Nikon D3S vs Sony A9
The Nikon D3S and the Sony Alpha A9 are two professional cameras that were announced, respectively, in October 2009 and April 2017. The D3S is a DSLR, while the A9 is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. Both cameras are equipped with a full frame sensor. The Nikon has a resolution of 12.1 megapixels, whereas the Sony provides 24 MP.
Below is an overview of the main specs of the two cameras as a starting point for the comparison.
Going beyond this snapshot of core features and characteristics, what are the differences between the Nikon D3S and the Sony Alpha A9? Which one should you buy? Read on to find out how these two cameras compare with respect to their body size, their imaging sensors, their shooting features, their input-output connections, and their reception by expert reviewers.
The physical size and weight of the Nikon D3S and the Sony A9 are illustrated in the side-by-side display below. The two cameras are presented according to their relative size. Three successive views from the front, the top, and the rear are shown. All width, height and depth measures are rounded to the nearest millimeter.
If the front view area (width x height) of the cameras is taken as an aggregate measure of their size, the Sony A9 is considerably smaller (51 percent) than the Nikon D3S. Moreover, the A9 is substantially lighter (46 percent) than the D3S. In this context, it is worth noting that both cameras are splash and dust-proof and can, hence, be used in inclement weather conditions or harsh environments.
The above size and weight comparisons are to some extent incomplete since they do not consider the interchangeable lenses that both of these cameras require. Both cameras have similarly sized sensors, but DSLRs have a larger flange-to-focal plane distance than mirrorless cameras, which imposes contraints on the optical engineering process and generally leads to bigger and heavier lenses. You can compare the optics available for the two cameras in the Nikon Lens Catalog (D3S) and the Sony FE Lens Catalog (A9). Mirrorless cameras, such as the A9, have moreover the advantage that they can use many lenses from other systems via adapters, as they have a relatively short flange to focal plane distance.
Concerning battery life, the D3S gets 4200 shots out of its EN-EL4a battery, while the A9 can take 650 images on a single charge of its NP-FZ100 power pack. As can be seen in the images above, the D3S has a battery grip built in. This facilitates image-taking in portrait orientation and gives it additional battery power. In order to provide similar functionality for the A9, Sony provides the VG-C3EM vertical grip as an optional accessory (see here on eBay). The power pack in the A9 can be charged via the USB port, which can be very convenient when travelling.
The adjacent table lists the principal physical characteristics of the two cameras alongside a wider set of alternatives. If you would like to visualize and compare a different camera combination, you can navigate to the CAM-parator app and make your selection from a broad list of cameras there.
|1.||Nikon D3S||160 mm||157 mm||88 mm||1240 g||4200||Y||Oct 2009||5,199|
|2.||Sony A9||127 mm||96 mm||63 mm||673 g||650||Y||Apr 2017||4,499|
|3.||Canon 1D Mark IV||156 mm||157 mm||80 mm||1230 g||1500||Y||Oct 2009||4,999|
|4.||Canon 1D Mark III||156 mm||157 mm||80 mm||1155 g||2200||Y||Feb 2007||4,499|
|5.||Nikon D5||160 mm||159 mm||92 mm||1415 g||3780||Y||Jan 2016||6,499|
|6.||Nikon D4S||160 mm||157 mm||91 mm||1350 g||3020||Y||Feb 2014||6,499|
|7.||Nikon D4||160 mm||157 mm||91 mm||1340 g||2600||Y||Jan 2012||5,999|
|8.||Nikon D300S||147 mm||115 mm||81 mm||938 g||950||Y||Jul 2009||1,799|
|9.||Nikon D3X||160 mm||157 mm||88 mm||1260 g||4400||Y||Dec 2008||7,999|
|10.||Nikon D700||147 mm||123 mm||77 mm||1074 g||1000||Y||Jul 2008||2,999|
|11.||Nikon D3||160 mm||157 mm||88 mm||1300 g||4300||Y||Aug 2007||4,999|
|12.||Nikon D2Xs||158 mm||150 mm||86 mm||1252 g||3800||Y||Jun 2006||4,699|
|13.||Sony A9 II||129 mm||96 mm||76 mm||678 g||690||Y||Oct 2019||4,499|
|14.||Sony A7 III||127 mm||96 mm||74 mm||650 g||610||Y||Feb 2018||1,999|
|15.||Sony A7R II||127 mm||96 mm||60 mm||625 g||290||Y||Jun 2015||3,199|
|16.||Sony A7S II||127 mm||96 mm||60 mm||627 g||370||Y||Sep 2015||2,999|
|17.||Sony A7 II||127 mm||96 mm||60 mm||599 g||350||Y||Nov 2014||1,999|
|Notes: Measurements and pricing do not include easily detachable parts, such as add-on or interchangeable lenses or optional viewfinders.|
The price is, of course, an important factor in any camera decision. The retail prices at the time of the camera’s release place the model in the market relative to other models in the producer’s line-up and the competition. The A9 was launched at a somewhat lower price (by 13 percent) than the D3S, which makes it more attractive for photographers on a tight budget. Normally, street prices remain initially close to the MSRP, but after a couple of months, the first discounts appear. Later in the product cycle and, in particular, when the replacement model is about to appear, further discounting and stock clearance sales often push the camera price considerably down.
