Cameras

Nikon D4S Digital Camera Review

Nikon's flagship professional DSLR is a multimedia powerhouse and the company's best to date.

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By the Numbers

The Nikon D4S's performance numbers look very similar to what we saw with the original D4. Minor processing quirks aside, there's a slight uptick in dynamic range, high ISO noise levels, color accuracy, and white balance accuracy. While these add up to make the D4S unquestionably a better camera—and Nikon's best DSLR to date—they're not a significant enough jump that we'd recommend upgrading right away unless your D4 is on its last legs.

The Nikon D4, launched back in 2012, was a revolutionary camera that combined fast capture speed, superb ergonomics and control, and truly professional caliber video options. As the company has done with previous generations of pro-level cameras, Nikon is back with a subtle refresh of its top camera, touting greater dynamic range, improved continuous shooting speed with autofocus, and a frankly ridiculous top ISO of 409,600. Meet Nikon's D4S.

As with those earlier top-level refreshes, the D4S doesn't drastically alter the D4's blueprint. Instead, it's a minor adjustment of the camera that preceded it, adding a couple of new features and a new processor rather than taking the whole thing back to the drawing board.

We've gotten a chance to run the D4S (MSRP $6,499.95) through our full suite of lab tests along with the standard 24-70mm f/2.8G Nikon lens to see what working professionals can expect from Nikon's latest and greatest DSLR. While the improvements are subtle, the D4S is without a doubt the best digital SLR Nikon has ever produced.

Design & Handling

Nikon has clearly found little fault with the D4's design, electing to change almost nothing.

Nikon isn't known for dramatically altering control schemes or menu design, so the fact that the D4S and D4 look and feel practically identical isn't a surprise. The two cameras have mostly all of the same ports, button placement is identical, and the control scheme is unchanged between the two cameras. The only real outward difference is a new knurled texture for the sub-selector joysticks. That's pretty much it. If you're a working pro who knows your D4 inside and out, feel free to skip ahead, because nothing else in this section will be news to you.

Nikon isn't known for dramatically altering control schemes or menu design, so the fact that the D4S and D4 look and feel practically identical isn't a surprise.

For those who haven't seen or used a D4 yet, there's quite a bit of ground to cover. For starters the D4S is massive, with full weather sealing and a durable magnesium alloy frame. Its size is due to its integrated portrait grip, which also houses the camera's upgraded 10.8V, 2500mAh EN-EL18a rechargeable battery. The battery has a slightly higher capacity than the 2,000 mAh EN-EL18 used in the D4, which bumps the battery life rating from 2,600 shots to just north of 3,000 by CIPA's convoluted rating. In practice you should be able to go even beyond that when shooting normally.

On the top plate of the camera you'll find all of the standard controls like power and shutter release, mode and exposure compensation buttons, and a dedicated video record button. There's also a very useful secondary LCD that provides a snapshot of your current shooting settings. On the other side of the top plate there's also a locking drive mode selection dial and buttons for bracket, metering, and flash settings.

Exposure is adjusted via the two main control dials. When holding the camera by the standard grip, one is placed right where your thumb falls while the other is right under your index finger. The dials have a solid resistance, with a slightly tacky material that provides purchase. On the back you'll find the multi-selector, a four-way directional pad used for menu navigation. A smaller textured joystick called the sub-selector is also here, normally used to move between focus points.

On the portrait grip most of the necessary controls make another appearance, including a secondary shutter button, two more control dials, and a dedicated customizable button. There's also a second sub-selector joystick, placed in nearly the same location relative to the thumb rest as the standard sub-selector. Menu navigation is still a pain in portrait mode, unfortunately. The biggest issue is that none of the content on the rear LCD rotates vertically, so every time you want to review a shot or access the menu, you have to turn the camera back to landscape mode. In fact, the only way to correctly view a shot taken in portrait orientation is to turn off auto image rotation in playback, which is incredibly counterintuitive.

On the back there's also a 3.2-inch 921k-dot fixed LCD, with an array of menu and playback mode controls beside it. In this control stack you'll also find quick access for the customizable color profiles, useful for those shooting primarily video or JPEG stills. Just below the rear LCD is a third LCD, as well as buttons for controlling ISO, white balance, and image quality settings. Next to those is a mono microphone and a button for capturing quick voice memos relative to shots you've just taken. There's also an awkwardly located switch for activating live view and recording videos. It's far out of the way when shooting with the standard grip, but it's easily accessible via the portrait grip.

