Nikon D3X Review

 
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Nikon D3X Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Fairly accurate and pleasing color with minor oversaturation of strong reds, blues and greens.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Nikon D3X pushes reds, blues and some oranges and greens just a little, while undersaturating some cyans and purples very slightly, but overall, saturation is very good. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life. Pro-oriented models like the D3x tend to have more accurate saturation levels.

Skin tones. Here, the Nikon D3X also did quite well, producing natural-looking skin tones, though just slightly on the pink side. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Nikon D3X showed a few small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, but had very good accuracy overall. Most noticeable was a slight shift in reds toward orange, with some very minor shifts in greens, blues and cyans as well. Hue is "what color" the color is.

Saturation Adjustment
The Nikon D3X has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a very wide range of saturation levels, about as wide a range as you're likely to find photographically relevant, apart from special effects that are arguably better achieved in software. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer. Nice. (It's also nice that color saturation has little effect on greyscale contrast, something that's not always the case.)

Saturation Adjustment Examples
Click to see D3XOUTBSAT1.JPG Click to see D3XOUTBSAT4.JPG Click to see D3XOUTBSAT7.JPG
-3 0 +3

The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm results with Auto and Incandescent white balance settings, though excellent color with the 2,600 Kelvin and Manual. Slightly higher than average positive exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance
+0.7 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.7 EV
Manual White Balance
+0.7 EV
2,600 Kelvin
+0.7 EV

Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was very warm with the Auto white balance setting; we really expect better from an SLR selling at this price point. (But, quite honestly, very seldom see it.) The Incandescent setting was a bit better, but still on the warm side. (Like other Nikon models, the D3X's Incandescent setting appears to be color-balanced for professional studio lighting, rather than the warmer household incandescent lights most US consumers have in their homes. This is normal for a professional SLR. You can use the D3X's excellent manual adjustment capabilities to tweak the incandescent setting to better match whatever lighting you're personally faced with.) The Manual setting produced the most accurate results, though the 2,600 Kelvin setting wasn't far off the mark either. Both seemed just a touch on the cool side to our eyes, but here again, the D3x gives you ample ability to fine-tune its white balance however you like. The Nikon D3X required slightly more than average positive exposure compensation here, at +0.7 EV. (Most cameras required about +0.3 EV compensation for this shot.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

 

Outdoors, daylight
Good color overall, though a tendency toward a warm cast and slightly high contrast under harsh lighting. Slightly higher than average exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance,
+1.0 EV
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

Outdoors, the Nikon D3X tended toward a warmer color balance, though overall color was generally quite good. The D3X required +1.0 EV exposure compensation to keep the model's face from being too dim in the "Sunlit" portrait shot on the left. This is slightly more positive compensation we're accustomed to seeing among digital cameras for this shot. The D3X's default contrast is a little high, producing some washed-out highlights in the model's shirt and flowers, as well as some deep shadows below the bouquet, but the D3X does better than the majority of cameras in this regard. The far-field shot of the house came out just about right, with very few clipped highlights and lost shadows at the D3X's default exposure setting. An excellent performance here. The D3X's contrast and Active D-Lighting settings do help tame the highlights quite a bit, see below for examples of this.

(And yes, we do know that pros would expose these shots differently, exposing to hold detail in the highlights, and then adjusting the tone curve on the computer to bring the rest of the image into balance. We shot these examples the way we did, in order to be consistent with the rest of our camera tests, including tests of consumer models. Consumers generally expose for the midtones, and let highlights and shadows fall where they may. You can check the Nikon D3x thumbnails index to see how the Indoor Portrait test looks with a range of exposure compensation settings.)

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
Very high resolution, about 2,800 to 2,900 lines of strong detail from in-camera JPEG, about the same from RAW files.

Strong detail to
~2,900 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,800 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,900 lines horizontal
ACR processed NEF
Strong detail to
~2,800 lines vertical
ACR processed NEF

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,900 lines per picture height horizontally, and about 2,800 lines in the vertical direction. Extinction didn't occur until past 3,600(!) lines.We weren't able to extract much more resolution by processing the D3X's NEF using Adobe Camera Raw, though there were fewer artifacts than the JPEGs near the resolution limits. (The D3x's default sharpening for JPEGs is really a bit too high, leaves halos around high-contrast objects. Shoot with the in-camera sharpening set to 0 or 1 to avoid these.) Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images overall, but some edge-enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects. Exquisite detail with only minor noise suppression visible in the shadows.

