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Nikon D3X Review

by Shun Cheung, May 2009 (updated February 2011)


The D3X is Nikon’s third FX-format (24×36mm sensor area) digital SLR, following the earlier D3 and D700. While the D3 and D700 share essentially identical internal electronics, the D3X is housed by an identical camera body and external controls as the D3, but the X suffix indicates that internally, its sensor has a higher pixel count, in this case 24MP vs. 12 on the D3.

Since the D3X shares the same camera body, controls, AF system and literally a lot of capabilities with the D3, please reference photo.net’s D3 review on those common features. We’ll only highlight some important strengths and weaknesses here. This D3X review will focus on its differences from the D3, namely how doubling the number of pixels affects the final results and how it affects the low-light, high ISO capability.

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners offer the Nikon D3X, (compare prices), at reasonable prices and you help to support photo.net.

Controls

The D3X’s controls are very traditional AF and digital controls for Nikon SLRs with separate main and sub-command dials, multi-selection thumb pad on the back and three separate LCDs.

Back in the mid 1980’s, I used to claim that I could pick up any new model of Nikon film SLR and use it immediately without ever reading the manual. That claim did not stay true for very long before the auto-focus era arrived, and I had to read a lot about how AF worked. And when I bought my first digital SLR the D100 back in 2002, I found a steep learning curve for digital photography despite that I have graduate degrees in computer science. However, now having owned the D2X, D300 and D700 as well as tested the D3 extensively, I managed to pick up the very complex D3X and immediately start using it without ever removing the shrink-wrap on the owner’s manual. That simply tells you how consistent Nikon’s designs have been.

As far as control goes, the main difference between the D3/D3X and D700/D300 is that the latter use separate buttons to enlarge and reduce the image on the back LCD during review. The D3X continues to use the older convention to hold down a button and rotate the command dial to enlarge or reduce the image. When you switch from the D3/D3X to D700/D300, that one difference takes some adjustment each time.

Viewfinder

The D3X uses a 100% viewfinder that is identical to the D3’s. Based on my measurement by comparing what is visible via the viewfinder and the actual image captured, the D3X’s viewfinder leaves out a narrow strip around the edges of the frame so that it is showing approximately 98% of the actual image, but that is extremely close to the specified 100%. Live view, however, always shows all 100% of the image. Similar to the D3, the D3X provides a 5:4 mode and a DX crop mode. In those modes, the area outside the captured image is grayed out. Just like the D3, the scale that shows over and under exposure is a vertical scale on the right side of the viewfinder instead of across the bottom.

Live view is an option that debut with the D3 and D300 back in 2007 when Nikon DSLRs started having large, 3" back LCD screens. For landscape and macro photography, live view has become a highly useful tool for me. In the tripod mode, one can magnify the frame to concentrate on a small area so that it becomes very easy to manually fine tune focusing and verify depth of field. Since you are viewing the image straight from the sensor, it also eliminates any inaccuracy from the mirror and focusing screen.

Auto Focus

The D3X uses the same Multi-CAM 3500 AF module as the D3, D700, and D300. That AF module is optimized for sports and performs wonderfully for action photography. On the D3X’s FX sensor, it has the same drawbacks as on the D3 and D700, namely the 51 AF points are crowded in the center of the frame, which is a common problem for all DSLRs with a 24×36mm sensor from other brands as well. When you rotate the D3X to the portrait/vertical orientation, there are not enough AF points near the top part of the frame where the subject’s eyes typically are. In particular, there are no cross-type AF points in that area such that AF under indoor dim light can be difficult.

Resolution

You must have noticed that there are indeed a lot of similarities between the D3X and D3, but the main reason people pay the high cost for the D3X is to have 24M pixels, approximately twice as many as on the D3. To find out how 24MP differs from 12, I have carried out a variety of side-by-side A/B comparisons between the D3/D700 and D3X with several different lenses under different conditions, each time using the same lens at the same aperture on both bodies. In one test case I captured a flower macro and printed that to 8.5×11 inches, which is my personal standard print size. I used the 200mm/f4 AF-D macro lens that has a tripod collar mounted on a tripod and just swap camera bodies such that there are negligible differences between the two captures. In this case even the D700 image needed to be down-sampled a bit to fit 8.5×11 at 300 dpi, and I have a hard time telling the difference between the two prints.

