Well it has been perhaps one of the most talked about releases in recent years and finally I have got hold of a Nikon D3x digital SLRto test. Since this is effectively a size upgrade for the existing Nikon D3 model I will keep this review relatively short and just concentrate on the main features of the D3x. Please see my Nikon D3 Review for further information on the other features. This is a practical review using the camera in the field for a week in my professional life.
My testing of the Nikon D3x has been a real journey, as I have had to find somewhere that would give it a rigorous test and also, as you will read later, find some software to process the NEF files. In fact, this review has changed the contents of my kit bag.
The first thing I need to say is that the Nikon D3x, one of which was how it would work in the demanding field conditions of a professional wildlife photographer. The most burning questions though concerned the image quality of the Nikon D3x. How much better would it be than the stunning performance of the Nikon D3 and would the extra megapixels provide me with any benefits and increased flexibility? So I took the Nikon D3x on a major shoot to Canada with me to work on the beautiful snowy owl. In conditions of 40? below and the biting Arctic wind it certainly proved to be the ultimate test.
Mindful that the drive speed falls to 1.5 fps when shooting NEFs in 14-bit, I chose to shoot with 12-bit NEFs and retain 5fps. Geeks of course will bemoan that one should always shoot in 14-bit for the best quality, but in truth there is little (if any) visible difference. The main advantage when shooting 14-bit will come if you are shooting a wide range of tones in difficult light conditions and you mess up the exposure. Having 14-bit set will help you recover more detail than you would otherwise. For me I have always set 12-bit and will continue to do so as drive speed is more important for me and the images I get out of the camera continue to astound me.
As mentioned, the buffer is a decent 21 shots, which is a lot better than I expected, and I was pleased to see that once full the Nikon D3x did a pretty respectable job of clearing it out. In fact this buffer performance compares very well to the Nikon D3 and beats the Nikon D700, a fact that most reviewers have chosen to ignore.
I tested the autofocus of this Nikon digital SLR extensively too and of course it worked perfectly as it has the same engine as the excellent D3. I used it to nail some lovely take-off and in-flight shots and it performed, as it would expect it to. With Nikon D3 build quality and weatherproof seals, the Nikon D3x is clearly a lot more than a studio camera and held its own in very challenging conditions against the D3.
One hidden issue with the Nikon D3x is the size of the NEF file; it is approximately 30MB! This means that it will quickly chew up your CF cards so the need for having at least a couple of 16GB cards has never been greater. Something to be aware of, as I ran out of cards on the first day!
The big cahuna. A lot has been written about the ISO performance of the Nikon D3x and other full-frame DSLRs with a large sensor array, and I think that at the outset I should say that it is unfair to compare this camera’s performance with the Nikon D3. Basic sensor technology at this time dictates that with such a large sensor you will have a lot more pixels packed a lot more tightly together in the Nikon D3x than in the D3. As the ISO increases then so does the noise, this is a technical limitation of all cameras at this time and not a shortcoming of the D3x. The simple question I needed answering was at what point the noise would render the image unusable for me. The problem I faced during this test was the sheer quality of the Nikon D3, as it is well known that my main reason for changing to Nikon was the D3’s unsurpassed noise performance. I am now well used to shooting at ISO 800-1000 by default, which I can do as the Nikon D3 gives great noise performance at these ISO levels. The Nikon D3x of course, with its huge sensor, could never hope to match this performance and it is not designed to do so. Nor should we expect it to, so what I wanted to know was how far I could push it…
The snowy owls gave me some wonderful opportunities for the testing. For my low ISO testing (400 and below) I chose compositions that were low angle with a diffused out-of-focus background; the latter is always the first place that you see any noise which is why I chose it as it would provide a worse case test. At ISO 100 the results were stunning, with a sharpness that blew me away and no trace of noise anywhere. I got some really beautiful image in fact; the images were razor sharp and just packed with detail. At ISO 200 it was much the same, with no trace of noise in the background and to be honest little visible difference between shooting at ISO 100. At ISO 400 I began to see the first traces of slight noise in the background, but the snowy owl looked just as sharp and punchy as it did at ISO 100 and 200. The background noise was not alarming in any way and did not cause me concern, but it was there. As I mentioned in my D3 reviewI love the way that the Nikon sensor handles noise; it gives a consistent pattern that looks like a scanned film image rather than the patchy results that other systems can deliver. So at ISO 400 the Nikon D3x was still giving great quality and to be honest, this is as far as most landscape, portrait and studio photographers would ever need to push it. It is hard to come up with a comparison but the results I saw at ISO 100 and 200 were certainly far better than the Nikon D3, and at ISO 400 it was about the same.
