Nikon D3 Review

 
Camera Reviews / Nikon Cameras / Nikon D i Full Review

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.

 

Timing and Performance

Excellent speed for a pro SLR these days, all the more impressive for a full-frame one.

Startup/Shutdown
Power on
to first shot
0.3 second
Time it takes for camera to turn on. (Very fast, difficult to measure.)
Shutdown
0.8 second
How long it takes camera to turn off before you can remove the memory card. (Odd, slightly slow, even though no dust-reduction feature on D3 to stretch shutdown process.)
Single-Shot clearing times
Buffer clearing time
Large Fine JPEG
12 seconds
(after 30 LF JPEGs)
Worst case buffer clearing time. -- This is the delay after a set of shots before you can remove the card. Some cameras won't shut down until the buffer is cleared. (*See note about memory card speeds at bottom of table below.)
Buffer clearing time
Small Basic JPEG
1 second
(after 20 SB JPEGs - Essentially infinite buffer capacity for smallest/lowest quality images)
14-bit RAW buffer capacity/clearing times
Buffer clearing time
14-bit RAW

(uncompressed)
28 seconds
(after 16 RAW FX frames)

15 seconds
(after 21 RAW DX frames)
Worst case buffer clearing time. (*See note about card speeds below.)
Buffer clearing time
14-bit RAW

(Lossless compressed)
19 seconds
(after 16 RAW frames)

13 seconds
(after 21 RAW DX frames)
Buffer clearing time
14-bit RAW

(Lossy compressed)
18 seconds
(after 16 RAW frames)

15 seconds
(after 20 RAW DX frames)
12-bit RAW buffer capacity/clearing times
Buffer clearing time
12-bit RAW

(uncompressed)
28 seconds
(after 16 RAW frames)

15 seconds
(after 22 RAW DX frames)
Worst case buffer clearing time. (*See note about card speeds below.)
Buffer clearing time
12-bit RAW

(Lossless compressed)
19 seconds
(after 16 RAW frames)

12 seconds
(after 23 RAW DX frames)
Buffer clearing time
12-bit RAW

(Lossy compressed)
18 seconds
(after 16 RAW frames)

11 seconds
(after 26 RAW DX frames)
TIFF buffer clearing times
Buffer clearing time
TIFF
45 seconds
(after 15 TIFF frames)
Worst case buffer clearing time. (*See note about card speeds below.)
*Note: Buffer clearing times measured with a Kingston 266x Ultimate CompactFlash card. Slower cards will produce correspondingly slower clearing times. Slow cards may also limit length of bursts in continuous mode. ISO sensitivity and noise reduction settings can also affect cycle times and burst mode performance.

Startup time is average for an pro SLR. Buffer clearing time depends on the image size and quality, burst length and the speed of memory card used.

 

Mode switching
Play to Record,
first shot
0.5 second
Time until first shot is captured.
Record to play
0.6 second
Time to display a large/fine file immediately after capture.
Display
recorded image
0.5 second
Time to display a large/fine file already on the memory card.

Mode switching is quite fast, difficult to measure.

 

Shutter response (Lag Time), Multi-Point AF
Full Autofocus
Wide angle
Optical Viewfinder
0.085 second
Time from fully pressing shutter button to image capture using optical viewfinder, with Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens at full wide angle.
Full Autofocus
Telephoto
Optical Viewfinder
0.088 second
Time from fully pressing shutter button to image capture using optical viewfinder, with Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens at full telephoto.
Full Autofocus
Live View
Hand-Held Mode
0.440 second
Time from fully pressing shutter button to image capture, using Live View "Hand-Held" (phase-detect) mode.
Full Autofocus
Live View
Tripod Mode
n/a
When using Live View "Tripod" (contrast-detect) mode, autofocus is performed using the AF-On button.
Prefocused
Optical Viewfinder
0.043 second
Time to capture, after half-pressing and holding shutter button.
Prefocused
Live View
Hand-Held Mode
0.045 second
Time to capture, after half-pressing and holding shutter button, using Live View Hand-Held (phase-detect) mode.
Prefocused
Live View
Tripod Mode
0.447 second
Time from fully pressing shutter button to image capture, using Live View "Tripod" (contrast-detect) mode. Autofocus is performed using the AF-On button, and is not included in this number.
Continuous AF
Release Priority
Optical Viewfinder
0.049 second
This mode usually shows no speed increase with our static subject; we have no way to measure performance with moving subjects.
Manual focus
Optical Viewfinder
0.047 second
For most cameras, shutter lag is less in manual focus than autofocus, but usually not as fast as when the camera is "prefocused".

In terms of the D3's ability to determine that it's properly focused when shooting the same target multiple times (with no between iterations, to remove the impact of lens AF speed), its speed is about typical of a professional model, but this is very fast compared to prosumer and consumer models. The D3 required only 85 millisecond for full AF at wide angle and 88 milliseconds at telephoto setting. When prefocused, in release priority continuous mode or manually focused, shutter lag was even faster, at only 43, 49 and 47 milliseconds respectively.

