Conclusion - Pros
- Unmatched image quality at high ISO settings. Incredibly efficient sensor. A new benchmark.
- Excellent AF and metering performance
- Compatible with virtually all Nikon AF lenses, and most MF lenses (up to 9 AI spec or later manual focus lenses can be programmed for use with the D3S)
- Highly customizable user interface including versatile shooting banks
- 9 frames per second continuous shooting makes the D3S the fastest full-frame DSLR around
- Configurable dual card slots means more space, backup storage, or dedicated video bank
- Highly sophisticated 3D AF tracking, incorporating dedicated 1005-pixel CCD sensor
- Excellent build quality with magnesium alloy body and environmental sealing
- Very good ergonomics, well shaped and comfortable hand grip
- Well-placed and configurable buttons
- New 'Info' button and screen takes some of the pressure off the creaking menu system when setting key shooting parameters
- Large and bright viewfinder with 100% coverage
- (Relatively) quick contrast detect AF in live view - definitely improved over the D3
- Good quality 720p video output with excellent high-ISO capabilities
- Stereo microphone socket for video recording
- Multi-mode virtual horizon
- Useful Active D-Lighting feature protects highlights as well as boosting shadows
- Reliable flash exposures
- Self-cleaning sensor very effective (a huge improvement over the D3/D3X)
- Excellent battery life when shooting stills, not at all bad even with Live View/Video activated
- Sophisticated interval timer feature
- Very malleable raw files, plenty of latitude in 14-bit raw mode for extreme exposure adjustments
- Quiet mode isn't silent, but it is a welcome improvement over normal single frame advance
Conclusion - Cons
- White balance isn't brilliant in artificial lighting (but few cameras shine in this respect)
- AF array is smaller (as a proportion of viewfinder area) than D300S, which makes swapping between cameras awkward in some shooting situations
- Vertical AF-ON button is poorly placed - very easy to press by accident
- 720p, 24fps video is good, but resolution isn't as high as some competitive DSLRs
- Motion JPEG video capture only. It would have been nice to have the choice of MPEG
- Disappointing bundled software package considering the cost of the camera
- Doesn't answer the main criticism of the D3 - 12MP was considered a fairly low resolution in 2007...
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Nikon D3, not only to its parent company, but also to the market as a whole. The D3 had a profound transformational effect, raising photographers' expectations of low-light imaging permanently. The 'D3 effect' is easy to see in the rash of DSLRs that have been released in the past couple of years with similarly high maximum ISO settings, but it's fair to say that not all have lived up to the heady promise that the bare numbers might suggest.
It is inevitable that the D3S lacks something of the star quality that attracted so many pro and semi-pro photographers to the D3. As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, the D3S is an evolutionary upgrade, and represents a refinement, rather than a reimagining, of the same basic principle. With the exception of its video mode, the D3S brings very little to the table that is truly 'new' compared to its predecessor. However, the improvements that have been made are considerable. From the minor (faster contrast-detection AF in Live View) to the major (a whole 2EV extra ISO range), the various tweaks and additions to its feature set make the D3S a significantly more useful camera than the D3.
To take the improved high ISO abilities as an example, the D3 set new standards when it was released in 2007, and the D3S sets the bar even higher. Throughout this test, and in the gallery, you will see images taken at ISO settings at and above ISO 12,800 (itself unthinkably high only a couple of years ago) which are not only usable, but detailed, free of banding, and impressively color-accurate. The sensor of the D3S is simply unmatched in terms of its ability to convert light to useable signal.
The increased buffer of the D3S compared to the D3 means that not only can images be taken in lower light, more pictures can be taken in a burst. This will be good news for sports and action photographers, and anyone that habitually shoots 14 bit NEF files. Assuming that card space isn't an issue for you, we see no reason to shoot raw in anything other than 14-bit lossless compressed/uncompressed mode, since the increased buffer means that you're unlikely to experience any performance penalty in most situations.
The new video mode is definitely an improvement over similar modes in previous Nikon DSLRs, and you'll find a detailed account of exactly why in the video page of this review. It must be said, however, that video does still feel like a 'bolted on' feature in a couple of ways, and the fact that the recording format is locked to the slightly less efficient (compared to MPEG) motion JPEG is a little disappointing.
