ISO Performance at Low ISOs (ISO 200-800)
Here is the full image, showing which area of the image I cropped below:
As I have pointed out before, the Nikon D3s produces noise-free images at low ISOs. If you compare the above crops, you will barely notice any difference, even between ISO 200 and ISO 800.
High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-12800)
ISO 1600 looks almost as good as ISO 800, while ISO 3200 adds a slight amount of visible grain. I would not hesitate to use ISO 3200 on the D3s and if noise bugs me, Lightroom’s built-in noise reduction would get rid of it. At ISO 6400 we are seeing a noticeable amount of grain, especially in the shadows, but the image is still quite usable with plenty of details. The last “native” ISO range of 12,800 is about twice noisier than ISO 6400 and the grain size is also bigger. Getting rid of noise at these ISO levels would require a more selective noise reduction algorithm, so software like Noise Ninja or Nik Software Dfine would have to be used for best results. See my “Photo Noise Reduction Tutorial” for examples of selective noise reduction.
High ISO Performance “Boost” (ISO 25600-102400)
Nikon D3s gives us three “bonus” ISO levels to be used in extreme low-light situations – ISO 25,600, ISO 51,200 and ISO 102,400. Let’s take a look at these in more detail:
As expected, there is plenty of noise all over the image at ISO 25,600 and even more loss of small details. ISO 51,200 worsens the situation by introducing large grain and lots of detail is lost all over the image. At ISO 102,400 we see loss of most detail and colors, which in my opinion is downright unusable. Forget about noise reduction software at these ISO levels. If you shoot at anything above ISO 25,600, I would down-sample the image to much smaller resolution to get anything usable. Still, it is pretty darn impressive that we even have the option to shoot at these ISO levels today!
ISO Performance Summary
Now that you have seen image samples, you understand why this camera has been getting so much hype over its high ISO performance and you now know why it is dubbed the “low-light king”. Its low-ISO performance below ISO 800 is practically noise-free and it retains lots of details and colors all the way to ISO 12,800. When I photograph wildlife and I need the highest quality, I set my Auto ISO maximum to ISO 3200 and I get plenty of details of birds, their features and feathers. ISO 6400 adds more visible grain, but I still use it in very low light situations. I would rather have a sharp, but noisy image, rather than a blurry noise-free image. Noise can be cleaned up in post-production, while blur and lack of details destroy photographs. As for other ISO levels higher than 6400, I occasionally use ISO 12,800 when shooting events in low light, but avoid using anything above that. Overall, the low and high ISO performance of the D3s sensor is incredible.
It is hard to judge the performance of the Nikon D3s without direct comparison against other cameras, which is why you should definitely check out the next pages of this review. Let’s see what kind of difference there is between the Nikon D700 (FX), Nikon D300s (DX) and the new Nikon D7000 (DX). Click the next page below to see the comparison.
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