So I decided to push the Nikon D3x more. At ISO 800 the subject started to show some noise and the background noise became much more noticeable. Not bad and not really an issue, but you can see it at 100%. Usable? Certainly. I have no issues although to be honest I probably would not take it up anymore than this. I would liken it at this point to the Nikon D3 shooting at ISO 1600-2000. It actually gives a much higher performance than I was hoping for and I shot it most of the time at ISO 200.
Of course most of my evaluation of the Nikon D3x images was made on my Mac and there were some things that only became apparent when displayed in Photoshop. First of all, a word on software to process the NEFs from the D3x. I could not use my existing software, Adobe Camera Raw, because I would need to upgrade to Creative Suite 4 to get the support. At a cost of several hundred pounds I didn’t consider it, so Capture One was my next option but they wanted me to upgrade my Mac operating system, again a financial consideration. So I opted to convert the images using Nikon’s own Capture NX2 which I’ve never used before. The software uses the true RAW image for all corrections on screen, which makes it slightly slower than most other offerings around, but I have grown to like their what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach. Certainly the colours and sharpness from NX2 are excellent.
- Colours – I was surprised by the colours from the Nikon D3x as they look punchier than those that I saw straight from the Nikon D3. Certainly they took less processing in Photoshop and I found myself applying much less saturation than I might otherwise expect to. Highlight performance was improved over the D3 too. Clearly the result of Nikon’s tweaking of their existing image processing system and the changes clearly seem to have worked.
- File Size and cropping – one fact that I ignored until processing was that the default TIF was 72MB at 8-bit rather than the 36MB of the Nikon D3. Although studio and landscape photographers may need this size of file for their prints, most professionals who submit to agencies only need a file size of 48MB. This meant that for some of my images I just had to crop them down to size but for others the large file size offered me amazing creative opportunities for cropping. Simply speaking I could crop my images by 33% and get a 48MB file! Usually with the Nikon D3 if I crop my images by 33% I will get a 24MB file, which I will then have to interpolate to 48MB. Interpolation, no matter how good you are at it, will always lose a little detail. But with the Nikon D3x I would be retaining all the detail, as I would only be downsizing. I can liken it to having a 1.5x teleconverter built into my camera, in fact as my shooting with the Nikon D3x evolved, I started to think exactly like this and stopped using the external 1.4x converter in favour of the “virtual one”. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a poorly advertised feature of the Nikon D3x and I have already found countless uses for it in my limited shooting experience with this camera.
Nikon D3x digital SLR - Conclusions
I gave the Nikon D3x a pretty rigorous test as I was looking for reasons not to buy it. It came through all of them. The noise performance is great. Sure, at ISO 800 it is starting to look a bit noisy and compares to a Nikon D3 image at ISO 1600, but the subject detail is still there for all to see. At ISO 800 I actually quite like the effect of the noise, it looks like a scanned Fuji Velvia transparency. So I think that the ISO performance for the Nikon D3x is more than acceptable for what the camera is designed for.
Performance wise in the field it is a great success, the 5fps drive with a 21 shot buffer means that it can cope with most situations and the superb AF engine inherited from the D3 means that it can bat well out of its comfort zone.
So the top question for me is whether I would have a use for it and the answer, unfortunately for my bank account, is a resounding yes! There is no doubt that there are many applications where I use my existing Nikon D3, particularly where I need more shutter speed or am shooting in lower light. But, as I have said previously, the D3 is an exceptional camera and if the Nikon D3x were not on the market I would use the D3 all the time and be perfectly happy with it. At the end of the day if we did not have the amazing noise performance of the Nikon D3 to compare it against then the Nikon D3x would be a market leader. So I can see many opportunities for me to use a D3x and will have no hesitation now in buying one for both my landscape and normal wildlife shooting. Of course there will be many of you that will need to make the decision between the Nikon D3 and the Nikon D3x and of course there is a price difference between them. I think in all honesty that you will need to sit down and think clearly what you are using it for? If you really need to consistently shoot high ISO, perhaps because of low light or high shutter speed applications, then the Nikon D3 may be the body for you. But, if you are not in this niche and want the creative possibilities that the Nikon D3x provides, and need the image quality and file size, then the Nikon D3x must be your camera of choice. Either way you will not lose. For me, I will have one of each in my kit bag.