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Nikon officially introduces 24.39 million image pixel D3X
Sunday, November 30, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Pixelpalooza: The 24.39 million image pixel Nikon D3X. Click to enlarge (Photo courtesy Nikon)
It's official: in the next few weeks, Nikon will begin shipping a high resolution counterpart to the D3. Called the D3X, the widely-leaked new digital SLR from Nikon will incorporate a 24.39 million image pixel CMOS sensor, a standard ISO range of 100-1600 and maximum 5 fps full resolution shooting rate into a body that is effectively the same as the D3. The D3X, Nikon's highest resolution digital SLR to date, is slated to reach retailers in December 2008 at an expected street price of US$7999.95 in the U.S.

Nikon D3X feature summary

Summarizing the new model is easy: the D3X is a D3 with more pixels. Almost all feature differences derive from the fact the D3X is capturing and processing smaller pixels, and many more of them. This leads to the camera's 5 fps maximum shooting rate when set to full resolution FX Format mode (down from 9 fps on comparable settings in the D3), the necessity to dial the camera to 12 bit when capturing NEFs to achieve the maximum shooting rate for both FX Format and DX Format (more on this below) and an extended ISO range that tops out at 6400 (vs 25,600 in the D3).

The D3X also gains a slick feature of the D700: the option to jump directly to the top item in My Menu via a press of one of its programmable buttons, which makes it lightning quick to enable and disable ISO Auto. This nifty shortcut is also found in the D3X, says Lindsay Silverman, Senior Technical Manager at Nikon USA. So far, the same shortcut hasn't materialized in the D3. Also from the D700, the D3X adds a new Auto option in the Active D-Lighting menu, along with an Extra High option that first appeared in the D90. Rounding out the short list of feature differences we know of is the HDMI connector: on the D3, it's a Type A HDMI port; on the D3X, Type C. The latter is smaller but functionally identical (Nikon switched to Type C HDMI ports on its digital SLR models starting with the D700).

Otherwise, the new model is a D3 with a big resolution upgrade, incorporating the same weather-sealed magnesium alloy body and identical control layout, FX Format, DX Format (at up to 7 fps) and 5:4 capture modes, 300,000-cycle shutter, 51-area Multi-CAM 3500 autofocus system, crisp 100% coverage viewfinder, 1005-pixel RGB ambient and flash metering sensor (with 3D Color Matrix Metering II algorithms), three inch (diagonal), 922,000 dot rear LCD display, twin UDMA-capable CompactFlash slots, Live View with optional Virtual Horizon overlay and more. The D3 is a sweet camera, and so the D3X is likely to be as well.

Nikon D3X feature highlights

Including the D3X, Nikon now has three models in its digital SLR lineup equipped with 35mm-size image sensors, ahead of Canon's current two (the EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS 5D Mark II) and Sony's one (the DSLR-A900). Here's a more detailed description of certain D3X features:

CMOS sensor and picture quality The D3X's sensor has a capture area of 24mm x 35.9mm, putting it about on par with the size of a 35mm film frame. It records 24.39 million pixel photos when the entire sensor area is active, which Nikon calls FX Format mode. Like the D3, the D3X will also operate with a smaller 16 x 24mm capture area, one that's roughly equivalent to the sensor size of all Nikon digital SLRs other than the D3, D3X and D700. Nikon calls this DX Format mode. The photos taken in this mode contain 10.48 million pixels.

The D3X also offers a 5:4 capture mode, at 20.39 million image pixels. Set to FX Format or 5:4, the camera will shoot continuously at a maximum of 5 fps. When set to DX Format, the top frame rate increases to 7 fps.

The maximum frame rate of the D3X comes with strings attached. To achieve 5 fps in FX Format and 5:4 modes, the camera must be set to either JPEG (and perhaps TIFF) or, if shooting NEFs, the NEF bit depth must be set to 12 bit. The situation is similar in DX Format mode: for the camera to fire at up to 7 fps, the camera must either be set to JPEG and possibly TIFF or, if capturing NEFs, the NEF bit depth must again be set to 12 bit.

While the English-language information that Nikon has published about the relationship between frame rate and bit depth in the D3X seems to be mostly vague, Nikon USA's Silverman was able to determine, by actually trying out a D3X body on different NEF settings, that the 5 fps/7 fps burst speeds are possible only when [NEF (RAW) bit depth] is set to [12-bit] in the [NEF (RAW) Recording] menu of the camera. With the same menu set to [14-bit], shooting slows considerably.

