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Is this camera the "Best Of The Best" in digital SLR technology?



A few days before Christmas, I got a phone call from Nikon and was asked if I would like to have the brand new D3x over Christmas and New Year for testing it as I have done it before - wonderful phone call and since I am not at all anymore interested in winter sports, it was a wonderful Christmas "present"!

Well, then I was holding it in my hands, that R&R of cameras - expensive, very expensive but impressive - thanks again to Nikon in Austria!


Looking at the camera, I found only three visible differences compared to the Nikon D3, which I had tested some time ago - on three places on the camera, one can read D3x instead of D3 - OK, so the main difference is the sensor, right? Well, one more difference - the ISO settings are different - the D3x allows for an ISO setting from ISO 50 (it is ISO 100 minus 1 step) up to ISO 6400 (which is ISO 1600 plus 2 steps) different from the D3, with its ISO settings from ISO100 to ISO 25600. And yes, of course - the new sensor with 24,5 Megapixel produces files which are really large - the RAW files are about 20 MB in size and the TIF files are (!) better get a large enough flash card for that camera! Well, not really a problem - memory is cheap in our days now and the camera has got the same two slots for flash cards like the D3, so with two 8GB cards, you can shoot quite a lot of images. And if you do not want to use the second slot as additional memory, you can use it as a backup for the first card - a very attractive feature.



The two compartments for memory cards

Now let me talk about the sensor - this is the core of the new camera. It is the Sony sensor with 24,6 Megapixel and I was wondering, what makes that Nikon D3x so much more expensive compared to the Sony Alpha 900 with the "same" sensor? OK, the sensor is not the price- deciding piece inside the camera, it does not justify the price, which in Europe is about three times that of the Sony - so what makes the difference?
The Sony is a very nice camera for enthusiastic amateurs (sorry for that definition, but that is how I see it) and not for professionals - the Nikon is a very well thought-through camera for high intensity usage - the shutter with 300.000 actuations as standard usage rate and its incorporated shutter monitoring system, the metal housing of the camera, its ridigity, its handling - every single detail is optimized for people who make their money with that camera by using it daily 24/7.

The camera is also fast - 0.12sec from switching on to ready to shoot and 0.04sec from depressing the shutter release to actually shooting - that is fast and convenient for professionals.

Now back to the sensor - as you certainly know, the D3 has go a sensor with about 12 Megapixel and the D3x now one with more than double of that - does it mean, that resolution is twice of the D3 now or how does this work? Is the sensor inside the D3x all what Nikon optimized or was anything else done? I do not know, I only can guess from what I can see on the photographs - there was much more done than just incorporating a high resolution sensor! Photographs taken with that camera are of an impressing color rendition, definition and surprisingly low noise - even at higher ISO settings, much less that I expected to see.

A few words about resolution - the sensor with its 25,72 Megapixel is covering an image size of 35,9x24mm, producing at full image format 4032x6048pixel at 12 or 14 bit depth - this means that the vertical distance from cell to cell including the necessary gap between the cells is about 6 micron. This is about 5 times better than the allowed lower resolution limit for film based photography - more precisely, the maximum diameter of the diffusion circle for 35mm photography, which is usually set at 0.03mm=30micron. Realistically however, as 3 cells are required to resolve a detail completely (one cell with one detail, the next cell with the gap between the two details and the third cell with the second detail to be resolved), the quality factor is shrinking to about 2+ times of that of 35mm film - which still is very good, even considering that the color information is not gathered for the full spectrum in each and every single cell but depending on the color in 1 or 2 out of 4 cells. Whatever you set as limit, the D3x is at least as good as the best possible 35mm film can be, in almost all situation it is better.

The sensor of the D3 in comparison has got 12, 87 Megapixel and is using 12,1 MPx for creating an image of 2832x4256 pixel at 23,9x36mm - using the same calculation, the pixel "pitch" is about 8,5micron. Comparing the two cameras, it is obvious that the improvement factor of the D3x over the D3 is about square root of 2, which was to be expected - the double amount of Megapixel in a sensor results in the square root of 2 as improvement - a factor of about 1,4. This will be possible to be shown later down on some of the photographs as well.


The sensor of the D3x

Such a high-resolution sensor does not only have advantages, it also has got some drawbacks (besides the huge files, especially in TIFF) - it reveals without any mercy the optical quality of the lenses, the accuracy of the autofocus system and all vibrations and shaking problems. I can only say out of my own experience - do not use a cheap lens with that camera, you will be suprised how much you can see the difference between a really good lens and a cheap lens, or even more - a lens which was optimized for film-based photography (in the corners of the images) and a modern good lens, optimized for digital photography.

