If you want a camera that’s the ultimate in creating low-light images with minimum noise, then the king of darkness is the mammoth-sized Nikon D4S that comes with a ridiculously high ISO of 409,600. Yes, you read that right. That’s a full 12 stops more sensitive than at the camera’s base ISO of 100. To put that in some sort of context, if your exposure is half a second at f/16 at ISO100, then to get the same exposure at maximum ISO you’d need to be cranking in 1/8000sec – the camera’s maximum shutter speed.
Of course, huge ISO numbers are largely academic, as the vast majority of pro work is done between 100 and 6400 ISO. But with a camera as sensitive as the D4S, it means those lower setting give cleaner files than on just about any other camera.
Compared to the previous low-light king and the camera it replaces, the two-year-old Nikon D4, then the D4S is a step ahead. Up to 400 ISO it’s incredibly hard to tell any difference. But as the ISO creeps up to 800, 1600 and 3200, then the D4S gives cleaner images with less noise in the shadow areas. Nikon boldly claim the camera could be up to a stop better or even more, but our test prove this may be a bit optimistic. A third of a stop better at ISO 800 up to two thirds of stop better at ISO6400 and beyond is a more reasonable advantage. Either way, if you want detail in low light pictures, such as night time sports photographers wanting to keep a fast shutter speed, wedding workers balancing with low ambient light or photojournalists, then the D4S is the new king of darkness.
One unusual characteristic was that at matching ISO, the D4S was up to a third of a stop more sensitive that a D4. In other words, ISO 500 on the D4 was about the same as ISO 400 on the new D4S. So if you are working a pair of cameras – a D4 and a D4S like we used – then the exposure may not be the same on both of them. A tweaked metering system on the D4S seemed to exacerbate the problem, too, erring slightly towards overexposure on subjects with a predominantly dark background.
But to think of the D4S as just a low-light camera is to miss the point. It’s Nikon’s new flagship pro-bodied DSLR that may not have the ultimate numbers of megapixels as some other cameras, but it’s a super-fast workhorse tool designed to last for years.
Nikon’s top pro cameras often get a refresh after two years, and the D4S is no different. It’s very like the outgoing D4, except with some key upgrades that show Nikon has been listening to the needs of its hardcore pro user base. Rather than internet warriors who seem to bemoan its lack of features seen on more amateur cameras, like titling screen or built-in wifi. The Nikon D4S continues where the D4 left off as a fuss-free, solid tool for working pros, with a shutter life of around 400,000 clicks.
The biggest obvious change is the sensor which Nikon say is newly-engineered, despite still being rated at the same 16.2MP as the old full-frame D4 sensor. Yes, it’s still a couple of megapixels shy of the rival Canon EOS 1DX sensor, but fewer pixels often equals better noise performance. And 16.2MP is easily enough for most double page spreads in magazines. The dynamic range is great, the colours are typical natural Nikon colours and the image quality is fantastic. No complaints there.
However, the real benefit of the new camera is the new Expeed 4 processing engine. It’s often hard to get excited about a new processor, but in the D4S it brings some real advantages. This new processor means the file transfer rate from the built-in Ethernet port has been boosted ten-fold, from 1000Mpbs to a staggering 10000Mpbs. That’s good news for sports photographers who use Ethernet to transfer images quickly while still shooting.
But the biggest change is in its frame rate. The old D4 went as high as 11 frames per second, but could only use autofocus at 10fps. The new D4S can use AF at 11fps. That might not seem like much of an improvement, but a lot can happen when shooting fast-paced sports in a tenth of a second!
A lot of this is due to the blazing speed of the processor which, when linked to the new shorter-travel mirror, helps reduce viewfinder blackout time. That means the camera has slightly longer between shots to operate its autofocus system.
The AF is the same system as in the old D4 – which was industry-standard, both in terms of speed, accuracy and customisation. But Nikon says the AF algorithms have been improved to give snappier, more accurate AF. There’s also a new AF mode called Group AF, where the user can specify a cluster of five of the 51 AF points. This attempts to use the centre selected point but gives weight to the nearest four outside it. Nikon say this is ideal for shooting ball sports, where suddenly someone could run in front of the AF area.
As well as the group AF mode there is an amazing arrange of focus modes, in both continuous and single-shot AF. You can specify a single AF point, or select 11 or 51 points. There is the option of dynamic tracking, where the camera tries to work out if the subject has moved plus auto 3-D tracking which takes into account the subject’s colours. You can even specify how long a delay the camera leaves between losing focus and attempting to try to re-focus. It is hugely customisable like never before.
However, this complication means it’s not as simple to use as other cameras and a user needs to spend quite some time properly testing different modes to see which works best for individual shooting scenarios.
In shooting some rugby and football, for example, a combination of single-point continuous AF mode and occasionally the new Group AF mode worked flawlessly. But when shooting fast-paced motocross racing, even with the exact same settings as on the D4 camera I’ve used for two years, the hit rate for nailing perfect focus was a lot lower. After carefully looking at the files it seems the predictive AF works a little differently than on the D4 and tends to lock onto parts of the subject that is closest to the camera. It really is a learning curve that any working sports pro would have to go through to fully understand how this revamped AF system now works for the subjects they are shooting.