Color Accuracy and White Balance

Nikon has always trailed Canon in our color accuracy tests, and unfortunately it's the same with the D4. That said, that D4S shows a small improvement over the D4, likely due to improved white balance. We found that the most accurate picture control mode was portrait, which by default returned a color error (∆C00, saturation corrected) of 2.3, with practically perfect saturation levels. The standard and neutral modes were also accurate, but not as close, while vivid and landscape emphasized saturation and were worse as a result.

As with previous Nikon cameras, white balance was also a bit of a headache. The D4S has two methods of capturing a custom white balance reading. Both involve the same method (setting WB to custom, holding down the WB key on back for a few seconds, and capturing a shot of a neutral card.), but in different scenarios. Normally, the 91k RGB 3D metering system handles the white balance, which may be why other Nikon cameras have had trouble in certain lighting situations, like fluorescent or mixed lighting. In our testing, we found this method worked best under daylight and tungsten conditions.

The other way to capture white balance is to go through the same steps, but to do so while live view is activated. This brings up a small yellow box that you can move to place over a neutral object in the frame. We found this was actually much more accurate, and it uses the regular image sensor to capture WB data. This method was far better with mixed lighting and fluorescents especially, which have always been trouble spots when we test Nikon cameras.

In terms of raw numbers, taking a custom white balance with the D4S usually resulted in a color temperature error of between 90-200 kelvins. This is a little higher than the best cameras, but it's acceptable for professional work. With the auto white balance our test shots were just as good under fluorescent and daylight (133 and 69 kelvins off, respectively), but things go awry with tungsten lighting. As with most cameras, the D4S (even with "Normal" WB selected in the custom mode) produces a very warm color cast under tungsten lighting. We found it amounted to a color temp error of around 1950 kelvins, which is way off, but a little better than average. If you're shooting indoors with only incandescent lamps for light, we recommend taking a custom reading or shooting RAW and doing it later.

Shooting With the D4S

Faster shooting speed with autofocus is wonderful, but we hoped for more AF control

At its heart, the D4S is still a camera designed for professional sports and news photographers who need a camera that responds instantly. As you'd expect given the lack of changes, we are still as impressed with this camera as we were with the D4. The 51-point autofocus system is still superb, and does a great job of locking onto a single subject and tracking it through the frame. All of the buttons and dials feel expertly crafted and overall response time is excellent.

Though we found that continuous shooting speed still tops out at around 12fps when capturing JPEGs, the D4 can capture 11fps while using autofocus. Continuous autofocus is useful when it works, but in testing we found that your results will likely vary greatly depending on the velocity and type of subject. Those moving directly away from the camera seemed to present the biggest issues, but focus was close enough that we would still call most of the shots acceptable. At the very least, it seems there's nothing that the D4 can do that the D4S cannot.

One thing that we do wish Nikon had been willing to add to the D4S is enhanced autofocus control. While the improved continuous performance is nice, the case-based AF control present on the Canon EOS 1D X remains a premium feature that Nikon simply isn't matching right now. Nikon has introduced a new "Group AF" mode that seems to track faster subjects better, however. In this mode the focus system lets you select a single point, but will also track a subject with the four surrounding points. In our experience this better accounts for unpredictable moving subjects like birds and athletes where an object may escape the range of a single AF point.

Even with Nikon's rather hefty 24-70mm f/2.8G lens, the D4S felt fine after a couple separate hour-long shooting trips.

From a handling perspective the D4S is heavy, but the grips are nicely sculpted and extended periods of shooting aren't bothersome. Even with Nikon's rather hefty 24-70mm f/2.8G lens (or Sigma's behemoth 100-300mm f/4), the D4S felt fine after a couple separate hour-long shooting trips. While important controls like white balance and ISO aren't as easily accessible as on the 1D X, the D4S does have loads of little control touches that help you adapt to changing conditions on the fly. Our favorite might be the ability to activate auto ISO simply by holding the ISO key and turning the front dial. Even if you've been changing ISOs manually with the rear dial, you can flick to auto ISO and let the camera figure it out if lighting conditions suddenly change. This saves a trip to the menu, which may be the difference between missing or making a shot.

But by far our favorite control feature on the D4S is a holdover from the D4: backlit keys. It seems like a simple thing, but the ability to read keys in the dark is a major help. Yes, most pros will know their cameras backwards and be able to get around without it, but it undoubtedly saves time for those who shoot in darker environments like concerts or plays.

