Nikon D4S Field Test Part II

Doing what it's made for

by Eamon Hickey | Posted: 07/11/2014

I mentioned in Part I of my Field Test that I would not be trying to settle the question of whether the Nikon D4S is the very best camera for any particular kind of professional photography, be it sports, weddings, or anything else. But it would be a crime if I didn’t use the D4S for some of the things it was born to do, just as it would to use a Ferrari only to fetch the groceries. So I've photographed a lot of sports with the D4S, and also used it to shoot an evening literary event -- an environment not too different from a wedding reception.


In seven different outings, I used the Nikon D4S to shoot flying birds, running dogs, soccer (or football, if you prefer), American-style touch football, sprinters, bicyclists, and semi-pro basketball. Nikon was smart enough to supply me with pro-level lenses to match the camera, including an AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II to go along with the AF-S 24-70mm and AF-S 50mm optics I already mentioned in the first Field Test blog.

A sprinter on the track at East River Park, NYC.
(Overexposed to show detail on the shadow side.)
190mm, f/4, 1/1,000s, ISO 500

I'll start by getting the easy stuff out of the way. In my shooting of what I'll call "single-player" sports with relatively constant motion -- runners and bicyclists, primarily -- I could not stress the Nikon D4S enough to really test it. It ate everything for lunch and asked for more. I have numerous 30 and 40 shot sequences of bicyclists, shot at 11 frames per second with the AF-S 70-200mm lens wide open or at f/4, where every image is sharp. In the "bad" sequences, 90% are sharp. With sprinters, I got a few more soft frames but not many.

Team sports are a significantly tougher focusing challenge, requiring both better photographer skills and more sophisticated autofocus technology. My first try at team sports with the Nikon D4S was a pickup soccer game at Nike Field in New York City's Lower East Side. The light was fairly dark overcast -- about EV 8 or 9 (ISO 100).

I used the AF-S 70-200mm lens at f/5.6 because I was comparing the D4S to an APS-C format camera that I was also testing (the Sony Alpha A6000), and I wanted to use an aperture equivalent to f/4 on the Sony. On the D4S, I experimented with both the d21 and d9 dynamic AF-area modes and had Focus Lock-On set to its standard delay. I used essentially the same AF settings on another day when I found a game of high school flag football in progress at East River Park, although I opened the lens to f/4.5. Here the light was better -- about EV 14 (ISO 100).

The D4S and AF-S 70-200mm lens easily track a power sweep in high school flag football, East River Park, NYC.
200mm, f/4.5, 1/1,000s, ISO 1250

When I looked closely at my pictures from these two shoots, I wasn't shocked to see that the Nikon D4S performed extremely well. In cases where I had a clear line of sight to my target -- in other words, there were no other players crossing my path -- my hit rate of sharp shots was 80-90%. The D4S also did an excellent job of getting the first shot sharp, even when I was swinging instantly to a new point of action and jamming immediately on the shutter.

The dynamic AF-area modes did a very good job of sticking with the target I wanted them to, but they were not perfect -- occasionally the focus shifted to an adjacent player within the active focus area. And players crossing in between me and the target also caused a fair number of misfocused images when Focus Lock-On couldn't compensate for them. However, this is really operator error -- or partly an act of God -- and I wouldn't blame any camera for the blurry shots that result.

A player in the Pro Division of the Kenny Graham West Fourth Street Classic displays his fluid relationship to gravity. With the AF-S 24-70mm lens.
42mm, f/4.5, 1/1,600s, ISO 720

With ten super-fast players crammed in a relatively small playing area, high-level basketball is the hardest action subject I've ever tried to shoot extensively, so I wanted to really challenge the Nikon D4S with some quality hoops action. Fortunately, summer in New York City means brutally-serious street ball tournaments featuring pro, semi-pro, and college players in furious outdoor battles. One famous tournament is Kenny Graham's West Fourth Street Classic, and I headed over there on a beautiful Sunday, slipped a $20 bill to the right guy, and sat down under one basket. Here, I used the AF-S 70-200mm for downcourt action, and the AF-S 24-70mm for play directly in front of me.

