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Introducing The Nikon D3

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The announcement of the D3 heralds the new FX-format (23.9 x 35.9 mm) sensor, introduced for the first time in a Nikon D-SLR, and represents a considerable feat on the part of Nikon's engineers to have incorporated a sensor of this size in a camera body that retains the classic Nikon "F" lens mount, to maintain Nikon's longstanding commitment to retrospective compatibility with many earlier Nikkor lenses. The linear dimensions of the image forming area are 23.9 x 35.9 mm, which offers three principle benefits:

  • Lenses designed for the 35mm 135-format film will offer the same angle of view
  • The depth of field of these lenses will be identical to the effect achieved with 35mm film camera bodies
  • The larger pixel pitch, the pixels on the FX-format sensor are 8.45 microns square, improves their light gathering ability, which in turn should help improve the quality of noise performance. Allied to this Nikon have taken the opportunity to completely re-worked the in-camera image processing, now called Expeed, with a 12-channel output from the sensor supported by an amplifier for each pixel column on the sensor, a new Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC), and user selectable 14-bit depth processing for NEF raw files.
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The new FX-format CMOS sensor in the D3 is a first for Nikon.

The D3 has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve regarding the sensor; at default settings the camera will automatically detect when a DX-format Nikkor lens is attached and apply the in-camera crop to 16 x 24 mm (there is an option to override this feature if you wish), and for any photographer who likes to print to traditional sizes of paper (e.g. 10 x 8 inches) there is a 5:4 ratio crop that reduces the frame area to 24 x 30 mm. In each case a masking system that uses the same liquid polymer system of the D2Xs operates automatically in the viewfinder to define the actual image area, reducing the non-imaging area to a darker and de-focussed view.

At their full resolution the D2Xs and D3 have near identical figures: 4,288 x 2,848 and 4,256 x 2,832 respectively. So why should the D3 be better than the D2Xs? First, aside the greater light gathering ability the larger pixel pitch of the D3 should mean working at smaller aperture values (higher f/# number) for extended depth of field will be possible before the effects of diffraction become noticeable. Second, the claim of significantly improved noise performance from the D3 should render much smoother tones, especially in the dark tone areas. Couple this with the ability to capture images at a 14-bit depth and there is a promise of a conspicuous improvement in image quality; however, only testing in real world conditions will establish the true capabilities of the D3.

Sensor aside Nikon have introduced an awful lot of new features and functions on the D3. The auto focus system has a new 3500-pixel sensor the Multi CAM-3500FX, which provides no less than 51 individual sensing points in a high-density cluster at the centre of the frame area. The central 15 of these sensing areas are cross-types sensitive to detail in both horizontal and vertical orientation. The remaining 36 sensing points, which are all line type areas sensitive to detail orientated in the perpendicular to the sensing area, are split in to two groups of 18, one either side of the 15 cross-type areas. In the DX-crop mode this cluster of 51 AF points fills virtually the full frame. The camera also offers the ability to fine-tune the AF response to individual lenses. The monitor screen is now a huge 3-inch, TFT LCD, with 920,000 pixels that will make assessing image sharpness in-camera a viable process.

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The new Multi-CAM 3500FX concentrates all 51 AF sensing points in the central area of the frame; to be candid I have some reservations about this configuration due to the lack of coverage in the outer field area but will reserve judgement until I have tested a production camera. The central 15 sensing points (shaded green for purposes of the graphic) are cross types, whilst the two clusters of 18 sensing points on either side are all line types
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Using the DX-format in-camera crop the AF points offer an extended coverage; to assist accurate composition when using DX Nikkor lenses the non-image forming area is greyed out using a liquid polymer mask similar to the system in the D2Xs

In a move inherited from the entry-level D40-series cameras the shooting information can be displayed on the rear monitor screen, in full colour. Plus, Nikon has introduced LiveView, a real-time video output to the monitor screen that enables you to compose the picture without having to use the viewfinder display. The LiveView feature uses a contrast-based autofocus system as opposed to the phase detection system for normal AF operation, and in its "tripod" mode this enable autofocus to be set from any point on the monitor screen, not just the 51 AF sensing areas.

