The Nikon D3s shoots at up to 11 frames per sec, at up to ISO 102,400, but is it the ultimate DSLR?
Back in 2007 Nikon announced its first ever full-frame DSLR, the Nikon D3, and promptly changed the face of professional cameras. It offered high-quality results at high speed and offered a huge ISO range (up to 25,600 expanded) which was, at the time, way beyond the competition. The shots it was capable of caused many to prick their ears up and even convinced many well- established Canon pros to switch allegiances to Nikon. Since then a more consumer-friendly D700 version and a more studio-based D3x have followed. But it is only now with the D3s that we see the next real progression for this titan of a camera.
The Nikon D3s is aimed predominantly at press and sports photographers. The ‘s’ is a common addition to Nikon models to suggest an improved or upgraded version and has previously been seen on the likes of the D300, D70 and the D2 models. The main improvements are in the form of a greater ISO range which extends up to ISO 102,400, and an HD video function. However, closer inspection also reveals improvements to allow faster operation and shooting.
So does this new and improved model offer enough to justify upgrading from the D3, and is it enough to stay at the top of its game?
Low light: Taken in early evening, this kind of shot would be impossible to hand- hold with most cameras but was effortless with the D3s thanks to its high ISO settings. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, 35mm, f/8, 1/250sec ISO Hi1 (25,600) AWB
Nikon D3s high ISO comparision: Even at the highest ISO value in the camera’s standard range (12,800) images remain smooth, while the highest setting is still usable. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, 40mm, f/11, AWB, Left @ 1/20sec ISO 12,800, Right @ 1/160sec ISO Hi3
The sensor featured on the D3s is the same size as the D3 version but is actually a brand new design. The 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor has a wide dynamic range and high signal-to-noise ratio, helped by a relatively low number of photosites on such a physically large sensor. The output size is 4256 x 2832 pixels, which equates to roughly a 13MB Raw file, or a 5MB JPEG. Raw images can be output (in NEF format) as compressed or non-compressed files and in either 12 or 14 bit. The 12-channel output and the large buffer ensure an uninterrupted continuous shooting at up to nine frames per second, or 11fps in DX crop mode.
The camera also gives the option of shooting in TIFF format, or a combination of Raw and selectable size and compression of JPEG files. The sensor also features Nikon’s dust-reduction system, consisting of image sensor cleaning – which can be set to clean on start-up, shutdown, or manually. For stability, Nikon uses Vibration Reduction technology in its lenses and therefore there is no stabilisation system in the body of its DSLRs.
The ISO range from the D3s, made possible by this new sensor and the EXPEED processor, has made this camera headline news. With a standard range of ISO 200 to 12,800 it also offers extended settings from a Low-1 of ISO 100, to a Hi-3 setting of ISO 102,400 – this is two stops higher than offered by the D3 (at 25,600), and allows handheld shots to be obtained in practically pitch black conditions. To put this into perspective, imagine a scene that required a one-second exposure at ISO 1600; this would require just a 1/60sec at the Hi-3 setting of the D3s. Like the D3, it also offers advanced Auto ISO settings to specify a range of ISO values to be chosen by the camera, in any shooting mode.
The metering system remains as the 1,005-pixel RGB sensor, 3D Colour Matrix Metering II system as seen previously in both the D3 and D3x and also comes with centre-weighted and spot options; offering +/- 5EV in exposure compensation and exposure bracketing for up to nine frames.
The much-praised Multi-Cam 3500FX autofocus system also remains from the D3, with its 51 AF points, including 15 cross type sensors. It gives a selection of either all 51 or 11 focus points in single-point mode, while the dynamic area mode uses nine, 21 or 51 points, or full 51-point 3D tracking.
White balance is catered for with an auto setting, obtained from the main metering sensor, or a series of 17 presets, which include seven fluorescent settings, and five custom manual settings. Each preset also offers fine-tune adjustment in the form of a four-way colour axis.
Shooting modes are kept refreshingly simple with just PSAM options, accessed with the mode button and scroll wheel. The drive modes, however. offer two speeds of continuous shooting (High or Low), a Quiet Mode that softens the return of the mirror to reduce shutter noise, self-timer and a mirror-up function.
As you would expect from a professional camera at this level, the viewfinder offers a full 100% field of view coverage. The camera also allows a number of other image crops to be used (1.2x, 1.5x, and 5:4), to allow for DX lenses and for creative purposes; for these settings the viewfinder will grey out the outer unused region, much like a sports viewfinder.
On the front of the camera there are two buttons to the right of the lens, easily accessed by fingertips from the right grip. These are a depth of field preview and a function button, both of which can be set to a range of functions including exposure lock, metering modes or the camera’s inbuilt virtual horizon function, which shows on the meter display both on the top panel and in the viewfinder.
