It was bold to call the Nikon D3 "the Greatest Nikon Ever" on our January 2008 cover -- especially before testing a production model of this $5,000 (street, body only) 12.1MP pro DSLR in the Pop Photo Lab. Now our audacity is justified: The D3 sprinted through our image quality, noise, dynamic range, burst capacity, and AF-speed performance tests. Here are five tested reasons the D3 deserves the title we bestowed.
INCREDIBLE IMAGE QUALITY
By loading a full-frame 12.1MP sensor into the D3, Nikon bowed out of the megapixel race. For most pro assignments, the detail it captures is more than what's needed -- enough to make high-quality enlargements of up to 14x21 inches (at 200 ppi).
At ISO 200, its 2320 lines of tested resolution for JPEGs (an Excellent rating) are nearly identical to Nikon's 12.3MP D300 ($1,800, street, body only), tested in our February 2008 issue. That's no surprise, since both cameras use the same focusing system and EXPEED image-processing engine (and we tested both with the same Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens). They also capture similar resolution in RAW files.
But when shooting JPEGs at the Low Noise Reduction setting, the D3's image resolution drops only slightly to 2210 lines at ISO 6400 -- about 5 percent sharper than the D300 at ISO 3200 and above. Even at the extended ISO of 25,600, JPEGs from the D3 still earn an Excellent resolution rating with 2020 lines, although artifacts of noise reduction, such as lower contrast in shadow areas, are painfully obvious.
In both JPEG and RAW files, color accuracy maintains an Excellent rating from ISO 200 to 6400 (7.28 to 7.02 average Delta E), and contrast ranges from slightly high to slightly low, depending on ISO.
Using noise control at high ISOs, the D3 earns an Excellent image quality rating from ISO 200 to ISO 3200. Like the D300, which also garnered an Excellent rating up to ISO 3200, images at ISO 6400 fell just short of Excellent due to obvious noise in shadows (though less than with the D300).
Even at ISO 200, the added light-gathering capability of the larger pixels on the D3's full-frame sensor beats the D300. Shooting RAW takes advantage of its lower noise and 14-bits-per-color capture. And it gives you much more flexibility, especially when using the supplied Capture NX 1.3 software to convert NEF RAW to 16-bit TIFF files.[Nikon originally stated that Capture NX would be included in the software bundle. That was updated after we went to press. A trial version is included, and the full version of Capture NX is available for $129 street price.]
Capture NX's exposure and noise reduction controls let you strike a balance between resolution and noise, depending on your needs. For example, at ISO 6400 you can crank up noise reduction to High (100 setting) to minimize noise (Moderately Low rating), while softening detail by 10 to 20 percent. At this setting, images with lots of skin tones, highlight areas, and midtone shades look as though they were shot at ISO 800 or 1600 on many other DSLRs.
Or you can maximize detail by turning noise reduction down. This makes shadow noise more obvious at ISO 3200 and above, while overall noise creeps up to Moderate, but fine details are maintained. Even at ISO 25,600, where noise is Unacceptable, color images converted to black-and-white will pass muster for newspaper use. For this reason alone we expect to see the D3 being used without flash by photojournalists in a variety of shooting conditions -- even dimly lit sports events.
The metering system and automatic scene recognition help select accurate exposures in tough lighting. And pros will appreciate its ability to bracket up to 9 exposures (in 1/3-stop increments) and to bracket white balance -- while shooting at high burst rates of up to 9 frames per second (in full-frame mode) or 11 fps (in 5.1MP DX cropped mode).
Yes, we've seen this advanced 51-zone autofocus system with 15 highly sensitive cross-type sensors before -- on the Nikon D300, our 2007 Camera of the Year. Indeed, the D3's full-frame capture makes the active area of these sensors a smaller percentage of the overall scene, giving the D300 a slight advantage in tracking.
The D3 uses the same Multi-CAM 3500FX module for AF as the D300 and performs at nearly identical speeds at all light levels. It focuses super-fast in bright light and takes less than 1 second to focus in extremely low light at EV -2 (think several feet away from a 5-year-old's birthday cake). In field tests, it also showed prowess in locking onto skin tones and tracking a subject by color.