The size of the sensor inside a digital camera is one of the key determinants of image quality. A large sensor will generally have larger individual pixels that offer better low-light sensitivity, provide wider dynamic range, and have richer color-depth than smaller pixels in a sensor of the same technological generation. Further, a large sensor camera will give the photographer additional creative options when using shallow depth-of-field to isolate a subject from its background. On the downside, larger sensors are more costly to manufacture and tend to lead to bigger and heavier cameras and lenses.
Both cameras under consideration feature a full frame sensor, but their sensors differ slightly in size. The sensor area in the A9 is 2 percent smaller. They nevertheless have the same format factor of 1.0. Both cameras have a native aspect ratio (sensor width to sensor height) of 3:2.
Despite having a slightly smaller sensor, the A9 offers a higher resolution of 24 megapixels, compared with 12.1 MP of the D3S. This megapixels advantage comes at the cost of a higher pixel density and a smaller size of the individual pixel (with a pixel pitch of 5.94μm versus 8.43μm for the D3S). However, it should be noted that the A9 is much more recent (by 7 years and 6 months) than the D3S, and its sensor will have benefitted from technological advances during this time that make it possible to gather light more efficiently.
The resolution advantage of the Sony A9 implies greater flexibility for cropping images or the possibility to print larger pictures. The maximum print size of the A9 for good quality output (200 dots per inch) amounts to 30 x 20 inches or 76.2 x 50.8 cm, for very good quality (250 dpi) 24 x 16 inches or 61 x 40.6 cm, and for excellent quality (300 dpi) 20 x 13.3 inches or 50.8 x 33.9 cm. The corresponding values for the Nikon D3S are 21.3 x 14.2 inches or 54.1 x 36 cm for good quality, 17 x 11.3 inches or 43.2 x 28.8 cm for very good quality, and 14.2 x 9.4 inches or 36 x 24 cm for excellent quality prints.
The A9 has on-sensor phase detect pixels, which results in fast and reliable autofocus acquisition even during live view operation.
The Nikon D3S has a native sensitivity range from ISO 200 to ISO 12800, which can be extended to ISO 100-102400. The corresponding ISO settings for the Sony Alpha A9 are ISO 100 to ISO 51200, with the possibility to increase the ISO range to 50-204800.
Consistent information on actual sensor performance is available from DXO Mark for many cameras. This service is based on lab testing and assigns an overall score to each camera sensor, as well as ratings for dynamic range ("DXO Landscape"), color depth ("DXO Portrait"), and low-light sensitivity ("DXO Sports"). Of the two cameras under consideration, the A9 has a markedly higher DXO score than the D3S (overall score 10 points higher), which will translate into better image quality. The advantage is based on 1.4 bits higher color depth, 1.3 EV in additional dynamic range, and 0.1 stops in additional low light sensitivity. The following table provides an overview of the physical sensor characteristics, as well as the sensor quality measurements for a selection of comparators.
