Normally we would express disappointment with a camera being overly similar to a predecessor — in this case the D3X is strikingly similar to the amazing D3 — but not in this instance. Nikon has improved, refined and upped the megapixel count to produce a professional-grade camera with every function you could ever wish for, apart from video recording.
The D3X is without a doubt one of the most exciting cameras to grace us with its presence. Setting aside its steep (AU$14,000) price tag for just a moment, this is the sort of camera you could sneak into a party and have people fawn over to the detriment of the birthday boy or girl. Think of it as a blue Tiffany's box; it's as much about the covetable packaging as it is about the contents. It gives the photographer some serious professional credibility thanks to the heft of the unit, the textured grips flanking most of the body, and the insignia that graces the outside.
In terms of overall size, it's just a bit bigger than the D700 and weighs just over 1.2kg. In the style stakes it borrows pretty much everything from the D3, the former top-of-the-line Nikon dSLR. Essentially, it is the same camera on the outside, with a couple of notable differences internally as mentioned further on in this review.
The snazzy dual screens at the back (Credit: Nikon)
On the side sits a range of connectivity options, including HDMI out. Like the D3, the D3X is weather sealed and dust resistant, and has a magnesium alloy body, which is a good thing as you'll want to take this camera almost everywhere with you. At the top, there's just a hotshoe covered by a rubbery plastic casing — there is no pop-up flash here.
Underneath the LCD screen is the secondary display and a row of buttons underneath, used to show ISO, RAW or JPEG shooting on each of the memory cards and white balance settings. There's also a microphone button which can be used to record voice annotations, plus a miniature speaker for playing the audio back.
Inside is a 24.5-megapixel CMOS sensor, full frame of course — nothing less than FX sized here. You can mount DX lenses on the body and the viewfinder will automatically block out the area of the image you can't see with the DX lens attached, and shoot at a lower resolution, but really, why would you? After spending a small fortune on the body, perhaps even enough for a small house deposit, you might as well shell out for a bit of quality glass to go with it.
On the topic of price, the D3X is AU$2000 dearer than its main competitor, the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III. It's almost AU$10,000 more than the Sony Alpha A900, another professional level camera that betters the D3X's megapixel count at 25.3. So for this money, we'd expect the very best, and that's what we think Nikon has delivered.
At the back is a magnificent 3-inch LCD screen with 920,000 dots inside making reviewing images an incredibly easy and pleasant task. In terms of shooting modes, there are the usual four standards which are accessible by holding down the mode button near the shutter release, and rotating the front dial — program, aperture, shutter and manual mode.
The auto focus system is particularly impressive, with 51 points, the same as used in the D3 and D700. Bracketing is also versatile with up to nine frames at 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 or 1 EV steps. At the back sit two (yes, two!) compact flash slots, UDMA compatible as well. Nikon rates the D3X's buffer at 130 shots in JPEG which is pretty impressive — we didn't manage to fill the buffer during one of our high-speed fashion shoots which made it all the more impressive.
The D3X has really intuitive, easy-to-use menus.
It does, however, lose out in terms of shooting speed when compared to the D3: the D3X can manage only five frames per second compared to nine. Standard ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 1600 though this can be expanded to 50 to 6400.
The viewfinder is another pleasure to use as it covers 100 per cent field of view, and is incredibly bright. Focus points are clear, but don't take your attention away from the picture you are trying to frame. Nikon's menu system is far more intuitive (to us) than the equivalent on Canon's dSLR system thanks to its logical hierarchical structure, though this is a completely subjective judgement.
Unfortunately, there's no in-built dust reduction mechanism, so regardless of all the weatherproofing of the main body, it's probably best to avoid changing lenses in dusty situations.
Performance and image quality
The D3X elicited an incredible amount of superlatives once we took the time to review its images. We gasped in amazement as we reviewed the images on the LCD screen, and again once we transferred them to a computer. Overall, the D3X produced incredibly clean, rich images throughout all ISO ranges, though there was some visible noise evident from ISO 800 onwards. We loved how the colour was strikingly accurate in all shooting situations, and the tonal range was incredibly good, as well as on-par with what you'd expect from medium format film. White balance was a little off in indoor situations when there was no available natural light, but this is nothing that couldn't be fixed by shooting in RAW.
The live view implementation was equally as enjoyable to use, with a very fast refresh rate and vivid colours that allowed for accurate focusing and depth of field preview. At 24.5 megapixels, these images are massive, so expect to fill up several compact flash cards; thankfully the D3X has two card slots. Even when shooting in JPEG, the results were excellent and even more amazing was that the amount of post-production needed was absolutely minimal.
With a 50mm f/1.4 lens, we could achieve some beautiful bokeh and tonality on this image, with only natural light and a dreary day as a backdrop. Click on image to enlarge. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CBS Interactive)
A lot of the auto-focus and low light performance will depend on the lens you use, however, for the most part the camera was excellent at obtaining correct focus. The vivid LCD screen was also ideal for reviewing photos and the best part was being able to zoom in to 100 per cent magnification to review focus, detail and clarity of the image. Depending on the lens you attach to the camera, the D3X has vignetting correction which is useful in low-light situations.
The only thing we have to complain about was the price tag, and the relatively limited ISO capacity. Also, the mirror noise was fairly loud, though quite satisfying hearing the sound of an AU$14,000 camera going through its paces.
Unless you're a sports photographer who needs the increased burst rate, the D3X will be your ultimate camera — if you can stomach the price tag. For all other purposes it's simply superb, reaching the quality, tonality and depth of colour you would normally expect from the highest quality film. This is undoubtedly Nikon's best digital camera yet, though for most of the functionality you can easily get away with the D700 (or the D3 for a near-identical shooting experience) for a lot less, and still have around 95 per cent of the tools and features. But as usual, it's that extra 5 per cent — the je ne sais quoi — that makes this camera so thrilling. If you have the chance, even if this camera is only a pipe dream for you, go into a camera store, shoot off a few frames and have a play with it. Just don't blame us if you decide to take out a small mortgage to buy it.