The D3x Commentary

What? Not what you were expecting it to be?

Original: 12/1/2008 (updated 11am)

Before we get started, I have to once again reinforce what I said in my first post on the D3x's (accidental) appearance (now on the 2008 News page). The D3x launch was sloppy. We've had firmware updates that leaked information, we've had multiple launch dates semi-officially announced, we've had Nikon employees showing the camera to enough shooters that more than one couldn't stay quiet, we had a magazine ad that promised a followup that wasn't made, we had more than one subsidiary tip things off with Web work, and we had a magazine exclusive turn out to beat the actual launch. If this was my marketing department that was involved, I'd expect to be looking for another job. The problem with this is that Nikon ended up mishandling expectations and is now going to pay the price for that. The Web-enforced, pre-release hype for the camera (let alone the MX speculation) now exceeds what will actually be delivered by a very large amount, and that's going to create a marketing backlash that just puts another hurdle in the path for success.

Frankly, the D3x really needs to be free of hurdles, as I think it's already a bit of a stretch on Nikon's part (more on that in a bit).

Beyond the sloppiness of the pre-launch "activities," there's the whole wonderment of the timing. I suspect that either the D700 launch or Photokina was the original target, but it's been clear for some time that the D3x was on a slower roll than Nikon wanted it to be. I got the sense of a lot of on-again, off-again going on as the product worked its way to release. Given that the primary change in the camera is the sensor, it's possible that the initial production run had a low yield or some other similar sensor-based problem prompted the delay. Still, once you miss a Photokina launch window, I would argue that you have to seriously consider waiting until after the holidays to launch. Here in the US Thanksgiving is shear chaos, especially this year with the econalypse looming on one side and a week shorter run to Christmas on the other. Dealers really don't want pros calling in during their busiest time of year just to get on a wait list, and even when things do ship in December it's not exactly roses for the dealers. Nikon got away with the D300/D3 ship in the post Thanksgiving rush last year (and has a history of "late ships" now), but there's really no rational reason not to wait until January in my view. The dealers actually might like having something in January that doesn't sit on the shelf. Moreover, the D300/D3 had the benefit of being announced far earlier, thus both customers and the dealers were able to plan for it better.

So add "rushed" to "sloppy."

But there really isn't any reason why there should have been any last minute rush, at all. The D3x just isn't different enough from the D3, after all. Every last bit of effort should have been in the "the pixels matter" part of the equation, and that should have been better coordinated from the corporate mother ship, and put into a marketing window where it would actually be heard better. The eventual D3x ad campaign better be executed better than this, or else we might have to add "underwhelming" to "rushed" and "sloppy".

Finally, I'm seeing evidence that Nikon themselves don't quite know how to position and market the D3x. The "world is your studio" tag line is clever, but doesn't really speak much to the marketing issue that Nikon faces. And Nikon's whole appeal to the medium format crowd seems, well, a bit weak, as it consists mainly of "lots of pixels that are good." The fact that we're not seeing the PC lenses emphasized, an 85mm f/1.4G AF-S introduced, and burst rates and buffer sizes pointed out means that Nikon doesn't quite get the studio market enough to develop a cogent, from-day-one, marketing message.

If you're getting a less than positive impression of the D3x from what I've wrote so far, well, don't blame me: Nikon botched the intro. That's in stark contrast to the D3 introduction, which makes things even worse. Nikon's shown that they can do it right, but now we're back to them showing us that they know how to do it wrong. Which Nikon do we believe is in charge?

The Camera
So, what exactly is a D3x, you ask?

It's a D3 whose primary digital board and sensor have been updated and replaced (respectively). That appears to be the only change (there may be some minor tweaks and menu choices that we can't see short of disassembling the two side-by-side and doing a full scroll of the menu system, but I expect those things to be beyond minor in practice). Swap out the D3's sensor for a new stuffed-with-pixels one, swap in a slightly redesigned digital logic board. Voila, D3x.

