Nikon D3S Exposure

Exposure Modes. As you'd expect from a digital SLR aimed at experienced photographers, the Nikon D3S eschews any hand-holding from Scene modes and the like, restricting its operating modes to the more traditional selection of Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. In Shutter Priority and Manual modes, shutter speeds from 1/8,000 to 30 seconds are available in 1/3 EV steps. The Manual mode also adds a Bulb setting for manually timed exposures whose length is limited only by available battery power.

A very nice touch that's common to other Nikon DSLRs is that, while in Program AE mode, you can rotate the Command dial to select different combinations of aperture and shutter speed settings than those normally chosen by the autoexposure system. (That is, if the automatic program would have chosen 1/125 second and f/5.6, you could instead direct the camera to use 1/60 at f/8 or 1/30 at f/11, to get greater depth of field.) Nikon calls this Flexible Program, and photographers familiar with other brands may know it as Program Shift. It's a very handy option for those times when you need some measure of increased control, but still want the camera to do most of the work for you. We personally use this capability more than Aperture- or Shutter-priority metering in some of our own shooting. The Nikon D3S also allows the step size to be set to the user's preference of either 1/3, 1/2 or 1EV steps, with three separate custom settings affecting the step size for different exposure variables. One custom setting controls ISO sensitivity step size, another the exposure compensation step size, and a third controls the aperture, shutter speed and exposure bracketing step size. If you generally want fine-grained control over shutter speed and aperture, but find yourself occasionally wanting to make quicker adjustments, the camera can be set using Custom Setting f4 to temporarily use a 1EV step size for these variables while the Function button is held down.

An interesting feature when using Manual exposure mode is the electronic analog exposure display visible in the optical viewfinder data readout. This shows the amount the camera thinks an image will be over- or underexposed, based on the settings you have selected, and helps you find the best exposure for the subject.

Exposure Metering. Nikon has one of the most sophisticated and flexible metering systems currently on the market, and in the case of the Nikon D3S, its metering sensor covers a wide area of the frame with a 1,005-pixel RGB array. Like most SLRs, there are three main metering modes on the Nikon D3S: Matrix, Center-weighted, and Spot metering. Where Nikon's system differs is in the capability of these modes. Nikon's matrix metering (the default option on the D3S) is called 3D Color Matrix II, as it takes color as well as distance information from the lens into account.

By default, the Nikon D3S's Center-Weighted metering mode gives a greater weight (75%) to a 12mm diameter circle in the center of the frame, although if using a CPU lens this can be changed with Custom Setting b5 to use either an 8mm, 15mm or 20mm spot, or to average the entire frame. There's also an Average option which applies to both CPU and non-CPU lenses, which causes the D3S to average the entire frame when set to Center-Weighted metering. Finally, Spot meters a 4mm diameter circle (about 1.5% of the frame) centered on the active focus area. (Unless using a non-CPU lens or Auto-area AF, in which case the D3S behaves like most DSLRs in only metering the very center of the frame in Spot metering mode.)

An even more unusual feature of the Nikon D3S comes courtesy of Custom Setting b6, which allows fine-tuning of the camera's metering system within a range of +/-1EV in extremely fine 1/6 EV steps. Three values can be set, allowing you to fine-tune Matrix, Center-weighted and Spot metering separately. This means that if you feel the camera to be under- or over-exposing scenes, you should be able to pull it back towards your preferred exposure without needing to dial in exposure compensation for most images. Another similarly useful feature for tuning the D3S to your tastes is Custom Setting c2, which allows the user to select how long the camera's metering system should be powered on during a period of inactivity. This lets you balance battery life against convenience, within a nine-step range from a miserly four seconds to a spendthrift 30 minutes, as well as an option to leave the metering system powered on at all times. Note that when running on A/C power, the metering system remains powered on all the time, for convenience's sake.

It's important to note that 3D Color Matrix Metering II does rely on the use of a Type-G or -D lens. With other CPU lenses, the D3S falls back to Color Matrix Metering II, which doesn't take account of distance information in exposure calculations. Non-CPU lenses can use Color Matrix Metering if the focal length and maximum aperture are manually specified, but otherwise fall back to Center-weighted metering. The 1,005-pixel RGB sensor also serves to ascertain automatic white-balance, and provides assistance for focus tracking when the subject leaves the AF sensor area. Metering range is specified at 0 to 20 EV in Matrix or Center-Weighted, and 2 to 20 EV in Spot metering mode.

