Hands-On Review: the Nikon D4S Digital Camera

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From the moment I took the D4S out of the box, there was one word to describe how I felt: envious. There’s nothing like opening a box and taking a brand-new camera out for the first time, especially when it’s Nikon’s new flagship D4S. This camera is a beast, in every way. It’s big, solid, and heavy duty, definitely an everyday workhorse, but it somehow manages to be all of those things without feeling too heavy. That was the first thing I noticed about the D4S, how much bigger it was than my D7000, but somehow it still felt perfectly manageable in my hands. The grips are hefty and comfortable, and handling the camera was second nature, even though it is about twice the size of what I’m used to shooting with.

Once I was finished admiring the physical attributes of the camera, I decided I should actually turn it on. Of course, the first thing I wanted to witness was the camera's ability to shoot at 11 frames per second. That sound is just so impressive—every time I was shooting with the D4S and people heard those actuations, even if they weren’t photographers, they couldn’t help but ask questions.

11 frames, compared to the 10 frames per second of the D4, may not seem like a huge difference, but as I can tell you from shooting some touch-football games, every extra frame counts. It was so amazing shooting 11 RAW file frames per second without ever once stopping for buffering, thanks to another update to the D4S, which is the EXPEED 4 processor. The new processor is responsible for the bulk of what makes the D4S so great.

Faster RAW Capture and Incredible ISO Performance

Not only does the EXPEED 4 allow the camera to shoot up to 104 uncompressed 14-bit RAW files, and up to 200 JPEG fine large files continuously, it also adds 30% overall processor speed as compared to the D4, which can really be seen when it comes to things like shooting without buffering. I think Nikon deserves credit for not adding to the megapixels, but rather concentrating on making the 16.2MP that the camera does have, and making them count.

ISO 16000 ISO 25600 ISO 51200

The sensor and EXPEED 4 processor combine to allow the camera to shoot with a native ISO range of 100-25600 and an expanded range of 50-409600. I shot throughout the native range, and while the higher end of this spectrum was impressive, I wouldn’t use it unless I was shooting in almost absolute darkness where it was really necessary. While there may not be much noise at ISO 25600, there isn’t much sharpness either. Nonetheless, shooting at ISO 25600 makes perfectly acceptable images for magazine, newspaper, or online publications. You only start to notice the noise and lack of detail when you really zoom in, or if you were to make large prints. For every application I used the camera for, which included shooting in a very dark bowling alley, the ISO performance was incredible. I didn’t have to worry about noise, and could still have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze my subjects. The higher expanded sensitivity range sounds impressive, but the noise and color shifts become pretty extreme, and I can’t see many times I would actually need to shoot at ISO 409600, although it is nice to have if you’re in a pinch.

Shooting Fast-Moving Subjects is a Breeze

Another case where the D4S really shines is the improved autofocus. It has the same 51-point autofocus area as its predecessor, but it adds a couple of new features that make it stand above the D4. The first is the Group AF mode, which uses five autofocus sensors as a single autofocus point. The other new feature is the autofocus point position memory. This feature allows the camera to keep your focal point in the same area of the frame when you change from landscape to portrait position. For example, if you’re taking a head shot and your autofocus point is on the person’s right eye in portrait mode, when you turn the camera to landscape mode the camera will automatically adjust the point to the same area over the person’s right eye. This saves you from having to move the point with your thumb until you get it back to where you need it.

These new features, combined with the already great autofocus system from the D4, make this camera a breeze to shoot fast-moving subjects. I didn’t have to worry about whether the football players running at full speed toward me were in focus or not; I knew the camera would take care of it.

Improvements in Video Capture

"..include being able to record to a memory card and an external recorder simultaneously.."

Even though I’m primarily a still photographer, I wanted to test out the video capabilities of the D4S. The biggest changes here are the addition of 50 and 60 frames per second in full HD 1080p quality, as well as the ability to select between full frame (FX), crop sensor (DX), and 2.7x crop while in live view. Other new features include auto ISO while shooting video in manual mode, selectable audio frequency range, and adjustable audio while recording. Some other important features for pro video shooters include being able to record to a memory card and an external recorder simultaneously, as well as viewing your live view output while recording uncompressed video via HDMI.

