Nikon D3s D-SLR Review

Nikon's new flagship DSLR is a stunning piece of camera technology. But is it any good? Doug Harman puts it through it's Best4Reviews test to find out.

 Nikon’s new flagship D-SLR, the D3s builds on the groundbreaking D3, which revolutionised the high-speed professional DSLR market on its introduction in August 2007. The D3s has an all-new FX format full-frame sensor and enhanced specification, rugged build and shooting controls. It’s expensive, much more expensive, but as with the D3, it’s certainly a whole lot of camera.

The D3s is pretty much identical to its D3 predecessor and reveals how Nikon has evolved the former camera rather than gone for a revolutionary new model.

There’s a new full-frame sensor that’s a completely redesigned affair with improved micro lens array to help enable the new high-ISO (low noise) capture settings. This includes a boosted ISO 102,400 mode for shooting in extremely low light without additional light/flash.

The low noise image performance “war” between Canon and Nikon, which Canon had the march on for quite some time, were pegged back by the D3. Canon improved things further with the introduction of the EOS 5D MkII and then the EOS 7D but Nikon has pulled ahead once more with the D3s.

The similarity between the Nikon D3 and the D3s in terms of size and design means the most obvious changes are subtle; a more intense green colour on the white balance (WB) and ISO buttons on the back; the fact there is now a dedicated Live View control (in which you can also get to the movie capture mode) is also a more obvious change.

Other controls remain unchanged and mean if you’ve shot on a D3 (or any other Nikon DSLR for that matter) then the layout is wholly familiar. However, the camera is a hefty beast, particularly with the excellent 70-24mm F/2.8 zoom I have to play with for this test.

What you get though is a ruggedised and weather sealed camera (good job as most of this test was done in sub-zero, snowy conditions) capable of shooting at up to 11fps (in DX format) or 9fps (in the full-frame FX format) in RAW for up to 48 shots in one burst, a vast improvement on the 18 RAWs at a time from the D3.

The new sensor provides the same 12.1-megapixel resolution from the D3 and as with the D3, the upside of this (comparatively modest) resolution means the greater pixel pitch (so bigger, more sensitive pixels) means an excellent signal to noise ratio, a ratio even more enhanced by the improvements to the redesigned sensor and improved micro lens array.

Image processing is controlled by Nikon’s EXPEED image engine and it is superb, and with the new sensor, allows the camera’s standard ISO range of 200 to 12800 (ISO 100 to 102,400 in boosted modes) to become a realistic and usable proposition.

Image noise is so well controlled – and as with the D3 – I found routine shooting above ISO 1000 no problem. Noise is only really apparent (but very subtly) at ISO 6400 and above, noise in shadows reveals blotches or blockiness at ISO 8000 but it becomes very noticeable at ISO12800 and above.

While the bulk and weight of the D3s (1.24Kg body only and identical to the D3) mean your average Joe might baulk at carting the camera about with it round their neck, the camera’s handling compensates; it is simply excellent with great ergonomics and easy to use/reach controls.

The integrated vertical grip helps balance the use of the camera too and houses a large lithium-ion battery pack that survived hours of snapping in temperatures as low as minus five and shooting 228 images (with plenty of reviewing) yet it still indicated 74% at the time of writing. The camera comes with a dual charger as standard too, but so it darn well should, given the price of the camera.

The excellent 3-inch screen has a 920,000 pixel resolution and wide viewing angle making it great to use, add in the large info display that’s aided by nice (backlit) top and back plate data LCDs and you have information galore. Live View is included and has AF in two modes; hand held and tripod modes, so where you need Live View to aid composition; it works a treat.

Although much of the D3s is gleaned from the D3, another new feature here is the ability to shoot 720p HD movies (with built-in and external sound – if you link up a microphone) at 24fps and up to the Hi3 (ISO 102,400) sensitivity setting, making movie capture in low light as flexible as it is in still capture.

The aforementioned external audio connects into a dedicated audio port under the cover on the camera’s side and the HDMI socket also located here is now of the mini-HDMI type, thus allowing room for the audio socket.

In terms of shooting modes, the D3s has a full complement of the manual shooting options, as you’d expect (aperture and shutter priority, program, and full manual control) and this is now enhanced with Nikon’s Scene Recognition System that uses the AE and AF sensors to assess the subject and pick the “correct” setting for the subject.

