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Nikon D3S Digital SLR Review

The Nikon D3S is arguably one of the most exciting DSLRs launched in 2009 with an incredible ISO range, fast shooting speed and everything else you would expect from a pro-spec Nikon DSLR.

|  Nikon D3s in Digital SLRs
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Nikon D3s front view

ePHOTOzine's Will Cheung takes the Nikon D3s to its limits.


Having the freedom to shoot in the lowest lighting levels without having to resort to a flash or a tripod is something that is difficult to appreciate until you have done it. Now I have tried it, I must admit I am hooked. It is simply awesome.

The D3S is a well-endowed camera with features aplenty including a very high ISO capability. Its top true ISO is 12,800 with the option of a staggering ISO equivalent of 102,400 using the Hi3 setting. Interesting, the camera's resolution is a relatively modest 12.1-megapixels so it is clear that ISO speed performance remains a very high priority for Nikon. Judging by this camera's performance, that is well judged. Moreover, th D3S has more than enough pixels for A2-size prints and beyond.

Features and handling
Nikon D3s top view Nikon D3s dual slot
Nikon D3s rear view Nikon D3s lens
The Nikon D3S is a pro-level camera and built very solidly to withstand hard, daily use. The downside, of course, is that it is a heavy beast.

The D3S is a typical member of the D3 dynasty. It is a large, solidly built DSLR designed for heavy-duty use without missing a beat. While I would not go so far as suggesting you could use it to bang in nails, I will say that the D3S has an incredibly robust feel and I would worry for my newly tiled kitchen floor if I was unlucky enough to drop it there.

Despite its weight, though, it does feel nicely balanced – especially when fitted with the high-spec, fast aperture lenses that most pros will be using. During this review, I partnered the camera with 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 300mm f/2.8 and 200-400mm f/4 lenses. Its heft is definitely an asset when it comes to stability and shooting at slow-ish shutter speeds where the weight is an advantage.

As befits a DSLR with a £4200 body only price tag, the camera is positively festooned with features. There's options for changing the RAW type between uncompressed, compressed or lossless compressed as well as picture controls for vivid or neutral colours and Active D-Lighting up to the Extra High setting. Not only that but the quirkier options such as GPS and the Virtual Horizon.

The D3S has environmental seals so it should carry performing regardless of the conditions.  Certainly, in the cold and rain that I did my test, the camera performed flawlessly. The buttons are firm and responsive and Live-View has been given a dedicated button just below the screen, so it's easy to use the video function.

Generally, I had no real exposure problems with the D3S during the review. It did get fooled in some instances, such as when I did some night shots of a passing bus. When its brake lights came on, I got some underexposed shots, but with its normal rear lights the exposures were fine. Shop fronts with very bright spotlights also caused underexposure but that was not totally surprising.

One shop front I photographed at the equivalent of ISO 102,400 was lit only by street lighting and from across the street, there was hardly anything visible to the naked eye and here the Nikon slightly overexposed the scene, as you can see here.

I took the D3S with a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 to a Pendragon gig to really give the ISO range a thorough workout as well as to see what the exposure system would make of spotlights and dark backgrounds. I left the camera in its 3D Matrix metering mode. Generally, exposures were accurate and retrievable in Raw development. There were a few combinations where contrast was so great that the camera was fooled but that was hardly surprising. For instance, a spotlit guitarist against a black background was oveexposed. Some minus exposure compensation sorted the problem, though.

I did one shot from the balcony where white stagelights were shining directly into the lens and I reckoned underexposure of the lead singer would be guaranteed. Actually, the metering system made a decent fist of the incredibly contrasty scene.

Outside in less testing lighting conditions, the D3S consistently delivered accurate exposures almsot regardless. Yes, strong against the light scenes needed a little more care to get shadow details and like most Nikons I have used, predominately dark subjects tended to be marginally overexposed, but such problems wre generally minor.

