Nikon D3S Review
|Viewfinder:||Optical / LCD|
|Dimensions:||6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 in.
(160 x 157 x 88 mm)
|Weight:||49.7 oz (1,410 g)
Nikon D3S Overview
Reviewed by Andrew Alexander, Zig Weidelich, Shawn Barnett, and Mike Tomkins
Review Posted: 04/16/2010
You know there was already something excellent about a camera when it gets only a minor upgrade after almost two years of service, something Nikon confirms with its introduction of the Nikon D3S professional digital SLR. You might disagree on whether the upgrade is major or minor, but some will cling to the resolution to say that there's little new about the Nikon D3S: "It's still 12.1 megapixels."
But a camera is more than resolution. Nikon more than any other camera company has taught us that a digital camera can perform better in low light than we've ever allowed ourselves to expect -- seeing more like our eyes see, so that we can get better pictures without flash. They taught us this with the Nikon D3, whose expanded ISO setting was an astonishing 25,600. Journalists rely on the D3's high ISO settings, making images that would have been impossible just a few years ago.
The Nikon D3S, however, is more sensitive. Its base ISO range is 200 to 12,800. And its expanded ISO settings go up to 102,400. The possibilities just multiplied.
In addition to greater sensitivity, the Nikon D3S offers the new essential feature of video capture. As on other Nikons, D-Movie captures 1,280 x 720 progressive scan at 24 frames per second. Files are saved in Motion JPEG AVI format, which allows easy on-camera editing, as well as extracting a still image from the video stream, all without affecting the original file. A monaural microphone is built into the front of the Nikon D3S, and a stereo mic input allows attachment of an external microphone. Regular movie shooting allows automatic gain setting between ISO 200 and 12,800, and an optional High-Sensitivity Movie Mode opens up ISO 6,400 to 102,400 for recording movies in very low light conditions.
Functionally, most of what was great remains. The nine-frames-per-second burst, or 11 fps in the DX-crop mode continues delivering what users expect. The buffer has been doubled, though, and a new crop mode supports 1.2x image sizes, turning out 8.4 megapixel files. The 51-point AF system remains mostly the same, thankfully.
A new Quiet Shutter Release mode makes shooting in low-noise environments easier, and a few controls have been added or shifted to make using the Nikon D3S a little more intuitive.
The Nikon D3S is available now for US$5,199.95, about $200 more than the Nikon D3 when it shipped in 2007.
Nikon D3S Review
by Mike Tomkins, Shawn Barnett, and Andrew Alexander
The Nikon D3S single-lens reflex digital camera updates the company's previous D3 model to include an even wider sensitivity range, high-definition movie capture, dust reduction, and quite a few other new features besides.
Though it's largely the same size and weight, with dimensions of 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 inches (160 x 157 x 88mm) and a body-only weight of two pounds, twelve ounces (1,240g), the Nikon D3S has a few external refinements to talk about; but perhaps the best news for pros is that the Nikon D3S is familiar, so upgrading or adding a D3S to their arsenal isn't going to require a lot of retraining.
Look and feel. As with the D3, the D3S looks and feels quite sturdy, with excellent grip surfaces for both horizontal and vertical shooting, and canted dials for smoother human interaction.
New on the front of the Nikon D3S are three holes for the monaural microphone, appearing in the upper right in this picture, floating between the self-timer lamp and the Flash sync / Remote terminal cover.
There's essentially no noticeable difference on top, except that there's no longer a Live view position on the Drive mode dial, whose former position you can't really see in this image. That position has been changed to support the new Quiet Shutter Release mode ("Q"). Live view is now accessed on the back.
Nikon added an "info" button to the left button array, including a feature that was heretofore not found on their pro series cameras. The button calls up a rear status display that is also new to the pro line. The speaker that was to the left of the small Rear Control Panel LCD has moved to under the card door release cover below the AF Area mode switch. The small LCD has been shifted left, allowing room for the addition of a Live view button (marked Lv), just right of the microphone button. And that pretty well sums up the major physical differences on the Nikon D3S.
