The news that, after 25 years, DPReview would soon be closing its doors forever came as a shock to me, as I’m sure it did to many of the people reading this. And, of course, the news prompted me to think back on my thirteen years of writing for the site, and recall my first proper review. It was of the Nikon D3S – a camera that, as it happens, I still own.

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My review of the D3S was published in February 2010, three months after I joined the DPReview team. I was a freelance music photographer back then, and my main camera was the D3S’s immediate predecessor, the D3. The two DSLRs were very similar, but the ‘S’ model incorporated some significant additions, including a new 1280x720p video capture mode and several minor tweaks designed to make it more competitive against the likes of the Canon EOS 1D Marks III and IV. These included a 'Quiet' shutter release mode, an increased image buffer and automatic in-camera dust reduction. The D3S offered the same 12MP resolution as the D3, but Nikon expanded its native ISO range to 200-12,800, expandable up to ISO 102,400.

Nikon D3S – key specifications

  • 12.1 megapixel full-frame (36 x 24 mm) sensor
  • ISO 200-12,800 (ISO 100-102,400, including extension settings)
  • 720/24p HD movie mode
  • 11 frames per second in continuous and DX mode
  • Multi-CAM3500FX autofocus sensor (51-point, 15 cross-type)
  • 14-bit A/D conversion, 12-channel readout
  • Kevlar/carbon fibre composite shutter with 300,000 exposure durability
  • Autofocus tracking by color (using information from 1005-pixel AE sensor)
  • Dual Compact Flash card slots (overflow, back-up, RAW on 1 / JPEG on 2, Stills on 1 / Movies on 2, copy)
  • 3.0" 922,000 pixel LCD monitor
  • Live view with either phase detect (mirror up/down) or improved (30% faster) contrast detect autofocus
  • Buttons sealed against moisture

I put the D3S tester camera to work immediately, shooting with it alongside my D3 in various London music venues. Although the changes weren’t revolutionary, the overall shooting experience was improved enough that I felt I could justify the upgrade. So, I sold my D3 to a friend, and made the D3S my main camera. It accompanied me all over the world, doing duty for live music, portraiture, and anything else that came my way. As the years went by my D3S was increasingly relegated to a backup camera, and then ultimately to my cupboard.

To my shame, before I started working on this article, I had barely picked it up for years, and the original 2010-era EN-EL4a battery was toast. But with a fresh Wasabi-brand battery in hand, my treasured D3S fired right up. So how does a camera that I once described as ‘the best DSLR [DPReview has] ever tested’ fare in 2023?

The Z9 is a good-looking camera, but come on – it's no D3S.

Before I picked the D3S up again for this article, I had forgotten how many features that I now take for granted simply didn’t exist a decade ago, even in professional-grade cameras. The D3S has Auto ISO, but it's not particularly sophisticated, and unlike modern Nikon cameras, it can’t be toggled directly via the ISO button. Instead, you have to go menu diving. Ditto with Dynamic AF Area (number of points and 3D tracking), self-timer duration and continuous shooting speed.

The D3S’s AF system was revolutionary for the late 2000s, and still holds up, but it’s rudimentary compared to modern professional mirrorless cameras. In most situations, it can track moving subjects, but only within the central zone of 51 AF points – there's no edge-to-edge AF coverage here. The D3S is capable of subject tracking courtesy of a dedicated 1005-pixel CCD metering sensor, and it incorporates that information into AF tracking and metering calculations, but due to the limitations of its optical viewfinder, there’s no visual feedback for the photographer.

The D3S offered an exceptionally advanced autofocus system for 2009, building on the 51-point, wide-area AF system of the D3. And no, I won't miss making these viewfinder graphics.

My default AF mode when I was shooting bands was AF-S with manual point selection. I used AF-C with 3D Tracking occasionally, but I didn’t always trust it since it could easily get fooled by background clutter, especially in poor light (and music photographers are always shooting in poor light).

Assuming the autofocus kept up, the D3 and D3S were famous for being able to literally see in the dark, which felt like magic at the time. Many was the poorly-lit show where I pointed my D3S into the gloom, dialed up the ISO, guessed at the likely exposure settings, and hoped for the best. Very often, even though I could hardly discern anything through the optical viewfinder, the camera would still capture a usable image. As Nikon reps at that time liked to point out, the D3 and D3S made possible images that could previously only have been captured in infrared.

It's been years since I had to measure exposure using an exposure scale rather than a real-time preview, but I soon slipped back into my old habits

Of course, modern mirrorless ILCs like the Nikon Z9 can perform the same trick without the element of uncertainty, thanks to their electronic viewfinders, which offer an accurate preview of the final exposure. It's been years since I had to measure exposure using an exposure scale rather than a real-time preview, but I soon slipped back into my old habits: shooting in manual mode, taking a couple of test shots, then adjusting based on conditions.

Sure, full-time live view is an objectively better experience, it’s just less…magical.

Speaking of magic, in the almost 14 years since the Nikon D3S was released, third-party Raw processing tools have been developed that have given its 12MP files a new lease on life. Adobe’s Super Resolution feature in Camera Raw intelligently up-sizes the D3S’s NEF files to the equivalent of 48MP, and at moderate ISOs, the resulting image quality is shockingly good. Meanwhile, DXO’s PureRaw can do miracles with images taken at high ISO settings, creating photos that look like they were taken at ISO 800, rather than 12,800+. Thanks to tools like these, and despite the fact that it has been superseded by five subsequent high-end Nikon ILCs, the humble D3S can output images that I would challenge anyone to tell apart from files taken on a current-generation 24MP sensor, at least.

