Review

My first digital body was the 2.72 megapixel Nikon D1H which I purchased in 2003.  Since then, I have been the proud owner of the D2X, D700 and D3.  This D3 review is coming much later than the slew of initial reviews but I think it will still be interesting for readers.  Consider it a very hands-on review.  This was a groundbreaking camera and the fact that its shutter is rated to 300,000 actuation will make this body a hot commodity in the used market for several years to come.  At the time of this review, my D3 has 127,818 actuation; only half-way through its life. The D3/D700 combo I currently use is one of the best there will ever be.

My trusty D3 shown with NIkkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and DK-2 Rubber Eyecup.

 

The leap from my D1H to the D2X was massive.  I have never really cared about megapixels much but I was starting to get published more and more and going from 2.72 to 12.1 MP was huge.  As a sports photographer, it offered me features that would help me immensely.  The frames per second and AF-points more than doubled.  This really helped me take my shooting to the next level.  Working with the D2X’s abundant features and configuration possibilities is also what helped me truly learn my camera and hone my skills.   Digging into the menus and making sense of all the functions made me research them which helped me better understand how they could help or hinder me depending on what I was shooting.  Custom function a4 (lock on) is a great example.   This could make or break a shoot for me if I didn’t make the right choice to leave it on or off.  I did struggle with the D2X’s autofocus system and focus sensor size however.  The big AF points, which were also physically larger than they appeared through the viewfinder, sometimes overlapped your subject and made it so that the camera would focus halfway between it and the other object in the background.  I also found the image quality noticeably depreciate at ISO 800 and above.  This was inline with its competitors, at the time of the camera’s release, but I knew I needed something more.  What the D2x brought to the table in features, the D3 brought in image quality and features.

I love my D3!  That could pretty much be my review as I have little criticism of this body.  From the moment I first shot with it and the new FX glass, I knew that any previous limitations I had making the exposures I wanted were a thing of the past.  This camera was a game changer.  The files out of this body at ISO 800, my previous cap, looked like ISO 100. I think a lot of folks, including myself, were a bit shocked that there was no increase in megapixels from the D2x but it didn’t take long for everyone to get on board and realize that Nikon’s emphasis on image quality was the right path.  People were comparing up-sized D3 images to stock 21 MP images from its competition and not seeing a difference, some even considered them better.

The new 51 point autofocus system was blistering fast and tracked very well.  This, combined with the hair-trigger shutter release, made this an action stopping machine.  I often shoot 3000 plus frames at a race or event and usually see less then 5 out-of-focus images.  They are often user error and not because the system let me down.  The smaller AF points where a big improvement and eliminated the chance of overlapping the sensor point on anything but your subject.  The fact that it has 51 AF points makes it possible to place an AF point just about anywhere you needed it.  I say, just about, because the one downside to this is that, because this is a full frame body, the AF points are all concentrated in the center of the frame.  I think that the next evolution of this system will see them more evenly distributed across the frame.  I also missed being able to see the group of points selected when using Dynamic AF Mode.  With the D2x the entire group of points would be lit but on the D3 only the center point you initially select  is.  This looks no different than Single-point AF Mode when looking through the viewfinder.  You can see the group of points if you use the rear info panel but seeing through the view finder as well would have been ideal.  The autofocus system is easily and endlessly configurable, as are the exterior buttons.  The one feature I have not found tremendous use for is the 3D focus tracking.  I don’t find it fast enough for action and have little need for it with my portrait work or otherwise. The other major features such as dual card slots, high resolution display, live view and customizable menus are all things I use regularly.

I struggled long and hard about whether the move to FX was the right one for me.  I still, to this day, miss aspects of the DX format.  Its lightweight form factor, compact lenses and that extra reach are things I wish I had on long days hauling my heavy kit up a mountain or on the track.  DX just wasn’t for me and I never quite found the right lens combination to suit my needs.  The new combination of the 14-14mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 made things simple and offered me tack sharp images across the focal distances I used most.  I did find that my 70-200mm VR did not perform as well on the new full frame body and struggled with it until the issues were resolved in the new VR II version.  It was a great lens but was designed for center sharpness and simply did not produce the best images possible on the D3.  It was Nikon’s first pro level lens to feature VR and I loved it on my D2X.  It’s still one of the best lenses available if you are a DX shooter.  Since buying my D3 I have added some other great full frame lenses like the Sigma 50mm f/1.4, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AF-D and Nikkor 200mm f/2.  The 200mm f/2 is a lens I think would work very well on a DX body but when used on my D3 with the TC-14E I get the same angle of view plus all the D3 has to offer above the current DX bodies.  The 50mm and 85mm lenses never made sense to me on a DX body.  The 85mm could still make a nice portrait lens but the 50mm was not an interesting focal length for me on a cropped sensor.

