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Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review

John Gravett of Lakeland Photographic Holidays takes the Nikon D3x out in the Lake District and puts it to the test.

| Nikon D3x in Digital Cameras
Words and images by John Gravett of Lakeland Photographic Holidays.

Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: Nikon D3X

After using this camera for only half an hour I decided that I hate this camera! The reason, quite simply is that I can't afford one and I'll have to give this one back – God, it's sharp.

OK – so let's look at the D3x sensibly, at £4,800 it would be a big investment for anyone – but is it really worth the money and is it really that good?

Nikon D3x: Overview

At first glance, it's a typical D3 series – with its heritage and ergonomic design stemming back to the 1995 Nikon F5. Built – like all professional Nikon's – like a tank. As a D700 user, I didn't need to refer to the 450-page instruction manual to get going. One thing Nikon are good at is keeping function buttons in similar locations across their different models, although there were a few buttons on the D3x that had more in common with the old D200 than the newer D700, showing that it stems from the D3, a design now a few years old. Zooming in to review photos is a two-function operation on the D3x, press the zoom button, and rotate the thumb wheel to zoom, whereas on the D300S and D700, a single button zooms into the image.

The menus are pretty standard Nikon and will present few problems for anyone remotely familiar with the standard, although being a professional level camera, designed with a bias towards studio use – wireless connectivity was a new one for me!

Nikon D3x: Build
Picking the camera up it feels solid and well balanced – especially when teamed up with any of the f2.8 lenses – it will balance beautifully with the 14 – 24, the 24 – 70 and the 70 – 200mm zooms. Despite the fact that I have small hands, it fit my hands really well, with all buttons and dials falling into place. With the integral vertical grip, in portrait format, the shutter release and thumb and finger-wheels were again just right. Despite all this great ergonomic design, for me, it's almost irrelevant as 99% of the time, my camera is attached firmly to a tripod and a cabled remote.

The other thing you can't fail to notice when you pick up the D3x is it's weight. At 1348g including battery, its noticeably heavier than a D700 at 1103g and that extra weight has a bearing on other factors. By the end of the day, carrying the D3x on the head of my tripod for a few hours, my right arm muscles felt like they had done a good workout. More importantly, the extra weight in the body might mean you need to look at, and potentially upgrade your tripod / head combination, to ensure that it will hold it rock steady.

Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: Above Slaters Bridge
Taken with the Nikon D3x.

Nikon D3x: Performance
The D3x, as a full frame, 24.4 MP camera is certainly more than adept at recording fine data, in fact, it is stunningly sharp. So much so, that it really tests your own technique and lenses. This camera is capable of recording such high detail that if your technique is lacking in the slightest – it will show in the final result. To really get the best out of the D3x, I found myself using mirror lock-up on a very sturdy tripod, ( I genuinely could see the difference between using mirror lock against single shot) and restricting myself to my crispest lenses. Anything short of that – I really could see the difference, and if you're happy to settle for anything less than perfection, you don't need this camera. I carried out all my tests on a Gitzo three section systematic tripod with a Manfrotto 405 (large) geared head.

In fact, its acutance is so high, I found wide angle lenses at f/11 or smaller, would show distinct signs of diffraction when compared to wider apertures, so there is a strong argument for landscape situations when needing extensive depth of field, to consider a tilt-shift lens, to alter the plane of focus, without resorting to small apertures.

Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: Crummock

Two compact flash shots allow a variety of options – they can be set to both work together recording a side-by-side back up on the spare card. If you shoot jpegs alongside your RAW files, they can be set to record the different files on different cards. I found myself using them simply as a second drive – to take over when the first drive is full. Something which happened all too often. I know if I used this camera all the time I would have to keep extending my hard disk space even more frequently than I already do – as an 8Gb CF card only holds 150 images.

The Raw files can be set at 12-bit or 14-bit, the greater bit-depth offering many more tones per channel, but at 14-bit, the firing rate is somewhat compromised, dropping from 5fps (12-bit) to a fairly unimpressive 1.8fps. Compared to the 9fps in the D3. Now, as a landscape photographer, 1.8fps isn't really an issue – but I also enjoy nature photography, and birds in flight, as an example, can call for far higher firing rates than the D3x can offer, simply to catch the wings in different positions.

