Nikon D3x DSLR camera review

The Nikon D3, this camera’s predecessor, was a camera optimising excellence in almost all areas. Enter the D3x, a camera that builds further on the superlatives already meted out to its predecessor.

The D3x is pretty much identical to the D3, a camera which has received high acclaim. The D3x is designed to provide the same handling experience and controllability of that model, but with double the resolution.

This has forced a couple of performance changes on the new model, which I’ll delve into shortly, suffice to say, this camera now replaces the D3 at the pinnacle of Nikon’s digital camera range. And at around £5500 body only, the investment is significant indeed. But is it worth it?

First up, those performance changes. Where the D3 provided high-speed, 9fps performance with high ISO, low noise images, the D3x’s new, specially developed and class leading 24.5-megapixel CMOS sensor provides a more studied foil for the D3.

However, with a 5fps drive – at full resolution – a class leading figure with an impressive 7fps in DX format too, it is undoubtedly fast enough for most tasks. Incidentally, like the D3, the D3x can also shoot at 5:4 ratio, adding more flexibility still; in all crops, the superb 100% viewfinder is cropped accordingly, more of which later.

The new sensor has been optimised, says Nikon, with high dynamic range capability and features gapless micro lenses over each photosite, helping to get as much light in as possible.

The EXPEED image-processing engine has also been tweaked to accommodate the doubling of pixels over the D3, and it sports on-chip noise processing, greatly improving noise handling at higher ISOs.

The D3x’s sensitivity range is ISO 100 to 1600, but with boosted options running from ISO 50 to 6400, the D3x’s smaller pixels (than the D3’s) means it is not able to support the remarkable sensitivity range of its predecessor.

Nevertheless, thanks to the new on-chip noise reduction and the tweaked EXPEED processing, it is able to achieve impressive low noise images across its normal and higher ISO range.

Most of the other kit on board is basically identical to the D3. For a start, there’s the dual CF Type I/II (UDMA compatible) memory card slots, which sit under their sprung, locked and hinged cover, the second slot can be used for overflow or backup storage or for separate storage of NEF RAWs, say, to one card and JPEGs to the other.

Battery performance is excellent, Nikon claiming around 4400 shots per full charge (using CIPA measurements) and it is indeed impressive as after one charge and over 300 images, I had 63% charge remaining, even shooting in freezing conditions and with plenty of reviewing.

The high resolution and combined JPEG and NEF RAW capture, particularly the impressive 14-bit RAWs that allow you to “develop” 140MB TIFFs, means you can shoot images able to compete with medium format digital backs and, crucially, allows the creation of images easily up to the requirements for image libraries.

This makes the camera ideal for studio, social and pictorial style images. And it’s nice to know, this camera would be as at home in the studio as on a muddy, rain soaked hillside, thanks to full environmental seals and durable, magnesium alloy body; make no mistake, the D3x is no wilting violet.

The excellent, 51-zone, fully configurable – in single, groups of nine and 21-points – AF system, powered by Nikon’s Multi-CAM 3500FX processor and a 1005-pixel RGB colour sensor, is superb, fast and accurate with the 3D tracking (in continuous shooting) a standout. The bright heads up display allowing easy assessment of what AF points are active and where, within the shot.

Built-in picture controls allow a good level of customisability to how the camera deals with image data prior to shooting, and as with the D3, you get a comprehensive array of 44 custom controls within menus. There are four custom setting banks (labelled A, B, C and D by default) allowing four completely different camera set-ups.

This is vital for the pro snapper, since you can configure the camera for say, sports, portraits, landscapes and studio work, labelling each bank accordingly, so you can have (virtually) four cameras in one.

HDMI output provides high quality HD image output direct from the camera and, since the D3x is compatible with wireless LAN, USB 2.0 and Ethernet, Nikon’s (optional accessory) GPS unit, (the GP-1 unit providing the ability to tag images with their GPS coordinates) giving impressive connectability.

