the CD drive slot has been pried back open with a Wave tool, and it keeps working. At this point, when I turn it on, it screams, “Yo, Adrian!!!!”

But it still turns on and works. An amazing machine.

Lighting, Roberto, the Pain Chisel…..okay. (As fearsome as he looks, he’s real easygoing.) The background is chrome diamond plate flooring, two 4×8 sheets butted together. Had a bear of a time lighting it, cause my first idea of lighting the wall behind it and having that light wrap around and grace the chrome with blue highlights didn’t work out at all. I mean at all. Nada. Zilch. Bad idea. Brain glitch. All the little photons collectively said, “You zink we will do zeese for yuuu? Hah! We fart in your general direction!”

Plan B. I just lit the diamond plate like I would light a regular background, and instead of getting specular highlights, which I feared, I got a reasonable spread of color, pretty even across the board. Live and learn.

Did 4 SB800 units for the background, and then winged two more units, left and right, behind and to the sides of him, continuing the edge of blue around his body. The diamond plate flashes were Group A, and the wing lights were Group B. Right about at Group B position is two Lowell Omni lites, barn doored so that just a sliver of directional, hot light gets to the chains. That gave us some rattle and motion. The camera was set at 1/6th at f/11. All pix made on Lexar 8 gigger UDMA cards.

Up front, I lit Roberto overhead with the Lastolite Ezybox, with an SB900. This thing has become a favorite solution. It just rocks as a hot shoe flash delivery system. Bango, directional, contained, soft light. What a nice gift of a piece of equipment to make location life easier. “Candygram for Mongo!”

The low fill is an SB800 with a warm gel, and a Honl 1/4″ grid spot on it. Kim Weber did the makeup and the uh, hair. She was great chatting with Roberto (turns out they had mutual friends) and getting him camera ready.

Some oil for sheen, chains for good measure. Tattoos like crazy. Tough guy. Big. Powerful. A subject to match the camera.

Mark K. says:

on January 10, 2009 at 10:57 am

These photos are stunning.

So the D3 isn’t exactly your photojournalist camera of choice, eh? I can see where a rig light this has its purpose. Not necessarily on the streets of Chechnya though…

ron says:

on January 10, 2009 at 11:14 am

awesome! and I especially love that notepad!

William Chinn says:

on January 10, 2009 at 11:47 am

OK, magazine covers. But where else would a D3X make a difference? Where could you have used it in a photo we would have seen that would have made the photo even better given the format size of the final print? In short is it the hardware or the skill of the photographer no matter what the camera. (I suspect somewhere in between leaning heavily towards the photographer – eg. me with a D3X and you with your cell phone camera) ps. Santa didn’t leave me a D#X even though I was almost nice, nor did he leave the Lexus, the Epson printer, the upgrade to CS4, nor the condo in Cabo.

Greg says:

on January 10, 2009 at 12:20 pm

The notepad is a classic!

Gregg says:

on January 10, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Wow. I didn’t know photons were french. Figures.

Love the spiral bound napkin.

Joe Taibi says:

on January 10, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Astounding shots to be sure but those images are exponentially more than the product of the camera! The manipulation of light, the equipment with which to accomplish it and most significantly, the mind to conjure up the recipe… Just wow!

Richard Cave says:

on January 10, 2009 at 1:03 pm

I love your spiralbound napkin pad, I was chuckling my head off. That D3x is one of three to come out. According to the internet rumour mill there are three D3, normal, the x version and a another which will have a surprise which i think will have a inbuilt video camera.

Where can I get your notepad from?

As for your macbook pro awesome it has lasted that long. My custom built dell XPS M170 has been in the antartic, desert and top of the canadian rockies. I looked at another machine once a macbook in fact I came back and the screensaver was a bunny being boiled, it also keeps calling me Dave and singing daisy daisy… am I safe?

Nice to hear from you


Kevin Barber says:

on January 10, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Not to minimize anything else in the post (the photos are great), but I also thought the notepad is awesome!

Brad says:

on January 10, 2009 at 1:54 pm

For those wondering about the napkin notebook, a quick Google search came up with this: (whoda thunkit?)