I took this picture very recently, while working on this article. I used Adobe Enhance to increase the effective resolution to 48MP, then resized down to 24MP. To my eye, image quality is at least on a par with a modern Nikon camera like the Z6 II.

Nikon 28-70mm F2.8D ED-IF AF-S | ISO 200 | 1/800 sec | F7.1
Photo: Barney Britton

That doesn’t mean that the D3S is a match for modern cameras across the board, though. One shortcoming is its comparatively limited dynamic range. Starting with the Nikon D810, I became used to shooting in Raw mode at the base ISO of 64, exposing for highlights, and pushing midtones and shadows in post, with little read noise penalty. Once you get used to shooting in that way, it is very hard to go back. Back in 2010 I described the D3S as boasting 'very malleable Raw files, [with] plenty of latitude in 14-bit raw mode for extreme exposure adjustments,' but if you try the same kind of exposure push with Raw files from the D3S that you can get away with on a modern sensor, things fall apart pretty quickly. I typically keep my Z7 and Z9 locked to ISO 64, but with the D3S, I find myself using the entire ISO sensitivity scale. That’s the difference that more than a decade of development makes.

A test shot I took for the D3S review, this image was captured in .NEF Raw mode, at the D3S's maximum ISO sensitivity of 102,400. This is a converted Raw file, at ACR's 2009-era defaults. And here's the same file, processed using DxO's recently announced PureRaw 3 software. As you can see, while there is obvious detail loss in some places, the result is very usable.

Across the board, from image quality to UI, there is no denying that modern mirrorless cameras are better photographic tools their mid-2000s DSLR equivalents for most kinds of photography, not to mention videography. The D3S’s live view mode was OK for 2009, ditto its 720p video mode, but compared to the full-time live view and 4K+ video resolution of modern mirrorless cameras, both features are clunky and primitive (and kill the battery). That won’t matter to some shooters, but even for studio work and (especially) macro stills shooting, it is frustrating.

The first thing I noticed when picking up the D3S for the first time in years was its weight

Then there are the ergonomics. The first thing I noticed when picking up the D3S for the first time in years was its weight, which is considerable. As a current Z9 owner, I’m fine with cameras that are a little on the beefy side (the Z9 is barely 80g/2.8 oz lighter than the D3S), but compared to most modern ILCs, the D3S is a lump, even more so once a period-appropriate fast aperture F-mount lens is attached. Still, at least it’s a beautiful lump. Maybe it’s nostalgia for an early love, but I still prefer the D3S’s complex curves to the Z9’s slab-sided, ‘all business’ design.

One of the Z9’s biggest selling points (for me) is its totally silent shutter. For all of the D3S’s low-light prowess, its shutter was and is too loud to comfortably shoot in situations like a hushed auditorium or a golf tournament, where discretion is essential. Even in ‘Q’ mode, the D3S’s shutter is clearly audible in a quiet space. Trust me on that point – my memory of being physically ejected from a Philip Glass concert in 2010 because the clack of my D3S’s shutter in Q mode 'interrupted the performance' is still painfully fresh.

That couldn't have happened if I was shooting with a Z9, but would the more advanced camera have made me a better photographer? It's doubtful. I started my music photography career shooting high ISO black and white film in a Nikon F2. Compared to that, the D3S felt like a supercomputer, and thirteen years later the Z9 is just another leap.

I've published this shot of The Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan on DPReview before, as an example of how poor live music lighting can be (the clue is how bright the tip of MacGowan's cigarette appears relative to the rest of the scene). The difference between this image and the version I uploaded to Getty Images back in 2009 is DxO PureRaw 3. Taken at ISO 12,800, practically all the grain in the original shot is gone. Aside from that, this shot is pretty much untouched.

AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm F2.8G IF-ED | ISO 12,800 | 1/125 sec | F3.5

Overall though, the experience of picking up my D3S again after a few years’ absence (abstinence?) has renewed my fondness for it, especially with the judicious aid of modern Raw processing tools, even if the developments of the intervening years have highlighted all the ways in which it is outdated. Apparently, I'm not alone... objectively speaking I don’t really understand the particular nostalgia for the D3 and D3S, which has kept their used prices inflated even compared to newer cameras like the D4, but emotionally, I kind of get it. They have an undeniable… something, that later products lacked. Back in 2010, I described it as “star quality,” but perhaps “magic” is a better word.

Coda: Recently, after I renewed my acquaintance with the D3S, I took my Z9 to a musician friend’s show, and the experience was almost boring by comparison: I used all-area AF mode, with tracking enabled, at 10fps, and the Z9 nailed focus on her eye every. Single. Time. As decade-old memories flooded back, I became nostalgic for my days shooting live music with the D3S when, despite its powerful capabilities, I still felt like it was me, rather than the camera, doing most of it the work.

Speaking of work, this is likely my last ever article for DPReview. I hope you enjoyed reading this trip down memory lane as much as I enjoyed writing it. Let's enjoy this wonderful site for a few more weeks.

Nikon D3S Sample Gallery (2010)