There’s no denying that the Nikon D3 is a lot of camera, sporting a host of advanced features befitting a camera pitched at the top level of professional shooting - it even comes equipped with Live View. And before you ask, yes, it can auto-focus using all of the 51-AF zones available in Live View too.
The new CMOS sensor provides a seemingly modest 12.1-megapixel resolution looking a little out of sorts particularly when compared to, say, Canon’s 21-megapixel EOS 1Ds Mk III, with which the D3 will undoubtedly compete, although, it must be remembered the Canon is almost double the price! On the upside it means the pixel pitch will be better than the Canon (that’s bigger pixels to you and me) and means an excellent signal to noise ratio, so noise is all but non-existent.
Image processing is controlled by Nikon’s EXPEED image engine and as with the recently tested D300, it works very well indeed, allowing the camera’s amazing ISO range of 100 to 25,600 to become a realistic but crucially, a usable, proposition.
True, to get the ISO 100 and to ISOs above 6400, you have to use the camera’s boosted settings but even so, noise is so well controlled that routine shooting above ISO 1000 is not a problem. Noise is only apparent (but very subtly) at ISO 6400 and above, noise in shadows reveals blotches of blockiness and areas of smooth featureless colour, such as skies, start to pick up artifacts.
The camera’s heavyweight build (the body weighs 1.24-kilos) means it is heavy but proofed against dirt and water ingress. However, despite the weight handling is excellent thanks to ergonomic control layout and easy to use buttons. The integrated vertical grip helps balance the camera too and houses a large lithium-ion battery pack on which, at the time of writing I’d shot over 400-images on the first charge and it is still at 68%.
The camera’s excellent 3-inch screen has a 920,000 pixel resolution and wide viewing angle making it a stunner to use, add to the mix the fact it can be used as a large info screen, doubling up on the top plate – and backlit – data LCD but more impressively, Live View with AF and both hand held and tripod modes means it is excellent if you need it for compositions chores.
Another funky feature and one of many options available in menus and custom modes is a Virtual Horizon display. Just like the display in an aircraft cockpit, the virtual horizon uses an animated display to show if the camera’s level – or not.
This feature is an ideal addition for tripod shooting for example when, say, shooting a landscape or some such image and you need the horizon to be perfectly flat.
In terms of shooting modes, the D3 has a full complement of the manual shooting options such as aperture and shutter priority, program, and full manual control. It also has Picture Control System where tweaks can be applied to each mode such as standard, vivid and monochrome to tailor the way each mode reproduces the image.
Dual CF Type I/II storage provides room for your shots and you can assign which of the two cards has propriety or simply use the second card as an overflow when or if the first becomes full.
Image formats include JPEG (basic, normal or fine) and RAW with simultaneous JPEG capture in each quality setting and you can shoot TIFFs too. You also get four menu banks (denoted A, B, C and D, although you can name them something more meaningful) so that you effectively get four ways to set the camera up and recall that setup by selecting the corresponding bank of menus.
This means on top of the four menu banks, there are four custom mode banks as well, on which you can layer custom modes, again for particular camera setups you might use repeatedly. Added to the 43 custom options that allow tweaks to flash, AF and, well, to much to go into here and you have no less than 344 possible setup options in menus and custom modes alone.
In terms of image quality the metering is handled by a combination of Nikon’s 3D Matrix system and a 1005-pixel RGB sensor and it works amazingly well, but can still be fooled by predominantly dark or very light scenes. The focusing has 51-AF points – to which metering can be biased – or you can select and move the AF point of choice around the zones available, which can also be tailored to use all or groups depending on the subject. AF’s controlled by Nikon’s Multi-CAM 3500FX processor which, while very reliable does not always get off the mark as fast as I’d have liked.
However, this may be down to the otherwise excellent AF-S 24-70mm F2.8G ED zoom I had to play with for this test, it is not one of Nikon’s faster SilentWave focusing system equipped lenses. Despite that slight focus foible, it works once up to speed and works well tracking moving subjects across the frame.
Colour and white balance control are excellent. Colour is natural in the camera’s default “standard” mode but there are so many ways to tweak the colour performance (along with everything else), that you can pretty much dial in whatever colour parameters you need depending on what you want from a subject, not forgetting the more “basic” presets that are there too, such as vivid and monochrome modes.
In terms of white balance the D3 is pretty much peerless and even the auto WB control provides a nice neutral effect in mixed lighting. In terms of detail you loose a slight amount at higher ISO settings as the EXPEED engine works through what noise there is.
However, at the (non-boosted) lowest ISO of 200 there’s still plenty of pristine image detail on offer, it’s only above ISO 1000 that the processing can be seen to affect fine details such as pores in skin on portraits, which appear slightly smoother for example.
The D3 has so much kit there’s simply to much to go into in detail here and it is, afterall, the performance in terms of picture taking that is the key factor. Well, simply put it does its job extremely well. The fact that there is kit on it you may need or want to use is by the by since the camera is designed to offer a professional solution and that it does very well indeed.
The 12.2-megapixel resolution may be a stumbling block for some but there’s the excellent dynamic range afforded by fewer but larger pixels and so the increase in detail that can be accomplished with the right optics all add up in my book. It also means the noise levels are the lowest I’ve seen on any DSLR barring perhaps the Nikon D300 tested recently.
This is the first DSLR I have ever considered awarding a ten out of ten to in almost 17-years of camera testing and that is high praise indeed.
However, the few minor niggles there are meant it did not get the top marks in the end.
Nikon, consider this 9 a 9.5/10.