Nikon D3S Brief hands-on
by Lars Rehm, October 2009

Based on a pre-production Nikon D3S

The launch of the Nikon D3 in August 2007 had a significant impact on the market for the kind of speed-optimized professional DSLRs favored by sports photographers and photo-journalists. While the segment had previously been dominated by Canon's 1D series, with the D3 quite a large number of black Nikon lenses made their way into the sea of Canon white that used to be the predominant color at big sports events such as the Soccer World Cup or Olympic Games. With many of the big picture agencies switching at least a proportion of their equipment to Nikon the D3 was the most successful pro camera that the Japanese manufacturer had brought to market in a long time.

Now, more than two years later, technology has inevitably moved on and it's time for an update, which comes in the shape of the Nikon D3S. By adding an 'S' to the D3 rather than calling the camera something completely new (such as 'D4') Nikon indicates that the camera is not so much a quantum leap, rather a refinement of a tried and tested model. Consequently many of the changes are of a subtle nature (we are detailing those in the table at the bottom of this page) but there are also a couple of more headline-grabbing improvements including a 720p / 24fps HD video mode and a new Hi3 extended sensitivity setting that allows stills and movie capture at a whopping ISO 102,400.

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

  • New 12.1 megapixel Full-Frame (36 x 24 mm) sensor
  • ISO 200 - 12800 (ISO 100 - 102,400 in Boost mode)
  • 720p / 24 fps HD movie mode
  • Eleven frames per second in continuous and DX mode
  • Larger buffer for 48 RAW frames in one burst (18 on the D3)
  • 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 color in darkness
  • Buttons sealed against moisture
  • Dual battery charger as standard

In the hand

The D3s body shape is identical to the D3/D3X. Like its predecessor and sister model respectively the D3S is a chunky piece of equipment and feels absolutely bulletproof. Careful shaping of the rear and the use of soft rubber add to the overall feeling of solidity. Buttons, dials and other controls are positioned to be used easily. The ergonomics of Nikon's pro cameras have always been superb and the D3S is no exception.

Side by side

The D3S (right) is virtually indistinguishable from the D3X (left). The most obvious differences can be found on the back of the camera where a dedicated Live View button (to the right of the audio button) and an Info button (under the bank of buttons on the left) have been added. Other visible changes include the addition of the Q-mode on the drive mode dial, a larger latch on the battery compartment and a more intense green on the ISO and WB buttons (to make them more visible to color blind photographers).

Key features / what's new

The D3S sports a new sensor with an improved micro lens array and internal circuitry to reduce image noise. However, the nominal resolution of 12.1 megapixels remains the same as on the D3. Standard sensitivity reaches from ISO 200-12800. This can be extended to a whopping ISO 102,400 in the Hi3 setting.
The D3S captures 720p HD video footage at 24 frames per second using up to Hi3 sensitivity. Sound can be recorded via an external microphone. Operation of the movie mode is very similar to the recently introduced D300S.

The D3S now has a dedicated Live View button on the back of the camera. Once in Live View mode a press of the Pv button next to the lens mount will start or stop video recording.

The addition of a movie mode is also apparent in the connector compartment where you can find a socket for an external microphone. The HDMI-connector is now a Mini-HDMI type. The speaker is located behind the small door that covers the opening-button for the CF-card compartment.

In addition to the DX crop mode the D3S also gets a 1.2x crop option. Like the D3X the D3s offers five Active D-Lighting settings including Auto.

In-camera RAW processing is another new feature on the D3S. Image size and quality, white balance, picture control, noise reduction, color space and vignetting control are the available parameters. You can also apply digital exposure compensation.

The size of the battery compartment latch has been increased for easier operation with gloves. The D3S now features Nikon's Quiet mode. On the drive mode dial it replaces the Live View setting which now has its own button.

The pressure sensitivity on some buttons including the AF-ON button has been improved.