Nikon D3 Digital Camera Reviewed

by Bjørn Rørslett  

3. Other Features

With the Nikon D3, you get a bewildering host of features included. Some of these are carried over from the earlier models whilst others are new to the D3. I'll run you quickly through some of the most important ones. "Important" as in being of priority for myself.


GPS: Getting to know where you are

Like all pro-calibre Nikon DSLRs since the D1X/H (D2H is the only exception), the D3 allows recording of GPS data directly to the EXIF header of the image file. This data is saved irrespective of file format so if you shoot NEF + Jpg, each file will receive the identical GPS information. Very nifty. The GPS items considered are latitude, longitude, altitude, GPS satellite time in UTC format, and compass heading. Not all GPS units will output a heading so in this case GPS heading is set to a zero value. The positional data is written to the EXIF with a DMS format (decimal degree-minutes-seconds) having three digits precision to the seconds value, which should suffice in most applications.

I have used my D3 with various GPS devices. Besides the Garmin eTrex linked to a MC-35 cable, I also have used the di-GPS N2 ( that connects through the 10-pin port, and the BlueTooth-based "Unleashed" model from The latter sits directly onto the remote terminal and is unobtrusive in actual use. All of the GPS solutions worked well, but see the caveats described later.

The GPS menu has an option to allow the camera’s meter to switch off automatically and thus not being kept alive while waiting for a GPS signal. This will clearly extend the battery life of the D3. The "Enabled" option works very well with all GPS units that communicate over a serial connector to the 10-pin terminal of the camera, such as the Garmin Etrex and similar units. However, this mode will conflict with the stand-by mode of BlueTooth devices. In the latter case, once the GPS has gone to stand-by and the GPS:Auto Meter Off is enabled, the camera will record shots without activating the GPS at all. Probably not what the user wants. So then one has no choice but to use the "Disabled" option. Since this will keep the meter active, you have to use the on/off switch on the camera if you don’t wish its meter to stay on all the time.

Another GPS option is to have the camera showing the GPS positional data in real time. This can be useful if a GPS device without its own display is hooked up to the D3. All right, you could snap a picture and read the GPS data from there, but it is a little more awkward approach.

Somebody may question why GPS information is needed for practical photography. Of course knowing the geographical location on its own won’t improve your picture. But for a host of applications, scientific and well as non-scientific, GPS support is a huge benefit I for one wouldn’t be without. My aim is to have 95% of my shots GPS-annotated.


LiveView - the ultimate tool for the specialist?

One, if not the, most exciting of the new features on the D3 is the LiveView (LV). You select LV mode by the release mode dial to the upper left of the finder. What occurs next depends on a number of factors including how the camera is set up. Under the Shooting menu, there is a "LiveView" entry that allows you to select Hand-held or Tripod mode, plus the release mode (S=Single, CL=Continuous Low, CH=Continous High). What is not present is the options to combine LV with mirror lock-up or the self timer. More on this later. If you have the Camera Control Pro 2.0 software installed, you can do LV remotely as well, an option that surely would seem to be useful. You can select the focus point and navigate it around within the frame. In tripod mode, real-time contrast detection AF is employed so the AF point can be positioned anywhere, in hand-held mode, the usual AF sensors and their locations apply.

LiveView basically just exhibits in real time what the imager captures. So the mirror has to be lifted up and the shutter opened, and this happens when LV is engaged and you press the shutter release. Or so I thought, but my D3 just refused to do anything. The underlying cause for this unexpected behaviour proved difficult to track down and also casts a less flattering light over the way Nikon thinks the camera should be configured and operated.

