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Nikon's D3S

First Thoughts about Nikon's Latest Pro-level DSLR

By Allan Weitz

It's estimated - and I emphasize the word 'estimated' - the 'ISO' of the human eye, depending on the age and health of its current owner along with a short list of other factors, varies from about ISO 1 in bright sunlight to about ISO 800 in the dimmest of lighting conditions. And in the dimmest of circumstances the eye sees in monochrome only.

According to the math, this means the Nikon D3S, when cranked up to the 'Hi-3' setting (ISO 102,400), is about 7 times more light sensitive than the human eye when shooting in low light. In other words the Nikon D3S can see way further into the darkness than you can. And it can record what it sees onto an FX-format (full-frame, 23.9x36 mm) imaging sensor at speeds up to 7 frames-per-second for stills or 720p HD video at 24 frames-per-second with the flip of a switch. And unlike the human eye, the Nikon D3S can capture inky-dark imagery in color or monochrome.

The shooting possibilities enabled by the D3S's extended low-light sensitivity levels go further. The vibration dampening qualities made possible by the use of higher shutter speeds when shooting at the Hi-3 setting translates to about twice up from the vibration dampening qualities of most all in-camera (and in-lens) image stabilization systems currently available. Running with the bulls while shooting by moonlight anybody?

It's well worth noting Nikon has maintained its 'big pixels are better pixels' policy rather than exploring new ways of shoehorning more ever-tinier pixels into the confines of a 24x36mm space (pardon me… a 23.9x36 mm space). The new sensor, a re-engineered update of its prior 12.1Mp FX-format CMOS sensor, features improved pixel alignment and other measures designed to increase signal-to-noise ratios, improve overall dynamic range, and deliver light to each pixel evenly regardless of it's position on the grid. This last goodie better ensures optimum sharpness with minimal chromatic aberrations, especially along the outer reaches of the imaging sensor.

As for how good the images are at the Hi-3 (ISO 102,400) setting, we were able to grab a few sample frames using one of the first production cameras at Photo East hours before we sent this newsletter into final its final production stage. In a nutshell, the overall image quality can be described as equal to the quality of images taken with the average point-and-shoot camera set to ISO 800, which is about 1/7th the sensitivity levels of the D3S's Hi-3 setting. The pictures are more than usable, and represent a huge leap of technological advancement for low-light shooters.

Nikon D3S @ ISO 102,400 (Hi-3) Close-up @ 100% (Click on photos for larger images)

Nikon's latest update of its popular D3-series pro cameras is a serious picture-taking machine. Physically, the body, chassis, exterior panels, and mirror box of the D3S are constructed from tough magnesium-alloy, with an extensive system of gaskets, seals, and 'O' rings designed to prevent dust, weather, and other intrusions from the outside world from gumming-up the works. And like prior D3-series cameras, the D3S should undoubtedly feel solid in the hand with controls laid out intuitively, logically, and ergonomically.

The D3S's optical viewing system affords you 100% of the image area and includes key exposure data clearly and legibly. You also have the option of composing images using the camera's 3”, 920,000-dot LCD screen courtesy of the camera's Live View function, which can be optimized for tripod or hand-held shooting. As with other video-capable DSLRs, the D3S's high-res LCD serves as the camera's sole means of composing and editing video. The LCD also features an Electronic Virtual Horizon mode, which makes leveling the camera a cakewalk.

To better maintain shadow and highlight details when shooting in contrasty lighting conditions the D3S features 5 levels of Nikon D-Lighting, which can be modified to match the demands of each of the current lighting conditions. D-Movie accomplishes the same when shooting video.

Other video-related tricks the D3S can perform include in-camera trimming that allows you to choose starting and stopping points for easier, time-efficient image transfer. You can also save select video frames as JPEGs for print and web applications. Sound is recorded in monaural or stereo using an (optional) boom or shoe-mounted microphone, which can be connected via the camera's 3.5 mm stereo jack.

Speaking of sound, the D3S features a 'Q' Quiet Shutter-Release mode that dampens mirror noise when shooting in theaters and other sound sensitive environments. And to keep things flowing smoothly, dual CF card slots allow for longer break-free shooting, as well as the ability to 'ping-pong' between cards as they fill up, record JPEGs and RAW files separately, or perform automatic in-camera back-ups as you shoot.

The Nikon D3S is optimized for use with all Nikon Type G, D, and AF-S optics, as well as older Nikkor optics with various limitations in the exposure and/or AF department. When DX-format optics are mounted to the D3S a mask automatically darkens the edges of the screen display to highlight the reduced (APS-C 1.5x) image size. Pixels located outside of the DX image field are also turned off to save power not to mention increasing the camera's flat-out burst rate from 9 to 11 frames-per-second.

Other features that make the D3S a pro-quality imaging machine include Nikon's renowned (and deadly accurate) 1005-pixel 3D Color Matrix II metering system, a quick-as-heck 51-point (including 15 cross-type sensors) Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus system, a huge image buffer (up to 48 RAW or 130 large JPEGs), and up to 4200 exposures per battery charge.

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