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Conclusion - Pros

  • Class-leading high ISO performance and incredibly versatile ISO 100-12,800 sensitivity range
  • Very good resolution and detail without looking over-processed
  • Better balanced noise reduction than most; more chroma NR, less luminance NR (film-like grain)
  • Incredibly fast (instant power-up, short shutter lag and short viewfinder black-out)
  • Superb continuous shooting capabilities buffering and card writing
  • Compatible with DX lenses with auto crop mode (only 5.1MP, however)
  • Excellent dynamic range and 14-bit RAW files offer huge amount of latitude
  • Large, bright viewfinder
  • True 'pro grade' construction, excellent ergonomics
  • Highly configurable Auto ISO function (can set maximum ISO and minimum shutter speed)
  • Conservative approach to image processing (slightly lower sharpening) helps to avoid 'digital' artifacts
  • Built-in chromatic aberration reduction is very effective (JPEG, RAWs through NX)
  • Improved 51 point auto-focus elivers fast and accurate AF lock even in low light
  • Auto-focus fine-tuning by body or per lens
  • Nikon's excellent 1005 pixel RGB metering sensor
  • Numerous 'hidden' designed-in features; AF tracking by color, scene recognition system
  • 300,000 exposure shutter life
  • Now Nikon standard range of image parameter presets, addition of brightness adjustment
  • Superb large, high resolution LCD (delivers full-color VGA; 640xRGB x 480)
  • Live view with up to 1:1 pixel view, contrast detect AF as well as passive (mirror flip) AF
  • HDMI video output (up to 1080i)
  • Dual CF card slots, highly configurable
  • Compact Flash UDMA support, very fast throughput overall
  • Menu system is a pleasure to use, attractive and logical (though 'feature creep' means they're too long and there's too many) and built-in help
  • Clever features from built in tilt sensor to help system, Active D-Lighting, Overlay, Multiple exposures an intervalometer
  • Easy to use playback with very logical delete system (press delete button twice)
  • Highly configurable via custom functions
  • Probably the best battery information display in the business (% charge, shots, aging)
  • Wide range of custom settings
  • Optional wireless WiFi transmitter (802.11 b/g)

Conclusion - Cons

  • No timed mirror lock-up function (could be automatic with self-timer)
  • Focus points somewhat concentrated in the center of the frame
  • Metering struggles to keep up if you shoot at the very fastest continuous rate (i.e. in manual focus mode at 9fps or 11fps in DX mode).
  • Slightly washed-out flash exposures at short distances (tested with SB-600)
  • No in-camera dust removal system

Overall conclusion

When we first saw the D3 before it was officially launched I'll admit there were some raised eyebrows, and the first question was 'is this a replacement for the D2Hs, the D2X, both or neither?'. The truth of course is that it's not that simple, and Nikon's long-awaited first foray into the world of the full frame sensor is essentially in a class of its own.

For one thing it is, without a doubt, built for speed - in every sense of the word. From the almost twitchy responsiveness (brush the shutter and before you know it you've taken half a dozen shots) to the astounding image pipeline that can pull huge amounts of data off the sensor and process, buffer and write it to the card at up to 9 frames per second, to the fast, accurate focus, the D3 always seems to be one step ahead of you. Add to this the class-leading high ISO performance (thanks to a bravely low-density sensor) and you've got a camera that is uniquely capable of keeping up with the action even when light levels start to drop perilously.

And so, whether used in DX crop mode or full frame (for cropping later) the D3 makes a fantastic upgrade to the D2H (or D2Hs if you prefer). You get slightly higher resolution (5.1MP vs 4.0MP), far, far better high ISO performance, faster continuous drive and better buffering plus all the other improvements you'd expect after a two year wait. But of course you get a lot more than that too; this is a full frame camera that offers D2X resolution with a larger, far better sensor. So a single camera really does do the job of two; replacing the D2H for high speed telephoto work and the D2X for high resolution work at closer quarters, with the added benefit that all your wide lenses start acting like wideangles again.

It's therefore no surprise to discover that the D3 has, in the six months or so since it was launched, been embraced by the Nikon pro photography community and has caused many a Canon shooter to do some serious soul-searching and consider the unthinkable; a move (back in many cases) to Nikon.

Of course it's not all a bed of roses; the D3 is a lot pricier than the D2H ever was, and for many sports shooters it's a lot to ask for what is essentially a 5.1MP alternative to the EOS-1D Mk3 (if you shoot using the DX crop). And it can't match the resolution of the EOS-1Ds Mark III at lower ISO settings, ruling it out for the most demanding studio photographers. But this slight inability to 'pin down' the D3 is also what makes it so welcome; it slots in nicely between Canon's models and brings real choice to a sector of the market that desperately needs it. And don't forget that if you want the pixel density that allows you to shoot at high resolution and get the 1.5x DX crop advantage for your telephotos the D300 (with battery grip) is going to make an affordable and highly capable alternative that almost renders the D2Hs obsolete on its own.

We're not sports photographers and anyone even close to considering a D3 will be more than capable of making an informed decision without a technical review such as this (in fact they've probably already bought one), but we can confirm that from an image quality and performance point of view the D3 raises the bar by a fair degree (not a quantum leap; they're increasingly rare). For a sports camera it's also a surprisingly good studio and landscape camera, and if there's a better DSLR out there for photojournalists and red carpet paps we've yet to meet it. Image quality (especially at higher ISOs) is stunning, the camera a joy to use and the speed and responsiveness breathtaking. If there is an EOS-1Ds Mark III - bating 'D3X' coming this year it will have quite a job to do to better the D3; possibly the most compelling, capable and well-rounded professional digital SLR ever made.

Detail (D-SLR)
Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 9.5
Ergonomics & handling 9.5
Features 9.5
Image quality 9.5
Performance (speed) 10
Value 8.5

Highly Recommended

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