Nikon D4s

Professional sports, wildlife and press photographers have a fairly limited choice when it comes to buying the right camera body. In fact, there are really only two viable options on the market – for Canon users it’s the 1D X and for Nikon users it’s the brand new D4S. As is common with ‘S’ models, the Nikon is more of a subtle refresh on its predecessor than a full-blown redesign, but there are still plenty of new features to get excited about.

Nikon D4s

Nikon D4s

At the heart of the D4S is a newly designed full-frame sensor which gives slightly improved digital noise performance, though it has the same 16.2MP resolution and 7.3m pixel pitch as the sensor found in the D4. Many will wonder why Nikon’s most advanced DSLR has such a modest megapixel count. The reason is that by keeping the resolution relatively low, photosites (pixels) can be significantly larger, as fewer have to be crammed onto the sensor. This allows for a greater dynamic range and less digital noise, which suits most pros who would rather have exceptional image quality and smaller file sizes than very high image resolution.

The D4S is powered by an EXPEED 4 processor, which is an upgrade from the D4’s EXPEED 3. The faster engine has facilitated most of the key improvements on this model, including an increased expanded ISO setting of 409,600. It also paves the way for 50fps movies and ultra-sharp out-of-camera JPEGs with improved skin tones and noise reduction. The 91k-pixel sensor metering system on the D4S is excellent, and can even use face detection to adjust metering so that the subject is perfectly exposed regardless of light levels in the rest of the scene.

Features

The D4S’ phase detection autofocus system has an impressive 51 AF points, 15 of which are cross-type. Nikon’s engineers have refined the focus algorithms for this model to facilitate faster and more accurate AF performance. This camera has the usual four focusing modes of Single-point AF, Dynamic-area AF, 3D tracking and Auto-area AF, and it also has a new fifth mode called Group-area AF. This uses five focus points, where the user selects one point and the camera activates the four surrounding points, reducing the risk of focusing on the background rather than the subject. To push the D4S’ focusing to its limits, we shot a range of unpredictable and fast-moving subjects in difficult low light conditions. We found the AF system simply outstanding, tracking objects with incredible speed and accuracy, with the only limiting factor being the speed of the lens’ focusing motor. We used both 3D-tracking and 21-point dynamic-area AF to get the shots we needed.

For videographers, the D4S records Full HD (1080p) video at up to 50fps, and now includes auto ISO during recording. A microphone and headphone socket enable the recording of high quality audio, and uncompressed movies can be streamed to an external device via the HDMI port while the camera simultaneously records to a memory card. For filming very slow-moving subjects, users can create flicker-free time-lapse movies in-camera. Options include interval time, shooting time (up to 9999 frames) and there’s Exposure Smoothing for a seamless, evenly exposed result.

On the back of the D4S is the same 3.2in 921k-dot screen found on the D800, on which colour and contrast fidelity are excellent. As on the D4, the viewfinder is large and bright, with 100% coverage and 0.7x magnification. The most noticeable improvement is a slightly shorter blackout time (the period as the mirror flicks up, blocking light to the viewfinder). Thanks to its newly designed 2500mAh battery, users can take 3020 images in single frame shooting or a huge 5960 images in continuous shooting. These figures leave Canon’s 1D X for dead, as it can only manage 1120 shots.

As on the D4, the camera will record 12 or 14-bit compressed or uncompressed RAWs, as well as a new small-RAW file format designed to cut down on post-processing time and storage space.

Handling

Despite weighing in at 1350g with a battery, the body is exceptionally comfortable to hold, with high-friction rubberised grips helping to keep the camera secure in the hand. Constructed from magnesium-alloy, it can take plenty of punishment and it’s fully weather-sealed.

In terms of looks, the D4S is almost identical to its predecessor. Next to other DSLRs though, it’s a very different beast, with a built-in grip on the bottom of the camera allowing users to shoot in portrait orientation without having to stretch their hand all the way over the top of the camera to reach the shutter button. This is made possible by a second shutter button in the bottom-right corner of the body, as well as two extra scroll dials, Live View control, a Multi-selector, and AF-ON/AE-L buttons.