| DXO |
|1.||Nikon D3S||Full Frame||12.1||4256||2832||720/24p||23.5||12.0||3253||82|
|2.||Sony A9||Full Frame||24.0||6000||4000||4K/30p||24.9||13.3||3517||92|
|3.||Canon 1D Mark IV||APS-H||16.0||4896||3264||1080/30p||22.8||12.0||1320||74|
|4.||Canon 1D Mark III||APS-H||10.1||3888||2592||none||22.7||11.7||1078||71|
|5.||Nikon D5||Full Frame||20.7||5588||3712||4K/30p||25.1||12.3||2343||88|
|6.||Nikon D4S||Full Frame||16.2||4928||3280||1080/60p||24.4||13.3||3074||89|
|7.||Nikon D4||Full Frame||16.2||4928||3280||1080/30p||24.7||13.1||2965||89|
|9.||Nikon D3X||Full Frame||24.4||6048||4032||none||24.7||13.7||1992||88|
|10.||Nikon D700||Full Frame||12.1||4256||2832||none||23.5||12.2||2303||80|
|11.||Nikon D3||Full Frame||12.1||4256||2832||none||23.5||12.2||2290||81|
|13.||Sony A9 II||Full Frame||24.0||6000||4000||4K/30p||25.0||14.0||3434||93|
|14.||Sony A7 III||Full Frame||24.0||6000||4000||4K/30p||25.0||14.7||3730||96|
|15.||Sony A7R II||Full Frame||42.2||7952||5304||4K/30p||26.0||13.9||3434||98|
|16.||Sony A7S II||Full Frame||12.0||4240||2832||4K/30p||23.6||13.3||2993||85|
|17.||Sony A7 II||Full Frame||24.0||6000||4000||1080/60p||24.9||13.6||2449||90|
Many modern cameras are not only capable of taking still images, but also of capturing video footage. The two cameras under consideration both have sensors whose read-out speed is fast enough to capture moving pictures, but the A9 provides a better video resolution than the D3S. It can shoot movie footage at 4K/30p, while the Nikon is limited to 720/24p.
Apart from body and sensor, cameras can and do differ across a variety of features. For example, the A9 has an electronic viewfinder (3686k dots), while the D3S has an optical one. Both systems have their advantages, with the electronic viewfinder making it possible to project supplementary shooting information into the framing view, whereas the optical viewfinder offers lag-free viewing and a very clear framing image. The viewfinders of both cameras offer the same field of view (100%), but the viewfinder of the A9 has a higher magnification than the one of the D3S (0.78x vs 0.70x), so that the size of the image transmitted appears closer to the size seen with the naked human eye. The following table reports on some other key feature differences and similarities of the Nikon D3S, the Sony A9, and comparable cameras.
|3.||Canon 1D Mark IV||optical||Y||3.0||920||fixed||n||1/8000s||10.0||n||n|
|4.||Canon 1D Mark III||optical||Y||3.0||230||fixed||n||1/8000s||10.0||n||n|
|13.||Sony A9 II||3686||n||3.0||1440||tilting||Y||1/8000s||10.0||n||Y|
|14.||Sony A7 III||2359||n||3.0||922||tilting||Y||1/8000s||10.0||n||Y|
|15.||Sony A7R II||2400||n||3.0||1229||tilting||n||1/8000s||5.0||n||Y|
|16.||Sony A7S II||2400||n||3.0||1229||tilting||n||1/8000s||5.0||n||Y|
|17.||Sony A7 II||2400||n||3.0||1230||tilting||n||1/8000s||5.0||n||Y|
One feature that is present on the D3S, but is missing on the A9 is a top-level LCD. While being, of course, smaller than the rear screen, the control panel conveys some of the essential shooting information and can be convenient for quick and easy settings verification.
The reported shutter speed information refers to the use of the mechanical shutter. Yet, some cameras only have an electronic shutter, while others have an electronic shutter in addition to a mechanical one. In fact, the A9 is one of those camera that have an additional electronic shutter, which makes completely silent shooting possible. However, this mode is less suitable for photographing moving objects (risk of rolling shutter) or shooting under artificial light sources (risk of flickering).
The Nikon D3S has an intervalometer built-in. This enables the photographer to capture time lapse sequences, such as flower blooming, a sunset or moon rise, without purchasing an external camera trigger and related software.
