Shooting around with the Nikon D3S: the field review

Nikon's D3S didn't exactly emerge out of nowhere, but the DSLR's boosted ISO ceiling of over 100,000 (102,400, if we're being precise) has certainly shaken up the industry. Nikon claims that it's set a new bar for low-light performance and raw speed in the crowded DSLR arena, and we were tickled pink when given the chance to see if this thing was worth its weight in gold. Now, the master photogs over at DP Review have already broken down the nitty-gritty details in an exhaustive 34 page critique, but for those just looking for a little insight -- and perhaps a short answer to "should I buy this?" -- we've got exactly what you're looking for. Head on past the break for two distinct takes on Nikon's most capable shooter yet -- and some thoughts on how Nikon's latest monster professional cam will radically change the consumer camera as well.

Nilay's take

We've been using the D3S in the field since CES, and it had an immediate impact on the way we work in the field, because, well, the damn thing takes pictures in the dark. That makes all the difference at busy tradeshows with uneven -- and occasionally insane -- lighting setups: a camera with a usable ISO range up to 10,000 lets you grab shots on the run that would have previously been impossible. And when I say "usable ISO range," what I really mean is "you can pretty much leave it at ISO 10,000 and no one will notice, especially at web resolutions." That's crazy -- and you can further boost things up over 100,000 if you're willing to leave the realm of sanity. To put it in perspective, the average point and shoot turns into grainy mess at most settings above ISO 800, the much-beloved Canon XTi and Nikon D90 max out at ISO 1600, and Nikon's own D3 caps out at around 6400. Here's a set of ISO 8,000 to 10,000 shots I took using the D3S at Chicago's Battle of the Badges, an annual cops vs. firefighters charity boxing match -- I was able to shoot at relatively high shutter speeds to capture the action, without using a flash to compensate for the uneven ring lighting.
Being able to shoot in uneven lighting is both a blessing and curse, though: check out this ISO 12,800 picture I took of Paul Miller at Engadget's CES team dinner under extremely dim conditions, where the D3S picked up more light than my eyes were seeing at the time:

See that blue cast on Paul's face? That's the light from his phone, which is totally exaggerated by the D3S's jacked light sensitivity. Using a camera with hotrod ISO capabilities like the D3S makes you realize how quickly your eyes and brain adapt to and filter out subtle lighting and color differences if you're not looking carefully, and while you can take beautiful images in previously unthinkable lighting conditions, you're completely at the mercy of the ambient light. Surprises lurk within every frame when you shoot without a flash -- don't throw it out quite yet.

The D3S can also shoot video, although it maxes out at 720p. That means it's not quite as versatile a filmmaker's tool as the Canon 5D Mark II or 7D, but it can still hold its own -- especially if you knock it into full manual mode by selecting "Tripod" instead of "Handheld" in the video menus. Don't worry, you won't hurt anything shooting from the hip in Tripod mode -- Handheld mode is essentially an aperture priority mode for run-and-gun shooting. Talk about some poor naming, though! In any event, once you get it into manual, the D3S can make use of its full talents to shoot video as well -- here's a quick clip I shot at Battle of the Badges under the same type of uneven lighting:

I've only got a few gripes after using the D3S for a few months. First, it's massive, especially when fitted with the 24-70 f/2.8 that's perfect for grabbing quick shots on show floors and in crowds of people -- everyone is hugely aware of the camera, and that's not always optimal. You can't be stealth with this thing around. Second, while Nikon's general SLR control system handles great once you're into the groove, the D3S doesn't let you directly select every setting from the rear LCD and tweak it from there, a feature I love on newer Canons. You'll be richly rewarded once you memorize the slew of cryptic icons, control names, and menu locations, but getting there takes time. Lastly, while I use the video feature all the time, the five minute clip limit and 720p resolution cap make it obvious that video is an afterthought. That's fine, but the D3S is thisclose to being the ultimate field camera, and some beefed-up video features would go a long way towards making it the only camera I have to pack at all. Oh, and here's a big gripe: you can't actually find a D3S to buy right now. That's a problem -- let's hope Nikon is working on getting stocks back up.

Those are all pretty small gripes, though, and I'm certainly subsequent revisions of the D3S will address them. What I'm most excited about is watching the D3S's tech filter down to cheaper SLRs and point-and-shoots -- Gizmodo's Matt Buchanan nailed it when he said ISO is the new megapixel in his D3S review. Getting clear shots in low light without a flash will totally revolutionize compact camera photography, and I honestly can't wait to see what Nikon and others do with high ISO sensors in smaller bodies. Until then, I'll be carrying my giant D3S with a huge grin on my face.

