Nikon D3s has a brand new sensor, not a tweaked one


Nikon D3s sensor (credit: Nikon USA)

Few days ago I posted a link about Moose Peterson's experience with the Nikon D3s and the new 70-200 f/2.8 VRII lens. I either missed that paragraph, or the text was added later on (thanks Theodore for pointing it out to me):

With the results I was seeing above, I called Mike, my bud at Nikon and asked point blank, “Is the sensor in the D3s brand new or just tweaked?” He said, “Brand new!” I asked if that was public knowledge and he said yes to which I replied, “Great job on the soft release!”

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  • hybris

    well its hard to belive.
    if true then all the speculations about recyckling the d3x or d3 sensor into a 700s/d800 may fall.
    then mabye the rumor with the d4 with a 18mp sensor is true,
    even if tis hard to belive
    im cunfused

    • Anony-mou

      Of course it’s hard to believe. This Nikon-sponsored photographer and his Nikon buddy are all playing Nikon’s game. They all make money from their spreading Nikon’s gospel. If “Mike’ says new sensor, then it’s new sensor.

      But on the other hand, who cares, only the final result counts and here it’s pretty good.

      • GlobalGuy

        Well, the results certainly do matter most. But “Brand New” doesn’t necessary mean not tweaked. There is a very good way of saying everything in business (and law), and the following can be equally true:

        A. The sensor is brand new, not tweaked.
        B. The sensor is brand new to Nikon, not a tweaked version of one we currently use in other products.
        C. The sensor is brand new to Nikon, developed by others who tweaked them for Nikon and licensed the version to us.

        But ultimately its the results that matter, and this mystery aspect of “re-freshed-ness” or the lack of recycling old hardware is only important in that generating new ways to solve problems generally is good for competition (internally and throughout R&D) as well as being an indicator of a business’s health (those who cannot change….).

        Whatever the reality (version of truth) that we are dealing with, its good to see positive results applied liberally on a product we can enjoy.

        • PHB

          It is a meaningless statement.

          The different ISO response means that there must have been some different processing step involved. There is no way you could get a whole ISO stop improvement from off sensor tweaks.

          But that might mean changing one mask, every mask or no masks at all. A different wafer prep process would mean a different sensor.

          My guess would be that they would want to change as little as necessary. Not to save the expense of changing, but to keep what is working working..

          What I would much prefer to know is whether this means that Nikon is using black wafer technology announced a while back. If so it would be an impressively quick adoption of a new technology.

          • WoutK89

            Wasnt black waffer supposed to give an higher increase than just 1-2 stops?

          • iamlucky13

            Well, it certainly tells me something I didn’t know. I was just curious if they’d made a remarkable advance in noise reduction, or if some sort of hardware change was involved. It definitely sounds like the latter is the case, even if a very find distinction is being drawn between the terms “tweaked” and “new.”

            When he says “new,” that could mean the same CCD but a new amplifier. Other’s below are speculating it’s the microlenses. Even these possibilities I would count as notable hardware changes beyond tweaks.

          • The catch is that the D3/D3s use a CMOS sensor, not a CCD. Each pixel sensor on a CMOS chip has an amplifier built in to it (before the signal hits an off-chip amp), so any changes done to those amps would require new dies. That would in itself qualify as a “new” sensor, as significant noise reduction could be done at this step by increasing the signal to noise ratio of those amplifiers. In addition, if the amplifiers were downsized at all, it would leave more room for the actual light-sensitive part of each pixel – which again would lead to lower noise. My guess is that both of these changes have been made to the new sensor, based on what has been said by Moose, Thom and others. Again, these changes would require new dies, resulting in a new sensor in terms of both manufacturing and application.

            Of course, there’s certainly all sorts of other changes as well. Micro-lens adjustments, filter optimization, more efficient amplifiers and ADCs, better noise processing, etc. are likely all done as well. That’s all off-sensor, of course. I suspect that the biggest gains are to be had at the CMOS sensor though.

