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Nikon D3X Overview

by Michael R. Tomkins, Dave Etchells and Siegfried Weidelich
Posted: 11/30/08
Update 12/20/09: Test Shots posted! Click on the Samples tab to see all our test images.
Update 05/25/09: Full Test Results posted!
Update 06/15/09: Added Design and Operation pages, plus RAW page.
Update 7/23/09: Final tweaks to the review, all review sections and Conclusion finalized

In 2007, Nikon offered pro photographers a new option for full-frame digital photography (and a chance to make their old Nikon glass fully usable again): the Nikon D3 digital SLR. A little over a year later, Nikon will give photographers a chance to push those old lenses to the limit with a new camera -- one that creates a tie for the title of the highest-resolution 35mm full-frame digital SLR on the market.

For its first full-frame digital SLR, Nikon took a balanced approach with a camera that offered excellent overall performance, but didn't significantly raise the bar in resolution. With the D3X, Nikon has made its mark on the high-res full-frame market with 24.5-megapixel resolution -- tying with Sony's flagship Alpha DSLR-A900. (While Sony lists the A900 as having 24.6 megapixels, the final image size is identical to that of Nikon's D3X -- the slight 0.1 megapixel discrepancy coming down to a difference in how the two companies count effective megapixels.) With identical resolution, the difference between these two heavyweights will come down to the remaining feature set of each camera. Meanwhile, in quite a turn of events, Nikon's tradition rival, Canon, is left lagging a fair way behind resolution-wise with its flagship EOS-1Ds Mark III still sitting on 21.1 megapixels.

Nikon's D3X isn't a one-trick pony though -- there's a lot more to this camera than just resolution. Full-resolution frame rate might not win awards at five frames per second, but given the very high resolution it's certainly not what we'd call "slow" either. Drop the resolution to 10.5 megapixels in DX crop mode, and the Nikon D3X will yield a fairly impressive seven frames per second. That's only two frames per second behind the D3's full-resolution speed, and could prove handy when raw speed is more important than resolution -- at least, if you don't mind the 1.6x crop that accompanies the speed. ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 1,600, plus extension to Lo-1 (50) and Hi-2 (6,400).

The Nikon D3X has a range of features that will be familiar to D3 (and in some cases, D300) shooters: 14-bit or optional 12-bit A/D conversion, Nikon's Scene Recognition System, a 51-point AF system, In-camera Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction, optic-by-optic autofocus fine-tuning, and a slightly improved version of Active D-Lighting. There's also the same gorgeous 922,000-pixel, 3-inch LCD from the D3 / D300, and to truly take advantage of this, Nikon has also included its useful Live View shooting modes in the D3X as well.

Befitting its flagship status and market-leading resolution, Nikon has set launch pricing for the Nikon D3X digital SLR at $7,999.95, the same price at which Canon launched its 21.1-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark III a little over a year ago.

Look and Feel. If you're familiar with Nikon's previous D3 digital SLR, you'll be right at home with the Nikon D3X. Short of the different model number, the D3X is basically identical to its sibling. D2x users will be comfortable too, as the Nikon D3 / D3X body design features only evolutionary design changes with which they'll quickly become familiar. Given that there's no noticeable difference with the Nikon D3, the remainder of this section will focus on changes from the D2x.

Compared to the D2x, the pentaprism housing of the D3 / D3X is notably larger, and the white ambient light sensor which used to reside above the Nikon logo is no longer a part of the design. The red accent on the grip has been restyled as well. The cover over the Flash and Remote Terminal has a one-piece design, and the gold FX logo in the lower right corner indicates that this is a Nikon full-frame digital SLR.