Sensor. Announced a little over two years ago, the D3 was an extremely important camera for Nikon, being its first offering to include a full 35mm-frame sized image sensor. In the company's parlance, the sensor format is designated "Nikon FX," to avoid the impression that its DX-format (or APS-C) sensors are somehow "sub-frame." In comparison to a Nikon DX camera of the same resolution (like the Nikon D300S), an FX-format model offers greatly-increased light gathering capability, which translates to better high ISO, or low-light performance. It also allows near-identical framing with that of a 35mm film camera when using the same focal length, and makes truly wide-angle photography more feasible given that there's no focal length multiplier in FX mode.
There's no such thing as a free lunch, though, and there are two main disadvantages for full-frame digital SLRs -- the first of which is that the cost to manufacture such a sensor is significantly higher than that of an APS-C camera. At the same time, taking full advantage of the larger sensor requires the use of larger, heavier FX-format lenses if the entire imager is to fit inside the image circle produced by the optics.
Unlike Canon, whose sub-frame lenses cannot mount on full-frame cameras, Nikon allows the use of DX-format lenses by simply cropping the active area of the FX-format sensor to match that of a DX-format camera, with a corresponding decrease in total resolution.
Inside, the Nikon D3S sports both a newly-developed image sensor and EXPEED image processor, which together have enabled the new video mode and increased sensitivity. Sensor resolution is unchanged from that of the D3, at 12.1 effective megapixels, and the new FX-format CMOS chip in the Nikon D3S also retains the same 36.0 x 23.9mm dimensions and 8.45µm cell size of its predecessor.
Maximum image resolution in the native 3:2 aspect ratio is 4,256 x 2,832 pixels, and there's also a 5:4 aspect ratio mode which allows image capture at up to 3,552 x 2,832 pixels, excellent for helping photographers frame in the popular 8x10-inch format. In addition, the Nikon D3S can record images in DX crop mode at up to 2,784 x 1,848 pixel resolution, and there's a new 1.2x crop mode which trades off a little resolution in favor of a slightly increased 35mm-equivalent focal length, avoids the very corners of the image (which tend to be the problem areas for lens-derived image defects), and yields slightly more manageable file sizes.
The Nikon D3S is based around a 16-bit imaging pipeline, and offers the choice of either 14-bit or 12-bit A/D conversion. Startup time is said to be 0.12 seconds, with shutter lag of 0.04 seconds, according to Nikon specifications. (We measured ~0.1 second and 0.043 second respectively.)
Shots remaining before buffer fills
(14-bit RAW, lossless compressed)
Buffer increase. As you'd expect, the Nikon D3S retains the impressive burst shooting capability of the D3, with a maximum of nine frames per second possible in FX-format shooting, and as much as eleven frames per second when set to DX-format. Thanks to a doubling of its buffer memory size, the Nikon D3S offers greatly increased burst depth as compared to the stock Nikon D3, however. (The upgraded buffer memory was made available as a paid option for D3 owners about a year after the camera first launched, so the native buffer memory of the D3S -- and hence its burst depth -- are identical to that of an upgraded D3).
For full-resolution FX-mode shooting depending on the compression type in use, burst depth should be in the region of 35 to 44 frames in Raw or TIFF formats, according to Nikon, while JPEG bursts of 119 to 130 shots should be possible. DX-mode full-res bursts meanwhile should reach 54 to 87 Raw or TIFF frames, and 130 JPEG frames. See the Performance tab for the numbers we got while testing the D3S.
Dust Reduction. One of the most significant changes in the Nikon D3S outside the imaging pipeline is the inclusion of Nikon's Dust Reduction system -- the first time the company has offered the technology in a full-frame camera with 100% viewfinder coverage. The system functions by vibrating the optical low-pass filter over the CMOS sensor at four distinct frequencies to shake free any dust particles that are adhering to the filter. This process can be initiated at the user's command, or automatically either when the camera is first switched on, or right before it powers off.
Lens mount. The Nikon D3S provides a Nikon F-mount with autofocus coupling and contacts. Like the D3 before it, the Nikon D3S is compatible with almost every F-mount lens made since 1977, although some lens types will have a few limitations.