Nikon D3S test shots Nikon D3S test shots
No problem with this cloudy scene and exposure is spot on. More contrast but the D3S has done a fine job with it.
Nikon D3S test shots Nikon D3S test shots
A slightly contrasty scene that the D3S has just about got right. The D3S copes with no light at all - taken at the equivalent of ISO102,400.

I was impressed by the swiftness and accuracy of the D3S's autofocusing. Yes, it is true that I was using fast aperture, high-spec Silent Wave Motor lenses so that has to be borne in mind. However, I tried a selection of Tamron lenses that we have in the ePHOTOzine office and here too AF was impressively quick.

In the Pendragon gig with the 300mm f/2.8, I tried continuous AF to cope with the band members moving around. No problem here even with, at times, really low lighting levels. Not once, did I have to manually lend a hand.

For most of my test shots, I left the camera in its 51-zone AF mode, switching to my preferrred AF mode of single, central AF zone on occasion. What I liked about the AF system was that it just got on with it so I just snapped away confident that I was getting sharp focus time after time. Sitting here writing this review, I am struggling to think of an occasion when the AF system failed to get it right.

The only really minor gripe I have has nothing to be with the actual AF system but with the AF-ON button when shooting in portrait format. I found I kept missing iit, probably because it is not as proud of the body as, for example, my D700 with grip.

Colour and sharpness
I took all of my shots in Raw and Large JPEG mode. Raws were converted in Lightroom and Photoshop CS4 using the latest Adobe Camera Raw plug-in.

Flesh tones were reproduced accurately and I saw no problems with delicate hues too. It all looked very smooth and lifelike, so you cannot ask for any more. In areas of fairly even tone, there was good contrast and separation and plenty of detail. Good tonal separation was also achieved with areas of saturated colours. For instance, the D3S did a great job of the red flower heads and there is loads of detail to enjoy.

Key natural colours such as foliage and blue sky came out naturally too. For JPEGs, I kept with factory default settings and grass and sky came out marginally richer and more vibrant, which is probably what you would expect and there is the chance to fine-tune colour settings so it is not a problem.

White balance
Nikon D3s auto white balance tungsten
Nikon D3S AWB in tungsten light.
Nikon D3s white balance tungsten
Nikon D3S tungsten preset.
Nikon D3s auto white balance fluorescent
Nikon D3S AWB fluorescent light.
Nikon D3s  white balance fluorescent white
Nikon D3S fluo white preset.

As usual, most of my general test shots were done with auto white-balance to see how camera copes with a wide range of lighting types. To be honest, in outdoor lighting I didn't see the need to take the D3S off AWB at all. Cloudy days, twilight shooting, bright sunny days - all were handled well by AWB.

Naturally, it is a different story in artificial lighting. AWB can't cope with the lower colour temperature of tungsten and you wouldn't expect perfect colour reproduction anyway. The preset tungsten setting works well and gives accurate results.

AWB manages quite well with fluorescent tubes. However, if it does not quite hit the mark for you, there's a large selection of white-balance modes for you to choose from with variations such as cool white, sodium vapour, hi-temperature, day white and cool white. The closest match I could find was basic white for the lights I was using and it gives a more balanced result. Nothing matches custom white-balance, so if you can, do it that way.

By the way, my gig images were shot with AWB and the results looked fine and retain the atmosphere of the stage lighting. The only coloured lights that looked less impressive in AWB were purple and a luminuous green; both looked less exciting than I had hoped for.

Now we come to the nitty-gritty of its ISO performance.

I took several series of ISO shots in different lighting conditions from bright sun to dull indoor lighting. It was impossible to do a full set on normal daylight scenes because I ran out of shutter speed and aperture settings.

Let's start with images featuring our model, Felicia Field. I shot in the D3S and repeated the same shots using a Nikon D700. The D700 has a top ISO of a modest 6400 with the option of shooting at Hi1 and Hi2 giving the equivalent of ISO12,800 and 25,600. The images of Felicia were lit by a single LP MicroPro Litepanel.