In another case I captured a scene with some fine details with the 50mm/f1.4 AF-S lens at f8 on both cameras. I upsized both to 16×24 inch and cropped out a small 4×6-inch section with fine details (4×6 is 1/16 of the entire 16×24 print). I showed those 4×6 prints to some friends. While the difference is still somewhat subtle, upon careful inspection, they could see the clearer fine prints and additional details from the wood grain from the 24MP original. However, they were viewing those small 4×6 prints from the usual viewing distance, about 12 inches. Few would inspect 16×24 prints from such a close distance. From a more normal viewing distance for 16×24 prints, it is going to be hard to detect any difference from the two cameras.

Therefore, as most people would expect, if you have subjects with a lot of fine details and need to make very large prints, there is definitely an advantage to have 24MP. However, even 12MP is sufficient for a lot of applications, and it says a lot about how excellent a job Nikon has done on the D3 and D700. The tradeoff is that when you need to cramp 24MP onto 24×36mm, the photosites are smaller so that the quality of the pixels are not as great.

If you apply the DX crop on the D3X, you’ll have a 10.5MP DX image. Therefore, the pixel density for the D3X is slightly lower than that for the DX-format D2X and D300. However, the larger FX sensor area means it uses a much larger portion from the edge of the image circle and therefore the D3X is very demanding on the lenses. The 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR is well known to have very poor corner performance near 200mm on the FX format. Even the well respected 17-35mm/f2.8 AF-S and 14-24mm/f2.8 AF-S show some softness deep into the corners. To get the most out of the D3X, you really need to use a sturdy tripod, set the lens to a middle f/5.6, f/8 aperture and use a shutter release cable. (I prefer not to carry an extra cable or infrared remote, so for still subjects, I typically use the one-second exposure delay on the D3X to avoid any camera shake due to mirror slap.) Moreover, it is best to stay with either the base ISO 100 or at most 200 or 400. When you go to a higher ISO, especially under dim light, noise begins to creep in and the image becomes less crisp; it will totally negates the advantages from 24MP.

In other words, having 24MP on a still relatively small 24×36mm FX sensor begins to show the limitations for this sensor size and the lenses. To take full advantage of 24MP, you are restricted to the best lenses in their “sweet spot” apertures, low ISO and tripod usage. While it is possible to add even more pixels in the future, it will only become more difficult and restrictive to take full advantage of any additional pixels. Meanwhile, even 12MP images from the D3/D700 are fully capable for generating very large prints under most circumstances. 24MP or more is really intended for a selected few and is priced accordingly. For those who need even more resolution, medium-format digital will be the natural option but at an even higher cost.

Image File Sizes

These are approximate image file sizes straight from the D3X. The exact size for any compressed image highly depends on content. Subjects that have a lot of fine details and are sharp in focus will require bigger files to store the additional information. It’ll require some high-capacility compact flash memory cards to store those large image files.

14 bit RAW, uncompressed 51M
14 bit RAW, lossless compressed 32M
14 bit RAW, lossley compressed 28M
12 bit RAW, uncompressed 39M
12 bit RAW, lossless compressed 26M
12 bit RAW, lossley compressed 22M
JPEG fine 15M

Performance at High ISO

PLEASE NOTE: For a detailed crop of the image to the right comparing ISO, please click this link.

For a camera designed for studio and still subjects, we do not expect the D3X with its 24MP to have as excellent low-light, high-ISO results as the D3 and D700. Never the less, we compared the D3X, D700 and D300 under various dim-light conditions at ISO 800, 1600 (which is the highest rated ISO for the D3X) and 3200 (which is Hi 1 for the D3X). Somewhat surprisingly, the D3X compares quite well. It is merely about one stop behind the D3/D700; that is, high-ISO noise from the D3X at ISO 1600 is about the same as the D3 at ISO 3200. Compared to the D300, the D3X is actually slight better, perhaps by half a stop.

Flash

Similar to other top-of-the-line Nikon SLRs, the D3X does not have a built-in pop-up flash. It is Nikon i-TTL compatible with the Nikon SB-900, SB-800 (discontinued), SB-600 or SB-400 speedlights. For more information on Nikon i-TTL flashes, please see photo.net’s Nikon i-TTL Flash Guide.