While this camera is the ideal tool(weapon) for a sports photographer like me, I have found it to excel in every way. I have used the Live View function countless times while tethered to my laptop: focusing, making exposure changes and triggering remotely.  The high ISO capabilities have enabled me to capture some incredible landscapes, handheld!  Shooting images for HDR is a breeze as well with a 9 frame burst, no tripod required.  I use the Auto ISO function religiously.  There really is nothing this camera can’t do, well, except video.    Even though I am a videographer, I have not jumped into the whole video DSLR game, yet, but do secretly hope Nikon knocks it out of the park with the D4.

I don’t know that I will consider a camera as groundbreaking as the D3 for a long time to come.  Part of that is due to the fact that most of the huge advances in the DSLR realm have been realized but Nikon fully deserves the credit for reading the market and delivering what its customers wanted with this body.  I think it’s what a lot of Canon shooters wanted as well as I no longer feel like one of the sole ‘black-glass’ shooters in a sea of white at sporting events.  Nikon really raised the bar with this body and even now, 4 years old, it holds its own against anything in and above its place in the market.

The construction and reliability is second to none.  I have shot in the rain, snow, dust and mud but have never had it let me down.  I do take tremendous care of it, cleaning it regularly, but I don’t feel I need to baby it. This is a workhorse and you’ll likely run for cover before it needs it.

My only real issue with the D3 is that I often run into buffer issues when shooting in continuous frame mode.  I don’t often shoot bursts but, when I do, I wished it had the buffer capability found in its replacement, the D3s.  This was an aftermarket upgrade offered shortly after the release of the D3 but I opted not to take advantage of it as it was close to $600.00.  The upgrade is no longer available.

 

 