Exposure Lock. Ordinarily, the AE-L/AF-L button locks both exposure and autofocus, useful for off-center subjects in tricky lighting. It can also be disabled or programmed for AE lock, AF lock, or no fewer than ten other functions, via the custom menu.  Rather than requiring the button to be held for an AE-lock, you can also program it to toggle the lock on and off  either until the exposure meters power off or optionally, until the shutter is released. The AE-L/AF-L button can also perform one of four different functions when held while a command dial is turned - either selecting the image area, the non-CPU lens number, the shooting menu bank or the dynamic AF area - although by default the AE-L/AF-L button and command dials serve no function together.

Exposure Compensation. Exposure compensation on the Nikon D3S is adjustable from -5 to +5 exposure equivalents (EV) in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV step increments, and is controllable in Program, Aperture-priority, or Shutter-priority modes. Note that in Manual exposure mode, the EV button doesn't actually vary the exposure - it only biases the electronic analog exposure display that's shown in the optical viewfinder data readout. The Auto Bracketing feature on the Nikon D3S can capture anywhere from two to nine sequential shots of the same subject with varying exposure values. Exposure settings for bracketing can vary from -9 to +9 EV (values are added to the already chosen exposure compensation value), with step sizes of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV units. Through the Custom Settings menu, you can designate whether the bracketing sequence adjusts the ambient and/or flash exposure, white balance, or Active D-Lighting. When bracketing white balance, note that the shutter is tripped only once and the camera then saves the bracketed exposures from the same source data. When using ADL bracketing, anywhere from two to five frames can be captured. For two frame bracketing, one frame has ADL disabled, and the other has a user-preset strength. For three shots, the camera brackets with ADL Off, Low, and Normal. Four shots adds High, while Extra High is the fifth shot bracketed.

ISO Sensitivity. The Nikon D3S's normal ISO ranges from 200 to 12,800 and can be extended down to ISO 100 (Lo 1), and up to ISO 102,400 (Hi 3). By default, ISO is adjustable in 1/3 EV steps (Lo 1, Lo 0.7, Lo 0.3, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, etc.). Through Custom Setting b1, the D3S can be set to allow sensitivity adjustment in 1/2 EV steps (Lo 1, Lo 0.5, 200, 280, 400, 560, 800, etc.), or in 1EV steps (Lo 1, 200, 400, 800, etc.) Nikon's excellent Auto ISO feature is carried over as well, which allows you to set both the upper ISO limit (from ISO 400 to 102,400) as well as the minimum shutter speed (selectable from 1s to 1/4000s) required before ISO is increased automatically.

White Balance. The Nikon D3S offers the usual white balance settings: Auto, six presets consisting of Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, and Shade, a manual mode where white-balance is determined from a white or grey card or copied from an existing image, and a direct color temperature setting (2,500 to 10,000K). The Fluorescent preset has seven sub-settings consisting of Sodium Vapor (2,700K), Warm-white (3,000K), White (3,700K), Cool-white (4,200K), Day White (5,000K), Daylight (6,500K), and High Temperature Mercury Vapor (7,200K), and the manual setting allows five custom white-balance measurements (d-0 through d-4) to be stored.

As with a number of other high-end SLRs these days, all the D3S's white balance presets and manual settings except for the direct color temperature settings are adjustable via a 2D fine-tuning grid display. The Nikon D3S also supports White Balance bracketing, where two to nine frames can be bracketed with Blue and/or Amber white balance bias increments of approximately 5, 10 or 15 mireds.

Active D-Lighting. D-Lighting has proven a popular post-processing feature in Nikon's consumer digital SLRs, as well as some of the company's point & shoot models. It's a quick software process that attempts to overcome underexposed images, and bring detail out of shadows. An improved version of Active D-Lighting appeared in the Nikon D3 and D300, including optimization of image contrast, helping to prevent overprocessing of shadows and flattening of overall image contrast. The Nikon D3S inherits the Active D-Lighting setup from the D3 with the addition of two extra settings. In addition to its predecessor's High, Normal, Low, and Off settings, the D3S includes an Extra-High setting, and the ability to automatically choose the Active D-Lighting strength on the fly.

D3S Active D-Lighting
Active D-Lighting
Active D-Lighting

The effect of Active D-Lighting is highly dependent on the particular subject and lighting being shot, but for the most part is fairly subtle. The thumbnails above show its effect on our Outdoor Portrait test, where you can see it opening up the shadows somewhat, while simultaneously holding back the highlights a little. We like that it's generally subtle in its effect, as it's so easy to overdo automatic tonal adjustments like this. (See the Nikon D3S Image Quality tab for more detail on how well Active D-Lighting performs.)