Excellent definition of high-contrast
elements. Few visible sharpening
artifacts in this shot, but other subjects
show more.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Detail is still strong in the darker
parts of the model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D3X captures sharp images overall, but some of our shots showed quite a few halos around high-contrast edges. The standard shot above left doesn't show these too much, but the our studio targets did much more so. (You'll really see these artifacts in subjects including bold, printed text.) This is class-leading performance, and may in part be due to the unique low-pass filter Nikon designed for the D3X's sensor. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows really impressive detail with only minor noise suppression artifacts in the darkest areas of the model's hair. The camera's overall response here is much better than average. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D3X produces sharp in-camera JPEGs using a good prime lens (in this case, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, stopped down). As is almost always the case, even more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files than can be seen in the in-camera JPEGs. Take a look below, to see what we mean:

In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking a link will load the full resolution file. Examples include in-camera Fine JPEG, RAW file processed through View NX using default settings, and RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw (5.3 beta), then sharpened in Photoshop, using USM at 300%, radius=0.3 pixel. As you can see, View NX offers a tiny bit more detail than the in-camera JPEG, while the ACR conversion delivers much more, with much less coarsening of the finest elements due to the sharpening operator.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise except at the highest sensitivity settings, really excellent preservation of subtle detail relative to ISO level.

Default High ISO Noise Reduction
ISO 50 ISO 100 ISO 200
ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
ISO 3200 ISO 6400

The Nikon D3X produced low image noise overall. Images are quite clean from ISO 50 all the way through 400. We start to see the beginnings of a very fine, tight "grain" pattern at ISO 800, and the image softens just slightly, but detail is still excellent, with very little chroma noise. The grain is slightly more evident at ISO 1,600, and the image softens a bit more, but detail continues to remain strong. At ISO 3,200, detail loss becomes more noticeable as noise reduction blurs subtly contrasting detail, however results are still very good. At ISO 6,400, noise grain is coarser and blurring stronger, resulting in a noticeable drop in detail. There's also some chroma noise in the shadows and mid-tones, but less than you'd expect at this sensitivity, especially at such a high pixel count.

A really excellent performance overall, especially for a camera with a 25-megapixel sensor. (Consider the extreme extent to which we're pixel-peeping here: Most computer monitors have something less than 100 pixels/inch. Printed at 100 pixels/inch, a D3x image would be over 60 inches wide. Given that, the noise levels and "loss of sharpness" we see in its images at ISO 6,400 is really pretty minimal, relative to any reasonable sizes its images might be printed at.)

As always, see the Print Quality section below, to see how we think this noise performance translates into practical print sizes at each ISO setting.

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Very high resolution with strong overall detail, slightly high default contrast. Excellent low-light performance, great exposures to the lowest limits of our test, and the autofocus worked that low as well, even without an AF-assist light.

+0.7 EV +1.0 EV +1.3 EV

Sunlight. The Nikon D3X produced slightly high contrast with some washed-out highlights and deep shadows under the deliberately harsh lighting of the test above. However, highlight and shadow detail were both pretty good. The model's face was a little dim at the +0.7 EV setting, so we preferred the image with +1.0 EV of exposure compensation, which resulting in some blown highlights in the shirt and flowers, but not to the extent we're used to seeing. The shot at +0.7EV almost perfectly preserved detail in the shirt; the only significantly blown out detail is in the red channel in the orange flower, and to a lesser extent in the red flower itself. At the other end of the tonal scale, there's good detail present pretty far into the shadows, although the very darkest shadow areas become plugged and posterized. That's nit picking though, you have to go really far into the shadows to see those problems. (In real life, of course, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

Contrast Adjustment
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. As was the case with its saturation adjustment, the Nikon D3X's contrast setting meets both challenges very well.

Minimum Contrast
Contrast set to lowest,
+1.0 EV
Contrast set to lowest,
Auto Exposure

At its lowest contrast setting, the Nikon D3X did a good job of preserving highlight detail, while maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The camera still lost highlight detail in the model's shirt and flowers, though shadow detail improved greatly, with significantly less posterization and plugging. In retrospect, it would have been better if we shot the contrast series at +0.7 EV, as that would have preserved a good bit more highlight detail. The D3X captured very good color outdoors, though again, just slightly on the warm side. Overall, good results here.

