© Gerald Rowles 2009 - 2016 / Do Not Copy Without Formal Permission



For several years I relied on Ken Rockwell's evaluations of Nikon lenses and his accompanying recommendations for adjusting for distortion in Photoshop. And then his evaluations of the latest Nikon digital format camera bodies became a considered source in determining which to buy for my needs.

Early 2009: Ken has justifiably raged against the disposability of those ever upgraded bodies and the $1,000s of dollars that every serious photographer loses with each digital evolution - culminating with the introduction of the "highly overpriced" (sic) D3X.

This became a source of great ambivalence for not just Ken but many photographers who gravitated from film to digital: return to film, or embrace the Digital Revolution and its disposable bodies. Even today, if I was still shooting B&W exclusively using the zone system, film would likely remain my choice.

Therein lies what I have termed the Rockwell Dilemma: just as in this image of two midwestern technology forms for wind-capture, they each respectively have an inherent functionality - one shiny new and very expensive, dominating the landscape and as yet somewhat unproven; the other still keeping the livestock watered reliably for decades and with reasonable maintenance.

For both entertainment and the latest gear promotions, check out Ken's most recent rants (and increasing dominant sales promotions).

Update 2009: Bought the D3x against Rockwell's willful disparagement - deliriously happy with this incredible bit of technology for landscape and detail work (and my two D700s for everything else, as well as landscape and low light). And I really like the Nikon 18-105 VR for one of my two D40s (still a great snapshot camera) .. very sharp, and great for hand-held macros/micros. Hated the Nikon 18-200 with its telecreep and soft focus - no matter how much Rockwell promotes it.

Update 2012: Bought a backup D3X when the price started to drop a bit because I didn't want to find myself without my primary landscape camera. I still marvel at the detail, color and resolution this amazing body produces. And for my now favorite walking-around lens for the D700 or D3X the Nikon 24-120 f/4 VR is incredibly sharp and versatile (and no lens creep). Prefer the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 (or 70-200 f/2.8 VR II) for tripod work and exacting detail with low distortion.

Update 2013: Bought the D600. The strange case is that the raw file size for this 24 mpx camera is the same as the 12 mpx D700, and half that of the D3X - also a 24 mpx. What that means is that the D600 pixels must be half the size of those in the D3X. That's also likely the reason why the landscapes captures of the D600 lack the resolution and depth of field of the D3X. And even the D700 outperforms the D600 for Deep field resolution in landscapes. Having discussed the D600 (D800 36 mpx has similar issues) with other pro-photographers the consensus speculation is that the smaller pixel sizes in these bodies make them less forgiving of minor resolution adjustment issues than either the D700 or D3X.

Nevertheless, the D600 performs beautifully for macro (micro), portrait, and near distance work. The detail in the macro\micro captures is exceptional with either the 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro or the 200mm f/4.0D ED-IF AF Micro, and the 'standard' colors are more vivid than in the earlier 12/24 mpx FX bodies. The D600 also loves the Nikkor AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR Wide Angle Zoom for close work.

Update 2014: Having endlessly researched the new D810 and D750 (including reading between the lines in the positive reviews) I am not tempted to toss out my D3X/D700 combination for shooting landscapes, portraits, or anything else. That may change one day, but for now I have printed stunning 24x36 and 30x45 landscapes. If I were stepping up from a DX format body, the D750 would likely be my choice, but the D810 still seems like wretched excess in megapixels.

Update 2015: Still enjoying the D3X/D700 combination in my landscape captures, client assignments and every day photographic adventures. The D3X is a true professional body - tough and reliable in adverse weather conditions (heat/cold/rain/dust) and the weight to sit firmly on a reliable tripod in 40 mph gusts to shoot a high resolution landscape. Walking around with the D700 and the Nikon 24-120 AF-S f/4 VR prevents missing most sudden opportunities. For wildlife, the D700's low light capability coupled with the amazing Tamron AF IS f/5 - f/6.3 150-600mm has provided many delightful opportunities. I previously owned the Nikon 600mm f/4G ED AF-S VR lens. That monster was not only heavy, but each time I took it out I was terrified that some chance accident would destroy my $10k investment. So I sold it and replaced it with the Tamron at 1/10th the price. The Tamron is a very worthy competitor. While it may not always be equal in absolute terms to the Nikon, my reduced anxiety levels and successful captures resolve the relatively minor differences. It also works extremely well with the D3X for those Blood Moon events to produce larger files that can be cropped for maximum visibility rendering.

As a career-long Nikon devotee, I may one day opt for the very tempting Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens, but for now the Tamron is a case where Nikon was a day-late and a dollar-long.

Conclusion evolution: Six years later since I first fell in love with it, nothing in the Nikon line sufficiently exceeds the D3X for medium-format-quality landscape and studio work to justify another investment of the hard-earned dollars of the average working pro. Coupled with the 24-70 f/2.8 or the 70-200 f/2.8 VRII and a tripod, it's an unbeatable DSLR combination IMHO. And despite the initial investment, including the subsequent purchase of a backup D3X, they have both paid for themselves several times over - effortlessly. The latest Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 VR is an exciting addition to the line. Tempting, but not enough so to invest another $2.4k to replace the entirely satisfying non-VR which I rarely use without a tripod for landscape, architecture and interior captures - a hand-held landscape ... really?. But if I did not have the previous iteration, this might be the choice even if it would still be tripod mounted - which also means the non-VR is still a tough competitor from my perspective - or the very competitively priced and positively reviewed Tamron 24-70 VC.

