initial review: 3/29/10
video comments update: 3/31/10
update: 4/14/2010



  Nikon D3s Review

Surprise, it is better.

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

If you haven't already read my D3 review, I suggest that you do so now. I'm not going to repeat things that I wrote in that review. The D3s is a modest update to the D3, and I'll be keeping my comments restricted to the things that are different or new.

The D3s surprised a lot of Nikon users when it was announced and shipped in late 2009. Despite Nikon's habit of doing interim "s" models to keep a product "fresh" longer while they work on the next groundbreaking product, many Nikon users were generally surprised by the D3s launch. After all, the D3 was a perfectly fine camera and had a state-of-the-art sensor, right?

As it turns out, wrong.

Even in late 2009 the original D3 remained the low-light champion: its Nikon-designed sensor just seemed to outperform everything else when the photons thinned out. Indeed, if you plot the D3's sensor efficiency against pretty much anything else, the D3 sits well above the line of expectation.

So here comes the D3s and Nikon announces that it has a "new sensor." At first, people didn't believe that statement. Nikon isn't known for quick sensor iteration (they'd only shipped one other sensor, over four years previous). The D3 sensor was already at the top of the heap. So many assumed that any improvements Nikon had made in image quality between the D3 and D3s were further down the imaging chain (e.g. the EXPEED imaging ASIC, the ADC circuitry, etc.). Well, no, Nikon wasn't lying to us: the D3s has a new sensor. And if the D3 sensor was above the rest of the heap, well, the new one is even further ahead. But we'll get to that in the performance section later in the review. Suffice it to say that there's more than strong evidence that Nikon has produced yet another state-of-the-art sensor, and in record time. Funny thing, Nikon underplayed that a bit both at the announcement and subsequentely. Why, I don't know. But Nikon's marketing has never made a lot of sense to me.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

 

Highly Recommended

features:

performance:

build:

value:

The only rating here that is even questionable is the rating for value. At US$5499 the D3s isn't cheap. But it's good enough to argue for a full mark in value, even considering the D700 at US$2699. It's rare that I give full marks to a product like this, but it's also a rare product that stands out as much as the D3s.
.

 



 

The Basics

The D3s is not a new body. It's basically the D3 body with only a couple of small differences (both internal and external). It's probably worth listing them individually here:

  • New sensor. As noted above, the D3s has a different sensor than the D3. The specifications are all the same: 12mp CMOS, Nikon-designed, etc.. But the capabilities aren't. The new sensor is better at low light and supports 720P HD video. The ISO sensitivities go up one stop over the D3 for marked ISOs, two for extended ISOs.
  • Sensor cleaning. The D3s gets the "shake-it-off" sensor cleaning we now expect on all new cameras.
  • Video. Or as Nikon likes to call it, D-Movie. Like previous Nikons, the D3s only supports 720P/24 HD plus some smaller sizes. The rolling shutter has been improved, though, and there's now both flicker reduction and "see-in-the-dark" video sensitivity (ISO 102,400!).
  • Larger buffer. The D3s has the D3's optional expanded buffer.
  • 1.2x crop. Besides the 5:4 and DX frame sizes, the D3s also has a built-in 1.2x crop capability.
  • Dedicated info and LV buttons. Live View has been moved off the Shooting Method dial, plus the Shooting Information display now allows you to directly set items without dropping into the menu system.
  • Numerous small changes. The D3s now has extended shooting menu banks, additional Active D-Lighting settings, the ability to assign Multiple Exposure to the BKT button, a reorganization of the Voice memo options that simplifies the menu system, plus flicker reduction for frequency based lighting.

From a numeric standpoint, there aren't a lot of changes; maybe a dozen things you'll actually notice on a camera that has hundreds of features. From a functional standpoint, though, the D3s is a better handling camera than the D3 it replaces. That's a pretty strong statement, so I should explain.

Nikon has been working at getting more user control up out of the menus and into buttons and dials lately. The low-end consumer cameras pioneered the Shooting Information display (mainly because they didn't have a top LCD to convey information), but Nikon has continued to refine this with subsequent cameras. The D3s and D300s now have the full "display and set" capabilities that the lower end cameras do. That means that the banks, noise reduction, Color Space, Picture Control, and even assignable buttons can all be set from the rear LCD without dropping into the menu system and doing a lot of Direction pad navigation to find them. Press the info button once and you see the Shooting Information display, press it a second time and you can now pick 10 things that are usually buried in the menus to set directly. That, coupled with even more assignable buttons (the BKT button joins the other three programmable buttons) means that you can set the camera up to pretty much avoid the menu system while shooting. Since the point of the D3/D3s is speed, getting settings up into the user's direct control is a very good thing. Yes, you have to think a bit about how you want to configure the camera (e.g. assign buttons and banks), but once you've done that you're freed from the menu navigation hell that multiple menus, hundreds of menu items, and multiple banks of choices sometimes drop you into.

