NIKON D3X – Value for Money?

This is in no way to be construed as a technical review (you could look up Thom Hogan’s review if you want that), just a little firsthand experience. So first off, yes I did bite the bullet and paid the (cough cough splutter splutter) obscene price for this behemoth. Well to be fair as behemoths go, it ain’t much bigger than the D3s that were already in the bag.

But it was 3Gs more, and no we ain’t talking NZ, Aussie, HK or Singapore dollars. Thank gawd for some juggling (chucked one of the D3s) and my friend Khun Poolsap at Niksthailand who was willing to do a financing deal. Yeah, true I have bought a small fortune in gear from him over the years. It’s kinda like frequent flyer miles.

So back to the body of the story. Nikon’s new flagship, the D3X, finally brings Nikon into 20-and-up megapixel (24 in this case) range of pro “35mm” DSLRs. Its full frame sensor and that magic processor certainly are seductive.

But there is of course a whole range of questions you ask yourself.

First and foremost is: are there pixels and then are there pixels? Well the megapixel count (very) often neglects to mention things like size of the pixels – just a little detail. Plus there is a whole slew of cameras that do deliver a certain amount of pixels at a price: extrapolated data doesn’t quite measure up to the real thing. Not Nikon.

That was the tune when Nikon released the D3 (its first, much belated full frame DSLR). Their excuse, and it is a good one, for the delay was that they wanted to guarantee quality. The D3 satisfied me in ways that would be too personal and revealing to discuss here (go on, speculate!) but let’s just say that that monster processor delivered files at 3200 ISO like I had never seen before. It literally has changed the way I shoot low light, the way I think low light. I have become fearless (though in general I try to go no higher than 1600 ISO) in low light. And what’s even better, considering the onslaught of my senility, is when I forget to drop the ISO in brighter light it’s still decent (not that I recommend it). You can also use the smart automatic ISO if you really want to completely lose control. Have some pride!

So why cave in and go for the over 20megapixel count? Coz there are suckers out there or coz it makes sense to give a great camera and broader scope of use? Read on.

To cut it short, when the D3X came on the scene I was a ready made sucker, my name was on the list. Niksthailand were so confident that they had one reserved for me out of the first batch. And yes, they hooked and landed me.

It’s a mental given for people like me that when you want something to be the way you imagined, you are probably not going to do the rational thing and research it first. I bought, then did the research. Funny thing the research was right!

I use it in its max mode: 14 bit color depth, RAW, full frame, a bit of D-lighting control. Why pay that kind of money and not use it to it’s max?

Ok, first what I love about it, in comparison to the D3:

1. Love the big files – it’s all there. (sorry not much point putting samples up here in low res)

2. And when you convert it to BW, correcting the color channels, the tonal quality is pretty stunning. The tonal quality is stunning in color too. I haven’t pulled any big prints yet, but will report.

3. As with the D3, the dynamic range is impressive. More impressive if you handle it right.

4. Between 100 ISO (it is a lower native ISO than the D3’s 200) and 1600 you don’t have to freak out about noise. Just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Now what I either hate or can’t figure out why it is:

1. At full frame, 14 bit, on continous high speed drive mode you are a sitting duck – imagine, only 1.8 frames a sec. And then you gotta wait for it to ooze its way through the buffer and write it to your CF card. Gimme a break. I thought that as I don’t shoot sport it wouldn’t be so dire. But the other day in Chiang Mai I was shooting kids mingling around in a school. It’s not news that little kids don’t wait patiently for you to wind on. D..n me if I didn’t finally reach for my old D3 with its trusty 5-7 frames a second or so (14 bit, it’s 9 frames if you shot 12 bit). Literally what a drag. Let’s hope there is a firmware update soon on that!!

2. What’s with the extra noise after 1600 ISO? Thought they figured it out with the D3. OK, Thom Hogan will probably explain exactly why the trade off with the larger files result in this, but it’s too bad.

3. The size and weight. It’s the only reason I go to the gym is to make sure I can actually lift the D3 and the D3X to eye level. And when you are on the street it’s like that bull run thing they do in Spain or wherever. You are going to want to put good lenses on this thing. They tend to get big too.

4. I put this last because it’s not fully Nikon’s fault – but you need to upgrade your camera raw plug-in to deal with this latest NEF format if you wanna use Photoshop. And guess what? The beta version of the updated plug-in available at the time I am writing this is incompatible with CS3. Yep, like it or not you gotta upgrade to CS4. And if you are a good little boy like me you buy legit software, and the upgrade is 300 odd bucks. Ouch. You could use the Nikon software but who has time to completely relearn how to set up an efficient and fast workflow? I have messed around with the Nikon software (coz it comes with the camera and probably is factored into the price) and I am sure it can be made to work loads of images quickly, but that’s not the point. Why do all these camera manufacturers obsess about proprietary software? Imagine if Mercedes, Toyota, etc all designed cars to run on their own special gas?

The bottom line is, though I am definitely keeping this baby (gotta try and get the money back on it), once I have finished really putting it thru its paces (and showing it off) I probably will end up not using it on the street. It will probably mostly be used for commercial shoots where the client really needs that extra quality and size.

But if Nikon is smart and does release a firmware update that deals with those issues that could change. After all I do put up some pretty big prints in the gallery from time to time so it would be nice to have that extra crispness.

And if Nikon ever produces a fast, discreet rangefinder (how I miss my Contax G2s film cameras on the street!) with this kind of quality, I hereby solemnly swear I will buy more than one right off the bat, with lenses to boot.

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