Nikon D3S Professional DSLR at a glance:

  • 12.1-million-pixel CMOS sensor
  • Maximum sensitivity of ISO 102,400
  • High-definition video capture
  • 9fps shooting rate
  • New ‘Quiet’ mode
  • Street price around £4,000 (body only)

In October last year, Nikon announced the third camera in its professional D3 range: the D3S. Although its body is largely unchanged from the original 12.2-million-pixel D3 and the 24.5-million-pixel D3X, it has a new 12.1-million-pixel sensor. The main benefit of this new sensor over the original one of the D3 is that it can capture images at an extraordinary sensitivity of ISO 102,400.

Although it may sound like an intergalactic sporting event, the ‘pixel race’ is something that is often talked about by photographers. Many want cameras that produce smooth pictures with little image noise, rather than higher resolutions but noisier images.

There have been signs of manufacturers acknowledging this recently, most notably with the launch of the Canon PowerShot G11, which has more than four million fewer photosites than its predecessor, the PowerShot G10.

So, while the 12.1-million-pixel sensor of the Nikon D3S might seem a little sparse when compared to the likes of the 24.5-million-pixel Nikon D3X and Sony Alpha 850 and 900, or even the 21.1-million-pixel Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the D3S is, in fact, aimed at a very different type of photographer.

As a weatherproof, high-performance camera with a high ISO sensitivity, the D3S is targeted at professional photographers who rely on speed and the ability to shoot in low light. However, £4,000 is a lot to pay for a camera with just 12.1 million pixels, and I’m interested to see whether Nikon’s decision to keep the pixel count at this modest level will work in the camera’s favour.


To prove that the D3S is more than a mere upgrade of the original D3, the new camera comes with some substantial improvements and new features. The first of these is a full-frame, 12.1-million pixel CMOS image sensor.

The D3S is only the fourth Nikon DSLR to feature a full-frame imaging sensor, and although it has roughly the same number of photosites as the sensor of the original D3, the sensor has been completely redesigned. According to a representative of Nikon UK, improvements have been made to the microlenses over each photosite. It is these lenses that help to direct light into the photosite, which, in turn, has an effect on the amount of image noise generated.

The improvements made by Nikon have enabled the company to increase the maximum default ISO sensitivity setting of the D3S to an impressive ISO 12,800. However, more impressive still is the camera’s extended ISO range, which, at its maximum Hi-3 setting, is the equivalent of a staggering ISO 102,400. These extreme sensitivity settings allow photojournalists to get the pictures that pay their bills, regardless of the lighting conditions.

There is an ever-increasing demand for photojournalists to shoot video alongside their stills footage. So, with this in mind, the D3S is the first full-frame Nikon DSLR capable of recording high-definition movies footage. Like the APS-C-format Nikon D300S, the D3S can record 1280×720-pixel videos at a frame rate of 24fps, along with stereo sound via an external microphone input.

It is the convergence of video and the D3s’s ISO sensitivity that is particularly impressive – that is, the ability to shoot video footage at any ISO sensitivity up to and including ISO 102,400. I first saw a demonstration of this feature at the camera’s launch. The footage, shot by Vincent Munier, was taken at dawn and was of two brown bears roaming by the banks of a river. When I pointed out that there was still visible image noise on the film footage, Jeremy Gilbert of Nikon UK said that although there was slight image noise, a video of this type would previously have had to have been shot in infrared, which would have resulted in the video being in either monochrome or with a strong green cast. Quite how true this is of professional video cameras I don’t know, but the results were certainly impressive.

The high level of performance demanded by professional photographers is also maintained with the nine frames per second shooting rate, which is the same as that found on the original D3. When the D3S is switched to the smaller DX-format frame, the shooting rate is increased to 11 frames per second.

As a full-frame (35mm equivalent) DSLR camera, the Nikon D3S is best used with standard Nikon F-mount lenses. It is compatible with Nikon’s DX-format lenses, but the image area will be cropped to the same size as that of a DX sensor, resulting in images of 5.1 million pixels in resolution. The automatic cropping can be turned off, resulting in full-resolution, 12.1-million-pixel images, although they suffer from severe vignetting.

The DX format isn’t the only crop available on the D3S. A 1.2x crop is possible that results in 8.4-million-pixel images. A 5:4 (ten-million-pixel) crop is also available, and this format should prove extremely useful for portrait photographers.

Those who bought the original D3 were impressed with the image quality, but often found themselves having to clean the image sensor. One of the less glamorous, but much needed and requested, features of the D3S is its in-camera sensor cleaning. This should now help to keep sensors free from dust. The cleaning process can be set to operate every time the camera is turned on or off.