We still don't quite have "bank" nirvana, but Nikon is getting closer. The D3s has something called Extended Shooting Banks. What the heck is that, you ask? Well, the D3s now remembers not only the exposure mode you were in last time you used that bank, but also the aperture (for Aperture-priority) or shutter speed (for Shutter-priority). At first I didn't think that this would impact my shooting any, but then I found myself bouncing between my "action" bank and "landscape" bank, and guess what, with action I shoot Shutter-priority and usually 1/500, and with landscape I'm in Aperture-priority and usually running f/11 or f/16. With the new extended bank notion, the camera was remembering those things for me as I switched. One less thing to set means you get to the shot itself faster. Again, for a camera designed for speed, that's exactly what we want.

The expanded buffer is, well, enormous. I recently was doing some birds in flight (BIF) shots, and having four second bursts of NEF at 9 fps is a bit mind-boggling (longer if you switch to 12-bit). JPEG shooters have a minimum of an 82 frame buffer. That's nine seconds of continuous burst. If you need more than that you really need a video camera, I think.

The video abilities of the D3s are similar to the other Nikon video-enabled DSLRs: 720P at 24 frames, mono sound (unless you use an external stereo microphone), stored as Motion-JPEG. The good news is that the rolling shutter issues that plagued the D90 are mostly (but not completely) a thing of the past. For most work, the rolling shutter won't be an issue. Nikon claims a 50% improvement, but what that means is unclear (half the jello?). Looking at test videos, though, it is clear that the rolling shutter issues are mostly gone except for situations that you usually don't get into (highly fast pans, for instance).

Finally, the self-cleaning sensor is welcome, even though the D3s shutter, like the D3 before it, seems to throw a bit of oil at the sensor every now and then, which requires a wet cleaning.

Handling

I've already mentioned the Extended Shooting Banks, Information Shooting display, and the two new buttons and how they impact shooting, so I won't repeat that here. I will simply state that an already decent handling camera has been made better by these changes.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

I wish video were the same. Nikon has made tweaks in handling here, too, but unfortunately they aren't necessarily what we wanted.

Let me explain. On previous Nikon video-enabled DSLRs the Live View and D-Movie system was a bit of a mixed bag. Basically, you had to pick an aperture prior to entering Live View for it to be respected. Now in Aperture-priority and Manual exposure modes you can change apertures while in Live View or D-Movie mode. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that we now have realtime DOF control via Live View/D-Movie. The bad news is that the camera still has restrictions to shutter speed when in D-Movie (shutter speeds less than 1/25 produce ISO boosts instead). If the ISO is locked or set too low, you can get underexposure because the camera won't set a longer shutter speed (obviously you can't set a 1/4 second shutter speed if you're shooting 24 frames a second). But if you now pan off the underexposed area to one that will generate a correct one, the camera will do a slow adjustment to the new exposure. I'm not sure this is what we wanted. You can lock exposure while shooting videos, though this isn't intuitive: you have to bring up the exposure scale on the right side of the Live View screen (by pressing the OK button). If you don't have the exposure scale displayed, the camera will make adjustments automatically; if you do have the scale showing, the camera respects your settings. Gee, I would have thought that the AE-L button might have been the way to go there, but there's no outthinking the Nikon designers. One other caveat to note: you can't get the exposure scale showing if you've set Live View to Handheld. This "let's see if you can discover this trick" design is definitely very user unfriendly, especially when a simpler, more intuitive approach was possible.

Nikon simply doesn't have video experts helping them out in the design stage, and it shows. Moreover, most of Nikon's "example" movies to date have been produced by still photographers, not motion picture or video experts, thus I doubt that the kinds of feedback they need to hear is getting back to them. When you contrast what Nikon's done with the D3s versus what Canon has done with the 5DII (and now 7D and 1DIV), the differences are night and day. Let's hope that Nikon is watching Canon's moves closely and at least mimics them (1080 support, multiple frame rate support that's geared to actual broadcast specs, better audio support, higher audio bandwidths, better compression, the list goes on and on). But my suspicion is that Nikon isn't trying to get ahead of the curve here. Instead of going directly to the movie industry and finding out what's really necessary to get ahead (2k and 4k raw, balanced inputs, true shutter control, and much more) they're just looking at what competitors are doing and getting noted for. Personally, I'm still at the same point I was over a year ago: when I want large sensor video, I use my GH1: it simply has more of the video side right than the Nikon DSLRs do.

