Nikon D4S

31st Mar 2014 | 15:02

Nikon D4S

It's a great workhorse that can see in the dark, but you won't want to use ISO 409,600 very often

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

The D4S is a great workhorse for professional photographers. It's built to last and gets great shots in conditions that would be too taxing for other cameras.

Like:

11fps shooting with AF; Fast AF; Massive ISO range

Dislike:

Big and heavy; No Wi-Fi or GPS built-in; AF points clustered in centre

Introduction and features

Ratings in depth
Design 4Features 4Performance 5Usability 4Value 4

Since its launch in January 2012, the Nikon D4 has been the camera of choice for many professional photographers who need the ultimate in speed, low-light shooting capability and AF performance. It's also built to survive heavy use in the type of conditions that news reporters find themselves in on a regular basis.

The D4S makes a relatively subtle upgrade to the D4, keeping with the same pixel count, but making a few refinements that can be largely attributed to the move to the newer Expeed 4 processing engine.

Features

Nikon has been pretty tight-lipped about the changes made to the D4S's sensor, but we're told that it's new and that it has an effective pixel count of 16.23million, while the D4's count is 16.25 million. Not a huge change then, and the pixel pitch remains the same at 7.3 µm.

According to Nikon, the new sensor and Expeed 4 engine combination results in an approximately 1.5EV improvement in noise performance and this has given the company the confidence to expand the D4S's native sensitivity setting by 1EV on the D4 to ISO 100-25,600. In addition, the expanded range is ISO 50-409,600.

Front shot

Thanks to the Expeed 4 processor, the D4S has a maximum continuous shooting rate of 11fps. The D4 can also manage this speed, but not the accompanied ability to focus and meter between shots.

The buffer capacity has also been increased, enabling as many as 200 JPEG Fine quality files, 176 compressed 12-bit raw files or 60 uncompressed 14-bit raw files to be captured in a single burst. As with the D4, these images may be written to either CompactFlash or XQD media as the D4S has two card ports.

Angled shot

The D4S has new mirror and sensor mechanisms, with the former having better dampening than the D4, to give a more stable image in the viewfinder. The blackout time between frames is also shorter and there's a shutter lag of just 42ms.

These facts (and the new processing engine) probably explain why the camera is able to focus when shooting at 11fps.

Nikon has improved the autofocus algorithms for the D4S and it uses an Advanced version of the Multi-CAM 3500AF module found in the D4. This adds Group-area AF mode to help when shooting subjects that are comparatively small and close to a high-contrast or distracting background.

Another angled shot

In this mode, the user selects an AF point and the camera uses it and the ones immediately above, below, left and right to keep the subject sharp.

As with the D4 and other Nikon SLRs, the D4S also has 9-,21- and 51-point dynamic-area AF and 3D-tracking modes. In the latter mode, the camera uses colour information from the subject and background to track the subject around the frame.

It's a good option when there is a clear colour contrast between the subject and its surroundings. It's not a good choice for team sports, however, when there may be many objects of the same colour milling around the scene.

lens mounted

It's also possible to specify the speed at which the camera responds to changes in the subject's distance. This is especially useful when objects are likely to come between the camera and the subject

Like the D4, the D4S has a 91,000-pixel RGB sensor that informs the metering and white balance systems. In addition to 3D Color Matrix metering III, there are three centre-weighted metering options and a Spot metering mode. It's also now possible to select to use full-time face recognition with Matrix metering when shooting stills, movies, and time-lapse photography.

Nikon tells us that the D4S processes images differently from the D4 as out of focus areas are treated differently from sharp subjects to enhance shallow depth of field.

Another, rather strange, addition to the D4S's feature list is the ability to record small (4Mp), uncompressed 12-bit raw files.

It's hard to imagine this being used very often, but perhaps those who shoot exclusively for the internet will welcome it. It's worth noting at this point that dropping to Small Raw files reduces the burst depth when shooting continuously to 36, presumably because of the interpolation that's required.