That D3x is not a camera for everyone, especially not for those, who think that they might want to get an impressive expensive camera body to impress other people and for cost saving, use a cheap $ 300,00 lens on it - unless they stick to 4x6 enlargements!

Now to the viewfinder - it is identical to the one on the D3 - so basically 100% viewing for the full format and the other two formats appearing automatically if you use the DX lenses resp. if you switch the 5:4 format on. Very convenient for people wearing glasses - the high eye point of 18mm outside the back viewfinder exit lens.

The display on the back side - identical and the same as you find it on the D3 - everything else indistinguishable from the D3



Backside viewing screen of the D3x with the "Horizontalizer" switched on


The metering system is the same as well - 1005 pixel RGB sensor - same algorithms and same exact determination of the exposure time at light levels from 0 to 20. One observation I made - the exposure latutude is smaller - meaning that when light gets dim, the D3 tends a bit to expose more than average in the automatic mode - the D3x however exposed more accurately, more according to the visual perception of a scene, which I like better.

The sensitivity range, as previously mentioned, is a significant difference - for the D3x, it is ISO 50 to ISO 6400 with the mentioned algorithms, that the lowest sensitivitiy setting and the two highest ones are not "real" settings but settings of decreased or increased response to light - therefore at the lowest settings, not really anything to gain except one stop of exposure longer at very bright light and on the high end, two stops gain of exposure time but with increased noise. This limitation at the high end is a logical consequence of the high-res sensor as these much smaller cells will collect comparably less photons and have a much higher noise level than the larger cells of the D3. The D3x is made for a different user group than the D3, this is obvious. For me - I am into landscape photography (urban- and countryside landscapes), "Quiet Photography" and similar areas, that D3x is the best and most suitable camera I can imagine.


Backside viewing screen showing the two limits of sensitivity settings

Just to mention - the flashes of the SB series like the SB-900, SB-800, SB-600 and SB-400 are fully integrated with their i-TTL method as they are on the D3.

As previously mentioned, the backside monitor is the same, all buttons, knobs, settings etc. are identical - so if you are used to Nikon's concept of handling a camera, you can pick it up and are ready to take-off.


Backside viewing screen D3x

What I do not understand is the fact, that the D3x is about 200 grammsl lighter than the D3 - OK, not a big issue, but would be interesting to learn where the difference comes from.

As most or better, all other components, parts, accessories, handling details etc are the same as on the D3, I am stopping here with the description and now show some results obtained with the D3x. As you can imagine, it would not be very reader oriented to show the images at full resolution, I therefore have compressed all of them and reduced them in size to a manageable dimension - don't forget, the TIF files are 70MB per image....


To start with the results - here first the night shot of a cinema and square - previously taken with the D3 (not D3x):


From the same position, I have taken the same scene with the D3x at night and for comparison have placed the entire sensitivity range side by side - you can see them and if you like, you can also be surprised how low the level of noise is of the shots taken with the D3x at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400:

D3 NachtdetailsD3xNachtaufnahmen

I think, that comparison is quite interesting - I was expecting to see much more noise, but it was not there. And what I like very much - the exposures coming from the D3x are in my opinion better those of the D3 - at higher ISO settings, the D3 tends to overexpose a bit, not so the D3x. For me, the visual impression of a night scene is better (of course, same exposure setting at both cameras)

I have been in Zurich/Switzerland for a few days over Christmas and took the camera with me - of course! Below here you can see a shot taken from the bridge over the Limmat at night - I have taken comparison shots from that bridge before and you can find them in many of my reviews. The green marked crop is that, what you can seen further down as a comparison between film, the Nikon D2xs, which was the best one only about 18months ago and now the new D3x - what a difference!!



Here the details - F100 at ISO 100, Nikon D2xs at ISO 100 and D3x at ISO 100 - all of them at same focal length (24mm or equivalent) with ED lenses (17-35/2.8 and 24-70/2,8)


The two crops on the left were taken during summer, the night was not as dark as on the right side, but still, look at that differences in resolution, this is just impressive to see side by side!


Something else, which was interesting to compare was the behavior of the camera at the various ISO settings - again same location, and the crop is marked with a red semitransparent mask:

The whole image would have had about 70MB - it is heavily compressed and sized to a manageable dimension - if you wish and if your mail box is large enough, you can have the original if you like...