There are only a few changes to the Nikon D3 / D3X's control arrangement compared to the D2x. Nikon has replaced the Enter button with an OK button, and they've moved the speaker below it to the rear Status LCD. The LCD panel has grown from 2.5 to 3 inches, with a significant improvement in resolution: now 640 x 480 pixels. It's hard to appreciate this improvement, but D2x users will notice the change immediately when they see an image on the screen. The AE/AF Lock button has been shrunk and dropped down a bit, making it easier to distinguish from the AF-ON button, which in the D2x used to be right next to it. The two rear Command dials are set at a slight angle to match the orientation of the thumb's pivot point when holding the Nikon D3 / D3X; a nice ergonomic change. The vertical, or secondary AF-ON button in the lower right corner has been moved from below the Command dial to above it. Without holding the camera, it's tough to know which will be preferable. The old location did make it easier to press the button accidentally. Sadly, there is no plastic screen cover for the Nikon D3 / D3X.

Finally, on the top panel the Metering selector dial has moved back a bit compared to its position on the D2x, and the Mode and EV compensation buttons have changed shape. The hot shoe design has also changed slightly.

Body. The Nikon D3X is identical in size to its sibling the Nikon D3, sharing essentially the same body with that camera. The D3X's external dimensions are 6.2 x 6.2 x 3.4 inches (159.5 x 157 x 87.5mm). Heft is also near-identical to that of the D3, with the D3X coming in just a slight 0.7 oz (20g) lighter for a body-only weight of 2.7 pounds (1,220g). As with the D3, the exterior shell of the Nikon D3X is made of magnesium alloy, and is sealed against dust and water.

LCD. As you might expect, the Nikon D3X retains the excellent 3-inch, high-resolution LCD previously featured in the D3 and D300 models. At approximately 922,000 dots, the D3X's LCD resolution matches the highest available in any current digital SLR. As LCDs have increased in size, the value of higher resolution has become clear. You can more easily check focus, sometimes even without zooming in. When you do zoom in, you're left in no doubt that you got the focus right.

The pixel resolution in more familiar terms is 640 x 480, with each pixel being comprised of three adjacent dots: red, green and blue. But even counting the three horizontal dots as one pixel, that's still 266 pixels per inch -- significantly finer resolution than your computer screen. The result is a remarkably smooth, crisp, and sharp view of your images. Menus look like they're printed on photographic paper. The D3X's LCD has a wide 170 degree viewing angle, and offers a 100% view whether looking at captured images or framing in Live View mode.

Metering sensor. Nikon brings its venerable 1,005-area metering sensor to bear on an old problem: AF tracking.

Autofocus. Also held over from the D3 is Nikon's Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus system, which offers 51 "precision focus" AF points. Of these, 15 are cross-type points, sensitive to both horizontal and vertical lines. The Multi-CAM system can be set to four modes on the Nikon D3X, including 9-area, 21-area, 51-area, and 51-area with 3D tracking. In this latter mode, the Nikon D3X's EXPEED processor takes account not only of data from the AF sensor, but also from the 1,005-area RGB metering sensor. With this extra information, the AF system can better select and track a subject, even when it leaves the AF area.

Fine-tuning. If we've discovered anything reviewing lenses on SLRgear.com, it's that lenses and bodies don't always match. Sometimes they focus in front of the subject, sometimes they focus behind the subject, regardless of what the AF system says. Camera companies are starting to acknowledge this, building in adjustments to compensate for front- and back-focusing problems. The Nikon D3X inherits a system from the D3 that allows it to separately store adjustments for up to 20 lens types. Not individual lenses by serial number, mind you, so note that if you have several of one type of lens, the Nikon D3X will only load compensation information for the individual lens with which compensation was initially set. If you have only one of each specific type of lens though, you'll have no problem.

Live View. "Live View" has become a reasonably common feature among current digital SLRs, and since its D3 and D300 models, Nikon has provided what is to our eyes one of the more useful and usable DSLR Live View functions to date. What makes Nikon's Live View mode so effective are the two options it provides for autofocus operation. Traditional DSLR phase-detection AF sensors are blocked whenever a camera raises its reflex mirror to expose the imaging sensor. Since the imaging sensor constantly streams data for the LCD display during Live View operation, this means the mirror must be continuously held up while Live View mode is being used. Hence, the first focusing mode requires a brief interruption to the live view display -- during which time the camera drops the mirror, focuses, and then flips the mirror back up to resume viewing of the refocused scene. This is fine for relatively static scenes, but the resulting delay in focusing -- not to mention the interruption to your view of the scene -- can make it difficult to get a good shot if your subject is in motion or requires precise timing.

