Link: Nikon D3s specs and purchasing.
I’d say I know the ins-and-outs of the Nikon D3 pretty well — after all, I’ve taken more than 200,000 photos with one. And I knew that Nikon had a big problem: The camera is so darned good, how do you make it better, especially with an incremental upgrade? The D3 isn’t perfection — the AF sensors are too closely grouped, the default white balance is a little too cool, the … AF sensors are too closely grouped — but, as you can see from my struggling, it’s generally close enough. If you can’t do most jobs really well with a D3, it’s probably your fault, not the camera’s. So how do you convince people to buy something more expensive?
The obvious way was to stick video in it, and so they did. And that would probably have been enough to keep people at bay until the D4 came out, but some intrepid designer decided that the D3, previously pretty much the best low-light camera around, needed to get better. And so they changed the microlens array and modified the sensor in all sorts of ways, most of them secret or impossibly geeky, but long story shot, the D3s IS better, by about 1 and a half stops (or allowing about three times greater shutter speeds): ISO 12,800 looks better on the D3s than the already-crazy IS0 6400 on the D3.
ISO 12800, 52mm, f/3.2, 1/50th
In most other ways, the cameras are exactly the same — the finish on the D3s is slightly more matte than that on the D3, the thumb joystick is a little snappier, and there’s a quiet mode for the shutter that still isn’t all that quiet, and there’s an info button for quick review of the settings on the back LCD, but that’s about it. The real user-interface changes came with a much, much better way to trigger Live View mode (which is important for video operation). Instead of having to move a mode dial to a certain position, which virtually required you to move your thumb and look at the camera to see what you were doing, there’s a simple button. Press it, it’s on! Press it, it’s off! Even for those who don’t use movie mode ever, live view has some great tricks, and it’s nice to be able to access it easily. My favorite Live View trick is that it shows the effect of white balance. Since on the D3 you can dial in the exact K-value, all you have to do is turn on Live View and look at the LCD while you get the white balance exactly perfect. You can do this on any camera with Live View, but the interface improvements make it a lot easier and faster.
Let’s discuss the big changes in detail, with more photos and video:
Just think “Like the D3 or D700, but a bit better.” The tiniest bit less shadow noise and more dynamic range at low ISOs, but where you really start to notice it is in the extremely high ISOs, especially 6400 and up. Not only are the photos less noisy, but because the sensor is handling the light coming in more efficiently, you maintain more dynamic range and truer color. What it means in practice is that the things that you used to need a prime lens for on the D3, you can now use an f/2.8 zoom lens for (important, since Nikon’s prime lineup has huge gaps in it). Or, of course, you can use a fast prime lens and truly see in the dark. The photo below was taken at ISO 12,800 at 1/30th of a second on a 135mm f/2 lens — it was DARK! My hands are steady, which is how I could take this at 1/30th, but if I had to shoot it at 1/10th of a second to get the same quality on the D3, then it most likely would be blurry.
ISO 12,800, 135mm, f/2, 1/30th
Of course it works at low ISOs just fine, with great color and nice sharpness at the pixel level. This one was lit by a flash tucked inside the refrigerator, mixing with the incandescent light in the kitchen.
ISO 320, 29mm, f/4.5, 1/60th
Better still, Nikon says they’ve tweaked the default white balance to be a bit warmer. This means that anyone like me who is still using this next to a D3 has to be careful to calibrate them so your images look good next to each other, but it gives a nice, pleasing tone. Here’s a simple sunlight WB:
ISO 200, 27mm, f/3.5, 1/250th
Here you can see the limits of the dynamic range. This was at ISO 12,800, and shifted WAY blue for a deep tungsten light, which increases noise — before the D3s, I would have wanted a fast prime for this shot, but now I could use the 24-70mm f/2.8. Even at 12,800, you still see some detail on the MUCH brighter display screen, and the white on the santa hats are completely retained. Not too shabby.
ISO 12,800, 60mm, f/2.8, 1/30th
The kind of situations we USED to consider low-light? ISO 1600, f/1.4? Fuhgeddaboudit! No noise at all.
ISO 1600, 85mm, f/1.4, 1/250th
(Facebook embeds these as tiny, but you can find the full versions, most in 720p, and some more on my Facebook Page)
You could hear the wailing around the world when Nikon said that the D3s would only have 720p video resolution. After all, cheap hand-held video recorders have 1080p these days! It would be nice to have a 1080p option, but remember that many of the same people bemoaning no 1080p will yell at camera manufacturers for making digital cameras with way too many megapixels. Even 720p is a LOT of a data to manipulate, and 1080p fills up hard drives extremely fast. For that reason alone, most people using it in the long-term are professionals. Which is why it SHOULD be in the D3s, since this is a camera for professionals, and is priced as such.
But — and I know this is controversial — I’m not really all that bothered, because the D3s, like all DSLRs, is pretty awful for professional video use by design. The ergonomics of the dSLR body is great for taking photos, but simply horrible things like long-term tracking stability or simply not having your arm fall off when you have to hold the thing out in front of you and look at the LCD for five minutes straight. The D3s is worse than most for this because it’s a heavy beast. But if you’re a photographer who wants to shoot some video for multimedia projects and you don’t want to carry another device around, it’s nice to have the option.
Note: although the manual doesn’t say this, there is FULL manual control of the exposure — ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Just put the D3s on tripod mode, and when you hit Live view mode, press the OK button. You know have full control.
So, other than the no 1080p, is the video mode any good? No! It’s great! And it’s poor! (Depending on your need)
What’s great about it? The low-light capability. Unbelievable. With the lower resolution and moving pixels, even ISO 102,400 video is somewhat usable, depending on your purpose. Here’s video at night, at ISO 6400:
More video, this time ISO 8000:
Sweet, right? Well, there are problems, too. In some types of fluorescent light, the D3s exhibits horrible banding that neither changing the shutter speed nor the flickr refresh rate can solve. This is the worst I’ve seen the effect:
You’ll need to solve this if say, you want to take video inside most gymnasiums.
Lastly, all DSLR CMOS sensors have a huge problem with motion effects — turning buildings into Jell-O and, as you’ll see here, passing trains into distorted messes. Nikon said they made this a little better than in earlier cameras, but it’s simply the way the sensor reads data. Just another way that DSLR video isn’t quite ready for prime time.
CONCLUSION: If you were going to buy a D3 anyway, you should probably get a D3s. It’s simply the best camera around for Nikon shooters, and I’ll go on a limb and say it’s the best camera for most photojournalists or documentary shooters bar none. The extra sensitivity, while not a radical break, is always nice in extreme situations. But if you can’t afford it, don’t worry — except for the hardest-traveling professionals, even the D700 will do most of what you want to do. (For me, even just the dual-card features alone are worth the upgrade).