Nikon D3s Hands-On Review

The Nikon D3s is the successor to the Nikon D3. The camera is not much of a change from the previous model except for higher ISO settings and the addition of a new video mode. Nikon users will still appreciate that much of their beloved D3 has not been touched and that this camera is still meant for its intended audience. Sports shooters and photojournalists alike will very much so enjoy the capabilities offered to them on this camera.

The camera is still, essentially the D3. Most of the changes are on the sensor and processor. There have been no added ergonomic changes to the camera and the buttons all appear to still be in the same place. Handling is still the same and many things will still be familiar to previous Nikon users.

New to the camera are some new crop modes. There is now the option of shooting full frame, 1.2x, DX (1.5x) and the 5:4 ratio. In Live View, this looks something like a 640×480 video ratio.

The camera feels exactly like the D3 and D3x. It is still built like a tank, it is still heavy and you will still not want to put this camera down. It feels like a serious camera that is very reliable and can surely be your workhorse. The viewfinder is bright and beautiful. The full frame sensor delivers such clean images and combine with the right lenses (such as the 85mm F1.8) delivers lovely results.

The above image is one taken of my friend Mike that accompanied me to Photo Plus using the D3s and 85mm lens. It was shot wide open. His face is sharp and the level of detail is adequate enough for a portrait. The image was shot at ISO 1600 at 1/800th of a second. Of course though, this is not primarily what this camera is used for. Portraits and studio work belong to the D3x. However, it is nice to know that if you need to do this type of work that the D3s will surely be able to do it. Unfortunately, there were no fast moving objects around that were available to shoot and lighting conditions were less than ideal in the Javitz Center.

On the camera’s LCD, the higher ISOs look to be very clean for their level and one can be very confident about shooting in the dead of night handheld. All images that come from the camera are usable in some way or another. As is Nikon’s standard, the higher ISO images look very film-like. IIn this case, colors may not be totally accurate as the world around you may actually be much more pitch black. ISO 6400 already does that for the most part. It will only be a matter of time before these cameras will see better than we can in the dark – if that’s not already the case.

The reps said that they’ve actually taken people into a room that was pitch black and using only the light from a cell phone they were able to autofocus and take their pictures quite easily. To accommodate to such extreme measures, the autofocus has been upgraded to keep up with the high ISO demands.

These photos are all JPEGs right out of the camera. As you see in the photo on the man above, colors are also rendered well at the lower ISOs.

Something that I found to be a bit of a nuisance is that the ISO button is all the way down on the bottom row on the back of the camera. Live View is accessible by using the button on the bottom right near the LCD screen. To begin recording a video, all one has to do is press the circle in the middle of the directional button or press one of the buttons nearest to the lens. Otherwise, most of the controls can be easily accessed and changed without your eye leaving the viewfinder once you develop the muscle memory.

In Live View mode, one can see the huge differences. Once you start recording a movie, the LCD goes into the 16:9 native ratio aspect. Similarly, if you’re in a different crop mode, the Live View will accommodate to that as well.

Additionally, using the one focus point (which you can move around all over) you can zoom in quite a bit using the shutter wheel and this way you can focus in precisely to the exact point needed.

I recommend doing this with an image stabilized lens of some sort. The reason for this is because there is a serious jello effect that can annoy you quite a bit when shooting.

Something that Nikon needs to be given praise on is being able to control the volume of audio and your microphone output from the camera. This greatly will aid photojournalists, filmmakers, concert shooters, etc.

The LCD is very high resolution and the images appear instantly. With other cameras it seems to take a bit longer for the images to appear.

The unique thing about this camera seemed to be the feel of actually shooting it. The D3s seems to have a softer feeling shutter than the D3. Granted, it sounds like a silenced machine gun but it is nice to know that the shutter is softer. I got quite a kick out of just keeping our fingers on the shutter and feeling it fire away at 9fps with little to no movement of the camera.

The D3s still takes dual CF cards.  You can simply choose which card you’re going to need to use. It will take you quite a while to fill up your cards shooting at 12MP and 720p HD video.

Overall, I’m still very impressed with the Nikon D3s. I loved the Nikon D3 and to know that most of the things haven’t changed is very nice. It is not necessarily worth the upgrade from the D3 though because the only real changes are the higher ISOs and HD video. This camera seems more for those that didn’t buy the D3 or that are looking to upgrade from something like a D300 or D700 as it is then totally worth it.

The most outstanding thing about this camera in my humble opinion is the high ISO image quality. A full frame sensor combined with low megapixels and good algorithms to keep the noise down will allow the photographers to take their craft to places they haven’t been able to before. As one photographer told me, “I took better photos, and it wasn’t because I became a better photographer.”

I am still disappointed in 720p HD video at 24p. Sure, this will do well for some. However, we also want better quality files and more frame rate options like Canon offers in there video-DSLRs.  While Nikon is lacking in this department, this camera can be praised for demonstrating and continuing to build upon Nikon’s strengths instead of just letting them fall to the wayside. This will further push other camera companies to try to strive to outdo them.

Their bodies still feel rugged. The US Army uses Nikon in their war zones and US government workers get discounts on Nikon products. For the rough and tough battlefields, to the pitcher’s mound, to the forensics crime scene; the D3s will do very well for the professionals that require it.

For more, see Photography Bay’s Nikon D3s Reviews and Resources.

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