A shot in the dark?
Review Since the launch of the D3, Nikon has released a studio version, the D3x with its unsurpassed full frame resolution of 24Mp, and now comes the D3s intended for the photojournalist, sports and wildlife photographer.
Full-frame feast: Nikon's D3s
Like the original D3, the D3s features a 12.1Mp, 36 x 23.9 mm FX-format sensor. However, the D3s sensor offers significantly lower noise levels and an increased maximum sensitivity that hits a nocturnal 102400 ISO. The other major update is the introduction of a movie mode capturing 1280 x 720 resolution (720p) videos at 24fps.
The D3s is a top of the range professional camera. At 160 x 157 x 88 mm and 1.41kg it’s big and heavy, but the sophisticated ergonomic design feels nicely balanced in your hand. The body shell is made from tough magnesium alloy with comfortable rubber grips for both portrait and landscape shooting, each with its own control wheel and shutter release.
Designed to withstand extensive and rough usage, weather seals protect every area of the camera. The layout of the external controls is rational and similar to that of the D3 with dedicated controls and customisable buttons for almost every function a professional photographer is likely to use. This means you rarely need to access the menu to change settings, making for a swift and smooth shooting experience.
Like every good pro DSLR, the dials and buttons have been designed to prevent accidental changes or triggering whilst shooting. Hence, Nikon does not provide a Mode dial in its pro cameras but opts for a Mode button that needs to be used in conjunction with the control wheel on the rear to activate changes. The menu itself is far too complex and exhaustive to describe in detail in here, suffice to say that, despite the multi selector that facilitates navigation through the many options, you may find it challenging to operate unless you are used to a Nikon Pro DSLR.
Various safeguards can make navigation a challenge for the uninitiated
You should have little need to go into the menu while shooting but if you tend to use specific settings that you can’t access directly or assign to a customisable control, you can add it to your own collection of parameters in the My Menu folder for easy recall. For a professional this level of customisation is essential and I wasn’t surprised that Nikon dedicated so much space to personal pre-programming.
In the best Nikon tradition the D3s has an eye-level pentaprism viewfinder with 100 per cent coverage in full frame mode and 97 per cent in the 1.2x cropped or DX mode. The viewfinder is bright, clear and accurate, with a 0.7 magnification at 50mm and interchangeable focusing screens. For those who are used to frame with the aid of an overlay grid, Nikon has not included an electronic one, so the only option is to buy a separate grid screen.
Shutter speed ranges from 1/8000sec to 30secs
The viewfinder is still the preferred composing tool of the professional photographer and as such Nikon provides it with indicators for nearly every setting. When not shooting in the native FX mode, a translucent LCD screen is activated in the viewfinder that partly masks out the inactive areas of the frame to enable accurate composition in crop modes.
At a glance the D3s is almost identical to its older brother, the differences with the D3 being arguably minor. A dedicated Live View (LV) button is now located on the rear of the camera, which makes much more sense than the LV position on the Drive Mode dial, as presented in the D3. For the first time in Nikon’s pro line there is an Info button recalling all shooting information on the rear status display, and a mic input on the front of the camera.
However the most significant departure from the D3 is the much needed inclusion of a Dust Reduction sensor cleaning system, which works by activating, automatically or manually, four different frequencies of vibrations on the filter over the sensor in order to remove any dust particle trapped in it.
The LV functionality is similar to that of the D3, having a Hand-held or a Tripod option. While the Hand-held mode uses the same phase-detection Autofocus as the D3 – activated by the AF-ON button or by half-pressing the shutter release in the Tripod option – Nikon employs a new contrast-detection auto-focus. In the hand-held mode Live View briefly switches itself off to allow the AF sensor to come into play but it is still faster than the Tripod mode, despite Nikon’s claims to have improved the latter’s speed by 30 per cent.
The viewfinder is packed full of information and there's always the Live View option
It is a shame that Nikon has still not found a way to permit direct access to playback from LV. As in previous models, you need to exit the Live View application before you can review your shots. A new Quiet Mode allows you to muffle the noisy sound of the mirror-return cycle and now takes the place of the LV position on the Drive Mode. Although the mode is far from silent, it does make a difference and will be a welcome addition among wildlife and stage photographers.
The large 3in diagonal polysilicon LCD screen on the back of the camera has a resolution of 921,600 dots and a 170-degree viewing angle. With this display resolution, resorting to screen magnification for accurate focusing is flawless. Although the brightness cannot be set to automatically adjust to external lighting conditions, it can be manually regulated by ± 7 values to fit any situation.
Basic LCD screens offer at a glance status information
The camera also has two basic LCD readouts, one just below the main screen and one on the top plate of the camera, for quick data and settings viewing. Another useful feature borrowed from the D3 is the Virtual Horizon. When this option is turned on a compass-like image appears on the rear screen showing the inclination of the camera against the horizontal axis of the horizon. If you do not want to take your eyes from the viewfinder you can instead use a camera tilt indicator in the viewfinder or on the top plate LCD screen, which gives you a measure of the camera tilt in similar fashion to an exposure meter.
With the D3s, Nikon has given preference to the actual pixel size over pixel count, but added a few tweaks to the internal structure and microlenses to offer even better light gathering capabilities. Indeed, the D3s noise performance is truly exceptional. Even at 12800 ISO the image is incredibly sharp and the level of noise is more than acceptable. The in-camera noise-reduction delivers, as always with Nikon, pleasantly balanced results without over-smudging or over-sharpening. The incredibly wide sensitivity range of 200 to 12800 ISO plus 3 Hi stops, that boosts it up to the equivalent of ISO 102400, has certainly made the headlines.