You will not be surprised to hear that there is lots of digital noise and detail loss at Hi3, equivalent to ISO102,400. There are plenty of blue dots in the shadows if you magnify into the image but in the highlights noise was well controlled. The thing to bear in mind is that the times when you actually need (truly, truly need) an ISO102,400 will be few and far between and it is nice to know that should you need it, it can produce decent images.

Move down the speed scale and image quality gets better and better and I would certainly be happy shooting at ISO6400 and 12,800 knowing that image quality would be first-rate.

Where it is really telling is comparing the D700’s images with the D3S’s. The D700 is recognised as being one of the very best DSLRs when it comes to noise performance at high ISOs. Compared with the D3S, however, it is nothing more than average. The D700’s images look mushy and lacking in detail compared with the results of the D3S – just have a look for yourself at the pictures of Felicia.

Check out the ISO25,600 comparison images. In the D700 shot, there is lots of noise especially in the shadows but it is generally not a great image. By comparison, the D3S gives detail-rich, smooth images with hardly any noise at all. Quite remarkable.

It is worth noting that all the model shots on the D700 and D3S were all taken without any high ISO noise reduction engaged.

Click on any thumbnail to open the larger image.
This is the full-frame image of model Felicia Field. Taken with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at f/2.8.
D3s D700
Nikon D3s ISO6400 model test
Nikon D700 ISO6400 model test
Nikon D3s ISO12800 model test
Nikon D700 ISO12800 model test
Nikon D3s ISO25600 model test
Nikon D700 ISO25600 model test
Nikon D3s ISO51200 model test
Nikon D3s ISO102400 model test

On our test shots below done in controlled lighting, the image is lovely and smooth and a fraction of black noise only starts to creep in at ISO3200 although the result is still good. This trend continues and at ISO12,800, colour noise is also invading at a point that becomes noticeable but the highlights are pretty much untouched. It needs to be said that at this stage, most cameras would've given up the ghost, but the Nikon has five more settings to get through. Hi0.3 actually looks slightly better than ISO12,800 which is unusual as noise reduction was switched off for this part of the test.

Coloured flecks appear in black areas at Hi1 which is the equivalent of ISO25,600. I've seen better results from other cameras at this setting but it's the final two stages that are what we all want to look at. Hi2 is an equivalent of ISO51,200 and Hi3 is an equivalent of ISO102,400. Hi2 starts to get problems with blue speckles littering the dark and mid-tones and by Hi3 this has increased to include purple and red flecks too.

Still, the fact that this camera can record an image in near pitch black is a feat in itself and I think that most photographers will be willing to overlook this if it means that they get the image they need.

Click on the thumbnails to open up the larger images.

Nikon D3s DSLR ISOLo1
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOLo0.7
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOLo0.3
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO200
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO400
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO800
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO1600
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO3200
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO6400
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO12800
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOHi0.3
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOHi0.7
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOHi1
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOHi2
Nikon D3s DSLR ISOHi3
Nikon D3s DSLR ISO test

At the Pendragon gig I shot at ISO400 upwards. Mid-range settings such as ISO800 provide lovely detail with very mild black noise present in darker areas. Moving up the range and coloured noise starts to throw its weight around at ISO6400. It's noticeable in shadow areas but the images produced at this setting are still perfectly acceptable and in this particular situation, the coloured pixels help the atmosphere.

I'm still amazed at how well the camera controls noise, especially as noise reduction wasn't used in the test at the concert. ISO25,600 looks good and while there's still noise coming through and fine detail is beginning to dissipate, I think that the amount of detail recorded is sufficient.

By ISO102,400 there are red marks appearing in the darker areas and blue spots in the mid-range. Test images showed definite noise but because of the ridiculously high setting, I think this should be overlooked for the fact that these images were taken in next to pitch black.

Click on the thumbnails to open the full size images.

