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Nikon D3S Operation

Like other Nikon DSLRs, the user interface on the Nikon D3S is straightforward and simple to use. The LCD menu is a six-tab system that divides up functions between Playback, Shooting, Custom Settings, Setup, Retouch and My Menu. While many of the camera's options can be accessed via the excellent "plain English" menu system, all the most common shooting controls are available via the camera's external buttons, dials and knobs. You can also program the operation of some of the buttons, to configure the camera for your particular shooting requirements. Programmable buttons include Fn, Preview AE-L/AF-L, and BKT. Even the Command dials and shutter button offer some customization. See Modes and Menus for details.

Nikon makes a big deal of their digital SLR's "cameraness," defined as how well/easily they function as cameras, and the D3S embodies that philosophy.

Nikon D3S Top Panel LCD

As with most higher-end Nikon DSLRs, the D3S's top-panel data readout LCD communicates a lot of information about current camera settings, and provides an interface for setting many camera functions, when used in conjunction with the various buttons and Command Dials. You can also use the main LCD to adjust many of the same settings, but using the top LCD saves power and can be more convenient when the camera is below eye level. The panel is illuminated by a green backlight which is activated by a third, spring-loaded lamp position on the power switch. You can also choose to illuminate LCD whenever the camera performs metering, via an option in the Custom menu (d8). The illustrations below show the meaning of the various icons and readouts in this display.

1 Shutter speed 14 Frame count
Exposure compensation value Preset white balance recording indicator
Number of shots in exposure and flash bracketing sequence Manual lens number
Number of shots in WB bracketing sequence 15 "K" appears when memory remains for over 1000 exposures
Number of intervals for interval timer 16 Flash value (FV) lock indicator
Focal length (non-CPU lenses) 17 Flash sync indicator
ISO sensitivity 18 Clock battery indicator
2 Shutter-speed lock icon 19 GPS connection indicator
3 Flexible program indicator 20 Focus mode indicator
4 Exposure mode 21 Interval timer indicator
5 Flash mode 22 Multiple exposure indicator
6 Shooting menu bank 23 Aperture lock icon
7 Custom settings bank Multiple exposure (series) indicator 
8 Memory card indicator (slot 1) 24 Image comment indicator
9 Memory card indicator (slot 2) 25 "Beep" indicator
10 Number of exposures remaining 26 Exposure compensation indicator
Number of shots remaining before memory buffer fills 27 Exposure and flash bracketing indicator
Capture mode indicator White-balance bracketing indicator
11 Aperture stop indicator ADL bracketing indicator
12 Aperture (f-number) 28 Exposure indicator
Aperture (number of stops) Exposure compensation indicator
Bracketing increment Exposure and flash bracketing progress indicator
Number of shots in ADL bracketing sequence WB bracketing progress indicator
Number of shots per internal ADL bracketing progress indicator
Maximum aperture (non-CPU lenses) PC connection indicator
PC mode indicator Tilt indicator
13 Battery indicator


Nikon D3S Rear Control Panel LCD

Like other professional models, the Nikon D3S also has a rear Control Panel LCD. This LCD is illuminated at the same time as the Top Panel LCD. Just below the LCD are dedicated buttons for ISO, Image Quality and White Balance. Just to the right of the display is a button for activating memo recording and playback. The illustrations below show the meaning of the various icons and readouts in this display mode.

1 Image quality (JPEG images) 6 "K" appears when memory remains for over 1,000 shots
2 "Remaining" indicator Color temperature indicator
3 Image size 7 Memory card slot indicators
4 ISO sensitivity indicator Image quality
Auto ISO sensitivity indicator 8 White balance bracketing indicator
5 ISO sensitivity 9 Voice memo recording indicator (shooting mode)
ISO sensitivity (high/low gain) 10 Voice memo status indicator
Number of exposures remaining 11 Voice memo recording mode
Length of voice memo 12 White balance
White balance fine-tuning White balance fine-tuning indicator
White balance preset number
Color temperature
PC mode indicator


Nikon D3S Main LCD

Shooting Information
Like other more recent Nikon digital SLRs, the D3S has the ability to display shooting info and settings on the rear LCD. This display is activated by pressing the "info" button. A second press of the "info" button turns the bottom two rows of settings into an interactive menu, for quick access to more commonly used settings that don't have a dedicated button. The rear LCD is larger and in color, so some prefer to use it over the top LCD, at the expense of battery life. It's nice that Nikon gives you the choice. When shooting under dim lighting, you can opt for a light-on-dark version of the screen that doesn't glare so brightly at night. An Auto mode selects the version for you, based on ambient light measured via the camera's metering system. The illustrations below show the meaning of the various icons and readouts in this display mode.

