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The Nikon D3x is a full-frame, 24.5-megapixel camera has a list price of $7999.95 without lens. Designed for studio use, the D3x performed very well in our lab tests, but in general scored slightly lower than the D700.
**Size Comparisons **
As a camera designed primarily for studio work, the Nikon D3x is obviously very different in size, price and intended audience. It is meant to take on the likes of the Canon 1DS Mark III, and medium-format cameras. However, as part of our review policy, we are limited to comparing cameras with others tested under our current laboratory procedures, which went into effect in January 2009. With this in mind, we've decided to run with the prosumer full-frame cameras from Nikon, Canon and Sony and the Nikon D90. This last one might seem an odd choice, given that it costs 1/8 as much as the D3x, but it provides an interesting performance-versus-price contrast.
**In the Box **
• Nikon D3x
• Camera Strap AN-D3X
• Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL4a
• Quick Charger MH-22
• USB Cable UC-E4
• Audio Video Cable EG-D2
• Body Cap BF-1A
• Accessory Shoe Cover BS-2
• Eyepiece DK-17
• Battery Chamber Cover BL-4
• USB Cable Clip
• Software Suite CD-ROM
**Color Accuracy ***(13.51) *
The first of our tests is for color accuracy, and the D3x did well here. We measure how closely the camera captured by the camera matches the known values of the X-Rite color chart we use for testing purposes. The D3x is comparable in accuracy to the D700 and 5D Mark II, slightly worse than the Nikon D90 and performed rather better than the Sony A900.
For this test we illuminate the X-Rite ColorChecker chart to an even 3000 lux, photograph it across all the color modes the camera offers, and then analyze the resulting images using Imatest software, which tells us how accurately the camera captured the colors. The D3x has three color modes (normal, neutral and vivid), with different saturation and contrast settings for each. The most accurate of these was neutral, so this is the mode we tested with throughout the review. We base our score for this section on color accuracy results in the most accurate color mode, with a penalty for substantial under- or over-exposure. Click here for more on how we test color.
Below you can see the samples of the individual color patches of the X-Rite color chart (the ideal) and those captured by each of our comparison cameras in their highest scoring mode. The names in the left column are those used by X-Rite for each patch.
NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.
The D3x produced particularly accurate color results with blues, pinks, yellows and light greens. It struggled more with olive, skin tones, and reds. It slightly over-saturated, even in neutral mode. As you can see from the chart above, the D3x performs on par with two of the other full frame cameras, and better than the Sony A900 while a little worse than the D90.
The D3x has three color modes (called Picture Controls by Nikon): Standard, Neutral and Vivid. Monochrome is also available, but not shown below. There are substantial customization controls for each mode, so finicky photographers won’t feel constrained by these choices. All of the color modes can be have their sharpening and contrast shifted. The non-monochrome modes also let you change saturation and hue, and monochrome can add filters (yellow, orange, red and green) and tones (sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue-green, blue, purple-blue and red-purple). If you have Active D-lighting (dynamic range optimization) switched on, contrast and brightness adjustments are ignored. Once you've made these adjustments, you can either use this as the new version of that preset, or set it up as a custom mode in one of nine slots, which can be renamed. You can also save your Picture Controls to a CF card, use these same settings with your other Nikon SLRs and upload and share them with others. Up to 99 controls can be stored on a card, and transferred to the camera when needed.
Of the modes shown below, Neutral is the most accurate, then Standard and Vivid
NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.
The long exposure test looks at how the camera performs at shutter speeds ranging from one to 30 seconds, and the D3x handled the challenge admirably, scoring better than any other camera except its full frame sibling, the D700. For this test, we shoot at 20 lux illumination, and test color error and noise at one, five, 10, 15 and 30 seconds, with long exposure noise reduction on and off. Click here for more on how we test long exposure.
The first graph shows the color error across the five shutter speeds we test at, with a smaller line representing a better performance. You can see that the color error stays pretty even across the test, but jumps at 30 seconds, due to over-exposure with the really long shutter speed.
With these long exposures, the noise levels stay around 0.7%, and fall off with the longer exposures. You'll notice that long exposure noise reduction doesn't improve the situation, which is something that we've seen across a large number of cameras. Long exposure noise reduction functions by taking a second exposure the same length as the first, but with the shutter closed. The theory is that you can subtract the noise of the latter from the former, but since image noise is inherently random, it isn’t an effective solution, and sometimes actually makes matters worse.
Compared with the other cameras, the D3x does better than any bar the D700. It maintains good color accuracy and low noise across the entire test
In our image noise test, the D700 performed well, but not exceptionally so. It kept noise levels at a reasonable level across all ISOs, especially at ISO 100. For this test, we shoot the X-Rite ColorChecker chart, illuminated to 3000 lux, using the most accurate color mode available (in this case, neutral). The chart is photographed at every ISO setting that Nikon assigns a specific ISO value to, which excludes their Lo and Hi settings, and the images are analyzed using Imatest software to determine the amount of noise in each picture. Click here for more on how we test noise.