Customizable buttons. The Nikon D3X's Function button can be assigned to any of a wide range of functions. Similar flexibility exists for the Preview and AE-L/AF-L buttons. (These screens shots taken from D3.)

Called Live View (Tripod mode), the second mode is the real charm, and uses contrast-detect autofocus driven from the imaging sensor. Instead of flipping mirrors, the Nikon D3X simply reads data off the CMOS image sensor and evaluates how abruptly light to dark (or dark to light) transitions happen on the image plane. Contrast-detect AF isn't nearly as fast as phase-detect (which is why the shutter response of most digicams is so much slower than most digital SLRs), but at least Nikon's D3X can focus without interrupting the Live View display. Nikon chose the name "Tripod Mode" for a reason though: the camera must be mounted on a tripod for contrast detection autofocus to work well, because the sensor isn't quite fast enough to handle the camera or subject moving while the AF operation is under way. For moving subjects and the fastest focusing you'll want to stick with the optical viewfinder, but it's nice to have the Live View option (and the choice of AF modes) when your subjects allow its use.

There are two added benefits of the Live View (Tripod mode) over the more traditional phase-detection autofocus. Because it's working with data coming from the main image sensor, contrast detection autofocus rules out any potential issues with front- or back-focusing. Given adequate light and a relatively static subject, the point of focus should be determined accurately regardless of issues with individual lenses. This is somewhat less of an issue since the Nikon D3X allows fine-tuning of up to 20 lens types, but can still prove an advantage if you have a large selection of lenses, or perhaps share lenses from a pool of "identical" lenses (since the fine-tuning is specific to the lens type, and not the specific serial number). Also, when using Live View (Tripod mode), you can move the AF point anywhere you want within the frame area -- even right out to the extreme edges. The Nikon D3X also provides up to a 10x zoom in Live View mode, providing excellent focus discrimination when focusing manually. This is pretty key, as less than 10x magnification really doesn't do the trick for getting the focus set right. At 10x though, we can pretty well nail the focus every time.

The Nikon D3X includes the ability to control the camera from a computer remotely, and that includes receiving a Live View image from the camera. You can focus, adjust settings, and fire, all from a computer. What's more, you can do it via cable or WiFi connection, with the optional WiFi adapters. You do require Nikon's Camera Control Pro software to enable this feature, an optional extra that will cost around $60 at the time of this writing.

Viewfinder. Of course, where you'll find the real speed of an SLR is through the optical viewfinder. The Nikon D3X's inherits the Nikon D3's pentaprism viewfinder, which delivers 100 percent frame coverage, 0.7x magnification at 50mm and -1 diopter, an 18mm eyepoint, and diopter adjustment range of -3 to +1. The AF points are arrayed in an oval, similar to what we've seen on the Canon 1D-series. You can read more about the D3's viewfinder here.

Sensor. The big news with the Nikon D3X is its brand new imager: a 24.5-effective-megapixel, full-frame, 35mm-sized CMOS sensor that yields double the pixel count of Nikon's D3. In terms of horizontal / vertical linear resolution, this equates to an increase of about 42% over the D3's sensor. Measuring 35.9 x 24mm, the sensor size is not the exact dimension of a 35mm frame, which measures 36 x 24mm, but it's very close. As an aside, it's also not quite the same size as the sensor used in the D3, which was 36 x 23.9mm. The native pixel dimension of a D3X image is 6,048 x 4,032, and the pixel size is 5.94 microns - down from 8.45 microns in the D3. (We initially noted that the Nikon D3X sensor had 5.49 micron pixels. This was due to a typo in information provided by Nikon, which has now been corrected.) From the fact that Nikon is not claiming to manufacture the sensor itself, it can be inferred that it has partnered with another company for the actual manufacture of the chip to Nikon specification. As with its past DSLRs, Nikon is remaining very tight-lipped about the actual manufacturer of the sensor used in the D3X, stating only that it is an "original Nikon design," and that no other company will ever be able to use it, nor will it appear in any other camera in the marketplace.