Yet, what really impressed me is the consistency of the image quality and colour reproduction across the whole sensitivity range, something few cameras manage. Obviously, things change at the highest boosts – where noise and colour fringing suddenly creep in. Yet even at the highest setting of 102400, images are still usable, albeit very gritty. Arguably, the highest boosts (Hi1 to Hi3) are there for the ‘wow’ factor more than anything else. At ISO 102400 the camera can shoot in almost total darkness and capture more detail than the human eye. No doubt, photojournalists would readily trade off high levels of noise to capture that exclusive image.
For data handling and in-camera processing the D3s relies on the well-tested EXPEED engine, which is now optimised for speed and offers a 14-bit A/D conversion and a 16-bit image-processing pipeline. The D3s is built for speed delivering outstanding workflow performance at every shooting stage. It starts up in 0.12 seconds and shutter release time lag is basically non-existent – apparently, 0.04 secs.
An increased buffer size allows for more frames to be shot in burst mode
The D3s also sports an increased buffer memory compared to the original D3, which, in addition to the remarkable burst of continuous shooting of 9 frames per second in FX format (11 fps in DX format) shared with its predecessor, it now allows for new burst depth. Depending on the type of file compression used, burst depth can reach 35-44 frames in RAW or TIFF format and 119-130 in JPEG. Most importantly, the camera’s continuous shooting performs steadily at all aperture settings in a way that has never been possible before. This alone might convince sports and wildlife photographers that £4200 is a small price to pay for this level of performance.
Also unchanged from the previous model is Nikon’s 3D Colour Matrix Metering II, which does an excellent job of delivering spot-on exposures in almost every lighting situation. The system works by evaluating each scene against a database of 30,000 correctly exposed images to select the best automatic settings. In my experience the system is extremely reliable, delivering natural skin tones and accurate tonal range in every colour.
Auto and manual dust removal modes keep the full-frame sensor clean
Like most Nikons, the D3s has a tendency to overexpose shadow areas in very low light scenes (see phone box images) but otherwise, even very demanding lighting conditions are handled perfectly well. The Scene Recognition System is the brain behind most automatic settings – from auto exposure to auto white balance – also contributing to tracking the subject in continuous Autofocus. Auto white balance is generally very accurate, although artificial light is usually rendered warmer than it is by a slightly yellow/orange cast.
Active D-Lighting automatically optimises shadow details and highlights. It can be applied pre or post capture. To boost creativity Nikon offers its portfolio of preset adjustments to colour, contrast, sharpening, saturation etc. It is called Picture Control and lets you apply four different profiles already loaded in the camera. You can download more from Nikon’s website or create and save your own. New to the D3s is also a Vignette Control application designed to vary the vignetting (corner shading), a typical characteristic of full frame cameras and lenses.
The D3s features the same Multi-CAM 3500FX focusing system, with 51 AF points comprising of 15 cross and 36 horizontal sensors, and was one of the main selling points of the D3. The module is fast, reliable and accurate, even with fast moving subjects. I don’t normally like to work in Autofocus mode, yet I shot most of my test pictures in Auto, simply because it works every time. Indeed, the autofocus performance was also greatly helped by the matching lens provided.
Launched at the same time as the original D3, the Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED is the most recent and best standard zoom Nikon has produced thus far. The lens features Nikon’s excellent Silent Wave Motor, for near-noiseless focusing, a Nano Crystal anti-reflection coating, which effectively reduces ghosting and flare, and a remarkable 0.38m focusing ability. Nikon has replaced the Manual Focus switch with an instant manual focus override, activated by the simple turning of the lens. Manual Focus is extremely smooth and the optics are among the sharpest available. There is no barrel distortion at all focal lengths, except the widest, where it is still more than acceptable.
The bright Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens is an ideal match
Aside from the highest ever ISO sensitivities, the single major addition to this new version of Nikon’s classic flagship DSLR is the introduction of D-Movie, which captures 24 fps video at 720p and can save files up to 5 minutes long/2GB in MJPEG format. The video quality of the D3s is sharp and smooth and with no jelly-like effect to speak of. The sound is excellent too, despite the mono mic and, for the first time, Nikon enables the autofocus module in the movie mode. D-Movie also sports full aperture control but, unlike Canon, there’s no shutter speed or ISO control. There’s also a High Sensitivity mode to take advantage of the low-light capabilities of the camera.
The only minor gripe is that Nikon did not push the resolution to a full HD, especially as Canon already has two top-end models that can shoot in 1080. Nikon’s justification for this is that most videos are for Internet use only, where the lowest resolution is not only sufficient but also more efficient, allowing for smaller files and greater download speeds. Even so, I feel the higher video resolution was expected and many users will feel let down.
Expensive, but undoubtedly a quality piece of kit
What certainly won’t disappoint is the truly amazing battery life of the D3s. From such a fast and powerful DSLR I did not anticipated the efficiency feast of the EN-EL4 battery provided with the camera. Nikon claims you can take 4300 shots per charge. I did not shoot as much as that but I never had to recharge the camera in my two weeks of testing, despite using Live View and Movie mode.
So is the D3s the best full-frame DSLR currently on the market? Well, some photographers may hesitate here. It’s not only the price tag, but its size and weight and – unless you make full use of the increased low-light sensitivity and speed – these factors combined with a complex menu are a lot to reckon with for everyday use. I’ve yet to compare it with its main rival, the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, but I struggle to find anything that I would have wanted improved on the D3s other than the upgrading of the D-Movie to full HD. Indeed, the D3s is as accomplished a pro digital reflex as it comes, and precisely because it’s a professional model, operationally, it won’t suit everybody. ®
Catherine Monfils  is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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