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Nikon D3x Gordon Laing, July 2009

Nikon D3x test report verdict

Like the D3 before it, the Nikon D3x is a very serious piece of kit. Both cameras exude physical confidence with tank-like build quality and superb ergonomics. The viewfinder delivers a huge view with 100% coverage and a wealth of information, while the VGA screen ensures images look their best whether in playback or Live View. The dual Compact Flash slots allow invaluable backup configurations that make you wonder why such features are reserved for top-end models only. Then when you fire-off a burst of frames, even with the ‘slower’ D3x, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer amount of data being processed.

So it’s no surprise to find the Nikon D3x, like the D3 before it, is a very successful and satisfying tool for the professional, but what about the image quality? When we went into this test we of course expected excellent results from the flagship Nikon DSLR, but we were surprised not just by its ultimate resolving power, but also the comparative quality of its main rival – in terms of images anyway.

Remember the purpose of this article is not to rate the D3x’s build quality, handling, features or value, but to simply evaluate the image quality of a state-of-the-art DSLR, and crucially how it compares to its highest-performing rival in this regard. As explained in the introduction, that rival is the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, because while far from the D3x and flagship 1D series in build and handling, it does deliver the best image quality in the current Canon EOS range – a statement from Canon that we’ve confirmed in our own tests.

First things first: fit the D3x with a decent lens, point it at resolution charts under studio conditions and you’ll enjoy industry-leading results. In our Studio tests, the D3x’s processed RAW files resolved 3350 and 3250 lpph of horizontal and vertical resolution respectively – that’s roughly 10% finer detail than either the Canon EOS 5D Mark II or the Sony Alpha DSLR A900 under the same conditions. More impressively the D3x’s extinction resolution was even higher still, with moiré only really taking hold beyond 3600 lpph, approaching the technical limits of our chart.

Here’s a camera which has the potential to out-resolve any traditional DSLR produced to date, leaving only medium format models offering anything better. Of course Canon’s long-awaited successor to its 1Ds Mark III may change this, but until that model arrives, or in the unlikely event another manufacturer decides to jump in beyond the 24 Megapixel level, the D3x becomes the King of DSLR resolution.

While undoubtedly an impressive result in the studio, you may not actually notice a huge difference between the D3x and EOS 5D Mark II in real-life conditions – indeed you may even prefer the output of the Canon. In our real-life resolution and high ISO noise results pages, the D3x delivered noticeably softer results than the EOS 5D Mark II using the default settings on their respective RAW converters - and that's even when we used very similar prime lenses on the second of these pages.

This shouldn’t be too surprising though: the D3x, like other top-end professional DSLRs before it, errs on the side of restraint when it comes to image processing. This is a camera that expects its owner to perform corrections and enhancements after the event, so holds-back with its default settings. The EOS 5D Mark II however is a semi-pro / enthusiast body which delivers more ‘cooked’ images using its default settings, which are simply crisper and sharper without intervention. This was reflected for in-camera JPEGs as well as the RAW files tested. Boost the D3x or tone-down the EOS 5D Mark II though and you can roughly match the appearance of their images.

Looking beyond the image processing strategies though and it’s hard to see a great deal of difference between the two bodies in terms of recorded real-life detail. The D3x’s images may have been slightly larger, with subsequently smaller areas in their crops, but there was no obvious benefit in real-life detail.

There were slightly different approaches to handling noise, again seen before on lower-end models in each manufacturer’s range. Nikon seems happy to reveal noise speckles at higher sensitivities, whereas Canon has become quite noise-averse and will process them out where possible. As such, we found a very slight amount of noise textures becoming visible in the D3x as soon as 400 ISO, although more obviously at 800 ISO and above. As you’ll see in our High ISO Noise results page though, this noise has a very fine grain which also manages to avoid chroma artefacts – indeed some might even find it aesthetically pleasing like grainy film. In contrast, while the EOS 5D Mark II starts off crisper, it gradually becomes softer as stronger image processing plays its part, until at the highest sensitivities, there’s some undesirable patchiness.

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But again, look beyond their processing strategies and both cameras are delivering roughly similar amounts of real-life detail, while suffering from noise to a similar degree.

Ultimately while our studio tests confirm the Nikon D3x as the current resolution leader, there’s not a great deal in it when it comes to real-life detail. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II admirably keeps-up, while even delivering output which many may prefer with the default settings. This is an impressive result for the Canon considering you could roughly buy three EOS 5D Mark II bodies for the same price as one Nikon D3x. Then again while the EOS 5D Mark II additionally boasts an HD movie mode and anti-dust features, the D3x is obviously a much tougher and faster camera that’s ultimately targeted more at the needs of pro photographers who’ll happily pay the asking price.

But as stated at the start of this article, we’re not comparing price, handling or features here: we’re looking at image quality alone. We know from our Studio results that the Nikon D3x is technically capable of recording finer details than the Canon EOS 5D Mark II when it comes to resolution charts, but there’s little difference between them when it comes to real-life detail.

What’s remarkable though is the degree of detail recorded by both cameras, and the cleanness of their images even at high sensitivities. Both full frame bodies are capable of delivering superb results, and what we’ve seen here from the D3x certainly bodes well for a more affordable high resolution full-frame body in the future – we just hope the price differential of a ‘D700x’ over the D700 isn’t as great as that between the D3x and D3. In the meantime, if you’re not bothered about pro build or handling and just want the best image quality for the money, Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II is certainly very compelling right now.

For more details on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, see our detailed review and HD video tour.

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All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2017 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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