Note: Realizing there was still a lot of speculation about the origins of the D3X's sensor, Nikon has since clarified with this statement: "The Nikon D3X's 24.5-megapixel FX-format (35.9 x 24.0mm) CMOS sensor was developed expressly for the D3X in accordance with Nikon's stringent engineering requirements and performance standards, with final production executed by Sony. Featuring refined low-noise characteristics, 12 and 14 bit output, Live View capability and more, the D3X's unique sensor design was carefully blueprinted to perform in perfect concert with proprietary Nikon technologies including EXPEED Image Processing and the Scene Recognition System. Meticulous efforts allowed the sensor to become one of the many essential components and technologies which contribute to the D3X's superior image fidelity."

In terms of sensor type and absolute dimensions, the Sony Exmor sensor used in that company's flagship Alpha DSLR-A900 model is very similar; it too is a 35.9 x 24mm CMOS imager. Although Sony lists its camera as having 24.6-megapixel resolution, the image size of 6,048 x 4,032 pixels is identical -- the two companies just have a slightly different way of calculating effective resolution numbers. Nikon's D3X hence places right alongside Sony at the very top of the field among current 35mm full frame digital SLRs, at least in terms of resolution. Both Canon's flagship EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS 5D Mark III lag behind somewhat in this area, with effective resolutions of 21.1 and 21.0 megapixels respectively. However, with 5.9 micron pixels, the Nikon D3X and Sony A900 have a smaller pixel size, while Canon's slightly lower-res cameras both have 6.4 micron pixels.

The Nikon D3X's sensor has a 12-channel readout, which allows it to move data off the sensor at a blistering pace. Probably due to the higher resolution and the much greater demands this makes on the imaging pipeline, the Nikon D3X is rather slower than the incredibly speedy D3; but it's really no slouch when you consider the amount of data whizzing around. The Nikon D3X is capable of capturing up to five frames per second at the full 24.5-megapixel sensor resolution. When using the 10.5-megapixel "DX crop" mode -- which is set automatically when using DX-format lenses, and can be manually set with other lenses -- this increases to a fairly swift seven frames per second. At the time of this writing, we are still waiting on confirmation of the burst depth in either mode. There's also a 5:4 crop mode for taking 8x10-format images, which should be helpful for portrait and event photographers, and equates to a maximum resolution of 20.4 megapixels.

Shutter. The Nikon D3's carbon fiber / Kevlar hybrid shutter mechanism is retained for the Nikon D3X, and plays a part in enabling the swift seven frames per second shooting offered in DX mode. The shutter mechanism is rated for a lifetime of some 300,000 cycles. Expected shutter lag is in the region of 40 milliseconds.

Expeed. Nikon's proprietary processor makes a number of sophisticated in-camera processes possible.

Processor. The Nikon D3X uses an EXPEED processor, as in the previous D3. The name is being used on all Nikon's digital cameras going forward from the D3 / D300, including the Coolpix point & shoot line. Nikon doesn't specify the exact model or speed of processor in each camera, though, so we can't state with certainty if the D3X's processor is completely identical to that of the D3. The processor in the D3X has a 16-bit pipeline and is the engine for processing the 14-bit color data from analog to digital at such a rapid rate. It also enables such impressive features as the Scene Recognition System, in-camera Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction, and Active D-Lighting, detailed below.

Scene Recognition System. Nikon's Matrix metering system went through quite an overhaul for the D3, and gained a new name in the process: the Scene Recognition System. A new diffraction grating over the 1,005 area metering sensor allowed more accurate detection of color and brightness. At the same time, new firmware was capable of more complete analysis of scenes, improving white balance, focus tracking, and exposure. One of the chief benefits of the Scene Recognition System was highlight analysis, designed to prevent blown highlights in common situations by adjusting the tone curve to compensate. The Nikon D3X inherits the improved Scene Recognition System functionality from its sibling.