LCD. On the rear panel of the Nikon D3S is a 3.0-inch diagonal low-temperature polysilicon LCD with a total resolution of 921,600 dots, which equates to 307,200 pixels in a 640 x 480 (VGA) array. The panel is identical to that used on the original D3, and offers a wide 170-degree viewing angle both horizontally and vertically, as well as 100% frame coverage. Those paying close attention will notice that the number of pixels claimed for the LCD has changed from 920,000 to 921,600, but they assure us that they were rounding down when they announced the D3, and this is a more accurate number.
Viewfinder. There's also an eye-level pentaprism viewfinder whose coverage is 100% when used in uncropped FX 3:2 or 5:4 aspect ratio modes, and 97% when in the 1.2x or DX cropped modes. When shooting in modes other than the native FX-format 3:2 aspect ratio, a translucent LCD in the viewfinder of Nikon's D3S partially masks the inactive portions of the frame. The viewfinder has 0.7x magnification at 50mm and -1 diopter, an 18mm eyepoint, a diopter adjustment range of -3 to +1, and ships by default with a Type B BriteView Clear Matte VI screen with AF area brackets installed.
Live view. Also retained from the Nikon D3 is that camera's Live View mode, although it now has its own dedicated button on the camera's rear panel rather than occupying a position on the Release Mode Dial. (Its space is taken over by the Quiet Shutter function previously seen on the Nikon D300S and D5000 models, which noticeably reduces noise levels by separating cocking and release of the shutter mechanism.)
The Live view mode in the Nikon D3S is similar to that of its predecessor, offering both hand-held and tripod modes. Hand-held mode uses phase-detection autofocusing, which includes a brief interruption to the live view display while the camera checks focus, and the Tripod mode uses contrast-detection autofocusing. Thanks to the new EXPEED image processor, contrast-detection AF performance is said to be around 30 to 40 percent faster than the D3. There's also a new flicker reduction function in Live View mode, which can be set to either 50 or 60Hz, preventing a common issue under some types of artificial lighting.
High ISO. One of the more impressive changes in the Nikon D3S enabled by its new image sensor and processor is the incredibly wide sensitivity range. Where the Nikon D3 already offered a useful standard range from ISO 200 to 6,400 equivalents, the D3S boosts the upper end of the range to ISO 12,800 equivalent. As with the D3, the lower end of the range can be expanded to include ISO 100, but the really significant changes are in the expanded upper range. The Nikon D3 allowed Hi-1 and Hi-2 positions with equivalent ISO sensitivities of 12,800 and 25,600 respectively. The Nikon D3S replaces these with Hi-1, -2 and -3 settings, which equate to ISO 25,600, ISO 51,200 and incredibly to a maximum of ISO 102,400!
Autofocus and metering. The Nikon D3S retains the same Multi-CAM 3500FX phase detection autofocus sensor as seen in the D3, which offers 51 focusing points, of which 15 are cross types. The Nikon D3S includes AF tracking capability, and allows fine-tuning of individual lenses to correct for front- or back-focus issues. Exposure modes include Program, Aperture- and Shutter-priority, and Manual.
Metering is performed with a 1,005 pixel RGB sensor, and shutter speeds range from 1/8,000 to 30 seconds. The shutter mechanism is retained from the Nikon D3, and is still rated at a lifetime of around 300,000 cycles. Also unchanged from the D3 are the camera's white balance options. These include Auto, twelve presets (including fully seven Fluorescent presets), as well as five Manual white balance positions, and the ability to directly specify a color temperature from 2,500 to 10,000 Kelvin. In addition, all white balance modes allow fine-tuning. +/- 5.0EV of exposure compensation is available in 1/3, 1/2 or 1EV steps. The Nikon D3S also includes a hot shoe and flash sync terminal, with iTTL flash metering, an X-sync of 1/250 second, and compatibility with the company's Creative Lighting System.
D-Movie. The Nikon D3S is the company's first full-frame dSLR to offer video recording, similar to a few other recent digital SLRs. Unlike many, however, Nikon has allowed both the ability to perform contrast detection autofocusing during movie capture, as well as to specify the shutter speed, ISO speed and aperture, before or during movie recording (although it should be noted that these changes will probably be noticeable in both the audio and video captured).
