Nikon D3S Review

Nikon’s stunning high-speed pro D-SLR gets a refresh with a new D-Movie mode and even higher ISOs.

It’s hard to believe the Nikon D3 is already over two years old. It prompted so much excitement at launch, mainly because it was Nikon’s first full-frame digital SLR and offered unprecedented quality at high ISOs. The 12MP sensor was always going to place the D3 at a disadvantage next to Canon’s 21MP EOS 1Ds Mark III, but Nikon addressed that this time last year with the 24Mp D3X, producing two distinct models: the D3 for high-ISO high-speed shooting, and the D3X for top-quality high-resolution photography.

Nikon’s taken the opportunity to refresh the D3 with the D3S, in much the same way as its created the D300S, incorporating Nikon’s D-Movie mode and sundry other enhancements at the same time. And that’s fair enough – it  might be two years old, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the D3’s basic design.

Standard HD D-Movie mode

The inclusion of standard HD movies (1,280×720 pixels) brings the D3S in line with Nikon’s other D-SLRs, but it still lags behind the full HD (1,920×1,080 pixels) and full manual controls you get with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, say. You can use the exposure lock on the D3S to fix the exposure while shooting, and in ‘tripod’ Live View mode you can select the lens aperture manually to control depth of field. The camera still sets the shutter speed and ISO automatically, though – and don’t be fooled by the manual controls available in this mode, because they can Only be used to shoot stills.

When you press the button to start shooting movies, these (mostly) don’t apply. The D3s does shoot high-quality movies and can produce stunning results in near-darkness, thanks to its high ISOs. For stills photographers who also need to grab movie clips it should be more than good enough, and you can also save standard HD stills from movie clips.

Is it good enough (or controllable enough) for professional movie-makers? That’s more doubtful. There’s a 2Gb/five-minute limit on clip sizes, and while the D3S can capture stereo sound, you’ll need to plug in an external mic to do it. The D-Movie mode is only one aspect of this camera’s performance, though, and for many it’s not the most important. Where the D3S really scores is its high-speed shooting and high ISOs.

ISO 25600 and beyond

The continuous shooting speed is unchanged over the D3’s – 9fps (frames per second) full-frame and 11fps when using DX lenses in Crop mode. Canon’s EOS 1D Mark IV will beat this, but only by 1fps and with a drop in sensor size. For high-speed shooting, the D3s is right there at the top. And then there’s the high ISO. Nikon’s new sensor has greater light-gathering power, and as a result the standard ISO range has been increased by one stop from ISO 6400 to ISO 12800.

Plus, there are three new Hi modes, which take it to ISO 25600, ISO 51200 and ISO 102400 respectively. As a result, you can go out into any suburban street at night and shoot handheld – amazing. Even more astonishing is the quality it achieves at these sensitivities. There are limits, though. The quality at ISO 12800 is excellent, but drops  noticeably at the Hi 1 setting. At Hi 2 you can expect to see a lot more noise detail loss and a good deal of streaking and blotching.

The image quality at the Hi 3 setting is so noisy, streaked and spotty that it would have to be a pretty spectacular event for it to be worth using. Nikon may have pushed the sensor just a little bit too far. The D3S has other improvements, too. An integrated dust-removal system  vibrates at four different frequencies to shake dust off the sensor, there are now five Active D-Lighting settings for coping with extreme brightness and an additional 1.2x Crop mode offers a compromise between magnification and file size.

The shutter has an optional Quiet mode, damping the mirror return action, and new RAW processing options enable you to adjust compression, white balance, image size, EV compensation, the Picture Control, noise reduction, colour  space and Vignette Control – all in-camera. You can shoot RAW on location and squeeze out the perfect JPEGs back in the hotel ready to wire back to your client – without needing a laptop or Nikon Capture NX2.

Nikon D3S design

There’s not much to say about this camera’s design, build and handling that hasn’t already been said about the D3. The D3S is a brute of a camera with a feeling of immense solidity. Controls are marked in high-contrast white  lettering, and key functions use external switches rather than menus. It makes the exterior look busy, but the point is that controls such as drive, focus and metering modes stay exactly where you left them and you can see what they’re set to.

It’s a pity that Nikon couldn’t do the same with the (equally important) white balance, ISO and shooting modes, but there’s a limit to the space available even on a body this size. And if you’ve used any Nikon from the D300 to the D3X, you’ll know your way around the D3S too.

In summary, the D3S offers a series of worthwhile improvements over a camera that was already at the top of its game. So it’s all good, right? Almost. All except for a nagging feeling about the price. Two years ago the D3 launched with a list price of £3,400. Since then it’s crept up to £4,000, and now Nikon wants £4,200 for the D3S.

The price was one of the things that made the original D3 so appealing, but this advantage has slipped away. The camera is better than it ever was, but you’ll need deep pockets.

Test shots below (click to view full size):