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Review Nikon D4S

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The newest Nikon flagship for photojournalists is the Nikon D4S. It's the top camera from Nikon, which really has everything. It's an improved version of the D4, which has been around for years. No completely new body, but an "upgrade": more ISO, more images per second and even better auto focus. Professional cameras are much more robust than amateur cameras. They're built in relatively small series according to the highest specifications. That explains why the D4S is the most expensive Nikon SLR. We investigated how the image quality of the Nikon D4S compares to that of other Nikon cameras. NikonD4s

Nikon D4S versus Nikon D4

The Nikon D4S has many properties in common with the D4. The bodies are nearly identical. Differences are:

  • Higher framerate (now 11 fps)
  • Faster image processing
  • Group-AF-field focusing
  • Optional smaller RAW format
  • One ISO stop added, now a maximum of 409,600

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Nikon D4S or Canon 1DX?

The Nikon D4S actually has only one competitor: the Canon 1DX. Both in terms of price and in terms of construction and specifications, these two professional SLR cameras closely resemble each other. Both cameras are renowned for their high AF speed. The Canon has marginally more megapixels (18.1 versus 16.2 for the Nikon), more AF points (61 versus 51), a bit higher framerate (12 fps versus 11), but a 1-stop smaller ISO range. Both cameras have a super-fast Ethernet connection, both film in full HD (the D4S in 60p, the 1DX in 30p). The Canon has 2 CF card slots, the Nikon has one CF slot and a port for the Sony XQD memory card that is even faster (but as far as I know has not been adopted by any other manufacturer). The D4S can photograph in a "small" RAW format—more about that later.

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DeThe choice of the photojournalist will more likely be made on the basis of the lenses that he or she already has than on the basis of the specifications for the body. A set of professional full-frame lenses, after all, costs much more than the camera. Reliability and service (maintenance, availability of loaner cameras in case of emergency) play an important role for this target market. Currently, on the sidelines, you see about as many white (Canon) as black (Nikon) lenses, from which it appears that the appreciation of the two brands doesn't differ strongly.

Design

The Nikon D4S feels and looks like a claw hammer: heavy and rock-solid. Beauty is something else (the camera is something of a warthog, with knobs everywhere), but function before form! Everything is outstandingly finished and sealed, and nearly everything is planned for the professional who often has to work under difficult conditions. An example: if you move the on/off lever to the right, then nearly all the knobs light up so that you can adjust the settings under pitch-black conditions. The knobs all feel a little different from each other to prevent mistakes. You never grab the wrong one. Changes to ISO, image format and image quality as well as white balance can be done at lightning speed. The controls can also, via your personal settings, be completely set according to your own needs. NikonD4detail

Screen and viewfinder

Of course the D4S has an outstanding optical viewfinder with 100% image coverage, plus a 3.2" LCD screen with 9210 image points, which you can also use to focus via LiveView. For an action camera, that's not a given. There are various setting options for the display: full-screen, with histogram, highlights, slideshow, multiple image, and so forth. What you will find on few amateur cameras is the ability to adjust the color reproduction of the screen. We expect anyway that most photographers will do color assessment on a calibrated monitor.

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Auto focus

 D4S3843Shot made with the Nikon D4S, with a 400 mm f/4, during the training for the TT in Assen in 2014.

For an action camera, lightning-fast auto focus is critical. Group AF is new for the D4S. You could always choose the AF point yourself, from among 51 fields in total, and now you can select a group of 5 AF points. For somewhat larger lenses, that ensures that there's less chance that the camera will accidentally use an AF point that lies just outside your subject. The release delay is very small: about 80 milliseconds. The AF is fast (less than half a second from infinity to 1 meter with a 50 mm f/1.4 lens), but perhaps even more importantly: it also works in low light (light value -2). In order to be able to take pictures as fast as possible, many action photographers keep their finger permanently on the AF-ON button, so that there's no focus delay.

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There are various AF setting options, and it takes a while before you master them all. In particular with 3D tracking, you can follow moving objects exceptionally well because the camera, among other things, makes use of color information of the subject and environment, as in the photo of the flying tern shown here.

Framerate Nikon D4s

 

Photojournalists seldom take one picture; even with static subjects, they usually let the motor drive run. Something like that only makes sense when the processor and the storage can handle such a series effortlessly. The D4S scores very well on this point. We shot 30 RAW plus highest-quality JPEG pictures in 2.6 seconds; that's around 11 images per second. It's marginally more than the D4, which we had available next to the D4S. The processing time of such a series is more than 3 minutes, but due to the big buffer, you can just keep on working. A part of this speed package is the Sony XQD memory card, which is faster than the fastest SD card, but has nevertheless not yet made inroads outside the D4/D4S.

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The battery pack supports the enormous framerate: according to the CIPA norm, you can take 3000 shots with it, and according to Nikon, even more. In order to avoid placing extra-heavy demands on the processor and buffer, you can choose the "small" RAW format, which gives files about half as large as the "full" NEF format. Press bureaus want RAWs for image identification; for their publications, they don't need more than a JPEG no larger than 2 MB. The small RAWs are sufficient.