The Nikon D3S' video mode allows use of the camera's unusually high ISO sensitivities, although in its default configuration, the exact sensitivity selected remains under the camera's control. In its regular mode, the photographer selects from one of two ISO ranges -- either 200 to 12,800 equivalents, or 6,400 to 102,400 equivalents. This latter mode is called High Sensitivity Movie Mode. It is possible to enable full manual control, where any combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO speed can be set, within certain limitations.
The maximum movie resolution offered in the Nikon D3S is 1,280 x 720 pixels (720p), with 640 x 424 and 320 x 216 pixel modes also available. All movies are captured at 24 frames per second, and audio can be recorded either with the camera's internal monaural microphone, or an external stereo mic using a 3.5mm jack. Audio sensitivity can be adjusted manually, with four sensitivity settings plus off and auto positions. It's also possible to trim both the start and end of movies in-camera, and to extract a still frame. Finally, Nikon has apparently worked on the jello-like rolling shutter artifacts which are commonplace in DSLR videos due to the manner in which they're captured, and the company is describing the effect as being about half as noticeable as in its past models.
The Nikon D3S stores images via dual-CompactFlash card slots like its predecessor, although Type-II CompactFlash cards and Microdrives can no longer be accepted in either slot. The Nikon D3S is UDMA compatible, and can store still images in several formats. Choices include .NEF Raw (Uncompressed, lossless compression, or lossy compression), TIFF, or JPEG, as well as both Raw and JPEG simultaneously.
Connectivity includes USB 2.0 High-Speed, as well as both standard definition NTSC/PAL and high-definition HDMI video output. The HDMI connector used is now a Type-C, rather than the Type-A found in the Nikon D3. There's also a 10-pin remote connection that also doubles as a connector for an optional GPS receiver, and a 3.5mm stereo microphone jack. Power comes from an EN-EL4a or EN-EL4 battery, with the former included in the product bundle.
Nikon D3S Shooter's Report
by Andrew Alexander
I spent just over three weeks with the Nikon D3S, chiefly to put it through its paces as a video camera, but also to evaluate its still capabilities. Accordingly, I'll separate this report into two categories.
Shooter's Report - Still Capture
As we've already indicated, the Nikon D3S is best described as an update to the D3, rather than a totally revised model. Many of the features which made the D3 an excellent platform have been maintained on the Nikon D3S, if not improved.
Buffer upgrade. Including the buffer upgrade in the Nikon D3S was a practical choice for Nikon, placating a user base which probably thought the buffer should have been more capable to begin with. With the Continuous-High shooting speed of nine frames per second in FX mode and 11 in DX crop mode, it was painfully easy to hit the buffer wall, only to wait precious seconds for the buffer to clear before another shot could be taken. In a professional situation, this delay really wasn't acceptable, and the only practical solution was to shoot at a slower speed, defeating the purpose of Continuous-High. With the increased buffer size, shooters have a bit more latitude when shooting at the camera's highest speed.
Really High ISO. It's easy to focus on the big number -- ISO 102,400 -- but what's of real interest to most shooters is how the new sensor treats images at more reasonable ISO settings. The D3 opened the door to shooters interested in available light shooting; until its arrival, for most indoor events, an external flash was the only option. You could shoot at ISO 3,200, but the images were so noisy that you wouldn't want to present them. Now, ISO 3,200 has become commonplace. As you can see in the test images, the Nikon D3S raises the bar not only in the upper limits of ISO sensitivity, but it also improves upon the quality of its middle range. Where many D3 shooters would stick to ISO 1,600 to produce noiseless images in lower-light scenarios, they might now feel as comfortable with ISO 3,200 or even 6,400 in the Nikon D3S. At this point you're not limited to using f/2.8 lenses; you can stop down a bit to extend the depth of field on your subject, or to get optimal image sharpness.
For those shooters who truly need a camera that sees in the dark, the Nikon D3S fits the bill. Yes, without light to shoot by, it's noisy, but the fact that it can make an image at such a high ISO speed is remarkable indeed.