The first of our tests in this series looks at the noise levels across the four steps of noise reduction. You can see that software kicks in after ISO 400 for High, and at 800 for the other settings. The Low setting noise reduction has a minimal effect across the board.
The color and luma noise chart displays image noise results separately for the red, green, blue, yellow and luma (gray) channels. The tight grouping here is good, as substantial variation from a tightly grouped pattern would be visually noticeable.
When you compare the D3x against the other cameras with noise reduction off, it sits in the middle ranks. It's a bit lower at ISO 100 and a bit higher at ISO 1600, but overall pretty much right in the middle.
With the noise reduction cranked all the way up, the D3x still sits at about the same level as the other cameras, comfortably staying below 0.85% even at ISO 1600. What's interesting is that once again the D700 performs slightly better than the D3x. Not massively, but enough to raise an eyebrow.
When you compare the D3x against the other cameras with noise reduction off, it sits in the middle ranks. It's a bit lower at ISO 100 and a bit higher at ISO 1600, but overall pretty much right in the middle. The precursor model, the Nikon D3, had an official range of ISO 200 to 6400, with extended ISOs down to 100 and up to 25600.
The crops below are all 100 pixels square, shown at 100% magnification, so the amount of detail shown in each will vary according the the megapixel count of the camera.
Our resolution test isn't a count of megapixels, but rather a lab tested result that determines the ability of the camera and lens to reproduce fine detail. To determine this, we find the sharpness of the images and the amount of chromatic aberration in them, both of which contribute to the performance of a camera. We also test distortion, but don't score on this, as it's too dependent on the individual lens. The D3x impressed us with its resolution performance, especially in terms of image sharpness. We coupled the camera with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S lens (which will set you back around $2000), and while this lens influences the results to a certain degree, the sharpness and chromatic aberration performance are also based on the sensor and image processing capabilities of the camera.
To test resolution we shoot a specially designed chart, which allows distortion, sharpness and chromatic aberration to be measured at 18 points on each photograph. We shoot this chart at three focal lengths: the longest for the lens, the widest-angle setting and one in the middle. At each of these focal lengths we also shoot three aperture settings: the largest, smallest, and one in the middle. Click here for more on how we test resolution.
The distortion we measured was generally low, but definitely noticable at the closes focal length. At 24mm, there was approximately 2.5% barrel distortion, at 45mm there was pincushioning of around 2.05%, and at maximum zoom (70mm) the distortion shrunk to 0.9% pincushioning.
Chromatic Aberration (7.39)*
*The chromatic aberration is a little on the high side, given the otherwise excellent performance of the lens with this camera. The aberration was the worst half-way between the center and the outer edges, especially at 24mm. The sweet spot is dead center at 45mm, though it remains low in this section of the lens at all focal lengths.
The D3x captures excellent levels of detail, hitting its peak at 24mm in the center of the lens, where it captures approximately 2400 line widths per picture height vertically, a measure of how many alternating black and white lines the camera can resolve. Its softest point is at 45mm, mid-way between the center and edge of the lens, where it only measured 775 line widths per pixel height horizontally.
At the 24mm focal length, you hit the sweet spot for image sharpness, dead center of the frame at f/2.8, which then drops off as you move away from the middle, before picking up again. At f/8.0 the sharpness is pretty high across the entire lens. At f/2.8 you'll also find the worst chromatic aberration in that dead zone mid-way between the center of the lens and the corners.
45mm is where we found the lowest chromatic aberration, at f/22 in the center of the lens. Unfortunately, you won't find extraordinary sharpness to accompany it. In fact the 45mm setting has the lowest sharpness result, at f/2.8, and you can see in the table above how blurry the edges of test boxes are.
At a focal length of 70mm, both the aberration and sharpness level out. The chromatic shifting is a bit higher in the center of the image than at other focal lengths, but is lower in other parts of the image, and the sharpness is good across the lens, especially at f/8.
Overall, we found that this lens and camera together had the best sharpness at 24mm with an aperture of f/2.8, though the softest was at 45mm at the widest aperture. When compared with other cameras, you can see the D3x did very well capturing detail, putting it substantially above the competition. While its chromatic aberration performance was about average, the sharpness is extraordinary.
Picture Quality & Size Options*(18.25)*
The D3x can shoot in three image aspect ratios/crops. There's FX, for full frame lenses, DX for lenses designed for the smaller sensor, and 5:4, which crops the full-frame down to the image format traditionally associated with Medium Format cameras.