Rear shot

Naturally, the D4S is capable of recording Full HD video and this can now be shot at 50p/60p. Photographers can also set specific sensitivity settings, rather than ranges in Manual exposure modes, and the sensitivity can be set to up to ISO 409,600.

As with the D4, the D4S offers three sensor crop formats, FX, DX, and native crop, the latter of which gives a focal length magnification of approximately 2.7x. There's also a clean, uncompressed full-resolution HDMI output to external devices.

Some people found that the D4's green had a slightly green colour cast. Nikon has given the D4S a monitor colour balance option that allows the LCD's colour to be adjusted across two axes, blue-amber and green-magenta, with a total of 11 points along each axis.

Retracted lens

While there are GPS and Wi-Fi enabled devices available for the D4S, as well as a Gigabit 100/1000TX Ethernet port for fast image transfer, it seems rather odd that Wi-Fi connectivity and GPS technology aren't built-in.

Build and handling

While the change to the shape of the memory card bay door suggests that Nikon hasn't used the same mould for the D4S as it did for the D4, most of the other changes to the design are so subtle as to be almost invisible. The slight changes to the shape of the shallow grooves where the thumbs rest in horizontal and portrait format, for example, are very hard to spot.

That's no bad thing, however, as the camera remains very comfortable in the hand whether you're using the horizontal or vertical grip.

Retracted lens

One fairly obvious change is made to the two mini-joystick style Selector controls on the back of the camera. These have a new firmer finish and it makes them easier to find and use when wearing gloves or in the wet. They are easier to identify when the camera is held to the eye than the rubber-topped controls on the D4 and they feel a bit more positive in use.

Just like on the D4, there are two command dials, an AF-on button and a shutter release available at the top of both the horizontal and the vertical grip. Logically, the movie-record button found next to the shutter release above the horizontal grip isn't replicated above the vertical grip, but there is a customisable function (Fn) button.

Side on

Although the layout of these controls is very similar on both grips, the shutter release above the vertical grip is a little recessed into the body. While the button is still easy to reach, it makes the front command dial less prominent than the horizontal one and it's harder to find with your finger. It's not a major issue, and it's something that D4 users will be used to already.

Most of the other controls fall within convenient reach and are as responsive as you'd expect with a pro-end SLR. The menu is also logically arranged, but there are a few quirks in the D4S's control system.

For example, it seems strange that the automatic sensitivity option can only be activated via the main menu and not by pressing the ISO button and rotating the main command dial. This feature is useful given the D4S's 'go-anywhere' credentials and huge sensitivity range.

Other side

As we've said before with other Nikon SLRs, some of the features available for adjustment via the D4S's information screen, accessed by pressing the Info button twice, seem a little odd. We think that the options to change the functions of the preview and Fn buttons, for example, would be better located in the main menu. This would free-up space in the information screen for other features that may need to accessed on a shot-by-shot basis, such as Exposure Delay.

Being an SLR, the D4S has an optical viewfinder, and it's a great one, showing 100% of the scene and being large and bright. As usual, when a DX lens is mounted on the camera, the area outside the automatic cropping is dimmed, so it's easy to compose images.

When the option is activated via the menu, pressing the front function button brings up the virtual horizon in the viewfinder to help with getting the horizon level. As with Canon SLRs, this uses the AF point display to indicate the camera's pitch, but unlike Canon's cameras it stays active while the shutter release is pressed. This makes it much more useful, though you have to remember which is the active AF point while the virtual horizon is in use.

Top view

While the 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD provides a nice clear view and displays colours accurately, as usual it suffers a little from reflections in very bright conditions. Nevertheless, we found no reason to adjust the screen's colour settings from their default position.

It's clear that Nikon has done little if anything to improve the camera's autofocusing in live view mode. This is slow and indecisive, although it's unlikely to be a major issue for the camera's target audience.

Performance

The D4's AF system is no slouch, but the D4S's raises the game even further. The peripheral AF points seem a little more responsive and the new Group-area AF mode does an excellent job of keeping a moving subject sharp.That's helpful as the AF points are still clustered around the middle of the image frame.