I’m not sure if that’s where Joe got his or not, but it looks to be the same.

Marshal says:

on January 10, 2009 at 5:46 pm


I think you’re trying to convince yourself you don’t want this Monster camera or don’t need it. Come on, let it seduce you. You’ve got the chops to shoot those mag covers as all your pics demonstrate. Including Nat Geo along with the DeBeers ads.

This camera and its eye popping detail and gorgeous color will git ‘er done. Your talent & experience combined with the D3X will produce amazing things.

And as uh, interesting as Roberto is as a subject, I’d rather see you photograph the Elinchrom Girl again. You know, that exotic, lust inducing East European model for the Elinchrom lighting catalog a few years back. I’d like to see her or someone similar photographed by you and the D3X.

Ranger 9 says:

on January 10, 2009 at 6:18 pm

William Chin asked: “OK, magazine covers. But where else would a D3X make a difference? Where could you have used it in a photo we would have seen that would have made the photo even better given the format size of the final print?”

And I’ll give you one answer: Retail POS, aka in-store signage — the big posters and banners you see in supermarkets, department stores, etc. A lot of fashion and product shots wind up on these, and they need enough detail to be seen up close. The D3X just might give Nikon users a crack at shooting these with a DSLR.

Bruno Monteiro says:

on January 10, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I really had a good time reading this post (and a laugh, for sure!). Nice to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Perhaps Nikon shooters have more reasons to smile? :) Naaa! 😉
Regards and keep up the good work.

Ken Elliott says:

on January 10, 2009 at 10:55 pm

I’m thinking the D3x would be great for my 44″ x 66″ landscape prints. As is, I’m faced with a choice of med format camera and heavy gear, or up scaling a smaller image in Photoshop. The D3x looks like a step in the right direction. Can’t wait to try one.

Phil says:

on January 10, 2009 at 11:17 pm

Remember the guy in “Poltergeist”, who gazes into a bathroom mirror after eating some bad meat? Then precedes to peels his face off? That scared the bajeezus out of me!

Bill Bogle Jr. says:

on January 11, 2009 at 1:04 am

I wonder if you or Moose think the D3x is THE landscape camera, or is the D3 still the one? Since you will be together in Yellowstone freezing your butts off, perhaps it would be a evening good smores and hot chocolate discussion post. With your pipeline to Nikon central, what is the thought on this camera? My computer and harddrives are getting so packed I cannot image what these files would do. But my G10 out pixels my D2x right now anyway.

Wish I was with you in Yellowstone. Give my best to the Bisons. Don’t get gored. See you next week.

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Kurt Shoens says:

on January 11, 2009 at 1:12 am

“… the files positively gave me the vapors …”

You do know what “the vapors” literally means, right?

Leif says:

on January 11, 2009 at 6:09 am

I really enjoy every minute when I read your blog. Always inspiring and thoughtful in your writing. I guess that sonner or later we will see you carry around with the D3x. The napkin notepad is really nice.

Jase Bell says:

on January 11, 2009 at 6:40 am

Forget the D3x, the Macbooks and all that jiggery pokery, a Sharpie pen on the desk now that’s more like it!

The best pens in the world, I carry two of them with me everywhere. My daughter presented mine on my birthday at 3.30am as she was so excited (she’s only six), a happy but tired birthday. :)

debbi smirnoff says:

on January 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

I love you Joe, but I’m sick of hearing about Nikon stuff. You even ruined a perfectly good Kelby Training series on how to use the SB900. I paid for THAT?
Do you even read these comments?
Thanks for the napkin doodle, I do appreciate that.

Tom McKean says:

on January 11, 2009 at 10:00 am


Your comments and demonstration of the D3x is suberb. Nikon has finally made an entry level “medium format” type camera, aimed at still life, and fashion shooters. At a price that is competive to the Hasselblads and Phase One’s.

I’m not sure photojournalists will spend that money for magazine assignments (unless, like you Joe) that used to shoot for mags with a medium format. Since I love shooting still life, the D3x would be an excellent to move up to.

