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The Nikon D3S is built for speed, and although its headline specifications might be similar to its predecessor, its buffer has been doubled compared to the D3. The buffer of the D3S is actually equal to that of a D3 fitted with the optional buffer memory expansion, and is good for more than 40 raw frames in a full-speed burst.

The maximum frame rate of the D3S is 9fps in FX mode, but this increases to 11fps in DX mode, at which point the camera records at a reduced resolution (5.1Mp). Activating some functions (like Active D-Lighting) cuts the size of the buffer in JPEG capture, but however you have it set up, the D3S is a very fast camera. As we would expect, in terms of its responsiveness and operational speed it is a world away from Nikon's entry-level and midrange DSLRs, but it's worth noting that a UDMA-enabled CompactFlash card is worth investing in to get the best performance if you're a sports shooter.

Timings & File Sizes

Timing Notes: All times calculated as an average of three operations. Unless otherwise stated all timings were made on a full resolution (4256 x 2832) JPEG Fine (approx. 4MB per image).

The media used for these tests was:

  • 8 GB Lexar Professional UDMA (300x) CompactFlash card
Time, secs
(32 GB SanDisk)
Power Off to On *1   <0.1 (effectively instantaneous)
Power Off to Shot   <0.1 (effectively instantaneous)
Shot to shot time (JPEG) *2
Live view
Shot to shot time (RAW) *2
Live view
Switch from live view   0.3
Power On to Off   <0.1 (effectively instantaneous)

*1 This is the time from turning the switch to the 'On' position to shooting information appearing on the top LCD (as soon as you would be able to verify camera settings).
*2 If you press the shutter button in quick succession in live view the LCD turns dark. In RAW the initial shot to shot time is 0.2 sec. When the buffer runs full this slows down to approximately 0.5 sec.

Continuous Drive mode

To test continuous mode the camera had the following settings: Manual Focus, Manual Exposure (1/640 sec, F5.6), ISO 200. Measurements were taken from audio recordings of the tests. Media used were the same as above.

The tests carried out below measured the following results for JPEG and RAW:

  • Frame rate - Initial frame rate, this was always 9.0 fps in FX format and 11 fps in DX (+/- 0.05 fps)
  • Number of frames - Number of frames in a burst (bursts never exceed 130 frames, irrespective of file type/other settings, but depending on the file type/size a burst may not reach 130 frames in duration)
  • Buffer full rate - Frame rate if shutter release held down after full-speed burst (this is an average figure, since once the buffer has been exhausted the frame rate becomes irregular)
  • Write complete - How long after the last shot before the CF access lamp goes out, indicating that all data has left the buffer and been written to the card.

Burst of JPEG Large/Fine images

FX format
1.2X format (8.4Mp)
DX format (5.1Mp)
Frame rate 9 fps 9 fps 11 fps
Number of frames 78 105 110
Buffer full rate ~4 fps *1 ~4 fps*1 ~5 fps *1
Write complete ~16 sec ~11 secs ~16 sec

*1 Until 130 frames have been recorded

The D3S is unusual in being a multi-format camera, and is designed to be compatible with Nikon's DX lenses for APS-C DSLRs, as well as those designed specifically for the larger imaging area of the FX format. The 11 fps DX crop mode is more than just a sop to those Nikon photographers worried about backwards-compatibility though. The ability to unlock the top 11fps maximum frame rate (albeit without the luxury of focus tracking) may also be of interest to sports and action photographers that don't mind sacrificing resolution for speed and a little bit of extra 'pulling power' at the telephoto ends of their lenses.

The D3S's new 1.2X crop mode produces an 8.4MP file by applying a virtual 1.2X crop on the sensor, which is close to the magnification factor of Canon's EOS 1D-series cameras. In this mode the maximum frame rate of 9fps is unchanged compared to FX format, but large/fine JPEGs can be recorded in full speed bursts of around 105 frames, as opposed to 78. This makes 1.2X crop mode potentially more interesting to action photographers than DX format, which sacrifices rather a lot of resolution for only a little extra speed.

Burst of RAW images (FX format)

12 Bit (lossless, compressed)
14Bit (uncompressed)
Frame rate 9 fps 9 fps
Number of frames 43 36
Buffer full rate ~2 fps ~1.4 fps
Write complete ~10 secs ~31 secs

In raw mode, the Nikon D3S can shoot at full speed for twice as many images as its predecessor the D3. Unsurprisingly, setting the file type to 14 bit uncompressed raw does result in a drop in performance and in this mode the burst depth is reduced, along with the buffer full rate, and the write complete time increases dramatically to more than 31 seconds with our 8Gb UDMA CompactFlash card. That said, given the size of the files this is still pretty impressive, and we can't imagine many situations where you would need to shoot uncompressed 14-bit raw files at nine frames per second for a four second burst...

Audio Samples

9fps high-speed burst

Normal single frame advance (six frames)

Quiet Mode single frame advance (six frames)

Quiet mode might not sound a lot quieter than conventional single frame advance, but it is surprisingly effective at suppressing the high frequency 'clack' that characterizes the normal shutter speed. It certainly isn't silent though, and the D3S does still make its presence felt (or rather 'heard') in the hushed environment of a concert hall. If you need a truly silent shutter release, an expensive blimp attachment is still your only option.

Active D-Lighting

JPEG Large/fine, Active D-Lighting (FX format)

ADL 'normal'
ADL 'extra high'
Frame rate 9 fps 9 fps
Number of frames 32 32
Buffer full rate ~1.5 fps (for a further 7 frames) ~1.5 fps (for a further 4 frames)
Write complete ~19 secs ~19 secs

In Nikon's low-end DSLRs, the stress that it puts on the processing engine means that enabling Active D-Lighting can really slow the cameras down. However, the D3S can maintain its full 9fps shooting rate in all ADL modes, up to an impressive 32 frames before slowing to a slower frame rate. There is a penalty though, and both the number of frames captured in a burst, and the buffer full frame rate, are significantly reduced with ADL turned on. As we can see, though, there is little significant difference in the camera's performance when ADL is turned to 'extra high' compared to 'normal' - the only downside to using the more extreme setting is that the buffer full burst is limited to four additional images rather than seven before the camera stops shooting completely.

USB transfer speed

To test the D3S's USB speed we transferred approximately 500 MB of images (mixed RAW and JPEG) from a Lexar Pro UDMA CF card. When you connect the camera to your computer for the first time a driver is installed and it appears as a PTP device on your system. Transfer speed was good but slower than both a good external card reader and the built-in model on our office PCs.

Transfer rate
Nikon D3S USB 2.0 (PTP) 10.0 MB/sec
Lexar 300X UDMA in USB 2.0 reader 21.5 MB/sec

Battery life

The D3S uses the same EN-EL4a battery used by the D3 and D3X. It has a quoted capacity of 2500 mAh at 11.1V (28 Wh) and charges on the supplied MH-22 quick charger. Specified battery life according to Nikon is up to 4,200 images in normal conditions, and this is born out in our testing. Using Live View and (especially) shooting video does drain the battery though, so a spare is still a good idea if you're keen on using either feature.

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