A COMPREHENSIVE REVIEW OF THE NIKON D3S BY JOHN-HENRY BARTLETT
This review is being written because of my love for this camera. I've been a proud owner of this body for 5 years. It's a wedding photographers dream. Nikon's D3s was released on the 14th of October 2009. To this day, its low-light capabilities remain among the best of the DSLRs out on the market. The driving forces behind my choice for purchasing the D3s was its outstanding performance in low-light, its speed, reliability and overall efficiency. I needed a camera that mimicked me as a reflection of my personality. A hard-working, reliable & resilient machine.
During the infant stages of my photographic journey, my initial contemplation was that if I were to excel in the photographic field as fast as possible, that I'd need to challenge myself by shooting in the most demanding environments. To do that effectively, you need the right gear. My first SLR was a entry-level Nikon D40. The D40 does not perform well in dimly-lit scenarios. The assistance of flash is imperative. With flash and from a beginners standpoint, the D40 was a great tool for learning the basics of built-in camera flash photography and how to interact with subjects using a camera. Without flash on the other hand, not so great. After the d40, I "upgraded" to an intermediate-level Nikon D200, which wasn't much different performance-wise, mostly due to its weak ISO sensitivity range.
Things changed with the D3s. Within my mind, an exhilarating new realm of creative freedom burst into motion. The Nikon D3s's capabilities stretched my imaginations borders within possibilities of photography. After my first few outings, my mind surged with ideas. Now, if that's not inspiration, then I don't know what is.
The 12.3 megapixel FX-format CMOS Sensor comes compatible with 3 image sensor formats e.g. FX format (36 x 24), 5:4 (30 x 24) and DX format (24 x 16). The sensors ability to capture different intensities of light in challenging environments is phenomenal. The sensor offers the same resolution as its predecessor, the D3, at 12 million pixels, but excels in ISO performance with a 'native' range of ISO 200-12,800, expandable up to ISO 102,400. The low noise that the sensor is able to produce under high ISO settings is my personal favorite aspect of the D3s. From what I've experienced, any ISO setting above 3600 and the amount of grain starts becoming too prevalent. For off-camera flash, effectively using around 1200-1600 ISO is an essential feature that is critically imperative to pull off my style of shooting.
Above is a clear example of the difference between the size of Nikon's DX and FX sensors. The FX is noticeably larger, which allows more light to flow onto the sensor when the shutter is released. The bigger FX sensor, like the one found on the D3s, is the main reason behind the cameras ability to perform so well in low-light environments. There's a saying that the quality of an image is based 50% the camera and the other half the lens. Ultimately, what determines the quality of an image is how much light can be loaded as an electric charge to each of the pixels composing the image sensor and how efficiently that light can be converted to an electrical signal. The larger pixels on the FX format image sensors means that more light is captured. Thus, enhancing the bokeh/blurry background effect, not to the extent that a medium format camera would, but still noticeably as well as providing the D3s with its low-light ISO capabilties. With the combination of the higher end Nikon lenses such as the 24-70mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4, 70-200 f/2.8 etc., the full potential of the full-frame FX camera's sensor is unleashed. Using DX lenses with an FX sensor would just be a waste of the cameras capabilities.
Purchasing professional photographic equipment can be a harrowing experience for any newcomer venturing into the professional photographic field. Buying high-end equipment is much more pricey than the cheaper counterparts. If you are serious about the job, get the best gear you can. It will last longer. If you buy the cheaper version, you will eventually have to upgrade anyway.
The magnesium alloy body effectively protects the camera from invasive dust, moisture and electromagnetic interference. This is invaluable on the job. You never know in which conditions you're going to be shooting. It's reassuring to know that you're camera isn't going to give in on you because of unexpected weather conditions.
In my personal opinion, the negative aspect concerning the size of the D3s is that you lose intimacy when documenting subjects. The approximate dimensions, WxHxD - 159.5 x 157 x 87.5 mm (6.3 x 6.2 x 3.4 in.) pretty much covers your whole face depending on which eye you shoot from. Thus, my choice to purchase the Nikon Df, which I will get into on my next review.
The fast startup time of the camera helps in certain scenarios. Like a computer, sometimes you need to "reboot" the camera, could be for a variety of reasons e.g. cameras not syncing correctly with the lens or the autofocus system just randomly stops responding. In critical times this means that you might lose an important shot. Having a startup time of 12ms definitely helps. It's almost like having a very fast reboot capability when your pc freezes.
SHUTTER & PROCESSOR
The D3s's ability to shoot 9-frames-per-second in FX format and 11 fps in DX format combined with a buffer allowing continuous capture of up to 82 JPEG (fine) or 36 14-bit NEF (RAW) images in one burst. This is an exceptional liability for news, sports and wildlife photographers. Be cautioned, blasting through your shutter will rack up the cycles on the shutter very quickly and when the shutter gives in, you're buggered. The Kevlar / carbon fibre composite shutter has a life expectancy of 300, 000 cycles, which is 3x as much as entry to mid-level DSLR's. My D3s peaked at 320, 000 actuation's before I had my shutter replaced by Nikon South Africa(which is not a fast process). Included is a 'Quiet' shutter release mode.
The sound of the shutter without this mode is quite loud and can be very distracting when there are no other noises. The fastest speed the shutter can go is 1/8000th of a second. This means that you get more value out of using faster lenses in daylight and more creative freedom when you need to freeze elements of an image. You're also able to use lower f-stops on lenses, which is more beneficial for your pricier prime lenses.
