Nikon D3S & 70-200VR II Review

When Nikon launched the new D3S and 70-200VR II to replace the acclaimed D3 and 70-200VR, I wondered if it was possible to raise the bar on two products that are in my opinion class leaders. So when I had a chance to put these new products through the paces of three weddings and several hours of testing in a controlled environment, I am trying to answer three questions:

Are D3S and 70-200VR II worth the upgrade?
How does the D3S compare to the D3?
How does the 70-200 VR II compare to the 70-200VR?

What I am sharing with you is a subjective hands-on user experience and objective tests. Before I continue, I just want to issue a few disclaimers.

1. I am a working wedding photographer, not a lab technician. So do not expect a blow by blow technical review.
2. I have been using Nikon equipment since I picked up photography so I have zero experience with other brands of camera. So I cannot give you a comparison of the D3S versus 5D Mark II for instance.
3. My review is based on a pre-production D3S and a production unit of 70-200VR II, and a D3 and 70-200VR. This is not a super scientific test with a big batch of equipment.
4. All images posted here are straight from camera. Apart from resizing for web viewing, the images are not altered in any manner.

I shot three weddings using a D3S side-by-side with a D3. Nikon has not changed any of the menu settings or button layouts on the new camera. There are only two additional buttons: Quiet mode which is placed on the top left dial; and the Live View button, an addition that also allows 720p video recording, just next to the voice memo record button. Other than that, the D3S feels & operates exactly like a D3.

D3S wedding images
(ISO 250, f/3.2, 1/250 at 195mm, D3S & 70-200VR II)

D3S feels a tad more responsive and faster. I am not sure if it was a placebo effect, but that was how I felt. Interestingly enough the D3S uses the same CAM 3500 auto focus system that is on D3. I was shocked to see a fully charged EN-EL4a battery recording over 3100 pictures in a D3S when D3 averages 1800-2000 pictures with the same battery! I didn’t have a chance to do an extensive test on D3S’ power consumption but the indicator clearly showed the camera registering over 3100 shots since I last charged it.

The new 70-200VR II feels solid and “fatter” because its mid section has a bigger diameter than the VR verison. It seems to lock focus a bit faster than its predecessor. In the three weddings I shot, I was never let down by the new lens. I trust its AF, performance and sharpness instantly.

D3S, 70-200VR II, Wedding
(ISO 640, f/1.8, 1/800, D3S & 50mm)

The absence of vignetting around the corners of the frame is the most noticeable difference I note on the VRII. Vignette control was set to LOW on the D3S just as it was on my usual D3 + 70-200 VR combo and I saw no vignette at f/2.8 or 3.2. While I didn’t have a chance to test D3S with VR at the three weddings that I shot (carrying one 70-200 is heavy enough), a later controlled test proved that the disappearance of vignette has nothing to with D3S or its firmware but purely by the VR II’s optical brilliance. You will see that when I couple the VR with D3 or D3S, the vignette reappears.

Now, the vignette issue on the 70-200VR has never bothered me. I kinda like it actually because I routinely add vignettes during post production to my images to draw focus to the subject. This is a matter of personal preference. I guess not having any vignetting straight out of camera is preferable. Removing vignette takes considerably more effort while adding vignette requires only a simple click on a Photoshop action set.

D3S, 70-200VR II, Wedding
(photo: ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/160, D3S, 70-200 VR II)

I do not have a habit of using Auto WB so I can’t comment on how the D3S performs in this regard. Like its predecessor, I find the colour very accurate and pleasing right out of the camera. I prefer my pictures warmer because the skin tone just looks more pleasing which is why I routinely reach for cloudy white balance. On the D3, cloudy can render a picture too warm. With the D3S, cloudy WB just gives the right amount of warmth. Again, this is is highly subjective.

One of the reasons I steered away from Auto WB is because I find in some instances, the D3 renders images a bit too cool in Auto WB. In the D3S, with the handful of shots I’ve got on Auto WB, images seem more neutral than in the D3. Again, I want to stress this is not conclusive, just my general feelings & preference.

D3S, 70-200VR II, Wedding
(photo: ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/320, D3S, 50mm)

The big thing about the D3S announcement is the improved ISO performance. Now, this interests every wedding photographer I know. I have a distrust for advertised specs. Sure, the camera gives us higher ISO range but how usable are they? This is a more important question. From the LCD screen ISO 12800 looks very usable even after you zoom in several levels for further scrutiny. With the D3, I rarely ventured beyond ISO 3200. Even on the LCD screen, you can see noticeable ISO improvement. I went ahead and shot a part of a wedding banquet on ISO 6400 and 12800 with the D3S. The D3 gives you clean images at high ISO but the D3S surpasses it. More on this in the objective tests.


