Active D-Lighting

D-Lighting is a shadow & highlight enhancement feature first seen on Nikon's Coolpix range of compact cameras and later on the D200. On previous models it was an after-the-fact filter which you could apply to images in playback mode. With the D3 (and D300) 'Active' D-Lighting is a menu setting which is applied to all images if enabled. There are four levels available; Off, Low, Normal and High. Rather than only adjusting the shape of the tone curve (as most similar systems do) setting higher levels appears to apply a third of a stop negative exposure compensation (typically slightly higher shutter speed).

The examples below show the effect of Active D-Lighting on shadows (in what is admittedly a rather extreme case). We've fixed the exposure to see how much shadow detail is recovered - as you can see it's around a stop or so, which does a decent job of balancing out the bright and dark areas of the frame. For a full set of comparisons showing the effect of D-Lighting in automatic exposure mode check out this page of the D300 review. As with the D300 we found that you could increase the exposure by around a stop in the High D-Lighting mode for better shadow detail without losing too much at highlight end.

Active D-Lighting: Off Active D-Lighting: High
1/30 sec, F8 1/30 sec, F8

The examples below are perhaps a better indication of what you can expect to get from the D-Lighting; the JPEG (on the right) was shot with AD-L turned on (high). The result is a better retention of skin tone.

No Active D-Lighting (converted from RAW) Active D-Lighting High (JPEG)

Shooting landscapes the effect is subtle, but it works (the higher shutter speed used means a touch more highlight detail and a deeper sky, whilst the D-Lighting brings the shadows up to match). You'll obviously get a little more mileage if there's more contrast in the scene, but either way you'll do just as well slightly underexposing and playing with the D-Lighting settings (or manual curves) when you convert your RAW files.

Active D-Lighting OFF (JPEG) Active D-Lighting High (JPEG)
1/1000 sec F7.1 (ISO 200) 1/1600 sec F7.1 (ISO 200)