Bill Frakes On The New Nikon D3s

Oct 20, 2009
By Conor Risch

Earlier this year Nikon gave photographer Bill Frakes a plum assignment: go wherever you want in the world and put the new 12.1-megpaixel D3s through its paces while creating a promotional film for the product launch.

Frakes chose to test the D3s in Australia and over the course of a couple of weeks this past July, he shot 65 thousand stills and hours of video on the way to producing “All Over Down Under,” his six-and-a-half minute multimedia film.

Why Frakes? A Pulitzer Prize- and Robert F Kennedy Award-winning photojournalist who is currently a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated, Frakes shoots between 300-325 days per year and, along with producer and photographer Laura Heald, regularly creates multimedia films that integrate high definition video with stills, often turning them around in several hours for and other clients.

Frakes also owns 29 D3 bodies because he does so much remote work at sporting events, and has been using the D90 and D300s for video as well.

“I think they wanted someone that had not just creative abilities but also technical abilities,” Frakes says.

Granted, Nikon paid Frakes to create his film with the D3s, but because he is one of the first photographers to test the camera in a variety of shooting situations, PDN spoke with him to get his reaction. (Wildlife photographer Vincent Munier also created a promo film for Nikon using the D3s.)

When using the 720p HD movie setting, the so-called “rolling shutter” or “jell-o” effect that occurs in some HD footage when panning was not a problem with the D3s, Frakes says. (According to Nikon, a new algorithm in the D3s's HD video mode has reduced the rolling shutter effect by 50 percent.)

He also used three different microphones, including a wireless mic, which he ran through a BeachTek XLR adapter into the new stereo mic input, and was pleased with the results.

The auto focus mode works well with the D-Movie setting, he says, although he prefers manual focus. Frakes said that even though the D3s only shoots 720p, not full 1080p HD, he liked the quality of the footage.

"You see all kinds of questions like what's the difference between 720 and 1080. You need to look at these things side by side," he says.

"The combination of the way Nikon has designed their pixels, and the way their optics work, I think is a superior result."

Frakes says the biggest difference the D-Movie mode will have on his work is that it will allow him to shoot stills and video without swapping cameras.

“When I first started doing some multimedia I was having to shoot with an HD camera and some still bodies, then put the two together. Now it’s just so seamless,” he says. “As long as you can have your mind be flexible enough to recognize when you need to shoot video and when you need to shoot stills, the camera isn’t inhibiting anymore."

And what about the high ISO settings?

“When they told me what the ISO limitations were, I just laughed,” Frakes says of the 102,400 ISO setting in the new camera. “With all due respect, I thought we had a language problem. I thought that they were saying it was 12 thousand, that they were misreading the zero.”

The leap in image quality at high ISOs was one of the most positive advances in the D3s, Frakes relates. “The 6400 ISO setting is as good the 400 ISO setting was on the D1x,” he says, noting that printing images shot on the setting as double-trucks would be “no problem.”

“In fairness, the 102,400 ISO is noisy," he adds. "But there are any number of news situations I’ve been in my life that I would have gone to that with complete confidence that I would have an image that would be publishable for what it was. In Miami in the ’80s and ’90s I covered riots, and there were a number of times when I simply could not make images because I was at a quarter of a second, a half-second, and the images were just too blurry to use. It was just too dark.

“With this camera, you could have gone to the high 2 [setting, ISO 51,200], and it would have been absolutely publishable, six columns in the Miami Herald.”

Frakes also sees new possibilities on a creative level with the high ISO settings.

“Quantity of light is clearly important, but quality of light is in many ways more important,” he notes.

“There will be some times in the very early morning when you’ve seen some extraordinarily beautiful light, but there’s just not enough of it to make this picture. You can see the light, but it’s too subtle. Now you can do it. Your palate just got bigger, because you can now utilize that light that you couldn’t get to before."

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