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Nikon D3S In-depth review

February 2010 | By Barney Britton



Based on a production Nikon D3S, firmware version 1.0, 1.0 (note: As we were finalizing this test for publication, Nikon released a firmware upgrade for the D3S to Firmware 1.0.1, which corrects some minor bugs relating to video performance. We did not experience the issues which the update is designed to fix, and all samples (and the majority of gallery images) taken for this this review were created with firmware 1.0)

When the Nikon D3 was launched in August 2007, it had an immediate impact on the DSLR market, and not only in the professional sector. The D3 was Nikon's first DSLR with an FX (full frame) CMOS sensor, but its major selling point, in the minds of many photographers at the time, was its unparalleled image quality at high ISO settings. With the D3, photographers could shoot at ISO settings up to 6400 without a significant penalty in noise, and in a pinch, even go up to ISO 25,600 (equivalent) - unheard of at the time. This versatility, coupled with a very capable AF system and rugged, weatherproof build, did much to reverse Nikon's declining fortunes in the professional DSLR market. Professional Canon users, many of whom were disillusioned by the seemingly endless problems that plagued the flagship EOS 1D Mark III at the time, flocked to the D3 in large numbers. In the process, Nikon mounted a formidable challenge to Canon in the sports and action segment of the pro marketplace.

A little over two years later, and Nikon is trying to build on the foundations laid by the D3's runaway success. Enter the D3S. Ergonomically, very little has changed. In fact the D3S and its predecessor are difficult to tell apart at a casual glance, but the D3S does offer some significant improvements, not least a new 720x1280p video capture mode, and several minor tweaks designed to make the new camera more competitive. These include a new 'Quiet' shutter release mode (first seen in the D5000), in-camera dust reduction, and a choice of four image area formats, including DX, and a new 1.2x crop option. The D3S offers the same resolution as the D3, at 12 million pixels, but its redesigned sensor can hit new heights of ISO performance, offering a 'native' range of ISO 200-12,800, expandable up to ISO 102,400. Is the promise of even better low light performance enough to answer those critics that are clamoring for higher resolution? Read our in-depth test (which includes comparisons with the new Canon EOS 1D Mark IV) to find out.

Note: Because of the similarities between the D3S and the older D3, (and to a lesser extent the D300S and D3X), especially as regards handling and certain key features, portions of this review, including some product images, are taken or adapted from from previous reviews.

Model line history

Model Launch
Effective pixels
Auto focus
Continuous highest (JPEG) LCD monitor Video
D1 Jun 1999 2.6 mp 5 point 4.5 fps, 21 frames 2.0", 120K pixels n/a
D1X Feb 2001 5.3 mp 5 point 3.0 fps, 9 frames 2.0", 130K pixels n/a
D1H Feb 2001 2.7 mp 5 point 5.0 fps, 40 frames 2.0", 130K pixels n/a
D2H Jul 2003 4.1 mp 11 point 8.0 fps, 40 frames 2.5", 211K pixels n/a
D2X Sep 2004 12.2 mp 11 point 5.0 fps, 22 frames *1 2.5" 235K pixels n/a
D2Hs Feb 2005 4.1 mp 11 point 8.0 fps, 50 frames 2.5" 235K pixels n/a
D2Xs Jun 2006 12.2 mp 11 point 5.0 fps, 22 frames *1 2.5" 230K pixels n/a
D3 Aug 2007 12.1 mp (FF) 51 point 9.0 fps, 130 frames *2 3.0" 922K pixels + Live View n/a
D3X Dec 2008 24.5 mp (FF) 51 point 5.0 fps, 130 frames *3 3.0" 922K pixels + Live View n/a
D3S Oct 2009 12.1 mp (FF) 51 point 9.0 fps, 130 frames *2 3.0" 922K pixels + Live View 720p

*1 Also 8 fps in cropped mode (6.7 MP)
*2 Up to 11 fps with DX format (5.1 MP)
*3 Up to 7 fps with DX format (10.5 MP)

Nikon D3S Key Features

  • Newly redesigned 12.1 megapixel Full-Frame (36 x 24 mm) sensor
  • ISO 200 - 12,800 (ISO 100 - 102,400 including extension settings)
  • 720p / 24 fps HD movie mode
  • Eleven frames per second in continuous and DX mode
  • Larger buffer for more than 30 RAW frames in one burst
  • Multi-CAM3500FX Auto Focus sensor (51-point, 15 cross-type, more vertical coverage), fine-tuned for improved acquisition and tracking
  • In-camera RAW processing
  • Also supports DX lenses, viewfinder automatically masks (5.1 megapixels with DX lens)
  • 14-bit A/D conversion, 12 channel readout
  • Nikon EXPEED image processor
  • Super fast operation (power-up 12 ms, shutter lag 41 ms, black-out 74 ms)
  • Kevlar / carbon fibre composite shutter with 300,000 exposure durability
  • Auto-focus tracking by color (using information from 1005-pixel AE sensor)
  • Auto-focus calibration (fine-tuning) available (fixed body or up to 20 separate lens settings)
  • Scene Recognition System (uses AE sensor, AF sensor)
  • Dual Compact Flash card slots (overflow, back-up, RAW on 1 / JPEG on 2, Stills on 1 / Movies on 2, copy)
  • Compact Flash UDMA support
  • 3.0" 922,000 pixel LCD monitor
  • Live View with either phase detect (mirror up/down) or improved (30% faster) contrast detect Auto Focus
  • Virtual horizon indicates if camera is level, available on the LCD during video capture
  • HDMI HD video output
  • 'Active D-Lighting' 'Extra High' setting (adjusts metering as well as applying D-Lighting curve)
  • Detailed 'Control Panel' type display on LCD monitor, changes in dark conditions
  • Buttons sealed against moisture
  • Dual battery charger as standard

Technology in Detail

12.3 megapixel self-cleaning CMOS sensor Viewfinder pentaprism
Magnesium alloy shell with weather sealing EXPEED processor
51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF sensor module 51 AF point locations in frame
1005-pixel metering sensor Shutter tested to 300,000 cycles
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