Noise Reduction

The D4S has an ISO range of 50-409,600 if you include the expanded settings. The base ISO range is 100-25,600, though in video the base moves up to ISO 200. Overall, we found the D4S's full-frame image sensor to be very capable through most of the ISO range.

Generally speaking, we have a noise threshold of about 2% for image quality. At that point the image starts to degrade to a point where you notice noise when printing anything larger than 8x10 photos. At ISO 50, we found the D4S produced around 0.7% noise. That rose to 1% noise at ISO 1600 and only hit 2.02% at ISO 12,800. Noise skyrocketed from there, hitting 3.8% at ISO 51,200, 9.54% at ISO 204,800, and an obscene 17.3% at ISO 409,600. As you can see in our full-size examples below, it gets noisy in a hurry.

If you are shooting in JPEG and want to keep noise in check, the D4S has three NR levels: Low, Normal, and High. Compared to leaving NR off, NR Low doesn't do much until you get to ISO 6400. From there it cuts noise down by around 0.5%, and at ISO 51,200 noise drops from 3.8% to 2.5%. NR Normal ramps reduction up to keep noise under 2% all the way through ISO 51,200, hitting 2.44% at ISO 102,400. NR High really cuts into noise at higher ISO speeds, with just 1.6% noise at ISO 102,400. From there NR High returns just 3.35% at ISO 204,800, and a still-ridiculous 8.97% at max ISO.

Resolution

We tested the Nikon D4S with the 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens from Nikon. We typically try to test using the lens that we think will commonly be used by photographers in the real world, and this is a standard event lens that just about every professional should be familiar with.

With the D4S we found that the combination produced outstanding results across the frame, with excellent corner-to-corner sharpness and only a hint of chromatic aberration and vignetting when wide open. We found that the lens consistently averaged close to resolve around 2,000 line widths per picture height at MTF 50 from f/2.8 through the useful aperture range. While the corners were worst when wide open and overall resolution is diffraction limited around f/22, the lens does exceptionally well on the D4S.

This is hardly unexpected, of course. This is Nikon's top camera, one of the company's most popular professional-quality lenses, and a sharp lens should be sharp on just about any camera that is within manufacturer specifications. At the very least it proves that we have a relatively well-built sample of both the lens and body.

Performance

The improvements here may be subtle, but they still add up to an all-around better camera.

This is meant as a brief overview of the Nikon D4S's performance in our lab tests. For a much more test-by-test comprehensive breakdown of how the D4S fared, head on over to our Nikon D4S Science and Testing page.

The Nikon D4S features Nikon's latest processor, the Expeed 4, which replaces the Expeed 3 found in the original D4. Though there aren't any reliable measurements of how much faster the new processor is than the old one (Nikon claims 30%), performance does seem to have crept up a little bit as a result.

ISO 409,600 images are remarkably noisy, exhibiting an astonishing 17% noise percentage with no noise reduction applied.

Nikon has set a new record with the D4S, offering an ISO range that extends from 50-409,600—a one-stop expansion over the D4. Obviously, ISO 409,600 images are remarkably noisy, exhibiting an astonishing 17% noise percentage with no noise reduction applied. That's the highest percentage we can remember from any camera at any setting, so it's strictly for emergencies only. In testing we found the D4S had slightly better dynamic range at base ISO, with up to 13.9 stops. When shooting JPEGs, though, it was slightly noisier thanks to reworked NR profiles that should better retain detail.

The only significant area of improvement we can find is white balance performance, which is better, but still not great. In live view color temperature is nearly perfect, but troublingly several times in our controlled WB test our screen would show an accurate color temperature only for the camera to get it wrong when actually taking the shot.

This thing can quite literally see in the dark.

We must reserve special praise for the D4S's video capabilities, however. Nikon's addition of a 1080/60p mode is a big help with motion, showing reduced trailing and ghosting. There's also still 30p and 24p modes at 1080, as well as 720p modes and a 2.7x cropped 1:1 1080p video mode. The D4S puts its full-frame sensor to great use, exhibiting 11-11.5 stops of dynamic range in video, with only minor differences between 1080/60p, 1080/24p, and the cropped 2.7x 1080/30p mode.

As you'd expect given the insane maximum ISO speed, the D4S also exhibited superb low light sensitivity. The D4S's auto ISO runs all the way to 409,600, but even with our lux meter reading zero (but the chart barely visible to our eyes) the D4S captured a perfectly bright image. This thing can quite literally see in the dark. Combined with clean, uncompressed HDMI output, 3.5mm headphone/microphone jacks, and full exposure and audio control, the D4S is a very capable pro-quality video camera.

