The range-topping 12.1-megapixel D3 is Nikon's first digital SLR with a full-frame sensor.
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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.