The range-topping 12.1-megapixel D3 is Nikon's first digital SLR with a full-frame sensor.
Second, it’s Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR, which means that the sensor is the same size as a traditional 35mm frame.
Third, it bridges a gap between its two predecessors, the D2XS and the D2HS. This is possibly the most interesting concept behind the camera. Where previously photographers had to choose between the high resolution D2XS and the low resolution but faster D2HS, the D3 has combined the two into one body. This allows press photographers, say, which is Nikon’s traditional pro market, to shoot high-res for magazine work, or shoot to a fast frame rate for sports or news stories. To a working professional this means they only need to buy one camera, so saving £3,000 immediately.
Features: Page 1
The Nikon D3 should be reasonably familiar to users of other Nikon cameras, whether digital or the high-end film cameras. It has the usual set of PASM modes, but no scene modes that you’d find on low- to midrange cameras. There’s comprehensive exposure assistance at your beck and call thanks to the D3’s ±5 stop exposure compensation and ±4 stop auto-exposure bracketing over two to nine frames. Each of these can be selected in one-third, half or one stop increments. White balance compensation is also included over nine exposures, and there’s a full range of WB options, including presets, manual and colour temperature.
As for the metering modes, there’s the standard centre-weighted as well as a 2% spot metering option and Nikon’s new improved 3D Colour Matrix Metering II, of which more later.
The chassis is constructed from tough magnesium alloy, designed to withstand the rigours of professional use from studio to war zone and everything in between. On the body, is the same 3in high-resolution LCD we first saw on the D300, with 920,000 pixels and live view. Live view is the latest must-have on DSLRs, allowing live viewing of the scene on the LCD just like on a compact. Unlike the Olympus or Panasonic version, the D3’s LCD is fixed flat to the camera back, so allows limited use of the view – for full effect the camera should be used on a tripod, while using it without can increase the chances of camera shake. Overall though, I prefer the tilt and swivel type of screen when using this feature.
Other technology the camera shares with the semi-pro D300 is the enhanced 1,005-pixel RGB sensor, used by the camera to provide accurate metering via the 3D Colour Matrix system. This system has been used by all recent Nikon cameras, but the D300 and D3 have seen some refreshing of the technology. The enhanced sensor now has Scene Recognition, to recognise the subject and other details before the shutter is fired. This information is used to improve the autofocus, exposure and white balance. An example would be in human identification. By recognising the shape and colours of a human face the system recognises the important part to focus on. This ability to distinguish between background and subject also aids the RGB sensor to track the subject based on its colour. This helps the AF to predict the movement of the subject and provide accurate focus and exposure quickly when the D3 is used in 3D tracking mode.
Nikon has developed a new focus module, the Multi-CAM 3500FX, similar to the one found in the D300 (although that version has a DX suffix).
The AF features 51 individual AF points, including 15 cross-type AF points around the central area of the viewfinder frame. By using cross-type sensors, the camera can recognise contrast changes across the horizontal and vertical axes and so can more accurately measure the camera-to-subject distance and reduce instances of AF hunting. This is also used to more accurately lock onto off-centre subjects and improve the continuous AF tracking of moving subjects. The AF points can be automatic or user selected, and the number of active AF points can also be changed from nine to 21 or the full 51.
White Balance and D-Lighting
White Balance control is also enhanced by the 1,005-pixel RGB sensor. The new system is able to recognise whites more accurately and compute the colour values of other areas within the image.
Nikon has also continued to maintain and improve its Active D-Lighting function, allowing optimisation of the camera’s dynamic range through inbuilt adjustment curves, which are applied to the image as they are processed. A user-applied D-Lighting function can be added to the images post-capture, with a new image saved alongside the original file.
Features: Page 2
We’ve seen the bones of the camera, so now let’s take a look at the dual hearts of the camera: the sensor and the processor. Like the D300, the D3 has a CMOS sensor, but Nikon has finally taken the full-frame route, with 37x24mm dimensions holding 12.1million effective pixels.
This isn’t the highest- resolution sensor on the market – Canon is still ahead of the game here, and there are plenty of mid-range DSLRs with similar pixel counts – but thanks to size of the sensor, the individual pixels are larger. Theoretically this means that the light-gathering power of each of the pixel points should be better, leading to reduced noise and increased sensitivity. In fact the pixels are a large 8.45μm in size and the sensor’s sensitivity covers ISO 200-6400. This is based on standard signal amplification, but in extended ISO mode using a mathematical bit-shifting algorithm, the camera can record between ISO 100 and 25600! This places it firmly at the top of the low-light league.
The sensor doesn’t stop there, though. New micro lenses over the photosite cover the gaps between pixels, to direct more light into the wells and so improve detail capture as less light is lost in the gaps. It has also been reported that each photosite now has two micro lenses, though Nikon has not supplied information about how or why.
To replace the ability of the now-defunct Nikon D2H, Nikon has enabled fast shooting by allowing the sensor to be used in DX (APS-C) format, producing 5.1MP images. Not only does this allow sports photographers, for example, to shoot more images in a single burst, thanks to the reduced file size and thus quicker transfer time, but it also allows the use of Nikon DX lenses. For those with older full-frame lenses, the FX format allows 1x magnification, while the DX format gives a 1.5x magnification of the stated focal length (35m equivalent).