Other new tweaks and twists include:

  • A dual CompactFlash card ports that can be set to run concurrently, so you can either create an in-camera back-up as you take pictures, or separate NEF and JPEG files onto different cards, alternative the two cards can be used consecutively to increase shooting capacity.
  • The ability to rattle along at 9 frames per second (fps) in the FX-format and up to 11 fps in DX-format: although at the highest rate the AF and auto-exposure systems do not operate between exposures. The shutter unit is tested to 300,000 cycles, twice the limit of any previous professional Nikon SLR camera.
  • Nikon's engineers have designed an innovative modification to the tried and tested 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor to create the Scene Recognition System. By adding a diffraction grating in front of the sensor it enables the camera to distinguish a subject's shape and position to help improve both auto exposure and auto focus accuracy.
  • A user controllable fine-tuning mechanism to offset any error in autofocus experienced with a specific lens(es).
  • A Virtual Horizon Adjustment feature that looks as though it has been lifted straight out of an aircraft's cockpit display will be very useful for photographers that need to shoot pictures with a level camera, such as ensuring straight horizons; however I am not sure it will replace a hotshoe mounted bubble level, the display only accounts for camera tilt to the left or right but offers no assistance when aligning the pitch of the camera up or down.
  • The option to save NEF Raw files as uncompressed, or in two states of compression: as compressed (visually lossless, 40-55% compression rates) or losslessly compressed (numerically identical after decompression, 20-40% compression rates).
  • The 10-pin remote and PC-sync terminals have the integrated rubber covers from the F6.
  • The D3 has a built-in corrective function for the effects of chromatic aberration, so the results from all lenses should show improvement (the same feature is included in the D300).
  • A new, separate wireless transmitter, the WT-4/WT4a, which has its own independent power supply for improved performance of both camera and transmitter. By adopting this single, autonomous design the device is also compatible with the D300, and probably future camera models as well.
  • Finally, Nikon have thankfully spared us another new battery - the D3 uses the same EN-EL4/EN-EL4a battery, as the D2-series cameras. A new, twin-battery charger the MH-22 will be supplied with the camera; alternatively the current MH-21 charger can be used.

Where next?

The path ahead would appear to be fairly clear. Given the relatively low volume sales of the D2H/Hs and the quantum leap forward offered by the D3 for news gathering and sports photographers it looks to be a foregone conclusion that D2Hs production has ceased. The D2X/Xs models may continue for a while, although at much reduced production volumes, and I expect that Nikon will be in no hurry to discontinue the D200, because at its current price point that may even drop very slightly post D300 introduction, the two mid-range cameras provide sufficient price differential to offer buyers viable options.

Once the D3, and D300 become available (November 2007 - although demand is likely to out

trip supply for sometime) the Nikon D-SLR line-up will have strength and depth with one notable exception - a high resolution, FX-format model. Prototypes of such a camera have doubtless been built and tested but as to when (dare I suggest if) one would appear, as a full production model, and what the specification/price will be is anyone's guess. It does seem inconceivable that the Nikon Corporation would not want to capitalise on the bedrock of success that their entry-level (D40-series) and mid-range (D80 / D200) cameras have built over the course of the past year (remember in these sectors Nikon have out-sold Canon for the past three quarters in Japan), and as they appear to be right back in the game with professional camera for news/sports photographers, a professional grade, FX-format camera with a high resolution would meet the demands of studio, landscape, and fine-art photographers, and be a significant step toward their goal of securing and maintaining a 40% market share across all user groups.

In light of this I am confident such a camera is not far over the horizon, and as well as being a leap year, 2008 sees both the PMA show (1st - 4th Feb) in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, and Photokina (23rd - 28th Sept) in Cologne, Germany, either of which would provide an auspicious occasion for Nikon to make the announcement all Nikon devotees have been waiting for!

Nikon D3 & D2Xs Comparative Specification

The basic specification of the new D3 is set out in the following table, with details of the D2Xs alongside for the purposes of comparison. Significant differences are highlighted in red. The full press release with specification can be seen at here.

