Hands-on with Nikon's D3X

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Nikon's newest offering, the D3X might best be viewed as a 'co-flagship' camera that compliments rather than supplants the Nikon D3. In terms of performance, appearance, and structure, both cameras exemplify state-of-the-art pro-quality DSLRs designed for two specific markets.The Nikon D3 is living proof you can

capture lush, full-bodied image files without sacrificing high performance levels. The new D3X is aimed at shooters seeking to capture image files that approach the sort of resolving power one expects from medium-format capture backs without sacrificing the handling and performance characteristics of a pro-quality '35 mm' DSLR.

Structurally, both cameras are built around a rugged magnesium-alloy chassis, contain high-performance Kevlar/carbon-fiber composite shutter mechanisms, and are sealed against heavy weather, extremes of temperature, and electromagnetic interference. But here's where the two cameras part ways.

The D3, with it's able 12.1 Mp FX-format CMOS sensor, has the ability to capture up to 9 f/p/s at full resolution (FX mode) and up to 11 f/p/s in Dx mode. ISO ratings can be dialed up to an impressively usable ISO 25,600 making the D3 a choice machine for sports photographers, journalists, and others whose livelihood depends on capturing images regardless of environmental or physical circumstances. 

The D3X features a new 24.5Mp FX-format CMOS sensor designed to deliver images containing the mass and resolving power formally reserved for medium-format digital camera backs. Fifty-megabyte 14-bit NEF (RAW) image files can be processed into 140MB (16-bit TIFF-RGB) image files, which should satisfy the needs of the nit-pickiest of clients. Even after severe cropping, you're still left with image files large enough to trounce 'competitor' cameras.

Note- If you're considering a D3X, you might consider adding memory to your computer, as you will undoubtedly be dealing with image files far larger than you've been handling till now.

The price of the D3X's larger image files is a top burst-rate of 'only' 5 f/p/s, which when you consider the volume of data being recorded is nothing to sneeze at. The top ISO rating of 25,600 afforded by the D3 is notably higher than the D3x's lower cap of ISO 6400, but then again, the D3x is optimized for more down-to-earth assignments and studio applications, while the D3 is designed for combat-oriented, 'over-before-you-know-it' shooting situations.

To keep up with the action, both cameras feature dual UDMA-compatible memory card slots, which can be programmed to switch automatically between card slot 'B' when card 'A' is filled (and visa versa), or record JPEGs to one card while recording RAW files to the other. Slot 'B' can also serve as an automatic back-up card. Image files can be captured as NEF (12-bit or 14-bit, compressed or lossless compressed RAW), NEF + JPEG, TIFF, or JPEG.

In a world of ever-diminishing camera dimensions, the Nikon D3X features an impressively bright, all-glass optical finder that displays 100% of the capture area. The rear LCD, with 920,000 dots packed within its 3-inch diagonal viewing area is equally impressive and for fine focusing is truly usable. The D3x also features dual Live View modes to facilitate hand-held shooting or tripod shooting. The camera's LCD can also display an Electronic Virtual Horizon Line for 'squaring off' your camera's horizontal image plane.

Nikon Camera Control Pro 2, an optional software application, enables you to go one step further by enabling you to remotely view, focus, and trigger the camera shutter from your computer screen. Both the D3 and D3X also support Nikon's optional WT-4 Wireless system and GPS Unit GP-1 for recording the image file's latitude, longitude, altitude, and date at the time of capture.

Like the Nikon D3, the D3X can be fitted with DX-format optics, which when attached to either camera blocks off pixels outside of the new frame lines as well as darkens the viewfinder to enable the user to easily identify the 'live' area as defined by DX-format lenses. It's worth noting that while it's handy to be able to use DX-format optics on the D3/D3X, DX-format optics still perform better (i.e. sharper) when used on a DX-format camera. But like I said, it's nice to know in a pinch you can use DX glass if needed.

 Regarding performance, both cameras employ Nikon's Multi-CAM 3500FX AF module, which features a hi-density 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors located at the center of the image which can be used with all AF Nikkor lenses f5.6 or faster. Depending on your subject, you can choose between Single-Point, Dynamic AF, or Auto AF. Nikon's EXPEED-based imaging processor works in conjunction with the camera's Scene Recognition System to further tweak the details and ensure optimum exposures and image rendition. Needless to say, start-up times and shutter lag issues with either camera are all but null and void.

For total control of your final output, the D3X includes Active D-Lighting and Nikon's Picture Control System, which features 4 standard imaging parameters (Standard, Neutral, Vivid, and Monochrome), each of which can be modified (Sharpness, Contrast, Brightness, and Hue ) to best fit your immediate needs. Additional picture controls including Portrait, Landscape, D2XMODE I, II, and III, can be downloaded from Nikon's website. The camera also includes a choice of 48 custom functions.

Other pro-worthy features of the Nikon D3X include Nikon's dead-on 3D Color Matrix metering and TTL flash controls, lateral chromatic aberration reduction, vignette controls, a choice of white or black lettering in the camera's display, and up to 4400 exposures-per-charge with the Nikon EN-EL4a lithium-ion battery.

So the big question remains 'Is the D3X (or Canon's 1Ds Mark III for that matter) worth $5000 more than 'comparable' full-frame DSLRs?' To answer this question you have to look past the specs and numbers. When you pick up a D3X it's immediately apparent you are handling a serious high-performance imaging machine. There isn't a whiff of plastic about it. Its solid, contoured body panels fit tightly, as does the battery system and double-latched memory card door. Oversized rubber caps that seal unused flash, auxiliary power, and connecter junctions are integrated into the body panels to keep contact points clean, as well as ensure you never lose them.

In use, the bright optical finder and the ability to compose and focus images using Live View on the 3" LCD perform as advertised. The shutter responds as if it's hard-wired to your nervous system, and it's supported by an equally responsive AF system and a TTL exposure system that can't be beat. As for reliability, if you shoot professionally on a daily basis, or require a camera that can handle extreme heat, extreme cold, hurricane-force rain, or white-outs due to sand, dust, or snow, none of the less expensive DSLRs – as capable and attractively-priced as they may be – can deliver the goods as reliably as the Nikon D3X.

One last thing you should consider if you plan on shooting with the D3X is that the camera packs an awful lot of resolving power, which means you should chose your optics wisely. Depending on your particular needs, consider the Micro Nikkors (60, 105, 200 mm) and the Nikon's prime zooms, most all of which have a maximum aperture of f2.8. Zeiss ZF-series lenses, available in a range of fixed focal lengths, are also well worth considering. Other than that, pick & choose wisely.