It would be pointless to review D3S and 70-200VR II without a meaningful objective test in a controlled environment. I really want to find out how good these new equipment are. The objective of this test is to see how much details the new lens render versus the old lens, and how good is the D3S’ high ISO performance. This is why I chose to shoot these three figurines as my subject and a dark table top as my backdrop.

I shot a series of pictures with the following setup and hardware combination. All shots were taken from a tripod with VR switched off, Adobe RGB, vignette control low, tungsten WB, in RAW + large jpeg fine.

D3 & 70-200 VR @ ISO800, 1600, 3200, 6400, HI 1 (12800), HI 2 (25600)
D3S & 70-200 VR @ ISO800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800, HI 1 (25600), HI 2 (51200), HI 3 (102400)
D3 & 70-200 VR II@ ISO800, 1600, 3200, 6400, HI 1 (12800), HI 2 (25600)
D3S & 70-200 VR II @ ISO800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800, HI 1 (25600), HI 2 (51200), HI 3 (102400)

I was pleasantly surprised at the improvement the D3S and 70-200 VR II had over their predecessors. The findings are based on the JPEGs straight from camera with high ISO noise reduction set at normal on the D3S and D3. Here are the four main discoveries I found on the D3S and 70-200 VR II.

1. Better High ISO Performance on D3S?

D3S, 70-200VR II, Wedding

The D3S at ISO12800 is comparable to the D3 ISO3200 and the D3S at ISO25600 or HI 1 looks cleaner and more pleasant than the D3 at ISO6400. D3S users will effectively  gain two additional stops of usable ISO performance. The result astounded me and dispelled my initial skepticism. ISO25600 or HI 1 on a D3S is the highest I would go for my wedding work.

D3S, 70-200VR II, Wedding

D3S, 70-200VR II, Wedding

2. Details & Resolution of the VR2

The additional ED elements in the 70-200VR II make a huge difference in the sharpness, details and resolution of images created by the new lens. The difference between the VR & VR II were so great that I thought the softness on VR lens were created by accidental knocks on the tripod. So I re-shot with the VR lens several times using the self timer to minimize shakes, yielding the same results. Download the files: D3S, 70-200VR, f/2.8 at 200mm versus D3S, 70-200VR II, f/2.8 at 200mm.

70-200VR versus 70-200VR II

It is important to note that the new lens also eliminated the fringing and ghosting that is so evidently shown in images from the 70-200 VR lens. Pay attention to the groom figurine to see my point. In this particular test, I find the VR2 give details and sharpness at f/2.8 that the VR can only match at f/8. Now before we conclude that f/2.8 on the VR II is as good as f/8 on the older lens, we must bear in mind this test was done on very small figurines which amplified the weakness of the older lens. I suspect the differences between the two lenses may not be as obvious when we use it for portraiture. Perhaps someone else could verify this with further testing as I just ran out of time.

3. The VR2 is brighter

70-200VR versus 70-200VR II

The other good news is that the 70-200 VR II is 1/3 to 1/2 stop brighter than its predecessor.  Same scene, same light, same camera body, same manual setting (ISO800, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/5 sec) with two different lenses, you can see how the new lens produces noticeably brighter pictures. That is great news for low light shooter.

download the images: D3S, 70-200VR, f/2.8, 1/5 sec, ISO800 versus D3S 70-200VR II, f/2.8, 1/5 sec, ISO800

4. 200mm at 1/13 sec with VR2?

Hand Held 1/13 sec 70-200VR II Nikon

I’ve read Cliff Mautner’s review that he managed to pull off some sharp shots at 200mm, 1/13 sec using the VR II technology. I have no doubts in Cliff’s review & integrity, but I reasoned that perhaps him being a fabulous and experienced shooter had more to do with pulling the shots at 1/13 sec than the technology itself. Well, I repeated the feat hand holding and shooting vertically at 1/13sec which is a more difficult attempt. Horizontal shooting is easier, thanks to the Joe McNally grip. With the older lens, I could only come close between 1/30 to 1/40. Happy to report that VR2’s improved technology works as advertised.

You are going to ask me about the video mode right? When handed the camera, I was told  that this particular pre-production unit did not produce the best videos. I respectfully agreed with Nikon not to comment on the D3S video capabilities until I get my hands on the final production unit.

In light of the findings here, are there any doubts the D3S and 70-200VR II would be highly coveted items? I’ve ordered mine. Hopefully they’ll arrive in time to be placed under the Christmas tree. The rumour that Nikon gifts me boxes of Nikon gear to write this review is an urban legend. I pay for every piece of my camera equipment and I have receipts to prove it. Nikon, if you are reading, please bring us some sexy wide angle prime lenses in 2010!