Apart from the number of points involved (5 in Group-area AF) it's a little unclear how this differs from the 9-, 21- and 51-point dynamic-area AF modes, so it seems odd that it wasn't called 5-point dynamic-area AF mode.

On the whole, the Matrix metering system copes well with 'average' and bright scenes. In fact, it fairs impressively well with some very bright subjects, delivering a well-exposed image when lesser cameras would have underexposed.

It also copes pretty well with dark subjects, but there's a slight tendency towards overexposure in some situations. This only happens at times where you might expect it, and it's easily dealt with via the exposure compensation facility.

Another lens

A pixel count of 16 million may be comparatively low by modern standards (especially considering that Nikon favours 24 and 36Mp sensors in the likes of the D7100 and D800) but the D4S can resolve an impressive level of detail. Furthermore, this is maintained a little better throughout the sensitivity range than by the D4.

Our images have little sign of chroma noise throughout the native sensitivity range, ISO 100-25,600. The results at the first upper expansion setting, ISO 51,200 are also impressive. At 100% on screen, higher sensitivity JPEGs look a slightly smoothed appearance, but they look very good at normal viewing sizes.

Of course the burning question that the D4S raises is: what does an ISO 409,600 image look like? The answer: pretty terrible. Our resolution chart images, which are captured in bright conditions with even illumination flatter it somewhat, but the darker side of our sensitivity series images show a rather different picture. Even at small viewing sizes there's visible banding in the JPEGs and at close scrutiny they have a cross-hatched pattern.

The raw files look a little better, but there's still some banding. However, it's important to remember that this is not a sensitivity setting for everyday use. It's designed to be used by professional photo journalists reporting important events in near darkness in situations when any image is a bonus.

Without lens

Although many pros shoot exclusively in raw format, some also need the immediacy of JPEGs, so it's important that the D4S delivers good colours direct from the camera.

Our tests reveal that it produces vibrant images with natural-looking colour. Our lab results reveal that it isn't quite as accurate as the D4 for colour, but it's very good and the difference probably comes down to a slight boost in saturation, which makes images more pleasing.

We found that the D4S's automatic white balance system does a very good job in a range of lighting conditions. There are two options available, Auto1 and Auto2, with the latter retaining the warmth of warm lighting. We found that the Auto1 setting also produces images that retain the atmosphere of the scene and that aren't over-corrected. Consequently, images captured in heavily overcast conditions have a slight coolness, while those taken in brighter conditions look slightly warmer.

With flash

Switching to the Direct sunlight setting produces slightly warmer images in very overcast conditions, which some may prefer even if it's not strictly accurate.

Importantly, we found that the LCD screen gave an accurate representation of images during our testing. With some Nikon cameras, such as the D5300, we've found that the LCD screen makes images taken in overcast or shaded conditions look colder than they actually are.

This can cause photographers to change the white balance setting when they don't actually need to and produce images with a colourcast. Thankfully, the D4S doesn't suffer from this problem and we found that it shows colours accurately.

In order to verify the D4S maximum continuous shooting rate and burst depths, we shot several series of images at the various sizes, compression ratios and bit-depths. We were able to match the claims made by Nikon (11fps for 200 JPEG Fine quality files, 176 compressed 12-bit raw files or 60 uncompressed 14-bit raw files etc) with both a Lexar Professional 1000x UDMA7 CompactFlash card and a Sony XQD.

Rear

However, as the shoot progressed we found that the grip gradually heated up a little and as this happened, the burst depth dropped off. In some cases, we were only able to fire off a short burst. Leaving the camera to cool a little restored the burst depths to their former glory.

Image quality and resolution

We've finally got our hands on the D4S, Nikon's long-awaited upgrade to its most advanced flagship DSLR. As part of our image quality testing for our forthcoming Nikon D4S review, we've shot a resolution chart, and frankly we were too excited to keep the results to ourselves, so here they are.

The D4S features the latest Expeed 4 imaging engine (compared with the D4's Expeed 3 device). This helps to facilitate the expansion to the highest sensitivity setting - an industry-leading ISO 409,600 (equivalent).