Build and handling

As a newer version of the D3, rather than an entirely new model, there is very little difference between the bodies of the D3, D3X and D3S. The D3S features two very slight changes.

The first of these is the addition of a dedicated button to switch on Live View mode. Video capture is also started via the Live View mode, so it is important that the feature is quickly and easily accessible.

The second change is even subtler. To help photographers in cold weather, the cutaway on the battery door latch has been made wider to make it easier to change the battery while wearing gloves. This new cover has the same product code as the old one (BL-4) and is compatible with both the D3 and D3X.

Besides these changes, the magnesium-alloy body of the D3S is almost exactly the same as the earlier two models. It has the same number of ‘O’ rings and seals to protect the camera against moisture and dust, regardless of the conditions. During this test I, along with the D3S, was caught in a heavy downpour of rain, and despite the rear of the camera getting splashed with water it didn’t suffer any adverse effects.

The button layout of the D3S should be familiar to anyone who has used a recent professional-level Nikon DSLR, plus the camera is also similar in use to the high-end enthusiast-level D300S. Among the key differences between the body of the D3S and those models further down Nikon’s range is the additional small LCD at the bottom of the rear of the camera. This small screen displays the ISO sensitivity, the image quality and white balance settings.

As the D3S uses a large EN-EL4a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, the bottom of the camera is larger than that of an enthusiast DSLR – around the same size as a D300 with the addition of a battery grip.

In fact, the bottom of the camera is built like a battery grip and includes a shutter-release button designed for shooting in portrait orientation. An ‘AF On’ button is also set into the rear of the camera for vertical shooting, although in practice it often proved a hindrance. When using the camera in one hand, the fleshy part of my palm below the thumb pressed against this button.

When reviewing images in playback mode, this often caused the autofocus to be activated, returning the camera to its shooting mode ready to take the next image. When the button is accidentally pressed during video capture it is even more  inconvenient as it causes the focus to search back and forth. This was also an issue with the original D3, and although the role of the button can be changed in the custom menu, it seems odd that Nikon hasn’t taken the opportunity to set the button slightly deeper into the body so that it cannot be accidentally pressed.

All things considered, the build and handling of the D3S are excellent, as you would expect from a camera costing over £4,000. With a huge number of in-camera customisation options, including an Fn button, My Menu and AF fine-tune, the various functions of the camera can be tweaked to fit the exact shooting needs of individual photographers.

White balance and colour

Image:  Taken at ISO 6400, this night shot of St Paul’s Cathedral shows virtually no sign of chroma noise and very little luminance. Given the sensitivity and the low level of light, the amount of detail that the Nikon D3S has been able to resolve is very impressive 

By using the Nikon Expeed processor and allowing raw files to be captured in 14-bit colour depth, the D3S renders colour excellently. There are a number of preset Picture Control settings that allow you to alter the brightness, contrast, sharpness, saturation and hue of JPEG images. These parameters can be altered and saved so you can have your own bank of custom Picture Control settings.

These settings can also be loaded to and from other compatible cameras. Using the Picture Control Utility on Capture NX2 software, you can adjust all the above settings as well as create a custom image curve. These can then be loaded onto the D3S.

The custom Picture Control facility is useful should you wish to replicate the particular look of a film or if you already have a set of Picture Controls from another compatible Nikon camera. The styles can even be applied to video footage, and viewed live while the footage is being shot. A 1005-pixel RGB sensor is used to judge the white balance.

Colours are well rendered and the white balance is correct when images are shot using AWB and preset white balance settings. However, pictures taken in overcast conditions look slightly better with the camera set to the standard daylight setting rather than the cloudy setting.


The Nikon D3S uses the same 1005-pixel RGB sensor to judge both the correct exposure and the correct white balance. The advantage of using the same sensor for numerous functions is that they can all then communicate and share information with each other.

For example, by knowing the lens focal length and the AF point, the camera can work out how far away a subject is and adjust the flash exposure accordingly. Also, by linking this sensor to the autofocus, 3D matrix tracking can take place, as the sensor records a particular colour and shade around the frame and relates its position to the autofocus, which can continue to track it.

When in its evaluative matrix metering mode, the D3S tries to calculate what you are photographing and adjusts the exposure accordingly. For example, it will ignore extremely bright highlights, but if the top half of an image is overexposed it will realise this is the sky and darken the exposure slightly.

In reality, though, most digital cameras work on very similar principles to this and, as good as the Nikon D3S’s metering system is, in practice the 1005-pixel sensor doesn’t seem to have a massive advantage over cameras with far fewer metering zones.

