- Great speed
- Excellent in low light
- Sophisticated features
- Some may dislike 12 MP
- HD video "only" 720p
- Steep learning curve
- The D3S offers the pro photographer just about any feature he or she could want.
Like the Nikon D3X, the Nikon D3S strongly resembles Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR, the original D3, which first launched in 2007. While the D3X was built for photographers in the market for a 24 megapixel camera, the D3S is equipped with a more reasonable 12 megapixel sensor. Of course that may disappoint some photographers, but for me, 12 megapixels is more than adequate for most jobs.
Additionally, the benefits of the newly designed sensor outweigh any perceived drawbacks from a lower pixel count. Continuous shooting up to 9 frames per second and extraordinary low-light performance (with an expandable ISO up to 102,400) along with the addition of 720p HD video are only a few highlights of the D3S and its re-engineered sensor.
Outside of specs, maybe the biggest problem with the D3S is supply and demand. At least at the time of this review, if you didn’t pre-order the camera when it was first announced, you may have to wait a while to get your hands on it.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Physically, the D3S is almost a clone of the D3. Its rugged magnesium alloy body is hefty, measuring 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 inches and weighing 43.7 ounces. But the camera is well-designed, and offers a comfortable and solid handhold.
Of course, one of D3S’s most talked about features is its high ISO capabilities, which are expandable to ISO 100 on the low end and up to 102,400 at the upper reaches. But perhaps one of the most practical features of the camera is its dual CF card slots that offer ultimate flexibility with the ability to designate slot B’s function. Slot B can be used for overflow or backup; JPEG and RAW can be recorded to separate cards and one slot can be dedicated to video. Of course, images can also be copied from one card to another.
Beyond that, the D3S has the features you’d expect from a high-end DSLR, including an onboard dust reduction system, Live View (with two shooting modes) and HD video, along with a beautiful 3.0-inch LCD. Active D-Lighting, vignette control, long exposure and high ISO (with user-controlled levels) noise reduction, multiple exposures, and interval time shooting are only some of the D3S’ attributes. The D3S also offers relatively extensive in-camera retouching, including the application of skylight and warm filters, D-Lighting, image overlay and side-by-side comparison, among other features. It’s pretty safe to say that if there’s a feature you need or want, the D3s probably has it.
Ergonomics and Controls
With only a few exceptions, the D3S’ control layout is pretty much the same as the D3, so D3/D3x users can easily transition from one camera to the other. There are a few minor differences, however, including the addition of a dedicated Live View button and a new Info button.
Although the camera is hefty in size and weight, the grip is perfectly positioned and contoured for a solid handhold while keeping the shutter button within easy reach. An integrated vertical grip makes it easy to switch from landscape to portrait.
As expected, external controls are scattered along the camera’s top, back and front surfaces; all within relatively easy reach, depending on your handspan. The shutter release, as mentioned earlier, is perfectly positioned for operation when gripping the camera and is surrounded by the power on/off/backlight switch. A sub-command dial is located on the front of the grip, and to the rear of the shutter button is the mode button, which is used with the rear command dial to change shooting modes between Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual. The Exposure Compensation button is to the right and in front of the large status display. To the left of the status display is the metering mode selector and the viewfinder’s diopter.
Controls on the opposite side of the top surface provide control over bracketing, flash (for compatible flash units; there’s no onboard flash), and a command lock (to lock in shutter speed, aperture or auto exposure). There’s a release lock underneath the bracket/flash/lock controls that must be depressed to turn the release mode dial. It’s a little awkward to use for smaller-handed photographers, but it provides access to single, continuous low speed (1-9fps), continuous high speed (9-11 fps when set to DX image area – more about that later), quiet shutter release, self-timer and mirror up options.
The focus mode selector is located on the front of the camera, but it’s the rear real estate where you’ll find the bulk of the D3S’ controls including playback, delete, AF-ON, AE/AF lock, menu, help, rear control panel with several buttons to set ISO, image size and white balance. As mentioned earlier, there’s a new Info button and a dedicated Live View button, which is within thumb’s reach when holding the camera.
Overall, the layout is logically designed and easy to master. Of course, if you’re already a Nikon DSLR shooter, transitioning to the D3S is a no-brainer.
Menus and Modes
Like the external controls, Nikon DSLR shooters will be right at home with the D3S’ menus. Newcomers to Nikon will be able to find their way around the basics, which are segmented into Playback, Shooting, Custom Setting, Setup, Retouch and My Menu. The Custom Setting menu could be the only place where photographers might get tripped up because there are so many options and sub-menus that it can get pretty confusing. There are 10 custom settings under the Autofocus section, for example. If you’re not familiar with Nikon’s jargon and AF system you might want to look through the user guide to gain a better understanding.
The Metering/Exposure section is a little easier to figure out, though it’s filled with more options as well. I’m not complaining about having a lot of choices, but unless you become familiar with the menus, it may take you a while to access settings you want to change. It’s also important to understand all of the Nikon D3S’ capabilities and how to use them effectively in order to get the most out of the camera. I have to say, though, that it’s really easy to read the menu text, which is bright and clear.
Like any DSLR, the Nikon D3S offers the standard Aperture- and Shutter-speed-priority modes, along with full Manual and Program AE modes. Shutter speeds range from a low 30 seconds in 1/3 steps to a maximum of 1/8000th second. Naturally, there’s a Bulb setting as well.
Movie mode is 720p in 16:9; 620 x 424 (3:2) and 320 x 216 (3:2), all at 24fps for that “cinematic” look. In addition to quality settings, the Movie Settings menu allows users to control microphone sensitivity, select the CF card slot to which is the video will be recorded, and choose whether or not to use the camera’s High-sensitivity movie mode.
Microphone sensitivity choices are auto, high, medium and low. The mic can also be turned off in the same menu. Although the camera’s built-in microphone is mono, the D3S can accommodate any external stereo mic that is equipped with a 3.5mm diameter mini-pin jack.
The Destination setting offers the choice of saving the video to either CF card slot. As an added bonus, the menu shows how much recording time is available for each slot so you can select accordingly.
By default, the movie mode can be recorded using ISOs ranging from 200 to 12,800. To gain the benefit of the Nikon D3S’ enormous light sensitivity capabilities, you’ll need to turn on the High-sensitivity mode in the Movie Settings menu to access ISO 6400 through 102,400.
The Nikon D3S is equipped with a 3-inch high resolution (921,000 dot) VGA monitor. It’s bright, clear and viewable from a wide, 170-degree angle and works well outdoors when viewing images and there’s never any problem reading the menus regardless of lighting conditions. Monitor brightness can be adjusted in 7 steps.
The camera’s viewfinder is also bright and clear. Coverage is approximately 100%, with an eyepoint of 18mm. Utilizing the dioptric adjustment, I was able to ditch my reading glasses and easily compose through the viewfinder. It comes with a BriteView Clear Matte VI-Type B focusing screen, which is interchangeable with the Clear Matte VI-Type E screen.
Shooting information such as metering mode, shooting mode, shutter speed, f/stop, ISO and either exposures remaining or frame count (the latter can be set in the custom Shooting Display menu) is displayed. The viewfinder’s data display is well-positioned for easy viewing, regardless of whether you’re wearing glasses or not.