The shutter-release time lag is industry-leading at approximately 0.04 seconds. At demanding concentration levels, when you decide to take the shot, you get the shot.
The Nikon D3s has the same auto-focus system as the D3 and D3x. Like the Nikon D3X, D3, D700, D300S and D300, the D3S's Multi-CAM 3500 AF system has 51 "precision focus" AF points spread across the frame. The Multi-CAM 3500 AF system offers 9-area, 21-area, 51-area, and 51-area with 3D tracking modes.
When tracking a subject or object, the AF can track from outside the Active AF area. This means the RGB sensor covers a greater part of the frame than the 51 active AF points. Though, this doesn't extend too far beyond the AF array. In previous Nikon AF systems, and those of competing manufacturers, the AF system would have no idea where the subject was once it passed beyond the active AF area. As a result, it would take more time to re-acquire the subject when it re-entered the active AF area. This is especially helpful with a rapidly moving subject framed within the AF area.
The D3s has dual CF card compartments with overflow, backup and copy options. This means that if one of your cards fail, you will always have a backup of the images you've shot as long as there's another card in the second compartment. This is essential for any important work. The sense of security, knowing that your images will always be backed up, is an irreplaceable assurance on the job.
Initially, the D3s's EN-EL4a battery lasts for around 3500 shutter cycles before a recharge is necessary. After around 300, 000 cycles on the cameras shutter, the battery nears the end of its life expectancy and starts to give in at around 1500 shots. Along with the battery comes a dual-battery charger, adding to the overall time-efficiency capabilities.
The speed at which you can access different settings plays a big part in the cameras efficiency. Being able to change ISO, White Balance, Image Quality & autofocus settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder is a huge benefit. The autofocus settings are conveniently placed close to your thumb. Pressing the AF-L duplicates the half shutter press. It locks both the exposure and shutter until released. the AF-ON button initiates autofocus by default
This 3-position rotary switch is located on the back of the camera with 3 icons enclosed in brackets. The top icon is a white rectangle (Auto area autofocus), the middle icon (Dynamic area autofocus) and on the bottom the Single point autofocus.
The Auto Area Autofocus uses all 51 focus points and identifies where the subject is. Nikon doesn't say how this algorithm works but it can distinguish humans from the background. Though you don't have control of what gets focused, the camera highlights the focus points in red when the front mode is set to "AF-Single". This works well with uncluttered backgrounds where the subject is clearly distinguishable.
The Dynamic Area Autofocus is used when the subject moves away from the initial focus point selection. You tell the camera where the subject is by selecting the focus point. The camera 'remembers' the focus point, and estimates its trajectory.
The Single Point Autofocus is for static subjects where a single fixed focus point is best. The focus point is selected using the joystick. The focus appears as a red rectangle in the viewfinder, and flashes when locked. This remains fixed unless you change it via the joystick.
You can easily oscillate between these settings with your thumb. Even whilst looking through the viewfinder. This switch, in conjunction with the front focus mode switch is probably my most used switch after the metering dials.
This 3-positions rotary switch is located on the front of the camera with 3 letters. The front Focus Mode Switch selects 3 different kinds of autofocus.
C is for "AF-Continuous", meaning the camera constantly tracks focus as the subject moves in and out. Oscillating between these autofocus settings in conjunction with the Focus Area Mode Selector is how you get the shot.
S is "AF-Single", in which the camera focuses and then locks.
M is for manual.
The duplicate vertical controls means that you're able to hold the camera in 2 ways. This transition comes in when you decide to shoot your images in portrait. You're quickly able to transition between the two styles of shooting. One of the main benefits being that you're more aware of your surroundings because more of your face is exposed.
When in Live View mode, the mirror is already up, this means that there is no need turn on the mirror lockup setting. This is an excellent attribute for photographing landscapes, or any general tripod use. The D3s is big, I find it very impersonal because you're hiding behind it most of the time. With the Live View mode your able to focus on the 3-Inch 921,000-dot VGA LCD Monitor while still staying concentrated on the subject. The biggest disadvantage to this setting is that it will eat up your batteries. If you're using Live View then make sure that you have a spare battery.
This area is located on the top of the camera to the left of the prism. This 5-position rotary switch is labelled: S, CL, CH, Q, M-UP and a clock symbol. This dial is locked to prevent accidental change and can only be turned by holding the lock release pin to the top left of the dial. On the top of this dial are three buttons for bracketing, flash mode and function lock. Very easy to access efficiently.
S is for "Single Frame Shooting", One from is taken with one depression of the shutter release button.
CL is for "Continuous Low Speed Shooting", the camera shoots continuously while the shutter release is depressed. By default, 5 frames per second but can be set between 1 and 9.
CH is for "Continuous High Speed Shooting", the Camera shoots continiously while the shutter release is depressed. In this mode the camera shoots at 9 frames per second in FX or up to 11 frames per second in DX
Q is for "Quiet Mode", In this mode, the shutter is released and the mirror is raised but doesn't drop until the photographer's finger is released from the shutter button. The initial click of the exposure is also quieter than the normal 'S' mode.
Self-timer, the camera takes a shot after a predefined delay. This can be set to 2, 5, 10, or 20 seconds.
M-UP is for "Mirror Up", the first depression on the shutter release button raises the mirror and the second to take the shot. By default, the shutter releases after 30 seconds has elapsed with the mirror lockup activated