Camera Review: Nikon D4S

June 3, 2014

By Dan Havlik

The Nikon D4S is slightly faster than its predecessor and has a revamped, full-frame sensor designed to shoot cleaner images in extreme low-light.

It’s probably just coincidence that both Nikon and Apple use the “S” designation at the end of model names to represent a transitional upgrade between products, rather than a major overhaul. For instance, there was the Apple iPhone 5 and then its successor, the iPhone 5s, which wasn’t a drastically different phone from the previous model. The same goes for the D4S, which is the latest flagship pro digital SLR from Nikon but hardly a reinvention of its fast- shooting predecessor. Some might say that maintaining consistency between models is a good thing: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So the “S” in the model name could, theoretically, stand for “safe,” right?

Truth be told, the Nikon D4S is a bit faster than the D4, which was introduced in 2012, and it also has some interesting new features, including a revamped, FX-format (full-frame) sensor that is designed to shoot cleaner images in extreme low-light. Yes, the chip in the D4S has the exact same resolution (16.2 megapixels) as the previous model but it boasts an expanded ISO range, which lets you shoot all the way up to ISO 409600, making this camera an addition to Nikon’s celebrated line of low-light shooters.

The D4S also has a slightly new design to it, which is supposed to make it more comfortable to shoot with. Other than that, Nikon’s newest—as of this writing—pro DSLR isn’t a heck of a lot different from the previous model, in terms of specs.

But does the D4S and its various refinements, make it significantly better than the D4, which we rated highly in a 2012 review for PDN? And, more importantly, is it enough to warrant the higher starting price tag ($6,499) for the D4S compared to the D4’s introductory price ($5,999) two years ago? Let’s take a look.

Physically, the Nikon D4S looks a lot like the previous model, which also had a rugged, professional design that was hefty but appealing to photographers who might bang their gear around a bit. The D4S’ tough, magnesium alloy body weighs approximately 48 ounces with the new EN-EL18a battery installed, which CIPA rates as capable of capturing up to 3,020 shots on a single charge. The older EN-EL18 battery that shipped with the D4, and is also compatible with the D4S, is rated at 2,600 shots maximum per charge.

To protect against moisture, dust and dirt, the D4S is fully gasketed and sealed like most pro cameras in this class. In keeping with the design of the D4, the D4S has a lower pentaprism and more sloping profile overall than previous generations of D-series cameras. Where the D4S differs, slightly, from its immediate predecessor is the camera’s handgrip, which feels somewhat scooped out on the inside, giving you a more indented ridge for your fingers to hold on to. The thumb rest on the back of the D4S and the vertical thumb rest are deeper, adding to the camera’s improved ergonomics.

While these are small things, they’re noticeable. I co-tested the Nikon D4S with photographer Jordan Matter, who shoots with a 4-year-old D3S, and he appreciated the design tweaks. “The grip is more stable and the camera felt more comfortable to hold during long shooting sessions,” Matter says. Otherwise, button and control layout has pretty much remained the same, and any photographer who’s used the last few generations of Nikon D-series cameras should be able to quickly figure out how to use the D4S.

Along with its revamped CMOS sensor, which Nikon described to us as “newly designed” though not necessarily new, the D4S is powered by Nikon’s latest EXPEED 4 processor. The improved processor helps cut down on image noise when shooting at high ISOs in low light as well as captures better HD-video quality and improves overall performance speed. (The D4 used Nikon’s older EXPEED 3 processor.)

Another benefit of the EXPEED 4 is that the D4S can shoot at 11 frames per second (fps) with full autofocus (AF) and auto exposure (AE). (The previous camera could shoot at 11 fps but AF and AE were locked on the first frame.) Nikon says the D4S has an “overall 30 percent increase in processing power,” and while I’ll get into the new camera’s performance in the next section, let’s just say, for now, that this sucker is fast—very fast.

Like its predecessor, the D4S uses Nikon’s tried-and-true 51-point AF system but adds an interesting new Group Area AF function. The Group Area AF mode, which you set in the camera’s custom menu, uses five AF points for better stability when tracking subjects, and improved accuracy by cutting down on background focus. Anyone who’s shot with traditional center-point focus, which is the preferred setup of many photographers I know, is aware that it can sometimes cause accidental back focus issues when tracking moving subjects in front of bright backgrounds with heavily contrasting colors. Group Area AF is designed to remedy that.

Nikon’s AF Lock-on technology has also been upgraded in the D4S. The revamped feature is designed to shorten the time the camera reverts from focus interruptions, such as when a referee runs into the frame (d’oh!) as you’re shooting a game.
Other changes include Enhanced Picture Control for better skin tones in portrait photography; finer white balance adjustments; better visibility through the viewfinder with less blackout time; and a tweak that keeps your same focus points when switching from horizontal to vertical shooting.

For time-lapse shooters, there’s a new exposure-smoothing feature in time-lapse movie mode. The D4S also now gives you the ability to shoot 9,999 pictures total in interval time-lapse sequences. There’s a new, smaller RAW Size S image file format, which captures 12-bit uncompressed RAW/NEF files at half the resolution of a normal NEF.

New video features include the ability to shoot at 1080p HD at 60p, along with 30p, 24p and 25p; auto ISO exposure control in manual mode; and simultaneous uncompressed recording from the D4S’ HDMI port out for broadcast, and compressed recording to memory cards. And yes, like the D4, the D4S sports dual memory cards slots: one for CompactFlash cards and one for those less common—and less popular—XQD cards. There’s also a wider frequency range for sound recording on the D4S that lets you narrow it for voice recording, such as when you’re shooting interviews.