Darren's take

In many ways, my shooting needs are the same as Nilay's. I'm a diehard camera enthusiast, and I tend to find an excessive amount of pleasure in bringing absurdly large bodies and lenses into national parks, concert venues, sporting events and any other new place that's just begging to be photographed. In most cases, these masterpieces-in-my-own-mind are just for my own personal enjoyment, but I do find myself searching for the best possible shot for wall framing, and I'm about as anti-flash as they come. Give me natural light or give me death, as they say.
My wife, however, sees things a tad differently. She's a shooter by trade, specializing in weddings and concert photography. Needless to say, the prospect of using a DSLR with heretofore unheard of ISO capabilities was quite appealing to her, and she agreed to let me tag along in her shutterbug life for a solid month in order to get a better feel of the D3S' value to someone who snaps for a living. In our experience, the most frustrating part of both wedding and concert photography is dealing with light -- or the lack thereof, specifically. Many marriage venues disallow the use of flash during the ceremony, which just so happens to be the most critical part of the whole ordeal. Beyond that, flashes tend to kill the mood of whatever setting you're in; a lively reception party can be transformed into a blown out, uneventful gathering of crazies with a simple blast of light. Anyone can grab a point-and-shoot and photograph a wedding, but brides and grooms (or their loved ones) shell out for someone's ability to capture the moment. In our experience, said moments are best saved when utilizing only the light that's naturally available.

My wife shot a number of engagement sessions and a couple of ceremonies with the D3S around her neck, primarily using the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses all the while. For comparison's sake, we A-B'd the D3S against the D90 (using Nikkor's 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX and the aforesaid 50mm prime lens). In a nutshell, the difference was night and day, but only in non-daylight conditions. In other words, the image quality from the D3S was remarkably similar to that of the D90 in broad daylight, where images could easily be shot at ISO 200 - 1,600 and where shutter speeds were fast enough that hand shake wasn't an issue. And frankly, that makes perfect sense -- both cameras tout 12.1 megapixels, and while the D3S boasts a full-frame sensor and a much more advanced processing engine, you don't really begin to see significant boosts in image quality until the sun begins to set.

If you shoot for a living (or wish to start shooting for a living), and you know you'll be put in situations where natural lighting is dim or nonexistent, hear me out: you need a D3S. The things this camera can do with only a smidgen of ambient light is downright stunning, and it very literally makes shots possible that would be impossible (or unusable to a pro) with any lesser camera. We were able to shoot entire weddings and concerts without even thinking of that SB-900 at home, and that's only partly due to the amazing speed at which this camera shoots.

The real kicker is the baffling ISO capabilities. We shot for hours on end in extremely low light (or with par can lighting alone while in concert venues) and grabbed hundreds of usable images at ISO 10,000. Step it down to ISO 8,000, and you'll be hard pressed to find a speck of grain when the image is sized down for a 24- x 36-inch print (or smaller, obviously). Stop and breathe that in for a moment -- shooting at ISO 8,000 with imperceptible noise and grain. The feat alone opens up an entirely new world of shooting possibilities for those who were previously hamstrung by annoying flash bulbs and tripods, and we've no issue promising that the D3S will land you shots that you (and your clients) could only dream of getting with a lesser DSLR.

Even at ISO 12,800, we nabbed images that looked stunning when sized for an 8- x 10-inch print, and those who don't mind a tiny (and we mean tiny) bit of grain to celebrate the raw emotion of the occasion could easily scale that up beyond the 20-inch mark. When pushed beyond the 12,800 level, there were traces of noise that may be unacceptable for those looking for crystal clear shots alone, but make no mistake -- you can push this all the way to 12.8k and still get perfectly admirable postcard shots. If you're wondering what all these figures mean, let's put it this way: you can shoot in near-pitch black with the D3S and get an image that you can use. We were stunned (stunned!) by how sharp, blur-free and crisp our concert photos were at ISO 8,000, and try as we might, we could never push our dear D90 beyond ISO 3,200 and snag an image that was free of perceivable noise at near-darkness.

To say that my wife's clients were thrilled by the results of the D3S would be an understatement of epic proportions. Similarly, my wife was elated to be able to reserve her SB-900 for only select occasions in which she actually wanted it around. Being able to set the ISO range from 200 to 12,800 within Programmed Auto and simply fire away when in a pinch is a fantasy come true for professional photographers, and knowing that even those snaps with ISOs in the five-digit range are likely usable is something that wasn't possible at this time last year by any body priced at $5k or less. We should point out, however, that utilizing the rapid fire burst modes on this gem will likely require a speedy (and expensive) CompactFlash card, and our SanDisk 32GB Extreme Pro CF was more than up to the task. Capturing nine RAW images per second at maximum resolution was a piece of cake for this card, and we never once were able to overrun it.

Is it fun to watch $5,200 evaporate from your savings account? Hardly. But being able to elevate your game to new heights can only be good -- nay, great -- for business, and if you've had the D3S on your mind, we can't say a single word to stop you from pulling the trigger. Any minor annoyances that might irk you -- the lack of a 1080p movie mode, a smaller-than-desired 12.1 megapixel sensor and the dearth of inbuilt wireless flash support are the only ones that come to mind -- pale in comparison to the stellar low-light images you'll be able to acquire, and we'd surmise that your worries of spending too much on a camera would all but vanish the first time you capture a noise-free, blur-free handheld shot of a couple's first kiss... at ISO 10,000. Pros that shoot primarily during the day or under controlled lighting situations (hello, studios!) probably won't gain a whole lot from owning a D3S, but if you're constantly shoved into unpredictable low-light scenarios where flexibility is key, there's no better body out there in this price range. Period.

Nilay Patel contributed to this article. All images shown here were shot by Nilay, Darren or Dana Murph.