The D3S writes its imaging data to Compact Flash cards, while the A9 uses SDXC or Memory Stick PRO Duo cards. Both cameras feature dual card slots, which can be very useful in case a memory card fails.
For some imaging applications, the extent to which a camera can communicate with its environment can be an important aspect in the camera decision process. The table below provides an overview of the connectivity of the Nikon D3S and Sony Alpha A9 and, in particular, the interfaces the cameras (and selected comparators) provide for accessory control and data transfer.
| WiFi |
| NFC |
|3.||Canon 1D Mark IV||Y||stereo||-||Y||-||mini||2.0||-||-||-|
|4.||Canon 1D Mark III||Y||-||-||-||-||-||2.0||-||-||-|
|13.||Sony A9 II||Y||stereo||mono||Y||Y||micro||3.1||Y||Y||Y|
|14.||Sony A7 III||Y||stereo||mono||Y||Y||micro||3.1||Y||Y||Y|
|15.||Sony A7R II||Y||stereo||mono||Y||Y||micro||2.0||Y||Y||-|
|16.||Sony A7S II||Y||stereo||mono||Y||Y||micro||2.0||Y||Y||-|
|17.||Sony A7 II||Y||stereo||mono||Y||Y||micro||2.0||Y||Y||-|
It is notable that the A9 offers wifi support, which can be a very convenient means to transfer image data to an off-camera location. In contrast, the D3S does not provide wifi capability.
Both cameras feature a PC Sync terminal to control professional strobe lights, which will be appreciated by studio photographers.
Both the D3S and the A9 have been discontinued, but can regularly be found used on eBay. The D3S was replaced by the Nikon D4, while the A9 was followed by the Sony A9 II. Further information on the two cameras (e.g. user guides, manuals), as well as related accessories, can be found on the official Nikon and Sony websites.
So what is the bottom line? Is the Nikon D3S better than the Sony A9 or vice versa? Below is a summary of the relative strengths of each of the two contestants.
Arguments in favor of the Nikon D3S:
- Brighter framing: Features an optical viewfinder for clear, lag-free composition.
- Easier setting verification: Features an LCD display on top to control shooting parameters.
- Easier time-lapse photography: Has an intervalometer built-in for low frequency shooting.
- More portrait friendly: Features an integrated vertical grip for easier portrait shooting.
- Longer lasting: Can take more shots (4200 versus 650) on a single battery charge.
- More heavily discounted: Has been available for much longer (launched in October 2009).
Reasons to prefer the Sony Alpha A9:
- More detail: Has more megapixels (24 vs 12.1MP), which boosts linear resolution by 41%.
- Better image quality: Scores markedly higher (10 points) in the DXO overall evaluation.
- Richer colors: Generates noticeably more natural colors (1.4 bits more color depth).
- More dynamic range: Captures a broader range of light and dark details (1.3 EV of extra DR).
- Better video: Provides higher definition movie capture (4K/30p vs 720/24p).
- Better live-view autofocus: Features on-sensor phase-detection for more confident autofocus.
- Better sound: Can connect to an external microphone for higher quality sound recording.
- Better sound control: Has a headphone port that enables audio monitoring while recording.
- More framing info: Has an electronic viewfinder that displays shooting data.
- Larger viewfinder image: Features a viewfinder with a higher magnification (0.78x vs 0.70x).
- More detailed LCD: Has a higher resolution rear screen (1440k vs 921k dots).
- More flexible LCD: Has a tilting screen for odd-angle shots in landscape orientation.
- Fewer buttons to press: Has a touchscreen to facilitate handling and shooting adjustments.
- Faster burst: Shoots at higher frequency (20 vs 11 flaps/sec) to capture the decisive moment.
- Less disturbing: Has an electronic shutter option for completely silent shooting.
- More compact: Is smaller (127x96mm vs 160x157mm) and will fit more readily into a bag.
- Less heavy: Has a lower weight (by 567g or 46 percent) and is thus easier to take along.
- Easier travel charging: Can be conveniently charged via its USB port.
- Sharper images: Has stabilization technology built-in to reduce the impact of hand-shake.
- More legacy lens friendly: Can use many non-native lenses via adapters.
- Easier file upload: Has wifi built in for automatic backup or image transfer to the web.
