Nikon D3S Review
by Theano Nikitas -  3/4/2010

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.

Nikon D3S

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.

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.

Nikon D3S

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.

Nikon D3S


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.

Nikon D3S

Nikon D3S

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.

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

The Nikon D3S is probably among the most capable pro DSLRs on the market today. It has the feature set, speed, flexibility and image quality that professionals need with only a 12 megapixel sensor. You may not agree, but I would rather trade off some megapixels for image quality and, especially, for low light and high ISO performance. Ruggedly built, the Nikon D3S can easily withstand the rigors of heavy duty use by professionals and avid photo enthusiasts alike.

It's no surprise, however, that the Nikon D3s comes with a learning curve, especially for those who aren't familiar with Nikon's higher end DSLRs. The core of its menu system is simple to understand but gets more complex (and potentially confusing) when drilling down into the D3s' custom settings. It is, of course, possible to become so familiar with the camera that this is no longer a problem.