Nikon D3 Review
Guide price: £4,000 body only
Digital SLR Photography Test: April 2008
The Nikon D3 represents a giant leap forward for Nikon!
Nikon has always been a major force in the digital SLR market, but in the last year or so, it has seen its popularity increase and the gap between it and rival Canon shrink. The 12.1-megapixel D3 is its latest flagship model and the first to boast an FX-format sensor, which is the same size as a 35mm film frame. How good is it? Daniel Lezano finds out
Handling & ease of use:
Weighing in at over a kilo, there's little doubt that this model has been built with the pro in mind. It feels rock solid when you pick it up and, thanks to the promounced handgrip and battery grip along its base, it's comfortable to hold whether you're shooting in the landscape or portrait format. Build quality is superb – the chassis, exterior cover and mirror box of the D3 are constructed from magnesium-alloy and all the seams and buttons have been sealed to offer protection from moisture and dust.
The large body means that all the buttons and controls are oversized too, so they're easy to access and quick to use. Due to the specification on offer, there are a fair number to get used to, but they're neatly arranged and well marked. The layout follows a similar set-up to previous pro-models so those looking to move up from a D2-series SLR won't have any issues. One difference these users will notice though is the size and clarity of the LCD monitor screen. While the increase from 2.5in to 3.5in isn't major, the brightness and sharpness of the screen is far better, thanks to its 920,000 dot display.
The viewfinder is excellent too, providing a large, bright and sharp image with a 100% coverage. The screen displays a frame line around the wide focusing area, with red LEDs indicating the activated AF points. Exposure information is displayed in green along the base, with an exposure scale running down the right side. There's very little to criticise about the handling of the D3 but one thing that I noticed with this model, more than others I've used, is how easy it is to accidentally fire the supplementary shutter button on the base when walking with the camera dangling over the shoulder. Fortunately, there is a Lock switch to deactivate it. Apart from that though, I've nothing but praise for the D3 – it's a beautifully crafted and ruggedly-made camera.
As you'd expect, the D3 is packed with features, but it also boasts a fair number of innovations, too. Its 12.1-megapixel sensor is the first FX-format CMOS from Nikon, boasting an image area the same size as a 35mm film frame, with the facility to switch to two other formats (5:4 and DX-format), the latter format meaning that Nikon owners upgrading from models using the smaller DX (APS-C-sized sensor) can use their DX lenses on the D3, albeit with a maximum resolution limited to 5.14-megapixels.
The D3's autofocus system is a major step forward, boasting 51 AF points that covers a very wide central area of the frame. Within this array are 15 cross-type sensors that provide enhanced AF accuracy, in particular in low-contrast situations or when tracking moving subjects. There are no shortages in the metering system, with the D3 offering every option from 3D Color Matrix II, which uses 1005-pixels to assess the exposure, through to spot (1.5% area) and centre-weighted average metering. The D3 also boasts a feature called the Scene Recognition System, which uses the information received by the 1005-pixel RGB sensor from the White Balance and exposure systems to aid with autofocus.
What's particularly impressive about the D3 is that despite the very high resolution, it's able to offer a maximum frame advance of nine frames-per-second in FX-format and up to 11fps in DX-format. This speed is possible due to the processing power of the EXPEED image processor, which uses 14-bit analog-to-digital (A/D) conversion to deliver 16-bit images.
There is no shortage of information on display on the D3, with an LCD panel on the top-plate and beneath the main LCD monitor on the rear of the camera. The on-screen menu on the 3in screen is extremely comprehensive but easy to navigate and allows for advanced options such as a Virtual Horizon (much like an electronic spirit-level) and a Voice Memo, for recording audio comments with an image. Other features include Active D-Lighting, a system aimed at improving highlight and shadow detail, Custom Functions and LiveView with autofocus. The D3 is packed with every feature pros could need, and a few extras, too.
Nikon really has delivered something very special in the D3. It's a lovely camera to use – one of those that has you looking for excuses of what to shoot because you just don't want to put it down. It's an easy camera to get around and despite its size and weight, handles nicely.