The D3's two Live View modes add considerable delay, but the "Hand-Held" mode is faster than some other implementations we've tested recently. The "Hand-Held" mode which uses the same "mirror-down" phase difference AF method employed when using the optical viewfinder has full AF shutter lag of 0.44 seconds, roughly five times the optical viewfinder lag.

The "Tripod" Live View mode lag was about the same, at 0.447 seconds, but focusing is performed separately using the AF-On button, so focusing time is not included in that figure. It's easy to see why Nikon chose to call this "Tripod" mode: It's really only going to be useful for still-life subjects, with the camera pretty immobile. The time it takes to achieve focus depends heavily on how far the lens elements have to travel, but even when it's simply refocusing on a previously-acquired subject, it takes about 1.2 seconds with a fast-operating lens. When a slower lens has to rack from infinity to close focus, the AF time in Tripod mode can easily stretch to 3 seconds or more.

Once prefocused, "Hand-Held" mode shutter lag is a very fast 45 milliseconds. Depending on the lens in use though, it can take a long time to find focus, if the optics have to move a significant distance.

 

Cycle time (shot to shot)
Single Shot mode
Large Fine JPEG
0.28 second
Time per shot, averaged over 20 shots.
Single Shot mode
Small Basic JPEG
0.20 second
Time per shot, averaged over 20 shots.
Single Shot mode
12-bit RAW
0.32 second
Time per shot, averaged over 20 shots.
Single Shot mode
14-bit RAW
0.31 second
Time per shot, averaged over 20 shots.

(0.01 second time difference between 14- and 12-bit RAW isn't statistically significant, is less than the standard deviation from shot to shot - which was about 10%)

Early shutter
penalty?
No
Some cameras refuse to snap another shot if you release and press the shutter too quickly in Single Shot mode, making "No" the preferred answer.
Continuous Hi mode
Large Fine JPEG
Size Priority
0.11 second
(9.03 frames/sec);
30 frames total;
12 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 30 shots.
Continuous Hi mode
Small Basic JPEG
Size Priority
0.11 second
(9.05 frames/sec);
>20 frames total;
1 second to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 20 shots, or buffer depth, whichever came first.
Continuous Hi mode, DX MODE
14-bit RAW
Lossless compressed
0.090 second
(11.11 frames/sec);
21 frames total;
13 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 21 shots.
Continuous Hi mode
12-bit RAW
Lossless Compressed
0.11 second
(9.04 frames/sec);
17 frames total;
16 seconds to clear*
(Compression doesn't affect frame rate. Lossless compression helped buffer capacity slightly over uncompressed (at least with the hard-to-compress target we use for timing measurements.))

Time per shot, averaged over 17 shots.

Continuous Hi mode
12-bit RAW
Compressed
0.11 second
(9.04 frames/sec);
17 frames total;
15 seconds to clear*
(Lossy RAW compression helped buffer capacity slightly over uncompressed.)

Time per shot, averaged over 17 shots.

Continuous Hi mode
12-bit RAW
Uncompressed
0.11 second
(9.04 frames/sec);
16 frames total;
22 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 16 shots.
Continuous Hi mode
12-bit RAW (Lossless) + LF JPEG
0.11 second
(9.03 frames/sec);
15 frames total;
28 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 15 shots.
Continuous Hi mode
14-bit RAW
Lossless compressed
0.11 second
(9.04 frames/sec);
16 frames total;
19 seconds to clear*
(Unlike the D300, 14-bit RAW does not slow the continuous-mode frame rate.)

Time per shot, averaged over 16 shots.

Continuous Hi mode
14-bit RAW
Compressed
0.11 second
(9.04 frames/sec);
16 frames total;
18 seconds to clear*
(In our tests at least, compression didn't help buffer capacity in 14-bit mode.)

Time per shot, averaged over 16 shots.

Continuous Hi mode
14-bit RAW
Uncompressed
0.11 second
(9.04 frames/sec);
16 frames total;
28 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 16 shots.
Continuous Hi mode
14-bit RAW (Lossless) + LF JPEG
0.12 second
(8.39 frames/sec);
14 frames total;
30 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 15 shots.
Continuous Hi mode
TIFF
0.11 second
(9.03 frames/sec);
15 frames total;
45 seconds to clear*
Time per shot, averaged over 15 shots.
Flash recycling
n/a
Flash at maximum output.
*Note: Buffer clearing times measured with a Kingston 266x Ultimate CompactFlash card. Slower cards will produce correspondingly slower clearing times. Slow cards may also limit length of bursts in continuous mode. ISO sensitivity and noise reduction settings can also affect cycle times and burst mode performance.