          • PHB

            Black Wafer allegedly improves response by an order of magnitude – but in the Infra-Red domain 🙁

            Gains in the visible light spectrum are much smaller. I have not done the math myself, but some folk claim that we are very close to the theoretical limit for ISO response. But then again, theoretical models tend to be based on assumptions that are not necessarily absolute constraints. Instead they identify the net part that needs a design around.

            When I was in college the latest result showed that 64Kb ram chips were the absolute maximum possible due to induced soft alpha particle errors. That is not the case of course, we have much larger RAM chips today because they use techniques to compensate for alpha particle induced errors.

            At the end of the day a DSLR lens is a heck of a lot larger than your eyeball and that has very little difficult seeing well under artificial light. So I think that there is a way to go yet.

            But resolution and ISO are not the only things I think we should care about. I would much prefer an electronic shutter, and the ability to sync flash at any speed and to do pan shots in video to an extra ISO stop.

          • rhodium

            I believe what they reworked wasn’t the sensor itself, but the microlens array. I recall reading that somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it now.

  • Marx

    this is bullsh*t. The microlenses are new, not the sensor.

    • WoutK89

      Agreed to that, sensor tweaking is more software related, not hardware. In this case also the microlenses have been improved

      • Ernst

        How on earth can either of you claim to know that? References, please.

  • dan

    I like this. It’s a pretty clear statement that Nikon are dedicated to image quality and clean high isos. I was expecting them to save money and just tweak the original but this is nice. It shows they’re not just sticking with what they have because it’s cheaper.

    Although saying that, I don’t know too much about sensor development so I don’t know whether making a similar sensor is cheaper or if it’s the same price as it would have been designing a whole new one.

  • I truly hope that the d3s sensor will be used in the sequel of Nikon D700!

  • mdm

    According to the D3s microsite by Nikon Germany the D3s sensor is tweaked, NOT new!

  • frankchn

    Does it matter whether it is tweaked or new?

    • low

      thats what im saying… D3S > *

  • I do not believe it is a brand new chip, if it was, it would have 1080p video. Now it semes the video feature is an off-ship solution based on the chip live view feature.

    Instead my guess is they tweaked A/D converters and/or CFA and micro lenses, but uses the same CMOS chip.
    In some sense, that could be called a ‘new sensor’ as well, since devices are part of the sensor.

    • Mikael

      Haven’t we already established that the D3 can output 1080p in LiveView and it’s therefore not the sensor’s fault that Nikon has chosen 720p as their video resolution?

      Again: The reason for using motionJPG for video was Nikon’s “great JPG-compression available in-camera already” (from a Nikon interview). The big problem with motionJPG is that it’s got a 2GB file size limit. And 5min of 720p mJPG equals just about 2GB.

      While if you were to use 1080p you’d effectively cut your recording time in half. I believe this is the reason for Nikon not using 1080p in their DSLRs at the time (and being the reason for not including 60fps and similar).

      • Ola Forsslund

        Mikael, the only way to determine the actual resolution is to analyze resolution charts. Has that been done? If so, please provide a link.

        Also, your theory about file-size is very weak. Why not give the user a choice? Especially when it would look so much better in the spec-charts.

    • I agree with Ola, as a former chip designer, it’s not what they call a top-down design.
      Tweaked could mean a lot of things.
      If it is “Tweaked” is not a bad thing, less chances of introducing bugs
      It should be called refining the design.
      Bottom line is… It’s nice that they strive for continuous improvement in IQ.

  • Adam

    hmm, if it’s new, then where does it come from? Sony?

    Grats to Nikon for making the D3s update much more worthwhile then the D300s (which is not a bad update anyway). Seriously, if Nikon improved the D300s IQ (with a new sensor or something like they did the with D3s), I’m sure it will get more people interested in it. Rather then just adding video (a full manual video might also get some interests) and dual card slot (1SD + 1CF). But what’s done is done.