For a 12 million pixel camera, it is hard to see how the Nikon D3S could deliver better image quality at its optimal output settings - i.e. from carefully processed 14-bit uncompressed NEFs. Nikon's JPEG output is generally rather soft across its entire range of CMOS-equipped DSLRs, and at a pixel level (100% on screen) JPEG images from the D3S lack a certain 'bite'. This is easily fixed (to a superficial extent) by turning the in-camera sharpening up a notch or two, although we wouldn't recommend going much higher. Default sharpening coupled with a careful post-capture application of Unsharp Mask delivers perfectly good results in JPEG mode, and we prefer slight under sharpening to over sharpening, which once applied, is impossible to 'correct'.
Obviously, one of the main selling points of the Nikon D3S is its performance at high ISO settings, where it is currently unmatched by any other current DSLR. Considering its higher pixel count and smaller sensor, the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV does remarkably well in low light, but the D3S offers an unequivocal 1 stop advantage, at least, at ISO settings higher than ISO 6400. JPEGs get a bit mushy and increasingly lifeless above ISO 12,800, but careful processing of the D3S's raw files can yield good results (albeit rather grainy) even up to ISO 102,400.
I can see the dpreview feedback inbox filling up with 'who cares?' emails already, but whilst it is certainly true that ISO 102,400 is very high - higher probably than most photographers will ever need to go - the fact is that the D3S can deliver usable images at this rarified altitude, in light so low that previously the only option for still image capture would have been infrared. And it's difficult not to be impressed by that. The ability to shoot video at settings up to the ISO limit of 102,400 is also extremely attractive to would-be videographers or photojournalists who don't want to carry a dedicated video camera.
At the risk of repeating myself too much, the handling experience of the D3S is very similar to the D3, with only a couple of differences, so most of my comments here and on page 8 (Live View) apply equally to the older camera and vice versa. The main differences are a new dedicated live view button on the rear of the D3S, and an 'info' button for changing settings like color space and noise reduction - both of which would otherwise be accessed from deep within the camera's menus. These additions make the D3S a more comfortable camera to shoot with over time, but neither is exactly revolutionary.
This isn't a surprise - as a third-generation (fourth if you consider the ergonomic advances made between the original D1 and the D1H/D1X) professional DSLR, again, the D3S is simply the refinement of a reasonably static basic design. It is a shame though that Nikon has not addressed some of the few annoying ergonomic faults of the D3, including a somewhat convoluted menu system, inconsistent placement of some shooting/custom settings and an all too easily pressed vertical 'AF-ON' button. For a more detailed account of what we like and don't like about the D3S's handling, head to the bottom of page 8.
The final word
Judged on its own merits, the Nikon D3S is an absolutely outstanding camera. It offers exceptionally good image quality across an extremely wide range of ISO settings, and its key systems (AF, white balance and metering) are at least on a par with the best available in other cameras from rival manufacturers. Add its full weatherproofing, excellent battery life and rugged construction into the mix, and you have a truly 'go anywhere' camera. Video might not necessarily be a 'deal breaker' function for the majority of DSLR users at the moment, but however you feel about it, it's nice to have, and works (reasonably) well.
You may be able to sense a 'but' coming, and here it is. My problem with the D3S isn't what it can do - which is in all respects exemplary - but what it can't. Even when the D3 was announced in 2007, some commentators expressed surprise that Nikon didn't go with a higher resolution sensor. Almost three years later, and 12 million pixels looks even more conservative alongside newly-minted competitors like the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. Nikon's view is that in this section of the marketplace, better image quality at high ISO settings is worth a penalty in resolution. Anyone that shoots regularly in low available light would probably agree, but it can't be denied that this extra high-ISO boost answers a criticism of the D3 that no-one really had. After all, it's tough to argue that the original D3 wasn't good enough at high ISOs...
We've seen from the samples in this test that the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV actually matches the output of the original D3 pretty closely up to its maximum ISO setting of 25,600. Although it's great that the D3S gives cleaner images at even higher settings, I suspect that most people don't need to shoot much higher than ISO 3200 most of the time, let alone ISO 102,400.
I could be wrong, and it will be interesting to see what Nikon comes out with in the next couple of years. For now, if versatility and speed are of more use to you than a little extra resolution, the Nikon D3S will serve you very well indeed. Be sure to check out our samples gallery to judge for yourselves.