This type of mode or feature is common today within many consumer oriented cameras but feels a little incongruous here, though it works well enough looking at my shoots on which it was employed. But I suppose if it helps get better results, then why knock it?

The Picture Control System is still in there and this enables tweaks to each shooting mode and allows pre-settings such as standard, vivid and monochrome and allows you to tailor the way each mode reproduces the image as well, so customisation is as good here as on the D3.

Then throw in the power of in-camera RAW processing, where image size, quality, white balance, picture control settings, noise reduction, colour space and vignetting control are all available to tweak all helps to quickly process the RAW files out in the field and that can help save a lot of time later, in your post-shoot workflow.

The D3s now has a “quite” shooting mode found on the drive mode dial just below the flash, bracketing and Command Lock “turret” on the top plate. When active this helps reduce the noise the camera’s shutter and mirror mechanism make when you take a shot, but it’s a subtle difference, the most obvious change being the slower mirror return.

Another very subtle – but nice – change is the pressure sensitivity of some controls has been enhanced and this makes it a far more positive experience using controls such as the AF-On button on the back plate.

Image formats include JPEG (basic, normal or fine) and RAW with simultaneous JPEG capture in each quality setting and you can shoot TIFFs too. This means – on top of the four menu banks – and the four custom mode banks too, on which you can layer various custom modes, again for particular camera set ups you might use repeatedly and added to the 43 custom options you have 344 possible set-up options within the many menus and custom modes.

In terms of image quality, the metering is handled by a combination of Nikon’s 3D Matrix system and a 1005-pixel RGB sensor, and like the D3, it works amazingly well. Exposure compensation and bracketing made it a simple job of dialing in a half stop of exposure compensation to bring exposures back into line in the snow, for example, the one situation that really challenged the metering system.

AF’s controlled by Nikon’s Multi-CAM 3500FX processor which, while generally very reliable, it tripped on some predominantly dark or very bright scenes. And although the focusing has 51-AF points to which metering can be locked, and you can select and move the AF point of choice around the zones available, or select 11 specific zones, all of which can be tailored to use all or within user specified groups, I found the AF struggled in some low light scenes that the enhanced ISO sensitivity settings allow this camera (and is capable of) to shoot in. The AF would hunt on various occasions in near-dark conditions.

Colour and white balance control are excellent. Colour is natural in the camera’s default “standard” mode but there are so many ways to tweak the colour performance (along with everything else), that you can pretty much dial in whatever colour parameters you need, depending on what you want from a subject.

In terms of white balance, the D3s is as peerless as the D3 and even the auto WB control provides a nice neutral effect in mixed lighting but it did falter in very low light with mixed lighting such as low power lamps and candle light.

In terms detail, you loose a slight amount at higher ISO settings as the EXPEED engine works through what noise there is and at the very high sensitivity settings, blocks of noise in shadows can overwhelm what detail there is.

The non-boosted sensitivity settings provide plenty of pristine detail and while on the original D3 it was only above ISO 1000 that the image processing could be seen to affect fine details to any extent, the D3s’ new sensor and its enhanced circuitry mean that limit is not reached until you hit ISO 2000, but only visible (as with the D3) in fine portrait detail such as skin pores.

In terms of the performance and poise, the D3s is even better than the D3, which was my top DSLR when it was introduced. However, the market has moved on since August 2007 and there is a far larger choice of cameras now offering similar attributes and at lower prices.

The D3s is designed to offer a poised, higher performance professional solution and that it does very well indeed just don’t look to hard at the price or you might get scarred away.

Verdict: 
This evolution of Nikon’s D3 full “FX” frame professional digital SLR brings new features such as HD movies into the frame. A new 12.1-megapixel sensor with improved circuitry allows superb image quality at very high ISO settings (ISO 102,400 in the new Hi3 boosted setting) and makes the D3s a stunning pro model. Like the D3 before it, the D3s is as close to six stars as you can get without attaining that much vaunted accolade. However, the few minor niggles (low light AF probably the biggest surprise) and the cost and the way the market has progressed in terms of HD video, all mean the Nikon D3s is still the DSLR to beat in my book.