Clash of the Camera Titans

Nikon's D3 and D300

Just three days after Canon announced a pair of pro cameras, Nikon unleashed it's own duo of high-end digitals: The ultra high-end D3 and the still really high-end D300.

It leads with the Deathstar of SLRs, the D3. The biggest change is, in fact, one of bigness. Nikon equipped the new camera with a 36x23.9-millimeter image sensor that's nearly as large as an old 35-milimeter film frame. Previously only Canon made these "full-frame" sensors, which capture extreme wide-angle shots and have larger pixels to soak in more light.

This giant sensor is divided into only 12.1 million pixels (vs. 21.1 on Canon's new monster, the 1Ds Mark III). With bigger photosites, the D3 can, says Nikon, grab top-quality images at up to ISO 6400 light sensitivity—meaning it can probably see better in the dark than you can. (By comparison, most point-and-shoots stop at ISO 800–one-eight the sensitivity). And if you want, you can push the ISO by a factor of four up to 25,600. (Test shots I took at this absurd setting were heavily mottled with the colored flecks of pixel noise. But it was a preproduction camera, so a final version could perform better.)

The high sensitivity isn't just for night shots. It also lets you get enough light at ultrafast shutter speeds (up to 1/8000 second) for freezing sports and other action scenes. And the camera's new Expeed brain can process 9 photos per second for up to 64 continuous shots. That separates it from Canon's 1Ds Mark III, which grabs up to 56 pictures at 5 per second. Canon's 1D Mark III (note the lack of an "s") is still the speed champ at 10 shots per second, but it has a smaller image sensor.

The D3 also gets live shooting, which allows you to see real-time images on its three-inch LCD before you take a picture. (With most digital SLRs, you can compose shots only in the optical viewfinder.) The D3 also has a slew of smaller improvements to items including autofocus, white balance, and automatic in-camera image correction.

Nikon hasn't announced how much the D3 will cost, but it should be in line with the camera it's replacing, the D2Xs, which sells for about $4,500.

A small step below the D3 is the new D300. Its 12.2-megapixel sensor is in the standard size of 24-by-16 millimeters, and sensitivity stops at a still-impressive ISO 3200. It's nearly as fast—shooting up to 100 photos at 8 per second. Otherwise, it's virtually identical to the D3, and probably at a steep discount. The D200 it's replacing currently costs about $1,600. It will be going head-to-head with Canon's other new camera, the 10.1-megapixel EOS 40D, which sells for $1,300.

I spent a few happy weeks with the D200 last summer and fell in love with its easy controls and spot-on color accuracy. My only gripe was with the low-light performance—an area where Canon dominates. If Nikon's new focus on light-sensitivity pays off, we're in for a real clash of the camera titans.