Nikon D3S Performance, Timings, and Image Quality

April 23, 2010 by Theano Nikitas Reads (5,419)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 9
    • Features
    • 10
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 8
    • Performance
    • 10
    • Expandability
    • 9
    • Total Score:
    • 9.20
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

As expected, the Nikon D3S is fast throughout the entire image capture process. Performance is best, however, when using a high speed card, so I tested the camera using 16GB SanDisk Extreme IV and 16GB Lexar 600x cards. Both CompactFlash cards worked well and enhanced the camera’s already speedy performance, particularly in continuous shooting mode.

Shooting Performance
The Nikon D3S’ responsiveness is evident from the moment you power up. At 0.01 seconds (pre-focused), shutter lag is virtually nonexistent. Autofocus is also fast at 0.18 seconds, thanks in part to Nikon’s 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors. There are many different AF options within the custom menu, including 3-D tracking, so be sure to investigate all your choices so you can set the camera for a given shooting scenario appropriately.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D3S 0.01
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV 0.02
Sony Alpha DSLR-A850 0.02
Pentax K-7 0.02

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV 0.18
Nikon D3S 0.18
Sony Alpha DSLR-A850 0.24
Pentax K-7 0.29

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV 25 10.7 fps
Nikon D3S 63 9.0 fps
Pentax K-7 19 5.3 fps
Sony Alpha DSLR-A850 5 3.6 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera’s fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). “Frames” notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Continuous shooting in full-frame can reach speeds of up to 9 frames per second. In Continuous High Speed mode, the Nikon D3S’ continuous shooting rate can reach 11 frames per second when the DX option is selected for image area. In DX mode, users can either choose Auto DX (when a DX lens is used) or you can set the D3S to crop to a 35mm area, DX, a 1.2x crop or even a 5:4 aspect ratio. This offers a great amount of flexibility and although the cropping decreases file size, shooting in a crop mode may be a good option if your lens’ focal length is shorter than you need for a given shot.

With a larger buffer than its predecessor, the D3, the D3S can store up to about 75-80 full frame images or about 40-45 12 bit RAW images in burst mode. The number of images to be captured/written to a card can be set for 1-130 (total buffer capacity varies depending on the file size, of course).

Lens Mount
The Nikon D3S’ F bayonet mount can accommodate a wide range of NIKKOR lenses. With type G or D AF lenses and DX AF lenses, all functions are supported. Other types of NIKKOR lenses can be used but not all functions may be available.

Nikon D3S

I tested the camera with a range of lenses, including the new 70-200mm VRII and Nikon’s 24-70mm f/2.8. I also spent a little hands-on time shooting with the new AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED and the AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR lenses. While the 70-200mm and 24-70mm are two of my favorite lenses, I was pleased with the results from the latter two lenses as well (despite the expected distortion at the edges of the 24mm).

Video Quality
Although the Nikon D3S does not offer full (1080p) HD like the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, its 720p output was quite good, even with monaural sound (I didn’t have a stereo microphone to test). Activating movie mode is a two-step process: press the Live View button on the back of the camera, then the PV button on the front, which is adjacent to the lens. While you can adjust aperture during shooting, the clicks of the dial are recorded. An external mic, positioned farther away from the camera body, would avoid this extra noise.

One of the biggest complaints about DSLR video is the “jelly effect” that occurs when panning quickly. In practice, I rarely pan quickly when shooting DSLR video so this jelly effect is not a problem. But Nikon has developed a new algorithm for the D3S that reduces the rolling shutter phenomenon and it seems to work relatively well.

A bonus to shooting video with the Nikon D3S is the ability to take advantage of the camera’s ISO range. Yes, you’ll see noise at the higher ISOs (high ISO noise reduction is not available) but at least you’ll get the low-light footage you want.

*Editor’s Note: Check out our preview of the Nikon D3S from the Big Apple Circus for a look at some sample video.

Image Quality
Image quality is excellent, particularly when shot in RAW. Naturally, your lens choice will affect parameters like sharpness, but overall I was pleased with most shots captured with the Nikon D3S.

Nikon D3S

Nikon, in my experience, has always had excellent metering systems and the D3S is no exception – as long as you choose the appropriate mode for the task at hand. I tend to use 3-D color matrix II metering for general outdoor shots – and with great results – although center-weighted and spot metering (a circle that’s 4mm in diameter is centered on the focus point) often work better under other conditions, i.e., when photographing people.

Colors are generally rendered accurately. They’re well-saturated without being overly vivid; although you can adjust this, along with several other parameters, in-camera. White balance is a mixed bag, especially when set on Auto, which tends to produce somewhat warm shots. But there are plenty of manual options to get the white balance as close as possible to what you need.

Nikon D3S
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Of course, the Nikon D3S’ extreme light sensitivity is one of its strongest points. Sure, you may never need to shoot at 102,400 but it’s there, and the images are usable. Drop the ISO to its native ISO of 200-12,800 and low light performance is even more impressive. Shooting at ISO 3200 is a no brainer and even bumping the ISO to 6400 produces excellent results.

Nikon vs. Canon
A comparison of the Nikon D3S and the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV isn’t quite fair; the Nikon D3S is a 12 megapixel camera with a full-frame sensor while the Canon 1D Mark IV is an 18 megapixel camera with an APS-H size sensor. But people are naturally curious, particularly with regard to low light and high ISO performance. At lower ISOs, up to about 3200 (and possibly higher), the two cameras are on par with each other. The Nikon D3S performs better at higher ISOs and given the differences in the two cameras’ sensors, that’s unsurprising. Both cameras, however, offer clearly visible better light sensitivity than their predecessors.

Nikon D3S
ISO 200

ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO 400

ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO 800

ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO 1600

ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO 3200

ISO 3200, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO 6400
Nikon D3S
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO 12800
Nikon D3S
ISO 12800, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO HI 0.3
Nikon D3S
ISO HI 0.3, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO HI 0.7
Nikon D3S
ISO HI 0.7, 100% crop
Nikon D3S
ISO HI 1.0
Nikon D3S
ISO HI 1.0, 100% crop

ISO HI 2.0

ISO HI 2.0, 100% crop

ISO HI 3.0

ISO HI 3.0, 100% crop

Addtional Sample Images

Nikon D3S Test Image Nikon D3S Test Image
Nikon D3S Test Image Nikon D3S Test Image

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