A $US5000 camera is not within reach for most people. So this Nikon D3s review is a bit different – it’s a peek at the near future of photography where shooting in any lighting condition is possible. It’s really exciting.
ISO Is the New Megapixel: A Case Study
Nikon effectively declared the pixel war over with D3 two years ago: Its $US5000 flagship shot a mere 12 megapixels – less than many point-and-shoots – and began the low-light arms race. The D3s again forsakes more megapixels for more light, sticking with 12 megapixels, and it’s a tiny miracle of engineering.
The D3s isn’t a thoughtless product rehash – as you might expect given that Nikon’s simply tacked an ‘s’ onto the end of the D3. Unlike the D300s, which didn’t progress all that far in the two interceding years, the D3s is steady evolution at its best: It offers roughly double the low-light performance as the original D3.
What All This Low Light and ISO Business Means
A brief explanation of low-light digital photography and ISO is in order (click here for the long explanation). The focal point of engineering with the D3s, and other cameras of this calibre, has been boosting their ability to pick up more light (because a photo = light). That photo directly above with a 100 per cent crop in the loupe? Taken at night at ISO 102,400.
The D3s uses a completely new sensor that refines elements of the original D3’s sensor, like a new gapless microlens architecture that directs more available light onto the sensor’s photodiodes. With film, ISO speed is a standard that indicates how sensitive the film is to light – higher speeds are more sensitive. With digital cameras, when you set the ISO speed, it’s supposed to be equivalent to the film standard. In low-light conditions, you boost the ISO, so you don’t need a long exposure time or wide open aperture. The problem with cranking up the ISO – is that when you boost the camera’s sensitivity to light (the signal) you’re also boosting its sensitivity to noise – which can be sexy with film, but isn’t really with digital photos. The D3s shoots up ISO 102,400, far beyond any film you could buy at Walgreen’s. (Does Walgreen’s still sell film?) At that level, you’re talking night vision, practically, though the resulting noisy arse photo’s nothing you’d want to print.
So, here’s what the D3s offers, practically. In the most common DSLRs that people own, or with the latest crop of Micro Four Thirds cameras, the borderline for what we’d call good ISO performance is around ISO 800. In the original D3, it was ISO 3200, orders of magnitude better.
It’s Built for Photographers
The D3s is built for war zones, and being slung in the mud at 40mph. It weighs nearly 1.3kg, without a lens. Yet it’s well-balanced and supremely comfortable to hold, with the best ergonomics in its class – Canon’s 1D Mark IV feels surprisingly awkward by comparison – so we could shoot for hours on end in the closest thing to gadget blogging’s war zones, CES and the iPad launch, and slug people who got in our way. (The dual CF card slots and ginormous battery help with shooting for hours. We didn’t quite reach the 4200 shots it’s spec’d for, but we definitely shot a couple thousand photos per charge.) It feels like what a pro camera should feel like, with almost all of the controls you need at your fingertips – the addition of a dedicated live view button versus the original D3 definitely helped there, though a more natural way to change the ISO setting while using the camera’s vertical grip would be nice.
It is a photographer’s camera, though, to be sure. Even as it shoots a crazyfast nine frames per second at full-resolution RAW and its 51-point autofocus proved fast and accurate for us at trade shows, Nikon continues to lag behind Canon when it comes to video, with it feeling more tacked on than any of Canon’s shooters – it’s still 720p video using the bleh Motion JPEG codec – it’s functionally better than the D300s, though, with improved autofocus in live view mode. That said, given that Nikon’s announced its first 1080p-shooting camera, we’re hopeful for the seemingly inevitable D700s on the video front, anyway.
(You can also check out our previous hands on with a pre-production unit for more samples.) A note: You’ll notice I don’t have a ton of sample photos, and that’s because somehow hundreds of them completely poofed.
The D3s doesn’t operate under any new philosophy, but it does remarkably take the game a step further, revealing with more clarity a world where camera performance doubles roughly every two years if we can use some restraint on the megapixels. (After all, newspapers and monitors are only so big.)
We’re running through Canon’s answer to the D3s, the 1D Mark IV at this very moment, so we’re intensely interested to see who’s wearing what pants at the end of this. Either way, it shows that competition is a very good thing: Everybody wins.