Pixels to Spare
Monday, April 13th, 2009 by Reed Hoffmann
I've gotten my hands on a Nikon D3X, at 24MP the highest resolution digital SLR currently available. And that many pixels changes how you can use this camera.
24-million pixels captures a tremendous amount of detail. And that means you can shoot a bit differently, knowing you can throw away a lot of pixels and still have more than enough for almost any use. I decided to put that to the test this past weekend when I was covering the Kansas City Royals’ home opener series against the New York Yankees.
The Royals play at Kauffman Stadium, a beautiful ballpark that was starting to show its age. This series against the Yankees wasn’t just the home opener, it was also the grand opening of $250 million worth of renovations. And a big part of that was making the entire area behind the outfield accessible to fans (and of course, photographers).
With three of us covering the game, we’d be able to have one person on the first and third base sides, which would leave me free to try something new. Lifting a 500m lens onto my shoulder I headed to deep right field.
When using long lenses, one of the challenges is keeping the camera steady. A telephoto lens magnifies any camera movement, so it’s fairly easy to introduce blur to the pictures. To counter that I brought along a large Gitzo Studex tripod, with a heavy Markins M20 ballhead. And since it’s such a long distance to the infield and home plate, I added reach to the 500mm by bringing along a 1.7 teleconverter. That would give it an effective focal length of 850mm, even though I’d lose 1.5 stops of aperture, from f/4 to f/6.7 (teleconverters extend the lens, but also reduce the amount of light).
Even with that much lens, shooting all the way to home plate was still looser than I’d like, and that’s when I took advantage of the 24 megapixels the D3X has. Nikon makes some lenses designed specifically for their DX series cameras. Those lenses throw an image circle into the back of the camera to fill a DX sensor, which is smaller than a 35mm piece of film. Used that way on a Nikon camera with an FX sensor (sometimes called full-frame), you’d see heavy vignetting (darkening) around the outer edges. That’s why FX cameras are designed to recognize when a DX lens has been attached and automatically crop in to that area. However, you can also go to that menu and turn on the DX crop anytime you want. If you do that, you reduce the number of pixels you capture (ignoring those on the outer edges). With the D3X, turning on DX mode drops the megapixel count to 10-million (from 24-million) and adds a 1.5X crop factor. That takes the 850mm lens I’m using and gives a field of view of 1275mm!!! You can see the difference that makes in the two un-cropped photos above.
Is this any different than shooting at 24MP and cropping later? Image-wise, no, but I gain several other advantages. For one, the 10MP files are smaller, taking less space on the card. That not only means more frames without changing cards, but faster downloads at the computer. Also, the D3X lets me shoot at a faster frame rate when in DX mode (10MP), going from 5 frames per second to 7. And, 10MP is still more than enough information, allowing me to crop further (closer) and still have plenty of pixels. Lastly, I can set the 3DX’s function button to let me switch from DX to FX framing at the push of a button. Why do that? While I like the closer view at home plate, once the ball’s hit into the infield that can be tighter than I’d like, so I have the ability to go a bit wider.
Few people would consider the D3X a sports camera, as it’s really aimed more towards landscape, portrait or studio photographers. But in the right situation, using the right combination of equipment and menu choices, it makes one heck of a sports camera.