Along with the recently reviewed D300, Nikon also announce a new Flagship to their digital camera range, the D3. The announcement raised both eyebrows and sighs of relief, being Nikon's first venture into ‘full frame' digital photography. Ian Andrews takes a look to see what all the hype is about:
Nikon D3 specifications:
Sensor: CMOS - 12.8Mp
Image Size: 4,256 X 2,832 Pixels
Lens: Takes all Nikkor lenses
Metering: 3D Matrix/CW/Spot
Monitor: 3in LCD
Movie Mode: No
Storage: CF I/II
Batteries: Li-ion Battery EN-EL4a
AC Adaptor: Optional
Video Output: Yes
Size/Weight: 160x157x86mm - 1.07kg
Launched at £3399, the D3 pitches into the marketplace with its only genuine competitor being the Canon 1DmkIII at around £2600 although that is an APS-H sized sensor with a slightly lower pixel count.
Nikon D3 Modes and features
The surprise and relief comes from Nikon's move to what they term FX sensor size, which, to all intents and purposes is full frame. Surprise because it was only some 18 months ago that Nikon stated that they had no plans to go full frame in ‘the short to medium term' and relief because many people wanted them to go to the larger sensor. Another surprise is that, having gone full frame, Nikon have stuck with the 12 million-pixel count of the cameras predecessor, the D2Xs, although this decision has paid dividends in other areas.
Although the camera can be regarded as a fully professionally specified tool, it shares some important features with the D300 announced at the same time. These include the 51 point CAM3500 focusing system and the VGA resolution 3in screen. Both cameras support ‘Liveview' although the D3 takes things a step further by providing a histogram in the liveview mode.
The D3 inherits the EN-EL4/4a battery from the D2X/H/s of its predecessors along with similar ergonomics, which, although some minor adjustments have been made will, for example, still take the specialist mounting plates designed for the D2 series. Generally then, the camera adopts much of the shape and handling from the D2 series with just minor changes from those cameras control positions in order to accommodate the larger screen size and some function additions.
Support for twin CF cards is another new feature, with the ability to use the second slot for overflow, backup or to record the JPEG while the first slot records the RAW files.
The camera is able to use DX lenses in a programmable crop mode that can be turned off, allowed to select automatically or set manually. While you are in the menu, you also have the ability to select a 5:4 ratio crop should you wish. While the DX crop reduces the file size to around 5.1mp, it does, however, keep Nikon's heritage of being able to use virtually all previous lenses on its top end cameras. The crop modes show in the viewfinder as a superimposed darkened area.
The new autofocus module, CAM3500 is a 51point system with 15 cross point sensors that is capable of some impressive performances, especially in low light. The system is aided by the 1005 point metering system to add colour information into the bargain, making tracking even more accurate in the 3-D tracking mode, a replacement for closest subject priority.
AF point selection can be made from 11 or 51 points and tracking lock-on can be set to off or three different levels.
The main feature of the new camera though, is the ISO sensitivity settings. By keeping to the 12mp count it has allowed a considerably larger area for individual pixels and by optimising this area to allow maximum light to the sensor, Nikon have achieved previously unheard of signal to noise ratios. Settings range from Lo 1.0 (effectively ISO100) through from ISO200-6400 to Hi 2.0 (roughly ISO 25500 equivalent) and these settings are genuinely usable!
Files can be recorded in RAW, three grades of JPEG or a combination of the two and in Tiff format. You also have the choice, as with the D300, of recording the files in 14bit, increasing the dynamic range but slowing the write speeds somewhat.
Nikon have also included a virtual horizon tool, somewhat like the virtual horizon in an aircraft that, although a little gimmicky, could be useful to some.
The large circular viewfinder from the D2 series has been retained but the view through it has, as could be expected from a full frame camera, become a lot brighter and is a joy to use. It gives 100% coverage, both horizontally and vertically.
Nikon have also announce two new FX lenses, a 14-24mm and a 24-70mm to go with the camera.
Nikon D3 Build and Handling
As with any good Pro spec camera, and the D3 is a really good one, the build quality is a joy to behold. Everything about the camera shouts quality, with all of the controls being positive without feeling stiff. There are no compromises in this solid body and one or two of the niggles from the D2 series have been addressed. This includes the cover for the 10 pin remote socket and the PC sync socket, these getting the same new retained rubber covers fitted to the D300 rather than the easily lost screw-in type of the older models. The CF compartment door is larger and seems to be better constructed, hopefully alleviating the problem of the rubber covering coming adrift. All of the bells and whistles come easily to hand with fairly logical placement of the controls. The one disappointment, from this reviewers point of view, is that the two handed method of zooming in on an image has been retained rather than the single button method of the D80/D300, but many users will argue that thought and anyway, it is something you get used to.