Update 2016: It is now mid-year and the D3X/D700 remain my go-to bodies. I recently invested in the very competent D3300 to team with the Tamron 150-600mm for tighter and larger wildlife captures. Getting extremely sharp results with excellent color renditions shooting NEF raw. Recently Nikon replaced the mirror assembly in one of my D3X bodies and repaired 'impact damage' to one of my 24-70 f/2.8 (non-VR) lenses for a total cost of 1/3rd the price of the D810. Not bad for six years of daily use of both (this is not an endorsement of Nikon's notoriously arbitrary go-to denial of warranties due to "impact damage"). And lately the Nikkor AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR has become as much of a go-to lens as the 24-70 f/2.8 even though the 16-35 has been in my bag for several years, along with the 14-24 f/2.8. For sharpness and color the 16-35 rivals the 24-70 and provides more opportunities for near-far landscapes.

Update 2017 - Mid-March: About seven years ago Ken Rockwell wrote; "If you're making mural-sized gallery prints, the Nikon D3X has the world's highest image quality of any Oriental digital camera." But then he qualified this positive gush with a retraction of sorts when he wrote; "The $8,000 price of the D3X is a rip off." His comments on the pricing were mirrored by the majority of reviewers, despite their gushing praises for the image quality.

Fast forward to 2017 and the mirrorless revolution. A few weeks ago, B&H Photo ran a photography feature article titled, "Things We Love: Sony RX1R II Full-Frame Digital Camera." The article had high praise for this full-frame, 35mm f/2 Zeiss fixed lens, 42.4 mpx Point and Shoot Cyber-shot mirrorless camera. The price ~ $4,000. The sensor - 36x24 CMOS - same size as the D3X with its 24.5 mpx. Roughly translated, the difference between the 24 mpx and 42 mpx ratings are in the individual pixel sizes. The D3X 24 mpx sensor utilizes a pixel pitch of about 6 microns while the RX1R II 42 mpx pixel pitch is 25% smaller at 4.5 microns (micron = micro millimeter / .001 mm). Side Notes: The Nikon D810, again with the 36x24 sensor and 36 mpx, has a pixel pitch of 4.9 microns. The Pentax MF 645Z 50 mpx - 44x33 CMOS sensor, - 5.3 microns. The esteemed Nikon D700 12 mpx, 36x24 CMOS sensor, - 8.0 microns.

Remember the ill-fated Hasselblad Stellar Special Edition? Basically it was a fancied-up, luxury packaged Sony RX 100 point and shoot - 1" sensor, 28-100f/1.8-4.9 Zeiss zoom lens, 20.2 mpx, pixel pitch - 2.4 microns. The original price ~ $3,500. Full Disclosure: I bought two of the Champagne/Zebra Wood models when B&H was unloading them at $650. As collector items with the artful treatments I couldn't resist.

So what am I thinking about all of the foregoing? First; price is relative to the perceived value envisioned by the buyer. Those perceptions involve judgements of quality, aesthetics, status, form-factor, etc. Second; the sensor size is the critical factor in overall light-gathering ability - the most basic factor in image capture. Third; pixel size is important because it is,in relation to light-gathering ability of the sensor, analogous to a "bucket capturing rain spits" (ePHOTOzine). The smaller the bucket, the more errors in catching the spits (noise). This drawback has obviously been ameliorated by some brilliant algorithm developments in the newest technological advances. Fourth: Durability based on application.

Final thoughts: I have made head-to-head comparisons of the D3X and the Hasselblad Special edition and was delighted to find that, in a pinch, the Hasselblad /Sony RX 100 produced nearly identical results in image quality, given good lighting and a tripod. The main difference was that the Hassy required a little more time to get the right settings, a little more processing time and was limited to smaller print size. So if I want the convenience of a pocket camera, the Hassy will do the job for those shots that might have been missed ... and I love the look and feel of this little wonder.

The D700 and the D3X are still my "job" cameras. They are both built for rigorous professional demands, and have provided years of life and exceptional image quality and resolution. When I read the consumer reviews for the newer D750 and D810 I find that at least 95% of the reviewers are stepping up from APS-C DX (D90, D7200, etc) bodies or prosumer FX bodies like the D610. In hundreds of reviews it is rare to the point of near non-existence to find a D3X as the predecessor to the move. So the logical conclusion seems to be that the people writing the consumer reviews have never had the experience of shooting the D3X - their loss. Further, in looking at the DXO Mark scores the differences between the D810 and the D3X are less than dramatic. And when looking at the D4s ($5,500), and D5 ($6,500) the overall scores are virtually identical with the D3X ($6,000 refurbished by Nikon / $3,200 pristeen used Ebay).

In sum, the D3X and D700 have been an unbeatable team. The initial investments continue to pay and are paid for. Happily I can wait to see if Nikon develops a competitive entry that might prompt me into 'going forward' (hate that phrase, how about - 'somewhere down the road') replacing these great tools. Unfortunately, it's beginning to look that Sony might get there first.

I regret that the compressed portfolio images on the website cannot reflect the quality, resolution or color accuracy of their high-resolution progenitors, but they do afford my clients a wide variety of choices for the images they would like to review in hi-res.

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