Angela Nicholson was one of a select band of journalists that got to try out a pre-production Nikon D3s at its European press launch. She explains why there’s more to it than just adding video technology to the D3.
At first glance the Nikon D3s might look like a D3 with added video technology, but there are quite a few other changes that have been made to the camera. The full-frame (36x23.9mm) sensor, for instance, may have the same 12.1-million-pixel count and pixel pitch (8.45µm), but I am told it is a new device designed with maximising light sensitivity as a primary goal. its primary goal. For starters, James Banfield, Nikon UK Professional Support and Training tells me that the sensor itself has been made thinner to boost the camera’s low-light ability. Also, as with the D3, the micro lenses are gapless, but they have been reworked to improve light transmission and allow more of the light that passes through the lens to reach the sensor. The circuitry has also been altered to help reduce the introduction of noise.
Perhaps the most headline worthy consequence of the changes made to the sensor is that Nikon has managed to push the maximum sensitivity setting of the D3s to the equivalent of a whopping ISO 102,400. This is an incredible two stops further than was possible with the D3, which has a maximum expansion setting that is equivalent to ISO 25,600. The highest native, or non-expansion, setting available on the D3s is ISO 12,800. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to publish the images that I shot with the pre-production camera that I used at Nikon’s European press-launch in St Andrews, Scotland, but the images taken at ISO 102,400 are usable. They look similar to shots taken on the D3 at ISO 25,600. Chroma noise is visible, and some have banding in the darker areas, but the beauty of such a high setting is that you can use movement-freezing shutter speeds in remarkably low light. When I used the ISO 102,400 setting to allow me to handhold the camera when shooting in a dimly lit room, the images contained more detail than I was able to see in the gloom. The results at ISO 12,800 are also very impressive and are a good match for images taken at ISO 6400 with the D3.
One reservation expressed about the D3 when it first arrived was that it doesn’t have a dust-removal system. Nikon managed to squeeze one into its D700, but it was at the expense of the 100% field of view in the viewfinder. Thankfully, Nikon’s engineers have now been able to resolve the problem and the D3s has a built-in dust-removal system and a 100% viewfinder. The dust-removal system vibrates the filter above the sensor at four different frequencies to remove a range of dust particle sizes.
Naturally, a camera that has such high sensitivity settings needs an AF system that is equally capable in low light. My experience in Scotland indicates that the D3s will not disappoint. I found the AF system was able to get the subject sharp in lower light than I was able to focus in manually. There was a little bit of hunting in some cases, but I am talking about very dim conditions.
Although the D3s has the same 51-point Multi-CAM3500 AF system (with 15 central cross-points) as the D3, the algorithms have been tweaked to improve the acquisition speed and tracking performance in the continuous AF modes. I didn’t notice an enormous difference in the speed of acquisition, but the D3 was very fast in the first place.
Like the D3, the D3s is aimed at professional photographers, especially those working for the press or shooting out in the field rather in a studio (the D3x is for studio workers). Video recording is becoming increasingly important to photojournalists and the D3s is Nikon’s fourth camera to feature video technology. It is unique, however, in allowing the photographer to scroll through the video frame by frame in-camera to allow a still image to be saved as a JPEG with the same 1280x720-pixel resolution as the movie. At this resolution the image is a little less than one million pixels in size, but it could be enough to save the bacon for some sports photographers.
Video capability in a stills camera is a development of the Live View system and on the D3s the Live View mode must be activated before movies can be recorded. Many first-time users of the D3 struggled to find the Live View control because it is located on the drive mode dial. With the D3s, however, it has been given its own dedicated button on the camera back – just like the D700. Pressing this once flips the mirror out of the way and allows the scene to be viewed on the LCD screen. Video recording may be started either by pressing a button on the back of the camera, or by pressing the Pv button between the fingergrip and lens mount on its front. The idea is to make it easier to keep the camera steady when it is handheld immediately after video recording is initiated. I think it is a good idea, but I still needed to adjust my grip slightly to press the button. Perhaps with a little more practice I will become more proficient.
When the D3s’s high-sensitivity video mode is activated the lowest sensitivity is set to ISO 6,400, allowing footage to be recorded even in very low light. Like the stills images, the results are impressive.
I suspect that Live View mode is less important to professional photojournalists than the option to record video, but nevertheless Nikon has improved the Live View contrast-detection AF system. Nikon claims that the D3s is able to focus 30% faster than the D3 when its contrast-detection system is used in Live Mode. I can’t verify the figures, but I noticed a distinct improvement with the D3s system and it is even possible in some situations to use the Live View mode when the camera is handheld.
Nikon is adamant that 12 million pixels is enough for most professional, non-studio based photographers. Judging by the 10.1million pixel resolution of the EOS-1D Mark III, Canon is in agreement. However, Nikon’s main aim with the D3s has been to make it more versatile in low light. On the face of it, it appears to have achieved that, but I look forward to testing the camera more fully when a full-production model becomes available.
Improvements/modification since the D3
• New thinner sensor with reworked circuitry and micro lenses
• Top native sensitivity of ISO 12,800 (previously ISO 6400)
• Top sensitivity expansion setting of ISO 102,400 (previously ISO 25,600)
• Built-in dust-removal system
• 720p video recording possible at 24fps
• Improved AF algorithms
• Auto and Extra High options added to Active D-Lighting
• Dedicated Live View button introduced
• Extended in-camera raw file processing capability
• Additional 1.2x (3:2 approx 8MP) crop factor on 35mm focal length available in addition to DX (24:16 1.5x) and 5:4
• Quiet shutter release mode
• Larger CompactFlash card door latch
• Improved AF-on button action
Watch our UK press launch video here
Read our main Nikon D3s news article here
Nikon D3s full specification