    Hmm, I’m guessing we will see the D700s with the same sensor from D3s and also with the inclusion of dual card slot (1SD + 1CF) and the now must have in all DSLR, video mode.

    We might only see a higher res D700 when the D800 comes out.

  • Ken Elliott

    I think Nikon considers the CMOS chip and microlenses as one assembly, and together compose the “sensor” package. Fine with me. If Nikon produces a D700s with this sensor, I’ll buy one and toss my D300 backup body.

    I’m shooting a lot of events using my D700 and 85mm f/1.4 wide open @ ISO 6400. Everyone raves about those shots. My keeper rate is not very high due to slow shutter speeds, so a single stop improvement is significant to me.

  • tester

    If this is true, why is Nikon not announcing the new sensor? Any reason?

    Maybe D3s is using the new sensor for D4 with a lot of possibilities not used to get data and expierence for Nikon to ensure that D4 will be good. Are there in the past problems with new sensors? How fast were these failed sensors fixed? Because the market is fast, I think we will see a “D4” end 2010 to surprise Canon, ….

    • WoutK89

      No it’s not using the D4 sensor, it is the D3 sensor with software and small hardware improvements, nothing new about the actual cmos

  • Alex

    If it’s a new sensor, we will get a D700s, not a D800 or D800x :o(

    • BillyBobJohnson

      you won’t get any of ’em this year.

  • kaki

    It is not matter whether d3s has new or tweaked senser. the problem is that it is only 12 mega pixel. People would not buy it because of this. even the price is super high. Remember, sony is asking below 2000 bucks for 24 mega pixel camera. Nikon seems stuck with 12 mega pixel and it is shame.

    • rhodium

      I pray that you are being sarcastic here, because I’d like to see you go above ISO 1600 on those Sony sensors.

      • kaki

        iso 1600 for what? higher resolution pay more money in some of the pro job.

        • rkas

          Then theyll just go for the D3X then?

        • For low light? Have you ever shot events or sports indoors or at night?

          For even double-page spreads on magazines, 12 MP is way more than any photographer needs for anything but major cropping – which means a different lens or framing should have been used anyway. That’s the biggest you’ll see photos in publication, so for the majority of the target market (photojournalists and even photographers) it is enough. Low noise however, is critical to remaining competitive in photojournalism. A camera like the D3s actually allows photographers to take photos where they couldn’t before – an enormous advantage in a highly competitive field.

          And for those who really, really need more, the D3X is there as rkas mentioned. Jobs that demand that kind of resolution are going to justify the cost of the camera – and ones that don’t, won’t.

          • Sorry – “even photographers” was supposed to be “event photographers”.

        • rhodium

          For studio photographers and the like (who need to print tack sharp banner-sized images that go up to a few feet on each side), yes, MP is a factor in deciding what camera to buy. Photojournalists, sports photographers and associated acts will prefer the low-light capabilities of the D3s (currently the best on the market, even better than the 1D Mk IV) over high resolution cameras. 12 MP is more than enough for their needs.

    • WoutK89

      So you are trying to make me believe Nikon should have a pay per pixel policy, even if the rest of the body has cost more to produce? 😉

      • Jane

        Well, they do have a pay-per-pixel policy even if the rest of the body has not cost more to produce, do they? (D3X 🙂

    • DNHJR

      LOL. Another brain washed person thinking they need more MP. MP war is just a big gimick to get you to buy a new camera every year or so when there is nothing wrong with what you have now. It’s your money.

      • I’m pushing the res limit of my d300 for landscape and product shots.

        Weddings it doesn’t make a difference.

        But yes, there are some of us out there that could use a 48mp sensor to its fullest. Just because you wouldn’t know what to do with it doesn’t mean somebody else doesn’t need it.

        24mp is a nice jump, but it’s not worth the $8k for a throwaway body I’m going to upgrade in two years. Sub $4k? Yeah, then we’d be talking…

        • Jim


          Different fotogs have different needs. I want high ISO (weddings, events), others want high MP (landscape, product). Some want video, and some don’t. Don’t tell me what I don’t need, and I won’t tell you what you don’t need. I’m amazed at how many on the forums think that there is only one type of desirable camera.

