Nikon D3S Preview

When Nikon introduced the D3 and D300 together back in August 2007, it was major news because the D3 was Nikon’s first full-35mm-frame, FX format (24×36mm) DSLR with a Nikon-designed 12MP CMOS sensor that has a rated ISO range from 200 to 6400. For the D3 product launch, Nikon invited hundreds of representatives from around the world to Tokyo. The amazing part was that the D3 produces very good results all the way to ISO 3200 and is still quite reasonable at ISO 6400 under dim light, thus opening up new ways to photograph indoors and at night, such as weddings and night sports. Now two years later, we are getting used to that type of high-ISO performance so that it no longer seems special any more. reviewed that original D3 in early 2008.

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Improved High-ISO Results

Presenting…the D3S, Nikon’s first FX-sensor DSLR with HD movie mode. For high-tech electronics, two years is a long time. Nikon has improved the 12MP CMOS FX sensor for the new D3S so that its rated ISO is extended by another stop to 12800 with additional Hi 1, 2, and 3 ratings all the way to a whopping ISO 102,400 equivalent. While the high-ISO performance on the D3S has yet to be tested independently, generally speaking, I would use anything above the rated ISO range (i.e. Hi 1, Hi 2 …) from Nikon DSLRs only when it is absolutely necessary, but if the D3S can produce good ISO 6400 and fair ISO 12800 results, it will still be a significant one-stop improvement from the D3 and D700. (The D700 was added in mid 2008 with essentially the same internal electronics and high-ISO performance as the D3.)


Additional New D3S Features: Movie Mode, Sensor Cleaning, Memory Expansion

Most DSLRs introduced in the last year have the movie mode. Adding video capability is a natural progression once we have live view, and the additional cost is minimal. However, some purists do not like the idea of adding video capture to still cameras, and using a DSLR designed mainly for still photography to capture video is still a little awkward, but the movie mode is definitely a nice feature to have at least for occasional use.

One feature that was clearly missing from the original D3 was auto sensor cleaning, which was available on the D300 (announced simultaneously with the D3). While it is not a critical feature to me, I am sure a lot of people are glad to see that on the D3S. Sensor cleaning on the D3S has four different vibration frequencies to choose from.

In mid 2008 shortly before the Beijing Olympics, Nikon offered a $500 memory expansion option for the D3. This expansion more than doubles the buffer size for action photography. Essentially this expansion is now standard on the D3S.

Major D3S Features:

  • New 12MP CMOS sensor, FX format
  • 5MP DX-crop mode (same as D3) and new 8.4MP, 1.2x crop mode
  • Rated ISO from 200-12800, with extended Lo 1, Hi 1, 2, and 3 ranges
  • 14-bit A/D conversion, 16-bit image processing
  • 12-bit or 14-bit RAW (Nikon NEF) files
  • Multi-CAM 3500 FX AF module, 51 AF points (same as D3)
  • Movie Mode: 1280×720, 24fps HD AVI recording with contrast-detection AF, and stereo microphone jacks
  • Extract 1280×780 JPEG basic still images from movie
  • Dedicated Live View button and Info button
  • Sensor Cleaning with 4 vibration frequencies


Typically an “S” update to a Nikon camera (e.g. N8008 to N8008s, D70 to D70s, D2X to D2Xs) represents only minor improvements and small feature updates to a popular camera. The D3s has the very much expected additions of the movie mode and sensor cleaning. However, the extra stop in its high-ISO performance should be very welcome by news, sports, and wedding photographers.

While we were unable to get a hands-on preview model for this write-up, we’ll be participating in a hands-on event with the D3S next week and will keep you posted on our experience using the camera.

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Original text ©2009 Shun Cheung.

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    • I am interested to personally experience:
    • Quiet mode
    • Electronic Virtual Horizon instant accurate confirmation of your “horizontal level.” In Live View shooting, display the Electronic Virtual Horizon on the LCD, above the monitor image, for landscape and architectural photography.

      [2] will be more useful in the D3X. May be they will add that to the D700X or the D3XS.

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    • Thanks for the write up Shun. Any thoughts on mp rating for the camera? Some people thought it might be higher. I guess the D4 will fix that.
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    • Thanks for the info. I like this - now I will only have to wait until these improvements have been exported to a D700-equivalent, which is more in my price range.
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    • We will have to wait and see... Quality before quantity I suppose.
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    • This is a really awesome camera.
      I had a chance to play with a production version during a NPS day in Canberra. I was in the between of a wedding and came along with some CF cards.
      I snapped a few frames at the native ISO of 12800 along with the new 70-200 ... Creamy awesome quality.
      When most of camera give "barely" usable images at their highest native ISO, the D3s is just liek ISO 800 from most recent cameras.
      Don't know if I could post some images taken with the camera here or not.

      Oh I also did a few video with the camera ...
      The D3s will be in store by Nov 25th in Canberra. Not sure about stock quantity though.

      Links to 100% crops here:

      crop one

      crop two

      crop three

      crop four

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    • I'm surprised nobody seems to be making a big deal about the HUGE buffer on this camera. If it can hold about 35 or more RAW files, I can't believe people aren't saying this is a major advantage over the Canons. Even the new 1D Mk IV only has a 25 frame buffer. 10 more frames could easily make the difference at a game or while shooting little kids or small birds or insects that are running around all over the place. There have been many times that I was shooting little kids or dragon flies when I ran into the buffer on my Canon 5D, and I missed a great shot. Buffer size is SO important to me. Isn't it important to other people?
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    • I'm curious to hear the pros/cons of the 12 MP FX sensor on the D3s versus the 12 MP DX sensor of the D90?
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    • Now, after having used the Nikon D3S for around 2 months in a variety of situations I can say without hesitation that this is the finest DSLR available (experts oppinion is similar: Nikon D3S expert review ). Its ability to shoot sports action in low light is stunning and the focus is very responsive and always spot on! The lenses which I have purchased have all been superior to their Canon equivalent counterparts. Although, the Nikon does have some wholes in their lineup, most notably the the 85mm f/1.2.

      While I believe that the filming features of the 1D Mark IV are likely superior it was a mute point for me after a year of experiences with the 5d Mark II. Unless you are very serious you will not get good results filming with any DSLR so I did not consider this when deciding which camera to buy.

      In conclusion, I was very nervous about buying the Nikon D3S instead of the Canon 1D Mark IV. However, after using the D3S in a variety of situations I have absolutely fallen in love with this camera.

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