But one undoubted benefit on the D4S is the new EN-EL18a battery and its new charger. At 2500mAh compared to the D4’s 2000mAh-rated battery, it lasts a lot longer. The spec says around 3000 shots but we did almost 4000 and there was still half charge left. Of course, if you chimp the LCD screen or use live view more, it would have used more battery power. The good news is that the battery and charger is totally forward and backward compatible with the D4. So you can use the D4 battery in the new camera, or the new battery in the old camera. And the chargers work on both batteries. Nice work, Nikon. Although it does now seem odd that Nikon used to claim it was Japanese battery regulations that meant the D4 came with a lower-capacity battery than the older D3S model anyway.
While talking about the screen, many photographers complained the screen on the D4 and D800 had a strange yellow/ green tinge. Nikon denied it, but the new screen looks much more neutral and you now have the option of changing the colour balance of the LCD to suit your taste.
Also new is the actual shape of the camera, although this is far harder to notice. Nikon say it’s now more ergonomically designed with a deeper grip and different thumb and finger holds. But pick up a D4S and a D4 and anyone would be hard pushed to notice any differences. The biggest clue to any changes is that the AF-ON button on the back has been redesigned, although again the changes are so minimal that few would ever notice. But the serrated rubber rear AF control buttons have been replaced by a less pronounced, plastic button. That’s slightly easier on the fingers. It is harder to feel now if you are wearing gloves, so it’s hardly a huge benefit.
Nikon has also taken the chance to make significant changes to the movie operation of the camera, including the ability of shooting full slow-motion at 1080 HD. The old camera maxxed out at 30fps when shooting 1080 while the new one does 60p. That’s a great benefit, but few people are really using the D4 range for serious movie making where slow-motion would be a real necessity. The D4 and now D4S just don’t provide as clean files for movie makers as the D800 so have not really been used as serious move tools. But photojournalists who do use the movie move will appreciate the ability to shoot at 60 frames, though. There’s still no focus peaking or zebra, and a time limit of 10 minutes of recording at 60p. Nikon haven’t really taken the opportunity to make the D4S the ultimate stills-and-video device for working photojournalists or documentary makers.
Also new is the change of maximum frames the camera can be set to when doing interval shooting, up from 999 to 9999. Other changes from the D4 include a new small-sized Raw file that seems to offer all the control of a raw file but at a smaller size. It was great quality and a good half-way house for those who would like the benefits of shooting smaller-size J-peg files, but with the post processing control of a Raw file. There have also been detail changes to face-recognition software and the Active D-Lighting settings, but these are not parameters often used the camera’s pro customer base.
In terms of changes from the D4, that’s about it. It’s a real minor revamp rather than a wholesale change, which has left some people disappointed. However, to focus on the few changes is to ignore the D4S’s strength which is that it is a bulletproof, super-fast workhorse pro-bodied camera that handles excellently and gives class-leading results at high ISO settings. If you were to look at who is using what to shoot serious sport, then the Nikon D4 has been gaining ground on the Canon 1DX series in the past two years and the D4S will mean it gains even more ground. Hard-working pros who rely on their cameras rate the D4 highly and the D4S is even better, especially now it shoots at 11fps.
Like all pro-bodied Nikons, it’s weather sealed and is a joy to use with excellent ergonomics, if you can put up with its undeniable bulk. That bulk means it balances well with lenses like Nikon’s trio of f/2.8 zooms, or its fast f/1.4 primes and certainly its super-telephotos like the 300mm and 400mm f/2.8 lenses.
The menus are clear and easy to navigate, the major buttons are illuminated for use in dimly-lit sports arenas and there’s even a quiet mode in a bid to make the camera marginally less obtrusive.
There’s a lot to like about the Nikon D4S, which now firmly rests on the top of Nikon’s pile as its fastest sports camera but one that can turn night into day. If that sounds like the sort of work you do, you won’t be disappointed.
The Nikon D4S really does set new standards as king of high ISO performance, and it’s also a very fast and capable sports camera that’s ideal for relentless use. It’s built to last, has a shutter rated to 400,000 actuations and is totally customisable for any pro’s need. It’s a winner, and a better camera than the D4 which it replaces. For some, the new battery is worth the prike hike alone. If you are in the market for a top-of-the-range camera like the D4S, then the price is actually less than the D4 was when it was launched.
However, anyone looking to buy a D4S will, no doubt, already be fully wedded to the Nikon system with a range of pro lenses and pro bodies, too. So the cost of upgrading needs to be taking into account.But if you want the ultimate Nikon pro-bodied camera and can justify the price, the D4S is an amazing tool that will last for years and can get results that no other cameras can.
Nikon D4S Specifications
RESOLUTION 16.2 megapixels
SENSOR Full frame CMOS with Expeed 4 processor
LENS MOUNT Nikon F
EXPOSURE MODES Program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual
FRAMES PER SECOND Up to 11
ISO RANGE 100-25,600 (expandable 50-409,600)
LCD screen 3.2” with 921,000 dots
SHUTTER SPEED RANGE 30secs – 1/8000sec
STORAGE MEDIA Dual slots, XQD and CF
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 160mm x 157mm x 91mm
WEIGHT 1350g (including batte