Quiet Shutter Release Mode. One of the changes made in the upgrade to the Nikon D3S was the introduction of the Quiet Shutter Release ("Q") mode, and there has been an equally quiet reaction to its introduction. The methodology is straightforward and simple: when Q mode is activated, the mirror will stay in its open position until the shutter button is released by the user, at which point it will return to its home position.
In practice, it's an interesting idea, but it's still fairly noisy, as the reduction in sound probably isn't dramatic enough to warrant its usage. We took some recordings of the shutter of the D3 and the Nikon D3S, with no lens attached, at a distance of about 12 inches. The results are to the right (click image to play wave file).
So what we're seeing in the Nikon D3S's Quiet Mode is a reduction in the overall "presence" of the noise generated by the shutter release, by breaking it into two parts. And the second part appears to be genuinely quieter than the D3.
We also noticed a fairly loud ringing sound after each shutter activation. After some investigation we determined that it's the aperture activator retraction springs in both the lens and D3S body that makes such a loud sound. Though other pro-grade cameras also make the sound, including the Canon 1Ds Mark III, we think it's louder on the Nikon D3S because of the heavy-duty spring required to retract the aperture mechanism in time for the 11 fps potential of this high-speed camera. The sound also varies by lens, with some lenses sounding louder than others.
Dust reduction. The Nikon D3S finally integrates the dust reduction systems found in its non-professional brethren, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that after using the camera for three weeks beside a D3, there's less dust to speak of on the D3S. It's not a perfect system, but it will extend the delay between manual sensor cleaning sessions.
Print quality. Printing JPEG images straight from the Nikon D3S strains the mind a bit. While we're used to seeing a pretty clear descent in image size as ISO rises, images from the 12-megapixel D3S don't start to need a size downgrade from 16x24 until ISO 12,800.
The only major flaw that appears in images in this range and size is increasing luminance noise in the shadows, which starts at about ISO 800. It looks very much like film grain, though, so it's not at all objectionable.
ISO 12,800 shots are usable at 16x24, but really look better at 13x19 inches.
ISO 25,600 shots have rather blobby noise in the shadows, and less detail, making them better at 11x14 inches. Contrast also seems to increase at this setting, with more plugged shadows and blacks.
ISO 51,200 is usable at 11x14, but considerably better at 8x10. Chroma noise has finally started to creep into the shadows at this size and ISO setting.
ISO 102,400, depending on the subject, is still usable at 8x10, but an almost choppy wave-like pattern has started to emerge in the shadows, along with more chroma noise. This becomes less noticeable at 5x7, and nearly disappears at 4x6, producing an astonishing image when you consider in what conditions it was captured.
Really a remarkable performance from the amazing Nikon D3S digital SLR camera.
Conclusion. There's not much to add that the D3 report didn't already cover; the Nikon D3S adds a few shooting features, the sensor's been improved, but most importantly, it doesn't break anything that worked.
Video Shooter's Report
On my way back from picking up the Nikon D3S for review, I heard about a 72-hour film festival taking place where I live. The aim of the festival was the produce a 5-8 minute long film in just 72 hours, with a number of specific requirements to be inserted into the film. I thought there could be no better way to get an immediate grasp on the capabilities of the camera than to plunge into this challenge.
I should mention at this point that I have shot with a fair number of video cameras in corporate video production, but none have a sensor as large as the D3S. I had never been able to accomplish in video what is so easy to do with a dSLR and a fast prime: a sharp foreground subject, with an out-of-focus background. On the editing side, with traditional video cameras, we had to deal with digital video tape, where you had to spend hours capturing video from the camera to the editing computer. Both of these obstacles are removed with the Nikon D3S, and I was curious to see what the results could be.
After spending only a few days with the camera and assembling a cast and crew, we spent a Saturday shooting the scenes for our film. Having access to fast primes and both wide-angle and telephoto lenses opened up our capacity to visually tell a story. Most camcorders have one zoom lens that can't go wide enough or long enough, and to get into interchangeable-lens camcorders can get very expensive. I was struck by how seamlessly I was able to make the transition from photographer to videographer, primarily because I did not need to learn a new platform. If anything, what I needed to learn was a new form of camera movement, as the Nikon D3S handles much differently than a conventional camcorder. For some shots we used a tripod, but for most I was able to shoot hand-held, even with a 70-200mm lens, stabilized with VR.