Hidden in a note on p. 340 of the D3 Instruction manual, it is stated that LV is not available when the [Aperture Ring] alternative of custom function f7 is selected, and a CPU lens with an aperture ring is attached to the camera. Now, this statement is inaccurate and misleading at best, since LV will be available, but when you try to initiate LV, the camera does not respond and effectively locks up. No image appears on the LCD and no warning is given, and the elaborate LV description on pp 90-102 does not address this issue at all. Since you indeed can use LV in a situation the Manual says you can’t (because the feature is claimed to be unavailable), I consider this a serious flaw in the implementation. More so that the unprepared user will have no clue as to why the camera refuses to work. And who will peruse a 400+ page manual to discover the pertinent caveat that is deeply hidden within the text?

Now, setting up the camera to be able to use the aperture ring for its intended purpose is of course the approach a good deal of users, yours truly included, will prefer. Many reasons for this exist, and Nikon has acknowledged their user’s wish by making the control through the aperture ring a legitimate option for the camera’s configuration. Obviously the guys programming that section of the firmware didn’t speak to the other guys doing the LV stuff, so you end up with a hidden incompatibiilty that can lock up the camera. Trying to circumvent the difficulty by putting a well-concealed note (on p. 340) in a thick manual is a lame solution. Besides, there is absolutely no reason for this issue anyway, since with a non-CPU lens you do have to rotate the lens aperture ring no matter which aperture mode you have selected (with custom function f7).

For photomacrography (shooting at life-size 1:1 or greater detail magnification), LV would appear to be a godsend feature. Unfortunately, such applications also exhibit the weakness of the current LV implementation. You can't combine LV with mirror lock-up or the self-timer feature, either of which would secure an exposure devoid of vibrations. The best you can get is approximately 1 sec of delay before the shutter fires. This simply is not enough for many practical situations in which LV would be useful. You can of course manually adjust from LV to Mirror Lock-up on the camera itself, but since that involves touching the carefully focused camera this sort of defeats the entire LV concept. All the more peculiar since you should be able to set the relevant modes directly from the Camera Control Pro and not rely on using some of your the old-fashioned ten digits as it were.

My impression is that Nikon now has become "G-centric" to a point where they fail to realise that many users don’t want the "G" feature at all, or indeed specifically wish to use the aperture ring. Not only that, but if you intend to achieve a maximum precision of exposure accuracy, such as in time-lapse photography, much better results will be achieved with aperture control on the lens. Nikon has made LV more of a mess than they needed to do. When designing such features, why not communicate with real photographers instead of relying on the [limited] perspective of engineers?

I have voiced complaints about this mess to Nikon Europe so hopefully at least an update of the instruction manual is conducted. I consider the current implementation of LV to be severely flawed and with the added lack of interaction with other release modes, these issues cause the potential of LV not at all to be unleashed. A real pity.


The lens arsenal for the D3

A good many people have used their possession of older Nikkors as an argument for getting an FX camera. This is so they could use their old lenses with the anticipated picture angle from the 35mm film days. One can of course question the rationality of this approach since many new lenses show optical progress and quality possibly not present in the older offerings. Now, while numerous people don't hesitate to purchase a new-fangled DSLR model, it also is a fact that many wish to employ their existing lenses instead of buying new ones with each new camera. So, if whatever imaging quality an existing lens might have could be brought back to practical life with the D3, then most users would be very pleased. I'll deal with image quality aspects later in the review, so here are just my notes on the compatibility issues

Initial lens assessment

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

A whole raft of old and new Nikkors are available for the new Nikon D3. A hectic test session of my lenses followed the arrival of the D3. Having CPUs in the older lenses is a benefit but not a requirement, since the D3 will do matrix metering also with them provided lens data is entered into the camera.

Seen here is some of my older manual-focus Nikkors, most of which are CPU-enabled, plus the 10.5 mm f/2.8 Fisheye-Nikkor DX that has been modified for the FX format by having its lens hood sawed off (using the straightforward hack-saw approach).

Hot coffee is sine qua non for serious test work.