In all image formats, the camera can shoot in RAW, RAW+JPEG, JPEG or TIFF. If you want to shoot on RAW, you can set it to 12- or 14-bit, with three levels of compression (lossless, compressed or uncompressed). Lossless is reversable, and you will lose no image quality and shave 20-40% off the size of the image, and compressed will trim 40-55% off the file size, but with some loss of quality. JPEGs can be set to three levels of quality: fine, normal and basic. There are two types of JPEG compression as well: size priority compresses the files to try and provide a uniform file size; optimal quality creates images that may vary in size substantially.
The D3x dynamic range, a measure of its ability to capture a wide range of lights and darks in a single shot, was slightly lower than expected. While by no means poor, it was a shade worse than the comparison cameras.
The chart above shows how the dynamic range creeps lower and lower at each ISO. We test the dynamic range using the Kodak Stepchart, which has 20 steps of gray, from white to black. At each ISO we photograph across a variety of exposure levels, and use Imatest to measure the dynamic range. Click here for more on how we test dynamic range. All testing for dynamic range is performed on highest quality JPEGs from the camera. A slightly better dynamic range result can be expected by manually tweaking RAW files.
The chart above shows the differences in dynamic range between cameras at ISO 200. The D3x is a bit below the others tested, so if you rely solely on the built-in JPEG processing, you may notice it is slightly worse than other cameras. This might be due to the camera doing less in the way of tweaking it JPEGs, instead expecting the user to spend more time in post-processing.
The D3x has an option for dynamic range optimization called Active D-Lighting. Like every other setting on this camera, there is an extraordinary level of precise control flexibility. Active D-Lighting. It can be set to auto, extra high, high, normal, low or off. If you want to apply this technology after you've already taken a picture, you can tweak the dynamic range of a stored image with the D-Lighting tool in both JPEG and RAW.
As with all Nikon SLRs, image stabilization for the D3x is based around the lens. After discussion with Nikon, we decided to test the camera with their AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm 1:2.5G N lens, which doesn't have vibration reduction. This camera is designed for use in a studio setting, with a substantial tripod. While the D3x will undoubtedly benefit from vibration reduction lenses in some settings, we opted to test with a lens best suited for the studio nature of the camera, but without the benefits of vibration reduction.
The D3x white balance performance is one of the few areas we felt slightly let down by the camera. It underperformed compared to the competition, on both automatic and manual settings. For an explanation of how we test white balance, click here.
*Auto White Balance (9.39)
*The first part of our white balance test involves shooting an X-Rite ColorChecker chart under strictly controlled light sources simulating incandescent, cool white fluorescent, and daylight sources. These images are then tested for color error using Imatest software. You'll notice in the graph below that the D3x had a much higher error with incandescent bulbs than other light sources, a tendency in the vast majority of cameras.
The D3x didn't deal with daylight illumination as well as many other cameras, though the difference wasn't very significant. It tended to make the images a bit cooler than they should be.
The D3x handled the always troublesome incandescent illumination quite well, in one of the few areas it outperformed the D700. However, it was still noticeably inaccurate.
With cool white fluorescent bulbs, the D3x introduced the same error as every camera tested here except the Canon 5D Mark II, and compensated too far into the warm end of the spectrum.
*Custom White Balance (11.96)
*With a custom white balance, we expect much higher color accuracy than with auto or preset WB, so the scoring is much more demanding on this test. The D3x did quite well with the usually problematic incandescent, but it stumbled over daylight illumination a little.
White balance was one of the few areas where we saw the D3x struggle, even a little. It had more trouble with daylight illumination than some other cameras, and both automatic and custom settings were less than stellar.
White Balance Settings*(12.50)*
The wide array of white balance presets includes seven types of fluorescent bulb, in keeping with the camera's overall pattern of granular control.
The white balance presets can all be shifted along both the amber/blue and green/magenta axes, with 6 steps in each direction. In this case, a step is the equivalent of 5 mired, a unit of color temperature shift that takes into account that changes are more obvious at lower color temperatures. While you're shooting, you can adjust along the amber/blue axis by holding down the white balance button, then turning the front dial, but strangely you can't adjust on green/magenta in a similar manner.
White balance bracketing can only be used along the blue/amber axis, in increments of one (five mired), two (10 mired) or three (15 mired) steps. From two to nine photographs can be taken in the sequence.
For reusing manual white balance settings, there are five available slots, d-0 through d-4. D-0 is where the image is stored if you take a white balance while shooting. This can then be saved to one of the other four slots. Alternatively, d-1 through d-4 can be loaded with white balance settings from images stored on the memory card.
All of the following sample photos, bar one, were taken with a 24-70 f/2.8 Nikkor lens.You can click on the image to see the full size version, but these are large and may take a while to load.
Still Life Examples
The images below are of our still life taken at every available ISO. They can be clicked on to see the full-size image, but these are very large and may take a considerable amount of time to load.