Choosing a Lens

A lot of Nikon users own those constant f/2.8 zooms that cover from 14mm to 200mm:

  • 24-70mm/2.8 AF-S: This is a very convenient moderate wide to short tele zoom that provides very high image quality throughout its zoom range. It is on the heavy side but couples very well with the D3X. The only minor drawback is that it has very serious vignetting at 24mm, wide open at f/2.8, but that disappears by f/5.6.
  • 70-200mm/f2.8 AF-S VR: The 80-200mm/2.8 AF zoom has been a favorite since the late 1980’s. This current version extends a bit wider on the short end and the addition of vibration reduction is very helpful for hand held photography under dim light. A well known problem with it is that on the FX sensor, image quality in the extreme corners drops drastically around 200mm. I have tested two copies of the 70-200 on the D3X and they both have the same problem. It is not an issue for portraits, news, ans sports since one typically does not have the subject in the corners, but it can be a major issue for landscape photography.
  • 17-35mm/2.8 AF-S: A very popular 2x wide zoom that covers the entire traditional wide range and accepts 77mm front filters. This lens has been a favorite among Nikon users. However, on the D3X, once again there is some softness in the extreme corners on the 17mm end.
  • 14-24mm/2.8 AF-S: This is an extremely wide lens for the FX format. It has a bulging front element that is vulnerable and cannot accept any front filter. Nikon did an excellent job producing excellent image quality in the extreme wide range. I would only get this lens if you are into super wides. Otherwise, the 17-35mm/2.8 has a far more convenient zoom range. In the focal lengths the two overlap, the new 14-24mm/2.8 produces slightly better image quality. However, on the D3X, even this top-of-the-line shows some softness in the deep corners.

Other fixed-focal-length lenses and zoom lens:

  • 50mm/1.4 AF-S: This is the new standard lens from Nikon, now with AF-S. It has a plastic barrel and therefore is relatively light in weight; I think its build quality if fair but does not seem to be as strong as the f/2.8 zooms or the old AI-S 50mm. Optical quality is very good and is still sharp wide open at f/1.4. There is a bit of barrel distortion. I have tested in back-lit conditions with the sun in the frame, and this lens handles the difficult lighting very well with no serious flare or ghosting. Auto focus is indeed on the slow side as some other reviews point out; perhaps Nikon is trading off a bit of focusing speed in favor for accuracy.
  • 200-400mm/4 AF-S VR: While the D3X isn’t a sports DSLR, I did try some action photography with the 200-400. It provides high-quality corner-to-corner sharpness on the D3X.
  • 200mm/4 AF-D Macro: This macro has been a favorite since its introduction in the mid 1990’s. It continues to perform very well on the D3X. The built-in tripod collar makes it convenient to switch between the vertical and horizontal orientations.
    The live view mode on the D3X makes it very convenient to find turn the focus manually on a tripod.
  • 24mm/3.5 PC-E: This is an excellent lens for architecture and landscape photography. Among the wide-angle lenses discussed here, this one provides the best corner-to-corner sharpness for landscape on the D3X as one can adjust the plane of focus to suit the composition. This is an manual-focus lens and of course all the tilt-shift adjustments are slow to operate. Once again, the live view option on the D3X is very helpful for fine tuning focus and confirming depth of field. The 24mm PC-E comes with a shallow lens hood and one needs to be careful with stray light entering the lens as it can degrade the contrast.

Key D3X Features

  • 24MP, 6048×4032 on a 24×35.9mm CMOS sensor, Nikon FX format (essentially identical to the conventional 35mm-film frame but slightly different from the D3 and D700’s 23.9×36mm), with optional DX (24×16mm) and 5:4 (30×24mm) crops
  • 12-bit or 14-bit capture options
  • 5 fps capture, with 7 fps option in the DX crop mode with 12-bit capture. Frame rate drops to 1.8 fps in 14-bit capture mode
  • Multi-CAM 3500 FX AF module with 51 AF sensors, 15 of them cross type in the center 3 columns of 5.
  • Sensor sensitivity from ISO 100 to 1600 in 1/3-stop increments, with extended ranges from Low 1 (equivalent to ISO 50) to High 2 (ISO 6400).
  • Dual Compact Flash (CF) memory card storage, can be configured to(1) backup (each captured image file written onto both cards), (2) overflow from one card to another, or (3) raw on one and JPEG on the other.
  • USB 2.0 interface, HDMI high-definition video output (PAL/NTSC)
  • Active D-Lighting and in-Camera Retouch Options
  • AF fine tune
  • Live view option
  • Virtual horizon (built in electronic “bubble level”)

Compared to the D3 and Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

As we have already pointed out a few times, the D3 and D3X share the same excellent body and controls. The D3X has considerably higher resolution and is capable of providing more fine details on large prints. However, the D3 is capable of capturing 9 fps even at full 14-bit and has superior high-ISO results by about one stop. Naturally the two cameras are better for the type of subjects they are designed for respectively: studio and still subjects for the D3X and sports, news and wedding for the D3.

