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Nikon D3s Image Quality First Impressions: A Noisless Wonder?

Nikon D3s Image Quality First Impressions: A Noisless Wonder?

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A welcome trend in sensor design leads to jaw-dropping low-light performance. It's all about the noise—or lack thereof.

October 14, 2009

OK, so I knew Nikon's claim that the D3s's sensor's top ISO of 102,400 was just to get our attention. But how did it do at ISO 12,000?

Also read: Nikon Announces new flagship DSLR, the D3s.

After all, ISO 102,400, which might come in useful when photographing bats in their natural habitats under natural light, is a "HI" setting which can only be shot at reduced resolution. It's a marketing gimmick. But what can the Nikon do at its highest full-resolution ISO, 12,000? Well, Nikon has been kind enough (or perhaps smart enough) to provide full-resolution examples which you can download and study to your heart's content.


While useage rights (which Nikon retains and I of course respect) prevents me from presenting them here, I did download them all for a quick down-and-dirty inspection.

I'm impressed.

At ISO 200, the camera's lowest speed, there's no grain. Zero. Zip. Nada.

At ISO 640, a speed at which grain starts to rear its ugly head, grain is barely detectable.

At ISO 6400, grain looks like a typical ISO 640 shot on an APS sensor. It's starting to show, but not in a way that affects the highlight areas of the picture. We could stop here and declare ourselves satisfied. But let's push the envelope.

At ISO 12,800, a range at which just about any other image would fall apart, the D3s's pictures just barely hold together. But the samples—a bear photographed in very low light, and a DJ in a nightclub—demonstrate that this camera is capable of capturing very usable images at this speed. Even in RAW, without any noise supression, graininess is tight while it's obviously there, it's not a typical muddy mess. 

Nikon does not show results taken at ISO 102,400, which is probably a good thing. Like I said, that was probably just to get our attention.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this camera fares under controlled conditions when our lab partner, DxO Labs, puts it through its paces.


How did Nikon pull this off?

By using a full-frame sensor and pulling back the pixel count to "only" 12 megapixels, Nikon was able to produce a sensor with larger individual pixels. Larger pixels capture a wider dynamic range, and are going to let more light in. Hence, sensitivity will be greater. Shedding unneeded pixels in order to reap the benefits of larger pixels on a sensor is a welcome thing, which will hopefully become an industry-wide trend. Canon did it this summer when it pulled back on pixel count with its flagship compact camera, the G11. Now Nikon's done it with its flagship DSLR.

From a marketing point of view, low grain is a claim, not a fact (until it's been tested), while megapixel count is a quantifiable fact that can be stated without challenge in a press release. So there may be some resistance by camera makers' marketing departments to any trend that includes lower pixel counts. My advice? Show the results, as Nikon has done. Educate the consumer as to the importance of large pixel pitch, and how that results in better overall quality. Explain that once you get beyond 12MP, for all intents and purposes, pixel count isn't really relevant except for a very small percentage of users.

Much more to come

But I digress. There's more—much more—to say about the Nikon D3s. The HD Video at high ISO, with Stereo sound, for instance. On-board D-range, which Nikon claims boosts dynamic range. The dual memory card slots. The 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing pipeline, and all the quality and processing speed that infers. We'll get into greater depth with this camera in the near future.

But in the meantime, all I can say is that, based on the first photos, it looks like Nikon got this right, and continues to re-establish itself as an industry leader. I hope its new approach to sensor design and low ISOs trickles down so photography enthusiasts can also reap the benefits.


Adorama Camera is currently accepting pre-orders for the Nikon D3s, on a first-come, first-served basis, and will not charge credit cards until the order is actually shipped.


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