As it should, given the price tag, the Nikon D3 performed quite well in CNET Labs' tests. It took 0.1 second to start up and capture its first JPEG. After that, it took 0.3 second between JPEGs and raw images. Shutter lag measured a very impressive 0.3 second in our high-contrast test and 0.6 second in our low-contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively.
Noise remains well under control through ISO 1,600, and begins to creep up a bit at ISO 3,200 and ISO 6,400. As usual, Nikon includes its Hi1 (12,800) and Hi2 (25,600) settings and you even get third-stop steps up to Hi1, but you have to take a full-stop leap up to Hi2. Hi1 has obvious noise, but depending on the situation, you may be able to eke out some very usable prints, especially at smaller sizes. Hi2 gets rough around the edges, but is still surprisingly decent considering you're shooting at an equivalent of ISO 25,600 at that point, something you just couldn't do with 35mm film. Sorry diehards: your celluloid just can't keep up with digital anymore.
In continuous shooting mode, we were able to capture 37 frames in 3.3 seconds for an average of 8.6 frames per second at full resolution. That's quite impressive and near, but not better than the Canon EOS-1D Mark III's 9.9-frame-per-second burst in our lab. Of course, the D3 does have 2 million extra pixels to process compared with the 1D Mark III. If you're willing to step down to 5 megapixels, Nikon says that the D3 can achieve 11fps in DX crop mode (we only test at full resolution).
The D3's 51-point autofocus with 15 cross-type sensors delivers a major upgrade over the D2Xs's 11-point AF system. It's the same system found in the D300 and the recently announced D700. Just like those cameras, the 1,005-point 3D color matrix metering system works with the AF system to create the camera's 3D-tracking mode, meaning that it has the same quirkiness described in the review of the D300. That means the when you're shooting a subject with colors that contrast substantially with the background colors and will remain in the frame while you shoot it, you should use the D3's 3D tracking mode. If you're shooting something that will move into the frame while you're shooting, then you should opt for the 51-point (or 21-point or 9-point) dynamic AF without 3D. For example, if you're shooting a bird perched on a post and waiting for it to take off so you can get it in action, then you should probably use 3D tracking. If you're framing around a soccer goal and waiting for the player to run into frame and kick the winning goal, you should use one of the non-3D modes.
Color accuracy is among the best we've seen in a digital camera, and overall image quality is wonderful, partly attributable to the D3's 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion which feeds into a 16-bit internal processing pipeline. Images show oodles of fine detail, especially at lower sensitivities, and have plenty of contrast. If Nikon is going to take any criticism for the D3, it's likely to be that the 12-megapixel sensor leaves it far behind Canon's 1Ds Mark III, which offers 21 megapixels and produces similarly excellent images. Of course, it's also about $3,000 more than the D3 and tops out at an equivalent of ISO 3,200.
I have to give Nikon a slight edge over the 1D Mark III for its remarkable noise profile, which enables shooting photos that couldn't be captured as they can now. It's more expensive than the 1D, but even in the murky depths of the dank, dark rock clubs of New York's lower east side, the D3 can shoot at speeds fast enough to stop the swaying motion of annoying hipster Axel Rose wannabees as they wail their horribly unoriginal lyrics toward the ears of the drunken masses.
If you're among the Canon crowd whose faith has wavered amidst this year's onslaught of incredible image-making machinery from Nikon, the D3 might be worth the trouble of switching brands (though Canon seems to swear that it has some interesting things in store for us over the next year or so). And if you don't need some of the D3's speed and power, you might want to wait and see how the D700 stacks up as a smaller, less-expensive alternative. But if you're a Nikon shooter and you want the best that the company can offer, the D3 is a no-brainer and significant step up from the D2Xs.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)