While Nikon USA, says Silverman, does not yet have information from Tokyo on what the D3X's 14 bit NEF shooting rates are, Nikon Imaging's Japanese-language specifications appear to say that the FX Format (and possibly 5:4) frame rate is much slower, at 1.8 fps, climbing to 2.6 fps in DX Format mode. During a phone interview with Silverman we could hear the D3X, when snapping off 14 bit NEFs in succession in either FX Format or DX Format modes, was doing so at about the frame rates listed on the Japanese site.

It may emerge that there is some combination of 14 bit NEF settings that allow the camera to shoot as fast as when set to 12 bit, but as of this writing it doesn't look that way. Most likely the D3X, like the D300, can only deliver its top frame rates shooting 12 bit NEFs or finished files such as JPEG and maybe TIFF also.

Similar to the D3, the D3X's sensor package does not incorporate a self-cleaning feature. The new camera also does not include a video recording mode.

While it's acknowledged that Nikon uses image sensors principally designed by Sony in many of its digital SLRs past and present, the D3X's sensor was described in a recent briefing by Nikon USA's Silverman as an "original Nikon design" that does not and will not appear in cameras from other digital SLR manufacturers. In addition, Nikon issued the following response to the questions they received from us and others about the D3X imager's roots:

The Nikon D3Xs 24.5-megapixel FX-format (35.9 x 24.0mm) CMOS sensor was developed expressly for the D3X in accordance with Nikons stringent engineering requirements and performance standards, with final production executed by Sony.  Featuring refined low-noise characteristics, 12 and 14 bit output, Live View capability and more, the D3Xs unique sensor design was carefully blueprinted to perform in perfect concert with proprietary Nikon technologies including EXPEED Image Processing and the Scene Recognition System. Meticulous efforts allowed the sensor to become one of the many essential components and technologies which contribute to the D3Xs superior image fidelity.

Ultimately, Nikon's response doesn't shed too much light on how certain core image characteristics, including high ISO image quality and rendering of fine detail, might differ between Nikon's and Sony's highest resolution digital SLRs. For now, it's only possible to note that the D3X's sensor shares certain key specifications with the Sony-made image sensor in the Sony DSLR-A900, including size (24mm x 35.9mm), image dimensions at full resolution (6048 x 4032 pixels), the number of readout channels (12) and pixel pitch (5.94m).

Given the similarities between the DSLR-A900's and D3X's sensor specifications, they're obviously related, but whether they're nearly twins or merely third cousins only Sony and Nikon know for certain.

The processing circuitry in the D3X carries over from the D3 and features 12 or 14 bit analog-to-digital conversions and a 16 bit processing path. The core image processing technologies contained in the D3X and other current Nikons go under the umbrella name of EXPEED. When shooting FX Format and 5:4 NEFs, it's possible to specify whether you want them to contain 14 bits per colour or 12 bits per colour of information (the latter for smaller file sizes and a few more frames in extended bursts), as well as whether they are uncompressed, compressed (visually lossless, 40-55% compression rates) or losslessly compressed (numerically identical after decompression, 20-40% compression rates).

The D3X has a normal ISO range of 100-1600 in 1/3 step increments (the camera can also be configured for 1/2 step and full step increments), and an extended ISO range of 50-6400 (in 1/3 step increments from 50-3200, and then a full step jump to 6400).

Real-time image processing in the camera includes lateral chromatic aberration correction, Active D-Lighting, high ISO noise reduction and vignette control. The lateral chromatic aberration correction will work with any lens, including those not from Nikon, because the correction applied is based on an analysis of the image data, not on lens information. If shooting NEF, the correction isn't applied to the RAW data, but information about the analysis is, information that Capture NX2 can use to do similar processing later. Active D-Lighting has the same three settings - High, Normal and Low - as in the D3, plus new Auto and Extra High settings not found in the earlier model. When Auto is selected, the camera will look at both data from the 1005-pixel metering sensor and the image itself and decide which setting is appropriate in that instance.

High ISO noise reduction is applied to photos shot at ISO 400 or higher when the High ISO NR menu is set to Low, Normal or High. If the D3X is set to ISO 2000 or above and High ISO NR is Off, a small measure of high ISO noise reduction processing is still applied. The comparable thresholds in the D3 are ISO 2000 and ISO 8000, respectively.

Basic performance The D3X has a startup time of 0.12 seconds, shutter lag of 40ms (based on CIPA test procedures) and a standard top flash sync speed of 1/250.

