DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon D3 Review
by J. Keenan -  2/26/2008

Remember the 1996 sci-fi movie Independence Day? It's the one where Will Smith plays a Marine captain and F-18 Hornet pilot who gets the chance to pilot an alien spacecraft on an improbable mission to destroy the mother ship and save the world from those nasty extraterrestrial invaders. (Hey, it won an Oscar for Special Effects – show some respect.) After driving his ho-hum 1200 mph jet for all these years, Smith's reaction upon launching in the alien craft is an immediate "I have got to get me one of these!"

Fast forward to January 1, 2008. After shooting some top Nikon cameras since 1975, including the F2, F3, and more recently the D2X, I've been on the wait list for a Nikon D3 at a couple of camera stores since within a few days of its announcement back in August 2007. However, the relatively limited production of the new Nikon has been going at first to Nikon pros and, apparently, folks who somehow got in line even earlier than I did. Looking at another online store on New Year's Day, I notice they show the D3 "in stock." What the heck, might as well try to order, and just so they know I really want one, request next day air for the shipping option. A return e-mail acknowledges my order and advises me I'll be notified when the product ships. Yeah, yeah, been there, heard that before...until a second e-mail arrives on January 2 advising the camera has shipped. January 3 dawns bright and clear, and by 10:00 a.m., UPS has left a package at my door.

The Li-ion battery from my D2X is D3 compatible, so it only takes seconds before I'm shooting and know for certain that "I am real glad I got me one of these!" Not bad for a first impression.

Nikon D3
(view large image)

 

Nikon folks, your full frame sensor ship has come in. The Eagle has landed. They're heeeere...


FEATURES OVERVIEW

When we discussed doing a review of this particular camera, DCR editor David Rasnake wanted to try a less formal approach – the D3 is a ground-breaking camera for Nikon, and a technically oriented dissertation would cause me to go blind writing it and put readers to sleep by the multitudes. So, in a manner that will loosely follow a review format that you'll be seeing a lot more of at DCR from this point forward, here goes...

The D3 is Nikon's first DSLR camera featuring a "full frame" 12.1 megapixel sensor that is nearly identical in size to 35mm film. The camera has a 3-inch, 920,000 pixel VGA monitor that may be used for image composition and shooting as well as review. There's a new EXPEED processor, a new auto focus system that can make use of up to 51 focus points, and a normal ISO sensitivity range of 200 to 6400. The camera can shoot 9 frames per second (fps) at full resolution, and 11 fps using Nikon DX lenses at 5.1 megapixel resolution.

There is a strong family resemblance to the Nikon D2X/Xs, but any Nikon DSLR user will find the D3 largely familiar. The D3 also features two memory card slots, and several options on how to write the cards: simple overflow to number two once number one becomes full, JPEG on one and NEF (RAW) on the other, or writing to both cards so one card serves as a backup. I personally use the overflow option – the D3 even writes seamlessly from one card to the next if you're shooting a burst when one card becomes full.

Nikon D3
(view large image)

That full-frame (Nikon calls it FX) sensor means that lenses mounted on a D3 do not have the 1.5X crop factor associated with the smaller Nikon DX sensor fitted into every other Nikon DSLR to date. A 400mm lens on a D3 shoots like a 400mm lens, whereas a 400mm lens on any other Nikon shoots like a 600mm. It also means the D3 will generally produce less depth of field with a given lens than a DX sensor Nikon – and shallow depth of field can be a useful tool in isolating subjects from the photographic background. Here's what the FX and DX sensors look like with 400 and 14mm lenses, respectively.

Nikon D3
14mm lens, FX sensor (view large image)
Nikon D3
14mm lens, DX sensor (view large image)
Nikon D3
400mm lens, FX sensor (view large image)
Nikon D3
400mm lens, DX sensor (view large image)

 

Nikon unabashedly admits that the D3 was "designed with sports photographers and photojournalists in mind" and to "meet the real-world requirements of its professional customers" for "ultra high-speed shooting capabilities and handling with outstanding low-noise image quality, offering professional photographers an ideal tool for a broad range of shooting disciplines." To that end, there's no built-in flash (but of course there is a hot shoe). Similarly, your only exposure options are the traditional aperture or shutter priority, program auto, or fully manual. The price of admission is a steep $4999.95 for the body only.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specs table found at the bottom of the page.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Some years ago my wife and I took a cruise in Europe, and one port of call was in Scotland. We hopped off the boat to meet our particular tour bus and the delightful Scottish lady who was to be our guide for the day. After introductions and a bit of small talk she turned and gave the ship a long looking over before remarking, "My, she's certainly a big girl, isn't she?" In the same vein, welcome to the D3: 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 inches and just over three pounds with battery and memory cards, but no lens.

