Nikon D3 Field Review in the East Pacific. PART 1

It’s a scary thing being lent such expensive kit. So I made my first dive with an empty D3 housing and actually shot the D2X for the whole first day to establish some sort of benchmark. But Day 2 was D3 day, as once I tried it, so was every other day of the trip.

The Subal ND3 is not a small housing, but very intuitive to use. Controls are well engineered and I found them easy to use with bare hands, in 5mm gloves and 7mm mitts.

My over-riding first impression was how easy this camera was to get used to. For any Subal/Nikon user there is close to zero acclimatisation time to the kit. The Subal ergonomics are superb and consistent with previous housings and every control is exactly where you would expect it to be. It is evolutionary design, rather than revolutionary. The ND3 is a big housing for a Subal, but easy to handle. I should mention that there are many housings by other manufacturers that have been just as big, yet have housed far smaller cameras! The D3 has a 400 page instruction manual, the Subal ND3 has 27 controls yet both are so intuitive that I found no obstacles to just jumping in and taking pictures. I took strong images on my first dive.

The D3 feels just like any other Nikon, albeit with sharper reflexes. Adjusting to FX is not a big deal. Just as the format change from 35mm to DX was something you adapted to immediately you looked through the camera, so the change from DX to FX is a minor issue. Film to digital is a massive adjustment compared with DX to FX. The shallower depth of field of FX means that you have to be a bit more precise with your focus particularly with macro, and given the minor trade offs of bumping the ISO up you have a new creative tool to consider for wide angle. But more about both of those in detail in Parts 2 & 3.


Rockfish fin detail, Vancouver Island, Canada. Nikon D3 + 150mm + 500D, Subal housing. Manual. F6.3 @ 1/250th. ISO 200. 2x INON Z240 strobes.

I often feel with housing reviews, the less there is to say the better the housing. A housing is a conduit to the camera and the less obstructive it is the better. I realise that this slogan belongs to another company, but when it comes to a Subal I find “it just works”. And goes on working. I have shot over 100,000 trouble free underwater images with my Subal ND2 housing and the Subal ND3 has identical built quality and I’d expect similar reliability. 

I found all the controls easy to operate with bare hands (Guadalupe), 5mm gloves (San Diego) and 7mm 3-finger mitts (Vancouver Island). Depth rated to 70m (240ft), this system is well suited to just about any diving conditions. On the ND3 the controls have excellent feel - even through 7mm gloves, with numb fingers, it was easy to feel the auto-focus bite point on the shutter. I was also impressed with the gearing of the command dials. You are not accidentally skipping between apertures, nor are you spinning the wheel endlessly just to change shutter speeds a between a balance light and black background. Many housings get this wrong. The push buttons are standard Subal fare, although having tried a few different housings recently I do appreciate how nicely weighted their resistance is. 


White shark, Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Nikon D3 + 15mm FE + 1.5x TC, Subal housing. F8 @ 1/160th. Aperture Priority, EV –1.0. 2x INON Z240 strobes.

My only disappointment with the ND3 was the standard viewfinder. I felt that this gave an inferior view to my ND2 (which also has a standard viewfinder) despite on land the D3 having a noticeably better viewfinder than the D2X. I presume this is a reflection that nearly everyone specifies the GS180 or WS45 these days and Subal put less effort into the standard option. I was not able to get as comfortable a view of all corners of frame through my normal facemask on the ND3 as on the ND2.  If you are considering this system I recommend investing in the excellent GS180 viewfinder.

Continued in Part 2.