Key differences:

  D3 D3x
sensor 12mp FX 24.5mp FX
frame rate 9 fps, 11 fps DX w/o focus 5 fps, 7 fps DX
ISO settings LO1, 200-6400, HI1, HI2 LO1, 100-1600, HI1, HI2
Menus   Auto and Extra High D-Lighting, programmable buttons allow MyMenu
Connectors Full HDMI (Type C) Mini HDMI (Type A)

There's the inevitable "is it a Sony or Nikon sensor" question thing that arises from another new sensor announcement. But it especially rises this time as the primary difference between a D3 and a D3x is the sensor, and Sony has a similar-sized sensor in a camera that's US$5000 less expensive. I think there's a clear assumption by many that if it is a Sony sensor, then either the A900 is a bargain or the D3x is overpriced.

In actuality, the origin of the sensor is, like virtually all Nikon sensors, more complex. There's a story going around Japan, for instance, that one of Sony's newer fabs was partially leased to another company making CMOS sensors. There aren't many companies making CMOS sensors that need a state-of-the-art fab on lease, so the rumor has it that Nikon is the leasee. Given that the steppers in the plant probably came from Nikon Precision and things get messy real quick. There have also been rumors around for some time that Nikon was either specifying or applying their own "toppings" (that would be microlenses and Bayer filtration), even when they were using a Sony generated sensor. To say that there is a lot of entwinement between Sony Semiconductor and Nikon Imaging is understatement. Personally, I like the way Nikon puts it: "unique." The D3x sensor is unique to the D3x, though it may share some underpinnings with other sensors.

So it seems clear to me that the D3x sensor isn't the A900 sensor. There are some obvious differences that can be gleaned from the specs and without access to technical data sheets. At the same time, there are too many coincidences for the D3x sensor not to be based on the Sony sensel (the light sensing area of the photosite). It also seems clear that the low-pass filter is handled differently in the Nikon version. So all those thinking that the A900 and D3x should be the "same" for raw files are probably going to be proven wrong. And for JPEG files, the EXPEED and BIONZ image processing ASICs are certainly going to produce different results.

But we have a more basic issue to address, as the primary difference of importance between the D3 and D3x is pixels. So...

Do You Need Pixels?
A question you're likely to ask is "are more pixels really better?"

Some of you will be surprised to hear me say yes to that. Unequivocably. While you might not have thought about it this way before, everything we do in digital is about transitions. For example, the difference between 8-bit and 14-bit is all about transitions: the more tonal values we have, the cleaner the tonal ramp is, especially when you through some post processing changes into the underlying bit values. Well, more pixels is sort of the same thing, only in a different dimension. Imagine setting f/1.2 on your lens for a subject that's got lots of detail in it. The "depth of field" transitions from the focus point to an out of focus point. If it does that over only a few pixels, you get a crudish, sometimes visually harsh transition from sharp to unsharp. I see that sometimes in point and shoots. Now, if we have lots of pixels to render that transition with, each pixel represents less of a focus change: we get a smoother transition from sharp to unsharp. So, yes, more is better. (I should point out that some actually like the visually harsh approach: they mistake abrupt transition for acuity.)

That's assuming, of course, that the pixels have good "integrity" to them and aren't full of digital artifacts. That, of course, is the thing we don't yet know about the D3x's sensor. We'll save our comments on that for when we can actually test the product. Right now the answer is that more pixels should be better, but only if they have enough quality to record the difference. The assumption with a high-end Nikon product is that they do, but only testing will tell us for sure.

But what about noise, you're asking? That's a good question, and also unknown until we test the camera. But there's a common problem with most people's assessment of noise, too: they do it at the pixel level. Yes, as we squeeze more photosites onto a sensor we start lowering the signal to noise ratio of the individual photosite. That's inevitable, as our signal (electrons collected) gets limited. The sensor makers have been doing some interesting things to push the signal that can be obtained per area of light collection upwards, but gains made in small photosites can be applied to larger ones, too, so the signal to noise level of the smaller photosite (the higher resolution sensor) is always going to be lower than the larger photosite (lower resolution sensor of the same overall size).

What's missing from most noise discussions is what I guess I'd call perceived noise at output. If I'm printing on my Epson inkjet at 13x19" from both a lower resolution (D3) and higher resolution camera (D3x), what's the noise difference in the print? Surprisingly, less than what you see when you pixel peep. That's because the D3x in this case is outputting its noise in the print at about .6x the size as the D3 does.

