Nikon D3 Performance

The Nikon D3 is noteworthy because it's Nikon's first digital SLR camera with a full-frame sensor, but it's remarkable for the amazing speed it delivers in a full-frame body. Not only is the Nikon D3 the fastest full-frame DSLR, but it's the fastest digital SLR camera of any type, with a top continuous shooting speed of 11 frames/second, just edging the Canon EOS-1D Mark III for that honor.

That said though, there's no free lunch, and you have to give up something to reach the highest speeds the Nikon D3 is capable of, including full-frame capability at the very highest frame rate. To understand, let's take a look at the D3's performance in different configurations and with different settings.

The baseline for the D3's continuous-mode performance is 9 frames/second. At this pace, you get full performance in any mode, with no limitations other than those potentially imposed by the lens aperture. (All high-speed digital SLR cameras can be limited by the ability of the lens to open and close its aperture quickly enough. In general, you'll only get the highest speeds with pro-level lenses, and then only when the lens is operating within two or three stops of its maximum aperture. This is because the exposure systems meter with the lens wide open, so the aperture has to open for metering, close for the exposure, and then open again to meter the next shot. If the lens is slow or just has to stop down too far, the time required for aperture operation can limit the maximum frame rate.)

At 10 frames/second, the camera locks the exposure before the first shot, so the exposure will not track any changes in scene brightness that might occur. This won't likely be a problem for short bursts, but could be an issue if you're following a fast-moving subject that transitions from sun to shade or vice versa.

Only in its 5.1 megapixel cropped-frame "DX" mode can the D3 hit its all-out maximum frame rate of 11 frames per second, but at that rate it also locks both focus and exposure before the first frame. That these restrictions result from the shooting speed, not the DX cropping mode. At rates below 10 fps, you'll get full performance in any exposure mode with DX cropping active.

So, while the Nikon D3 is the fastest digital SLR on the planet, it has to cut a few corners to get there. Fully functional at 9 frames per second though, it's only 10 percent slower than the fastest sub-frame camera, and fully 80 percent faster than the next closest full-frame model, the just-announced, 21.1 megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.

A more robust shutter. In keeping with its greatly increased speed, the Nikon D3's shutter unit has also been upgraded for greater reliability. Several components that had previously been made of Kevlar are now fabricated with carbon fiber to reduce moving mass and increase rigidity and longevity.

Shutter Lag & Mirror Blackout

Speed isn't only about continuous shooting, though: shutter response and mirror blackout are also critical parameters. Happily, the Nikon D3 really shines in both these areas as well, with the fastest shutter response of any Nikon digital SLR camera to date, a scant 37 milliseconds. Viewfinder blackout is also very brief, at only 74 milliseconds, thanks to a new active mirror-damping system.

Credit for both the increased shooting speed and reduced mirror blackout goes to the all-new shutter mechanism in the D3, which has also been upgraded for significantly greater reliability: The new shutter mechanism is now rated for 300,000 cycles, up from the 150,000 cycle rating of the shutter in the D2Xs.

Dual CF Cards. A number of digital SLRs sport dual card slots these days, but in the Nikon D3, they're both CF slots, allowing maximum capacity and transfer rates. The D3 and D300 both support the latest UDMA CF cards for the highest transfer rates. With CF cards as large as 16 GB on the market as of the D3's release, you can carry up to 32GB of onboard memory. (The fact that the D3 uses the CF format for both cards means that performance is identical, regardless of which card you use.)

Card operation is also unusually flexible, including:

  • "Overflow" mode, data is written to the second after the first fills up
  • "Backup" mode, data is written to both simultaneously
  • "RAW/JPEG" mode, RAW files go to card 1, JPEGs to card 2

Fast Memory System

A fast camera is no good without a fast memory subsystem to keep up with it. Both the Nikon D3 and D300 support the new generation of UDMA CompactFlash cards, which offer the highest throughput. Also, where competitor Canon went with a split-type CompactFlash/SD card arrangement in their EOS-1D Mark III, Nikon chose to give the D3 dual CF card slots. At the press briefing, the Nikon engineers said that the reason for this choice was to insure that there'd be no performance limitation, regardless of which card slot was in use. This makes a lot of sense to us, after using the EOS 1D Mark III with both CF and SD cards: Seemingly any use of the SD card greatly slows buffer clearing, even if we only use it for storing JPEG files in RAW + JPEG mode.

We like the flexibility the dual cards offer, particularly the "backup" mode, where data is written to both memory cards simultaneously. This means that the failure of a single card can't wipe out hundreds or thousands of shots, a particularly important consideration with card sizes hitting 16GB, and no end in sight.

Nikon D3

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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