Specifications:
  • Lens Mount
    Nikon F bayonet mount
  • Picture Angle
    Equivalent to angle produced by lens focal length (1/5 times when DX format is selected)
  • Effective Pixels
    12.1 million
  • Sensor Size
    36.0 x 23.9mm
  • Image Sensor Format
    FX
  • Image Sensor Type
    CMOS
  • Total Pixels
    12.87 million
  • Dust-Off Reference Photo
    Yes
  • Image Area (pixels)
    FX-format
    (L) 4256 x 2832
    (M) 3184 x 2120
    (S) 2128 x 1416
    5:4 format (30 x 24)
    (L) 3552 x 2832
    (M) 2656 x 2120
    (S) 1776 x 1416
    DX-format
    (L) 2784 x 1848
    (M) 2080 x 1384
    (S) 1392 x 920
  • File Format
    Uncompressed 12/14-bit NEF (RAW)
    Compressed 12/14-bit NEF (RAW, Lossless compressed): approx. 60-80 percent
    Compressed 12/14-bit NEF (RAW, Compressed): approx. 45-60 percent
    JPEG: JPEG-baseline-compliant; can be selected from Size Priority and Optimal Quality
    TIFF (RGB)
    WAV
  • Picture Control
    Monochrome
    Neutral
    Nine User-customizable Settings
    Standard
    Vivid
  • Storage Media
    CompactFlash© (Type I/II, compliant with UDMA)
    MicroDrive©
  • Card Slot
    2 CompactFlash© cards
  • File System
    Compliant with DCF (Design Rule for Camera File System) 2.0
    DPOF (Digital Print Order Format)
    EXIF 2.21 (Exchangeable Image File Format for Digital Still Cameras
  • Viewfinder
    SLR-type with fixed eye-level pentaprism
  • Viewfinder Frame Coverage
    100% Approx.
  • Viewfinder Magnification
    0.70x Approx.
  • Viewfinder Eyepoint
    18mm (-1.0m⁻¹)
  • Focusing Screen
    BriteView Clear Matte VI – Type B
  • Interchangeable Focusing Screens
    BriteView Clear Matte VI – Type B
    Clear Matte VI – Type E
  • Reflex Mirror
    Quick-return type
  • Lens Aperture
    Instant-return type with depth-of-field preview button
  • Depth-of-field Control
    Yes
  • Lens Compatibility at a Glance***
    AF-S or AF lenses fully compatible
    Metering with AI lenses
  • Compatible Lenses
    AF NIKKOR other than type G or D*2: All functions supported except 3D Color Matrix Metering II
    AI-P NIKKOR: All functions supported except autofocus and 3D Color Matrix Metering II
    DX AF NIKKOR: All functions supported except FX-format (36×24)/5:4 (30×24) image size
    Non-CPU AI NIKKOR: Can be used in exposure modes A and M; Electronic Rangefinder can be used if maximum aperture is f/5.6 or faster; Color Matrix Metering and aperture value display supported if user provides lens data
    Type G or D AF NIKKOR: All functions supported
  • Shutter type
    Electronically controlled vertical-travel focal-plane
  • Fastest Shutter Speed
    1/8000 sec. in steps of 1/3
    1/2
    1 EV
  • Slowest Shutter Speed
    30 sec. in steps of 1/3
    1/2
    1 EV
  • Flash Sync Speed
    Up to 1/250 sec.
  • Bulb Shutter Setting
    Yes
  • Shutter Release Modes
    Continuous low-speed [CL] mode; 1-9 frames per second
    Continuous high-speed [CH] mode; 9 frames per second (9-11 frames per second with DX format)
    Live View [LV] mode
    Mirror-up [Mup] mode
    Self-timer mode
    Single-frame [S] mode
  • Continuous Shooting Options
    FX-format
    CH: Up to 9 frames per second
    CL: Up to 8 frames per second
    5:4 format
    CH: Up to 9 frames per second
    CL: Up to 8 frames per second
    DX-format
    CH: Up to 11 frames per second
    CL: Up to 10 frames per second
  • Top Continuous Shooting Speed at full resolution
    9 frames per second
  • Self-timer
    2, 5, 10, 20 sec. Timer duration electronically controlled
  • Exposure Metering System
    1,005-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering II
    Spot
    Spot AF
    Variable Center-weighted
  • Metering Range
    0 to 20 EV (3D Color Matrix or center-weighted metering)
    2 to 20 EV (Spot metering at ISO 100 equivalent, f/1.4 lens at 20°C/68°F)
  • Exposure Meter Coupling
    CPU
    AI
  • Exposure Modes
    Aperture-Priority Auto (A)
    Manual (M)
    Programmed Auto with flexible Program (P)
    Shutter-Priority Auto (S)
  • Exposure Compensation
    ±5 EV in increments of 1/3
    1/2
    1
  • Exposure Bracketing
    From 2 to 9 exposures in increments of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 or 1 EV
  • Exposure Lock
    Yes
    Luminosity locked at detected value with AE-L/AF-L button
  • Mirror Lock Up
    Yes
  • ISO Sensitivity
    ISO 200 – 6400
    Lo-1 (ISO 100)
    Hi-1 (ISO 12,800)
    Hi-2 (ISO 25,600)
  • Lowest Standard ISO Sensitivity
    200 in steps of 1/3
    1/2
    1 EV
  • Highest Standard ISO Sensitivity
    6400 in steps of 1/3
    1/2
    1 EV
  • Lowest Expanded ISO Sensitivity
    ISO 100 equivalent, in steps of 1/3, 1/2, 1 EV
  • Highest Expanded ISO Sensitivity
