Nikon D3s – evolution of the breed

D3S_14_24_front34r_lToday sees the announcement of Nikon’s most significant camera body this year so far – bringing the D3 in line with the resr of the Nikon range, and improving it with customer feedback and to continue competing in a rapidly developing sector of the market. With headline grabbing ISO performance and D-Movie, the D3s looks set to repeat the success of the original D3…

Two years ago, Nikon’s new release had one purpose – to become the dominant species in the growing pantheon of digital SLRs. With 6400 (25,600 extended) ISO and an astonishing framerate, the 12.1Mp system traded outright resolution for stunning performance and gave Canon something to think about for a few months whilst they brought models like the 5D Mk II to market.

The D3’s concept proved sound – and sports, news and event photographers rapidly adopted the fast-shooting Nikon. Last year the D3x arrived, targetting the portrait, commercial and social markets with a medium-format rivalling 24Mp resolution, but for many the D3 remained the top camera for real world use.

Like most predators, the D3 has continued to evolve to ensure a large share of the available resources, with the large buffer needed for the 24Mp files making it onto the regular D3 as an extra-cost option, providing a 36-126 frame buffer depending on mode. At up to 12 fps, that would fill quite quickly. Recently it seemed like the D3 was losing a little ground to even “lesser” Nikon models as HD video (D-Movie) became available.

It seemed, therefore, almost inevitable that the D3 would get a video mode at some stage. What was unknown was what Nikon would do elsewhere – would it increase in resolution, or sensor technology, or storage card format? The magnesium chassis with built-in vertical grip and dual CF-card storage has proven exceptionally popular and robust.

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Today, the D3s was announced, and answered the expectation that the D3 would get video, and in what form. With minimal physical changes, the latest D3 variation adds HD video recording (using Motion-JPEG capture, which allows a still frame to be pulled from the movie at an appropriate JPEG compressed still quality) with the associated input for a stereo microphone, revisions to Live View (with info and Live buttons added to the rear panel) and the rather neat feature of using the preview button for movie record start/stop. Given the filesize and compression of the data, the 5 minute per capture at highest quality of the preceding D-Movie cameras remains as a limit of the filesystem keeps files to 2GB.

The D3s features direct "info" button

The D3s features direct "info" button

Detail improvements see better control over focus tracking, easier operation of controls like AF lock when wearing gloves, and easier battery replacement in the same scenario. Oh, and a small tweak to the sensitivity of the 12.1Mp FX sensor – Nikon demonstrated capture at the new maximum “standard” range setting of 12,800 and indeed, the new Hi 3 setting which comes in at an unprecedented 102,500 ISO. Video capture works with this setting and the results, whilst slightly noisy, are certainly usable for the application. 12,800 is comfortably within the realms of 6400 on the existing D3, perfectly usable except for the most challenging subjects. The key is not so much the quality of the captured image at these astounging levels, but that an image could be captured at all.

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Given the D3s evolutionary path, there’s not a whole lot more to add to the product – it remains the solid, robust camera system – just better. Wedding shooters will be pleased to see the addition of a new “Quiet” shutter mode, which appears to slow down the return on the shutter in exchange for a slower shooting speed, and events photographers will enjoy the new 1.2x crop mode and in-camera RAW adjustments. As with the D3x, the larger buffer size is standard.

Mode wheel features "Q" mode for quieter shutter operation

Mode wheel features "Q" mode for quieter shutter operation

The D3s is set to become available for December, with an RRP of £4199 – just in time for Christmas (not that I’m hinting).