The D3 will allow a vast majority of existing "F-mount lenses to be deployed on the camera. The exceptions are, in common with all newer Nikons, the use of non-AI lenses (produced earlier than 1977) unless they are AI-modified, and some specialised lenses that require the reflex mirror to be locked up (mainly a few fisheye lenses from the '60s, plus the 21mm f/4 non-retrofocus wide-angle lens of the same era). Suffice to say that a lack of suitable lens alternatives never will be an issue for a D3 owner. To illustrate the backwards compatibility, I even shot the D3 with my vintage 25 cm f/4 Nikkor-Q (S-mount) from 1951, mounted with the N-F adapter from 1960.

Almost all Nikkors which can be mounted on the D3 will behave in the way the user expects. Quality is often nicer on the D3 than we are accustomed with the identical lens on a DX camera. Lenses that perform well on the D3 often show very low levels of the hitherto ubiquitous red/cyan kind of CA so often seen with DSLRs. Some of the improvement could be caused by the sensor technology of the D3, some could be due to the internal data massage conducted by the EXPEED imaging processing engine, and some could be example of synergy between the sensor and the "draw" of the lens. The reduced incidence of chromatic errors (CA) and vignetting in the corners may or may not be the result of the EXPEED's wizardry. Sometimes these improvements are clearly seen also on NEFs processed outside the Nikon software domain, sometimes you need the native jpgs or NX-processed RAW files to see a better result. All of this makes lens testing and reviewing harder than ever before. I continue to update my D3 experiences with various lenses on my Lens Survey pages, so take a quick look there to see if your old favourite seemingly works well on this camera. Some of the classic Nikkors that do very well on the D3 comprise 24/2.8, 28/2, 35/1.4, 50/1.8, 85/1.4, 105/2.5, and 180/2.8 ED. Plus all the various Micro-Nikkors, of course.

However, a few older Nikkors can give surprises. Thus I earlier reported that the 15 mm f/5.6 QDC Nikkor gave issues with the D3. Later this turned out to be a mechanical aligment issue so after repair the lens now works quite well, although metering is a little off. The 18 mm f/3.5 Nikkor shot wide open will give strange pictures in which only the centre is well defined and most of the frame goes very dark. However, stopped down to f/11 or so, the image appears crisp and sharp into the corners.

Some lenses and accessories, expressedly listed in the Manual (p. 380) as being incompatible with the D3, in fact work perfectly well. Examples are the K-rings, the pre-AI version of the 180-600 mm f/8 Zoom-Nikkor, and the 35 mm PC-Nikkor. Non-AI lenses in general will jam the AI coupler tab on the camera and potentially can damage it, so shouldn't be used unless properly AI-modified.

The D3 will allow DX lenses manufactured for the DX format cameras to be used unimpeded. You can have the camera fall back to DX mode automatically once a DX lens is used, or select the DX image size at your own preference. A question often voiced is the future of the DX lens line. Whilst it is true these lenses work equally well on the D3 as they do on any DX-format camera, their image quality outside the limits of the DX frame in general is not outstanding and frequently just barely passable. One exception to this general assertion is the 10.5mm f/2.8 DX Fisheye, that with its lens hood removed (by surgical means, or a hack-saw, since the hood is integrated with the lens barrel) will capture no less than 200° in its angle of view.

With the arrival of the D3, I envision that the DX lens concept slowly will be phased out. New lenses likely will be developed jointly for the DX/FX formats. Cheap consumer zoom lenses probably will continue to thrive on the DX specifications, though.

The handling of non-CPU lenses by D3 is a step backwards compared to what the D2-class cameras could offer. What lets the D3 down here is that you have only 9 slots to fill in with lens specific data, and the data in practice has to be entered in advance. The ability to set up the lens on the fly as you could do with the D2-series no longer exists and this makes the entire system much less flexible. With the D2 approach, items were automatically sorted on focal length whilst with the D3, the ordering follows whatever sequence in which the user choose to input the items. Needless to say, photographers aren’t more rational than any other human beings, so the sequence of the lens alternatives easily gets out of numerical order. Then, selecting the proper lens takes much longer time since you have to scroll through more items on an average.