True, if you're buying a higher resolution camera in order to print larger, noise differences would be important to know. But the groups that are most likely to do that--landscape and studio shooters--aren't really high ISO shooters in the first place, so this is not likely to be a real issue for them. For those of us who want a D3x to get better output at the same size we're already generating, we're quite likely to be rewarded for that, regardless of the difference in the noise handling on a pixel level (assuming it is reasonably state-of-the-art).

Whither Video?
The lack of video has got some people complaining. Apparently, the D90 and Canon 5DII now have people thinking that all DSLRs should have video capability.

I'm not so sure. While it's true that Nikon's D-Movie system really doesn't add any button or control complexity (okay, you end up with a couple more menu items), I have to look more at what you're trying to accomplish with the product in the first place. The D3x is going to appeal most to studio and landscape shooters. Neither group really puts a lot of value on video. From a design sense, I would argue that applying engineering design cycles to adding and refining video in a product whose most likely purchasers don't value it much is a waste of time. I'd rather have those engineering resources dedicated to something that would add something of value to studio and landscape shooting. Of course, it doesn't really appear that we got much of that, either.

It's not as if adding video to a high resolution camera is likely to give us higher resolution video, after all. Once you get to 1080P, the demand for higher resolution drops considerably, thus, you'd almost certainly stop at 1080P/30fps. And the primary advantage you'd get on an FX DSLR doing 1080P over anything else that supports that format would be depth of field differences, at the expense of focus performance and photosite subsampling artifacts. Considering I can pick up some darned good 1080P capability for far less than the cost of a D3x, I think Nikon probably did the right thing.

Video would be something that should be considered on any update to the D3 (say, a D3h or D3s), since this camera is popular with photo journalists, who would value it. And it probably ought to be in the D700 or inevitable D700x, as true consumers tend to value additional flexibility, too. But on the D3x, I'm not bothered by its absence.

The Price
Bottom line: 12 million more pixels will set you back US$3000.

We can't talk about the D3x without talking about the D3 and pricing. D3 prices have been collapsing for some time. That's despite the fact that Nikon has not lowered the price to dealers (at least here in the US; not 100% sure about the rest of the world). That's a sign of very weak demand, as in at least one advertised price I could find, the dealer was selling below what they paid for the product. Now we get a camera that is really only different in the sensor (and FX sensors cost basically the same to manufacturer, no matter what the pixel count on them [yes, there's probably a modest yield difference, but not enough to justify much of a price change]), yet we have a substantive price increase. Anyone else see the problem with this picture? Nikon's asking us to pay more for the equivalent. I say equivalent because you can look at it this way: you can buy the same camera with either high ISO and dynamic range improvements, or you can have it with more pixels. For some reason, more pixels costs US$3000. Really?

Now some will say this: Nikon needs to pay off the R&D on the new sensor, while the D3/D700 sensor has already been amortized over six figures worth of bodies. Maybe. But this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you charge way more for the new sensor, you'll sell less of them, which means that the R&D doesn't get amortized nearly as fast. And think of this, too: if indeed the D3x indicates that a D700x (or D800) with the same sensor is likely, is Nikon really going to charge significantly more for that subsequent model than the 5DII and A900? Nikon appears to be trying to be the premium price player. If so, the launch was further botched.

As I've pointed out on some forums, when you effectively raise the price--which is what Nikon has done here--the customer starts to ask "what's in it for me?" Nikon could have mitigated that by having a cohesive "you're a pro and you should be treated that way" program that launched with the D3x. Consider: double the warranty, automatic enrollment of the body into the NPS Priority Repair program regardless of NPS status of the shooter, a one-year free check and tune, and I can think of many more things that don't cost Nikon a lot, but would have real value to the customer. I've complained about Nikon not thinking enough about the customer before, but this launch really shows just how little they do: they think that you'll pay US$3000 more for more pixels. That's a naive, self-centered approach to selling. And one that tends to eventually backfire on you.

Whither the D3?
I've already said that the D3 price has eroded. Does this mean the D3 is on the way out and a D4 is imminent? Probably not. Remember, Nikon pro body generations tend to only come about every four years, and the D3 is barely a year old. On the other hand, it does seem like it needs a makeover.