Dynamic Range

The Nikon D4S is capable of around 13.9 stops of dynamic range when shooting RAW stills at base ISO, by the usual definition where we cut off range when the signal to noise ratio drops below 1:1. We also test at a higher threshold, only counting range from fully saturated to the point where the signal to noise ratio drops below 10:1.

With the D4S at this higher threshold, the dynamic range is improved by around a full stop at the lower ISO speeds compared to the D4. As a result, we recorded approximately 9.4 stops of this "high" dynamic range at ISO 50, 8.56 stops at ISO 100, and 8.27 stops at ISO 200. This falls off to just 6.49 stops at ISO 800 (about what an entry-level DSLR can do at base ISO), and 4.34 stops at ISO 3200. ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800 are capable of 2.94 and 2.07 stops of high dynamic range, respectively. When shooting RAW beyond ISO 12,800, there's no point at which signal to noise gets above 10:1, according to our tests.

In video the D4S doesn't record quite as much range, but it's still impressive. Though the D4S doesn't match the reported 15 stops of range of something like the RED Dragon, we managed a respectable 11.5 stops of range at ISO 200, the base ISO for video recording. It's worth noting that we saw this drop slightly to 10 stops when shooting at 1080/60p, likely due to increased compression in the blacks to allow for 60p throughput.

Features

Though using two different kinds of memory cards isn't ideal, the D4S's feature set matches any camera on the market.

Though the D4 came out nearly two years ago, there isn't much that's all that different about its successor, the D4S. That's largely because unlike in the years between the D3S's debut and the D4, there haven't been any technical revolutions that would call for a total overhaul of what the D4 already did so well.

The D4S once again features dual card slots, but one slot can only be used with CompactFlash cards, while the other can only be used with the newer XQD card format. We wish Nikon would've just doubled down on one or the other, as many photographers have loads of CF cards and readers. There also doesn't seem to be any performance bottleneck with CF cards in terms of shot-to-shot speed, though we found our high-speed CF card yielded a capacity of 45 RAW/TIFF/RAW+JPEG frames or 115 JPEGs, which is a bit lower than Nikon's claimed 100 RAW/200 JPEG capacity when using XQD cards.

The only other major changes here are the new EN-EL18a battery, an upgraded Ethernet port (Gigabit up from 100Base-TX), the addition of smaller RAW files, and compatibility with the hotshoe-mounted GP-1A GPS unit. Everything else is basically the same, as the D4S has the same mount, viewfinder, metering sensor, autofocus unit, and LCDs as the D4. The sensor is also "newly developed," but features resolution and performance characteristics that are right in line with the D4. The only drastic internal change is the new processor, which allows for the minor performance improvements we covered above.

For video shooters there are some big changes with the D4S that are worth noting. Nikon has added the aforementioned 1080/60p video mode, which is excellent, but at the high-quality setting clip length maxes out at 10 minutes. You can also output clean, uncompressed 1080/60p via HDMI to an external recorder and simultaneously record compressed footage to the memory card. There's also some improved audio control, letting you adjust the microphone's frequency response from "Wide" to "Vocals" depending on your subject. Audio sensitivity can also be adjusted while recording now.

Once you've shot your clip there's also a new movie editing function, but it only lets you trim time from the beginning or end of clips and save frames as still images. For those used to dealing with Nikon's iffy implementation of aperture control when capturing video in lower-end cameras, we should also mention that the D4S features completely manual exposure control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO while recording video, with the option for auto ISO right through the max of 409,600, even in manual. There's no funny "drop out of live view, adjust your setting, then lock it in" workarounds required. It just works.

Continuous Shooting

The Nikon D4S can shoot continuously at up to 12 frames per second when shooting JPEGs only. If you are shooting RAW, RAW+JPEG, or TIFF shots, then the speed drops slightly to 11 frames per second. Also, when shooting with continuous autofocus the D4S can still manage 11 frames per second at full resolution, no matter what size and quality shot you're shooting.

We didn't have an XQD card handy for our D4S testing, so we weren't able to confirm Nikon's claims on shot-to-shot capacity, unfortunately. Using a high-speed CompactFlash card, however, we were able to get around 45 full-speed shots in a single burst when shooting RAW, RAW+JPEG, or TIFF files. When shooting just JPEG the capacity jumped all the way to 115 frames in a single burst. These numbers are slightly worse than Nikon's claims of 100 RAW and 200 JPEG frames, but we're confident that the fastest XQD cards will make up some of the difference.