Another drawback with the D3 solution is that it becomes extremely impractical to add meaningful EXIF data when you shoot a PC-Nikkor or similar lens with a preset aperture collar. On the D2-series, you obtained the exposure reading with the lens wide open and in a neutral position, then set the aperture on the fly for the EXIF data using the front dial, closed down the lens and shot. With the D3, you must add the specific aperture to the non-CPU lens list prior to shooting in order to get the correct data in the EXIF, or alternatively, activate the menu system, navigate to the non-CPU lens programming section to change the aperture setting for your lens there, then shoot. A kludge if I ever saw one.

Dear Nikon, please give us the D2x interface back for the non-CPU lenses. Please, please. Or I have to put a customised CPU into every Nikkor not so endowed. Maybe not the biggest threat there is, but I'll do it nevertheless - for my own lenses of course.

Nikon has not gone all the way with the MF compatibility, however, because you cannot use exposure modes other than "A" or "M" with them, but matrix metering will work. Since setting the actual aperture of any Nikkor can be done from the camera, as long as the camera identifies the lens in use, I was in the beginning a little surprised that "P" or "S" modes wouldn't work (not that I would fall into the trap of using these "exposure for dummies"-modes, of course). Neither is it possible to set apertures for non-CPU MF lenses by the command dial (if the MF lens gets a CPU implanted in it, however, you can use the dials although Nikon won't acknowledge this possibility). My analysis is that Nikon could easily implement these features if they wanted, but refrained from doing so as not to run into trouble with inaccurate exposure if an AI'd or AI lens was used. These older lenses have a non-linear response to stopping down the aperture, and you should always set the aperture directly on the lens, not with the camera's controls. Saved by the bell as it were, Nikon to the user's rescue.

If you are more into the fancier kind of lenses that involves AFS, VR, and G technology, there is no lack of alternatives in the current line of Nikkors. All AF/AFI/AFS lenses made by Nikon since the mid '80s will work on the D3 (the three Nikkors made for the F3AF are the sole exception). For the maximum quality in the wide range, you should consider adding the new AFS 14-24 mm f/2.8 to your arsenal. The older 17-35/2.8 AFS works well enough, but the corners can be a little on the soft side when the lens is set to its widest range unless you stop down a bit.


Other nifty features

In common with the D2-series, surely to hearten any gadgetry freak, we have a voice-recording feature on the D3. You record by pressing a small "mic" button and talk into a tiny hole on the rear. Sound quality clearly isn't exactly up to hi-fi standards, but the system works inobtrusively and reliably as well, and you can even listen to your own distorted voice emanating from the camera (run through a better sound system, the quality isn't really that bad, though). You can record up to 60 seconds of sound into a .WAV file, which will accompany your image file(s). The WAV file gets the same sequence number as the JPG /NEF file(s) and its presence is duly noted in the EXIF header, too.

Several improvements may not be the ones hitting the front pages, but they are important for the end user nevertheless. The release button for switching lenses is now much bigger and easier to use, even when you wear thick gloves (remember I'm a Norwegian and we endure, or try to endure, our cold winters). The eyepiece is secured with a locking catch and you are no longer going to have to replace them every month or so. Although the eyepiece (DK-17) is new, you can still use the nice DK-2 rubber eyecups with it. The command wheels front and rear are duplicated to give better control of the camera used for shooting verticals, a nice touch. They are also set at a slight angle to be more ergonomic in use.

Data transfer is over a USB2.0 port, safely but - in my opinion - not conveniently placed on the camera's left hand side. Nikon officials stated that the decision to replace Firewire connectivity with USB had been based upon the wider occurrence of USB-enabled computers and laptops. USB is deemed hot, Firewire is not. On an old PC/Mac, the connection falls back to USB1.x to ensure full backwards compatibility. I'd rather prefer FireWire to USB of any kind, but realize my voice isn't heard here. And I can still transfer images using my CF-cards of course. Since D3 is FAT32-aware, I believe there is no practical upper limit to the size of the cards you can deploy with it.