On the other hand. I can’t help remembering seeing Bob Sacha’s lecture about his shooting a story about “Caffiene” for Nat. Geo. And the fact Bob shoot the whole assignment with a Canon G6. Bob would light up the room with a speedlight just outside the room he was shooting in.

I’m wondering if Bob would move up to the D3x for his assignments. However all this remains to be seen. Thanks for your interesting review of the camera.

Tom McKean

Lewis W says:

on January 11, 2009 at 3:12 pm

“Schweeet!” ? Now that is an economy of terms. Thanks, Joe.

Ronaszegi photography says:

on January 11, 2009 at 8:02 pm


Thank you for sharing your technique and this entertaining blog! Being primarily an architect I often use napkin sketches for ideas during lunch or in meetings with clients. I have to admit I have never seen it spiral bound. What an idea! I learned more than one thing.


Arpad Daniel Ronaszegi

Ralph Lopez NYC says:

on January 12, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Watch what you say Joe, or Nikon will stop sending you free SB-900’s! I mean really man how many of those things do you have. Easy tough guy :)

Tony Pettis says:

on January 13, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Wow. I must say these shots are amazing. And I can only imagine what this camera will produce in the field. I may have to do some landscape shoots soon and this would seem to be the rig to do it.

I am concerned though about file size, though. I just have gotten hardware that will allow Photoshop to process 10-megapixel RAW files without choking. If I hadn’t, I can only imagine what kind of hairball it would hack up trying to swallow something from a 25-megapixel camera. And I know that storage is cheap these days, but 60 mb files (at least) will tend to make you a bit more judicious in the editing process I would imagine. And from what I understand, all those new little pixels jammed onto the D3x’s sensor means that it doesn’t have nearly the same mojo as the D3 and D700 in near darkness.

Still, minor quibbles. Unfortunately, I don’t have eight big ones under my mattress right now (or my bank account). And yelling out “Bring us a shrubbery!!!” in a fake French accent doesn’t work either.

Oh, well…:)

Still, minor quibbles

Joe B says:

on January 13, 2009 at 5:27 pm

D3X – what’s that, like a camera or something?

Jim Child says:

on January 13, 2009 at 6:11 pm

I’ll be the first to buy the notepad……..marker included.

Ryan says:

on January 13, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Where do you get spiral bound cocktail napkins? And more importantly, why?

Love the photos and thanks for the info about the macbook pro. It’s nice to know that if & when I drop mine, it will probably survive.

cameron griffin says:

on January 22, 2009 at 7:52 pm

I would never take pictures of that guy, even for a thousand $’s.One little thing would go wrong with the light, like its to bright and the guy might walk over to you a smash your face in. =- )

Waterproof Digital Camera says:

on February 5, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Any thoughts on the new Nikon Coolpix P90? The 24x optical zoom looks fun.

Ron Uriel says:

on March 25, 2009 at 12:01 pm

You make a good point about covers and about Medium Format status in the current situation with Nikon and Canon releasing 35mm’s that give a decent fight to the MF.

Dillon says:

on April 2, 2009 at 9:16 pm

This is never easy.

Tim says:

on October 16, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Tried the link for the napkins but it didnt show any so i googled spiralbound napkins and found several links..

best one i found was this site that has some cool unusual napkin novelties


Jim Roose says:

on April 6, 2010 at 2:55 pm

At age 93 I am now always on a tripod anyway, so the weight is not much of a bother. The detail is tremendous and when shooting HDR the results get raves. Wish I had had it at Santa Fe a couple of years ago. Still see that little white church at the movie set and a shot of it on a cloudy day with the D3X would be awesome.

Martin says:

on April 10, 2010 at 10:06 am

Joe, the Quality is awesome, what camera gotta get my hands on one!!

Florrie Nolte says:

on September 21, 2010 at 10:34 am

Hello, i´m from turkey so my english knowledge isnt that goodish. Please dont blame me. I read blogs to make my english better and i just want to say that your blog was perfect readable for me, because the english is really clear-thinking and all the posts are perfect readable. I will keep on reading it, to improve my english even more. Thanks a lot :)

Antone Quincey says:

on November 5, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Erm, ask your physcatrist that one bub.

hp mini 210 review says:

on August 27, 2011 at 2:36 pm

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