I found that matrix metering works very well in most landscape scenes and only occasionally did I have to make corrections using exposure compensation. When photographing wildlife, though, I found that centre weighted metering was a better option. An even better option is to use 3D tracking and link the metering to the focus point in use.

Should you not like the results, the Exposure Fine Tune settings can be found in the Custom menu. This allows the individual adjustment of the measurement of evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering, by as little as 1/6EV.

So, if you find that spot metering constantly produces images that are a too dark for your liking, you can alter it to always produce brighter results than its default setting, while still having the standard control over exposure compensation.

In all, the metering found in the Nikon D3S is almost completely adaptable depending on your specific shooting situation.



Images: Using the Nikkor 80-400mm VR lens without a support would normally prove a challenge. However, as image noise was not a concern I set the D3S to ISO 3200 to avoid camera shake and was able to capture the eyelashes of this deer in focus

Although Nikon claims that the autofocus has been improved in the D3S, it uses the same Multi-CAM3500FX system as the earlier D3 and D3X. This system, or its DX-format equivalent, is used in the majority of Nikon’s DSLR cameras, and again it is a case of Nikon utilising an already tried and tested piece of equipment and further refining it.

In use, I didn’t notice any difference between the autofocus of the D3S and that of the D3. Needless to say, it is extremely fast and responsive, particularly when used with the Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 ED-IF AF-S lens.

When switching the autofocus to 51-point 3D matrix tracking, it can be locked to a particular subject in the frame. As this subject moves, so does the AF point. This can be seen through the viewfinder and is extremely useful when photographing moving subjects.

While photographing deer, I was able to focus on a deer isolated against a background and, without moving the camera, the autofocus tracked the deer until it moved out of the frame. Sports and wildlife photographers should find the 3D tracking great for helping to frame images, without having to readjust the focus.

Resolution, noise and sensitivity

Our resolution test found that the Nikon D3S produced similar results to most other cameras with a 12-million-pixel sensor.

The compression and default noise reduction have a slight effect on the resolution of JPEG images. More detail and sharpness can be gained by carefully adjusting the raw files, where the resolution reaches as high as 26 on our chart.

When it comes to noise and sensitivity, the D3S really comes into its own. Nikon’s policy of improving on existing technology has clearly paid off and the amount of noise is minimal, even when shooting at ISO 12,800. In close-up images I took of a deer grazing, all the hairs on the deer’s face are visible, and noise is virtually invisible. Yet the images were taken at ISO 3200.

Using a full-frame sensor makes a great deal of difference: images taken at ISO 3200 look like those taken at ISO 400 on a Nikon D300. Even when compared to the D3, Nikon claims around a 2-stop improvement in the amount of noise visible at any given ISO sensitivity. From what I have seen while testing the camera, this is certainly the case.

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, still-life scene and a grey card. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately.

The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

The section of the still-life image contains theemblem on a standard sized matchbox.

Dynamic range

With a dynamic range of 11.5EV, the Nikon D3S is on a par with most other DSLR cameras at the top end of the market. With the sensor producing very little noise at the most commonly used ISO speeds, there is plenty of flexibility when it comes to adjusting the brightness and contrast of an image without introducing noise.

Active D-Lighting is available in the D3S to help make shadow areas brighter, although it doesn’t increase the dynamic range and is really only a contrast curve. Even when the sensitivity is set to ISO 1600, and the Active D-Lighting set to its Extra High setting, only a hint of luminance noise is introduced.

When used at its highest ISO settings, the D3S suffers around a 1EV decrease in dynamic range. This is generally caused by the noise in the image starting to affect the highlight and shadow areas.

Understanding the graph

This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge. The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255. Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.

The colour gamut of the Nikon D3S shows it is particularly good at reproducing blues and reds. While the camera is capable of capturing nearly all the colours within the sRGB colour gamut, it isn’t quite able to encompass all of the greens available. That said, I didn’t have any problems with particular colours showing banding.

LCD, Live View, Viewfinder and Video

Once again, the LCD display and viewfinder of the D3S are the same as the D3 and D3x. In fact, the 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen is the same as the one used in the D3000, D90, D300S and D700. It is bright, clear and of high enough quality to make it possible to check that even fine details are correctly focused.

The viewfinder offers a 100% field of view with a 0.7x magnification, and it is bright and large enough to allow manual focus.

Like other FX-series Nikon DSLRs, the D3S has a circular eyepiece to which you can fit accessories, including the DR-5 right-angle viewfinder and DK-17M magnifying eyepiece.