Nikon D3s noise test sample
Nikon D3s ISO800 concert
Nikon D3s ISO6400 concert
Nikon D3s ISO12800 concert
Nikon D3s ISO25600 concert
Nikon D3s ISO51200 concert
Nikon D3s ISO102400 concert

Nikon D3S ISO test
Taken to check noise in low light outdoors, shot with the new 70-200mm at f/2.8 handheld. Click on the detail shots below for fullsize files.
Nikon D3s outside ISO12800
Nikon D3s outside ISO25600
Nikon D3s outside ISO51200
Nikon D3s outside ISO102400

Adding noise reduction (through the menu system) is possible and at high speed there are three settings of low, normal and high. It works nicely, dropping the amount of "bittiness" that can appear with noise but it's at the expense of sharp detail. That being said, it's not that bad. Words can still be read, colours actually get better because the noise that remains gets lost in lighter tones and bold colours become more rich thanks to the smoothing effect.

With a long exposure, you have to look closely at the photographs to see any difference. In our tests, an eight second exposure didn't create that much noise anyway but what was created was easily suppressed by the camera.

High ISO noise reduction  
Nikon D3s high speed ISO noise reduction off
High speed ISO noise reduction off.
Nikon D3s high speed ISO noise reduction low
High speed ISO noise reduction low.
Nikon D3s high speed ISO noise reduction normal
High speed ISO noise reduction normal.
Nikon D3s high speed ISO noise reduction high
High speed ISO noise reduction high.
Nikon D3s ISOHi3 with lights off, noise reduction off
ISOHi3 with lights off, noise reduction off.
Nikon D3s ISOHi3 with lights off, noise reduction on
ISOHi3 with lights off, noise reduction on.
Long Exposure noise reduction  
Nikon D3s long exposure, noise reduction off
Long exposure, noise reduction off.
Nikon D3s long exposure noise reduction on
Long exposure noise reduction on.

DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Nikon D3S.

Nikon D3S: verdict
How do you decide whether the D3s (or any piece of camera kit, for that matter) is worth the best part of £4000? It's not an easy question to answer and depends on how you view camera value. For me, however, I think the D3s is worth every penny. It is a thoroughly inspirational piece of kit to use and that in itself justifies its price tag immediately. Its high ISO sensitivity means you can carry on shooting in the poorest ambient light and without using a tripod. That would count for nothing if the results from using the high ISOs were poor and unusable, but they are not. Yes, there is noise and detail loss at the equivalent of ISO 102,400, but you still get an image – and try getting that sort of speed from film!


Nikon D3S: Pros
Image quality
Low light performance
Inspirational to use

Nikon D3S: Cons
Not much else

Nikon D3S specification
Resolution 12.1Mp
Sensor size 36x23.9mm
Sensor type FX CMOS
Max. image size 4256x2832
Aspect ratio 3:2, 5:4, 1:2
Focus system TTL Nikon Multi-CAM 3500 FX sensor
Focus points 51 (15 cross-type sensors)
Focus types Single-shot, continuous servo AF, predictive AF, manual
Crop factor 1x
Lens mount Nikon F
File type JPEG, NEF, TIFF, AVI (Motion)
Sensitivity ISO200-12,800 (expandable to ISO100, 25,600, 51,200 & 102,400)
Metering system TTL open aperture using 1005 pixel RGB sensor
Metering types 3D Matrix II, spot (1.5%) and centre-weighted
Exposure compensation +/- 5EV in 1/2 or 1/3 EV increments
Shutter speed range 30sec - 1/8000sec & Bulb
Frames per second 9fps max (11fps in DX Crop mode)
Flash Hotshoe
Flash sync speed 1/250sec
Image stabilisation VR system in Nikon lenses
Integrated cleaning Yes, Image Dust Off (with optional Capture NX2)
Live view Yes, for still and movie shooting
Viewfinder Eye-level pentaprism, 100% approx
Monitor 3in TFT LCD (921,000dot)
Media type CompactFlash I and II, dual slot
Interface USB 2.0, HDMI, video out
Power Lithium-Ion battery EN-EL4a
Size 160x157x88mm
Weight 1240g (body only)