The ports for connection of external power (EH-6 A/C adapter, same as the D2-series) and video (NTSC/PAL plus a separate HDMI port) have also been moved to the left side, just as on D2X. A real pity, and very inconvenient compared to the earlier models. The relocation of the ports means I have to redesign my "L" bracket for the D3-series, and I won't be able to get equally solid support when the camera is mounted for taking vertical shots. Rats. Fortunately, the PC flash outlet and the remote control connector are still found in front, at their usual positions. The earlier models had small plastic caps to cover these front terminals, they were awkward to unscrew and easily lost. Personally I just removed these caps and threw them away before starting to use the camera. Now, on the D3, there are rubber flaps to cover the PC sync and 10-pin outlets. This appears nice and unobtrusive until the flaps are opened to give access to the respective port, then they are even more bothersome than the previous caps since they interfere with operation of the camera. Oh well, a judicious cut with a sharp pair of scissors and the problem is solved. I've shot my Nikons without these covers for many years under very adverse weather conditions and have never experienced any issue, so my guess is that the D3 will keep up that field-proven tradition.

Gadgetry is of course taken to the next level with the D3 supporting wireless image transmission with the WT-4 WLAN at up to 54 Mb/s. Thankfully this feature is a separate unit and not incorporated in the body itself. It connects through the USB port on the left side of the camera and thus will adversely impact the way you can tripod-mount the camera. I cannot see myself using FTP data transfer to my car if I ever venture more than 100 meters away from it, but realise a lot of sport photographers covering big events could fall head over heels in love with this gadget. Also, the WT-4 improves on the earlier WT-1/2/3 made for D2-series in a number of ways. Thus, you can not only download image data in real time, but manage the camera and its settings as well, so as to control it remotely. Even the LiveView function can be operated remotely. Up to 5 cameras can be managed concurrently on a WLAN. No WT-4 device was available for testing before this review was posted, but I'm promised a unit in the near future so will update the review accordingly.

For people complaining about "back" or "front" focus in AF, there now is an AF Fine-tune feature. This allows you to readjust the AF behaviour of up to 12 different lenses. Please note that the correction is applied to the generic lens model, not to a particular sample. So if you have say access to two AF 180 Nikkors, one with and another without focusing issues, they will be treated alike by the AF Fine-tune. The only AF/AFS lens in my lens arsenal that demanded the use of the AF Fine-tune was the 105/2 DC Nikkor. Without any correction, the lens simply would not focus properly at all so the image wasn't soft it was totally unfocused. After some fiddling with the AF Fine-tune, it behaved perfectly. Note you have to "OK" the suggested adjustment of focus before you try if it works, so if you can't see any differecne despite adjustment, forgetting to store a new value is the likely explanation (or the lens might not need correction). Nikon claims that this feature should be unnecessary in nearly all cases and my experiences bear this out.

A potentially useful feature is the Metering fine-tune option (Custom menu b6). This allows you to relocate the "0" reference point for any of the metering systems off the D3. I have availed myself of this feature since the D2-series appeared, and set the reference point for Matrix metering to -1/6 EV. Please note that this relocation of the zero point will not show up anywhere else, so in this respect it is a kind of hidden global adjustment.

Image Authentication is available on the D3 like it was on the D2Xs and later also on the D300. You need to play this feature from two sides, firstly, turn on the option in the camera, secondly, run the protected files through Nikon's dedicated software during the post-processing stages. A must for CSI purposes and the ultimate weapon against any "manipulation" accusation. Perfect for boring photography as well.

The last item of the feature list discussed here is the Virtual Horizon. This is a display on the rear LCD aiming to show how the camera is tilted, so you can align your horizons. However, since the measurement only is along the major axis of the camera, the usefulness of this feature is severely limited for practical shooting. My advice is to keep your bubble-levels in the camera bag also for the future.

Nikon D3 Reviewed

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Last update 9 January, 2008