1 Exposure mode 18 Auto area AF indicator
2 Flexible program indicator Focus points indicator
3 Shutter speed lock icon AF-area mode indicator
4 Shutter speed 3D-tracking indicator
Exposure compensation value 19 Flash mode
Number of shots in exposure and flash bracketing sequence 20 Flash sync indicator
Number of shots in WB bracketing sequence 21 Release mode (single frame / continuous) indicator
Focal length (non-CPU lenses) Continuous shooting speed
5 Multiple exposure indicator 22 Clock battery indicator
6 Aperture lock icon 23 Flash value (FV) lock indicator
Multiple exposure (series) indicator 24 Interval timer indicator
7 Aperture (f-number) 25 Image comment indicator
Aperture (number of stops) 26 Copyright information indicator
Bracketing increment 27 Beep indicator
Number of shots in ADL bracketing sequence 28 Vignette control indicator
Maximum aperture (non-CPU lenses) 29 Exposure compensation indicator
8 Aperture stop indicator 30 Battery indicator
9 Exposure indicator 31 ADL bracketing amount
Exposure compensation indicator 32 Image area indicator
Exposure and flash bracketing progress indicator 33 Function (Fn) button assignment
WB bracketing progress indicator 34 AE-L/AF-L button assignment
ADL bracketing indicator 35 Picture control indicator
10 Number of exposures remaining 36 Long exposure noise reduction indicator
11 "K" (appears when memory remains for over 1000 exposures) 37 Custom settings bank
12 Frame count 38 Focus mode indicator
Manual lens number 39 Memory card indicator (slot 2)
13 PV button assignment 40 Memory card indicator (slot 1)
14 Color space indicator 41 GPS connection indicator
15 Active D-Lighting indicator 42  Exposure and flash bracketing indicator
16 High ISO noise reduction indicator WB bracketing indicator
17 Shooting menu bank


Nikon D3S Virtual Horizon

A really neat feature of the D3S (like the D3 before it) is the virtual horizon gauge, activated from the Setup menu. The display remains active as long as certain buttons aren't pressed (such as the shutter release). The display uses sensors in the body to detect the orientation of the camera and display a virtual horizon, similar to an aircraft instrument, though it only shows left/right tilt (or "roll"). This is useful for critical alignment of subjects such as buildings, the horizon, etc. With the use of the Fn button, the electronic analog scales in the viewfinder can also display the amount of tilt, so that you don't need to take your eye off the subject to check the camera angle. The virtual horizon is also available during Live View mode as one of the overlay options via the "Info" button. In Live View mode, the display is smaller and mostly translucent, so as not to obscure the preview.


Nikon D3S Playback mode

Playback mode is entered by pressing the playback button. The D3S's playback mode provides a great deal of information about your pictures after you've shot them. A variety of playback displays can be cycled through using the up/down arrows on the multi-selector, including image with file information with optional highlight warning and focus point display, RGB histogram, three screens with overlaid shooting and image parameter information (and possibly two additional info screens - one when photographer or copyright information is embedded in images, and one which is available when an attached GPS device was used to geotag images), and an overview display with basic shooting data and luminance histogram. The screenshot animation at right shows the sequence when the down arrow is used. If you find this amount of information overwhelming, you can add or remove the displays as you see fit.

As you'd expect, the Nikon D3S offers a comprehensive RGB histogram display mode. Histogram displays are common on professional digital cameras (and many amateur models now), regarded as almost mandatory by many pros for evaluating exposure levels. A histogram is simply a graph of how many pixels there are in the image at each brightness level. The brightness is the horizontal axis, running from black at the left to white at the right. The height of the graph shows the relative number of pixels having each brightness level. This sort of display is very handy for determining under- or overexposure. Ideally, the histogram would stretch across the entire width of the display, using the full range of brightness values available. An underexposed image will have a histogram with all the data lumped on the left-hand side, with nothing reaching all the way to the right. Likewise, an overexposed image will have all the data lumped on the right hand side. Clipped highlights are shown by blinking any highlights that are saturated in any of the color channels. It does this by taking the nearly-white areas on the LCD and toggling them between white and black, as can be seen in the screenshot above right (taken from a D300S, but identical to the D3S).

As with the Highlights display mode, the blinking highlights in the histogram display mode can also be displayed separately for each color channel by selecting R, G, or B in the RGB Histogram display mode. The screenshots at right show an example of where this might be useful: The bright, strongly colored lamp shade (deliberately shot with an incorrect white balance, to produce the strong hue) showed only minor lost detail in the screenshot above, looking at the RGB or luminance highlights, but the shot at right shows that the red channel is badly blown. This is quite common: It's easy to lose detail in a strongly-colored object well before other, more neutral-colored highlights are lost.

Finally, the shot at right shows a nice feature that is we're surprised isn't more common: You can zoom into the image and pan around the magnified display, and the RGB histogram will change to show only the portion of the image that you're looking at. In this mode, you lose the blinking highlights, but this strikes us as very useful for checking critical parts of the image, to see if you've held highlight or shadow detail in areas you really care about.

Of course the Nikon D3S also lets you zoom out to quickly find and select images, or magnify them for closer inspection on its gorgeous 3-inch, 922K pixel LCD. You have the normal 4-, 9- or 72-image thumbnail displays, and you can magnify them up to approximately 27x for large, 20x for medium and 13x for small images. Both functions are controlled using the thumbnail / zoom button in concert with the rear control dial. Once magnified, you can scroll around the image using the thumbnail / zoom button and multi-selector to examine critical detail and framing. You can also program the multi-selector center button to automatically zoom in on the active focus point with a preset the initial zoom setting (low, medium, or high), to make focus verification faster and more convenient. The D3S does not offer the automatic playback mode face detection the D300S does.

Movies can be played by pressing the multi-selector's center button, and during movie playback both the down arrow and OK button serve as a pause / resume control. The left and right arrows allow cuing during playback, with subsequent presses adjusting the speed to 2, 4, 8 or 16x. While paused, these same buttons allow cuing through the video one frame at a time. Before movie playback is started, the OK button can be used to call up an edit screen, where the start and end points of the movie can be specified for trimming, with the same controls as during regular playback, and the result saved as a new file. Movies shorter than two seconds in length cannot be edited in-camera. The Nikon D3S also has the ability save a single frame of a movie as a JPEG still image.

To return the Nikon D3S to shooting mode, simply press the playback button again, or half-press the shutter button.