Even though most of these features are beyond the scope of my video needs, I can tell you that shooting video in very low light with the auto ISO was amazing, and the video files came out looking beautiful.

While most of the upgrades to the D4S are about shooting, Nikon also gave us some great features to help on the back end of things. First, the addition of a small RAW file size allows you to shoot 12-bit uncompressed RAW files that are much smaller than the regular full-sized RAW files. This saves you time when transferring files, and saves you space on your hard drive while still giving you the same control of your images in post-processing. Another time-saving feature of the D4S is the new 1000Base-T LAN Gigabit Ethernet connection. This lets you transfer image and video files must faster than the D4’s 100Base-T LAN connection.

A much talked-about feature on this camera is its ability to fine-tune the color of the camera’s LCD screen, to remove color casts. This comes in very handy when working under strange lighting conditions such as fluorescent lights. You will be able to correct the images in post, but now you can remove any apparent color casts on the back of your LCD screen as well.

Although I didn’t get to see the full potential of the battery’s long life, Nikon does claim that the new battery will provide enough power to shoot up to 3,020 photos; that’s 420 more than the D4. Since the camera comes with a dual battery charger, with the purchase of a second battery you should have more than enough power for most situations.

I have to admit that before I got the chance to shoot with the D4S, I didn’t think I would ever want to own it. It just seemed like it would be too much camera for my needs. I don’t regularly shoot sports, action, or low-light events like theater, so I thought it would be a nice camera to test, but then I would be happy going back to my D7000, and my arsenal of film cameras. When I had to hand that camera back to its rightful owner, though, I must say I was more than a little sad to see it go. The D4S is a thing of beauty, and shooting any other camera after it is like going from a Ferrari to an Oldsmobile.

Nikon D4S Sample Images

Lens Mount Nikon F
Image Sensor CMOS; 36 x 23.9mm (FX format)
Effective Pixels 16.2MP
Total Pixels 16.6MP
Maximum Resolution 4928 x 3280
Aspect Ratio 3:2, 5:4
Still Image File Format JPEG, RAW (NEF), TIFF
Storage Media CompactFlash (Type I, compliant with UDMA), XQD
Card Slot 1x CompactFlash, 1x XQD
Viewfinder Type Eye-level pentaprism single-lens reflex viewfinder
Frame Coverage 100% (FX)
Magnification 0.70x
Eyepoint 18mm
Diopter Adjustment -3 to +1 m
Shutter Type Electronically controlled vertical-travel focal-plane
Shutter Speed 30 sec. to 1/8000 sec., bulb
Flash Sync Speed Up to 1/250 sec.
Drive Modes Continuous low-speed mode (CL)
Continuous high-speed mode (CH)
Mirror-up mode (Mup)
Quiet Shutter Release
Self-timer mode
Single-frame mode (S)
Top Continuous Shooting Rate Up to 11 fps
Self-Timer 2, 5, 10, 20 sec.; 1-9 exposures at 0.5, 1, 2, or 3 sec. intervals
Exposure Metering System TTL exposure metering using 91,000-pixel RGB sensor
Metering Method Center-weighted
3D Color Matrix Metering III
Spot
Metering Range -1 to +20 EV (matrix or center-weighted)
2 to 20 EV (spot)
Exposure Modes Aperture-Priority (A)
Manual (M)
Programmed auto with flexible program (P)
Shutter-Priority Auto (S)
Exposure Compensation +/- 5 EV in 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV steps
Exposure Bracketing 2 to 9 frames in 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV steps
ISO Sensitivity ISO 100-25600 (expandable to ISO 50-409600)
Autofocus System Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus sensor module with TTL phase detection
Number of Focus Points 51
Focus Modes Continuous-servo (AF-C)
Face-Priority AF available in live view only and D-Movie only
Full-time Servo (AF-F) available in live view only
Manual (M) with electronic rangefinder
Normal area
Single-servo AF (AF-S)
Wide area
Autofocus Sensitivity -2 to +19 EV (ISO 100, 68°F / 20°C)
Built-In Flash No
Flash Control iTTL flash control using 91,000-pixel RGB sensor
Flash Modes Auto FP High-Speed Sync supported
Front-curtain sync (normal)
Rear-curtain sync
Red-Eye reduction
Red-Eye reduction with slow sync
Slow rear-curtain sync
Slow sync
Off
Top FP High Speed Sync 1/8000 sec.
Flash Compensation -3 to +1 EV in 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV steps
Flash Bracketing 2 to 9 frames in 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV steps
External Flash Interface Hot shoe, flash sync terminal
White Balance Modes Auto (2 types), Color Temperature (2500-10000K), Cloudy, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Fluorescent (7 types), Incandescent, Preset Manual (up to 6 values), Shade
White Balance Bracketing 2 to 9 frames in 1, 2, or 3 EV steps
Movie Recording 1920 x 1080; 60, 50, 30, 25, 24 fps
1280 x 720; 60, 50 fps
640 x 424; 30, 25 fps
Movie Metering TTL exposure metering using main image sensor
File Format MOV
Compression H.264/MPEG-4 AVC
Audio Recording Built-in monaural microphone, optional external stereo microphone
Audio File Format Linear PCM
Maximum Recording Time 29 min. 59 sec. (at normal quality, except 1920 x 1080; 60/50 fps)
Monitor 3.2" 921k-dot LCD
Monitor Viewing Angle 170°
Interface USB 2.0, HDMI mini (Type C), 10-pin remote terminal, headphone output, microphone input, 1000 Base-T wired LAN ethernet, NTSC
Wi-Fi With optional WT-5A or WT-4A
GPS With optional GP-1A GPS unit
Power Source EN-EL18a rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Battery Life 3,020 shots (CIPA)
Operating Environment 32-104°F / 0-40°C
Dimensions 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.6" / 160 x 156.5 x 90.5mm
Weight 2.6 lb / 1.2 kg

