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Nikon D3s Test 1: ISO, ISO & ISO!

I have not done a post on photo equipment for some time, and I think I should at least do a new series for a test I am doing for the new Nikon D3s. Before this I have been using mostly film and a portable D300 for most of my landscape trek. While I love the rendering of the D300 and the D2 series camera, there are always something lacking in them. On the D300, it was the ergonomics for me as I hate to go into the menu to adjust something on the field, especially with light diminishing quickly during dawn or dusk. With the D2 series cameras, anything other than base ISO just wouldn't cut it. It might be fine with the D2x, but with the D2h, even at base ISO, shadows can get blocky if you are not careful. So, in anticipation of a long trip to South America at the end of 2010, I decided to pick up a D3 to familiarize myself with its high ISO performance. My thoughts at that time was that a D3 for main body and D300 for that extra DX reach would be ideal for a long expedition. And just before I was going to ask my usual dealer for one, the D3s was released, and just as well.

Long story short, I now have a D3s. And in summary: while I'm not new to photography, nor digital photography, this camera does induce a bit of an extra learning curve.

First test as I shoot my first 1000 pictures: ISO performance. I don't intend for this to be a review, hence I don't plan to include sample pictures. The early feedback from the internet forums is that this camera performs about 1-1.3EV better in ISO compared to the previous high-ISO champion, the D3. As I do mostly landscape with this camera, I intend to test it only for that purpose.

I did 3 tests today, first was a landscape shot with camera focused at infinity in bright daylight, a second scene with an close-up object (confession: a pretty wartime Leica IIIc) with proper illumination, and third was a city scene from the top of a tower.

Results:

What I can say is that this camera's ISO performance is amazing.

- ISO200-ISO1600: I will not hesitate to shoot with the D3s up to ISO 1600. I could not see any noise or loss of details on the NEF file all the way up to that level in Adobe Lightroom. For once, auto-ISO is an option in the field. (Of course, one should always shoot at base ISO if you can, with a tripod, but still, 1600 is something I will not shy away from. It is THAT good!)

- above ISO 1600 - ISO 6400: From ISO higher than 1600 onwards, I see some noise appearing in the shadow areas, but the well illuminated areas are fine. This goes on all the way up to ISO6400 easily. The noise is very much film-like chroma noise, which is bearable. Not noise-free, but not too much of a concern as details in the scene are all still there.

- up to ISO 12800:  The details held up all the way up to ISO 12800. I love this camera! At 12800 the noise is still very much chroma like with some tinge of colour noise creeping in.

- above ISO12800 - ISO102400 (HI 3): the detail performance starts to drop at ISO +1 to +3 EV, basically ISO 25k up to 102k. Basically the image gets smudgy and bands appear at the highest ISO. But if the difference is between taking a picture and no picture, I'd take the 102k ISO shot anytime over lost opportunity.

Next up: Movie mode at 720p. This is something I've used, but the camera seems to be adjusting most of the functions automatically. I will need to test it out to find out how it works.