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Photographs taken using the Nikon D3s

MANY KINGSGetting the low downCARNIVAL TIME 78019 train engineCastle Church in WorkingTurn close upOld games roomLilac Breasted Roller with Frog   webLeopard asleep in a tree"It's in the eyes...always the eyes."Two Wild Painted DogsPied Kingfisher looking for foodBlack back GullGazania Pink Flower & water droplets in mono"Blondes get noticed, but redheads are remembered..."

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Why show against the D700? Anyway, the D700 looks a lot better than the new D3S up until ISO 25,600, not that I'd ever take my D3 up that far. Not because I couldn't but because I wouldn't want to.

All this has served to do is confirm that I have the best camera for my needs in the D3. Thanks guys.
I used the D700 as a comparison for two reasons. One, I own one and had it with me. Two, it and the D3 have the same sensor and those two DSLRs are currently in the best for noise currently available so it was a worthwhile comparison.
janehobson "the D700 looks a lot better than the new D3S up until ISO 25,600".

Either You Don't Know Much About The ISO Aspect Of Photography Or You Must Not Have Viewed Any Of The Images At 100%. Otherwise You Would See That The D3S Retains At Least A 1-1.5 Stop Advantage Over The D700. In Other Words ISO 12,800 On The D3S Looks Slightly Better Than ISO 6,400 On The D700 Viewed At 100%. This Has Also Been Proven With The D3.
Link removed by ePz staff.

But If Higher ISO Capabilities, Video (Selectable Images From Video Clips), In Camera Raw Editing, Improved Live View AF, Better Dedicated Buttons/Button Placement, Sensor Cleaning, Bigger Buffer, & 1.2 Crop Mode (For Slightly Reduced File Size & Extra Reach With full Frame Lenses) etc.... Is Not Important To You Then This Is Not The Camera For You.

The Host Did A Great Job Of Portraying The ISO Capabilities. Good Job... It Was Very Informational.
I do agree with JSelman that the Nikon D3s has a better capabilitie to hold details at high ISO (and now when we talk about High ISO we are currently talking of 6.400 upwards... amazing!!) than the D700. We have to be honest, and although the D700 is a great and wonderful machine for high ISO, the D3s surpasses it. Although I have to admit that I rather like a little bit more the way the D700 deals with colours at high ISO. But it should be nice to know if the test shots with the D700 came from raws or direct jpgs like the D3s.
Overall I think we are lucky we have the technology to enjoy it. We can only expect to have the moolah.
Hi and thanks for the nice review. There is a question I want to ask though: which lens and "picture control" settings were used for the D3s and D700 for the high iso portraits? The question arises since the D3s pictures look more contrasty and less lively than the D700, especially at 6400 iso, as if the D3s was set on "normal" and the D700 "portrait"...
Thanks again for the review and for the answer in advance!
Thanks for the nice review.

I would echo the previous comment/question regarding the contrast and/or picture control setting. I think doing both shots RAW or with parallel settings would be important for a fair comparison.

In any case, I would argue the real ISO advantage is at most 1 stop, perhaps less than one. To my eyes, the [email protected] is comparable, possibly preferable to the [email protected] based on the shown crop. When examined at full mag, however, it is clear the D700 has more noise. But, the D3s shot looks like it has more aggressive noise reduction, as it seems to lose some detail. (Look closely at the eyes, where there is more detail in the D700 shot).

The [email protected] is certainly not as good as the [email protected] at the lower magnification crop. At 100%, the D700 clearly has more noise. Again, I suspect much more noise reduction in the D3s, which sacrifices some detail. Superficially, the H3 shot at 100% seems comparable to the D700 at H2 in terms of noise, but with MUCH less detail preserved. You can make out individual hairs in the eyebrows with the D700 at H2, which are completely gone in the D3s at H3, and even pretty much gone at H2.