Resolution and image quality

Where the Nikon D810 strives for optimum image quality, the D4S is designed with a compromise between image quality and speed, so "only" 16 megapixels. This is definitely not to say that the image quality falls short. All our shots showed hair-fine detailing, extremely little noise and a large dynamic range. The camera can even be used well for landscapes. Here, too, it's true that the body only comes fully into its own with quality glasswork. Someone who pays a small fortune for the body would be smart to set aside a similar amount for a set of professional glass, such as the seamless series 14-24, 24-70, and 70-200 mm f/2.8.

 

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This artwork is on the dike at Lelystad and is commonly known as "the pooping man." For those who don't know it: it's 40 m tall! The shot was made with a 70-200 mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens set at 70 mm, 1/2000 sec, ISO 100.

Dynamic range

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The dynamic range of the Nikon D4S, with 13 stops, is extremely high. A sensor with relatively large pixels (few megapixels) is clearly an advantage here. If we compare the dynamic range of the Nikon D4S with the more modern Nikon D810, then the Nikon D810 wins at 32 ISO, but the Nikon D4S wins at high ISO values. On this point, the Nikon D4S clearly beats out the Canon 1DX.

Noise

At ISO values up to 6400 ISO, the Nikon D4S is among the best cameras that we have reviewed, when it comes to noise. "Only" 16 megapixels on a full-frame sensor has the advantage that the individual pixels are relatively large and therefore have a good signal-to-noise ratio. An added advantage is that you can better enlarge a Nikon D4S file using interpolation than files from other cameras, without having trouble with artifacts.
The ISO range of the D4S runs to Hi-4, which corresponds with 409,600 ISO. You can then photograph by hand under the light from a match. There is significant noise at that extremely high ISO value, even with the use of noise suppression. Hi-4 is, when not-too-high requirements are set (for example, for photos on the web), quite usable, but it's not advisable for serious work. The picture on the right is the full image, not a cut-out. The color information is reasonably retained, and the book titles can still be read, but the shadows are very grainy.

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Below is a practice shot in the dim recesses of the zoo. The Nikon D4S files are extremely noise-free even at high ISO values. Move your mouse over the picture for a partial enlargement at 100% of a 52,600 ISO RAW shot that has been made several stops lighter in order to make what's in the dark visible.

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Connectivity

That's a new word: It indicates how easily and quickly a camera can communicate with the outside world.

The D4S has no WiFi, but it does have, in addition to the more or less obligatory mini-USB and HDMI ("clean" if desired, that is, without camera information), an Ethernet (LAN) port. With that, you can send photos at lightning speed to a laptop or directly to the editor. There is also a connection where wireless adaptors can be connected (WT-4 and WT-5). With that, you can upload, but also operate remotely. That's critical for sports photographers, since these people often work with remotely operated cameras. Just think about football: it used to be that 20 photographers pushed together behind each goal, but that's not permitted any longer; now you see wirelessly operated bodies with wide-angle lenseson small tripods. The adaptors do have to be purchased separately, and they're not cheap.

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A great street portrait, shot with the 70-200 mm f/2.8, 1/160 second by hand. The VR was on, of course. 800 ISO.

 Video

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Naturally, the D4S can also make video recordings, and it can do that in 1080p with a maximum of 60 frames per second. Automatic focusing can be done at the start of the recording, or during the recording by pressing the AF button; it does not automatically follow. The exposure does, but you can only set that before recording. Photographing while filming is possible, but then filming stops. For video, there are connections for an external microphone and headphones. You can optimize the sound quality for voice, and you can filter out wind noise. jogger-voor-web-klein
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Conclusion Nikon D4S review

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Look in our list of reviewed cameras for specifications and for a comparison of this performance with that of other cameras.

Pro
Year:2014
Overall score:8.3
Resolution:7.0
Dynamic Range:8.6
Noise:9.0
Color:9.3
Whitebalance:6.0
Megapixels:16
Sensor:FF
Sensor magn.:0.70
fps:10
Weight (gram):1180
MSRP NL (Euro):6149

Pros

  • Built like a tank
  • It has everything
  • Fast and effective AF
  • High image quality: impressive dynamic range and very little noise
  • Very high framerate

Cons

  • Big and heavy
  • Expensive

The Nikon D4S is the workhorse for action and documentary photographers. Everything is designed and executed with the photojournalist in mind. The camera does not strive for the very highest image quality, for that the sensor has too few megapixels (and you can better choose a Nikon D810), but it is lightning-fast, weather-resistant, dust-proof, rock-solid, bright, and it has an enormous battery pack capacity. Really, there are just two drawbacks: the camera is unavoidably brick-heavy (just the body with battery pack weighs 1350 g) and expensive (more than 6000 euros). Is that expensive? For an amateur: yes. For a professional who earns a living with it: no. There is, after all, no better Nikon.

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Jop Steenhof de Jong
Author: Jop Steenhof de Jong
Photography has been a hobby of mine for many years. For me, it's about the joy of creating. I like to find and share knowledge in depth topics again. After years of having fun with contributions made to the Dutch magazine "Camera Magazine", I test now with at least as much pleasure for CameraStuffReview.

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