Here's summary of Nikon's D3X burst depth specifications:
  • FX Format, Lossless Compressed 14 bit NEF (1.8 fps): 28 frames
  • FX Format, Lossless Compressed 12 bit NEF (5 fps): 24 frames
  • FX Format, JPEG Fine (5 fps): 44 frames
  • DX Format, Lossless Compressed 14 bit NEF (2.6 fps): 52 frames
  • DX Format, Lossless Compressed 12 bit NEF (7 fps): 32 frames
  • DX Format, JPEG Fine (7 fps): 76 frames
Nikon states that the above numbers are derived from testing with a Sandisk Extreme IV 4GB card, though other UDMA-capable CompactFlash should provide similar numbers of frames in a burst. Also note that the number of frames that the D3X can record in succession is actually greater on some settings than a D3 (without the extra-cost buffer memory upgrade), despite the fact the D3X produces dramatically larger, RAM-gobbling images. It's a fair guess that the D3X sports the same capacity of SDRAM buffer - 2GB - as a buffer-upgraded D3, giving the D3X the headroom needed to deliver impressive burst depth numbers for this class of camera.

Look Sharp: The Multi-CAM 3500 autofocus module (Photo courtesy Nikon)
51-area autofocus The D3X is the fourth Nikon digital SLR to utilize a Multi-CAM 3500-based autofocus system (it's officially called Multi-CAM 3500FX in Nikon's full-frame cameras).

The AF system is comprised of 51 AF areas, including 15 cross-type AF areas (they operate as cross-type with lenses whose maximum aperture is f/5.6 or faster). The 51-area grid forms a wide rectangle across the frame, with minimal spacing between each AF area.

In single area autofocus, the camera can be configured to allow for manual selection from all 51 AF areas, or from 11 in a layout designed to mimic that of the D2-series cameras. The multi-area options include groupings of 9 or 21 AF areas in a cluster that's movable about the 51-area grid. It's also possible to have the camera choose from all 51 areas for you.

When set to use the full 51 AF areas, the D3X, like other current Nikons, can employ the Nikon-developed Scene Recognition System to aid in the subject acquisition and tracking process. The Scene Recognition System uses information about subject colour, derived from the 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor, to help the AF system determine where the subject has moved to in the frame and shift the active AF area accordingly.

The D3X incorporates an AF Fine Tune option to compensate for autofocus miscalibration with certain lenses or all lenses.

Our experience with Multi-CAM 3500 autofocus is that it's easily the best to grace a Nikon digital SLR.

Three inch rear LCD The D3X contains the same three inch (diagonal), 170 degree viewing angle, 922,000 dot rear LCD as the D3 and other Nikons. This is a great screen.

LiveView with autofocus When enabled, the rear LCD displays a real-time view through the lens. Nikon's iteration of LiveView includes optional grid or Virtual Horizon overlays, brightness adjustment, zoom and two autofocus modes.

The D3's LiveView refreshes at 15 fps, as does the D300 and D700, and in all three models this mode feel somewhat herky-jerky when compared to the smoother 24 fps of the D90 or the silky-smooth 30 fps of Canon's Live View. As of this writing, we don't know if the D3X's Live View refresh rate is 15 fps, 24 fps or something else altogether.

Power The D3X is powered by an EN-EL4a and is rated for 4400 shots per charge (CIPA standard), slightly ahead of the 4300 shots per charge specification of the D3. Included with the camera is the MH-22 Dual Quick Charger.

The D3X can also be powered by the EH-6 AC Adapter.

Twin card slots Like the D3, the D3X sports dual CompactFlash Type I/II card slots, is capable of UDMA data transfers for fast write speeds and includes a full complement of write options:
  • Overflow The camera will automatically begin writing to the second card when the first card is full.

  • Backup The camera will write the same photo to both cards.

  • RAW Slot 1 - JPEG Slot 2 As its name implies, NEFs are written to the card in the first slot, and JPEGs are written to the card in the second slot.

  • Copy It's possible to copy photos from one card to the other.
Connections The D3X has USB 2.0, PC sync, 10-pin remote, DC input (for use with the Nikon EH-6 AC adapter), HDMI (Type C) and analog audio/video ports. It's compatible with certain GPS devices (those that conform to the NMEA 0183 v2.01 and v3.01 interface standard) as well as Nikon's upcoming GP-1 GPS Unit (via an included adapter cable) and the WT-4/WT-4a Wireless Transmitter.

Price and ship date

The Nikon D3X will ship in December 2008, sometime before December 25 says Silverman, at an expected street price of US$7999.95 in the U.S. In Canada, the camera has a manufacturer's suggested list price of CDN$9449.95. In Japan, popular retailer Yodobashi Camera lists the D3X's domestic release date as December 19, 2008.

Revision History
December 5, 2008: Added and corrected info about the D3X's shooting rate, added info about high ISO noise reduction.
December 6, 2008: Added burst depth specifications (thanks to Nick Walker for bringing this info to our attention).
December 8, 2008: Added statement from Nikon about the source of the D3X image sensor.
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