          • well D3x have better ISO performance and more megapixels than D3 and D3s. So there are reasons to want more.
            Besides, for lot of stock guys, size matters most and those had to move to Sony (1 case) or back to Canon (3 cases in my surroundings)

      • zzddrr

        Where is the MP war? Since September 2004 Nikon is at 12MP. If Nikon doesn’t come out within 1-2 months with something that is above 24MP and less than the D3x then many will start looking around for other options.

        DNHJR, go an fight your 12MP war… 🙂

        • WoutK89

          That one brand is not “involved” in the war according to you, does not mean there is no war.

          • zzddrr

            Perhaps you’re talking about P&S. Which DSLR makers are in MP war?

        • rhodium

          Canon is the only brand still stuck in its own imaginary MP war. Just look at the 1D Mk IV and the 7D. Cramming more pixels into the same sensor is just going to introduce noise (or noise reduction artifacts) and show the flaws in your lens.

          Nikon, being far wiser, has stayed at 12 MP, and has instead focused on improving the quality of their pixels (dynamic range, colour rendition, ISO performance etc.).

      • kaki

        you probably do not know about the real mega pixel value. some of the stock market pay more when it is higher resolution. go wash your brain yourself, buddy!

        • Adam

          lol, no they don’t a crappy 20mp photo will still be beaten by a great 10mp photo.

          And I think, you will be the very few rare breeds who complains bout the MP, many photographers are pretty darn happy with the ISO improvements and accepts that Nikon keep the MP count the same. Besides, if MP is so freaking important, there is the D3x.

          So stop whining just cause you cant own a D3x.

          • kaki

            what is the reason that nikon revenue on camera is less than canon? nikon slr is better built than canon and it looks good and working good as you said. only their problem is that they ignore or not realizing what normal people thinking. that is about mega pixel. they do not have to exceed their compatitors mega pixel count but they have to match it. If eveything same condition, what would you pick up for yourself. most people pick up the higher number od pixel count. that is the business, man! beside, as a 18 years professional, also 18 years nikon users, i need more mega pixel for my clients. don’t you get it? now, you are the admin guy. don’t you ever blaim anyone in this post. you know why, they making a web traffic for your site and you are making money out of it. plus, i am done with this site.

          • Maybe, just maybe, it’s because Canon owns the P&S market – meaning that they ship out millions more cameras at nice profit margins.

            Now certainly raw megapixel count (or video res) is a factor for many buyers – especially those easily bought by advertising or a salesman’s pitch. Canon certainly has an advantage there.

            But, the numbers don’t lie. This is the division of DSLR (i.e. not including point-and-shoot) market share in Japan for 2008:


            A lot has changed since then – new cameras, most of another year has gone by – and of course that only shows sales in Japan. But, considering the importance of Japan in camera sales (and Thom Hogan’s musings on market share), the overall numbers worldwide are similar.

            2009 doesn’t look to be nearly as good a year for any camera maker, and Nikon has probably lost a little market share as a result of the minimal changes to its lineup. The new lower end Nikon bodies appear to be a bit weak to me, but so do the Canon offerings. Both companies use older cameras in the entry price segment as the lowest cost option, although it may just be old stock that is sold until all the cameras are out of their warehouses. Both companies have a decent hierarchy of bodies, with every level competing fairly effectively with each other. I would say Canon has a slight advantage on paper (specs vs. price as the consumer is concerned), but the Nikon rebates going on right now probably bring things a bit closer.

