Preview based on a production Nikon D3, Firmare V1.0 (and V1.10)

The professional Nikon D 'single digit' series of digital SLR's started life back in June 1999 with the groundbreaking D1. Groundbreaking because it was the digital SLR that broke Kodak's stranglehold on the digital SLR market and fundamentally brought prices down to a level which most professionals could afford (around the US$5,500 mark). Since then we have seen a steady progression in the evolution of this line of cameras. Whilst the core values of a high quality full-size body with integrated grip have remained constant, the line split into two halves (indicated by the X and H suffixes), one targeted at high resolution photography the other high speed sports type photography (lower resolution but faster continuous shooting). It's been almost three years since Nikon introduced a completely new digital SLR with a new sensor (the D2X) and there had been much anticipation that Nikon's next move would be a full-frame chip.

And so it was, with the introduction last August of the new 'FX format' D3, featuring a 36 x 23.9 mm 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor as well as a vast array of new features which absolutely raise it another notch above previous single digit Nikon DSLRs. Important headline improvements include high sensitivity support by default, up to ISO 6400 with 25600 available as a boost option, 14-bit A/D conversion, a new standard image processor, a new shutter, new auto focus sensor, focus tracking by color, nine frames per second continuous, dual compact flash support, DX lens support (albeit at lower resolution) with automatic cropping and a 3.0" 922,000 pixel LCD monitor (which it has to be said is lovely).

Some will undoubtedly question Nikon for 'only' delivering twelve megapixels on their first full frame digital SLR, all we can presume by looking at past model line history is that this camera is designed for speed (both in sensitivity, auto-focus and continuous shooting). Our first comment on seeing the D3 in the late summer of last year was 'where's the 'H' suffix?', something echoed many times in the months following announcement by commentators and photographers. Although Nikon remains tight-lipped about its future plans it seems fair to assume that Photokina will bring an EOS 1DS Mark III competitor (with higher resolution but without the high speed shooting).

Note: The day this review was finished Nikon announced a firmware upgrade for the D3, which added a couple of new features (including vignette correction and control over the brightness of the AF points) and a few bug fixes. Today Nikon pulled the upgrade as in certain circumstances (shooting at maximum speed in 14-bit RAW mode) it can 'in rare circumstances' cause corruption of some images. We updated the firmware on our test D3 yesterday and have not been able to recreate the issue, though many of our forum members have. 99% of this review was done with the original (v1.00) firmware.

Model line history

Effective pixels
Auto focus
Continuous highest (JPEG) LCD monitor
D1 Jun 1999 2.6 mp 5 point 4.5 fps, 21 frames 2.0", 120K pixels
D1X Feb 2001 5.3 mp 5 point 3.0 fps, 9 frames 2.0", 130K pixels
D1H Feb 2001 2.7 mp 5 point 5.0 fps, 40 frames 2.0", 130K pixels
D2H Jul 2003 4.1 mp 11 point 8.0 fps, 40 frames 2.5", 211K pixels
D2X Sep 2004 12.2 mp 11 point 5.0 fps, 22 frames *1 2.5" 235K pixels
D2Hs Feb 2005 4.1 mp 11 point 8.0 fps, 50 frames 2.5" 235K pixels
D2Xs Jun 2006 12.2 mp 11 point 5.0 fps, 22 frames *1 2.5" 230K pixels
D3 Aug 2007 12.1 mp (FF) 51 point 9.0 fps, 130 frames *2 3.0" 922K pixels + Live View

*1 Also 8 fps in cropped mode (6.7 MP)
*2 Up to 11 fps with DX format (5.1 MP)

Nikon D3 Key Features

  • First ever Nikon DSLR with a Full-Frame (36 x 24 mm) sensor (dubbed the 'FX' format)
  • 12.1 megapixel full-frame sensor (8.45µm pixel pitch)
  • ISO 200 - 6400 (with boost up to ISO 25600)
  • Also supports DX lenses, viewfinder automatically masks (5.1 megapixels with DX lens)
  • 5:4 ratio crop mode (10 megapixels, up to 9 fps, viewfinder masked)
  • 14-bit A/D conversion, 12 channel readout
  • Nikon EXPEED image processor (Capture NX processing and NR algorithms, lower power)
  • Super fast operation (power-up 12 ms, shutter lag 41 ms, black-out 74 ms)
  • New Kevlar / carbon fibre composite shutter with 300,000 exposure durability
  • New Multi-CAM3500FX Auto Focus sensor (51-point, 15 cross-type, more vertical coverage)
  • Auto-focus tracking by color (using information from 1005-pixel AE sensor)
  • Auto-focus calibration (fine-tuning) now available (fixed body or up to 20 separate lens settings)
  • Scene Recognition System (uses AE sensor, AF sensor)
  • Picture Control image parameter presets (replace Color Modes I, II and III)
  • Custom image parameters now support brightness as well as contrast
  • Nine frames per second continuous with auto-focus tracking
  • Eleven frames per second continuous without auto-focus tracking
  • Ten / eleven frames per second continuous in DX-crop mode (AF / no-AF)
  • Dual Compact Flash card slots (overflow, back-up, RAW on 1 / JPEG on 2, copy)
  • Compact Flash UDMA support
  • 3.0" 922,000 pixel LCD monitor
  • Live View with either phase detect (mirror up/down) or contrast detect Auto Focus
  • Virtual horizon indicates if camera is level (like an aircraft cockpit display)
  • HDMI HD video output
  • 'Active D-Lighting' (adjusts metering as well as applying D-Lighting curve)
  • Detailed 'Control Panel' type display on LCD monitor, changes color in darkness
  • Buttons sealed against moisture
  • Dual battery charger as standard

Technology under the skin

FX format sensor (Nikon design) Sensor mounted on its module
Main board with EXPEED processor EXPEED processor
51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF sensor unit Viewfinder pentaprism
1005-pixel metering sensor Shutter