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Nikon D3x Review
by Theano Nikitas -  8/12/2009

When Nikon released the 24 megapixel, full-frame D3x, some photographers griped that the new model was the same as the D3 with twice the megapixels and twice the price. In a sense, they're right but the D3x was not unexpected since Nikon has a history of extending its professional series cameras with an "x" model to indicate high resolution. Hence, the D3x is a high resolution version of the D3. But it's not quite as simple as that.

Nikon D3x


The D3x is designed for a highly targeted user group-the professional, such as a studio photographer, who needs or wants large image files. Considering that a digital back costs many thousands of dollars more than the D3x, then perhaps this camera is actually-as bizarre as it sounds-economical alternative.

Still the D3x costs more than its closest competitor, the 21 megapixel, $7,000 Canon 1Ds Mark III. Sony has two full-frame, 24 megapixel DSLRs-the A900 and the A850-that are priced around $3,000 and $2,000, respectively, boasting the highest count among similarly priced models.

There are, of course, benefits and drawbacks to working with a 24 megapixel camera. The main attraction is, of course, a huge amount of image data. This allows for billboard-sized enlargements as well as tight cropping. On the downside, working with large image files can tax the processing speed of all but the highest powered computers and fill hard drives in a blink of an eye. Still, there's definitely a market for the D3x, even with its premium price.


Build and Design
There are few physical differences between the D3 and the D3x. Both cameras measure 6.3x6.2x3.4 inches and weight about 2 pounds 11 ounces without battery or memory card. If you look at the two side-by-side, the only difference you'll notice is the "x" after the D3 logo.

Built to withstand heavy use, the D3x is constructed from magnesium alloy and is sealed against dust and moisture. Its shutter is tested for a minimum of 300,000 cycles.

The D3x body comes with a vertical grip and is bundled with a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery (with up to 4400 shots per charge), a quick charger, USB and AV cables, camera strap, body cap, accessory shoe cover, eyepiece, battery charger cover, USB cable clip, printed user's manual and Nikon's Software Suite. I was disappointed to find that Nikon couldn't find a few extra dollars in its budget to include a copy of Nikon NX2 software, though.

The other even more surprising omission is an on-board sensor cleaning system, which these days is about as common in DSLRs as Live View. Although the camera does offer Live View, there's no video option.

Nikon D3x

However, the D3x offers dual CF card slots, a virtual horizon, an intervalometer mode, as well as GPS and Wi-Fi options. Other features of note include multiple custom options, on-board lateral chromatic aberration correction and even a built-in help system. Suffice it to say that the D3x is fully loaded with features.

Ergonomics and Controls
Transitioning from the D3 to the D3x is seamless since the two cameras are pretty much identical in design and control layout.

Despite its size and weight, the D3x is comfortable to use. The rubberized grip is contoured perfectly for a solid handhold, allowing the forefinger to fall easily on the shutter release and the thumb resting on the back of the camera. The exposure mode and EV buttons are also within reach, just behind the shutter button. Even with smaller hands, I was able to shoot with the somewhat massive D3x for extended periods of time without becoming fatigued.

Nikon D3x

Nikon D3x

Control layout is logical and generally within easy reach. On the top right, you'll find the shutter release, surrounded by the Off/On/backlight switch, with a sub-command dial on the front of the grip. Just to the rear are the exposure mode and EV (exposure compensation) buttons. A large, status display occupies most of the remaining space. On the right side of the viewfinder, you'll find the metering mode switch, along with the diopter knob for adjusting the optical viewfinder.

A depth-of-field preview button and a FN button (which allows users to choose the imaging area, including DX crop) are located on the front of the camera, just to the right of the lens.

Most of the controls are located on the rear surface of the camera, including the command dial, AF-On (the same as half-pressing the shutter button; also can be used in Live View Tripod Mode), AE/AF lock, multi-selector, AF area mode switch, and the Live View Button. A one-touch microphone button sits to the left of the LV button.

A control panel is positioned below the camera's LCD, with access to a number of functions including ISO, Quality and White Balance.

Nikon D3x

Nikon D3x

Aligned vertically along the left side of the LCD are the Menu, Thumbnail/Playback Zoom, Protect, OK and Info buttons. The buttons are large and spaced far enough apart for seamless operation. The playback and delete buttons are located just to the left of the optical viewfinder.

The dial located on the top left of the camera provides access to bracketing, flash mode, function lock (to lock shutter speed or aperture), as well as drive mode, Live View, self-timer, and mirror up options.

The only problems I had reaching any of the multiple controls were related to the size of my hands. It was a little bit of a stretch to reach the AF Area Mode switch and the Live View button with my right hand. Otherwise, most controls are located on the left and below the LCD and were easily accessible.

Menus and Modes
As expected, the menu system reflects the D3x's highly sophisticated feature set. Like the camera, its menus are complex with many layers, which can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. However, the interface will be familiar to Nikon shooters, who will be able to navigate the system with relative ease. Still, there are so many options that it takes practice for menu navigation to become intuitive.

Custom options such as setting four different shooting menu banks are available. This allows users to configure four "banks" of settings for various shooting conditions. By default, these are labeled A, B, C and D, but can be renamed with an internal keyboard for more detailed identification.

Other menu settings including programming the use of the dual CF card slots. For example, the second slot can be dedicated to overflow once the first card is filled, for backup or to store JPEGs when shooting RAW + JPEG.