Active D-Lighting. D-Lighting has proven a popular post-processing feature in Nikon's consumer digital SLRs, as well as some of the company's point & shoot models. It's a quick software process that attempts to overcome underexposed images, and bring detail out of shadows. An improved version of D-Lighting appeared in the Nikon D3 and D300, including optimization of image contrast, helping to prevent overprocessing of shadows and flattening of overall image contrast. As with the Scene Recognition System, the D3X inherits Active D-Lighting from the D3 and D300 -- but this time with a slight improvement, in that as well as the previous High, Normal, Low or Off settings, the D3X will also offer an Extra-High setting, or the ability to automatically choose the D-Lighting strength on the fly.

Lateral Chromatic Aberration Correction. While other cameras have had lens distortion processing built-in, notably the Olympus E-1, none until Nikon's D3 and D300 did the processing based on the distortion detected in the image. Past cameras (and most distortion-correction software) simply looked at which lens was mounted and perhaps the focal length if it was a zoom lens, and then applied a pre-set amount of correction; no image analysis actually took place. Nikon's Lateral Chromatic Aberration correction offered a more sophisticated approach, thanks to power of the camera's EXPEED processor, by actually analyzing each image after capture and fixing the chromatic aberration detected therein before saving the JPEG file. Cameras with full-frame, high-resolution sensors place a greater demand on lenses, and hence Lateral Chromatic Aberration correction could prove a particularly interesting feature on the D3X.

Vignette Control. Another interesting feature is Vignette Control, first seen in firmware upgrade v1.11 for the D3, and then in the Nikon D700. Three levels are available that attempt to reduce the effects of corner shading with certain lenses. Designed for G and D Nikkor lenses, not DX or PC lenses, users can choose from High, Normal, Low, and Off for this setting. You can't see the results in Live View, nor can the Vignette Control be applied to multiple exposures. As with the chromatic aberration discussed in the previous section, vignetting is more likely to be an issue with full-frame digital imaging -- hence this could prove a very worthwhile feature.

Picture Control. Nikon has standardized its Picture Control system so that camera settings for tone, saturation, brightness, and sharpening can be set and ported to other Nikon digital SLRs. The D3 was the first camera compatible with the option, and the Nikon D3X likewise follows the standard.

Storage, battery, and connectivity. The Nikon D3X can hold two CompactFlash cards, and write to them in three different ways. First, fill one and image storage switches to the next card. Next, you can record the same data to both simultaneously. Third, you can write RAW to one and JPEG to the other. The Nikon D3X is also capable of writing to UDMA-capable cards, for faster read and write performance.

Like the D3, the Nikon D3X is compatible with the lithium-ion EN-EL4 and ships with the EN-EL4a, an 11.1v, 2,500mAh battery. Battery life is expected to be just slightly better in the D3X as compared to the D3, with a CIPA rating of 4,400 shots for the newer camera versus 4,300 shots for its sibling. The D3X's battery is charged via the Quick Charger MH-22.

Photographers interested in geotagging their images might be interested in the optionally available Nikon GP-1 GPS unit, which mounts on the camera's hot shoe, or clips to the neck strap, and attaches via the 10-pin remote terminal. Note that the GP-1 GPS unit isn't specific to the D3X; other Nikon SLRs including the D200, D3, D300, D700, and D90 are all compatible as well.

New/upgraded features on the Nikon D3X compared to the D3:

The 12.1-megapixel D3 will continue to be produced. It lists for US$4999.95.