            Above entry-level, Nikon and Canon diverge a little with their target markets so they’re not nearly as comparable. Those don’t really matter nearly as much though, because as you can see from the individual camera market share division, almost 60% of total DSLR sales are just Nikon and Canon’s entry level bodies. Given a 39% market share each, that means that over 75% of DSLR sales from each company are at the entry level! Now, higher level bodies are still vitally important in terms of overall business strategy for both companies. People buy in to both systems with the express possibility of moving up to bigger and better cameras, even if they don’t think they will right away. The “halo” effect of having professional level bodies and lenses goes a long way towards increasing entry level bodies.

            Well, I could go on for forever but I think I’ll leave it at that. Remember, Nikon is a dedicated lens and camera manufacturer rather than a large electronics company like Canon. Performance of their camera division is essential for their survival as a business, and they know it.

    • M!

      sorry, i bought one and it is on order.
      if you just want Mega Pixels, this is not the camera for you.

  • ams

    so means no firmware upgrade for D3 to make it similar with D3s, just like D2X and D2Xs? aagghhh……

    • WoutK89

      No firmware, just like with the D300 and D300s. So apparently not all “s” updates lead to a firmware. Would be a tough job adding video but how to record the sound?

  • John

    What exactly makes it a new sensor? I really don’t see any improvement in the specs. You would think they would boost the MP to at least 16. I think it’s just tweak but they are passing along as new.

    • WoutK89

      Not all improvements have to be in the specs, unless you have a list with technical internal specs as well?

    • Anon

      Changing the pixel count would change the image processing requirements for the high frame rates the camera is capable of, which would require a new expeed platform.

      Would you accept more MP but slower? If so then you should be in D3X world.

      For an ‘s’ upgrade the pixel count will always remain the same as they want to be able to “swap out” the sensor arraw and keep the rest the same.

  • Nikonist

    Any chance that Nikon kept cards close to its chest? I wonder if some of the specs could be revealed only when the first items will be shipped on Nov. 27.

    • Jim

      The specs seem pretty well locked down. The brochure and website are pretty detailed.

  • It has been mentioned in the press release:

    “The D3S’s image sensor has been completely redesigned from the D3; the inner structure has been further optimised, with the pixel count and large pixel pitch maintained for even greater latitude in high ISO performance.”

    Apparantly not everyone reads press releases as carefully as they should 😉

    • WoutK89

      😀 Exactly

    • nikkor_2

      Moose P clearly did not read the press release; the sensor change was noted by Nikon in the release.

  • SimonC

    Here we go again! People want to believe that the sensor is only “tweaked” with new microlenses and some souped up NR algorithm.

    Here’s a comment from Nikon UK Support and Training about the D3s sensor:
    (source )

    “For starters, James Banfield, Nikon UK Professional Support and Training tells me that the sensor itself has been made thinner to boost the camera’s low-light ability. Also, as with the D3, the micro lenses are gapless, but they have been reworked to improve light transmission and allow more of the light that passes through the lens to reach the sensor. The circuitry has also been altered to help reduce the introduction of noise. ”

    From Nikon’s brochure:

    “Using a redesigned sensor, which maintains its predecessor’s full frame 12 million pixel resolution and large pixel pitch but has a ‘completely modified inner structure”

    From Nikon’s Press Release:

    “The D3S’s image sensor has been completely redesigned from the one utilized in the D3. This new sensor’s inner structure has been further optimized,…”

    So this so-called “tweaked” sensor is in fact, completely redesigned: thinner, improved circuitry to lower noise, and passes more light through to improve microlenses.

    If it really had been some NR algorithm improvements, do you not think these software changes would be immediately propagated all camera firmware updates (and even including Capture NX)?

    You all should be damned happy that even a “lowly” S release got literally a brand new sensor. Just think of what they’ll do with the D4.


    • WoutK89

      “If it really had been some NR algorithm improvements, do you not think these software changes would be immediately propagated all camera firmware updates (and even including Capture NX)?”

      I am not saying NR algorithm. But they did have to change stuff so that it could “read-out” video, which probably has made sensor slightly better at the read-out for stills as well, or am I misjudging because both cameras have Live view?