Contrast Adjustment Examples
Click to see D3XOUTBCON1.JPG Click to see D3XOUTBCON4.JPG Click to see D3XOUTBCON7.JPG
-3 0 +3

The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme contrast settings. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image. The Nikon D3X's contrast adjustment worked well, with very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled adjustments, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. As usual, Nikon did a good job here, and the fine-grained contrast steps make it easy to select just the amount of contrast you want.


Active D-Lighting
Off (default)
Low
Normal
Highlight Retention
Shadow Detail
Shadow Detail, Brightened (significantly) in Photoshop
(Levels control, highlight slider down to 50)
High
Extra High
Highlight Retention
Shadow Detail
Shadow Detail, Brightened (significantly) in Photoshop
(Levels control, highlight slider down to 50)

Nikon's Active D-Lighting
The five shots above show the results with Active D-Lighting at "Off ", "Low", "Normal", "High" and "Extra High", the full range of settings. As you can see from the crops, fewer highlights in the shirt (and flowers are clipped) as the setting is increased, although a minor price is paid in the very deepest shadows, in the form of increased noise and some posterization. (There's no free lunch: If the camera is devoting more of its available dynamic range to rendering highlights, there's less left to handle the shadows.) Note that these are very deep shadows that we're looking at above. Lighter shadows show very little noise increase, at least that was visible to our eyes with this test subject.

This sort of tonal-range adjustment is very tricky to do and have the results come out natural-looking. Nikon's been refining their D-Lighting algorithms for several years now, and the results show it: Even the "Extra High" setting above produces a very natural-looking image.

More Active D-Lighting Examples
Far Field
Off Low Normal
High Extra High
Still Life
Off Low Normal
High Extra High

The D3X's Active D-Lighting can result in undesired results when applied to subjects with a more normal tonal range. The white trim in the house shot has a bluish tint to it at higher settings, and the Still Life shots look a tad overexposed and somewhat flat at the higher settings.

Images with normal contrast will tend to look flat when dynamic-range extension technology is applied to them, simply because the range of available subject tones is being compressed into a smaller percentage of the available output tonal range. - So use Active D-Lighting judiciously, it's not a "universal enhancifier" for your images. Use it on high-contrast subjects, leave it off for subjects having more normal tonal ranges.




  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
50
Click to see D3XLL00503.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
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20 sec
f2.8
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25 sec
f2.8
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30 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL00507XNR.JPG
30 sec
f2.8
ISO
100
Click to see D3XLL01003.JPG
2.5 sec
f2.8
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5 sec
f2.8
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10 sec
f2.8
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13 sec
f2.8
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30 sec
f2.8
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30 sec
f2.8
ISO
200
Click to see D3XLL02003.JPG
1.3 sec
f2.8
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2.5 sec
f2.8
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5 sec
f2.8
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6 sec
f2.8
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15 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL02007XNR.JPG
15 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
Click to see D3XLL04003.JPG
0.6 sec
f2.8
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1.3 sec
f2.8
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2.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL04006.JPG
3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL04007.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL04007XNR.JPG
8 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
Click to see D3XLL08003.JPG
0.3 sec
f2.8
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0.6 sec
f2.8
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1.3 sec
f2.8
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1.6 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL08007XNR.JPG
4 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see D3XLL16003.JPG
1/6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL16004.JPG
0.3 sec
f2.8
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0.6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL16006.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL16007.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL16007XNR.JPG
2 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
Click to see D3XLL32003.JPG
1/13 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL32004.JPG
1/6 sec
f2.8
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0.3 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL32006.JPG
0.4 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL32007.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL32007XNR.JPG
1 sec
f2.8
ISO
6400
Click to see D3XLL64003.JPG
1/25 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL64004.JPG
1/13 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL64005.JPG
1/6 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL64006.JPG
1/5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL64007.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8
Click to see D3XLL64007XNR.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Nikon D3X performed very well on the low-light test, capturing usable images at the lowest light level (1/16 foot-candle), even with the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 50). Noise naturally increases as ISO goes up and light levels go down, but remains remarkably low up to ISO 1,600. At ISO 3,200, noise is more noticeable but still a good bit better than average. At ISO 6,400, noise is moderate but no "hot" pixels appear, and there is only a slight hint of some vertical banding. (Really a pretty exceptional performance, given the high pixel count and very low light level.) Color balance had a bluish-magenta cast to it with the Auto white balance setting, but remained fairly consistent up to the highest ISOs. The rightmost column in the series above shows the results with the D3X's long-exposure NR turned off.

