Nikon D3s £3500
28th Jan 2010 | 14:11
The D3s offers the ultimate in performance, build and image quality
Nikon D3s: Overview
When the D3s was announced a few months ago, it was difficult to see what the fuss was about.
It looked exactly the same as the 24.5 megapixel D3x and the original 12.1MP D3.
That wasn't where the similarities ended, either - Nikon has resisted the urge to follow Canon and make its 'prosumer' and professional cameras 15 megapixels and up, and the D3s sticks rigidly to the more-than-adequate 12.1MP of its predecessor.
But while the looks are the same, the D3s delivers a hearty kick to the outgoing D3.
Its headline specs - the 12.1MP sensor and 9fps continuous shooting speed - are unchanged, but its ISO performance and specification have been massively expanded.
Where the original D3 had a maximum ISO of 25,600, the D3s goes two stops further, to a previously-unheard of 102,400.
Nikon D3s: ISO performance
When TechRadar attended the launch of the D3s, it was easy to scoff at marketing claims that the camera could "shoot in the dark", but a bit of experimentation reveals that at its highest ISO, the camera can amplify light much better than the human eye.
There's plenty of wow-factor to be had in pointing the camera at a totally dark room and then marvelling at the amount of detail returned from a fast shutter speed.
The highest ISO will be a gimmick most of the time - times when you really are shooting in the dark are likely to be few and far between, and the image quality of 102,400 is pretty crummy - our test pics were extremely noisy and suffered from heat spots and colour shifts.
But in an emergency, or when the content of a shot means more than the quality, it's useful to have a camera that will return intelligible images. It also means you never need to worry about the quantity of light, as you almost always have enough to return a usable shutter speed.
But while the 102,400 ISO is a headline feature, the real draw is the D3s's performance a few stops down the line.
We're used to Nikon's FX cameras performing well at high ISOs - the D700 is excellent up to ISO 3200 - but the D3s fairly blew our socks off. It's at least a stop better than the D700, with noise only just creeping into our test shots at ISO 3200, and not becoming a cause for alarm until ISO 25,600.
And, while the continuous mode isn't any faster, Nikon's claim that the D3s's buffer is more than twice that of the D3's is accurate - in 12-bit RAW mode we captured 36 frames at 9fps before the D3s paused for breath.
You get two continuous-shooting modes - the slower mode can be set from 1fps to 9fps, while the sportier mode goes to 11fps, although anything faster than 9fps requires you to crop the active area of the sensor down to the equivalent of the D300s's.
It's here that the Canon 1D MKIV - on paper - has a 10 per cent speed advantage, as it goes to 10fps with its APS-H sensor. The rest of the D3s's performance is beyond reproach, as it should be. There's no shutter lag to speak of and no sense of delay as you flick through shutter speeds or aperture sizes.
Nikon D3s: ISO test shots
We took some test shots at every ISO setting:
Nikon D3s: Build quality
The D3s's bulk takes some getting used to - "like taking a picture with a laptop" was one particularly uncharitable verdict - but once you get used to the camera's 1.2kg weight (2.2kg with our 14-24mm review lens) it's difficult to argue that the D3s isn't worth every penny of its extravagant price tag.
It's made from tough-feeling magnesium alloy with chunky rubber grips at every point your hands come into contact with it, and is sealed against water and dust ingress by a series of rubber seals.
Every button and control wheel feels bigger and tougher than those on Nikon's consumer-level cameras: the D3s feels like it will survive all but the most wilful abuse.
If we were forced to name a single point of perceived weakness it would be the thin-feeling catch you need to lift to uncover the button that releases the memory card door, but even breaking that would take a stroke of spectacularly bad luck.
It's not just the exterior that feels bomb-proof - the shutter assembly is rated to withstand 300,000 actuations, and the D3s gains a sensor dust-reduction system over the D3.
The drawback to the D3s's military-grade construction is its size and weight, but your concerns - and your complaining shoulders - fade into the background once you start taking pictures. Once you've visualised your shot, the D3s makes it very, very hard to miss.