So while the Nikon D4S might not seem like a major overhaul from its predecessor, if you take advantage of some of its new features—which we outlined in the previous section—this camera is a speedier and more reliable performer.

For starters, that 11 fps burst rate with full AF and AE might only be one frame faster than the previous model’s speed but that one frame could potentially make or break a sports photo sequence by helping you snag a winning shot. There’s also a better buffer depth on the D4S, which lets you shoot 200 full-resolution Fine JPEGS, or just over 100 14-bit RAW files, before the camera slows down to catch up. (In contrast, the D4 had a JPEG buffer depth of 170 frames and 75 for RAWs.)

“The burst rate is very impressive,” Matter reports. “I used it on an exceptionally cold day and I shot many frames in a row and it never stalled.”

In terms of autofocus performance, the D4S was an absolute champ (though the D4 was certainly no slouch either). As I noted earlier, the D4S uses the same 51-point autofocus system with Nikon’s Multi-CAM 3500FX sensor module as the D4 does, but with that added new Group Area AF option. With Group AF Area deployed—and once I turned it on I pretty much kept it on—four additional AF points around the center focus point are activated, giving you a larger focusing target to track and capture a fast-moving subject. In effect, there’s a bit more focusing wiggle room with this feature if your subject is traveling quickly through varied terrain.

Matter, who photographs dancers, athletes and performers, was delighted with Group Area AF, and says it significantly improved his hit rate of in-focus images for motion shots.

“My general impression is the autofocus for quick movement is vastly improved and much more consistent,” he notes. “Some of my shots were taken with a blur of movement in them (a circus performer on a wheel; an acrobat doing a flip; a person juggling axes), but the subjects were tack-sharp.” For those photographers considering jumping up in class from a D3S to the D4S, the focus improvements will seem even more dramatic, he adds.

Image quality has also improved on the D4S, particularly with its low-light shooting chops. Where there used to be a megapixel race when it came to competing high-end cameras, there’s now what appears to be an extreme-ISO race. As mentioned already, the D4S can shoot at an astronomical sensitivity level of ISO 409600, which is designed to let it capture visible subject matter in near total darkness. (Since the D4S premiered, Sony unveiled its own full- frame “S” camera, the 12.2-megapixel A7S, that can also shoot at ISO 409600, which is no coincidence since Sony makes the chips in both these models.)

In our testing of the D4S’ maximum ISO (Hi-4) feature, the camera was able to capture subjects in near pitch-blackness but results were, to put it bluntly, noisy as hell. That really shouldn’t be surprising considering this is ISO 409600, an eye-popping level that would have sounded unachievable just a few years ago.

I don’t think professional photographers will get much out of it though: Our Hi-4 photos had major color distortion along with ugly noise, making them look like bad photocopies of snapshots. The real use for this feature is forensic photography and other scientific applications, and I’m sure law enforcement will scoop up many of these cameras to use in evidence gathering.

While the Hi-4 setting is a niche feature, the D4S did very well in capturing relatively clean images just a little bit further down the ISO spectrum. Our results for ISO 100000 (Hi-2) still looked pretty splotchy, but ISO 50000 (Hi-1) produced some quite useable results.

It’s really in the ISO 12800 to 20000 range where photographers will see the most benefits. Cameras have offered those levels before, but results have been hit or miss. With the D4S, I’d be very comfortable shooting at up to ISO 20000 if the need called for it, because our test images looked relatively crisp and professional. In short, you’ll be able to shoot without a flash in very dim conditions with the D4S and still capture bright, punchy and sharp images.

And, of course, on the lower sensitivity spectrum— ISO 50 to 800—we got great results from the D4S’ redesigned full-frame chip. Matter’s one gripe about the sensor—a gripe that I’ve heard echoed by other photographers—is that the 16.2-megapixel resolution of the D4S is insufficient for jobs that require images to be blown up or extensively cropped. For an assignment that necessitated Matter’s photos to be placed on large banners, he felt the D4S didn’t have quite enough resolving power to handle it. His other option was to use his 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800 but that camera struggles with noise at above ISO 1600, reducing his options for the shoot. In the end, the D4S and its middle-tier resolution is still a trade-off, and that’s disappointing for a camera that offers so much otherwise.

It’s fitting that I ended the previous section with the word “trade-off” because that’s what the D4S feels like. Despite a variety of new features above and below the surface—Group Area AF being our favorite of the bunch—this camera is really just a refinement of the previous model, sharing a lot of the D4’s achievements (fast, durable, efficient) and its limitations (only 16.2 megapixels of resolution). Don’t get me wrong: The Nikon D4S is a heck of a low-light camera and it’s got a superb set of video tools, which I only touched on briefly, making it one of the best pro DSLRs in the world. But, to be frank, if you already own a Nikon D4 and you’re on a limited budget, you can probably skip this update of that already excellent camera.

Pros: Very fast all-around performer with maximum 11 fps burst speed with full AF and AE; superb low-light skills with excellent image quality at high ISOs; small design tweaks make the camera more comfortable to hold during long shooting sessions; high-end, durable build

Cons: Shares many features with previous model including same 16.2 megapixels of resolution, but has $500 higher starting price; extreme ISO 409600 has limited applications; still uses unpopular XQD format for second card slot

Price: $6,499 (body only)


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