The examples below are all 100 pixel crops at 100% magnification, which accounts for the different amount of the subject you can see in each frame. These images were not used for testing, but are rather used to illustrate the camera's noise levels in an easy to understand way.
The three inch, 920,000-dot LCD makes for crystal-clear image review. Nikon still uses the slightly obtuse method of requiring the user to hold down the zoom button on the left of the screen before being able to zoom in on an image, but it's a system that's familiar to Nikon shooters. With FX format images, you can zoom in up to 27x on large images, 20x on medium and 13x on small. Once you're at the desired level of magnification, the rear dial on the camera will scroll between images at the same zoom level. Zooming out takes you to thumbnail views of either four or nine images at a time.
Pressing the up and down buttons on the joystick changes the information shown during playback. The sequence starts with file information, highlights, RGB histograms, three pages of shooting information, a fourth page with copyright info and GPS (if these two options were selected) then an overview. For the overexposure highlights, the camera can be set to show the highlights of RGB, or each of the channels individually.
In one of the more elaborate levels of customization we've seen, you can set which image will be shown next after you delete a picture. It can show the preceding image, the next one, or base it on the direction you were browsing when you made the deletion.
The slideshow controls are quite basic. The only choices are how long to show each image, and if you want attached audio memos to be played too. While the slideshow is playing images can be skipped with the left and right buttons, and the displayed information changed with up and down.
While these aren't the worlds most elaborate editing tools, they're pretty broad, especially considering that this camera is designed for professional users who will undoubtedly have access to other software. When retouching a photo with the D3x's editing controls, a second copy is always made, so it's impossible to damage your original.
The retouching options are D-Lighting (dynamic range optimization), red eye correction, trim, monochrome (black and white, sepia or cyanotype), and skylight or warm tone filter effects. You can also color balance an image along either the green/magenta or blue/amber axes.
There's also an image overlay function, which will combine two RAW files, with the gain on each set from 0.1 to 2.
Once you're done editing an image, you can use the side by side display tool to compare the original and retouched photo at the same magnification level.
Even though the D3x is a high-priced piece of hardware, it still ships with the same Nikon software you'll find bundled with most of their cameras: ViewNX and Nikon Transfer. Both of these are competent enough, and they feel faster than many of the bundled pieces of software from the competition. The two applications are present for both Mac and PC, but don't follow the standard interface conventions of either platform.
Direct Print Options*(3.50)*
The D3x uses both types of standard printing controls, PictBridge for connecting directly to a printer, and DPOF for marking files on a memory card for service bureau output.
The D3x has a full-frame, 35mm sensor, measuring 35.9mm x 24.0mm. It has 25.7-million pixels in total, 24.5 effective, putting it beyond the Canon 5D Mark II (21.1-megapixels) and substantially higher than the Nikon D700 (12.1-megapixels), but equivalent to the Sony A900 resolution (24.6-megapixels).
The D3x has no automated dust removal system, but can make use of Dust Off reference photos to eliminate known particles from images using Nikon Capture NX 2 software. First, a reference photo must be taken of a white area, in which dust will show up clearly. Nikon NX 2 can recognize this, and post-process images to remove spots using this information.
Having a 35mm sensor means that the camera's sensor matches the dimensions of 35mm film, so lenses have their full 35mm perspective, with no crop factor unless you intentionally attach a lens designed for a non-full-frame camera.
The viewfinder offers 0.7x magnification with 100% field of view, which means what you see will exactly match what you get.
The viewfinder with shutter open and closed
The default eyecup for the D3x is very slim, with minimal padding, which is slightly uncomfortable, and bespectacled users may not be huge fans. Of course, there are many alternatives available as optional accessories.
The diopter adjustment for the camera is above and to the right of the viewfinder, and must be partially pulled out from the body to be adjusted, like the dial of a watch. It can be set from -3 to 1 m-1.
Above and to the left of the viewfinder is a small lever that brings down a sliding cover that prevents light leaks that might throw off the meter reading when shooting on a tripod.
Shown here is the information displayed through the viewfinder.
The D3x has three LCD screens, one full-color 920,000-dot screen, and two monochrome LCDs with basic shooting info, one on the top and a smaller one on the back.
The primary LCD is designed to mirror the look and feel of a monochrome LCD when showing shooting information. Information is displayed as light grey text against a dark gray background, but the colors can be reversed. The screen can be set to seven levels of brightness. It remains off most of the time, but is brought to life with the Info button. The only direct camera control you have via this screen is setting the focus area.
Both of the monochrome LCDs can be briefly illuminated via the light setting on the on/off switch. Shooting information is split between the two screens, with the bottom handling ISO, image quality, and white balance (with buttons nearby to control each), and the top LCD handling the rest of the readouts.
Rear Monochrome LCD
The top LCD and and rear color LCD both show much of the same information, in an almost identical layout. The only substantive difference is the dark area on the lower 1/4 of the screen, which we explain below.
