Review: Nikon D3S & 70-200VR II

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

Review by Louis Pang

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.

SUBJECTIVE HANDS-ON REVIEW
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.

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!

A big thank you to Nikon Malaysia for providing the highly scarce D3S & 70-200VR II for review.

These cool photographers also published their reviews on Nikon D3S & 70-200 VR II:
Cliff Mautner, Marcus Bell, Rob Galbraith

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  1. Hafiz Ismail posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 2:06 am.

    Great review louis.

    As am using 2 d300s now and looking at migrating to full frame, d3s will be an option simply because of the ISO technology. ANybody know the RRP for D3s? and will D3 price goes down?

    On another note, hope that Malaysia Nikon Service Center can be better and world class as its equipments are.

    Hafiz Ismail

  2. Pingback from Louis Pang: International Destination Wedding Photographer » Blog Archive » Review: Nikon D3S & 70-200VR II

    [...] hype? Is 70-200VR II worth the upgrade price tag? To answer these questions and more check out this review. « Celestial [...]

  3. leng teck chiang posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 2:29 am.

    thanks for the review i find it very helpful to have an tested write out by another user rather than lab report on its specs. i personally is waiting for the vr2 as i have tested the 300mm vr at 1/60 on a d3 hand held i got 8 out of 10 pics sharp. it shows that the vr2 can really do the job. but after u tested the 70-200vr2 i now know that the vr2 really works wonders.

  4. Kingston Liu posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 4:17 am.

    Thanks for the great review.
    Makes me sad for my 70-200!!
    With the obvious blur on the figurine.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Gilbert Wong posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 5:25 am.

    Good review~

    Where do you book your VR2 lens from? safe journey to Perth :)

  6. admin posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 5:30 am.

    Gilbert: from nearest Nikon dealer. Stock will be scarce for a while.

  7. Mark Leo posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 9:56 am.

    Great review Louis, thanks for the insight. I am very sure the moment it hits the shelf that these products will be out of stock pretty soon. Much like when the D3 was first launched.

  8. engku iskandar posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 11:00 am.

    Thanks for the review. appreciate it so much. 1st review from Malaysia i think.

    VRII definitely i will get one. D3s is very tempting but my D3 still can perform very well in most condition.

  9. Mark posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 11:25 am.

    Louis,

    Good article !! Keep up the good work

  10. Rudy posted the following on November 12, 2009 at 7:53 pm.

    Learnt something bout the VR lens here…good article bro.

  11. Fred Kramer posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 12:01 am.

    Dear Louis,
    Many thanks for your well balanced review.
    I really like your small figurines of the photographer and what I presume is a wedding couple,all in old fashioned Asian dress.
    I collect Asian figurines and collectibles and would surely like to include a set of figurines that you used as props.
    Can you tell where I could buy a set of these figurines.
    Many thanks and kind regards,
    Fred Kramer
    the Netherlands

  12. LSE posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 8:09 am.

    thanks for the great review.

  13. admin posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 9:42 am.

    Fred: they were gifts from a client. Old Hong Kong was the brand. They were bought from HK but I had no idea which retailer. Wish I could be more helpful.

  14. Chester posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 1:09 pm.

    I’ve seen that kind of figurines, They also have WWII, Egyptian, Roman Empire but they cost a fortune each.

    Anyway, thanks for this review Louis all the more I’d buy the new 70-200 but I’ll probably get that next year.

  15. Johan Sopiee posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 2:11 pm.

    Great review Louis! Well balanced and very informative.

  16. Jimin Lai posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 3:45 pm.

    Now I feel like getting the new lens too! Poison man..

  17. Eu Sean posted the following on November 13, 2009 at 5:23 pm.

    Wickered!!! I almost owned a 70-200 VR. Thanks to Louis, I have a chance to own a VRII.

  18. Joseph Siew posted the following on November 14, 2009 at 1:49 am.

    I think the 1/2 stop brighter improvement has already convinced me to seriously want to order one NOW !
    You are dangerous !! - like a dope pusher, man ! First you lured me and got me hooked to buy the 70-200VR immediately after the shoot at Lynette’s wedding..and now, I am sold..
    take my money before I buy that car :)
    Hmmm maybe the Cabriolet is more fun , no?

  19. anonym posted the following on November 14, 2009 at 8:55 am.

    These comparisons seemingly suggest that the functioning of noise reduction by D3s may be more effective than that of D3, while the nature of CMOS equipped with D3s is expected to achieve only limited improvement,if any,compared to that of D3.

  20. JPW posted the following on November 14, 2009 at 6:22 pm.

    Reading the review in China, many thanks for Louis’s review. It’s helpful for me to have better understanding of AFS 70-200 VR II. But It’s so strange that the response to the review is somewhat different from the fans in P.R.China as http://forum.xitek.com/showthread.php?threadid=680265 . many readers here doubt if the review is true caused by “the old is the best” from the view of the strange troditional chinese culture. Anyway, I believe Louis’s review. The new 70-200VR II is much better than its predecessors.

  21. Roel posted the following on November 15, 2009 at 7:34 am.

    Louis,

    Thank you for your excellent review. I do have one question regarding your sharpness test(s) on the 70-200mm lenses (VR vs. VR II). Nikon recommends that VR be turned off when using a tripod (on the “older” VR lens)… was this the case when you created the test shot with this lens?

  22. admin posted the following on November 15, 2009 at 8:37 am.

    Yes VR was switched off when I tested both lenses on tripod. There is no problem with my 6-month old VR lens. I’ve been getting sharp portrait shots with it. However when we pit it against the VRII on such small objects, the resolution and sharpness of these two lenses became evident.


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