Feature D2Xs D3
Effective Pixels 12.4 million 12.1 million
Format Nikon DX (15.6 x 23.7 mm) Nikon FX (23.9 x 35.9 mm)
Pixel Pitch 5.49 microns 8.45 microns
Senor readout 4-channel 12-channel
Analog-to-Digital Conversion 12-bit Optional 12-bit, or 14-bit
Self-cleaning sensor No No
Image Size 4,288 x 2,848 4,256 x 2,832
In Camera Cropping Yes. Hi-Speed Crop: 3,216 x 2,136 (6.8MP) Yes. 5:4 crop: 3,552 x 2,832 (10MP) DX crop: 2,784 x 1,848 (5.1MP)
ISO Range 100 - 800 200 - 6400
Low ISO No Yes - 100
High ISO Yes - 3200 Yes - 25,600
Storage Media CompactFlash (single card port) CompactFlash (twin card ports)
UDMA support No Yes. Write speed of 35MB/sec
Storage options Uncompressed NEF, Compressed NEF, JPEG Uncompressed NEF, Compressed NEF (2 options: visually lossless, and lossless), JPEG
White Balance Auto, 6 manual settings, Kelvin, and Preset Auto, 6 manual settings, Kelvin, and Preset
Active D-Lighting No Yes
LCD Monitor 2.5" 230,000 TFT LCD 3.0" 920,000 TFT LCD
Live View No Yes
Interface Hi-Speed USB 2.0 Hi-Speed USB 2.0
Chassis Metal Alloy Metal Alloy
Lens Mount Nikon F Nikon F
Support for non-CPU type Nikkor lenses Yes Yes
Viewfinder eye-point 19.9mm 19.5mm
Viewfinder coverage 100% 100%
Viewfinder magnification 0.86x 0.94x
Autofocus Multi-CAM 2000 Multi-CAM 3500DX
AF areas Eleven Fifty-one
AF modes Single, Dynamic, Group Dynamic, Dynamic with closest subject priority Single, Dynamic, Dynamic with closest subject priority. AF sensor areas can be grouped as 9, 21, or 51.
Metering Sensor 1005-segement RGB sensor 1005-segement RGB sensor
Exposure Metering 3D Color Matrix II, CW, Spot 3D Color Matrix II, CW, Spot
Scene Recognition System No Yes - uses modified 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor to distinguish subjects' shape and position
Exposure modes P, A, S, and M P, A, S, and M
Exposure Compensation +/- 5 EV +/- 5 EV
Exposure bracketing Yes - 2 to 9 exp. Increments of 1/3,1/2, 2/3, 1EV Yes - 2 to 9 exp. Increments of 1/3,1/2, 2/3, 1EV
Shooting modes Single, Continuous-low, Continuous-high, Mirror lock-up, Self-timer Single, Continuous-low, Continuous-high, Mirror lock-up, Live-View, Self-timer
Max shooting speed 5 fps 9 fps (11fps in DX-format)
Shutter 30 to 1/8000 sec. +Bulb 30 to 1/8000 sec. +Bulb
Flash Sync 1/250 sec. 1/250 sec.
Auto FP Hi-Speed sync Yes Yes
Flash control i-TTL flash (1,005-pixel sensor) i-TTL flash (1,005-pixel sensor)
Support for D-TTL flash control Yes Yes
PC sync Yes Yes
Self timer Yes Yes
Depth-of-Field preview Yes Yes
Power 1x EN-EL4 / EN-EL4a 1x EN-EL4 / EN-EL4a
Battery Meter Yes Yes
AC adapter EH-6 EH-6
Battery grip Integral Integral
Wireless Transmitter WT-2/WT-2a (compatible with D2-series) WT-4/WT-4a (compatible with D300)
Remote Release Nikon 10-pin accessory terminal Nikon 10-pin accessory terminal
Dimensions (WxHxD) 157.5 x 149.5 x 85.5 mm 6.2 x 5.9 x 3.4 in 159.5 x 157 x 87.5 mm 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 in
Weight (g/oz) 1070 / 38 1,240 / 43

© Simon Stafford

August 2007

Posted on: Thursday 30 August 2007

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