Styling and Build Quality

From a distance the D3 could easily be mistaken for a D2X or Xs – all are large bodies that incorporate a vertical shutter and command dial into the large battery compartment.

Nikon D3
(view large image)

The magnesium-alloy body is weather sealed and the exterior has tacky material in all the right places to promote a firm grip. I had the D3 out in a light but persistent rain for over an hour today. Even shielding the camera when possible beneath my coat, the body had water beading up and running off during shooting periods. Back in the car, dry it off with a towel and on we go without incident. The camera exudes quality with its construction, fit and finish.

Ergonomics and Interface

The D3's body is sculpted and shaped to provide a secure grip, whether simply carrying or shooting. The shutter button and command dials are easily manipulated by the thumb and forefinger.

Nikon D3
(view large image)

Nikon D3
(view large image)

Exterior controls allow the user to change critical camera settings like ISO, white balance, and image quality quickly without need to resort to internal menus. There are a host of such menus, but the Nikon's settings lists are largely intuitive. Make no mistake – this camera has myriad setup and shooting options, but getting there is straightforward and logic will serve you well once you arrive.

Display/Viewfinder

The D3 viewfinder is large, bright and offers virtually 100 percent coverage of the image frame. There is a diopter to compensate for eyesight conditions.

Nikon D3
(view large image)

The 3-inch monitor is a joy to use for image review, and may be used in live view modes to compose and shoot images. It's bright enough to use for composition and shooting in the bright, direct daylight conditions that typically hamstring ordinary monitors, although image review would be best done in good light.


PERFORMANCE

Performance of the D3 is what you'd expect from a Nikon flagship – the camera is a thoroughbred. It will accept and meter with virtually every Nikon lens made with the "F" bayonet mount since 1959. Here's a shot of the D3 with Nikon's newest 14-24mm zoom, and another with my 25 year old Nikon 500mm/f8 reflex lens.

Nikon D3
(view large image)

Nikon D3
(view large image)

Timing and Shutter Lag

The D3's position as a Nikon pro body is confirmed with startup and shutter lag times. The camera powers up in .12 seconds, and shutter lag is 37 milliseconds per Nikon. Nikon credits the D3 with the fastest startup time, shortest viewfinder blackout time, and shortest shutter lag of any digital SLR camera in its class. Flip the power switch and the camera is ready before you can get your finger off the switch; hit the shutter button and the picture is taken. World class performance, plain and simple.

The D3 (and D300) are the first Nikons to be able to make use of high speed memory cards like the Lexar UDMA 300X – in camera write times are about 2/3 as long as older cameras for similar sized files.

Auto Focus

Along with the D300, the D3 features Nikon's new Multi-Cam 3500 AF system. The Multi-Cam 3500 can make use of up to 51 individual focus points depending on user preference, and provides a definite improvement in tracking moving subjects over the systems of the D2X or D200, both of which were pretty good in their own right. Focus acquisition is stunningly quick with a variety of Nikon AF lenses. The D3 is world class fast with the new VR400/f2.8 lens, as well as my 15 year old 105mm micro, and every AF lens in between. Here's a shot from the micro lens:

Nikon D3
(view large image)

Battery Life

My D3's EN-EL4a lithium-ion battery has taken over 1800 shots and still shows 1/3 strength on the "fuel gauge." A lower capacity battery on the D2X was always good for well over 2000 shots with that camera, and the D3 reportedly has lower power consumption. Battery performance is not a concern for the D3.


IMAGE QUALITY

The EXPEED processor and FX sensor get most of the credit for the D3's image quality improvements over earlier D-series cameras.

General Image Quality

As with most DSLRs, image quality depends to a degree on lens quality. Fortunately, the worst Nikon lenses are pretty good in my opinion, and the good ones are very good. Default settings on the D3 with regard to sharpness were increased to a mid-range value, which my eye found more pleasing. Because the D3's sensor imposes no crop factor on any lenses affixed to it, wide angle users will find the camera appealing since their lenses will shoot at their true wide angle focal length, allowing them to get close to large subjects and still keep most of the subject in the frame.

Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)

 

Exposure, Processing and Color

The D3 gets improved exposure metering systems attributed in part to the power of the EXPEED processor, and the Matrix II system is definitely improved. In the past, shooting high contrast scenes of surfers with matrix metering would sometimes result in highlights of the white water portions of the wave being lost. The D3 (and D300) both do a much better job with the same scenes now – highlights are rarely lost.

Color is accurate and pleasing at the default "standard" setting. There are also "neutral" and "vivid" settings, and saturation of each setting can be increased by three increments. A "monochrome" black and white setting is also available. I like to use "standard" color with shots including people, and "vivid" for landscapes and other subjects.

Nikon D3
Standard (view large image)
Nikon D3
Neutral (view large image)
Nikon D3
Vivid (view large image)
Nikon D3
Monochrome (view large image)

 

White Balance

Auto white balance is good with natural light, but goes a bit warm with incandescent. Matching internal WB settings for light sources produces good results overall.

Sensitivity and Noise

In addition to the nominal 200-6400 ISO range, the D3 allow users to select an ISO 100 setting, or up to two stops above the 6400 setting – 12800 and 25600, respectively. In the weeks following Nikon's announcement of the D3, rumors began to fly of unprecedented high ISO performance. Happily for D3 owners, the rumors were pretty much true. Here are "real world" shots and 100 percent crops from ISO 200 to 25600. Judge for yourself.

Nikon D3
ISO 200 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 400 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 800 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 1600 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 3200 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 6400 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 12800 (view large image)
Nikon D3
ISO 25600 (view large image)


Nikon D3
ISO 200

Nikon D3
ISO 400

Nikon D3
ISO 800

Nikon D3
ISO 1600

Nikon D3
ISO 3200

Nikon D3
ISO 6400

Nikon D3
ISO 12800

Nikon D3
ISO 25600

Another consideration is that the noise at the higher ISO settings resembles film grain more than digital noise to my eye, and as such is more acceptable in the final image.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)
Nikon D3
(view large image)

CONCLUSIONS

The D3 is Nikon's flagship FX digital camera, if only because it's Nikon's sole FX digital camera. But the D3 justifies its standing in the Nikon ranks on much more than mere exclusivity. Unparalleled ISO performance, a 9 fps full resolution shooting rate, exceptional color and image quality, a superb monitor, robust construction, outstanding build quality and a full frame sensor offering wide angle and depth of field lens performance like a 35mm film camera are some of the attributes that makes Nikon's latest pro model a must-have for serious Nikon shooters.

Designed for sports and photojournalism, I'd suspect the D3 might find an additional following among wedding photographers who prefer to shoot in natural light. The camera's big sensor results in the lack of a crop factor for lenses, so users who can't get close to their subjects may well do better with a DX Nikon that maximizes lens length. Otherwise, the D3 is simply a state of the art, high-performance pro camera, and few of us who've been fortunate enough to get our hands on one would argue that it isn't worth every penny of that lofty price tag.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Nikon D3 Specifications:

Sensor12.1 megapixel FX format (36.0mm x 23.9mm) CMOS
Lens/ZoomNikon F mount
LCD/Viewfinder3.0", 922K-pixel TFT LCD with live view; optical viewfinder with diopter adjustment
SensitivityISO 200-6400 (boosted: ISO 100-25600)
Shutter Speed30-1/8000 seconds
Shooting ModesProgram, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual
Scene PresetsN/A
White Balance SettingsAuto, Preset, Manual Preset, Kelvin Temperature
Metering Modes3D Color Matrix Metering II, Center-Weighted, Spot
Focus ModesSingle Point AF, Dynamic Area AF, Automatic Area AF, Manual
Drive ModesSingle, Continuous Low, Continuous High
Flash ModesNormal, Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync, Rear-Curtain Sync
Self Timer Settings
2-20 seconds, off
Memory FormatsCompact Flash, Type I or II
Internal Memory
None
File FormatsJPEG, TIFF, NEF (RAW)
Max. Image Size4256x2832
Max. Video Size
N/A
Zoom During Video N/A
BatteryRechargeable lithium-ion
ConnectionsUSB 2.0, HDMI Video Out, Remote In, PC Sync
Additional FeaturesEXPEED image processing, extended ISO to 25600, 9 fps full-resolution shooting, 51-point AF system, 3D Color Matrix Metering II