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The Best Nikon for Night Photography

Gear Talk

Want to know what the best Nikon camera is for night photography? David Kingham is a landscape photographer who focuses on the night sky. Kingham puts all of the major Nikon bodies to the test in this guest blog post.

The Best Nikon for Night Photography
by David Kingham

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.

For night photography, full frame is the way to go. I selected the following bodies for the ultimate showdown:

Nikon D700
Nikon D600
Nikon D800
Nikon D800E
Nikon D3s
Nikon D4

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

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.

NIKON D4 & D3s

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.

D4 Backlit Buttons

  • 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.

NIKON D800 & D800E

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.

NIKON D600

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

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 ispressed 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.

D800 Viewfinder

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!

VERDICT:

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!

IMAGE QUALITY

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.

Lightroom

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%.

6400 100 Percent Not Resized

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

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:

NIKON D3S_ISO 6400_TS

Nikon D3s, ISO 6400. ©David Kingham

NIKON D4_ISO 6400_TS

Nikon D4, ISO 6400. ©David Kingham

NIKON D600_ISO 6400_TS

Nikon D600, ISO 6400. ©David Kingham

NIKON D700_ISO 6400_TS

Nikon D700, ISO 6400. ©David Kingham

NIKON D800_ISO 6400_TS-4

Nikon D800, ISO 6400. ©David Kingham

NIKON D800E_ISO 6400_TS

Nikon D800E, ISO 6400. ©David Kingham

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.

6400 24x36 Print Milky Way

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

6400 24x36 Print Shadows

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

6400 24x36 Print Stars

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

The following are unedited to show the noise from a straight raw file:

No Adj 6400 24x36 Print Milky Stars

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

No Adj 6400 24x36 Print Shadows

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

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.

3200 Pushed 2 Stops Shadows

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

3200 Pushed 2 Stops Stars

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

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.

12800

Click to see larger. ©David Kingham

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

Scores

CONCLUSION

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. Or you can rent it from BorrowLenses!

  • 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.

FINAL THOUGHTS: WHAT TO BUY?

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!

To read more from David Kingham, check out his blog here.

If you have any great night photography to share, please include it in the comments below and let us know what you shot with!

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Alex "2.0" Huff is a portrait photographer based in San Francisco. Her tutorials can be found here on the BorrowLenses Blog, 500px, Shutterfly, Snapknot, and SmugMug. She specializes in studio lighting. Follow her work on 500px.

Comments

  • Great post, David. I was considering a new camera myself. I was seriously considering a Nikon D600, but I’ll probably end up buying a Canon 6D. Thanks for sharing.

  • Tony Hernandez says:

    Thanks for the review. A new nikon body is in my future. Appreciate your efforts.

  • D says:

    The centre of the multi function button can be programmed to 100% zoom in and out with one press of that button on the D3s. It’s a big time saver.

  • Indy says:

    As I’m in a position to wrestle between a new dolly or a new camera, I’ll likely lean toward new dolly. But this is good info to squirrel away for later, esp since my cameras are D7000s right now.

  • I should mention before it comes up on here that the mountains in the D700 shots were lit by a passing train, it’s not that the D700 has amazing shadow detail.

  • Feroz Khan says:

    Got one here – http://500px.com/photo/27491539
    Taken with a Nikon D4 and the below specs:
    f 2.8
    1/20 s
    ISO 200
    14mm Walimex

  • qtluong says:

    “I am a full-time photographer, so I’ll have to settle for the lesser camera” is a sad reflection on the state of the photo industry.

  • Dave says:

    I use the D700 as well and my results are just like yours. I always thought mine was defective and even contacted Nikon about it. The colour noise and weird banding are a huge problem at high ISO.

  • Blue Ridge says:

    Thanks for the writeup.. I was considering either the 6D or D600 and went with the D600 because it had the features I wanted in my budget. good to see it does great against the big boys for night photography..

  • Very detailed post David. Interesting to see your thoughts on night photography with the D600 vs the D800/D800e. Some other big name photographers (not night shooters though) have claimed the D800s suck in low light, my own research has shown otherwise though. I think it’s more of a mental bias they have towards their brand of choice. The bottom line of this post is these are all great cameras for night photography! It’s amazing how far the tech has come since I picked up first D200 in 2006.

  • Jeremiah says:

    Cool comparison, is there a similar test with Canon bodies?

