Nikon 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.
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.
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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