While 3in screens are becoming the norm on high-end DSLRs, it's worth reiterating how good the D3's is. It's very sharp and bright and even in bright light, it's usable. So once you've taken some shots, you've got the extra satisfaction of reviewing images on a screen that allows you to check colours and image sharpness better than any other. The camera is incredibly quick to use. As well as the fast start-up time, the autofocus system works brilliantly and is fast and responsive at locking on to a subject, as well as tracking it if it's moving. Press the shutter button fully and it rattles through the frames at a blistering rate – shooting several sequences of Raw + Large JPEGs, I was impressed at how many frames I could manage before the buffer slowed down. Image quality is excellent. Despite offering a similar number of megapixels to consumer models, the larger sensor and the use of lenses like Nikon's new 14-24mm and the classic 85mm f/1.4 delivers images with bite and clarity. As well as image sharpness, colour reproduction and noise (see Sensor Sensitivity panel) is excellent too. Skin tones are smooth and natural while general scenes are realistic but with a very slight punch that lifts the scene on dull days. The Matrix meter proves near-faultless, handling almost all lighting situations, including some backlit scenes, with ease. The mix of speed, FX sensor and resolution makes it tempting, but throw in its handling and general performance and you've a DSLR that may prove irresistible to many pros.
The D3 (and the D300) offers more AF points than any other DSLR. It's controlled by the Multi-CAM 3500FX, which has been designed to deliver Nikon's fastest and most responsive autofocus yet.
DUAL CF SLOTS
With two CompactFlash slots, the D3 means you should never be short of memory. With the recent release of 32Gb cards, you could literally be loaded with 64Gb!
The D3 is the first to feature an FX-format sensor, which is essentially the same size as a 35mm film frame at 36x23.9mm. It offers a maximum resolution of 12.1-megapixels and a nominal sensitivity range of ISO 200-6400, which can be increased to give the equivalent of an astonishing ISO 100-25,600!
The While the D3 boasts an FX-format sensor, it's worth noting that DX-series lenses (ie those designed for use with Nikon digital SLRs and not its film SLRs) can also be used with the D3. When fitted with a DX-lens, the camera automatically converts to using the central 24x16mm area of the sensor, giving images with a resolution of 5.14-megapixels. It can also be set to a third option, the 5:4 format, which shoots at 10.06-megapixels.
The D3 kit includes the following: D3 body with Body Cap (BF-1A); Li-on battery (EN-EL4);Quick Charger (MH-22); USB cable; Audio Video Cable EG-D2; Camera Strap (AN-D3); Accessory Shoe Cap (BS-2); Eyepiece (DK-17); Battery Chamber Cover (BL-4); USB cable Clip; Software Suite CD-ROM
The Nikon D3 takes sensor sensitivity to the next level. Its nominal range is ISO 200-6400, but can be set as low as ISO 100 or as fast as 25,6000. Our tests gave acceptable results even at ISO 6400! The Auto function is excellent too, as the camera adjusts the ISO to suit changing lighting conditions
3IN LCD MONITOR
The 920,000 dot LCD monitor provides a very sharp display, useful when magnifying an image to check focus. It also boasts a wide viewing angle of 170º.
The Nikon D3 represents a giant leap forward for Nikon and in some respects, pro DSLRs in general. Its 'full-frame' FX-format sensor has been eagerly awaited by Nikon DSLR users, who will be mightily relieved and excited to find that the camera built around it is most likely better than their wildest expectations. From its handling through to its features and the quality of the images it produces, it's hard to knock the D3. Sure, its resolution falls way short of the 21.1-megapixel Canon EOS-1DS MkIII, but at nearly half the asking price, it's more in competition with the EOS-1D MkIII, which has been troubled by persistent rumblings about AF reliability. Offering a higher resolution, similar frame rate and the FX-sensor, the D3 proves to be a better camera than the similarly-priced Canon.
Handling & ease of use: 23/25
Value for money: 23/25
FINAL SCORE: 93/100
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