In the middle the red-marked crop of the details which can be seen below in the comparisions



ISO 100 left, ISO 200right


ISO400left, ISO800right


ISO1600 ISO1600RRedN

ISO1600 left - NO noisereduction, right with standard noisereduction



ISO3200 left - NO noisereduction, right with standard noisereduction


ISO3200 with strong noisereduction



ISO6400 left with NO noisereduction, right with standard noisereduction


ISO6400 - strong noisereduction

To me it appears as if the D3x would not need any noisereduction up to and inlcuding ISO1600 and I do not see too much of an advantage of the incorporated noisereduction at higher ISO speeds - the shots are not looking significantly smoother at all. I think that other SW based systems like the "Neat Image" is working much better and its Photoshop plug-in is a very convenient and effecient way to reduce noise as you can see below on that comparison:



ISO 6400 at D3x

To make the improvements visible even better, I have further enlarged that crop of the ISO6400 shot, which is showing the advantages of "Neat Image" over the D3x noise reduction:


Upper image: Strong noisereduction D3X


Noisereduction obtained with "Neat Image" and PS3


Next of interest for me was to find an answer to the question - how much better is the resolution of the D3x really - I mean, can I show that improvement consistently on test charts like the Siemens-star or the "Slanted Edge"?

Please note that the results are shown as LP/PH - linepairs/picture height, not as sometimes seen in other reviews, as lines/inch or lines/picture height. It is not clean to show the resolution in lines/inch without clearly indicating that to resolve any detail, it is necessary to have a visibile gap between two adjacent details - therefore the results as linespairs/PH or /inch is the better way to show resolution. The wording linepairs means that the figure represents the numbers of black/white linepairs not only the number of lines - which would be double that number. But unfortunately even all those numbers are of limited importance only without further explanations, which would be leading too far into optics for this review.

Here now the results - the Software used was as usual "IMATEST", which I rate among the very best of the optical evaluation software for digital and film based photography. I used the 2,8/24-70mm ED Nikon lens, which was especially optimized for digital high-end photography. The first screen shots shows the resolution without any camera-based sharpening algorithms applied. Please note that the resolution depends very much on the settings for sharpening (which can be done on the camera in the respective menu).At 20% MTF, the value is about 2500+ LP/PH which makes a lot of sense as the MTF50 value is around 1500 LP/PH. This value of 1500LP/PH shows that realistically there are three pixels needed to resolve a detail properly - even including the "artificial" increase of resolution due to various incorporated other algorithms. It is necessary to keep in mind, that with all digital cameras, the gaps between the cells mean missing information which is added to the final readout by intelligent software, not by optical means. One can also see the almost linear response of the sensor - the decrease of MTF is basicall a linear one, another sign of no-shapening of an image.



No sharpening

Sharpening an image means to find the righ balance between increasing the visibility of details and avoiding unwanted artefacts from this process - dark lines with white borders and sharpening shadows which create the impression of a sharper image but in reality only deteriorate the overall quality of the image. Sharpening at level 3 on the D3x is in my opinion the upper limit - if one uses a higher setting, these dark lines apprear and the MTF shows it very clearly - an overswing on the MTF axis at higher cycle values - here it does not yet exist but shows a better overall MTF response. about 3000 LP/PH at MTF20 and about 2500 at MTF50.


Sharpening level 3 on the Nikon D3x

It might also be of interest to see if the sharpening of the image influences the rotational symmetry of the sharpened details - in that case below - same level 3 for shapening - it does not much. Sharpening introduces at level 3 a slight assymmetrical behaviour but nothing to worry about yet. Another reason not to oversharp - oversharped images are often very E-W/N-S oriented regarding artefacts from sharpening.


MTF contours (polar) at sharpening level 3


Another interesting measuring device for resolution is the "slanted edge" - simply an edge, a border between light and dark which is oriented not exactly North-South but a an angle of 80-85 degrees. With such a simple devide, one can measure not only the spacial resolution but also color errors and related factors.

Here first that "slanted edge" evaluated by IMATEST and no sharpening - which results in about 25% undersharpening for that camera, meaning, that the image could be made much better if properly sharpened.


Slanted Edge, Sharpening 0

For that object, the best sharpening is at level 2 - level 3 already results in some oversharpening artefacts. Here below the results for level 2 - only very slight overshooting (approx. 6%) and very little undersharpening - about 2,6%- and much better values for the MTF50 - again around 3000 LW/PH


Sharpening level 2 - clean 1500 LP/PH at MTF 50%

I think it might be of benefit to compare this result with the D3 taken with the same object and the same setting - here the values are at MTF50 about 2000 LW/PH - again the same factor of difference, the same factor 1,4 = square root of 2 for improvement of the D3x over the D3.

