Nikon D4S Field Test Part I

Unexpected swans

by Eamon Hickey | Posted: 04/18/2014

A full-on professional camera like the Nikon's D4S presents a dilemma for a reviewer. Its primary target customers — pro photographers — are already extremely knowledgeable and don't need much help from me. Plus, their concerns are often very specific to their type of shooting. It would be great, for example, if I could prove whether the D4S is the best, or second best, or third best DSLR for autofocusing sports, but that's not gonna happen. To even take a stab at testing such a thing would require several experienced pro sports photographers, a truckload of equipment and months of shooting a wide variety of different top-tier sporting events. Is the D4S the best war photographer's camera or wedding camera or aerial camera? Again, even if I was qualified to judge these things, testing them is beyond the scope of this report.

But pro shooters are not the only photographers who buy pro cameras. Many advanced amateurs buy them, and many more wonder what they might gain if they took the plunge. So I'm approaching this shooter's report partly from that angle: what would you get if you “moved up" to a Nikon D4S from your mid-level or advanced amateur DSLR?

Mute swans on Eastchester Bay. Matrix metering handled this well.
70mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 200


Well, one thing you get is weight. Even though I knew what to expect, I still groaned when I dragged the Nikon D4S out of its box. Obviously, this is just the price you pay for supreme ruggedness, a full-featured integrated vertical grip, an abundance of connection ports, a high-capacity battery and more, all wrapped up in a full-frame DSLR. My brain understands that, but my shoulder isn’t thrilled. In the same box was an also hefty AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and an AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G. Nice.

Judging by feel in the hand, the build quality of the Nikon D4S is unassailable. There's no flex in the body, almost no slop in any fitting or connection, and every part feels solid. Mid-level and advanced DSLRs are typically well built, but they're not constructed like this, so if you need top-tier durability, this is where you find it.

After attaching a lens, I took about 45 minutes to get familiar with all the controls on the Nikon D4S and take a comprehensive tour of its menus. Two themes came through loud and clear to me: versatility and flexibility. As just one example, there are more than 20 possible settings for the autofocus system, including intricacies like whether you want the first shot in a continuous sequence to have a different priority (release vs. focus) than the rest of the shots in the sequence. With more than 30 buttons and dials on its body, many of which are customizable, the D4S also provides direct access to nearly every setting I'd want to change quickly.

After I got the D4S set up to my liking, I took it for a walk in Pelham Bay Park, New York City's largest park, located in the northeastern corner of the Bronx. As I stepped into the woods on the park's edge, I saw that jets on the approach path to LaGuardia airport were flying directly over me, framed in the bare tree branches. I set my aperture and ISO, selected a focus point and autofocused using the AF-ON button — and this is when I first noticed that the roomy body may be a little too roomy. It was a slightly awkward stretch to reach some controls, especially the crucial AF-ON button. I don't exactly have small hands — I’m a 6’2” male who can palm some regulation-sized basketballs — so I think a substantial percentage of photographers will encounter this. It’s not a major issue, but the Nikon DF that I reviewed a couple of months ago, for example, had almost perfect control spacing for me and was a bit more comfortable to use.

In Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx, under the approach path to LaGuardia Airport.
45mm, f/7.1, 1/400s, ISO 100


Wandering further into Pelham Bay Park, I stumbled on a pair of mute swans swimming along a lonely stretch of shore on Eastchester Bay. New York state wildlife biologists consider them a nuisance species, but no photographer could possibly agree, so I walked along with them as they made their stately way. As the angles shifted from one moment to the next, the scene changed from looking surprisingly wild to clearly very urban. For about 20 minutes I tracked the swans, looking for serendipitous compositions and experimenting with different apertures.

From previous experience with pro-level cameras, I expected the Nikon D4S to be incredibly responsive, and it didn't disappoint. As I photographed the birds, the D4S focused instantly and the shutter fired with almost zero delay and very short viewfinder blackout whenever I shot. All controls responded instantly. Nikon has spent a lot of time and money engineering every possible millisecond of speed into this camera. If you're not a pro sports shooter or photojournalist, you may not need that kind of split-second responsiveness (I don't), but it's another part of what distinguishes the D4S from lower-level models and justifies its lofty price tag. That said -- and I promise this will be my last whine about this -- by the end of my 3-hour, 5-mile walk, my shoulders were happy to say goodbye to the D4S and the 24-70mm f/2.8G lens I used for most of my shots.

70mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 200 [edited in post-processing - click here for unedited version]
62mm, f/8, 1/320s, ISO 400
The matrix metering system did a fairly nice job producing a balanced silhouette here.
70mm, f/10, 1/250s, ISO 100

Metering and a first low light image

When I downloaded my images later, I was also impressed with the exposures (I shot all my images in Aperture-Priority mode). The matrix meter of the Nikon D4S did a good job in many different kinds of light, including heavily backlit shots of joggers and the tricky scenes with snow white swans on dark blue water.

The last images I made on that first shooting day were of the sunset reflecting on Eastchester Bay. I didn't have a tripod and, despite the fading light, I wanted to use f/8 to extend my depth of field from rocks in the foreground to City Island in the background. So I cranked the ISO up to 1250 and shot handheld. The tonal smoothness and lack of noise in these pictures is pretty astounding, considering the ISO setting. I'll do more testing of the low light qualities of the D4S in later installments of this report, but it's no surprise that this camera is shaping up to be a low light champion.

Sunset view of Eastchester Bay, City Island in the background. No tripod and wanted to use f/8, so cranked the ISO to 1250. Remarkable quality at that ISO. This is darkened slightly from the original JPEG -- I had left +2/3 EV exposure compensation in place by accident.
50mm, f/8, 1/80s, ISO 1250 [edited in post-processing - click here for unedited version]

Stay tuned for our next Field Test installment, and in the meantime check out our Nikon D4S Gallery Page to explore these gallery images and EXIF data in greater detail, including super-scoping the higher ISO full resolution images for noise (or the relative lack thereof). And don't forget, you can pit the D4S beside its predecessor or any other camera we've ever tested across the ISO range in our Comparometer.


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