The Multi-CAM 3500FX focus sensor is the same as that in the D3, although it's not exactly showing its age. In Dynamic-area mode the D3s proved difficult to trip up, and you have the option of using only 11 autofocus points if you find using all 51 too slow.
Of those 51 focus points, 15 are cross-type, clustered in the middle of the frame. No Nikon has more cross-type autofocus points, although a few Canon cameras enjoy a technical advantage: the 7D with 19, and the comparatively-priced crop-frame 1D MKIV with 39.
The pentaprism viewfinder gives you a one hundred per cent view of the frame and, on our f/2.8 review lens, provided a sharp, bright image that made taking over from the autofocus system easy and quick.
There's no squinting at distant objects or spraying your subject with shots while you turn the focus ring: it's extremely easy to get things right first time.
The list of pro-level features goes on. A (second) integrated microphone allows you to record a sound clip with every shot - automatically if you choose - while the memory card door covers a pair of Compact Flash slots, allowing you to install two cards for either a much-improved maximum allowable shot capacity, or a modicum of redundancy should a card fail mid-shoot.
Moreover, there are plenty of nods to keeping photographers away from the menu system. Most major changes to the D3s's shooting mode can be made with a button and control wheel combination, while others, such as metering mode and focus area, get dedicated switches.
Nikon D3s: Movie mode
An inevitable addition is the D-movie function, whose top setting is 24fps at 720p. It's more of a tempting tick box than a compelling reason to buy a D3s, though.
There's no arguing that the video mode produces excellent quality - it captured colours accurately and reproduced pin-sharp detail - but there are a few disclaimers to be made.
Unlike the Canon 7D and 1D MKIV you don't get to control the D3s's shutter speed or ISO. And, although the five-minute recording time can be overlooked (except in the case of time-lapse video), the D3s also falls behind in resolution - Canon's HD-capable DSLRs shoot up to 1080p.
A lonely advantage is that the D3s's Motion-JPEG footage is easier for non-linear editing suites to process.
Weak overall video performance
Of course, you almost certainly shouldn't buy one. Tipping the scales at around £3,500, the D3s offers far more power than most photographers need. 9fps continuous shooting is a great feature but most will be happy with the 7fps of the Nikon D300s, or the 8fps of the Canon 7D.
Prospective shoppers might also consider that this much money could buy the D300s' body with enough left over for Nikon's 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens.
You could justify it, of course - the £3,500 D3s is a camera likely to last well into the next decade (and possibly the one after that), and one whose images are more than likely to stand the test of time.
It would be deeply irresponsible, of course, to recommend such an expensive camera to non-professional photographers, but while you might regret the consequences of spending this much money, you won't be disappointed with the camera.
Nikon D3s: Sample shots
A selection of our Nikon D3s sample shots:
Nikon D3s: Verdict
Amazing images? Check. Top build quality? Check. Top-notch ISO performance? Check. There are other prosumer cameras around that come close to the D3s – which is incredible, when you come to think about it – but none that match it.
The standout feature on the D3s is its ISO capabilities.
The top end of its ISO range is a bit of a gimmick – peeping Toms and paparazzi aside it's unlikely you'll need the D3s's spectacular light-gathering detail. But the ISOs further downrange are amazing – ISO 3200 is a genuinely usable setting, which means you can shoot for longer at decent shutter speeds.
Build quality also gets a mention – the D3s feels like it could survive a bomb blast.
We wish the D3s had a better movie mode – 5 minutes of filming at 720p isn't earth-shattering, and of equal concern is the lack of manual control.
It's good enough for simple reportage footage, though, although well-heeled budding documentarians should consider a camera capable of 1080p or, better yet, a dedicated video camera.
At this price and performance it's a straight shootout between this and the Canon 1D MKIV, which we haven't seen yet. If you're a professional in the market for a new body and are already committed to Nikon equipment, there is no reason not to buy this camera.