      • SimonC

        Whether or not video necessitated the hardware changes in the sensor is unknown, but I highly doubt that given the D3s’ final video specifications. Why go through all the expense of redesigning the sensor only to get….720p @ 24 fps?

        Nikon’s forte is in still images and that’s exactly where they focused their energy on. Video capability was secondary – no doubt, it is still lacking in many ways 🙁 . The market will decide if that was the right direction or not.

        The surprise in this “S” release is that still image quality improved by at least 1 stop or more due to hardware improvements. This sort of jump in image quality is usually reserved for generational jumps – not mid-life refreshes.

  • steve

    I thought every new camera came with a brand new sensor. It wouldn’t make sense for Nikon to use recycled sensors in new cameras. ;P

    • SimonC

      They often do recycle sensors, but some of the sensor toppings and/or supporting electronics may have been changed between bodies 😉 Look at the D200 -> D80 -> D40x -> D60 -> D3000, (10 MP CCD) and D300 -> D90 (12 MP CMOS).

      • WoutK89

        D5000 added 😛

      • Chris Lilley

        D300 and D90 don’t use the same sensor, in fact, although D90 and D5000 do.

        • rkas

          Your wrong, they all use the same sensor!

  • Anonymous

    if it was a completely brand new sensor I would assume Nikon would use that for some aggressive marketing along the lines of “completely new redesigned state of the art sensor that surpasses that of the D3…”

    The fact that they are doing this makes me believe they only painted it a different colour or something…

  • Ronan

    They probably changed something physical to it and it becomes ‘new’.

    • zzddrr

      for example the part number

    • Chris Lilley

      You could probably find what they changed by reading the previous comments 🙁

  • longtimenikonshooter

    let’s face it, guys. you can keep your D3 and D700. just spend the money on lighting, then you can also get two-stops for much less than a new D3s. of course, if you shoot in some bear countries, then you need that D3s.

  • zen-tao

    In view of every remarks I’ve read, It comes up to me tha this “new” sensor is tweaked one.
    First.: If Nikon company would had developed a real new sensor the camera wouldn’t had been called D3s but any other else.
    Second. This sensor have been tweaked to stand video performances. Not very outstanding ones. I wouldn’t surprise if Nikon delivered a “magic” new firmware to update the video capabilities to 1080p as Canon did.
    Conclusion. Quality means D3, D3x and, of course, D3s, D700 on the top of the brand’s hill. It doesn’t seem to be more in the long term. The rest is a smokescreen to feed roumors.

    • Ernst

      What else would you call it? The D3s is still fundamentally a D3, as is the D3x. Same case, same mechanics, same interface, same optics, and damned near the same electronics. A “brand new” (whatever that means) sensor with the same resolution in what is fundamentally the same camera definitely qualifies as an “s” upgrade.

  • Ernst


    Everyone in this thread is arguing over “brand new” versus “tweaked” as though these terms mean something. Exactly how small of a design change qualifies as “tweaked?”

    ANY change to ANY mask gets a new part number and can rightfully be described as “brand new.” And if we count the whole package as the “sensor,” the same could even be said of changes made to the microlenses or color filters.

    In other words, if you can’t plug a D3 sensor into a D3s and get identical results, the D3s sensor can be said to be “brand new.”

  • zen-tao

    I don’t know if there are any sensor interchangeable between different models. there must be a lot of technical specks that may make that operation very difficult. who knows there are genius for everything.

  • 3space

    in the end you will see nikon did the right thing by staying 12 MP. The photosites are almost twice the size of the mark4. The proof will be in the image…. I also thank its smart to stay with a consistent form factor. Just like apple, start with a good foundation… don’t fix what is broken; don’t change just to change

    As for canon’s 1080p video… well it looks like its actually only resolves to 720… so again canon chases marketing numbers above image quality… in effect they have taken 720 video and wraped it in a 1080p format… great for marketing…

    If the D3s delivers true 720 video format aside from the marketing hype the D3s will prove to be a better camera then 1Dmk4.

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