As on the D800, the D4S doesn’t have a mode dial like most other DSLRs. Instead, there is a mode button, which must be pressed down while turning a scroll dial. This is slightly more fiddly and less visually clear than the mode dial system, but it does free up space for a multi-function dial on the left of the camera’s top-plate that controls shooting modes, bracketing, flash options and metering modes.

Next to the mode button is an exposure compensation control for brightening or darkening images. Like the mode dial, it involves pressing a button and turning a dial simultaneously to change an important setting, which isn’t ideal, but this is only a minor gripe.

ISO performance test results

Low light performance is very important, especially for sports, wildlife and press photographers who have to shoot fast action subjects in difficult lighting. The D4S has an extremely impressive native ISO range of 100-25,600, and an expanded range of 50-409,600, which is the highest maximum ISO setting ever on a DSLR. Up to ISO 6400 images are virtually free of digital noise, and even up to around ISO 25,600 noise is hardly visible when images are fit to screen. When zooming in both colour and luminance noise are noticeable at this setting. In the expandable range images are useable up to around 51,200, but beyond this noise is severe. Overall, the low light performance is exceptional, and among the best of any current DSLR.

This camera is stunningly good, and arguably the most advanced DSLR ever built. If you could go back in time to show photographic pioneers like Eastman and Daguerre just how far we’ve come, you’d have to take a D4S with you. Incredible low light performance, exceptional image quality, lightning fast AF and 11fps shooting are features rivalled only by Canon’s 1D X (which, incidentally, does outperform the Nikon in many areas). But as good as the D4S is, it’s more of an evolution than a revolution of Nikon’s pro line, so most existing D4 owners probably won’t feel a burning need to upgrade. The biggest changes are the slightly faster shooting speed, increased ISO range, white balance tweaks, Group Area AF function, 50fps Full HD video, small RAW functionality and longer battery life. At £5199, the D4S is out of the reach of most enthusiasts, but for pro press, sports and wildlife photographers this camera is the perfect tool for the job.  

Impressive built-in connectivity

The connections bay on the side of the D4S houses microphone and headphone sockets for recording and monitoring high quality audio. There is also a HDMI port, allowing uncompressed movies to be exported to an external HDMI device. Unlike on the D4, this can be done while recording to a memory card. Next to the HDMI port is the Ethernet port. This has a whopping 1000MBps transfer rate as opposed to the 100MBps of the D4. It also carries support for the WT-5A transmitter, designed for press photographers who need fast wireless image transfer.

Verdict

This camera is stunningly good, and arguably the most advanced DSLR ever built. If you could go back in time to show photographic pioneers like Eastman and Daguerre just how far we’ve come, you’d have to take a D4S with you. Incredible low light performance, exceptional image quality, lightning fast AF and 11fps shooting are features rivalled only by Canon’s 1D X (which, incidentally, does outperform the Nikon in many areas). But as good as the D4S is, it’s more of an evolution than a revolution of Nikon’s pro line, so most existing D4 owners probably won’t feel a burning need to upgrade. The biggest changes are the slightly faster shooting speed, increased ISO range, white balance tweaks, Group Area AF function, 50fps Full HD video, small RAW functionality and longer battery life. At £5199, the D4S is out of the reach of most enthusiasts, but for pro press, sports and wildlife photographers this camera is the perfect tool for the job.  

Specification

  • Body price: £3898 (Secondhand price as of June 2016)
  • Effective resolution: 16.2MP
  • Sensor type: 36x24mm full-frame CMOS (Nikon FX)
  • Autofocus: 51-point (15 cross-type)
  • ISO: 100-25,600 (50-409,600 exp)
  • LCD: 3.2in 921k-dot
  • Viewfinder: 100%
  • Shooting speed: 11fps
  • Video: Full HD (1080p) at 50fps
  • Battery life: 3020 shots (single), 5960 shots (continuous)
  • Card type: QXD, CompactFlash
  • Size (WxHxD): 160x157x91mm
  • Weight: 1350g
  • Visit: www.nikon.co.uk

This review was first published in the May 2014 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.