Overall, the video side of the D3s still seems to be what we had in the D90. Some still camera engineer discovered that he could teach a few video tricks to his toy, so did. For a pro camera like the D3s, this seems like a very out-of-place feature. Toy video on an otherwise top-of-the-line still camera is just a wierd combination. It's like someone grafted a 2x4' box on the back of a Prius and marketed the combination as "car and pickup." More like "car and gimmick."

So we have this marvelous contradiction: the D3s handles better than any other still camera I've used. But it handles worse than lesser video cameras I've used. Sorry, Nikon, that was a swing and a miss as far as I'm concerned.

 

 

 

 

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Performance

Battery Life
Seems like it's the same as D3. In a word: excellent.

Writing to Card
Also same as the D3, and also: excellent
.

Autofocus System
Again, same as the D3. Despite some reports from others that they thought they could see slight changes, I can't find any change I can measure.

Color
I'm sounding like a record: same as the D3.

Noise
And here's where the "sounding like a record" ends:
Nikon gave us an additional marked ISO value (12,800 versus the D3's 6400) plus an additional extended one (HI3 versus the D3's HI2). The implication in those numbers is that the D3s is one stop better than the D3 in noise handling and produces images that are in some way usable at two stops beyond what the D3 does. As incredible as those two statements seem, they are correct. In my use of the two cameras side by side, the D3s does indeed give you a pretty strong one-stop advantage over the D3. Considering that the D3 was already state-of-the-art and unsurpassed in this respect, the D3s is just mind-boggling. Like this:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

I've given you a larger than usual sample from my gym shoots for a reason: this is ISO 3200 with the camera at default settings. Note that you're seeing the grain of the ball and netting, and virtually no noise.

Okay, how about ISO 12,800?

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Okay, there's some noise (and a slight color drift due to the frequency of the lights in the gym and the very short shutter speed of 1/3200 used here). Can we clean that up? How about:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Looks pretty good, doesn't it? I've run the previous image through Nik Dfine and added a slight mid-range curve. We've lost a bit of tonality and color saturation, but from the sideline with the 70-200mm I'm still seeing enough detail in the ball to read some of the small lettering on the ball. I wrote "mind-boggling" and I meant it. The results are enough better than the D3 that I saw the difference immediately on the camera's LCD (otherwise I probably wouldn't have tried ISO 12,800 and stuck to something more expected, like 3200 or perhaps 6400).

So the incredible has happened. Nikon took the best low-light sensor yet made and pushed it another stop further. There's no excuse for bad results in poorly lit venues any more. It isn't the camera's fault (at least if you've got a D3s). Funny thing is, only 15 years ago I remember being impressed by ISO 1600 film in a dim arena. Impressed that I could get any usable image at all, that is. The D3s is like having a boundary lifted: low light is just low light now. Low light doesn't automatically mean bad pictures.

Resolution
Same as the D3.

Dynamic Range
As you might expect from the better noise results, there's news here, too. Simply put, the D3s has virtually the same dynamic range from ISO 100 (LO 1.0) to ISO 800. Again, that's about a stop better than the D3 at ISO 800 (closer at ISO 200), which could be set to ISO 400 with impunity. Wildlife shooters, for example, will find this ability refreshing, as it means that we can shoot further into the edge of day without worrying about losing any significant image quality. We've come a long way from the D2x, baby.

Bottom line: the D3s a great camera made better. Unless you need more pixels, it's the answer to pretty much every photographic problem.

Drawbacks

  • You pay for FX. The penalty for FX is currently a minimum of US$1200. That's because you can pick up a perfectly fine D300 for US$1499 new but a D700 will go for US$2699. The penalty for getting FX in a D3s body is even higher.
  • Kiddie Movies. This isn't the champion video camera, by a long shot. Not enough choice or control to satisfy the demanding videographer.

Positives

  • Shoot at any ISO. Certainly true for everyone up to ISO 3200. Where you'll start to object is going to be somewhere north of there. Personally, the best ISO 6400 camera I've seen, bar none, and usable at 12,800 with care.
  • Pro in every aspect. Lots of control, lots of performance, and robust.
  • Excellent Image Quality. It's not just high ISO that's good, the dynamic range is the best of the Nikon DSLRs, the acuity is excellent, white balance is better than ever, and, once mastered, the Picture Controls do give you plenty of control.

 


 

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