Unsurprisingly, the D3x has no built-in flash unit. It works best with CLS (Creative Lighting System) compatible strobes. Full controls (i-TTL flash, flash value lock, flash color information communication, rear-curtain sync and red-eye reduction) are available with the SB-900, SB-800, SB-600, SB-400, SB-R200 flashes and SU-800 wireless controller (though there is partial compatibility with older strobes). These flashes all use the i-TTL control system, and have high speed sync that works at the fastest shutter speeds. The i-TTL system allows for greater accuracy in metering and focus by firing 'a series of nearly invisible preflashes (monitor preflashes) immediately before the main flash'. With G or D series lenses, focal distance is also entered into the equation to provide the precise level of flash illumination. You can also set the i-TTL mode to base the reading only on the main subject, leaving out the background, which is the default setting when using spot metering.
A flash lock tool can be assigned to the Function button, which lets you lock flash level and output, even if the scene changes.
*The flash hot shoe
The lens mount is the Nikon F mount, which offers varying degrees of compatibility with different generations of Nikkor lenses. With G or D AF lenses, all functions are supported; DX lenses support all functions except shooting with APS-C cropping; AF Nikkor lenses of other types support all functions except 3D Color Matrix Metering II; AI-P lenses don't support 3D Color Matrix Metering II or autofocus; and non-CPU AI lenses can only be used in aperture or manual mode.
Lens mount with mirror up and down
If you're concerned that the mirror raising will cause the camera to shake unacceptably, one of the modes on the Release Mode Dial is 'Mup', which raises the mirror on the first shutter press, then takes the photo when the shutter is pressed again
The images below show the range of zoom available wth the 24-70mm lens we used for testing.
To combat light drop off towards the image corners, the D3x offers a Vignette Control function, which can be set to high, normal, low or off. This post-processing system only functions on FX format images.
The Nikon D3x uses the EN-EL4a/EN-EL4 batteries and is rated for an astonishing 4,400 shots using CIPA standard, or 5,300 using Nikon standard, meaning you're highly unlikely to run out of juice mid-shoot. The included battery charger can take two batteries at a time, so you can always have a spare ready.
The battery has an impressive shot rating
If you burrow into the menu system, you can find the camera's Battery Info tool, which offers a wealth of information about the inserted cell. It shows current charge, the number of times the shutter has been released since the battery was last charged, if it needs re-calibrating (achieved using the battery charger) and a scale from 0 to 4 which shows if the battery has reached the end of its lifespan, and needs replacing.
The D3x can take two CompactFlash cards at a time, which provides a huge shooting capacity. The way the second card performs can be set up in three different configurations: overflow starts filling the second card when the first one's full; backup records each photograph to both; and RAW slot 1/JPEG slot 2 records the image to each card but in a different format.
Two CF cards allow for huge shooting capacity
Jacks, Ports & Plugs*(6.50)*
The plugs on the D3x are well protected by thick rubber covers. The USB port has its own separate section, and the camera comes bundled with a little plastic tag for the USB cable that locks it into place, so you won't knock it loose. The lower section has the DC, AV and HDMI ports. All of the ports are industry standard, which makes replacing lost cables or finding spares a breeze. On the front of the camera are ports for flash sync and a ten-pin remote.
A panoply of ports
*The D3x is compatible with certain GPS units. The Nikon GP-1 can be connected directly through the front flash sync terminal. If you don't want to use that model, any GPS unit from Garmin that conforms to the National Marine Electronics Association NMEA0183 data format and uses a D-sub 9-pin connector can be hooked up with an adapter. The GPS data is stored with each photo, and can be viewed on playback.
The D3x relies on the four standard settings, with none of the automated specialty modes found on consumer cameras. They're all accessed by holding down the Mode button, and rotating the rear dial.
There are two Live View modes, Tripod and Hand-Held, Tripod uses a rather slow contrast-detect autofocus, and Hand-Held lowers the mirror to perform traditional Phase-Detection focusing, which is significantly faster but blacks out the Live View momentarily. In Tripod mode, you use the AF-ON button to start the focusing, and the joystick to select any point on the frame to focus on. In both modes, you can zoom in up to 13x to make sure everything is correctly in focus. Neither focus mode is ideal, and while this technology is slowly improving on SLRs, the focus speed is still too slow for most situations.
Pressing the INFO button cycles through various information displays that are overlaid on the image. They go through shooting information off, framing guides, shooting info and histogram, virtual horizon, and shooting information on.Virtual horizon is a tool that displays the camera's current level, and is useful if your tripod doesn't have a physical one, or you're shooting handheld.
The D3x has no scene modes.
The D3x is unsurprisingly slim on the picture effects. It has a selection of four Nikon Picture Controls: Standard, Neutral, Vivid and Monochrome. These can then be adjusted for sharpening and contrast. The non-monochrome modes let you change saturation and hue, and monochrome can add virtual filters (yellow, orange, red and green) and tones (sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue-green, blue, purple-blue and red-purple).
As with everything else in this camera, the focusing options offer an in-depth level of control. The D3x has an impressive 51 autofocus points, of which 1, 9, 21 or all 51 can be utilized at a time, for different size focusing areas. When shooting with the full focus-point array you can take advantage of 3D tracking, which is useful for following swiftly moving targets. The autofocus system is rated for a detection range of -1 to 19 EV at ISO 100. You can adjust the brightness of autofocus target illumination, should you need the boost, which is handy under direct bright light, where the standard illumination level might be hard to see.
The autofocus was extremely fast in good illumination, locking on to targets easily. It still focused quickly in our low light tests (20 lux of illumination) but started to really struggle after dark. Street lamps generally provided enough light for it to get a quick fix, but in areas without them, it took significantly longer. Even so, the D3x usually managed to find an appropriate focus eventually, which is good for a camera not designed for low light performance.
*51 point focus with 3D tracking
The focus modes on the D3x are controlled via a small switch by the lens that toggles between the three settings. On our review unit it felt like there was a non-functioning fourth setting, between continuous and manual modes, which made it difficult to quickly adjust the focus mode. This may have been a problem limited to our particular review unit, though.
The autofocus area can be set to three modes, each with its own options.
When shooting with a lens that has a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or greater, you can use the Electronic Rangefinder to assist with manual focusing, which shows a small dot on the viewfinder if the subject is in focus. If any lenses are focusing incorrectly, you can fine-tune autofocus for up to 20 different lens types using the AF Fine Tune capability.
As with every other facet of this camera, the level of control is impressive. You can tell the D3x to only take photos if the shot is in focus, and set the delay between a subject falling out of focus and the camera's attempt to adjust in Continuous focus mode. The idea here is to avoid having the camera attempt to refocus if something briefly crosses the frame.
The D3x offers an extensive array of bracketing options. Exposure compensation runs ±5EV in 1/3EV, and bracketing can be achieved either with exposure compensation or with the flash, in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV. The table below shows the different frame counts available with bracketing, the different modes in each, and the order in which the exposures are taken.
For dynamic range optimization, there's the Active D-Lighting setting, which can be set to Auto, Extra High, High, Normal or Off. Alternatively, you can use the D-Lighting tool in playback mode on images already taken.
If the camera is consistently exposing incorrectly, you can fine tune the optimal exposure for your unit by ±1 EV in 1/6 stops.
The D3x has two additional exposure tools we found interesting. Multiple exposure takes 2-10 shots, and overlays them, either using auto gain to balance the exposures or each at full brightness (useful with dark backgrounds). Interval Timer takes numerous shots over a specific period. It can be set to start immediately, or at a specified time, and will then take photos at set intervals. with a specified number of shots at each. You can even combine the two tools to have a multiple exposure, time-lapse image.
Depth of Field Preview*(2.00)*
There is a dedicated Depth of Field preview button on the front of the camera, which can be programmed to control other camera functions if you prefer. The programmable Function button can also be set for Depth of Field preview control, though we're not seeing a real advantage here, since the two buttons are very close to one another in the first place.
The D3x employs a 1,005-pixel metering sensor, with three metering modes.
The shutter speed range is typical for high-end SLRS, and wide enough to cover almost any situation.
The self-timer is selected by shifting the release mode dial, and can be set to one of four intervals: 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds or 20 seconds.
**The D3x lets you embed your copyright info with your photos. You can add an artist name of up to 36 characters, and copyright holder names of up to 54 characters.
**The D3x has a built in microphone so that audio memos can be attached to files. In auto mode, the maximum record time can be set from five to 60 seconds; the camera starts recording as soon as the shutter button is released, and will stop when the time runs out or the microphone button is pushed. Alternatively, the memo system can be set to manual, and it will record as long as the microphone button is held down.
Design & Handling
The D3x is a substantial camera, and is designed for tripod use. It's 6.3 inches wide, 6.2 inches high and 3.4 inches deep (159.5mm x 157mm x 87.5mm) and weighs an intimidating 43 oz (1.22kg) without lens or battery. To put it bluntly, this is a tank. It's big, heavy and tough, with a magnesium frame and weather-sealing. It's obviously not designed to be thrown in a backpack for a weekend at the beach, but rather optimized for a studio environment.
The camera can be held in either portrait or landscape mode, with a shutter release and two control dials for each orientation. The side controls can be locked, so that you don't accidentally hit them when shooting in landscape orientation. Considering how much care was taken to optimize the camera for shooting in both orientations, it's unfortunate that the information on the color LCD doesn't rotate with the camera.
Nikon's higher-end cameras, like the D3x and D700, have slightly different control schemes than their less expensive SLRs. Rather than a mode dial, they have a mode button, which is controlled using the rear and front control dials. There's also a dedicated dial for 'release mode' which sets single, burst, Live View, self-timer or mirror up modes. Three of the more commonly altered settings (ISO, quality and white balance) have their own small, dedicated LCD on the rear of the camera with small buttons to control each beneath the display.
Unsurprisingly, the controls are highly customizable. During playback, the button at the center of the joystick can be set to bring up thumbnail view, a histogram or magnified view. In Live View you can use it to select the focus point or magnify the view.
The function button on the front of the camera can be set to depth of field preview, flash value lock, AE/AF lock, AE lock only, AE lock until pressed again or a photo is taken, AE lock until pressed again, AF lock only, Flash off, bracketing, Matrix, Center-weighted or Spot metering, Virtual horizon, Playback or else access the top item in My Menu. If you hold down the Function button and use the rear dial, you can choose the image area (FX, DX or 5:4), invoke a 1 EV change in speed or aperture as appropriate, choose the lens number for non-CPU lenses, select focus point, select a shooting menu bank or the area for dynamic AF. While the depth of field preview button defaults to its stated function, it can be programmed in the same way as the function button, except you can't use it to change focus point selection. The AE/AF lock button can also be set to handle the vast majority of these functions, expect focus point select or the 1 EV change.
The virtual horizon tool shows a simulated level, to help with aligning your camera. It displays on the LCD, as shown below, and through the viewfinder using using the exposure compensation axis. While it's a nice touch, it's not very precise, and goes away as soon as you half press the shutter button.
If you've used a Nikon SLR before, you'll feel at home with this camera's menu system. It's very similar to the others, just astonishingly detailed at points. There are five primary menus, each with multiple options, and then the customizable My Menu.
There are two 'Bank' systems of settings. The Shooting Menu bank lets you store all your Shooting Menu settings in one of four banks, which can be named to your specific needs. This lets you have an 'indoor weddings' shooting bank, for example, or a 'studio lights' bank, and switch between them easily. The Custom Setting menu has the same option, with four banks of settings that can be easily alternated.
Manual & Learning*(6.00)*
The D3x has an excellent manual, though it's approximately the same size as a Tom Clancy novel. Clocking in at over 475 pages, it contains detailed descriptions of every one of the multitude of options and settings in the camera. The table of contents and index are both exhaustive and well laid out. For the most part, the writing explains complex tools and settings well, and in unambiguous language, with well chosen supporting diagrams.
Speed & Timing
**Startup Time ***(9.53)*
In a race to see which camera can start up the fastest, from "off" to taking the first photo, the D3x takes no prisoners. Averaging a speedy 1/3 second from flicking the switch to tripping the shutter, the Nikon is just about as fast as can accurately be measured by our testing methods.
Shot to Shot*(4.59)*
Nikon states the burst speed at highest resolution for the D3x is five frames per second. In our lab testing, we captured an average of 4.6 frames per second, which isn't far off.
The D3x has two levels of continuous shutter, high and low, which can be customized to various speeds. When shooting full frame, the high speed mode is limited to five frames per second, but if you're shooting in DX format, you can take it up to seven. The low speed can be altered between one and four frames per second, depending on your needs.
When shooting in continuous mode the top LCD shows the number of photographs remaining in the buffer, so you know how much longer you can continue at breakneck speed. You can also specify the maximum number of photos taken at a time in continuous mode from one up to 130, so you can limit the quantity of images recorded in one burst.
Nikon D700 Comparison
Comparing the D3x and the D700 provides for an interesting look into the relative advantages of pro-level gear. The price difference between the cameras is close to $5000, yet the 24.5-megapixel D3x generally scored lower in our image quality tests than the 12.1-megapixel D700 (most noticeably in dynamic range and white balance), though the D3x did outperform the competition in the crucial resolution category. We expect the issue rests with the challenges of squeezing twice as many megapixels into the same size sensor. It's also possible that Nikon processes the image less on the D3x when storing JPEG images, as they expect the professional user to undertake more hands-on adjustments. Frankly, we don't know the 'whys', but the D700 did score a little higher on most benchmarks.
The hardware specs on the D3x are slightly superior to the D700. The viewfinder has a better field of view, and you get three LCDs instead of two. The D700 does have a built in flash, which is a point in its favor for those users who are likely to use this feature. The dual CompactFlash slots on the D3x are certainly valuable, whether for the extra capacity or the security of automatic on-camera backup for irreplaceable photos, and we were very pleased with its battery life.
You might not think it to look at them, but the D700 and D3x handle quite similarly. While the D3x does have additional controls for portrait-mode shooting, the bodies share a very similar layout. Buttons are generally in the same place, with the D3x just having room for a few more of them. The D3x is substantially heavier though, and feels more at home on a tripod than around your neck.
While the price difference may not buy you better performance, it does get you more granular control. While listing all the options you get with the D3x would be a Sisyphean task, let us just say that the D3x will let you alter every conceivable facet of the cameras functionality. You get more control over bracketing, more Active D-Lighting levels, and the ability to shoot in 5:4 image format. In general, no single customizability option is a must-have feature but, taken together, they add up to a noticeable difference in control flexibility. An interesting note is that the two cameras have different ISO ranges. On the D3x the extended range runs from ISO 50 to 6400 (100 to 1600 properly supported) and the D700 covers 100 to 25,600 extended (200 to 3200 normally), which lends the D700 a slight advantage in low-light situations.
Canon 5D Mark II Comp
The 3Dx and 5D Mark II each has its relative strengths and weaknesses in our performance testing. The D3x comes out ahead resolution and long exposure but the Canon takes out dynamic range and white balance, with color error and noise being too close to call. Both are fine cameras, with good overall quality in every test.
The 5D Mark II has a more comfortable viewfinder, but is missing the built-in shutter to block potential light leaks. The color LCDs and top monochrome LCDs are more or less the same between the two cameras, but the D3x has the extra monochrome display on the rear to make information more readable at a glance. We also favor the D3x here for its ability to take two CF cards simultaneously and its extra battery life.
The 5D Mark II is 15 oz lighter (without lenses) and doesn't feel as robust or as the bulky D3x. The D3x also has more single-function buttons, providing quick access to key features without requiring menu system navigation.
The Canon has more picture styles/color modes as well as an automatic exposure mode, which the D3x lacks. The D3x blows the Canon away when it comes to controlling how the camera shoots though. The ability to tweak every camera function, the ample bracketing controls, wider exposure compensation range, more image quality options and autofocus points, more extensive lens compatibility (due to its ability to take lenses not specifically designed for full-frame sensors) and the multiple timers gives the D3x a significant advantage. The 5D Mark II does have the still rare SLR feature of video capture, which is definitely a point in its favor, and also as face detection in live view and can take reduced resolution RAW photos.
Sony A900 Comparison
The A900 was the only comparison camera we looked at that scored lower in our lab tests than the D3x consistently, but even then we're not talking about a huge discrepancy. The major difference was in color and resolution, and the A900 managed to squeak ahead with dynamic range. The Sony also had a better automatic white balance performance, but the D3x was more accurate when manually set.
In general, we preferred the hardware on the D3x compared to the A900. The A900's monochrome LCD provides less information than it's counterpart on the D3x, and we disliked the non-standard flash mount on the A900. The D3x also has the impressive 51-autofocus points, compared to the Sony's nine. In the A900's favor, the color LCD information display automatically rotates when the camera is held vertically, and the viewfinder has a useful sensor to turn off the LCD when hold the camera up to your eye. Both cameras have viewfinders that offer 100% field of view, which is a significant factor when framing a shot.
While both cameras are substantial, the D3x is the much larger and heavier of the two. Even given the size difference, we preferred the layout and handling of the D3x, as the buttons and grip on the A900 felt slightly awkward. Of course, for shooting in the field, we'd rather have the Sony strapped to our neck rather than the considerably more weighty Nikon.
The D3x has wider exposure compensation, more ISO choices and a much deeper set of controls over file quality. It also provides a wider variety of white balance presets, as well as better fine control over them, a larger range of exposure compensation, and more options for image quality, and setting focus areas across the 51-autofocus points. Where the Sony has a little victory is that is has more picture effects/color modes, which are useful to some shooters.
Nikon D90 Comparison
The D90 outperformed the D3x in color accuracy and dynamic range, but scored lower with long exposure, resolution and white balance. All of these scores are within a point or two of one another, which indicates that at the most fundamental level, the image quality between the two cameras will be comparable.
The D3x's components are generally superior to the D90. It has two CompactFlash slots versus the single SD card on the D90, a better viewfinder, and a longer battery life. It also has the advantage of a full-frame sensor, and greater lens compatibility over the D90 due to its ability to take both FX and DX lenses . In the D90's favor, it has a built-in flash, though that's irrelevant if you're shooting in a studio setting.
While no featherweight, the D90 is substantially smaller and lighter than the D3x. While the two share a manufacturer, they implement two different Nikon control schemes. The less expensive camera has a mode dial, and many of its buttons are used for more than one function, where the D3x buttons are almost entirely single use. While this latter approach requires more real estate, it means less time is spent navigating menus, or pondering which multi-purpose button will accomplish what in a given camera mode.
It's no surprise that the D3x has a much more robust set of controls compared to the D90. It has a wider range of ISOs, more focus options, greater control over image size and format, faster shutter and burst speeds and the shooting bank system which lets you save sets of configurations to return to at a later date. While the D90 is hardly short on manual controls, it just can't match the breadth of choice offered by the D3x.