Nikon D3 Digital Camera Reviewed

by Bjørn Rørslett

First published 24 December, 2007


1. Introduction

Every one waited for Nikon to move up to the next level of digital sensor size, the "full-sized" FX or 35mm-like solution. Years went by and seemingly nothing happened. We admired Nikon's clever ergonomic solutions and at least some of us ogled the high-ISO performance of the competition with a little envy. Then, Nikon struck back with a camera advertised to "defy the limitations" no less.

The D3 is not only a 35mm-frame camera, it is so much more and with high-ISO performance unheard and undreamt of as well. With a blazing firing rate up to 9 fps(FX)/11 fps(DX), this is a sports and action shooter's dream camera come true. But what can it achieve for other fields of photography? In this review, I shall try to elaborate these aspects of this new Nikon DSLR. Consider this more akin to a personal travelogue written as I made myself familiar with the D3 rather than a compilation of features.


Blue Rain at Dusk, by D3

Blue Rain at Dusk

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

Who would even consider shooting at insanely high ISO settings before the arrival of the D3? Now, you can, with Nikon. Its more about avaialble darkness than available light these days. Light was fading fast when I found this subject, so an ISO setting of 4000 was needed to allow me to do this shot hand-held with my 35/1.4 at 1/30 sec. I could even afford the luxury of stopping down a little to get the foreground rendered with sufficient depth.

The D3 is the first FX format digital camera from Nikon, and as such being eagerly awaited by diehard Nikon users. Instead of the misnomer "full frame" (what camera hasn't got that?), Nikon introduced the FX format, specified to be 23.9 x 36 mm, within a hair's width of the 24 x 36 mm format we associate to 35 mm film-based cameras of days just gone. They even went one better by allowing the camera not only to shoot FX format, but also the existing DX or a new 5:4 aspect ratio format. The DX format can be engaged automatically when a DX lens is mounted if the camera has this option set, or the desired image area (FX, 5:4, DX) can be selected later under actual shooting.

Nikon has researched "full frame" imagers since the days of the venerable D1 camera that introduced the DX (15.6 x 23.7 mm) format, but the company's engineers did not feel they could achieve the quality they wanted just by scaling up a DX chip. In true adherence to the Nikon heritage they used the time deemed necessary to come up with the solutions they felt had the imaging quality needed. Mouths were tight-lipped meanwhile and the pressure from the world-wide community of impatient Nikon users must have been immense. No wonder the Nikon CEO and top-ranking officials were visibly proud when they, finally, could show their long awaited product.

I will not spend too much time on describing all the features on the D3, because plenty of this information is floating around on the better web sites already. Or, you may get a brochure from a dealer or download a PDF file from one of the official Nikon sites. Relevant points and issues are covered during this review article. For a user of the D1/D1X/D1H/D2H/D2X models, the interface of the D3 will be very intuitive, and I think most people will take an instant liking to the sheer feel and handling ease of this camera.

Compared to the predecessor, the D2X, the manual of the D3 has ballooned to nearly the double size and at 476 pages clearly shows that the new camera has an intimidating complexity. Thus, reviewing such a camera is a formidable task and for an unpaid reviewer like myself, a major undertaking. I would also base a review upon actually using the camera for a wide range of shooting applications, in order to eastablish what it can or cannot achieve in terms of picture quality and practical usefulness. It should be understood that I always review gear in the context I myself intend to use it. Thus, if you find a feature of high interest to you not dealt with in detail, this isn't because I glossed over that aspect but simply means it isn't of equal interest to me. My only prerogative as an unpaid reviewer as it were.

For each new series of a digital camera, I as an end user sincerely hope they finally have come of age. I simply wish to go on shooting like I always have done, not needing to pay much attention to the actual media within the camera itself, be it film or digital. So far into the digital epoch, my hopes have been unfulfilled as a whole although the digital image quality all along has endeared the technology to me. With D3, the ghost of the film era might eventually be laid to rest - or is this hope not yet fulfilled? Read on to find out my observations. Please note that the illustrations of this review article are quite large and thus demand a certain bandwidth.

The King's Oak, by D3

The King's Oak

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

We are back to a shooting experience in which a short lens is ultra wide, in this case it is the 14-24 mm f/2.8 AFS Nikkor having 114 degrees picture angle. Useful for something, I'd guess, in particular when you can shoot at 1600 ISO and f/22 for a change.

This nice Summer oak tree is set in a rural landscape outside my home town, Oslo, and has a documented long history extending hundreds of years back in time. It is protected under the Nature conservancy Act but that obviously does not prevent Modern Times from encroaching on it.

I got the first production sample of the D3 to arrive in Norway in November, 2007, and set immediately out on a long journey to acquaint myself with this complex camera. Many new angles of approach have been followed and more emerged along with the progress of the testing. The hectic research and testing of the last couple of months have eclipsed my ordinary picture-taking activity, so please bear this in mind when you read the article as a whole. I'll come up with better images later on, when the conditions settle back to normal. Moreover, I'd like to have any factual or writing error(s) pointed out to me, because you do tend to miss them in the last publishing stage (if you disagree with my findings, this is of course entirely OK, but disagreement doesn't constitute an error as such).

This review will find itself in a draft stage for a while as I'm undoubtedly will be redoing parts of it or adding more information to sections I feel need so. This is normal for a review of this kind and merely reflects that there is a limit to the amount of contiguous time I can spend writing up such stuff.

I also avail myself of the opportunity to elaborate and clarify a few points of potential interest. It is true that I was invited by Nikon Europe BV to attend the official Nikon D3 Launch in Tokyo in August, 2007. It is also a fact that Nikon has asked to sponsor my reviewing activity, an offer which I have politely declined. Thus, I have to purchase Nikon gear like everybody else, but sometimes I can negotiate a fair price. If all of this makes me a Nikon mouthpiece, feel free to think so and just ignore my numerous published critical comments to Nikon products on my web pages and elsewhere. I trust people are able to make up their own minds.

Nikon D3 Reviewed

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Last update 2 January, 2008