- Easier device pairing: Supports NFC for fast wireless image transfer over short distances.
- Easier wireless transfer: Supports Bluetooth for image sharing without cables.
- More affordable: Was released into a lower priced segment (13 percent cheaper at launch).
- More modern: Reflects 7 years and 6 months of technical progress since the D3S launch.
If the number of relative strengths (bullet points above) is taken as a guide, the A9 is the clear winner of the contest (25 : 6 points). However, the relevance of individual strengths will vary across photographers, so that you might want to apply your own weighing scheme to the summary points when reflecting and deciding on a new camera. A professional wildlife photographer will view the differences between cameras in a way that diverges from the perspective of a family photog, and a person interested in architecture has distinct needs from a sports shooter. Hence, the decision which camera is best and worth buying is often a very personal one.
How about other alternatives? Do the specifications of the Nikon D3S and the Sony A9 place the cameras among the top in their class? Find out in the latest Best DSLR Camera and Best Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera listings whether the two cameras rank among the cream of the crop.
In any case, while the specs-based evaluation of cameras can be instructive in revealing their potential as photographic tools, it remains incomplete and does no justice, for example, to the way the D3S or the A9 perform in practice. User reviews that are available, for instance, at amazon can sometimes shed light on these issues, but such feedback is all too often partial, inconsistent, and inaccurate.
This is why expert reviews are important. The adjacent summary-table relays the overall verdicts of several of the most popular camera review sites (amateurphotographer [AP], cameralabs [CL], dpreview [DPR], ephotozine [EPZ], photographyblog [PB]). As can be seen, the professional reviewers agree in many cases on the quality of different cameras, but sometimes their assessments diverge, reinforcing the earlier point that a camera decision is often a very personal choice.
|1.||Nikon D3S||5/5||..||89/100||4.5/5||5/5||Oct 2009||5,199|
|2.||Sony A9||5/5||+ +||89/100||5/5||5/5||Apr 2017||4,499|
|3.||Canon 1D Mark IV||5/5||..||89/100||..||..||Oct 2009||4,999|
|4.||Canon 1D Mark III||..||..||..||..||..||Feb 2007||4,499|
|5.||Nikon D5||..||..||89/100||4.5/5||5/5||Jan 2016||6,499|
|6.||Nikon D4S||5/5||..||..||4.5/5||4.5/5||Feb 2014||6,499|
|7.||Nikon D4||..||..||..||4.5/5||4.5/5||Jan 2012||5,999|
|8.||Nikon D300S||5/5||+ +||82/100||4/5||4.5/5||Jul 2009||1,799|
|9.||Nikon D3X||..||..||86/100||4/5||5/5||Dec 2008||7,999|
|10.||Nikon D700||..||89/100||+ +||4.5/5||4.5/5||Jul 2008||2,999|
|11.||Nikon D3||..||..||+ +||5/5||4.5/5||Aug 2007||4,999|
|12.||Nikon D2Xs||..||..||..||..||..||Jun 2006||4,699|
|13.||Sony A9 II||..||..||90/100||5/5||5/5||Oct 2019||4,499|
|14.||Sony A7 III||..||+ +||89/100||5/5||5/5||Feb 2018||1,999|
|15.||Sony A7R II||5/5||+ +||90/100||5/5||5/5||Jun 2015||3,199|
|16.||Sony A7S II||5/5||+||..||4.5/5||5/5||Sep 2015||2,999|
|17.||Sony A7 II||5/5||+||82/100||4.5/5||5/5||Nov 2014||1,999|
|Notes: (+ +) highly recommended; (+) recommended; (o) reviewed; (..) not available.|
The review scores listed above should be treated with care, though. The ratings were established in reference to similarly priced cameras that were available in the market at the time of the review. A score, therefore, has to be seen in close connection to the price and market introduction time of the camera, and comparing ratings of very distinct cameras or ones that are far apart in terms of their release date have little meaning. Also, please note that some of the review sites have changed their methodology and reporting over time.
Other camera comparisons
Did this review help to inform your camera decision process? If you would like to see a different side-by-side camera review, just make a corresponding selection in the search boxes below. As an alternative, you can also directly jump to any one of the listed comparisons that were previously generated by the CAM-parator tool.