You'll also need to access the menus for adjusting the parameters of the camera's four Picture Controls: Standard, Neutral, Vivid and Monochrome. Within each, there's a quick adjust, as well as more fine-tuning options such as sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. These can be customized and saved as well.

Active D-Lighting, which now ranges from off, low, normal, high, and extra high can be controlled via the menu system as can vignette control and high ISO noise reduction (off, low, normal, high), among others.

In addition to the standard aperture-priority, shutter speed-priority, and manual modes, the D3x also features a scene recognition mode. As mentioned earlier, there's a special intervalometer option and the D3x also provides multiple exposure shooting and Live View. Two options are available within Live View: Handheld and Tripod Mode.

The former uses phase detection autofocus, which requires that the mirror is flipped down for focusing and then raised for shooting (and seeing the image on the LCD). In Tripod Mode, contrast detection AF is used (gaining information from the sensor), so the mirror is in the up position throughout so there is no interruption in viewing the image on the LCD. The latter is ideal for shooting static subjects/objects. While Live View usability continues to increase with each new generation, it's still not as versatile as we think it can be. But, for shooting in the studio or even outdoors for landscapes, Live View is certainly a benefit.

Display/Viewfinder
The D3x comes equipped with a gorgeous, 3.0 inch 921k dot LCD that's clear, bright and accurate. It has 7 levels of brightness adjustment and 170 degree viewing angle and is a pleasure to use.

But perhaps the biggest "wow" comes when looking through the optical viewfinder of this full-frame camera. The viewfinder offers 100% viewing and, like the LCD, is bright and clear.

PERFORMANCE
Given the number of pixels this camera is pushing, its 5 frames per second continuous shooting speed is pretty good. If you choose DX crop mode (which drops the resolution to about 10 megapixels), the camera can achieve about 7 frames per second. Go to 14 bit RAW, however, and continuous shooting speed slows to a snail's pace.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-30 0.02
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
0.02
Nikon D3x
0.02
Pentax K20D
0.04
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
0.08

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Olympus E-30 9 5.0 fps
Nikon D3x* 31 5.0 fps
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 3.8 fps
Pentax K20D
38 3.0 fps
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 2.1 fps

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

*The Nikon D3x produced a 5.0 fps rate at full-frame FX mode. In DX mode, we counted 48 frames at 7.3 fps.

Overall, however, the camera is highly responsive. Like the D3, the D3x utilizes Nikon's excellent 51 point AF system and delivers topnotch autofocus performance. As expected, Live View - as mentioned above - has its own AF shortcomings.

Lens Performance
I tested the D3x with Nikon's 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses, with great results from both. The camera uses a Nikon F bayonet mount and is compatible with pretty much all lenses using that mount, with varying degrees of usability. Type G or D AF lenses support all functions and DX AF NIKKOR lenses can be used but will, of course, crop the image size. Other lenses may not support Color Matrix Metering II, autofocus, among other functions.

Image Quality
In a word, the D3x's image quality is stunning. Images are sharp and detail capture, as one would hope (and expect) is amazing. Zoom into a tree trunk and you can almost see the layers of wood exposed where people carved their initials.

Nikon D3x

Colors are accurate and natural looking on default settings but there are so many parameter adjustments that it's easy to compensate for any color shift. As always, Nikon's matrix metering system produces well-exposed images and with the help of Active D-Lighting, the D3x exhibits a broad dynamic range. The only exception here might be the occasional clipped highlights. Even then, however, the camera can handle most any conditions it encounters.

Left to its own accord, the D3x doesn't handle tungsten lighting very well, producing very warm images. But with so many custom white balance options, this really isn't a problem.

Nikon D3x
Auto white balance, 3200k incandescent light

Exposure Modes
Nikon D3x
Neutral

D-Lighting
Nikon D3x
D-Lighting Normal

Nikon D3x
Vivid

Nikon D3x
D-Lighting Extra High

One major difference between the D3 and the D3x is light sensitivity. Nikon claims that the D3x is designed for use under conditions where the photographer controls the lighting and because of this, native ISO is limited to 100-1600 (versus the D3's 200 to 6400). Both have expanded ISOs, however, and the D3x can be set to a low of ISO 50 and two high settings of 3200 and 6400.

Nikon D3x
ISO 100
Nikon D3x
ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 200
Nikon D3x
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 320
Nikon D3x
ISO 320, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 400
Nikon D3x
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 500
Nikon D3x
ISO 500, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 640
Nikon D3x
ISO 640, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 800
Nikon D3x
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 1000
Nikon D3x
ISO 1000, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 1250
Nikon D3x
ISO 1250, 100% crop
Nikon D3x
ISO 1600
Nikon D3x
ISO 1600, 100% crop

While the D3 offers better results at higher ISOs, given the number of pixels crammed into its 24 megapixel CMOS sensor, the D3x's noise performance is pretty impressive. (Check out our first shots from the Nikon D3s for the ultimate in high noise performance.)

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D3x Nikon D3x
Nikon D3x Nikon D3x
Nikon D3x Nikon D3x

CONCLUSIONS
Given the D3x's cost and specifications, it's clear that this is a highly specialized camera that will appeal to professionals who need or want large image files.


However, photographers whose work demands highly detailed images (or advanced amateurs with a hefty bank account) won't be disappointed with the D3x's image quality and highly sophisticated feature set.

Pros:

Cons: