Nikon D3S Review

February 3, 2010 | Zoltan Arva-Toth |


The Nikon D3S is a 12-megapixel full-frame digital SLR camera that boasts a sensitivity range of ISO 200 to ISO 12,800; expandable all the way to an incredible ISO 102,400. Successor to the popular Nikon D3, the Nikon D3S is a fully-fledged pro DSLR and the first Nikon FX body capable of high-definition video recording. Inheriting the rugged build, weatherproofing, large and bright viewfinder, high-resolution rear screen, dual memory card slots, 51-point AF module, 9-fps continuous shooting speed and dazzling range of customisation options of its predecessor; the new D3S gains a few new features first seen in Nikon's cheaper DSLRs, such as automatic sensor cleaning, in-camera raw conversion, dedicated Live view and info buttons, a Quiet shooting mode and a stereo microphone input. Other enhancements versus the Nikon D3 include a larger buffer, a new 1.2x crop mode, a bracketing option for Active D-lighting and a new Vignette Control feature that seeks to reduce the noticeable corner shading common with full-frame digital cameras. The Nikon D3S is currently available for pre-order priced at £4199.99 / €5100.00 / $5199.95.

Ease of Use

Like every professional Nikon SLR camera since the Nikon F4 of 1988, the Nikon D3S is a big beast - but not quite as big or heavy as you would think based on the specs alone. In fact, the body ergonomics and the weight distribution of the camera are so good that it feels perfectly balanced and very much like a natural extension of your hands. The type of lens you mate to it obviously has a lot to do with this though - the petite AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens Nikon supplied for this test didn't really add much weight, and neither did it spoil the balance of the rig; but using the camera with something like a 400mm f/2.8 would certainly have been a different story.

One of the reasons for the considerable weight and bulk is of course the presence of an integrated, thus non-removable portrait grip, which also houses the large, 2500mAh EN-EL4a Lithium-ion battery pack. According to claims made by Nikon, this battery provides enough power to take an incredible 4,200 shots on one charge (at room temperature, and without using live view or a VR lens). For the traditionalists among you, that's more than 110 rolls of 36-exposure film, even if you managed to squeeze 38 frames out of each and every roll! In the one-week period we had to test the Nikon D3S, we did not take anywhere near that many photos, but used the camera at sub-zero temperatures, did a lot of chimping and made good use of the camera's live view and video functions, yet we never had to recharge the battery before returning it to Nikon - that should say something in itself.

The body shape and dimensions are nigh on identical to the D3, and most of the controls are in the same location too. And there are many of them - respecting the requirements of the working pro, Nikon has provided dedicated external controls for almost all of the frequently used functions. If you are into numbers, here are some quick stats: the Nikon D3S has 2x2 control wheels, 2 shutter releases, 3 LCDs (one colour TFT screen and two monochromatic displays, not counting the horizontal and vertical LCDs in the viewfinder), 16 back-panel buttons, 6 switches, 6 top-mounted and 3 front-panel buttons, 2 locking pins, plus an eight-way controller, a drive mode wheel, a (redesigned) battery compartment latch, an eyepiece shutter and a dioptre adjustment knob. The bright side of this is that you rarely need to enter the complex and exhaustive menu to change a setting, especially given that a number of these buttons are customisable.

You may have noticed that there is no mode dial on the D3S. Like the other pro cameras from Nikon - and Canon too, for that matter -, the Nikon D3S has a mode button instead, which you need to hold depressed while spinning the rear control wheel in order to change the exposure mode. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, it prevents inadvertent changes; and secondly, a button takes up much less real estate than a conventional mode dial.

Nikon D3S Nikon D3S
Front Rear

Overall, the control layout will be quite familiar to anyone trading up from a Nikon D3 or D300 (even a D2x), as the user interface of the D3S is very similar to that of these models. One point of difference is the appearance of a dedicated Live view (Lv) button, a logical and welcome improvement over the earlier design. Other than that, the live view implementation is the same as on the D3: it still comes in two flavours, 'Hand-held' and 'Tripod'. In 'Hand-held' mode, you can use either the AF-ON button or a half-press of the shutter release to initiate autofocus, whereby the mirror is lowered and the AF sensors are engaged. The whole procedure is cumbersome and involves lots of mirror slapping, but at the end of the day, it's still the faster way if you want to use AF in live view.

Because in the aptly named 'Tripod' mode, it takes a lot more time for the camera to acquire focus, as it uses a contrast-detect method which Nikon's lenses are not optimised for. Nikon does claim a speed improvement of 30% over the D3 in this mode, and indeed it feels a little faster, but it's still quite sluggish to be honest. The undeniable advantage of this mode is that focusing does not interrupt the live view feed, and there is less mirror slapping. Note though that in 'Tripod' mode, you can only use the AF-ON button for autofocus; there is no other option. As with the Nikon D300s we reviewed a few months ago, we found it strange that you could not switch from live view directly to playback mode, as the playback button is idle until you exit live view. Another oddity is the lack of a live histogram, which makes the live view feature much less useful than it could be.

Another change versus the D3 is the inclusion of a Quiet mode on the drive mode dial. First seen on the Nikon D5000, the Quiet mode allows the photographer to delay the mirror return and the cocking of the shutter until [s]he lets go of the shutter release button. Given that the Nikon D3S' mirror is significantly larger and thus inherently louder than the D5000's, the Quiet mode isn't nearly as quiet as on that camera, but neither is it as loud as the other modes. These include single frame advance (S), continuous low (CL), continuous high (CH), self-timer and mirror up (MUP). Just like on the Nikon D3, CL can be set anywhere between 1 and 9 fps, whereas CH is invariably 9 fps at full resolution, or 9-11 fps in DX crop mode. The buffer has been greatly expanded though. You still can't combine mirror lock-up with the self-timer, meaning in mirror up mode you either have to push the shutter release button twice - once to raise the mirror and again to take the shot -, which kind of defeats the whole point of this mode; or employ a separately sold remote cord that connects to a 10-pin terminal hiding behind a hinged rubber flap on the front of the camera.

Nikon D3S Nikon D3S
Front Top

Speaking of the DX mode, it has to be noted that the Nikon D3S has a new 1.2x crop mode as well, although it does not offer the benefit of increased frame rate in continuous high speed drive mode. Sports photographers might welcome this addition nonetheless, as it also allows them to compose more tightly when shooting faraway subjects without having to manually crop the image post capture, and also to see what's going on just outside the frame (the part of the viewfinder that falls outside the capture area in DX or 1.2x crop mode is masked out, but the mask is not completely opaque). One advantage of the 1.2x crop mode over 1.5x DX is that you get more resolution (8.4 megapixels versus 5.1). The D3S also retains the 5:4 aspect ratio crop option of the D3. You can choose the image area - FX, DX, 1.2x crop or 5:4 - from the menu, but you can also assign this function to the Fn or DOF preview buttons found on the front panel of the camera.

One of the most important enhancements over its predecessor is the ability of the Nikon D3S to shoot movies. Whilst the D3 and D3x can only shoot stills, the D3S can also record 720p high-definition video at 24 frames per second. A number of Nikon DX cameras, including the D90, the D5000 and the D300s, also offer this feature, but the Nikon D3S is the first FX model to shoot video. Thanks to its larger sensor, the D3S produces cleaner footage at high sensitivity settings, and allows even more sophisticated depth-of-field control. Like the D300s, it lets you use autofocus while filming, by way of pressing the AF-ON button - but again, it's too slow and hunts way too much to be actually useful. Beginners are advised to choose a small aperture and rely on depth of field for sharp footage, whereas professional videographers will want to use third-party accessories for smooth focus pulling. In terms of sound recording options, the Nikon D3S has a built-in monaural microphone as well as a stereo mic input.

Of course, the Nikon D3S is, first and foremost, an SLR camera - so let us now take a look at how it performs at its more traditional functions. The optical viewfinder, which is one of the most important parts of any SLR, is huge and bright with 100% frame coverage, and has a fairly high eye-point too, which is great news for eyeglass wearers. Unlike the DX offerings, the D3S does not have an on-demand grid overlay - but at least the focusing screen is user interchangeable. Those who prefer to use a grid should purchase and install a separately sold type E clear-matte VI focusing screen.

Nikon D3S Nikon D3S
Side Rear

The D3S' 51-point autofocus module, unchanged from the D3, is a true pleasure to use. Thankfully, the AF points aren't engraved on the focusing screen, so you only see the one in use, which goes a long way toward avoiding viewfinder clutter. Selecting the active AF point is done by way of the eight-way pad, unless the focus selector lock is in the L (=Locked) position or Auto Area AF is selected. Like its predecessor, the Nikon D3S also has single-point and dynamic AF area options. In the latter mode, you also select the focus point manually, but after that, the D3S attempts to track the subject even if it leaves the selected focus point. The number of AF points used for this can be selected from 9, 21 and 51 via a custom setting. If '51 points (3D tracking)' is selected, the camera will track the subject across the frame using colour information from the 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor.

The D3S can autofocus with practically any AF lens ever made by Nikon, including AF-D, AF-I and AF-S models. The exceptions are lenses made for the Nikon F3AF that are simply not compatible with the Nikon D3S. Autofocus speeds will depend greatly on the lens in use. Just because a lens has a silent wave motor, it does not necessarily focus faster than others - a case in point is the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G supplied by Nikon, which was a bit “lazy” despite the AF-S designation. On the other hand the cheap and unpretentious-looking AF-D 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G zoom was always lightning fast to lock focus when mounted to the D3S.

Most manual-focus Nikkors can be used too. In order to get open-aperture colour matrix metering with these lenses, enter the lens' focal length and maximum aperture via the 'Non-CPU lens data' menu item in the Setup menu. This will also allow the D3S to display the working aperture on the status LCD as soon as you change it via the aperture ring on the lens (provided it has aperture indexing), and record both the focal length and the actual aperture value in the EXIF. And while manual-focus lenses obviously won't autofocus, the D3S' AF sensors remain active, and the green focus confirmation dot will light up when the subject is in focus. I tested this feature using an old Horizont branded F-mount lens, and it worked perfectly - the portrait of yours truly posing in an orange shirt and necktie was shot with this lens wide open at f/2.8.

Nikon D3S Nikon D3S
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Just like its forebear, the Nikon D3S has two Compact Flash memory card slots. The implementation is exemplary: you can tell the camera to record every image simultaneously on both cards for instant backup, or designate one card to store raw files and the other JPEGs, or use the secondary card for “overflow” - you name it. Note that the D3S drops support for Type II Compact Flash cards - not that you are likely to own one, but be warned just in case. Speaking of memory cards, the card compartment door itself is as rugged as you would expect it to be, but the cover that hides the door locking pin is rather flimsy.

The Nikon D3S doesn't have a pop-up flash, but there is a standard Prontor-Compur terminal as well as a hot-shoe that accommodates both Nikon Speedlights and generic centre-contact flash units. The D3S supports the Nikon Creative Lighting system, although in the absence of a built-in flash, you will need either an SU-800 commander unit or a Nikon system flash to provide TTL flash exposure control for wirelessly slaved Speedlights. The x-sync speed is 1/250th of a second - not bad, but given that some of Nikon's older entry-level DSLR cameras (such as the D70 and the D40) offered flash synchronisation at up to 1/500th of a second without having to put the flash in FP mode, 1/250th of a second on a pro body is nothing to write home about in 2010.

In use, the Nikon D3S proved to be a fantastic tool. It's an extremely responsive camera that seems to react instantly to anything you throw at it (except if you are in live view, that is). Start-up feels instantaneous, even if you enable the new automatic sensor cleaning function. There is no shutter lag to speak of and with the right lens mounted, focusing is also very fast. Those who have never used a full-frame DSLR before will be astounded at the huge viewfinder. Anyone who has a bit of experience with a recent Nikon DSLR will feel right at home in the menu, even if it's more exhaustive than that of a D90 or D300s. And even if there are a few menu items whose location you never seem to remember, you can collect these under the My Menu heading, which is also a great place for your most frequently used settings. The customisation options that might seem intimidating at first sight allow you to tailor the workings of the camera to your peculiar needs and tastes.

Of course the biggest claim made by Nikon - namely, improved signal-to-noise ratio at ultra-high sensitivity settings - is related to image quality, so let us now move on to find out if this claim is backed up by any visual evidence...