Nikon D3S – New Low Light King

2009 PhotoPlus Featured News Nikon Uncategorized

Nikon D3s Digital SLR With VideoNikon has upped the DSLR ante again. The new Nikon D3S has a 12.1-megapixel FX-format CMOS sensor just like its predecessor the D3. But the maximum sensitivity on the D3S has been increased to a mind-boggling ISO 102,400 and noise levels have been lowered at all sensitivity settings. If being able to shoot in the dark isn’t enough for you, the D3S also adds 720p video capture with the ability to auto focus while filming. And the D3S now has sensor cleaning – a very important feature that didn’t make it into the original D3 spec.

The New Low Light King
When the Nikon D3 was announced in late 2007 it changed the rules for low light photography and established Nikon as the image quality leader. At that time, the new D3′s max sensitivity setting of ISO 12,800 sounded as ridiculous as ISO 102,400 does today. These days, shooting at ISO 1600 is not unreasonable and ISO 3200 or 6400 are there for emergency shooting. But according to Nikon, the new D3S will push those numbers up and make it possible to use ISO 3200 or even ISO 6400 for publication quality photos. The three “Hi” settings, ISO 25,600, ISO 51,200 and ISO 102,400 will become the new emergency settings. Stop and think about those numbers for a second. ISO 102,400? Seriously now – that’s for shooting in the dark. Literally. At ISO 102,400 you’ll be able to take pictures in what is, to the human eye, a pitch-black room. High ISO isn’t just good for low light, either. Higher sensitivity also makes it possible to freeze action in a wider range of conditions – in the forest, at sunset, in poor weather, low lit clubs, etc.

Nikon D3S - Front & Back

Some people might be wondering why Nikon didn’t increase the resolution for the new camera. More resolution isn’t always better. Adding pixels means making them smaller and the smaller the pixel the harder it is to avoid noise. On the other hand, noise reduction has improved considerably in the past few years, making it possible to increase resolution while keeping noise levels reasonable. So what if you applied current noise reduction strategies to an existing sensor, without adding more pixels? That’s exactly Nikon did with the D3S. Leaving the resolution at 12.1 megapixels allowed them to significantly decrease noise at all sensitivity settings. For photographers who absolutely need more resolution, Nikon has the 24.5-megapixel D3x. But for photographers who need speed and flexibility in all kinds of lighting conditions, the D3S. Photojournalists, sports photographers, wildlife photographers and concert photographers will all appreciate the new high ISO performance of the D3S.

Budget Holiday Digital Camera Guide

It remains to be seen what the noise will be like at the expanded “Hi” ISO settings. The Nikon guys were very positive about the noise levels at all ISO settings and the sample images posted on the Nikon site look great (Nikon D3S Sample Photos). We’ll need to see more real world high-res D3s images before passing final judgment. But based on the ISO 6400 sample on the Nikon site, it looks like they really have delivered on totally useable ISO 3200 and 6400 – even the ISO 12,800 samples look pretty nice!

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About the author: Photo-John

Photo-John, a.k.a. John Shafer, is the managing editor of and has been since the site launched back in 1999. He's an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time as possible on his mountain bike, hiking or skiing in the mountains. He's been taking pictures for ever and ever, and never goes anywhere without a camera.

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  • Jon says:

    That 6400 shot is awesome. I see about the same noise in my 3200 shots (D700). I would love to play with some video, but I wonder what the max record time is ….5 minutes?

  • Photo-John says:

    I can’t remeber any numbers off the top of my head and I couldn’t find a limit listed in the D3S specs. But other VSLR video clip limits are in the neightborhood of 5 minutes. That may seem short. But unless you’ve got your camera set up on a tripod to shoot a dance recital, it’s not really a big problem. Most video clips end up being a lot shorter than you’d expect. I haven’t shot a ton of video. But in all the box opening and other videos I have done, I’ve yet to hit the clip time limit with a digital SLR.

  • feraudyh says:

    Yyou should be using the logarithm of the iso when comparing sensitivity with human sensitivity, I have thereforer have doubts that 100K iso corresponds to a pitch black room.
    This sounds overly enthusiastic to me.

  • Photo-John says:

    Enthusiastic hyperbole, definitely. I am curious to find out what the actual low light measures it can capture in will be. It’s three times the previous limit of 12,800, though. And I know people were already describing that ISO setting as able to take pictures in a dark room. But yeah, if we have to be scientific about it, it may not work in a pitch black room. But maybe it will…

    Thanks for your comment :-)

  • fas says:

    This camera is awesome. It looks weird thought and costs alot too.

  • Photo-John says:

    For a pro-level digital SLR the price is high, but not out of line. As for looks, well, it pretty much looks like a profession DSLR.

  • Hubert says:

    I was looking for more pixels too.. but I enjoy the low noise tremendously .. One feature I would welcome from nikon is the ablility to turn off the shutter .. The clicking drives me crazy.. In theater situations/Opera

  • Photo-John says:

    But Hubert, if you turn off the shutter, you have no shutter. The D3S does have a new quiet mode. Not sure how quiet. But I think they’re addressing your needs :-)

  • When is the D700 has taken VDO once.
    Like D700x or D700s or D700 Upgraded Firmware ?

  • Photo-John says:

    There are lots of rumors about an upgraded Nikon D700. I don’t know anything about it. But I’m curious to see what kind of specs they’ll give it to position it so it’s a real upgrade but one that doesn’t compete with the D3S. We’ll have to wait and see, though. That introduction will probably happen in March of 2010.

  • Mattbikeboy says:

    Oh, I want one. Gimme, gimme, gimme! ;) I love the D700 and have been waiting for the new D3 for a while now. I would have liked the same ISO range with a 15 megapixel sensor though. Granted, most of my work is re-sampled down to 6 mega-pixel for printing anyway.

  • Marvin Rivera says:

    I use the Nikon D2X. Only issue I ever had was the ISO noise. I have compared the D3 images and I was impressed with the low noise. I did a few tests at 3200 ISO on the D3 and I was partially impressed. I would say it was about 2.5 stops better than the D2X in the noise department…. for example the noise I see at ISO 400 on the D2X equals what I saw on the D3 right below the ISO3200 mark. Now when I saw the Images from the D3S… quality and noise wise… I said to my self “I am sold on this one! I think I will upgrade to the D3S. I am impressed.


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