The rear LCD screen remains as the 3in 920k-dot version and provides live view functionality for compositional aid. For the first time on a Nikon full-frame DSLR, it also allows High Definition video to be captured. Moving images are recorded in Motion-JPEG format as an AVI file at up to 1280 x 720 pixels at 24fps for a maximum of 5mins per clip (20mins in lower VGA resolution).
There is an external input for a stereo microphone; otherwise there is an internal mono microphone and speaker for playback.
In addition, full manual exposure can be used in video mode.
To look at the D3s it’s difficult to see much of a difference from the D3, and even on close inspection there are only small physical changes in the layout, such as a larger battery latch, the dedicated live view button and the extra ports and speakers for the video functionality.
The body, like the D3, is made from an environmentally-sealed magnesium alloy for a hard-wearing and weather-resistant
finish, to cope with the working life of an action photographer.
Aside from a couple of subtleties the camera looks and feels identical to the previous model, and this is by no means a bad thing. Yes, it is a heavy piece of kit, weighing nearly 2.5kg with the well-matched 24-70mm f/2.8 on the front, but this camera isn’t designed for casual usage; this is a serious work tool and it needs to stand up to use under extreme conditions.
Everything has been designed to this purpose and most functions can still be operated when wearing gloves, while the customisation of key buttons means you can have the modes you use most to hand even quicker.
The viewfinder is large in view but is also surrounded by an interchangeable flat rubber eyepiece that is comfortable for use with glasses or the naked eye. Vertical operation is aided by a solid grip with comfortable thumb positioning. As well as a second shutter, this offers both front and rear dials and a second customisable AF-on button – however, this can be easily pressed by mistake in horizontal use. The only slight challenge for vertical operation is control of the AF selection, as the thumb pad is too much of a stretch to reach.
The menu screens will be familiar to any recent Nikon user and offer clear easy-to-use navigation. There’s also a My Menu screen for you to add commonly used functions. The additional rear info screen also allows you to see and change (using the three buttons below it) ISO, image quality and white balance settings. The top panel also illuminates with an extended turn of the power switch.
Performance and Value
Nikon D3s review – Performance
The focusing on the D3s is one of its main strengths and certainly lived up to expectations. Locking on to still images using any of the 51 AF points is as quick as the lens takes to get there, which (when using the 24-70mm) is almost no time at all. The focus tracking is perhaps even more impressive, switching automatically using certain modes from continuous focus; it behaves how tracking should, in that it’s so good you have no reason to doubt it.
The only slight criticism is that none of the focus points extends to the outer areas of the frame, unless you use the contrast detect of the live view in Tripod mode.
Nikon D3s review – AF tracking: The AF tracking automatically deploys in continuous AF (if the menu is set to allow it). Even in these low-light conditions these fast- moving Caterham 7s caused no hassle. Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/60, ISO 2200
Metering is also very reliable and gives an even range of tones in most cases, though tends to hold back on the brighter tones to avoid overexposure – something that would be expected from a pro camera.
Using a SanDisk Extreme Pro card (capable of write speeds up to 90MB/s) the D3s delivered impressive speeds. JPEG images took just 1sec to write and allowed a burst of 76 shots at nine frames per second before filling the buffer. Raw and TIFF files took 1.5 and 3secs to write respectively and offered a 33-shot burst.
The battery life from the large rechargeable unit is designed to live up to the rest of the camera and its specs suggest it is capable of up to 4,200 shots. It certainly seemed at ease with the thousand shots taken during testing.
Nikon D3s review – Value
Certainly not a camera you could justify for casual usage but, for those making money from photography, the £3,600 body price is a sound investment. The advance in ISO improves upon the D3 of old considerably, which alone is a good enough reason for purchase.
Nikon D3s review – live view
For live view the mirror lifts up, blocking the view through the viewfinder, and gives a direct feed from the sensor to the 3in 920k-dot LCD screen. This is a feature that became an instant hit with professional photographers looking to take shots where previously they found it difficult to compose through the viewfinder, and allowed them to get more acurate results: overhead shots from a crowd, low angle shots, or a low-mounted tripod.
The D3s, as with previous Nikon models, offers two autofocus options in live view: tripod and handheld. Tripod mode uses a contrast detect AF from the sensor which is slightly slower than the dedicated AF sensor but allows a focus point to be selected from anywhere in the frame. The Handheld mode lowers the mirror briefly to focus and then raises it again, which results in a short loss of image on the LCD but much quicker focusing. Alternatively, manual focus can be used with an ability to zoom in to check sharpness.
Nikon D3s review – HD video
The live view function also allows the recording of High Definition video and records at the press of the central button on the thumb navigation pad. It records in a range of sizes up to 1280 x 720 pixels, output via HDMI at up to 1080i. The format is a motion JPEG AVI file which allows still images to be easily extracted, though is larger in file size than its superior H.264 alternative and limits HD recording to just 5mins.
Sound is offered from a built-in microphone in mono, or in stereo via a 3.5mm
mic input, allowing for professional microphones to be used.
Focusing using the Tripod live view AF can be deployed during filming, but this is relatively slow and motor noise may be picked up from the lens. For this reason it is best to prefocus or use manual adjustment.