Picture Control. Nikon has standardized its Picture Control system so that camera settings for sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue can be finely adjusted and ported to other Nikon digital SLRs that support the system. The D3 was the first camera compatible with the option, and all Nikon SLRs since follow the standard, including the D3S. There are four presets called Standard, Neutral, Vivid, and Monochrome, and up to nine custom presets can be defined, named, saved, and copied. Sharpness can be adjusted in ten steps or determined automatically for each image; while contrast, saturation, and hue can be adjusted in seven steps, and brightness is adjustable in three steps. Like sharpness, contrast and saturation also have Auto settings. There is also a five-step "Quick Adjust" setting which exaggerates or mutes the combined effect without having to adjust each slider individually. When Monochrome Picture Control is selected, hue and saturation are replaced by Filter Effects and Toning respectively. Filter Effects offers Off, Yellow, Orange, Red, and Green settings, while Toning offers B&W, Sepia, Cyanotype, Red, Yellow, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Purple Blue and Red Purple settings, with each of the colored settings offering seven adjustment steps. Of course, the Nikon D3S also offers sRGB and Adobe RGB settings, in a separate Color Space menu.

Noise Reduction. The Nikon D3S offers four levels of high ISO noise reduction: Off, Low, Normal, and High. For Low, Normal, and High settings, noise reduction is performed at ISOs higher than 3,200. When set to Off, minimal noise reduction is still performed at ISOs of 16,000 (Hi 0.3) or above. High ISO noise reduction theoretically is not performed on RAW files (other than the embedded JPEG thumbnail), although there has been some data published by individuals on the Internet that suggests there may in fact be some NR applied in Nikon's NEF files. (We haven't investigated the issue thoroughly enough to take a position on it ourselves, though we are aware of the "median" filter Nikon applies to reduce the visibility of single hot-pixels in longer exposures.) The Nikon D3S also offers long-exposure noise reduction for exposures longer than 1 second. When set to On, the camera takes a second exposure for the same duration with the shutter closed, and subtracts the "dark frame" from the first, to further reduce hot-pixel and amp noise.

Release Modes. The Nikon D3S's release modes are selected via the lockable release mode dial, which surrounds the button cluster to the left of the camera's prism. Release modes consist of Single Frame (S), Continuous Low-speed (CL), Continuous High-speed (CH), Quiet Shutter-release (Q), Self-timer, and Mirror Up (MUP). The Nikon D3S's Continuous mode is rated by Nikon for up to 9 frames per second when using the full sensor area, or as much as 11 fps in the 1.5x DX (24 x 16) crop mode. These figures apply only when both auto ISO sensitivity control and vibration reduction (if using a lens with this feature) are disabled, otherwise the frame rate may drop. Also, for DX crop burst shooting at rates above 9 fps, autofocus is fixed from the first shot in the burst, and exposure is also fixed if the subject is poorly lit. The number of shots that can be captured in a Continuous-mode burst before the camera slows down varies, depending on the file type and image size, as well as the amount of fine detail in the scene for compressed filetypes. Nikon says that up to 82 Large/Fine JPEGs or 38-43 12-bit Raw files, or 35-36 14-bit Raw files can be captured before the buffer fills, with the Raw burst depth depending on the compression type in use. Our tests with a deliberately difficult-to-compress image showed Nikon's specifications to be fairly close to the mark, with a buffer capacity of 41 12-bit or 36 14-bit RAW files, and around 90 large/Fine JPEGs. Of course, the number of consecutive shots could also be limited by available memory card space, if your card(s) are nearly full.

Quiet Shutter-release is similar to normal Single Frame mode; however, the camera reduces noise by disabling the beep sound when the camera focuses (the focus beep can also be disabled in the custom menu), and by delaying lowering of the mirror until the shutter button is released, separating the noise of this operation from that of the mirror being raised and the shutter fired. (The result is indeed a quieter shutter sound.) Self-Timer mode opens the shutter a programmable delay (2, 5, 10, or 20 seconds) after the shutter button is pressed. (Note that it is recommended to close the built-in eyepiece shutter to prevent stray light from affecting the exposure in Self-Timer mode. Also note that Bulb exposures in Self-Timer mode will have a duration of 1/5th second.) Finally, Mirror Up mode allows the mirror to be locked up with a first press of the shutter button or corded remote release, and fires the shutter on a second press (or automatically, after a delay of 30 seconds), allowing camera shake caused by mirror slap to be reduced when shooting on a tripod. There is also an Exposure Delay option in Custom Setting d9 which delays the exposure one second after the shutter button has been pressed and the mirror raised.

Interval Timer Mode. Another useful feature on the Nikon D3S is Interval Timer mode, which facilitates time-lapse photography by taking a series of images at preset intervals.

Nikon D3S Interval Timer Options
Interval Timer mode is accessed,
from the bottom of the shooting menu
Start time can be set (HH:MM),
or you can choose "Now"
Interval between shots can be
set from 1 second to 24 hours
You can set anywhere from 1 - 999
Intervals, and from 1 - 9 shots each
time the camera wakes up
Once everything is configured,
hit the OK button, and you're
good to go!

As shown above, you can set the starting time for the series, as well as the time interval between shots, the number of shots to be captured after each interval, and the total number of intervals after which capture should cease. You can set hours, minutes, and seconds between each shot, and you can set a start time using 24-hour notation (HH:MM) from 00:00 to 23:59. (Make sure the camera's timezone, date and time are correctly set!) You can also start immediately, using the "Now" option. This is a good way to capture a timeline of slower events, such as clouds passing across the sky, tidal changes, a flower opening, etc. As with the Self-timer mode, the eyepiece shutter should be placed over the viewfinder to prevent stray light from affecting the exposure. Exposure, flash, Active D-Lighting and white balance bracketing are all possible during interval shooting, and all will override the shots per interval setting to capture the required number of bracketed exposures. (White balance bracketing will capture only one exposure per interval, but then process that exposure differently so as to create the separate WB-bracketed still image files.) Interval capture can be paused and resumed through the camera's menu system, if needed.

Multiple Exposure Mode. The Nikon D3S allows anywhere from two to 10 exposures to be captured separately, and then combined in-camera into a single multiple-exposure image. This function allows effects similar to those that might have been obtained by recocking the shutter while not advancing film, or intentionally winding back, then re-exposing an image on a film camera. Two modes are available, Series or Single Photo. As the name suggests, Series mode takes a series of multiple exposures. You must select Off to terminate multiple exposures. Single Photo mode takes one multiple exposure, then normal shooting resumes. Up to 30 seconds is allowed between exposures, in addition to the time set in Custom Setting c4, "Monitor Off Delay" if Image Review is enabled - so a maximum of 10 minutes and 30 seconds between exposures is possible if the camera has sufficient battery life remaining. As they're captured, the exposures can either be averaged by setting gain to "On", or the brightness values from each exposure simply added up. The Multiple Exposure mode can be combined with the Interval timer function to automatically capture all the shots of the multiple exposure if desired, and it's also possible to change white balance between exposures. Most other menu options are disabled during Multiple Exposure capture. Sadly, live view can't be used to capture multiple exposures, so there's no way to preview the effect and precisely align subjects by looking at the camera's LCD display.

Retouch Menu. The Nikon D3S has an extensive Retouch menu, which is starting to rival what basic image editing software packages can do on a computer - so much so that some users may not feel the need to use a computer for Nikon D3S image editing at all. Retouch options include adjusting D-Lighting, red-eye correction, image cropping (trim), converting to monochrome, applying Skylight or Warm filter effects, adjusting color balance, image overlay for combining two RAW images into one JPEG, NEF (RAW) processing, resizing to small images (for TV, Web or email), side-by-side comparison, and movie editing. Phew, that's quite the list!

RAW Processing SubMenu. RAW-format files are pretty common on SLRs these days: They capture all the data as it comes from the sensor, usually without any processing applied. Manipulated on a computer with RAW-processing software, they let you make major white balance adjustments, minor exposure tweaks, and perform noise-reduction processing beyond what the camera can manage on its own. Like many of their other high-end SLRs, the Nikon D3S also lets you do this sort of processing right in the camera, via a sub-menu off the Retouch Menu.

The Nikon D3S's RAW processing menu gives you a lot of options. You can change the JPEG quality, image size, white balance, exposure compensation (within limits), Picture Control setting, high ISO noise reduction, color space and Vignette Control of a file, generating a new JPEG. (The original RAW file itself and any JPEG is left untouched; a new file is created.) This can be pretty handy if you need to make a quick change to white balance or minor exposure tweak in the field, before uploading an image to beat a deadline.


The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D3S Photo Gallery .

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D3S with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

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