When shooting at an awkward angle, Live View can be activated via a dedicated button on the rear.  While this is activated, a few of the on-screen displays prove extremely useful. One is a live histogram, which shows the exact spread of tones across the image. Another is the virtual horizon, which is highlighted in green when the camera is perfectly level. Perhaps most important is the ability to zoom in on the Live View image to check and adjust focus.

D-Movie video capture is activated via the Live View mode. As with Live View, only contrast-detection AF is possible when shooting a D-Movie. Continuous AF is not available so focus tracking must be handled manually.

The technique allows control of focusing and depth of field that simply isn’t possible with a camcorder. Being able to create bokeh background effects makes even the simplest video footage look professional.

Combined with the D3S’s high ISO sensitivities, the D-Movie mode comes into its own. The ability to shoot video footage at ISO 12,800 or higher opens up opportunities that used to need expensive, dedicated equipment.

Our verdict

At the press launch of the Nikon D3S I was very impressed with the quality of the images on display, but was eager to see how the camera would perform in my own hands. As is clear here, the D3S fared well.

Its body and many of its features will come as little surprise to those already familiar with the D3 and D3X, but it is the newly designed sensor and low levels of noise that steal the show. It is now realistic to shoot at ISO sensitivities that would previously have meant pushing Ilford Delta 3200 by two stops, and even then results were extremely grainy.

When this technology is combined with high-definition video, the D3S becomes a truly creative tool for professional photographers. As much as a higher resolution would have been nice, a 16-million-pixel, 300ppi image is only around a couple of inches larger along each side than a 12.2-million-pixel image. This resolution should be perfectly fine for most photographers, unless the images are going to be printed a lot larger than A3 in size.

For sports, wildlife and press photographers requiring speed and performance, the Nikon D3S is currently the race leader, but expect to see a strong chasing pack gaining ground next year.

Nikon D3S Key highlights

Dual CompactFlash sockets

The D3S has dual memory card sockets for storing images and video footage. The second card can be allocated to provide extra memory, a backup of the first card, to store JPEG files (when shooting raw and JPEG simultaneously) or to save video footage.


Like other professional-level cameras, the Nikon D3S doesn’t have an in-camera flash. However, the camera is compatible with Nikon’s Speedlight flashguns, and compatible wireless flashguns can be controlled using either the Speedlight SB-900 or the SU-800 Wireless Commander unit.

Quiet mode

Recently seen on the D300S, the Quiet mode raises the shutter more slowly than usual. After exposing the sensor the shutter is closed with the mirror returning more slowly to its original position and only when the photographer has released the shutter button. Noise is still audible, but the loud ‘slap’ that usually occurs is avoided.


As with all Nikon DSLR cameras, the D3s comes with View NX software. This offers basic editing features for raw and JPEG files. Nikon’s Capture NX 2 software has more editing options for raw files. It is available separately for £158.99. For more details see

HDMI socket

Placed on the side of the camera, this allows an HDMI cable to be plugged in so that images and video may be viewed on a compatible external display

Secondary LCD panel  

This smaller liquid crystal display shows the ISO sensitivity, WB and Image Quality.  Once again, the LCD display and viewfinder of the D3S are the same as the D3 and D3x. In fact, the 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen is the same as the one used in the D3000, D90, D300S and D700. It is bright, clear and of high enough quality to make it possible to check that even fine details are correctly focused.

The competition

Images: Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Sony Alpha 900

In the past few years Nikon has stolen a huge share of the professional DSLR market from Canon. When the original D3 was launched many photographers switched allegiance, and the arrival of the D700 and D3X have helped cement the professional market for Nikon.

However, with the exception of the D3X, all of Nikon’s pro cameras feature 12-million-pixel sensors, and while this has kept image noise to a minimum, Canon has a 21.1-million-pixel sensor in its EOS 5D Mark II and a 16.1-million-pixel sensor in its new EOS-1D Mark IV, although the latter is not full-frame.

It will be interesting to see how the image noise produced by the EOS-1D Mark IV compares. Its smaller 16.1-million-pixel sensor should capture more detail than the D3S, but I would expect images to have more image noise.

For now, the Nikon D3S is quite simply a superb camera, and I wouldn’t expect Nikon to release its replacement, presumably the D4, for at very least another 18 months, This is a long time in the digital camera market, and if the higher resolution Canon EOS-1D Mark IV can produce anything like the same low levels of image noise, Nikon may once again have a fight on its hands for top spot.

Sony is the only other manufacturer that produces full-frame DSLRs – the Alpha 850 and 900. Both have 24.6-million-pixel sensors, but continuous shooting rates of just three and five frames per second respectively. Despite appealing mostly to studio photographers, the Sony cameras are less than half the price of the Nikon D3X, making them a better option for the enthusiast.