D3 (not D3x!) resolution at sharpening level 2

Would there be an influence in the resolution (not all other aspects of a very good image like color rendition, color error, astigmatism, coma and all the other imaging related potential problems) if one uses an inexpensive lens instead of a very expensive one - see here a small comparison of three lenses at 50mm focal length - but keep in mind, that comparison touches only the topic of resolving power /resolution, nothing else-Lenses and resolution

It is also important to note, that a sensor of about 25 Megapixel results in images, which are finer in their details - "smaller" pixel create finer images, so to say. Here a comparison between the D3 on the left and the D3x on the right - two crops - the one of the left in green represent the details shown further down and the crop on the right image in red shows the details shown below these two comparison images ( This church is also one of my favorite objects to compare image quality, it is the Mariahilfer Kirche in Vienna)


Left D3, right D3x

Here the details as taken with the D3 on the left and the D3x on the right - the details represent the crop in red and green in the upper images

_DSC5513.jpg D3X_Mahi014.jpg

Left D3, right D3x - that crop is the one on the upper right image in red


Left a tiny (400 pixel wide) crop of the image taken with the D3, right the same crop of 400 pixel from the D3x - if you look at those crops from a bit a larger distance, you can see the difference in resolution better - the crop on the right looks finer


Color rendition - another topic of interest for. me. How well does the D3x render the color charts - Gretag Macbeth 24 color chart and the sophisticated Color Chart SG, which was developed for digital cameras.

Below some of the many results I obtained - for both color spaces, Adobe RGB and SRGB - displayed as screen shots in the 2-dimensional La*b* color space and in a pseudocolor display which makes the color errors nicely visible


La*b* color space error for Adobe RGB of the D3x


Pseudocolor display of the color errors of the D3x - blue means no to very little color error for that particular color and red a large color error for that color in the display - you can see, some colors are almost perfect, some are off



La*b* color space errors for SRGB of the D3x


Pseudocolor display of the color errors in the SRGB color space for the D3x - as the SRGB color space is smaller than the ARGB color space, more colors are rendered correctly but keep in mind - it is a smaller color space!

White balancing - another topic of interest - well, the answer is easy, the D3x is pretty similar to the D3. Maybe a bit less neutral in the automatic mode and a bit more sensitive to changes in the quality of light. Probably an effect of the different sensor, I guess. The differences, or better deviations are small, a couple of hundred K, but one can measure them - here one of the results, in this case for Adobe RGB at 6500 K - about +/- 120 to 130K over the entire range of white - nothing major, but measurable.


Color Error and White Balance Error - GretagMacbeth color chart at 6500K in Adobe RGB color space


To slowly come to a conclusion, I asked myself if that D3x were a camera to get very easily and quickly without much considerations to perfect results - I would say, no. Why that answer - well, I think that camera requires more refined working on details than others. One first needs to think about the size of the files - handling 70MB TIF files means providing a large amount of storage space for images. It is also a demanding camera - to show its capabilitites at its best, it requires very good camera lenses and thinking before shooting - does the Autofocus focus at exactly that detail, which is needed to be exactly in focus, is the aperture set at its optimum value, was White balancing set properly and would it not be better to use a tripod to avoid unsharp images?

This does not mean, that I want to make a direct comparison to medium format digital cameras like the Hasselblad H3DII which can be equipped with 50Megapixel backs (but at what price!) - that group of cameras will remain a different pair of shoes for the forseeable future, but for very many jobs in photography, the Nikon D3x will probably be the right choice of equipment - despite its size and weight, it is still much ligher, smaller and less expensive than the medium format DSLR's like the mentioned Hasselblad.

On purpose, I did not review again all those features which are identical to the D3 - they can be found here in my comparison of the D3 with the D2xs here .

As always, I am aware that this short review is neither complete nor comprehensive, what I wanted was the show some (technically) interesting aspects of the new Nikon D3x and how good it is - maybe too technical for some readers, but just colorful and nice images, that is not really interesting for me - they can be shot with almost every camera in these days and according to my liking, have no room in a camera review which should be informative and unbiased.

Last but not least, a couple of shots, of course, all taken with the D3x - first a wintery arrangement and two details taken directly from that shot to show the quality of the D3x:


D3x equipped with the 2,8/24-70mm Nikkor plus two crops out of that file which is a 20MB NEF

That shot again in Zurich/Switzerland was taken with the ASF 2,8/17-35mm Nikkor at 17mm focal length - again two crops to show the impressive quality of the images taken with the D3x:


Zuerich, View from the Limmatbridge with AFS 2,8/17mm, D3x



I hope you find that short review informative and interesting - it represents my personal opinion and was neither "adjusted" nor reviewed before publishing by Nikon and for that I am very grateful to them. I always can write what I think is right and necessary. Please do keep also in mind, English is not my mothertongue, so please excuse spelling and language errors!

Would be nice now to compare the Nikon D3x with the Sony Alpha900 and especially with the Canon D1sMkIII equipped with similar lenses...well I keep trying to get those cameras, maybe I'll get one, maybe not....


Addendum per January 20: - Believe it, I shall get the Sony Alpha 900 and the CanonD1sMkIII very soon for a comparison.....



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