So, it seems Nikon has been quite reasonable in assigning the H1-2-3 value: it seems to be a 1 stop advantage.

I am assuming the focus was on the eyes? I do notice some variation, e.g., in the necklace, from shot to shot. Some of the perceived sharpness differences could come from slight shifts in the plane of focus. But, I still think the D3s has mostly just taken a more aggressive approach to noise.
To my eyes the D700 photos of the model look better at ISO 6400 & 12800 , there is more detail with the D3s but do you need more detail with a model has who less than perfect skin.
The older D700 photos look as if they've been cleaned up on the computer & the D3s photos could do with some work.
Examining the ISO 12880 shot the model is facing straight onto the camera with the D3s & she is slightly turned with the D700 the hair on the left lacks detail while the eye & hair on the right shows more detail than the D3s , so it is just a case of where the focus is sharp in the picture showing more detail .
If the pictures were taken in Aperture mode was the shutter speeds the same for both cameras ? the D700 looks as if it's had half a stop more exposure
Brillant review and I have brought one and an amazing camera!With wildlife photography it gives me about half an hour either side of sunset and sunrise extra love it.

craig jones
[link removed by moderator]
Is it a worthy successor to Nikon D3 ? And is it worth upgrading if someone owns a D3 currently?
It is now under 3,700 at Grays of Westminster!
I have had one for 3 weeks - but with 30 days continuous snow in the Yorkshire Dales and many roads with no parking - single track snow plough width with 4 foot snow banks - it has not been used as much as I would like.
Noise is relative - but it is around 1.5 stops better with more dynamic range at high ISO than my D3. Noise is relative - I do not find it an issue at A4 below 50,000 ISO.
Nikon mentioned the AF is improved. I agree - in single point AF the selected AF point detects detail to just slightly outside of the select AF point on the D3s compared to just inside the next AF point on the D3 - the D3s in single point can detect much smaller AF targets than the D3.
The buffer is increased.
Video is fully up to the standard of 1024 x 768 projectors - by far the most common photographic digital projector.
One current video limitation is exposure changes with no focus adjustment during video using hand held live view, or auto exposure (not fast) with no exposure changes in tripod mode Live View,but not exposure changes and AF at the same time.
I loved the review - confirming what I have read about the D 3s. That will be my next step up. I am interested in low light photography and I reckon the D 3s would a great start. I also loved the review because it does not contain too may technical terms etc which I find off-putting in reviews.
I look at it in this way, for the price of a Nikon D3s body you can buy a Nikon D700 plus grip and Nikon 24-70mm and still have change, so this ISO thing is not that important to most of us, My D700 with it's Nikon 24-70 Lens performs very well in low light, saying all this there probably pros who need the extra ISO and very strong body of the D3s.
Im reading a lot of stuff on High Iso - low noise cameras and the fact that its changing even creatively the way pros are taking pictures in low light. Do you think that another change will come such as lighter and smaller lenses? why carry a heavy 70-200 2.8 if you can use an F/4 (with the same quality such as the Canon "L" IS lens)? if you need the extra stop just move the ISO up a notch and thats it. If you do so (change large aperture lenses for ligher versions) with 3, 4 pro lenses, youll end up carrying at least 4 pounds less in your bag and the camera/lens package will be much ligther and agile in your hands (not mention cheaper). Im seriuosly considering spending more on a D3s body or 5D mark II and couple it with smaller lighter, lenses such as the 17-40 f/4 and 70-200 F4 IS. Could it ecome a trend or a path that manufacturers will follow?
Versatility; robustness; guaranteed consistent results.... Ah, I could go on. I have used D2x, D3, D3x: all exciting in their own ways but for general excellence and sheer joy of handling, the D3S takes the biscuit in any situation.

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