Exposure modes can be manually set for full creative control; and by using the high ISO potential it is possible to achieve some stunning results.
Nikon D3s review – Magnesium alloy build
As a camera designed for professional use, the D3s needs to withstand knocks, bumps and even night shooting in the rain.
With this weather-sealed magnesium alloy body, it will take all of this in its stride.
Nikon D3s review – Dual CF slots
Under the protective card latch the D3s provides two CompactFlash card slots and has the ability to send video to one
card and stills to the other. Alternatively the second card can act as an overflow, backup or even split the JPEG and Raw files to suit your workflow.
Nikon D3s review – Vertical grip
The pro body has a vertical grip built in, which makes the camera easier to hold for portrait-format shots and includes a
second shutter button (with lock) plus front and rear dials.
Nikon D3s review – D-Movie
The D3s is the first full-frame Nikon body to feature HD video and offers users the ability to take high-quality movie clips alongside their stills. It records in 720P Motion JPEG AVI to a maximum of 5mins – or up to 20mins in VGA.
Nikon D3s review – Colour: The images from the D3s have a certain richness to them, while skin tones are handled very accurately, giving a natural look to portrait shots. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, 70mm, f/8, 1/100, ISO 6400, AWB
Nikon D3s review – Exposure
The metering system does an impressive job at delivering an accurate exposure under the toughest of conditions.
On occasion the image can appear slightly underexposed as the metering works to maintain highlight detail, but this is no bad thing and can easily be adjusted for in compensation or metering mode.
In contrast, due to the high ISO capabilities, it is sometimes necessary to reduce the exposure in dark scenes to maintain the impression of darkness.
Nikon D3s review – Colour & White Balance
The colours the D3s delivers certainly give it an edge over the competition and share the richness of the D700 and D3 models.
White balance is very well catered for and the Auto mode is able to correctly predict the right setting in most scenes. However, indoor lighting and high ISO shots can cause problems on occasion. Not that this would worry anyone shooting in Raw format and is not severe enough to be a worry in JPEG for most either.
Nikon D3s review – Raw/JPEG
At close inspection there is very little visible difference in quality between the JPEG and Raw files. Fringing appears to have been softened in the JPEG processing, whereas the Raw files appear more severe before any kind of adjustment.
Nikon D3s review – Image Quality: Both JPEG and Raw files provide a high level of detail, though on close inspection the JPEG processing offers smoothing which can reduce sharpness fractionally. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, 24mm, f/8, 1/100sec, ISO 2500, AWB
Nikon D3s review – Sharpness & Detail
Sharpness is excellent with the right lens choice, though due to the large sensor the resulting depth of field can be much narrower than you are used to. With a relatively moderate pixel count, the level of detail is not breathtaking but does offer as much as the pixels will allow – which is plenty for prints up to A2.
Nikon D3s review – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
Image noise remains well controlled throughout the camera’s standard range – even at ISO 12,800. Meanwhile, the results at the staggering Hi3 setting (102,400) aren’t far off those you would expect at ISO 1600 on a DSLR just a few years ago.
With the number of cameras launched every year it’s easy for some to get forgotten. Some, however, stand out because of a unique feature.
The D3s will be difficult to forget as the first to offer an ISO range that makes almost any lighting condition a shooting potential. It builds on the proven success of the D3, with its 51-point AF system, build quality and sensor, but with the addition of this new ISO range and movie functionality it deserves recognition in its own right.
This is a professional camera, designed to be a work tool, but it produces such beautiful images and works so well, it inspires photographers and leaves them drooling at its very sight.
We will have to wait for next month’s test of its latest nemesis, the Canon 1D Mk IV, to see how the two compare, but the Nikon D3s is one of the finest cameras of our time.
Auto, 12 presets, 5 manual preset storage, all with fine tuning
200-12,800 (100-102,400 expanded)
See images taken with the Nikon D3s
3stage (JPEG), 2stage (Raw), 1stage TIF
Dual CF card slots
+/- 5EV in 1/3, ½, 1EV
4256 x 2832 pixels (FX)
2784 x 1848 (DX)
3in 920k-dot VGA
51 (or 11 point selectable)
2-9 frames in 1, 2, 3EV
12.1MP FX CMOS
1x (FX) 1.5x (DX)
No (lens based)
1005px RGB sensor TTL, 3D colour matrix II
Yes, contrast detect and phase detect options
M, A, S, P (flexible program mode)
1,240g (without battery)
USB, HDMI, AV out, Mic-in, DC-in
JPEG, NEF (Raw), TIF, AVI
Rechargeable Li-ion EN-EL4a/EL4
Single, cont (low speed), cont (high speed), quiet, self-timer, mirror up
Single, Continuous, Manual; single point, dynamic, auto area
159.5 x 157 x 87.5mm
1/8000-30secs at 1/3, ½, 1EV
sRGB, Adobe RGB