The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject at less than the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted (and that's a good thing, as the D3X does not have a built-in AF assist lamp). Also (as always), keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here absolutely demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D3X do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Exceptional print quality, good color, sharp prints up to 30x40 inches from camera JPEGs. High-ISO shots are surprisingly clean, ISO 6,400 is surprisingly clean at 16x20, with just a little noise in the shadows and some loss of subtle subject detail.

Looks amazing at 30x40 from ISO 50 to 400.

Shows minor softening at ISO 800, with some noise in the shadows at 30x40.

ISO 1,600 shows more luminance noise and some loss of detail 30x40, but looks a lot better at 24x36.

ISO 3,200 shots are rough, but usable at 24x36, but return to quite good at 16x20 inches.

ISO 6,400 images show a noticeable boost in saturation, and there's minor luminance noise in the shadows, but detail is still quite good at 16x20.

Printed output from the Nikon D3x was simply extraordinary: Looking at in-camera JPEGs, the D3x clearly edged out its primary full-frame competitors (the Canon EOS-5D MarkII and Sony A900) in the detail department, and we felt that its noise character at high ISOs was also slightly better than the 5DmkII and significantly better than the A900. (That last is very much a subjective judgement; your preferences in noise behavior might lead you to side with the 5D Mark II, but there's no question that files from the D3x make exceptionally high quality prints.)

Working from RAW files, the detail contest was closer, but the D3x still edged out both competitors mentioned above, if only by a small amount.

We found that the D3x's default sharpening setting for JPEGs led to some over-sharpening of the output, which also obscured the very finest detail. Shooting at its lowest sharpness setting and then sharpening after the fact in Photoshop or other imaging program produces better results. For the ultimate, it's definitely worth your while to work from its NEF-format RAW files. Working in Adobe Camera Raw (our default RAW converter, due to its wide availability and very broad support for different camera models) revealed significantly more fine detail than we found in the D3x's JPEGs, regardless of the in-camera sharpening used. That said, the D3x's default sharpening setting produced JPEGs that looked quite sharp straight from the camera, and print sizes as large as 30x40 inches would be usable for wall display.

At higher ISOs, the D3x's images held together remarkably well. At ISO 6,400, 16x20 inches is probably about as large as most users would want to go, as the noise in shadow areas began to be noticeable at that size, and detail was lost in areas of subtle contrast. This is really excellent performance from a camera with this much resolution: At very high ISOs like this, the Sony A900 ceases to be serious competition to the other cameras, but the Canon 5D Mark II still gives it a good run for the money. We liked the noise pattern from the D3x somewhat more than that from the 5D Mark II, because the former was a bit tighter-grained, and the D3x preserves slightly more subtle detail at its normal noise reduction setting. With both cameras' NR options set to Low, the noise increases in both their images, but the spread between the two increases, the D3x's noise being less obtrusive, while it also does a very noticeably better job preserving subtle detail.

In terms of color, while the D3x's color accuracy wasn't quite as high as that of the Canon 5D Mark II, it was still very accurate. Amateur shooters moving up from consumer-level SLRs may find the D3X's highly accurate color a little dull compared to what they've become accustomed to on their lower-end cameras: Most consumer cameras pump up saturation to make brighter, punchier photos that consumers tend to prefer, so the D3x's more accurate color may seem dull by comparison. (Except for the reds and blues, both of which are still a little hot.) The D3x's color saturation adjustment offers fine-grained adjustments over a nice range of control, though, so you can tweak the D3X's color to exactly match your personal preferences.

Finally, as we've been pointing out lately, remember that we're holding digital SLRs like the Nikon D3X to a somewhat higher standard with these printed results than we do point-and-shoot digital cameras: As glowing as our remarks above are about the D3X, we're actually judging it more harshly than we would a consumer camera that competes with other cameras in the $150-300 price range.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 review for details on that model.)

 

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