Live view

The D3S features an improved Live View AF system compared to the D3, but the changes aren't major. The most important refinement is a quoted 30% speed increase in 'Tripod' Live View mode. 'Handheld' Live View mode, which utilizes the main 51-point AF sensor for focusing is still a better choice when using the camera 'on the fly', but it takes a while to get used to the camera's behavior. In this mode, a press of shutter button does not release the shutter, but exposes the main AF sensor for focusing, after which another press of the shutter button triggers exposure. If speed is of the essence or if your subject is moving, accurate focus and composition are far from guaranteed.

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That said, there aren't any cameras at this level that offer a significantly superior experience (the high watermark for live view is currently Panasonic's G series, which doesn't include a semi-pro or professional model), and the level of manual focus precision available will be a huge benefit to anyone shooting with a tripod. When manual focusing is employed, the Live View screen can be magnified to the same degree as an image can in playback, making precise focus much easier to establish than it could ever be through an optical viewfinder.

Live view (auto focus) mode

As well as still images, contrast-detection AF is also available in video mode. As has been mentioned already, contrast-detection AF in the D3S is better than it was on the first-generation D3, but is isn't quick enough to accurately tackle moving subjects, and is slower than we would expect from a consumer-level camcorder. It also has a tendency to 'hunt' for the subject, and for these reasons, most of the time it is easier to focus video footage manually.

Handheld and Tripod mode displays

As already mentioned, the D3S' Live View system operates in two modes - tripod or handheld. The display options are much the same in both modes, and both offer the grid and virtual horizon options shown below. The tripod mode does have a handy trick up its sleeve though - a live histogram, which is accessed by pressing the 'OK' button on the rear of the camera. Because it lacks the superimposed AF array indicator, the tripod mode display is also slightly less cluttered by default. Pressing the OK button also activates on-screen exposure simulation - a feature only found on Nikon's D3-series DSLRs.

Handheld mode Tripod Mode
Standard screen, showing limits of AF array and video settings Standard screen, showing moveable AF point for contrast-detection AF
Plain screen, showing exposure information only Virtual horizon display
Grid screen display Live histogram and exposure scale display

Live view magnification

One of the most useful functions of live view mode on most DSLRs is the ability to zoom in on the preview to achieve and confirm perfect manual focus. With the D3S, pressing the magnifying glass button and scrolling to the right with the rear control dial zooms in, just as it would in playback. This is particularly useful when combined with contrast detection AF - available in 'Tripod' live view mode. The focus point can be moved freely around the scene, rather than the fixed 51 positions available in 'handheld' mode which is constrained, obviously, by the size of the D3S's phase detection AF array.

Using contrast detection AF not only means that the screen doesn't black out but it also allows you to maintain the level of live view magnification, so you can watch the camera focusing exactly where you want it to. We've shown a selection here, but there are actually seven zoom steps, with the most magnified representing a 1:1 view.

Live view focus video clip

This video demonstrates contrast detection in Tripod-mode live view on the D3S using the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G. At the start of the video, the lens has been set to focus at infinity. The video commences a moment after the AF-ON button is pressed, and accurate focus is achieved in around a second. This represents improved performance compared to the D3, but in 'real world' shooting, the D3S isn't quite as snappy in contrast-detection AF mode as our studio example might suggest.

Overall Handling Comments

The D3S offers a very satisfying handling experience, but like every camera, it isn't perfect. I do have some gripes, particularly with the menu system, which is exceptionally 'deep' and can get disorientating if you need to change something quickly and can't remember where to look for it.

The useful 'MY MENU' tab is on hand as a dumping ground for those functions that you use most, but sod's law dictates that you will at some point be left scratching your head over where to find this or that option. The D3S, more than most cameras, is one that rewards a careful reading of the bible-thick instruction manual, even if you are a habitual Nikon shooter.

Another minor annoyance (and, for the record, one that the D3S shares with the Canon EOS 1D series of DSLRs), is that the AF-ON button on the vertical grip at the base of the camera is very easy to depress accidentally. When the camera is held in the landscape orientation, the palm of the right hand can easily slip over and onto the button, and depending on how you have AF-ON set up, this may either start the AF hunting unexpectedly, or stop it from tracking in continuous AF mode. Both are disconcerting, and neither is desirable. Disabling the vertical grip also disables the vertical AF-ON button but it's a poor solution unless you're committed to shooting 100% in the landscape orientation.

This isn't a new issue - anyone that shoots with a D3 or D3X will be familiar with the problem - but it is a shame that Nikon hasn't taken the opportunity to do anything about it. It is also a little disappointing to see that one of my major gripes about the D3 - that the Live View mode cannot be changed from within the Live View interface itself - has not been addressed, and nor has the inability of the D3S to operate in mirror lock-up and self-timer modes simultaneously (unfortunately, activating mirror lock-up in Live View mode doesn't do the same thing). Oddly, if you initiate mirror lockup in the D3S and don't do anything, the shutter will release after 30 seconds, but this falls some way short of being as useful a function as it might be.

This more or less commits certain photographers (macroscopy enthusiasts for example) to the purchase of a remote release in order to avoid blur caused by vibrations from camera movement and/or mirror slap. Not a major expense, sure, but it's one more thing that you're bound to lose or leave in a drawer when you need it most. Setting Exposure Delay (csm d9) helps, but the delay of a single second may not be long enough for ultra-critical applications where the camera must be absolutely still.

In virtually all other respects though, the D3S is a joy to use. Most key settings can be changed without taking the camera away from the eye, which is hugely beneficial when you're faced with the unexpected. Although some photographers might scoff at the apparently rather crude mechanical AF switch on the front of the D3S (unchanged since the early days of Nikon's AF SLRs), the ability to shift from single AF to continuous with the flick of the left thumb is absolutely invaluable in some situations.

The AF mode, likewise, can be shifted using the thumb of the right hand. The same goes for ISO sensitivity, as well as exposure compensation and bracketing. All can be adjusted with your eye to the viewfinder. Despite the complexity of the camera, after a few weeks shooting with the D3S, it really did feel like it was working with me rather than against me. Some functions, like the in-viewfinder electronic spirit level, and single-press image magnification in review mode (via csm f1) can save a lot of shooting time, too.

When the D3S is used as in D-Movie mode as a video camera, handling becomes significantly less streamlined, as we might expect, and you can find a fuller explanation of how the camera behaves in this mode in the 'video' page of this test.