Conclusion

Minor frustrations aside, Nikon's best just gets better.

When a company takes an existing model name and simply adds a letter—as Nikon has done in the past with cameras like the D1, D2, D3, D40, and D300—it's best to not expect drastic changes. As we've seen in our review of the D4S, that wisdom is once again proven true. The D4S is basically just a D4 with some minor performance tweaks, an upgraded video mode, and some enhanced control. If you loved the D4 before, like we did, then you'll still love the D4S. If you hated the D4 for its tortuous menu, two-handed control scheme, and split CF/XQD card slots, well, the D4S doesn't fix any of those issues.

Still, we get the feeling that the D4S will tick the boxes that most of Nikon's professionals had on their wishlists, some of which (such as smaller RAW files) are clearly aimed at matching Canon's current offerings. Otherwise, there simply wasn't much about the D4 that needed fixing. As a result, we don't recommend that any D4 shooters run out and replace their cameras with the newer D4S, unless uncompressed 1080/60p HDMI output is a must-have for your workflow. But for those whose D4 is broken or starting to show its age, the D4S represents a slight step up, available for a relatively small $500 premium over any existing D4 stock.

Since 2012, DSLR performance has more or less plateaued at the top level, with low-end, mid-range, and mirrorless cameras improving at an astonishing rate. Among DSLRs and mirrorless cameras we see very few truly poor cameras, but the top end cameras are no longer leaving everything else in their wake. Until features like global shutters, 4K video, 4G connectivity, or sensors with D800-level resolution with D4S-level speed become commonplace, there isn't much else for Nikon or Canon to do with their top-end pro bodies but refine and update, either via firmware (such as with the Canon 1D X) or with minor hardware refreshes like this one.

The D4S may not be revolutionary in its own right, but that isn't its purpose.

But for the time being, that's okay. Digital SLRs have had plenty of revolutions in the last several generations. Since the D1 was released back in 1999 we've seen digital SLRs advance to the point where things like 10+ fps shot-to-shot speed, 10+ megapixel resolution, full-frame image sensors, enhanced wired and wireless connectivity, and even pro-level video functionality are commonplace. The D4, along with Canon's 1D X, were the culmination of years of trial and error, of non-stop ideation and iteration. The D4S builds off of that success, and anybody with a D3S that's held out for the last few years should feel comfortable upgrading now.

The D4S may not be revolutionary in its own right, but that isn't its purpose. It's a refined version of the D4, sanding down some of the rougher edges of its groundbreaking predecessor. While we certainly hope for more in the future, for the time being the D4S is as good a DSLR as there is on the market, with the speed, control, and design to satisfy the demanding professionals that it's geared toward.

Video Quality

The Nikon D4S is capable of some excellent quality video, putting its 16-megapixel CMOS sensor and Expeed 4 processor to great use. The D4S offers video at 1080p in 60, 50, 30, 25, and 24 fps modes. There are also options for 720p at 60 and 50fps, as well as VGA 30/25fps. Interestingly there's also a 2.7x 1080/30p crop mode that uses just a 1920x1080 1:1 section from the center of the sensor. This gives you a bit of extra telephoto reach while also eliminating the need to downsample the image from the full 16 megapixels to an HD signal. We couldn't find much of a performance sacrifice when using this mode, as dynamic range and noise levels were consistent with the D4S's 1080/30p uncropped video.



In our resolution tests we found that in bright light the D4S's 1080/60p mode resolved a healthy 650 line pairs per picture height horizontally and 675 LPPH vertically. That drops slightly in low light (60 lux) but only to 600 LPPH horizontally and 625 LPPH vertically—a much smaller drop than we typically see, likely due to the camera's ability to handle low light so well. In our motion test the new 1080/60p mode was by far the best, with only a slight hint of trailing. There's some rolling shutter effect when panning, but ghosting and frequency interference are practically non-existant.

Our low light sensitivity test was a walk in the park for the D4S. In this test we expose for a white patch on a standard test chart and lower the light level until the camera no longer produces an image that hits 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. Using the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens (at f/2.8) with auto ISO engaged (and given the freedom to go to the maximum 409,600 ISO) the D4S never dropped below 65 IRE by our measurement. Even with our lux meter reading zero (we could barely make out the chart ourselves) and the ISO not even all the way to 409,600 the resulting video still hit 65+ IRE on the monitor. It's an astounding result and it makes the D4S simply one of the best DSLRs for extreme low light video shooting on the market.

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