So I'm going to make a prediction outside my usual predictions: we're going to see a D3s and a D3xs before we see a D4. That missing video and the optional buffer expansion seem like obvious targets for an interrim generation camera. Sensor cleaning is another obviously missing feature. Throw in some additional performance tweaks using the current components, and we've got something viable (though not earthshattering; remember, earthshaterring happens at the full generation change with Nikon). Heck, maybe we can even add in the GPS. No, there's plenty that can be done to extend the life of the D3 series, and I think we'll see that long before we get to the D4 in 2011.

So Who's Happy?
Photographers fall into a lot of different categories, so let's tackle them one by one:

  • Photojournalists. This group is not interested in the D3x. They're wondering why there isn't a simultaneous D3h or D3s update which adds what they want (video, more buffer, support for focusing beyond 9 fps, etc.), so they're not happy.
  • Landscape Pros. If the performance is there, they'll be happy with the extra pixels. They're not so happy about the size or the price. Since we all put L brackets on our cameras and tend to use cable releases, we don't really need the integrated grip. Indeed, there's a lot of overkill for us: a D700x would have been our preferred choice.
  • Studio Pros. Most studio shooters will be like the landscape pros: if the pixel performance is there, they'll be happy about that. Price is a little less of a concern, but still, the price will be talked about, since it equals Canon's 1DsIII.
  • Generalist Pros. The D3x doesn't look like it will likely serve this group, mostly due to the high ISO capabilities. Picking up a D3x to go along with what they already have is an expensive proposition just to get pixel flexibility. They'll wait for the inevitable D700x.
  • Wildlife Pros. This group is not quite sure about the D3x, but I'll help them along to a decision ;~). They give up a bit of frame rate and a few pixels even to a D300 (with MB-D10). There's also a question about how this camera is going to fare at ISO 800 and 1600, which sometimes are required. In essence, the only thing that improved for them is that if they also shoot landscapes, their landscape capabilities got significantly better whlie their wildlife capabilities suffered a tiny bit. No, they shouldn't be happy. They pay a stiff price for something that doesn't really help them with their main work.
  • Serious Amateurs. What they wanted was a D700x with that sensor, at a Canon 5DMkII price. This group is going to be seriously disappointed in almost every aspect of the D3x, as it's too expensive for them and doesn't add enough. Even if they already have a D3 they're not going to believe that they get the value for what it's going to cost them to dump that and pick up a D3x. Moreover, the loss of high ISO capability is an issue for this group.
  • Videographers. It's a D90 or nothing in the Nikon lineup for now, which means nothing is the operative word. The Canon 5DII does 1080P/30 fps, the D90 720P/24 fps. Only the cheapskates would opt for the Nikon.

If you're paying attention, you'll have noted that all groups are unhappy about something. I suspect that, at least on specifications, that the D3x is going to disappoint most everyone. This means that the pressure on it to perform as a high resolution camera in terms of image quality is going to be very high. The D3x needs to outshoot the Canon 1DsIII, 5DII, and Alpha A900, and by enough to make a difference. So I'm going to be looking very carefully at whether it does that or not.

Nikon has a big problem with the D3x, I think. It's last to the market (FX, high resolution), with everything riding solely on the sensor. And they're asking a huge price for it. At US$4999 the risk of failure wouldn't have been very large. At its US$7999 price, it really needs to perform beyond expectations for it to shore up the top side of Nikon's lineup. On the plus side, the pixel-deprived Nikon shooters will initially appreciate the part of the camera that addresses that issue, but I wonder whether it's enough to make the D3x a winning product.

I should also note that higher prices on a pro product means that we pros will now expect better customer support than before. The higher priced the camera, the more we're going to expect things like free loaners when our equipment is being fixed, faster turnaround on service issues, and fewer issues in things like focus performance. It's difficult to justify buying two D3x bodies in order to have backup with the same pixel capability, so we're also expecting a D700x sooner rather than later. If Nikon leaves the pros hanging dry when their D3x suddenly fails, you're going to hear some very loud screams.

So my message to Nikon is this: if you want more (money) out of us, we want more (support) out of you. | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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