Items discussed in article

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love it

like how much is the D4?

You can find the prices for the D4 and D4s on their respective pages on our site.  Click Here

When I got the email from B&H about a review of the D4S I was expecting an in-depth review instead of the 'review' I found, which was more like a Lite version of someone's first impressions. Specifically I expected to find some much better test shots at the new higher ISOs- I can only guess what that 'blob' is... a toy squirrel maybe? Something I could relate to in real life would have been better, like a street scene at night, something with more contrast so noise levels in brighter and darker areas of the photograph could be evaluated perhaps....  really there's a million other examples that one could come up with better than the one shown. Also high on the list of things to be evaluated, arguably even more important than the high ISO performance and probably the single biggest improvement in the D4S other than the EXSPEED4 processor is the video capture performance. The D4 first attempt at video capture was somewhat limited in frame rate modes and shooting duration, and while they might have been fine for someone shooting home videos, it wasn't suitable for a camera that is built for a working photographer and videographer, and not even for every working photographer, but a working photog working in news gathering or professional sports. After all, this camera body costs $6500 and once you add on the cost of additional batteries ($149- new to this camera), the high-speed memory cards (Sony XQD S-series 64GB- $308) necessary to get the high shutter-rate speeds advertised, best lenses for low light, and other various accessories you're going to be spending closer to more than $8k, even if you already own a D4 like I do and already have some of this kit, you'll still need new batteries and perhaps an additional charger, haven't checked with RRS, but maybe a new L bracket, and other odds and ends. Most people won't be buying this camera to shoot touch football games.

I can tell you exactly how many times I've felt hampered by only being able to shoot 2600 photos on a battery charge vs 3020... exactly zero times. The main area where having improved battery life would make a significant difference might be shooting video. The battery management system is very good in the D4, and is likely as good or better in the D4S. The only anomoly I've noticed in the D4 is it uses considerably more energy when the camera is off than my D800E does, which is also a phenomenal camera for what it does best. I've left batteries in both cameras while unused for a couple of weeks and when I turned them on, the D4 was 1/2 to 2/3 discharged, while the D800E was nearly fully charged.

11 fps vs 10 fps? Not a reason to upgrade from D4 to D4S for me. It's just a small bonus if you have other reasons to upgrade.