The two options also allow photographers to make the most of wideangle lenses, or extend the capabilities of telephotos.
The sensor produces pretty big files, of 4256 x 2832 pixels or 12 x 9.5 inches. This gives a file size of around 35MB when open, or around 12.5MB for a Raw (NEF) file and 4.5MB for JPEGs. To handle these, Nikon has increased the size of the buffer memory and uses the EXPEED processor to speed the workflow. To that end, the processor is a low-powered type multi-functional engine and allows 14-bit A/D conversion with 16-bit image processing for fine tone gradations. The EXPEED and large buffer also allows for a fast frame rate of 9fps in full frame mode over 52 large JPEGs or 17 Raw files. This can be dropped to between one and six frames per second, should more sustained shooting be needed. Similarly, in DX mode the sustained burst at 9fps is extended.
To help keep everything moving along nicely, the camera also features a dual CF card slot, allowing you to write Raw and Jpeg to ether card or create backups or shoot to both cards one after the other.
Handling & Performance
As a pro spec model, nobody expects the D3 to be small and lightweight, and it isn’t. It’s a big camera and robustly built. The tough chassis should survive most knocks and conditions, while the rubber coating on the outside feels secure and provides a good grip.
The camera has a dual grip – the front, landscape type and a second portrait grip for shooting vertically. This also contains the battery, which lasted throughout the test. A pair of front and rear command dials sit near the shutter release (on both grips) for easy changing of apertures, shutter speeds and so on, while external buttons allow quick access to shooting modes, exposure compensation and so forth.
Dual LCD Display
The camera also has two grey LCDs. The top-plate LCD displays shooting information; the back one displays WB, ISO and quality. Pressing the accompanying buttons and rotating the dials makes the changes. Drive, flash and bracket modes are situated in the ‘rewind knob’ position, giving the D3 a film camera look, while the AF points are selected using the joypad on the back.
The 3in LCD is one of the D3’s crowning glories, allowing excellent contrast and sharpness and, thanks to the high resolution, close-up sections of the recorded images are easy to check for AF accuracy.
While the camera offers fairly standard operation, a range of custom options in the well-thought-out menus allow you to shoot the way you want. This includes nice touches such as changing the primary functions of some external buttons and changing the rotation directions of the command dials.
Of course, you can also store different settings for different types of jobs. For the freelancer this is useful – you could have a portrait mode, a landscape mode and so on. Obviously this is a feature found on several DSLRs, but it’s worth mentioning.
Performance is pretty sound. In full-frame mode we easily got around 75 JPEGs at 9fps, and while the camera slowed a little from there, the buffer clears really quickly, particularly if you release the shutter button for a moment. The speed of shooting is matched by the speed of the AF – the 51 points provide accuracy and quickly latch on to the subject. This obviously will depend on the lens used too, but using the new 14-24mm and a 28-70mm f/2.8 posed no problems. It also coped admirably in low light shooting moving subjects.
Image Quality & Value for Money
The JPEG performance is excellent, especially in regards to the noise reduction which eliminates noise without sacrificing detail and sharpness. Mid-tones, highlights and shadows are all correct and exposures for average scenes are accurate. I occasionally needed to adjust the metered exposure, mainly owing to the nature of the image or thanks to the harsh directional light of December, but nothing to be at all concerned about.
The D3 produces virtually noise-free images at low ISOs. Once we get past ISO 800 there is some evidence of luminance noise and just a smidgeon of chroma noise, but this is to be expected and can easily be reduced in post-processing. Overall, the D3 produces the best quality images at high-sensitivity settings that we have ever seen, and even at the really high setting of ISO 25600, images pass.
Tone And Contrast
Like its colour performance, the D3 is accurate and very smooth – indeed the tones could be described as almost film-like. Gradations between tones are very gradual with no visible banding. Similarly it places the tones where they are supposed to be.
Colour And White Balance
Colour fidelity, especially in NEF Raw mode, is crisp and accurate, with neutral colour bias and good saturation. Adjustments can be made to suit your tastes, either in camera, or using Capture NX or other Raw software, but out of the box, the colour is pretty true.
Sharpness And Detail
As well as being blindingly fast, the AF is also very accurate. Images are sharp and plenty of detail can be seen. Even when noise was visible in the higher ISOs it didn’t obliterate the detail, even in dark shadow areas. On the downside, it doesn’t have built-in image stabilisation, so you’ll need to fit Nikon’s relatively expensive VR lenses if you want to take advantage of slow shutter speeds, low ISOs and handheld shooting.
Value For Money
This is a state-of-the-art professional model and is aimed at pros who make a living from their camera. In this respect it offers great value. It’s nearly half the price of Canon’s 1D Mk III, though both cameras are aimed at slightly different markets, albeit with some crossover. For the well-off enthusiast, well if you want the best, there is always a cost, but this is a lot of camera for the money.
There’s a lot of debate over which is better, the Nikon D3 or the Canon 1D Mk III. The Nikon does seem to have much in its favour, not least the price. While the D3 has arguably a rather conservative resolution by comparison, its performance shows that it isn’t all about the pixel count, and makes a strong case for fewer, but bigger pixels.
Overall, the D3 is an extremely well-specified camera with fantastic performance across the board – in the AF system, the speed, and the superb image quality that can be achieved, even at high ISOs. In short, the D3 is as good as it gets right now and as such achieves our highest ever score.