The closest competition for the D3X is Canon’s 1Ds Mark III which has 21MP and Canon’s highest build quality and AF system. Featurewise, the 1DsIII and D3X match up quite well and are, at least initially, priced similarly; the 1DsIII was also started at $8000 but since it has been on the market for well over a year, it has dropped a fair amount since. Between the two, the D3X has slightly more pixels but otherwise, the primary choice should be based on whether one already has Canon or Nikon lenses and accessories.

Conclusion

Following the tradition of the Nikon single-digit F series (film) and D series (digital) SLRs, the D3X is a wonderfully designed and manufactured camera. I am very accustomed to the large size of the Nikon F4, F5, D2X and D3, therefore I feel quite at home holding the D3X. At its based and lower ISOs from 100 to 400, the D3X produces clean, 24MP high-resolution images.

Due to its high pixel density and therefore smaller photosites, it is expected that the D3X’s high ISO results are not as wonderful as those from the D3 and D700. However, the D3X is merely about one stop behind the D3 and is actually slightly better than the D300. Nikon is rather conservative rating the highest ISO for the D3X at 1600, as it can still produce quite acceptable images there.

When you venture into high ISOs from 800 and up, there is visibly more noise and the pixels become less crisp. Essentially you lose the advantages from higher resolution. At those higher ISOs, either the D3 or D700 is clearly a better camera. Furthermore, when you venture into the extended High 1 and 2 range, image quality becomes unacceptable.

The biggest drawback for the D3X is probably the cost. When Nikon first announced it with a US $8000 price tag, it created quite an uproar although that is the same initial price as the Canon 1Ds (2002), 1Ds Mark II (2004) and 1Ds Mark III (2007).

Since this is Nikon’s top-of-the-line camera, it is natural that the D3X has the high build quality and fastest AF. However, those features are somewhat overengineered for a camera that is intended for studio and still-subject. For an ideal landscape camera, I prefer something smaller and lighter so that it is easier to hike with. Now that the new D5000 comes with a swivel screen, it would be ideal to incorporate that feature into a macro and landscape camera so that when the camera is placed at those odd positions and angles, it would still be easy to compose and fine tune with live view.

Having 24MP is very demanding on the optics and technique. To take full advantage of it, we need to:

  • Use high-quality lenses, set to an optimal middle aperture around f8 or so
  • Use a sturdy tripod
  • Use mirror lock up, a cable release, or exposure delay to minimize camera shake
  • Stay with the base ISO 100 or at least the low 200 and 400

To sum up, the D3X is a wonderful camera for those who need very high resolution from the FX format and can afford its price tag.

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners offer the Nikon D3X, (compare prices), at reasonable prices and you help to support photo.net.

More


Text ©2009 Shun Cheung. Photos ©2009 Shun Cheung.

Article revised February 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Alex Shapiro , June 21, 2009; 05:40 A.M.

Thanks a lot for the informative article. Could anyone with a first-hand experience add some info in D3X long exposure behavior (like 30 sec and up). Thanks.

Roberto Totaro , July 14, 2009; 03:48 A.M.

Shun, thanks for the review. Very interesting.

By now I have read several D3x reviews and I am getting the idea that for serious amateurs and more than a few professional photographers the D3 or D700 can be the better camera - even when not considering the D3x's price tag.

I am still using the D2x and while more than happy with 12MP (I can make quite crisp A3+ prints - 12.95" x 19") I find the noise level at anything above 400 ISO very disturbing.

Noise-free high ISO performance allows more creativity than 24MP, IMHO.

Roberto

Alfred Oglaend , March 13, 2010; 04:47 P.M.

Very informative, many thanks!

I loved my D3X from the first moment I bought it. It's actually my first digital camera. Before I used Hasselblad and Nikon F5 in combination. I feel that my new Nikon D3X does that hardware job alone, and better of course.

-alfred-


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