Camera Corner
Enter the Nikon D3s
December 2009

by Chick Harrity

Good News: I get a Nikon D3s to play with and write about.

Bad News: The deadline for this review is less than a week after I receive the camera.

First thing I notice after this week and that has vaulted into my "top 10 pet peeve" list is the amount of time that it takes to get an update for Adobe's Lightroom or Camera RAW so you can view RAW images for any new model from any camera manufacturer. Sure, I know they provide their own software to do this but I would venture to guess that the majority of the shooters out there are using either Adobe products or Apple's Aperture in their daily workflow. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work together and release the compatibility updates at the same time the camera is released so we could spend our time making photos rather than coming up to speed with software we don't normally use?

OK, rant over; this review is going to be quick and dirty with hopefully more to come in a future issue of The Digital Journalist.

The D3s is an update to the very successful D3, with many new features. The big deals are the extremely high ISOs and the fact that this is Nikon's first full-frame camera with a Video Mode and stereo sound capabilities. The camera also gains an image sensor cleaning function, 9 frames per second shooting in FX format, 11 fps in DX crop and a much larger continuous buffer that holds up to 130 JPEG Large or 48 RAW images.

© Chick Harrity
FIRST IN LINE: ISO 8000, 1/60 at F4.5.
The camera body is identical to the D3/D3x, which means it is very well designed, feels good in the hand and all the controls are in the right place. There is a new Live View button on the back of the camera and the Contrast Detect Auto Focus in Live View is claimed to be 30 percent faster. Just tap on the LV button and you can compose your masterpiece on the 3-inch, 922,000 pixels LCD monitor. Then press the Preview button on the right front of the camera and you are immediately shooting video. The Virtual horizon indicator to help you level the camera is still on the menu but an added twist is that it can be displayed on the monitor during video capture.

I'm going to concentrate on the still picture side of the equation because, unfortunately, the video expert pal that I lined up to help me run the camera through its moviemaking paces went home (read far away) for Thanksgiving and won't get back until the day after the deadline for this review so I will save the video stuff for next time rather than just say it looks good, is easy to use and very intuitive to me, an admitted novice.

© Chick Harrity
RED OR WHITE?: ISO 8000, 1/15th at F5.
Here's a quote from Nikon that explains the camera's ability to reach the high ISOs that it does: "The D3s features a completely redesigned 12.1 effective megapixel image sensor. The large pixel pitch, with a completely modified inner structure, means that the D3s can capture images under light conditions which were previously believed to be impossible. The seven-stop ISO range of 200–12,800 enables image and movie capture in extremely low ambient light conditions which is essential for today's news and sports photographers."

So to see if the camera could live up to its hype I took it with me to a friend's home for Thanksgiving dinner and a girl's high school basketball game at the local, badly lit gym.

These snaps are not going to win any prizes but hopefully they will illustrate just how well the camera performs in minimal light.

I reviewed the D3 and the D700 previously and own a D700 so I feel comfortable in saying that the D3s image quality has improved by at least one stop and maybe more over those former high-ISO quality leaders. A well-exposed image at ISO 6,400 no longer needs the help of Noiseware or similar software. The same goes for 12,800 if your exposure is dead on. However, if you underexpose important areas a wee bit your favorite noise reduction software sure can help.

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© Chick Harrity

When you get into the boost settings you can pretty well count on needing to do a bit of work to clean up the image but the finished photo can look pretty darn amazing, especially when you think back and realize that 10 years ago we thought getting a relatively high-quality ISO 800 image was pretty good.

© Chick Harrity
DRIVING TO THE BASKET: ISO 12,800, 1/320 at F5.6.
Summing up, the D3s is a worthy upgrade to an already great camera. Nothing has been lost and many things gained. If you find yourself shooting more in the bad light district rather than a fancy studio, the ISO range of 200–12800 produces really high-quality images and the "boost" levels that can get you up to ISO 102,400 can sometimes save the day, or should I say night?

© Chick Harrity

Chick Harrity has been playing in photojournalism for 51 years, 34 of them in Washington, D.C. His first staff job was in 1956 with his hometown newspaper, the Reading (Pa.) Times. He moved to New York City with The Associated Press in 1965 and worked in Albany and Chicago for a year each before moving to the AP Washington bureau in 1968. In 1981 he had a chance to try the magazine business at U.S. News and World Report where he stayed for 20 years, being named chief photographer in 1985. On April Fool's Day of 2001 he left U.S. News to move to Northern California where he is now the Photo Coach and contributing photographer for the Calistoga Tribune, a new and thriving 1,250-circulation weekly at the top of the Napa Valley. Highlights along the way include receiving the Associated Press Managing Editors' award for Excellence in Photography; being named the White House News Photographers' Association Photographer of the Year, and being awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence for Photojournalism. His first camera was a Kodak Baby Brownie Special.

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