Single-shot cycle time performance is very good for a pro SLR model, at about 0.28 second between shots in any large/fine JPEG mode, insignificantly slower in any RAW mode. (We measured the RAW single-shot cycle times at ~0.31 second, but the 0.03 difference was within the ~10% variation from shot to shot, so isn't statistically significant.)

Continuous mode is very fast when in any mode including 14-bit uncompressed RAW, at just over 9 frames per second. Unlike the D300, the D3 did not slow down at all when shooting 14-bit vs 12-bit RAW files. Buffer depth in large/fine JPEG mode was 30 frames, and varied between 15 and 17 frames in RAW mode, depending on what bit depth and compression was used for the NEF files.

For really blazing speed with the D3, you can shoot in "DX" mode, where the sensor area is cropped to match the "DX" size sensors in Nikon's sub-frame DSLRs. In this mode, the D3 easily met the 11 frame/second spec that Nikon gives it. This drops the resolution down to 2,784 x 1,848 (5.1 megapixels), but that's still a very usable resolution level, and the speed in this mode is unparalleled.

JPEG buffer depth shooting "normal" subjects is likely to be a good bit greater than we measure with our deliberately difficult-to-compress test target, so your mileage (buffer capacity) may vary, but should generally be better than our measurements.

With the very difficult-to-compress target we use for measuring buffer capacity, lossy and lossless RAW compression increased the buffer depth by just one over uncompressed in 12-bit node, so best to choose lossless compressed. Compression mode didn't seen to impact buffer depth in 14-bit mode at all.

Like other recent pro-level SLRs, the Nikon D3 makes good use of very fast memory cards. We don't have specific numbers to publish here, but did note that slower cards definitely led to longer buffer-clearing times.

 

Download speed
Windows Computer, USB 2.0
2,292 KBytes/sec
Typical Values:
Less than 600=USB 1.1;
600-770=USB 2.0 Low;
More than 770=USB 2.0 High

Download speeds were fast (but not as fast as some), though fast enough that you probably won't feel the need for a separate card reader. (Measured in Mass Storage mode.)

Battery and Storage Capacity

Battery

Outstanding battery life for an SLR lithium-ion design.

Test Conditions
Number of Shots
Lithium-ion rechargeable battery,
4,300
Lithium-ion rechargeable battery,
Live View
n/a

The Nikon D3 uses a custom rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack for power, and comes with both a single battery and charger. The rated 4,300 shots per charge using the optical viewfinder is well above average for a pro SLR, (but keep in mind the D3 does not have a built-in flash, so that's one reason why the number is so high). Unfortunately, Nikon does not seem to publish battery life results for when Live View mode is used, but it's a safe bet that it's considerably shorter. (Again, we don't have specific measurements, but did notice that the battery seemed to use up its charge much more rapidly when we were shooting in Live View mode. - And the remaining-capacity indicator would often dip noticeably when we switched Live View mode.)

The table above shows the number of shots the camera is capable of on fully-charged battery, based on CIPA battery-life and/or manufacturer standard test conditions.

(Interested readers can find an English translation of the CIPA DC-002 standards document here. (180K PDF document))

Storage

The Nikon D3 stores its photos on CompactFlash memory cards (dual slots are provided), and no card is included with the camera. The chart below shows how many images can be stored on a 2GB card at each size/quality setting. Notes: JPEG compression set to Size Priority, C = compressed, LLC = lossless compressed. (Yes, 14-bit RAW files will be slightly larger, we didn't think it worthwhile to blow out the table size to accommodate those figures: They're pretty proportional to the difference between 12 and 14 bits.)

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
2GB Memory Card
Fine Normal Basic
12-bit
RAW
(C)
12-bit
RAW
(LLC)
12-bit
RAW
(LLC) + LF JPEG
TIFF
4,256 x 2,832
Images
(Avg size)
271
7.6 MB
543
3.8 MB
1,096
1.8 MB
134
15 MB
98
21 MB
89
23 MB
52
39 MB
Approx.
Comp.
5:1 9:1 19:1 1.2:1 0.9:1 0.8:1 0.9:1
3,184 x 2,120
Images
(Avg size)
483
4.2 MB
951
2.1 MB
1,836
1.1 MB
- - - -
Approx.
Comp.
5:1 9:1 18:1 - - - -
2,128 x 1,416
Images
(Avg size)
1,076
1.9 MB
2,084
983 KB
3,904
525 KB
- - - -
Approx.
Comp.
5:1 9:1 17:1 - - - -

We strongly recommend buying a large capacity CompactFlash. You should probably consider at least a 2GB card, if not a 4GB one, to give yourself extra space for extended outings, especially if you plan on doing a lot of RAW shooting. (Check the shopping link above, cards are cheap these days, so there's no reason to skimp -- But do consider faster cards for this camera, to reduce buffer clearing times.)

 

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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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