The other technique that most digital SLR video shooters will have to improve is their manual focusing technique. While almost an afterthought now in the world of still photography, in this early period of video-on-digital-SLR it is a necessity. I found on many occasions, especially when using very large apertures with their very thin depth-of-field, it was necessary to use the magnification feature in Live view to find a precise focusing point. Yes, the Nikon D3S can use contrast detection to autofocus during shooting, but unless you're using an AF-S lens, it's slow, noisy, and not at all perfect.
After ten hours of shooting, we wrapped our day of shooting, having everything we needed. We accumulated 161 .AVI files, representing just over 10 GB of files and almost two and a half hours of video.
The next day in the editing suite, the HD footage was glorious to behold, and a pleasure to work with. Colors were deeply saturated, and images were crisp and sharp. We were blessed with a sunny day to shoot, so our exteriors were great. The only significant problem we had (other than our tight deadline to produce the final cut) was with audio: because we couldn't monitor audio levels easily in the field, we found we had inconsistencies that we had to fix in post.
The shoot took a heavy toll on battery life. By the end of the shoot I had gone through two batteries and was halfway through the third. I had meticulously dumped my video from CompactFlash cards to a computer when we took breaks, but never managed to fill a single 8 GB card. By contrast, I was wondering if I would have to take a break to charge a battery.
See our Video page for more details on the Nikon D3S's video capabilities.
Appraisal. Nikon may have introduced its video mode for dSLRs with the D90, but it has certainly improved upon it in the Nikon D3S. For video, the addition of an external microphone port was absolutely necessary, as was moving to a higher bitrate for recording quality audio. Improved audio control options, including the ability to monitor audio as it's being recorded will be welcomed in future updates. As well, some content producers may not be satisfied with the 720p implementation of HD video, and may require full 1080p.
In the Box
- Nikon D3S body
- EN-EL4a Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- MH-22 Quick Charger
- UC-E4 USB Cable
- EG-D2 Audio Video Cable
- AN-DC5 Camera Strap
- BF-1B Body Cap
- BS-2 Accessory Shoe Cap
- DK-17 Eyepiece
- BL-4 Battery Chamber Cover
- USB Cable Clip
- Software Suite CD-ROM
- User manuals, quick guides, warranty card
- Large capacity CompactFlash memory card. But with the D3S, you should consider a couple of high speed UDMA cards to take full advantage of the camera's UDMA capability, offering transfer speeds as high as 45MB/second.
- SB-900 or SB-600 Speedlight Flash
- WT-4a Wireless Transmitter
- GP-1 GPS Unit
- Type E Focusing Screen
- DK-17M Magnifying Eyepiece
- EH-6 AC Adapter
- ML-3 or MC-36 Remote Control
- Capture NX 2 Software
- Camera Control Pro 2 Software
- Image Authentication Software
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Nikon D3S Conclusion
So the Nikon D3S is an amazingly capable professional digital SLR, retaining most of what was great about the Nikon D3, and adding astonishing improvements in low-light capability and a larger image buffer size. Enough stayed the same, though, that we've chosen to focus on the video aspect for this report. We've still written up all the controls and run all of our extensive suite of test shots, so be sure to visit the other tabs of this review for more on Design, Operation, Image Quality, Optics, and Performance, among others.
There's a small sense of deja vu when working with the Nikon D3S in a video context; when digital SLR cameras first became popular, no one had all the answers, and to some degree there was a lot of learning that came with each iteration of a new camera. It's no surprise to me that the owner's manual only devotes seven pages to recording movies, as it's not just new to Nikon, it's relatively new to the majority of the still-photography world.
At this moment, though, Nikon has provided a tool to filmmakers that they didn't have before, and while it is in some sense limited (compared to your average pro camcorder), the Nikon D3S still works extremely well, and is capable of recording in light so low that no camcorder can compete. The Nikon D3S is a Dave's Pick for stills or videos.
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.