Nikon D3S Review
Nikon D3S Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Fairly accurate and pleasing color with minor oversaturation of strong reds, blues and greens.
Skin tones. Here, the Nikon D3S also did quite well, producing natural-looking skin tones, though just slightly on the pink side. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Nikon D3S showed a few small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, but had very good accuracy overall. Most noticeable was a slight shift in red toward orange, cyan toward blue, with some very minor shifts in greens, blues and purples as well. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Nikon D3S has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a very wide range of saturation levels, about as wide a range as you're likely to find photographically relevant, apart from special effects that are arguably better achieved in software. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer. Nice. (It's also nice that color saturation has little effect on greyscale contrast, something that's not always the case.)
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm results with Auto and Incandescent white balance settings, though excellent color with the 2,600 Kelvin and Manual. Average positive exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was very warm with the Auto white balance setting; we really expect better from an SLR selling at this price point. (But, quite honestly, very seldom see it.) The Incandescent setting was a bit better, but still on the warm side. (Like other Nikon models, the D3S's Incandescent setting appears to be color-balanced for professional studio lighting, rather than the warmer household incandescent lights most US consumers have in their homes. This is normal for a professional SLR. You can use the D3S's excellent manual adjustment capabilities to tweak the incandescent setting to better match whatever lighting you're personally faced with.) The Manual setting produced the most accurate results, though the 2,600 Kelvin setting wasn't far off the mark either. Both seemed just a touch on the cool side to our eyes, but here again, the D3S gives you ample ability to fine-tune its white balance however you like. The Nikon D3S required an average amount of positive exposure compensation here, at +0.3 EV. (Most cameras required about +0.3 EV compensation for this shot.)
(Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)
Good color overall, though a tendency toward a warm cast and slightly high contrast under harsh lighting. Average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Nikon D3S tended toward a warmer color balance, though overall color was generally quite good. The D3S required +0.7 EV exposure compensation to keep the model's face from being too dim in the "Sunlit" portrait shot on the left. That's about average to what we're accustomed to seeing among digital cameras for this shot. The D3S's default contrast is a little high, producing a few washed-out highlights in the model's shirt and flowers, as well as some deep shadows below the bouquet, but the D3S does much better than the majority of cameras in this regard. The far-field shot of the house came out just about right, with very few clipped highlights and lost shadows at the D3S's default exposure setting. An excellent performance here. The D3S's contrast and Active D-Lighting settings do help tame the highlights quite a bit, see below for examples of this.
(And yes, we do know that pros would expose these shots differently, exposing to hold detail in the highlights, and then adjusting the tone curve on the computer to bring the rest of the image into balance. We shot these examples the way we did, in order to be consistent with the rest of our camera tests, including tests of consumer models. Consumers generally expose for the midtones, and let highlights and shadows fall where they may. You can check the Nikon D3S thumbnails index to see how the Indoor Portrait test looks with a range of exposure compensation settings.)
High resolution, 1,700 lines of strong detail from in-camera JPEG, about the same from RAW files.
|Strong detail to
1,700 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
1,700 lines horizontal
ACR processed NEF
|Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical
ACR processed NEF
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,700 lines per picture height both horizontally, and in the vertical direction. Extinction didn't occur until past 2,600 lines. We weren't able to extract any more resolution by processing the D3S's NEF files using dcraw (or ACR), though images were crisper compared to the in-camera JPEG, and pattern extinction was extended to about 3,400 lines. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Fairly sharp images overall, with only slight edge-enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects. Exquisite detail with only minor noise suppression visible in the shadows.
|Excellent definition of high-contrast
elements with few visible sharpening
|Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Detail is still strong in the darker
parts of the model's hair here.
Sharpness. The Nikon D3S captured fairly sharp images, though the very conservative default in-camera sharpening leaves details in camera-rendered JPEGs shot with the default settings looking just slightly soft overall. The good part of this is that there's very little in the way of sharpening artifacts left to interfere with subsequent sharpening on the computer. In the high contrast shot above, there's only a hint of edge enhancement artifact visible along the edges of the white house trim and roof, as well as some of the larger branches. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows really impressive detail with only minor noise suppression artifacts in the darkest areas of the model's hair. The camera's overall response here is much better than average. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D3S produces fairly sharp, detailed in-camera JPEGs using a good prime lens (in this case, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, stopped down). As is almost always the case, even more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files than can be seen in the in-camera JPEGs. Take a look below, to see what we mean:
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking a link will load the full resolution file. Examples include in-camera Fine JPEG, RAW file processed through View NX using default settings, and RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw 5.6, then sharpened in Photoshop, using USM at 250%, radius=0.3 pixel. As you can see, View NX offers a tiny bit more detail than the in-camera JPEG, while the ACR conversion delivers even more detail, with less coarsening of the finest elements due to the sharpening operator.