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

ISO50

JPEG

ISO50

ISO 50, Score: 28 Click here for full resolution image

ISO100

ISO 100, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO200

ISO 200, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO400

ISO 400, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO800

ISO 800, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO1600

ISO 1600, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO3200

ISO 3200, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO6400

ISO 6400, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO12800

ISO 12800, Score: 24 Click here for full resolution image

ISO25600

ISO 25600, Score: 22 Click here for full resolution image

ISO51200

ISO 51200, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

ISO12800

ISO 102400, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

ISO24800

ISO 204800, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

ISO409600

ISO 409600, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

RAW

ISO50

ISO 50, Score: 28 Click here for full resolution image

ISO100

ISO 100, Score: 28 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 200

ISO 200, Score: 28 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 400

ISO 400, Score: 28 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 800

ISO 800, Score: 28 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 1600

ISO 1600, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 32200

ISO 3200, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 6400

ISO 6400, Score: 26 Click here for full resolution image

ISO12800

ISO 12800, Score: 24 Click here for full resolution image

ISO 25600

ISO 25600, Score: 22 Click here for full resolution image

ISO51200

ISO 51200, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

ISO102400

ISO 102400, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

ISO204800

ISO 204800, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

ISO409600

ISO 409600, Score: 20 Click here for full resolution image

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Here we compare the Nikon D4S with the Nikon D4, Canon EOS 1DX, Nikon Df and Sony Alpha 7R.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

JPEG signal to noise ratio

In terms of the JPEG images, separating out most of the cameras on this test is very difficult, with extremely similar results from the D4S, D4, Nikon Df, and the Canon EOS 1Dx for signal to noise ratio. The Sony Alpha 7R, which also uses a full-frame sensor is the worst performer on this test here, and it isn't capable of shooting the very high ISO values that the others can.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Raw signal to noise ratio

In this chart for signal to noise ratio for raw format (after conversion to TIFF) files, we can see the D4S putting in a good, consistent performance across the sensitivity range, coming out on top for the lower values (ISO 100 - 400) and matching very closely with the Df across the range. Towards the higher end of the sensitivity run (ISO 1600 and above), the D4s just slips behind the D4 and the Canon EOS 1Dx. This could be down to the camera favouring detail reproduction of noise reduction.

JPEG dynamic range

JPEG dynamic range

Again, the D4S puts in a good, consistent performance here for JPEG dynamic range. At the lower end of the sensitivity scale, the D4S is very closely matched to the other cameras on the test, beating the Canon EOS 1DX with the most significance. As the ISO number raises, performance drops, as we'd expect, but it is only the 1DX which marginally beats the D4S throughout the range.

Raw dynamic range

Raw dynamic range

In terms of the raw format files (after conversion to TIFF), the D4S once again performs very well. Here we can see that the Sony Alpha A7R is actually the best performer at the lower end of the sensitivity scale, but other cameras including the D4S, D4 and Df are very close behind. The Canon EOS 1DX is the worst performer at the bottom end of the sensitivity run, but it beats the other cameras on test at the very top of the range.

Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

ISO50

Full ISO 50 image. See 100% crops below.

JPEGs

ISO 50

ISO 50 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO 100

ISO 100 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO200

ISO 200 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO400

ISO 400 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO 800

ISO 800 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO1600

ISO 1600 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO 3200

ISO 3200 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO6400

ISO 6400 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO 12800

ISO 12800 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO25600

ISO 25600 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO51200

ISO 51200 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO102400

ISO 102400 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO204800

ISO 204800 Click here to see full resolution image

ISO 409600

ISO 409600 Click here to see full resolution image

Raw

ISO 100

ISO 100 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

ISO 200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

ISO 400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

ISO 800 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

ISO 1600 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

ISO 3200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

ISO 6400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

ISO 12800 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 25600

ISO 25600 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 51200

ISO 51200 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 102400

ISO 102400 Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 204800

ISO 204800 Click here to see the full resolution image

409600

ISO 409600 Click here to see the full resolution image

Sample images

dsc1460

Colours generally look good straight from the camera, with pleasant saturation and nice skin tones. The auto white balance system has retained the warmth in this scene well. Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

This ISO 400 shot was taken using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at f/4 to blur the distracting background. The detail on the bird's beak really leaps out at you. Click here to see the full resolution image.

