Have you ever tried to imagine the outcome of a battle between two armies whose weapons and military strategies are separated by a century of development? Having recently got my hands on Nikon’s first full-frame flagship DSLR, the famous D3, I decided to try a similar experiment. For its competitor, I chose the Nikon Z9. True, these two rivals are separated by 14 years rather than centuries. But at the current rate of technological development, it might as well be!
So, what are the similarities and differences between the two cameras? First of all, they both represent the best of what Nikon is, and was, capable of. The 12.0MP Nikon D3 launched in August 2007 at a price of $4999. It wasn’t until the following year that the Nikon D3X saw the light of day. The latter had a gargantuan 24.4-megapixel resolution (well, for its time!) and an equally high price tag of $7,999. The Nikon Z9 launched more recently, in October 2021, at a price of $5,500.
Taking inflation into account, the Z9’s price is pretty similar to that of the original D3. What is dramatically different is the resolution, which has increased 3.8 times in fourteen years. Such an increase can be compared to the increase in the capabilities of the human brain over the last few million years, and its decrease over the last ten 🙂
To make my comparison really tell the story of where technology has gone in those 14 years, I’ve equipped each camera with a wide-angle lens from its era. On the Nikon D3, I used the Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 AF-S G ED VR lens, launched in 2010. The Nikon Z9 got a similar, but 9 years younger, Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4 S.
But let’s not waste any more time and head out into the field to see how it all works. For my short test, I chose the Jizera Mountains, a remote corner in the north of the Czech Republic. The well-preserved spruce forests, mountain climate, and peat bogs here give the landscape a magical and somewhat mysterious character. On the map, I picked out a small stream away from the tourist trails. After a tortuous descent, during which I refreshed myself with blueberries, I stood at the bottom of a magical canyon. At its bed, a beer-colored stream roared through the rocks. How typical of my country.
My test could begin. The design was simple in principle. Not the sophisticated scientific approach you are used to in our reviews. I set up the composition with one camera, took several variations of the same image, and then repeated the same thing with the other camera. The aim was to get pairs of photos where the main difference would be the camera/lens pair used.
In reality, there were three other variables at play. Firstly, the minimum ISO of the two cameras is different. On the D3 it’s ISO 200, while on the Z9, it’s a much lower ISO 64. This affected the shutter speed and therefore the amount of blur in the water and vegetation. There was also a significant difference in the quality of the polarization filters I used. On the D3 with a 16-35mm f/4 (77mm diameter) I used my high quality VFFOTO filter with 14 anti-reflective layers. On the Z9, I used a borrowed cheap no-name filter because the 14-30mm f/4 requires an 82mm diameter. The difference between the two would make a whole article. (So much so that after the first two shots, I preferred to simply hold a quality filter in front of the 14-30mm lens.) The last major factor that was difficult to control was the weather. Sun alternated with heavy clouds, wind with windlessness. But the biggest problem was the heavy rain that started towards the end of the day.
Whipped by the rain and gusts of wind, I stood on high ground overlooking the bog. As soon as the wind calmed, I removed the lens cap and took a few shots. After a few seconds, the front of the lens became waterlogged, so I dried it off while shielding it from the rain and repeated the process. For this foggy scene, using a polarizing filter didn’t make sense. Thanks to this, the sharpness and contrast were not affected by the bad filter, nor by the vibrations caused by holding the good one in front of the lens. This is where the differences between the two cameras really became apparent.
Well… maybe at web resolution, the differences aren’t apparent at all. Instead you can judge from the 100% crops:
A 100% crop on one camera is not the same as a 100% crop on a lower-resolution body! Perceptually, the sharpness isn’t all that different, but the greater number of pixels on the Z9 means that we are seeing that sharpness much more zoomed in.
And here are two more 100% crops from the same scene to show what I mean:
After returning to my cabin and drying my wet clothes and cameras by the fire, I went out again. It was late at night, and the supermoon had just risen in the sky. Not exactly the ideal situation for star photography, but at least the rain had stopped, and there were some gaps in the clouds.
In the torchlight, animal eyes in the forest shone out at me from the darkness. A fox was running not far from me. A doe, which would have fled during the day, walked around with dignity. A toad was sitting on a stump and two deer were grazing in a meadow surrounded by tall trees. I didn’t notice this until I was processing the photos. It was so dark in the forest that I couldn’t see the tip of my nose. See if you can find the deer in the Z9 photo! Without a lot of brightening in post-production, I expect you can’t.
And here are the crops, if you’re interested:
At a pixel level, there is a bit more noise in the Z9 photo, but there is also far more detail in the leaves and grass. I remember how impressed I was with how well the Nikon D3 handled high ISOs at the time. It’s still impressive from a noise standpoint, but a lot of details are lost in the low resolution. If both photos were printed at the same size, the noise levels would be similar on both cameras, but the detail would favor the Z9.
Two more crops:
For a camera that would be old enough to get its driver’s permit, the D3 holds up really well, but this was never a fair fight and of course the Z9 comes out ahead.
The Nikon D3 was a fantastic camera in its time, and it still is. Holding it is still a pleasure, and a look through the viewfinder will make you reminisce about the old golden days of photography. But technological evolution has worked its magic, and modern high-resolution sensors like the one in the Z9 are clearly better. Not to mention the other benefits that come with time, like processing speed and video features. Does it make sense to buy a D3 now? Pragmatic arguments are hard to find, except for price. It is amazing how you can get a used full-frame professional camera like the D3 for about $400 used – less than most entry-level mirrorless cameras.
The same goes for the lenses. Especially with wide-angle ones, the move from the somewhat narrow F-mount to the XXL-sized Z-mount has meant an overall improvement in lens quality. However, the real benefits are only apparent at wide aperture values and large prints, or if you expect to do a lot of cropping. Lenses also go obsolete more slowly than cameras. The 16-35mm f/4G that I mentioned is selling used, today, for almost exactly the same price as the D3 is. That’s still a huge decrease from the original price of $1260, but it’s not a 90% decrease like we see with the D3.
What about you, do you have an old digital camera sitting in a drawer? A mate from the old days? Then take it out and stretch its shutter. The mirror will still clap happily, the shutter will rattle, and you might remember your first digital steps. Isn’t it fantastic that we lived through those times?