Dynamic Range cont.

Picture Control presets

The graph below shows the dynamic range response from each of the D3X's four Picture Control presets. As you can see each has a slightly different tone curve but none achieves any better highlight range. By a small margin the best overall range (because of its lighter and hence extended shadow range) comes from the Neutral setting. It's worth mentioning that (like the D3) the D3X's default tone curve is actually quite contrasty and produces (for a pro-level Nikon) relatively 'punchy' out of camera JPEGs, but means the sensor's true capabilities (dynamic range-wise) aren't immediately obvious unless you play around with the picture settings or shoot RAW (see bottom of the page).

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Contrast settings

The graph below shows how the camera's tone curve and dynamic range is affected by the (admittedly small) range of contrast settings. Whilst the standard/default setting offers the most pleasing 'out of camera' results you can eke a little more (by which we mean maybe a third of a stop) more out of the shadows by opting for the flatter -3 setting. Highlight range is not affected.

ISO Sensitivity and Dynamic Range

The D3X has an indicated base sensitivity of ISO 100, sensitivities below this (ISO 80, 64 and 50) are indicated as L0.3, L0.7 and L1.0 respectively. Above ISO 1600 the ISO range extends to Hi2.0 (ISO 6400). As you can see from the graph below the compromise at ISO 50 is lower highlight range, which falls nearly a stop short of that seen from ISO 100 upwards.

Using the default settings the D3X delivers somewhere in the region of 8.5 stops of dynamic range from ISO 100 to 3200 and demonstrates remarkable consistency in the highlights up to the maximum setting. The increase in measured shadow range at ISO 3200 is due to noise reduction rather than an increase in shadow detail.

At base ISO dynamic range is in the same region as the D3 and, like its sister model, the D3X is capable of a lot more when pushed in RAW mode (as we'll see at the bottom of this page).

Sensitivity Shadow range Highlight range Usable range
ISO 50* -4.9 EV 2.9 EV 7.6 EV
ISO 100 -4.7 EV 3.7 EV 8.4 EV
ISO 200 -4.9 EV 3.7 EV 8.6 EV
ISO 400 -4.9 EV 3.7 EV 8.6 EV
ISO 800 -4.8 EV 3.7 EV 8.5 EV
ISO 1600 -4.9 EV 3.7 EV 8.6 EV
ISO 3200* -5.7 EV 3.7 EV 9.3 EV
ISO 6400* -3.9 EV 3.7 EV 7.6 EV

* Non-standard sensitivities

Dynamic Range compared

All cameras in this comparison offer a dynamic range in the region of 8.5 stops with the Sony DSLR-A900 at 9.4 EV being the notable exception. Of course a lot of this is down to the camera's standard tone curve and you'll be able to squeeze at least some extra dynamic range out of a camera when shooting RAW or modifying the JPEG settings.

Shadow range
Highlight range
Usable range
Nikon D3X (ISO 100) -4.7 EV 3.7 EV 8.4 EV
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (ISO 100) -5.1 EV 3.5 EV 8.6 EV
Sony DSLR-A900 (ISO 200) -5.1 EV 4.2 EV 9.4 EV
Nikon D3 (ISO 200) -4.7 EV 3.9 EV 8.6 EV

The wedges below are created by our measurement system from the values read from the step wedge, the red lines indicate approximate shadow and highlight range (the dotted line indicating middle gray).

RAW headroom

Experience has told us that there is typically around 1 EV (one stop) of extra information available at the highlight end in RAW files and that a negative digital exposure compensation when converting such files can recover detail lost to over-exposure. As with previous reviews we settled on Adobe Camera RAW for conversion to retrieve the maximum dynamic range from our test shots.

As usual the default Adobe Camera RAW conversion delivers less dynamic range than JPEG from the camera (a more contrasty tone curve and very little noise reduction in shadows). It's pretty impressive how much 'unused' highlight range the D3X is hiding in its raw headroom. The ACR best image has approximately 2 stops more highlight range than the out-of-camera JPEG, and 2.5 EV more than the ACR default conversion.

We are only plotting the 14-bit RAW mode on the graph below, this is simply because the result for this test is identical to 12-bit. Where 14-bit will give you an advantage is when you're 'pushing' or 'pulling' using digital exposure compensation (as shown at the bottom of the page), as you'll be less likely to hit posterization problems when working with severely over- or under- exposed shots. In practice the difference is minimal (especially with extreme under exposure, where noise will be the great leveler), though there seems little reason not to shoot 14-bit to be on the safe side.

  • ACR Default: Exp. 0.0 EV, Blacks 5, Contrast +25, Curve Medium
  • ACR Best: Exp. -1.10 EV, Blacks 0, Brightness 125, Contrast 0, Curve Linear

Like the D3 the D3X has a rather contrasty default tone curve which can cause some highlight clipping. However, the camera has - considering its pixel-packed sensor - quite a large amount of RAW headroom to work with - almost two stops in its ISO 100 shots. This wide exposure latitude allows you to pull back both shadow and highlight detail if your exposure goes awry in the press scrum, or if you simply did not get these exposure settings quite right in the heat of the moment. As you can see in the samples below the ability to pull back detail and crucially also color information is quite impressive.

Adobe Camera RAW default conversion Adobe Camera RAW with -1.9 EV digital comp.

Adobe Camera RAW default conversion Adobe Camera RAW with -2.95 EV digital comp.