Horse

This shot has all the vibrancy of the original scene, the colours and contrast are spot-on. Click here to see the full resolution image.

skater

The D4S's Group-are AF system had no trouble keeping up with this skateboarder as he came towards the camera. The images was taken at ISO 51,200 – the lowest sensitivity expansion setting and noise is controlled well. Click here to see the full resolution image

Skater 2

This shot reveals the level of noise and banding in images taken at ISO 409,600. You wouldn't use this setting routinely, but it's useful for pros reporting important events in near darkness. Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon D4S

Despite the low-light and dark subject here, the D4S's AF system found its target easily and has delivered a sharp result. Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon D4S rugby

There's little sign of noise in this shot taken at ISO1250 and the details of the main subject are nice and sharp, while the background is blurred thanks to the f/2.8 aperture. Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon D4S review

The D4S fast AF system makes it a great choice for shooting sport professionally. Click here to see the full resolution image

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon D4S review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon D4S Review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon D4S Review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Verdict

There's no doubt that the Nikon D4S is a very capable camera. However, some may be surprised that Nikon's top-end SLR and the Nikon Df have the lowest pixel count of all the company's current, recently announced SLRs. The Nikon D3300, the entry-level model, for example, has a pixel count of 24 million, as do the Nikon D5300 and Nikon D7100. The Nikon D800 and D800E go even further with pixel counts of 36million.

With mic

Nikon has limited the D4S's pixel count to allow its fast continuous shooting rate and high burst depths as well as to maintain image quality. Keeping a modest pixel count allows the photoreceptor size to be comparatively large and this boosts the sensor's light gathering capability, which in turn helps image quality, noise control and dynamic range.

In addition, the D4S delivers images that are big enough for most purposes without slowing down processing times or filling up cards and hard drives too quickly. Professional photographers who need to produce larger images can opt for the Nikon D3X, although this 24Mp model was launched at the end of 2008 and has seemed ripe for an updated for a while. This makes the 36Mp D800 or D800E a more likely candidate, but these models lack the robust build of the D4S and D3X.

We liked

Clients expect a professional photographer to use a camera that looks a bit different from the models that line the shelves in the local camera store or electrical retailer and the D4S fits the bill perfectly. It looks, feels and sounds like a professional-level camera. It has a rugged, durable feel that suggests it's going to last and there are two grips to make it as comfortable to use in vertical orientation as it is in horizontal orientation.

Although the D4S's AF system is pretty complex, Nikon has done a great job of implementing it so it's easy to understand and change between the options. It also performs extremely well and is capable of rendering a fast moving subject sharp even in very low lighting conditions.

We disliked

Being weatherproof and built to withstand life in the hands of a professional photographer has its downsides for a camera. The D4S is big and heavy as a result. It goes with the territory, but cameras like the Sony A7 and Sony A7R show that a full-frame camera doesn't have to be big, and though they may not be quite as durable as the Nikon camera (time will tell), both of these models and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 are weatherproofed.

In 2014 it seems rather out of step that Nikon's top-end SLR doesn't have Wi-Fi and GPS technology built in. Granted these features can be added via optional accessories, but photographers expect more from their cameras these days. Also, although the camera has a metal body it has so many holes in it (lens mounts, LCD connection, controls and so on) that this seems an unlikely reason to exclude the technology.

We'd also like to see the AF points spread a little further towards the edges of the frame and the ability to customise the options in the information screen.

Verdict

Our tests reveal that the D4S builds on the successes of the D4 with an improved AF system, better detail reproduction at higher sensitivity values and extended low-light capability.

While it can be used for just about every genre of photography, it is unlikely to be the camera of choice for enthusiast or professional landscape photographers who are probably going to be drawn to a smaller, lighter model with a higher pixel count – the Nikon D800 for example.

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