  • E says:

    Have you tested any of the new Sony bodies? I am thinking about jumping ship from a D700 into a Sony system.

  • Manu Schnetzler says:

    Was long exposure noise reduction used on those?

  • Donna Greer says:

    I think that the second one in a a more clear image.

  • you keep mentioning that the 6D is better than the 5D Mk III from “what you hear.” Would love to know what it is that you “hear” about the 5K MK III when compared to the 6D. The MK III is an absolutely stellar camera and after using the 6D, I spend the extra $ and went with a 2nd Mk III as my backup. The 6D is great but lacked the “programability” of the 5D MK III. IQ was too close to call but the MK III just handles like a race car. Your review was sweet and well done…the D600 imagines look best to me at the sizes you offered…great little camera indeed!

  • Jared says:

    You just saved me a grand (and added a new wide angle purchase to go with my new D600). Thanks for the review!

  • Exactly my thoughts Jason! I’m glad you said this. I was in a debate just the other day with Colby Brown about the low light performance of the D800 and I think it does a great job. Not sure what all the fuss is about.

    David – Awesome article man!

  • Andrew Murrell says:

    As a D3s user I was pleased to see your results. I use the camera for wide field shots and the results are amazing.

  • Barb Thimmes says:

    Thanks so much for your article. I recently bought a D600 and wondered why I couldn’t get it to focus at night. I see I have mt ISO set wrong. I have never used6400 before. Thanks again . Barb T.

  • Noel Kerns says:

    I’d like to see a similar test run against the same set of bodies but in moonlight at ISO 200, with exposures in the 90 second to 3 minute range, with long-exposure NR disabled.

  • Arun says:

    Impressive! thank you very much for your generous efforts to test all the cams and sharing your findings.

  • [...] take my word for it though, head over the Borrow Lenses blog and checkout the testing and results for [...]

  • WSH photos says:

    500px over-compressed this after I uploaded it, however, have a look at what can be done with the Nikon D7000 and a lot of patience when processing:
    http://500px.com/photo/28635101

  • Michael Menefee says:

    Great job David! I am always battling the odd color noise and banding of the D700, which apparently is essentially identical to the D3. Nikon really seems to have corrected this and shadow noise in the D3S, with their cams since then doing much better in this regard.

  • Max says:

    My immediate response to which nikon is better for night photography was “any nikon on a tripod.” I’ve used the D80, D300s, D90, D2h, and a canon rebel xt. The rebel had a grip, so it was a bit shaky, but otherwise all results were good. Some are definitely easier to shoot with, but i use whatever I have. Though I have to say that the D80 was the worst. It gets this bizzare purple vignette in long exposures sometimes, especially if you forget the long NR.

  • Serag Z says:

    well done David thanks for sharing you help me very much and you inspired me , i make order for Samyang 14mm , and thinking to get 35mm either for night & stars shots ,, regards ..

  • Raph says:

    Great review David!

  • Joolz says:

    Thanks so much for this post. My entry level Canon recently crashed so I’ve been researching what to replace it with, especially for night pho. Although I’d been dreaming of a D800E, the D600 was what came to the top of the list from earlier reading and the lower price is necessary. It’s great to have that confirmed again by your tests!

  • Ray says:

    Thank you for the information. Very useful and will help me a lot.

  • [...] my previous test The Best Nikon for Night Photography, I was bombarded with requests to test the new contender in the APS-C sensor arena–the Nikon [...]

  • derek says:

    well, thanks for this test, I actually own the D800E, the D600 , D800 and wondering how good one gen older FFs are compared to the D600 and the D800E.

    “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.”
    I found the same thing as I got my D800E last week and I was surprised how much better the E was at high ISO than the normal D800.
    the Normla D800 produces some annoying purple or magenta banding noise in the very dark part of images , this is extremely visible when applied some sort of lens vignetting correction in LR or PS.
    I also agreed over all for night work or high ISO shooting , the D600 makes the best package , but the Canon Mk3 and 6D are still better if I did not invested this much into Nikon F , I ‘d get the Canon combo.

  • Z says:

    Bought the D600 despite the early report of oil/dust problem, BIG mistake. Sent back for cleaning twice. Sill have fingers crossed that it won’t happen again.

  • […] compare these results with other Nikons, take a look at my previous post where I test out the best Nikon for night photography. Keep in mind the Df has the same sensor as […]

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