    HI-2 (ISO 25,600 equivalent)
  • Expanded ISO Sensitivity Options
    Hi-1 (ISO-12,800 equivalent) in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV
    Hi-2, (ISO-25,600 equivalent) 1 EV
  • Single-point AF Mode
    Yes
  • Dynamic AF Mode
    Number of AF points: 9, 21, 51 and 51 (3D-tracking)
  • Auto-area AF Mode
    Yes
  • Autofocus System
    51 focus points (15 cross-type sensors)
    AF fine adjustment possible
    Autofocus TTL phase detection
    Detection range: EV -1 to EV +19 (ISO 100 equivalent, at normal temperature: 20°C/68°F)
    Focal-plane contrast [in LiveView (Tripod) mode]
    Nikon Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus module
  • Focus Lock
    AE-L/AF-L button
    Half press of shutter-release button (single-point AF in AF-S)
  • Focus Modes
    Continuous-servo (C)
    Manual
    Single-servo AF (S)
  • Maximum Autofocus Areas/Points
    51
  • Autofocus Fine Tune
    Yes
  • Flash Bracketing
    2 to 9 exposures in increments of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 or 1 EV
  • X-Sync Speed
    1/250
  • Top FP High Speed Sync
    Up to 1/8000
  • Flash Control
    i-TTL Balanced fill-flash, standard i-TTL flash for digital SLR
  • Flash Sync Modes
    Front-curtain sync (normal)
    Slow sync
    Rear-curtain sync
    Red-eye reduction
    Red-eye reduction with slow sync
  • Accessory Shoe
    Yes
  • Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS)
    CLS Supported
  • Flash Sync Terminal
    Yes
  • White Balance
    Auto (2 types)
    Cloudy
    Direct Sunlight
    Fine Tune by Kelvin color temperature setting (2,500 K to 10,000K)
    Flash
    Fluorescent (7 types)
    Incandescent
    Preset manual (up to 5 values can be stored)
    Seven manual modes with fine-tuning
    Shade
  • White Balance Bracketing
    2 to 9 exposures
  • Live View Shooting
    Handheld mode
    Tripod mode
  • Monitor Size
    3.0 in. diagonal
  • Monitor Resolution
    921,000 Dots
  • Monitor Type
    Super Density
    Wide Viewing Angle TFT-LCD
  • Monitor Angle of View
    170-degree wide-viewing angle
  • Monitor Adjustments
    Brightness, 7 levels
  • Virtual Horizon Camera Indicator
    Yes
  • Playback Functions
    Auto image rotation
    Full frame
    Highlight point display
    Histogram display
    Shooting data
    Slideshow
    Thumbnail (4, 9 or 16 segments)
    Voice Memo
    Zoom
  • In-Camera Image Editing
    Color Balance
    D-Lighting
    Filter Effects
    Image Overlay
    Monochrome
    Red-eye Correction
    Side-by-Side Comparison
    Trim
  • Image Comment
    Yes
    Up to 36 characters
  • Voice Memo Function
    Yes
  • Interface
    10-pin Terminal
    HDMI
    Hi-speed USB
    NTSC
    PAL
  • Save/Load Camera settings
    Yes
  • Supported Languages
    Chinese (Simplified and Traditional)
    Dutch
    English
    Spanish
    Finnish
    French
    Italian
    German
    Japanese
    Korean
    Polish
    Portuguese
    Russian
    Swedish
  • Date, Time and Daylight Savings Time Settings
    Yes
  • World Time Setting
    Yes
  • Battery
    Rechargeable
  • Battery / Batteries
    EN-EL4 Lithium-ion Battery
    EN-EL4a Lithium-ion Battery
  • Battery Life (shots per charge)
    4,300 shots (CIPA)
  • AC Adapter
    EH-6 AC Adapter
  • Battery Charger
    MH-21 Quick Charger
    MH-22 Quick Charger
  • Tripod Socket
    1/4 inch 20
  • Approx. Dimensions
    Width 6.3 in. (159.5mm)
    Height 6.2 in. (157mm)
    Depth 3.4 in. (87.5mm)
  • Approx. Weight
    43.7 oz. (1,240g)
    camera body only
  • Supplied Software
    Software Suite CD-ROM
  • Optional Accessories
    EH-6 AC Adapter
    DK-17M Magnifying Eyepiece
    Camera Control Pro 2
    Nikon Capture NX
    Image Authentication Software
  • Supplied Accessories
    • EN-EL4a Rechargeable Li-ion Battery
    • MH-22 Quick Charger
    • UC-E4 USB Cable
    • EG-D2 Audio Video Cable
    • AN-D3 Camera Strap
    • BF-1A Body Cap
    • BS-2 Accessory Shoe Cap
    • DK-17 Eyepiece
    • BL-4 Battery Chamber Cover
    • USB Cable Clip
    • Software Suite CD-ROM

 



About the Author

FastTimes
Marc Landry is a Toronto, Ontario based action sports photographer. Honing his skills on local and World Cup cycling circuits, Marc has since expanded his subject matter to include several outdoor adventure sports. Marc is in his element when surrounded by the energy that top athletes radiate. The relationships he forms with his subjects is apparent in his images and is part of what defines his look. He is most at home in the mountains and his preference for long glass and elaborate lighting setups has become his signature style. Born and raised in Ottawa, Marc now lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter