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Gear Reviews

The Nikon D4S – Does It Not Live Up To Expectations?

By Jay Cassario on August 4th 2014

Nikon D4S Title Shot

MY INITIAL THOUGHTS

I have been shooting with the D4S for the past month and have had mixed opinions on it. Since I currently own the Nikon Df and D800E, I have been making comparisons between the 3 very different camera bodies. Being that the D4S is the flagship camera, and most expensive option currently offered by Nikon, my expectations were pretty high. I love my Df, and with the D4S having the same sensor just tweaked a little differently via software, I expected image quality between the two to be similar with a slight advantage going to the D4S.

My initial thoughts on the D4S were that I loved it. I loved the speed it offered. I loved the solid feel, button layout, and…well, that’s about it. The extremely high ISO is nice, but I only care about the ISO ranges that I actually use, and how well it does when in that range. I had initially planned on purchasing the D4S once my month of testing this particular loaner was up, but I have changed my mind. Not only have I changed my mind, but with my last in-studio dynamic range testing, I’m actually pretty disappointed in Nikon’s flagship $6500 camera. I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot the new D810, but now seeing how well the D800E stacked up against the D4S in dynamic range and ISO performance, I will be giving it a try.

D4S

D4s + 85mm f/1.8G

THE TEST

I usually don’t do any “brick wall” testing when I do reviews, I try to only use real life examples. Because of a few shots that I had under exposed with the D4s, I had some concerns with banding when bringing up shadows. In real life, when exposure is on point, dynamic range shouldn’t ever really have to be pushed this much. But, when reviewing a camera, especially one like the flagship D4S, I like to push them to their limits to see how they perform. I brought the D4S, Df, D800E, and even the Canon 5D Mark III into the studio to test the dynamic range and ISO. I shot all of the cameras at ISO 100, 1/100sec, 0EV, and f/1.8. The D4S and D800E with the 85mm f/1.8G and the Df with the 58mm f/1.4G. I shot the 5D with the same settings, just with the 50mm f/1.2L. All were shot at f/1.8. The main test was between the D4S and the D800E, I threw the Df in once I saw how much the D800E outperformed the D4S.

My main concern with the D4S is the banding that I noticed over the past month of shooting with it. I noticed it several times when bringing up shadows. Banding has never been an issue with my D800 or D800E, I had only ever noticed it with my Canon bodies. I never noticed it with the Df until this test was done, and it’s very very slight, nowhere near as noticeable as with the D4S.

New York

D4s + 58mm f/1.4G

Here’s the thing, and don’t get me wrong, the dynamic range is still very good with the D4S. I am just surprised to see that as Nikon’s flagship camera body, it doesn’t perform better. The reason I even did this test was because I had noticed the banding in the shadows and was curious about the dynamic range performance. I also wasn’t overly impressed with the ISO performance. I don’t care how high the ISO can go if it doesn’t do a better job at the ISO ranges that I use in real life. In my ISO testing, it performed the same as the Df and D800E until it reached extremely high ranges that I just never use in real life shooting.

As you can see in the test results below, the D800E handled bringing up shadows at ISO 100 the best. There is barely any noise at all, and no banding. The Df did a slightly better job than the D4S, but still not as good as the D800E. How the Df does a better job than the D4S at cleanly pulling detail out of shadows seems a little odd to me since they are the same sensor. One thing that can definitely be concluded is that all 3 of the Nikon cameras do an awesome job of shooting in the dark, and all 3 are impressive. I just expected the one that is 3 times the price to be a little better then its cheaper siblings.

The only thing done in post was raised the exposure 5 stops, exactly the same on all of them. No other adjustments made. Take a look…

D4S_0002

D4s + 85mm f/1.8G

D4S_CROP-0001

100% CROP

Df_0004

Df + 58mm f/1.4G

Df_CROP-0001

100% CROP

Dynamic_0003

D800E + 85mm f/1.8G

D800E_CROP-0001

100% CROP

Dynamic_0001

Canon 5D MarkIII + 50mm f/1.2L

5D_CROP-0001

100% CROP

Speaking with other Nikon shooters, a few had mentioned seeing this at ISO 100, but thought that it went away as ISO went up. I noticed it at all different ISOs. Here is another example of the banding I noticed with the D4S at ISO 800. This is a shot that I accidentally fired off during a shoot which is extremely underexposed. You can see the banding along the top once exposure is brought up in Lightroom. You can also see the color in the banding in this example. This is ISO 800 – 85mm at f/1.8 – 1/8000 sec

D4S_banding-0001

D4s + 85mm f/1.8G

ISO 6400 COMPARISON

The shots below ISO 6400 are identical, but when you get to ISO 6400, the D4S starts to gain a slight edge over the D800E…slight. The Df is identical to the D4S at 6400. Even though the D4S has a slight edge here at 6400, that is still a little disappointing. I expected to see more of a difference than what you can see below. In real life shooting, I didn’t notice any real advantage of high ISO shooting with the D4S over both the Df and the D800E.

D4S_6400-0001

D4s @ ISO 6400

D800E_6400-0001

D800E @ ISO 6400


[REWIND: NIKON DF OUTSHINES NEW FLAGSHIP D4S IN HIGH ISO TEST]

CONCLUSION

This is a test, and just a test. I usually stay away from showing these kind of test results because they show what happens when these sensors are pushed to their limits. In real life shooting, you should never really have to push it this far and if your exposure is on point, all of these cameras are top of the line. With that being said, there are times when we need to push them, maybe not to these extremes, but they get pushed. The D4S is Nikon’s flagship camera, and it is touted as the best for many reasons…its price tag reflects that. The reason I brought the D4S into the studio and ran this test was because I noticed the banding and wanted to see how bad it was. Would I have noticed it if I nailed my exposure? Absolutely not. The D4S has excellent dynamic range, but when pushed, I didn’t expect to see it out performed by its less expensive siblings. If you don’t need the speed of D4S, you are mainly concerned with its image quality. As a flagship camera, it should be the best, and for the price…it better be.

I had planned on purchasing the D4S, yet there were many reasons I decided against it. I don’t need the speed and it failed to impress me with image quality for its price when compared to the other cameras that I already own. As far as the banding goes, and how much importance I actually put on test results like these, I can tell you this: Dynamic range is important to me, and its one of the reasons I shoot Nikon. With that being said, the Canon 5D Mark III performed the worst, yet it is one of my favorite cameras alongside of the Df. The importance of these results are up to you, but if you are spending $6500 on a camera, you might expect to see a little better.

Nikon shooters, what are your thoughts?

– Jay

 

About

Jay Cassario is a fulltime photographer from South Jersey, and owner of the wedding, engagement, and portrait photography studio Twisted Oaks.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
Personal Facebook: Jay Cassario
Business Facebook: Twisted Oaks Studio
Google Plus: Jay’s Google +
Twitter: @JayCassario

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Christian Vietsch

    Good read! When I first bought a Canon 5D II in 2009 and complaint about massive banding with ISO 100 blacks lifted, the whole “blacks recovery issue” was not discussed at all – basically all Canon 5D II owners told me that I am a bad photographer not getting the exposure right in the first place ;)

    Now I use a Df and a Canon 6D and am very happy with the Df. But I was surprised when I saw some very slight banding in the mighty D4 sensor at base ISO 5 EV pushes. Good to read it´s not unusual.

    My Canon 6D on the other hand has so much noise at the point it masks the Canon banding :)

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  2. Tom Blair

    Good Reading .Jay..I would put the Cash into glass myself

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  3. Scottie Nguyen

    Jay,

    I have been reading up on the Samsung NX1. It seems that in the NX1 calibration is that everything seems brighter at the same setting, iso, shutter, aperture. In the camera store, when they compared the Canon and the Nikon, they always saw that at the exact same setting, the Nikon was brighter or more exposed comparing to the Canon. Could there be an internal calibration that makes the Df and D800 to be brighter meaning the internal signal amplification and not on the D4s. It would be interested that if it is so, then the opposite would be true if you do the test in reverse, that is if you over exposed and bring the exposures back down that the D4s would bring back more details while the other two lose details from it passing the dynamic range of the sensor. There should absolutely be no difference between the Df and d4s except internal gains or software manipulations if they are the same sensor.

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  4. Deep Achtani

    HI Jay,

    I am a wedding photographer and was confused between D810 or D4s. Thanks for this article and the comments I have decided to buy the D810 :) Thank you for saving 50% of my budget!

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  5. Mark C

    Thanks for the review Jay. Very interesting to hear what you thought, having shot so many different cameras like you have!

    I think what a lot of people forget with these flagship cameras is that a big percentage of the pricetag can be explained by how robust they are. The shutter speed is one thing (I have no idea how they make a motor that fires a mirror up and down so damn fast and precisely!), but this level of camera is designed to go through hell and back and still be able to shoot. The cameras one step down from flagship might look and feel pretty solid, but I’d put money on the flagships being able to withstand way more abuse.

    I think you and I as your average consumer see the price tag and expect some serious improvements in picture quality to justify the price difference over something like a D810, but unfortunately, as you’ve shown in your review, this isn’t the case!

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  6. Austin Wheeler

    I love the post Jay! Very thorough and illustrated the dynamic range problems well. I suppose I am a bit disappointed to see this kind of performance from a top of the line Nikon! I look forward to the full review! Keep up the great work Jay (:

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  7. fotosiamo

    Guess they should have used a Sony sensor for the D4S ;)

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  8. Raoni Franco

    Great comparison, thanks!!

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  9. Kurk Rouse

    This is nice to know but how much of us really push our cameras to this extreme ?

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    • J. Cassario

      We should really never have to push our cameras this far, but sometimes we have to, and for a flagship camera that offers “the evolution of a masterpiece of modern imaging”, it should be able to be pushed. How much of us really use ISO 409600? But that is what it is hyping up, its high ISO capabilities, but when it doesn’t do a better job at the more often used ISO ranges I dont care that it goes that high. The D4S is advertised as having “superior image quality for over coming the most challenging lighting conditions”, should we not push the flagship $6500 camera to see how it compared to the cheaper models?

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  10. Holger Foysi

    I don’t find the results surprising. When the camera was tested at DXOMARK it was immediately clear that the sensor was designed for a different shooting envelope. It’s dynamic range is similar to that of the DF, i.e. smaller at ISOs below 800, but higher at larger ISOs than that of the D810/800 or D610/600. Pushing 5 stops is just too much for this sensor, it clearly is not designed for this. Is it a problem? Not for me, because these cameras have a different target audience in mind and in my opinion. The ISO 6400 shot looks noticeable better in my opinion on the D4s, especially in the dark areas and this is s.th. sports photographers value when shooting indoor, for example. Question: is it possible to design a sensor with the technology from two years back (because that’s when the development of the D4s was settled, correct me if I’m wrong), with the DR of the D800 at low ISOs and DR of the DF at high ISOs? Quite difficult, I think.

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  11. Jason Switzer

    I have to admit, the test results are truly amazing. It would be great if I could push my images by 5 stops without the heavy image degradation I would currently encounter with my setup, but alas, I am too invested in my Canon gear to make the switch to Nikon. Truth be told, if I had the option to make an even trade and switch, I don’t think I would. For me, it’s all about how a camera feels in my hand (I mainly shoot weddings, so that camera will be in my hand for hours on end). I just don’t like the way Nikons feel when I hold them. They’re a bit too blocky for my taste and I like the big scroll wheel on the back of my 5D Mk III. Hopefully the Mk IV will close the gap with Nikon in terms of dynamic range when it’s eventually released. Nikon’s got some pretty sweet sensors in their bodies right now.

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    • Stan Rogers

      And that’s good enough reason right there. I’ll never shoot a Canon if i can help it, and for a very long time they were the top of the market. Why? Because of that scroll wheel you like — I literally can’t reach it with my right thumb, so for me (and for me only, or, I suppose, for anyone who has had their base-of-the-right-thumb knuckle joint fused, which is probably not a large number of people) Canon may as well be forcing me into the menu system. (The original EOS 1 was, I think, the last Canon I could comfortably use.) That doesn’t make the camera objectively good or bad, it just makes it the wrong camera for me regardless of its merits otherwise. But even though I’d never own a Canon (unless they change the ergonomics in a way that would upset their existing customers), I do want to see them at least pulling even with or even edging out the competition in DR and noise with their next sensor. It’ll just make everyone else get better too, and that’s good for all of us.

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  12. Rafael Steffen

    The main goal of the D4S is for sports photographers and wedding photographers that need very fast response cameras. Now with the D810, Nikon is offering a good all around professional camera and it costs half the price of the D4S. If you are a portrait and wedding photography, all you need is the D810 and not the D4S.

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    • J. Cassario

      I agree Rafael, it was not designed to be the perfect wedding or portrait camera. But, it is also a very popular camera among the wedding and portrait industry. For a sports camera, its amazing, but what I wanted to point out was that if you don’t need the speed, it is not worth the money. It is faster than the D810, but the D810 kills it in resolution. If speed costs an extra $3000, than that is something that needs to be carefully considered. I just know that there are a lot of photographers, some that I know personally, that look at the flagship cameras as the all around best of the best. That is simply not the case, and if your main concern is image quality, I wanted to point out that are better choices…at half the price.

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    • Stan Rogers

      Yeah, I take wedding photographers off of that list. They need responsiveness and fast/reliable AF, but ultimate speed (extreme FPS numbers with a long and deep burst buffer with minimum viewfinder blackout times in machine gun mode) really isn’t a biggie. Not in the same way that the ability to crop and straighten a slightly missed composition, be off by a stop or so, and still pull a sellable 20-by print (that needs no explanation or apology) of a moment that can never be reproduced would be.

      The world has changed, and the equipment prejudices that made perfect sense a few years ago need to be reexamined and rethought. There was a time when you needed the sports/wildlife/PJ camera to get good enough AF, short enough times to next frame and negligible shutter lag. That’s not true anymore; you’re free to choose a different set of compromises to get the best tool for your particular job. The D4s isn’t Nikon’s “best” camera; it’s their most specialized tool for a particular set of tasks. (I mean really — when the feature list includes a built-in web server and ethernet for remote capture control and a processing/memory pipeline that essentially makes it an 11FPS 5K RAW video camera, it’s time to reconsider whether that camera is aimed at you.)

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  13. Austin Swenson

    When you sell a top shelf product, you should put the best of everything in that product… I am wondering if in Nikon’s next top shelf DSLR if they are going to incorporate some of the things they have learned about the d800 model’s dynamic range and put it to work… Results don’t lie.

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  14. Kishore Sawh

    This was a brilliantly done comparison, Jay. I’d have not thought to do a test like this, though I will do now with any purchase. Really surprised at the results too.

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  15. Michael Lin

    Great review, Jay!

    I am also quite satisfied with the Df’s IQ, but I do have to be honest that I am also lusting over the D4S’s speed, autofocus capabilities and ergonomics.

    Would be interesting to see Nikon stepping her game up to face the new Sony A7S.

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    • J. Cassario

      Michael, I honestly loved the ergonomics and autofocus at first, but then after a couple weeks of use I quickly got tired of its large body and the autofocus failed to impress me in low light. The speed is nice, and everything about the D4S is fast, but going back to the Df which is much slower, didn’t slow me down at all. For weddings, I simply don’t need that blazing speed, and while the AF works great in daylight, it didn’t do any better than my Df or D800E in low light. For sports and wildlife, its a win. For weddings and portrait work, I can easily live without everything else the D4S and D4 offer that makes it twice the price of the Df and the new D810.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Michael, having seen the results from the A7s, I have to say the Df / D4s sensor delivers equal or better results for stills. The A7s’ marvel is ONLY when it comes to their in-camera JPG processing engine, and therefore their video capabilities. Have a look at the DPR tests for the A7s and you’ll see, the JPG results are shockingly different from the RAW results. It’s almost like one of those “Magic Eye” things by the time you get to ISO 12800 / 25600…

      In other words, I used to be highly impressed by the A7s and thought it might be the end-all tool as a low-light photojournalist. Now it’s just a video camera to me.

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    • Matthew Saville

      So, the D4s isn’t really a wedding photography camera. I’ve been saying that since, well, the day the D3 came out in 2007.

      The banding with such insane DR pushes is unfortunate, but you can’t look at it from the perspective of “look at how Nikon failed to deliver on their most flagship camera”…. This is, in fact, extremely common of any / all digital sensors. Hell, Canon hasn’t been able to come within quite a few stops of this, EVER. And Sony sensors themselves are plagued with other RAW capture issues.

      It is in fact the D800 etc. sensor that is, simply put, absurdly out of place.

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    • J. Cassario

      The D4S isn’t a wedding camera, it isn’t a portrait camera, it is a speed demon in a big heavy body that has great AF when lighting is good. I wanted to point out that as the flagship camera, while it is a speed demon, the image quality is no better than the cameras that Nikon offers at half the price. Not only is it not better, it is worse in some areas, including DR. I guess you can say that I personally expected better from a flagship camera, and not just in dynamic range, in other areas as well, including low-light AF. You can’t justify its shortcomings by stating that they are needed for its high frame rate, because then it becomes more of a specialized camera for sports photographers. Maybe my definition of flagship is off.

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    • Matthew Saville

      “it becomes more of a specialized camera for sports photographers.”

      …That is what it has always been, IMO. “Flagship” isn’t a term used to define the camera Nikon expects EVERY pro to use for EVERY purpose, but definitely for action sports, war photography, etc. Because yes, unless you NEED 8-10+ FPS and the best AF around, …the D800e / D810 etc. are better camera even for the highest-end pro…

      And of course, most wedding photojournalists don’t need more than 4-5 FPS.

      =Matt=

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  16. Connor Katz

    I would guess this comes down to the Sony vs “others” sensor. It seems that the new breed of Sony sensors offer s major improvements, particularly in regards to DR. Every new MF camera uses a larger version of the same “ish” Sony sensor that is in the D800/a7r. I am pretty sure that the D4s sensor is Nikon and Canon is using their own sensor as well, neither of which measure up to the Sony.

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    • J. Cassario

      Connor, great point, and the fact that the D4S and Df sensor is Nikon, the D800E being Sony, is something I honestly didn’t think of until reading your comment.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Indeed, partly true, except I’ve also noticed banding in other current-gen Sony sensors here and there, from both Sony cameras and Nikon cameras. The D7100 definitely comes to mind, and the D610 ain’t perfect either. Then there’s the RAW issues with the Sony A7 series of cameras.

      At the end of the day, I think it’s a combination of both. Some sensors just get lucky, while others don’t…

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  17. Kim Farrelly

    The D800E, wow, simply outstanding at 100 ISO.

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    • J. Cassario

      Kim, it really is impressive. Everytime I begin to doubt the D800E it pulls off test results like this. There are things that I don’t like, but when image quality is most important to me, it has never ceased to amaze me..

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  18. Pentafoto Tm

    Sooo .. you tested the dynamic range without testing the most significant part, the highlights ? I have rarely found myself in the situation where I had to raise the exposure 3-4-5 stops. I would say that I have trouble with blown highlights and overexposed areas much more frequent. I mean, banding boo-hoo, just convert to black and white. But a blown highlight that cannot be recovered is kinda here to stay.

    As such, would that had not been an important issue to adress ?

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    • J. Cassario

      Pentafoto, I only showed the test results to the dynamic range in regards to shadows because it was all I tested in the studio. I didn’t see a problem with blown highlights, and like I stated, I try not to bring equipment into the studio for controlled environment testing like this unless I have concerns. I shoot both Canon and Nikon, and the big reason I shoot Nikon is because of it being better at dynamic range and low-light performance compared to my Canon bodies. I plan on writing up a full review on the D4S later where I will cover everything else, this was strictly just to share my concerns with the shadow recovery.

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    • Rob Hall

      Can’t speak on the D800E, but the D810 has phenomenal highlight / overexposed recovery. I just did an article with comparison and have raw files available for download as well, including some small raw and full size uncompressed. Link to the dropbox with files is at the top and bottom of post!
      http://www.robhallphoto.com/education/nikon-d810-review-sample-raw-files-nef

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    • Jim Johnson

      “just convert to black and white”

      That’s not an option for someone doing a professional shoot. Sure, you could save some shots from a portrait shoot… maybe, but no one should have to “save” a photo because their $6000 camera has a flaw the cheaper cameras does not.

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  19. Greg Faulkner

    Thanks that was an interesting read

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