Specifications: Nikon D3S vs Sony A9
Below is a side-by-side comparison of the specs of the two cameras to facilitate a quick review of their differences and common features.
|Camera Model||Nikon D3S||Sony A9|
|Camera Type||Digital single lens reflex||Mirrorless system camera|
|Camera Lens||Nikon F mount lenses||Sony E mount lenses|
|Launch Date||October 2009||April 2017|
|Launch Price||USD 5,199||USD 4,499|
|Sensor Specs||Nikon D3S||Sony A9|
|Sensor Format||Full Frame Sensor||Full Frame Sensor|
|Sensor Size||36.0 x 23.9 mm||35.6 x 23.8 mm|
|Sensor Area||860.4 mm2||847.28 mm2|
|Sensor Diagonal||43.2 mm||42.8 mm|
|Sensor Resolution||12.1 Megapixels||24 Megapixels|
|Image Resolution||4256 x 2832 pixels||6000 x 4000 pixels|
|Pixel Pitch||8.43 μm||5.94 μm|
|Pixel Density||1.40 MP/cm2||2.83 MP/cm2|
|Moiré control||Anti-Alias filter||Anti-Alias filter|
|Movie Capability||720/24p Video||4K/30p Video|
|ISO Setting||200 - 12,800 ISO||100 - 51,200 ISO|
|ISO Boost||100 - 102,400 ISO||50 - 204,800 ISO|
|Image Processor||EXPEED||BIONZ X|
|DXO Sensor Quality (score)||82||92|
|DXO Color Depth (bits)||23.5||24.9|
|DXO Dynamic Range (EV)||12.0||13.3|
|DXO Low Light (ISO)||3253||3517|
|Screen Specs||Nikon D3S||Sony A9|
|Viewfinder Type||Optical viewfinder||Electronic viewfinder|
|Viewfinder Field of View||100%||100%|
|Viewfinder Resolution||3686k dots|
|Top-Level Screen||Control Panel||no Top Display|
|LCD Framing||Live View||Live View|
|Rear LCD Size||3.0inch||3.0inch|
|LCD Resolution||921k dots||1440k dots|
|LCD Attachment||Fixed screen||Tilting screen|
|Touch Input||no Touchscreen||Touchscreen|
|Shooting Specs||Nikon D3S||Sony A9|
|Focus System||Phase-detect AF||On-Sensor Phase-detect|
|Manual Focusing Aid||no Peaking Feature||Focus Peaking|
|Max Shutter Speed (mechanical)||1/8000s||1/8000s|
|Continuous Shooting||11 shutter flaps/s||20 shutter flaps/s|
|Shutter Life Expectancy||300 000 actuations||500 000 actuations|
|Electronic Shutter||no E-Shutter||up to 1/32000s|
|Time-Lapse Photography||Intervalometer built-in||no Intervalometer|
|Image Stabilization||Lens stabilization only||In-body stabilization|
|Fill Flash||no On-Board Flash||no On-Board Flash|
|Storage Medium||CF cards||MS or SDXC cards|
|Second Storage Option||Dual card slots||Dual card slots|
|Connectivity Specs||Nikon D3S||Sony A9|
|Studio Flash||PC Sync socket||PC Sync socket|
|USB Connector||USB 2.0||USB 2.0|
|HDMI Port||mini HDMI||micro HDMI|
|Microphone Port||no MIC socket||External MIC port|
|Headphone Socket||no Headphone port||Headphone port|
|Wifi Support||no Wifi||Wifi built-in|
|Near-Field Communication||no NFC||NFC built-in|
|Bluetooth Support||no Bluetooth||Bluetooth built-in|
|Body Specs||Nikon D3S||Sony A9|
|Environmental Sealing||Weathersealed body||Weathersealed body|
|Battery Life (CIPA)||4200 shots per charge||650 shots per charge|
|In-Camera Charging||no USB charging||USB charging|
160 x 157 x 88 mm
(6.3 x 6.2 x 3.5 in)
127 x 96 x 63 mm
(5.0 x 3.8 x 2.5 in)
|Camera Weight||1240 g (43.7 oz)||673 g (23.7 oz)|
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