As the years go by, the beginner/enthusiast/pro gap between digital SLRs has narrowed considerably, especially when it comes to image quality. Rig them up in a studio and you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference in output between £300 worth of camera and £3000 worth, all other things being equal. But there are still reasons why those of us who earn a living with our pictures prefer the single digit models. Be it their incredible responsiveness, bulletproof build quality or just general ability to handle any scenario thrown at them, the kings remain the kings.
As some of you will know, I've owned a Nikon D3 for about a year now, and though it's old I've come to rely on it in a way I seldom have with any camera before. Its combination of excellent focus, terrific shooting speed, and unparalleled ability to take a beating has made it my go to camera, despite it being practically vintage tech in the ever-advancing digital world. So why would I want to replace such a stalwart? Well, how about with something the same but better?
First introduced in 2009, the D3S was Nikon's mid-life upgrade for the D3, and one that was widely unexpected given the D3 was still king of the proverbial hill, even two years after it was announced. The 'S' version bought several small changes (a Quiet shooting mode, improved live view iteration, and a poorly implemented video mode that was bad even at the time) but one big one - a new sensor. Rather than jumping up in resolution, Nikon instead stayed at the rather modest 12.1 megapixels of its forebear and concentrated on pushing out low light performance. The net result is a camera which not only gains an extra stop of ISO performance at the high end (up to 12,800 from the D3's 6400) but produces smoother, more noise free pictures at every setting.
Indeed, professional testing claimed a 1.5 to 2 stop advantage, and that certainly seems to be the case in my testing. Whereas on the vanilla D3 I was always wary of moving beyond ISO1600, I'll happily push the D3S all the way to 6400 without much reservation. Even the top end rating of 12,800 is very usable with a little cleaning work in post production, and the result is a camera which truly feels like a go anywhere, do anything tool. Hand-held shooting in awful light is not only feasible, but it's actually possible to obtain great images even in near total darkness.
Elsewhere this is effectively the same camera as the D3 - and that's a very good thing. That means a hefty, fully weather sealed body that feels like it would survive if a bomb hit it, a huge viewfinder that's a pleasure to look through, blazing fast 51-point autofocus and 9 fps shooting and a battery which just goes and goes forever (officially claimed life is a staggering 4,200 shots). The build quality isn't a joke either - there's a famous video of a D3S being subjected to some truly horrifying punishment and still ticking over just fine afterwards. The one I acquired has done over 170,000 shots in its lifetime, but that's barely a concern. It clicks just as smoothly as the day it was born.
Shooting with a D3S is not an experience to be taken lightly, and that's not just a play on the camera's huge heft. Making the most of its gargantuan ability requires a quick hand and even quicker eye. You're aided by double grips and pretty much every manual control that one could hope for, but there's no safety guard or automatic mode to fall back on. Even the Auto-ISO implementation is basic compared to modern cameras and certainly isn't trustworthy enough to depend upon full time. Despite its foibles though, when everything slots into place it's an incredibly rewarding experience. The D3S is so responsive, so quick and precise and sure, that it's never going to be the weak link in the equation. Just as you have to fight to bring out the best in the camera, it'll surely bring out the best in you.
Does it make sense in 2015? I think if you need one you already know the answer to that. The D3S's children, the D4 and D4S, exist and are better cameras, though the gap gets smaller and smaller every generation. The D3S is not a camera for those who earn their living in landscapes, where every megapixel counts, not is it for street work, where its huge size and weight aren't as big problems as its utterly conspicuous appearance. Yet even after all these years it remains an incredible photographic tool, capable of turning out high-quality pictures under nearly any circumstances. You already know if you need one. But even if you don't, it's difficult not to fall in love with it.