 

In the Box

Compactly packaged in the Nikon D3X's capacious bronze box are:

Recommended Accessories



 

Nikon D3X Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • 24.5-megapixel FX format (24 x 35.9mm) CMOS sensor provides exceptional pixel quality at that resolution
  • DX mode (cropped sensor) has useful resolution (10.4 megapixels)
  • Fast burst speed of 5 fps at full FX resolution
  • Very fast burst speed of 7 fps at DX resolution
  • Very good buffer depth, given the very high resolution (23 lossless compressed RAW frames, 31 JPEGs)
  • Very good high ISO performance to ISO 1,600, with expansion to ISO 6,400
  • EXPEED image processing
  • 14-bit A/D, 12- or 14-bit RAW file captures
  • Exceptional dynamic range, especially from RAW
  • 3.0-inch 920,000 dot VGA LCD with 170-degree view and tempered glass protection
  • Auto DX crop when DX lens is mounted
  • Live View modes (handheld and tripod)
  • 100% optical viewfinder, with huge angular field of view
  • 51-point autofocus with 15 cross-type sensors
  • Autofocus fine-tuning
  • Scene recognition system using 1,005 pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II in auto exposure modes
  • Nine customizable Picture Control settings in addition to four presets
  • Enormous range of custom settings, very customizable
  • Active D-Lighting produces broader tone reproduction on the fly
  • Adjustable noise reduction gives good control over noise/detail trade-off in JPEGs
  • 1/8,000 second shutter rated to 300K actuations
  • Fast flash x-sync speed of 1/250 second
  • Exposure compensation from +5.0 to -5.0 in increments of 1/2, 1/2 or 1 EV
  • White Balance fine tuning by Kelvin temperature
  • White Balance bracketing, 2 to 9 exposures
  • In-camera Lateral Chromatic Aberration correction
  • ITO-coated sensor filter to discourage a static charge
  • Double CompactFlash slots provide overflow or backup operating options
  • UDMA CompactFlash support, very fast write speeds
  • Virtual Horizon feature
  • Multiple Exposure and Intervalometer functions
  • Voice memo
  • HDMI output (up to 1080i)
  • Built-in eye-piece shutter
  • Built-in intervalometer capability
  • GPS data recording with optional accessories
  • Optional Wi-Fi transmitter
  • Extensive in-camera retouching
  • Selectable RAW file compression
  • Compatible with just about every F-mount lens made since 1977
  • Rugged construction with magnesium alloy body and full environmental sealing
  • Very good ergonomics, excellent Nikon-standard menu system
  • Dual battery charger included
  • Detailed battery information, including percent of charge, battery aging, shots remaining
  • Excellent battery life
  • Noticeably slower full-autofocus shutter response in than the D3. (0.161 vs 0.085 second)
  • Poor auto white balance in incandescent lighting
  • 14-bit RAW mode significantly slows burst rate
  • No automated sensor filter cleaning (not that that ever makes a huge difference)
  • Enormous RAW files (good excuse for a faster computer)
  • Not an inconspicuous design
  • 43 ounces (without a lens)
  • No on-demand grid display in the viewfinder
  • Poor access to card compartment release
  • Deep menu system (no avoiding it, though, given the enormous functional range and customizability)
  • Autofocus array covers less of the frame than it does on Nikon's DX-format cameras
  • No built-in AF assist lamp
  • Nikon Capture NX 2 and remote control software not included
  • Premium price

 

Early on in our evaluation of it, one fact became unequivocally clear: The Nikon D3X produces the highest image quality of any camera we've tested to date. As we proceeded with our evaluation and completed the analysis of our test images, nothing appeared to challenge that conclusion: Its combination of resolution, color fidelity, and noise performance puts it at the very top of its class. Not only does the Nikon D3X sport an amazing 24.5 megapixels of resolution, it manages to wring more detail out of those pixels (particularly in its NEF-format RAW files) than anything else out there. The D3X also offers surprising speed, capable of 5 frames/second at full resolution, and up to 7.5 frames/second in its 10.5 megapixel DX crop mode. And then there's build quality: The D3X is built like the proverbial tank; well-suited to most anything a busy pro might care to dish out to it. The high-end SLR market often seems like a perpetual game of leapfrog, but for now, the Nikon D3X sits at the top of the heap, as the ultimate digital SLR. To say that it's a five-star Dave's Pick seems hardly enough...

 

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