The D3x’s screen is a stunning 3-inch, 920k-dot affair with 170-degree wide viewing angle, which is good because the D3x has Live View in two flavours. The first is tripod mode, the second is hand held. The former uses contrast detect AF selectable on any AF point of your choosing, making it controllable, ideal for macro and portrait work.

The latter mode uses the camera’s TTL phase detection AF (including 15 cross type sensors) for more fleet of foot performance, exactly what’s required when shooting, well, hand held. However, Live View still requires the delay caused as the mirror has to flip out of the way prior to the exposure, but it builds on the camera’s versatility.

For those owning Nikon’s DX lenses (for Nikon’s APS-C (24 x 16mm crop) DSLRs, such as the D60) or older lenses, the D3x’s F-mount will be able to mount them, though older optics may have limitations to some functions depending on the lens’ age and type.

It’s worth noting, as with the D3, there’s a penalty to pay using the smaller crops, the DX format crop drops the image resolution to 10.4-megapixels, and the 5 x 4 crop provides 20.3-megapixels.

In short, Nikon has created a camera that can use all its current lenses and previous lenses, taken with the four banks of custom modes and despite the cost, you’re getting a lot of camera for your money; looked at another way, you’re getting four!

The camera’s 1.22kg weight (body only) is just lighter than the D3, but otherwise the camera is great to use with superb handling thanks to deeply sculpted, rubberised grips on both normal and vertical grips.

Dials and the layout of the other controls, again similar to the D3, are all well placed, you can tailor the front and back control wheels to your preferred options (reverse their direction and/or change the front and rear wheel control preferences for aperture or shutter control or vice-versa) which make it even better.

The top plate sports a large backlit data LCD, provides detailed information on camera settings, a virtual horizon a la the D3, custom functions; all the info needed to keep you abreast of the camera’s current setup, a smaller back plate LCD panel also illuminates along with the top plate panel and provides info and buttons for white balance, ISO and image quality.

To the left of the accessory shoe, a combined drive mode and Live View dial sits beneath the bracketing, flash and a lock button. The excellent pentaprism viewfinder offers a 100% field of view and 18mm eye relief, so a cinch to use wearing my specs; the comprehensive information is clearly displayed. Across the accessory shoe, clinging to its side are the metering adjustment and dioptre controls.

The mode and exposure compensation buttons perch just behind the shutter release/on/off controls making them ideal for fast easy reach when snapping. Just like the D3, the back plate controls are all well placed and simple to use and if you’ve already used another Nikon DSLR, the layout and controls will be very familiar.

But there’s so much built into the camera, there’s not room to cover it all in detail here, and so, what of the imaging performance?

The camera has a 17-shot buffer in FX crop at 5fps (JPEG (high) and RAW mode), in DX crop; it’ll shoot the same number at 7fps. Image quality is superb with bucketfuls of detail being the standout; white balance control is excellent with white balance bracketing to nine frames another neat addition and the metering, sublime. I had nary a poor exposure, there’s a safety net from Nikon’s Active D-Lighting system though, which helps smooth high contrast shots restoring detail to shadows and highlight without compromising either.

Image noise is well controlled, non-intrusive even at ISO 6400, though it is visible in shadows while colour, incidentally I’ve shot here in the “natural” setting throughout, is exactly that, natural. Mono, vivid presets can be assigned and of course, there are all the tweaks to sharpness, saturation and contrast within the camera’s systems.

The lack of an anti dust system, is I believe a rare area of demerit on the D3x, although the optional Capture NX2 software has a dust data reference system to help out, of course that means you have to buy additional software.

Verdict

And so in summary, the D3x is, in essence, a grand tourer to the D3’s sports coupe; able to produce stunning results, with bucket loads of detail and with brilliant ergonomics. It’s a lot of camera, but one that comes at a steep price that may make some think twice or plump for the D3. I wrote in my test of the D3: “as a reviewer of cameras for almost 20-years, the D3 is without doubt one of the best DSLR’s I’ve used”, that camera was near perfect and the D3x is too.

A stunning camera and a stunning performer, the D3x will make every landscape, portrait and social photographer dream of owning one and even though you may need a small mortgage in order to have one in your camera bag, it’ll be worth it.