Having said the camera is well built means that there is a weight consideration and, although it is solid the camera is not over heavy and is not too much of a burden to hold overhead with the liveview operating while in a crowd.
Nikon D3 Liveview
As with the D300, Liveview is new to the D3 and relatively new to the DSLR scene in general. Again, there are two modes, one for handholding and one for tripod mounting with slightly differing methods of focusing for each. Where it does differ from the D300 is in the ability to show a live histogram, achieved by pressing the ‘info' button whilst the screen is live. Otherwise the system is the same as that of the D300 and with the very good screen making light work of composition and focusing it is likely to see more use than many sceptics would have believed just a short time ago. It is a useful tool rather than just a novelty.
Nikon D3 Performance
This is the area where real advances have been made with this camera, both in mechanical terms as well as digital output.
The autofocus performance of the CAM3500 module is superb, being able to pick out individual faces in the lighting environment of a nightclub as well as tracking both high and low speed targets with ease. Add to that the ability to fine tune individual lenses and save their settings that are then automatically recognised when that lens is attached to the camera, along with the use of information from the 1005 pixel metering system to assist the AF module and you have a system that is unparalleled.
Frame rate can be set to three different levels by the control wheel, single shot, continuous low and continuous high. The second two can be further modified through the menu, CL between two and eight frames per second while the continuous high which by default is nine frames per second, can be set to 10 or 11 frames per second when using DX type lenses or DX crop mode with FX lenses. The camera is optimised to use UDMA enabled CF cards like the Lexar Professional 300x card I used in the test and can swallow 18 RAW frames at the 9fps before slowing. This number more than doubles once JPEG quality images are selected. The ability to record to the two card slots at the same time, using one for RAW and the other for JPEGs will, I am sure, help many professionals workflows no end.
The 440 odd page, all English manual, describes the plethora of ways to customise the workings of the camera including such things as voice recording, D-lighting, delay timer settings, direct printing and all of the usual parameter settings can be saved as custom settings. The supplied quick-guide on its own runs to 40 pages at a handy pocket size and does serve to cover the most used settings and get new users up and running quickly.
The most impressive thing about the D3 though, is the low-light, high ISO performance. Images are usable throughout the standard range and, depending on use, right up to the Hi 2.0 setting althou gh they do start to loose some definition at the very high end. This performance is dependent on getting the exposure right, as any pushing in post processing will show noise quite quickly, but with the available range there is no excuse for not getting it right. The camera also performs well in the AF department in dark conditions, more so than the D300, and this can only be down to the extra light being allowed inside the camera.
Out of the box the colour rendition, although totally configurable through the settings, is surprisingly accurate with just a slight warming of the reds and a similarly slight cooling of the blues and an overall slight increase in saturation. Nikon have been thoughtful enough to enable the transfer of shooting and colour parameters from the D2 series straight to the D3 by means of a CF card for those who wish to stay with what they know.
Nikon D3 Noise Test
I said that the D300 has improved dramatically over its predecessors, and it has. But the D3 is in another league completely and sets totally new standards for the phenomenon. This is the major by-product of keeping the pixel count at 12Mp while increasing the surface area of the sensor to what is effectively full frame (It is 0.1mm short of a full frame in the height).
The Lo1 (ISO100 equiv.) test.
The ISO200 test.
The ISO400 test.
The ISO800 test.
The ISO1600 test.
The ISO3200 test.
The ISO6400 test.
The Hi 2 (ISO12800 equiv.) test.
The Hi 3 (ISO25600 equiv.) test.
Nikon D3 Verdict
The D3 is an awesome piece of kit that has no doubt sent a lot of other camera manufacturers running back to their drawing boards.
The camera takes Nikon into a new era with the FX format and capabilities that will satisfy virtually all of the disciplines professional photographers need. The massive increase in processing speeds, achieving a similar increase in frame rates (+ 80%) over the D2X, eliminates the need for a second string (D2H) pro spec camera, along with the virtual elimination of the noise phenomenon undoubtedly puts the Nikon D3 on a winning formula.
Nikon D3 Plus points:
Excellent advanced autofocus system
Live view in two modes
Great Rear Screen
Rugged build quality
Exceptional High ISO performance
Great low light performance
Nikon D3 Minus points:
Loss of true ISO 100
Needs high speed cards to get the best from it ( 266x or better)
The Nikon D3 starts at £3399 body only in the ePHOTOzine shop. To get the body and 14-24mm f/2.8 lens that is also featured in this review costs £4399. Take a look at the D3 and lens kits here.
Test carried out by Ian Andrews www.wildaboutkent.co.uk