100Base-T vs Gigabit Ethernet? I have to agree with the author, but not for the reasons he states. Most people shooting D4's, D3's etc. don't use their cameras to transfer files, they have card readers, especially D4 users that shoot on XQD cards (since they are the only memory cards that support the high continuous shutter rate the D4 and D4s provide). Gigabit Ethernet was everywhere and was cheap when the D4 in it's design stages and it was a huge mis-step for it not to have been included in the D4, it should have been a no-brainer. Remotely operating the camera is one area it might possibly be advantageous.

D4S and D4- USB 2.0??? Seriously? D4S- they fixed the lack of Gigabit Ethernet, but didn't address the lack of USB 3.0?

D4S- exposure modes in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps vs the D4 in 1/3 EV steps.

D4S- expanded flash sync modes over the D4. 

D4S- expanded flash compensation modes over the D3.

D4S- 1920 x 1080 video clip length- 29.59 minutes vs. D4- 20 minutes.

D4S- White balance modes listed in specs are far fewer than the D4- this may just be an omission in the specs- it's hard to believe that Nikon would decrease the number of options in any newer model.

What's missing? Built-in GPS. Nikon has an external GP-1A, but compared to other aftermarket GPS solutions it's overpriced and under-performs. Wireless- should be 802.11AC at this point in the game- the rate at which wireless specs change, I would prefer it to not be 'built in' to the camera, and it should be at a more reasonable price point than the WT-5A (802.11N only- $550 discounted, list is about $800- cost of an 802.11ac interface is about $30, true, this is unique adaptation of the physical mount and firmware, but $800 is ridiculous... ). The current location of the wireless connector is problematic especially for those using an 'L' bracket, some consideration for that should be taken for the next of the 'N' series camera. Maybe a user-replaceable in-body compartment so that it could be replaced as wireless standards evolve/ improve? Especially if you could chose from a wireless network module and a Wireless-WAN module! 

All the statements above are based only on published specs for both cameras.

Will I upgrade to the D4S? I don't know; the improvements in video mode and expanded exposure and flash compensation modes would be very worthwhile for me, and I would appreciate Gigabit Ethernet. Although I shoot continuous mode quite a lot, I'm not sure I would notice much of a difference, and I'm certain that if I did, it wouldn't be enough to justify upgrading. I would like to see a bump up in the image sensor, so if the EXSPEED4, which largely influences image processing functions is the first step towards a D4H, even if it's only up to say, 24 Megapixels, that would be worth waiting for. I'll wait until the the full-fledged reviews of the D4S come out before I make up my mind.

Well said James. Yes I started reading this review and it seemed totally pitched to the wrong audience. I would think people in this market are time poor and know all the touchy feely stuff all ready.

Thanks for the explicit detail in the areas you have chosen to address.

I'm using 800's and they are great for what I do. Aerials. The next camera I buy must have wifi capability.

Cheers

Tim

  What is the XQD card and what is it use for?

XQD is a specific type of memory card, such as CF or SD.   The XQD cards are faster than other formats currently on the market.

This was a fascinating review, although, quite frankly, the review did not make me want to run out a buy one.  I also appreciate constructive comments made by james.  I am a bit disappointed with Nikon.  It seems that they would want to combine the very best features of their cameras in the D4S.  If you are going to spend that kind of money, every "effective" bell and whistle that Nikon has should be on this camera.  While higher ISO is great, for example, resolution needs to be enhanced. 
 

I bought a D7100 when it first came out, I had and still have a D90 and wish I would have waited and for a Nikon camera like the D3.. or D4...   I already have several relatively new full frame lenses.

The D7100 is nice, but nothing like the D4 or the D4S (I hope the D4S is as good as I expect from Nikon).

Much more research to do.

The review is written for the $600 audiences; James' partial review is for the $6,000 audiences.  James can you please do a full review for us.  I wish you could take the time.

I cannot really justify buying the D3S but the grand kids have good jobs and taking action pictures of the great grand kids will be much easier  with a D3 or D3s.  Those good moments do not happen at the split second I squeeze the shutter, I need a 10 to 20 frame burst.

A larger camera is also easier to hold and if I can buy a big old man's car, I can surly buy a really nice camera.