Nikon have been very good in recent years in providing sensible in-camera options, from the D100 through to the D700, an on-demand viewfinder grid can aid with composition, but provides a great on-screen grid for horizontal and vertical lines. This is a facility I always leave switched on in my camera – often a photo lined up perfectly level doesn't always “look” right – the far shore of a lake appearing at an angle for instance. The grid helps you make choices. On the D3 series, this is omitted, and a grid is only available by changing the screen in the camera – not a huge task, but an inconvenience nevertheless. The inclusion of a virtual horizon – as on the D300S and D700, at leasts aids with precise levelling in both landscape and portrait formats.

Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: Rannerdale

The lack of a sensor cleaning facility was the only other serious omission in my view, and despite great care taken when changing lenses – remembering to turn the camera off and point it down when lens changing – I still found myself cleaning the sensor almost on a daily basis.

Nikon D3x: Grain/Noise
We all know that the key to low noise at high ISOs is not squeezing too many pixels onto the biggest sensor possible – this is why the 12.1 Mp Nikon D3s and D700 have such an enviable low noise reputation – but could Nikon achieve a similar performance with twice the number of pixels. The answer is no, but that's simply not the point of the D3x. Granted, its noise is fine up to ISO800, and even at ISO1600 it's pretty good, but on a side by side test with the D700, the latter always has the edge.
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: Noise test area
Whole shot showing the area used for the noise test.

Nikon D3x Nikon D700
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D3X ISO200
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D700 ISO200
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D3X ISO400
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D700 ISO400
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D3X ISO800
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D700 ISO800
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D3X ISO1600
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D700 ISO1600
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D3X ISO3200
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D700 ISO3200
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D3X ISO6400
Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: D700 ISO6400

Nikon D3x: Who needs it?
So, who's going to need a D3x? Simply to look at print sizes. A D700 file, printed at 240 pixels per inch (ppi) will enable a print of 45 x 30cm (18 x 12 in), the D3x at the same ppi allows 64 x 42cm (25 x 17 in). So you need to print big – an A3+ printer simply won't show the difference, you need to be regularly printing A2 prints to need this kind of resolution. If you print big, this is probably the perfect camera. If not, do you need to spend that much money? If I was to print only the occasional A2 print, I could either interpolate the image to a larger size using software such as Genuine Fractals 6 or drop the D700 ppi to 170, and although this won't give as crisp an image, from sensible viewing distances – will it make that much difference.

Nikon D3x Digital SLR Review: Cathedral quarry
Cathedral Quarry.

Nikon D3x: Verdict
There is no doubting, this is a truly wonderful camera, and yes, I want one. But can it truly be worth £1800 more than a D3 (Or, for that matter, £3000 more than a D700). The answer is clearly no – The main difference from the D3 at £2900, is the inclusion of a 24.4MP sensor. Little else, even processing speed has hardly changed as the firing rates show, so they're charging £1800 extra for a different sensor!

But, if pure economics governed every choice, life would be so dull. So simply, do I like this camera? – YES. Do I want this camera? - YES. Will I buy this camera? - no, not yet; and probably only because of its price, and because in this world of constant and rapid change with digital photography, because in only 2 years, it will be replaced by something as good that I hopefully will be able to afford.

Someone once said to me, the best time to buy a computer will always be next month. Although digital photography has not become quite that bad, the same principles apply – there's always the temptation to put off purchases. I recommend this as an ideal landscape camera, but unless you already own them, budget another £6000 or so for the right glass as well.

The Nikon D3x costs around £4797.99 and is available from Park Cameras here:

Nikon D3x

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Photographs taken using the Nikon D3x


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davey_griffo Avatar
davey_griffo 14 213 165 England
4 May 2010 10:33AM
That's an insane price difference. For the same £1800.00 you can buy a whole Sony a850, or a900 if you go to the right dealer, both of which have the same sensor (Nikon buys these sensors from Sony). Clearly then, the sensor isn't worth £1800.00, & Nikon are ripping their users off.
JohnJessup Avatar
10 Jun 2010 6:37PM
John Jessup

Two points:

1). Printing big is one point. But you've gotta own one to be continually knocked out by the extent to which you can zoom almost endlessly into an image, only losing resolution at impossible depths.

2).It can also be argued, in hindsight, looking at Canon top end full frame DSLR pricing that Nikon pitched the D3 price too low.

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