ISO & Noise Performance
The new high ISO king! An improvement over the D3, especially at very high ISOs.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 100 (Lo -1)||ISO 200||ISO 400|
|ISO 800||ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200|
|ISO 6,400||ISO 12,800||ISO 25,600 (Hi +1)|
|ISO 51,200 (Hi +2)||ISO 102,400 (Hi +3)|
Noise levels are remarkably low at the Nikon D3S's lower sensitivity settings, with smooth, detailed images up to ISO 1,600, where there is only a slight hint of "grain" visible in darker shadows. At ISO 3,200, noise is still very low with very little loss in fine detail. We start to see moderate levels of luminance noise at ISO 6,400, along with some chroma noise in the shadows, but detail is still quite good. Some loss of detail is evident at ISO 12,800 where high ISO noise reduction is smoothing away fine detail along with noisy pixels. We also see some yellow and purple blotches in darker areas. Noise and the effects of noise reduction become more obvious at 12,800, with stronger blurring, and increased "grain" and color blotches. Still, there is a moderate amount of detail left to work with. Not surprisingly, ISOs 25,600, 51,200 and especially 102,400 are quite noisy and soft looking onscreen, with blotches of chroma noise and little fine detail remaining after default high ISO noise reduction is applied. Still, the Nikon D3S does a bit better than the previous high ISO champ, the D3. The improvement is definitely noticeable at ISOs above 6,400.
As always, see the Print Quality section below, to see how we think this noise performance translates into practical print sizes at each ISO setting.
A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. If you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us about it; we already know it. :-) The focus target position will simply have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Very high resolution with strong overall detail, slightly high default contrast. Excellent low-light performance, great exposures to the lowest limits of our test, and the autofocus worked that low as well, even without an AF-assist light.
|+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV|
Sunlight. The Nikon D3S produced slightly high contrast with a few washed-out highlights and deep shadows under the deliberately harsh lighting of the test above. However, highlight and shadow detail were both pretty good. The model's face was too dim at the +0.3 EV setting, so we preferred the image with +0.7 EV of exposure compensation, which resulted in some blown highlights in the shirt and flowers, but not to the extent we're used to seeing. Some may prefer the shot at +1.0 EV, but we felt it had a few too many blown highlights. The shot at +0.7EV almost perfectly preserved detail in the shirt; the only significantly blown out detail is in the red channel in the orange flower, and to a lesser extent in the red flower itself. At the other end of the tonal scale, there's good detail present pretty far into the shadows, although the very darkest shadow areas become somewhat plugged and posterized. That's nit picking though, you have to go really far into the shadows to see those problems. (In real life, of course, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. As was the case with its saturation adjustment, the Nikon D3S's contrast setting meets both challenges very well.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the Nikon D3S did a good job of preserving highlight detail, while maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The camera still lost some highlight detail in the model's shirt and flowers, though shadow detail improved greatly, with significantly less posterization and plugging. The D3S captured very good color outdoors, though again, just slightly on the warm side. Overall, very good results here.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme contrast settings. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image. The Nikon D3S's contrast adjustment worked well, with very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled adjustments, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. As usual, Nikon did a good job here, and the fine-grained contrast steps make it easy to select just the amount of contrast you want.
Nikon's Active D-Lighting
The six shots above show the results with Active D-Lighting at "Off ", "Low", "Normal", "High", and the new "Extra High" and "Auto" settings, the full range of settings. As you can see from the crops, fewer highlights in the flowers and shirt are clipped as the setting is increased, and shadows are opened up, although a minor price is paid in the very deepest shadows, in the form of increased noise and some posterization. (There's no free lunch: If the camera is devoting more of its available dynamic range to rendering highlights, there's less left to handle the shadows.) Note that these are very deep shadows that we're looking at above. Lighter shadows show very little noise increase, at least that was visible to our eyes with this test subject.
This sort of tonal-range adjustment is very tricky to do and have the results come out natural-looking. Nikon's been refining their D-Lighting algorithms for several years now, and the results show it: Even the "Extra High" setting above produces a natural-looking image.
More Active D-Lighting Examples
The D3S's Active D-Lighting can result in undesired results when applied to subjects with a more normal tonal range. The white trim in the house shot has a slightly bluish tint to it at higher settings, and the Still Life shots look a tad overexposed and somewhat flat at the higher settings. Images with normal contrast will tend to look flat when dynamic-range extension technology is applied to them, simply because the range of available subject tones is being compressed into a smaller percentage of the available output tonal range. The new "Auto" setting is a welcome addition, since it seems to do a good job at determining what level to apply, at least in our three test cases.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
Low light. The Nikon D3S performed very well on the low-light test, capturing usable images at the lowest light level (1/16 foot-candle), even with the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 100). Noise naturally increases as ISO goes up and light levels go down, but remains remarkably low up to ISO 12,800. At ISO 25,600, noise is more noticeable but still reasonable. At ISOs 51,200 and 102,400 noise gets pretty ugly with strong chroma noise, bright red pixels and some horizontal banding. There is also what looks to be "heat color bloom" from a warm electrical component near the sensor emanating from the bottom left, which is visible as a purple tint at the highest ISOs. We couldn't get it to show up when we tried much longer exposures in complete darkness, though. Color balance had slightly warm cast to it despite using manual white balance. The rightmost column in the series above shows the results with the D3S's long-exposure NR turned off.
The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject at less than the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted (and that's a good thing, as the D3S does not have a built-in AF assist lamp). Also (as always), keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here absolutely demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D3S do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.
Excellent print quality from ISO 100 to 6,400, each able to make good quality 16x24-inch prints. ISO 12,800 shots were good at 13x19 inches, and ISO 102,400 made a decent 4x6-inch print.
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.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
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.