Even this test -- the hardest I could come up with -- didn't much faze the Nikon D4S. In sequence after sequence, I would swing quickly to a new point of action, stab the shutter, and get a sharp first image and sharp subsequent shots in the burst. And as before, with clean lines of sight it delivered a hit rate in the 80-90% range. Again, players crossing between me and my intended target could (and did) cause misfocused shots, but that comes with the territory when shooting basketball.

The bottom line is that the Nikon D4S is clearly the best-autofocusing camera I've ever used. Now, I haven't tested its predecessor, the D4, nor the Canon EOS-1Dx, so I can't say how it compares to those models. But I have tested a wide variety of mid-level and prosumer DSLRs over the years, and the D4S is a very clear step above them for shooting action -- which shouldn't surprise anyone.

Driving toward goal in pickup -- not World Cup -- soccer at Nike Field, NYC. (She missed, alas.) Brightened slightly in Lightroom.
155mm, f/5.6, 1/1,000s, ISO 12,800 [edited in post-processing - click here for unedited version]

Events and portraits

I got another chance to test the Nikon D4S in a quasi-professional capacity when I was asked to shoot an event sponsored by an organization called The Writers Room. It's a shared office space for writers -- my own scribblings are perpetrated there -- and it was showcasing books by three of its members. The event was an indoor, three-hour evening reception and panel discussion, and I shot it using the AF-S 24-70mm lens and simple bounce flash. (All I had to hand was a very old Nikon flash that isn't TTL-dedicated with digital bodies, so it was not a test of the Nikon Creative Lighting System, unfortunately.) I set my exposure for 1/80, either f/5.6 or f/6.3, and ISO 800 to allow the ambient room light to have a modest fill-light effect.

Again, the conditions were simply no challenge for the D4S, which focused perfectly and shot instantly all night. This sheer responsiveness and rock-solid reliability is nice in event shooting, because it lets you confidently grab images so fast you can really minimize your impact on the proceedings. I'll note the camera's awesome battery life here, but I enjoyed it in my sports shooting, too. I never came close to exhausting the battery in consecutive shoots of hundreds of images each. In fact, I became so blasé about it, I was in danger of forgetting to charge the battery at all for weeks at a time. This is a fairly rare luxury with digital cameras.

Processed from raw using Nikon's "portrait" Picture Control.
Left to right: Writers Room Director Donna Brodie, author Doron Weber, Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, author Tom Schachtman.
42mm, f/6.3, 1/80s, ISO 800 [edited in post-processing - click here for unedited version]

According to Nikon, one of the improvements in the D4S is better skin tones. I shot the authors' event in raw format and processed it in Adobe Lightroom, but I wanted to show an example of what out-of-camera JPEG skin tones would look like. Below, you can see an image that I converted using Nikon ViewNX 2 with "portrait" Picture Control.

To set the white balance for this mix of tungsten, fluorescent and flash lighting, I used the ViewNX 2 eye-dropper during the conversion to measure the white dress shirt of neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel. This was my first custom white balance off a Nobel Prize winner, and I can confirm that they work fine for this purpose. The resulting skin tones look very good to my eye with one subject, author Tom Schachtman, perhaps showing a bit of a red/magenta shift.

Converted from raw using Nikon ViewNX 2 and "portrait" Picture Control with as-shot white balance. Also brightened. With the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G.
50mm, f/4.0, 1/1,000s, ISO 200 [edited in post-processing - click here for unedited version]

On an earlier shoot, I used the Nikon D4S to make some dog and people portraits under overcast light using the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G lens. I shot the pooches at f/2 for very shallow depth-of-field and creamy bokeh, and although I have made only limited use of it, I like the smooth look this lens produces. Later in that same walk, one of the dogs worked his considerable charm on two young girls, and I got a chance to shoot another good test. I really like the skin tones in this shot (also converted from raw in ViewNX 2 using "portrait" Picture Control), but the auto white balance has produced a slight green cast in parts of the dog's white fur. (I don't see a similar cast in the dogs-only portrait, which was shot with the higher contrast "standard" Picture Control.)

Viewfinder and lenses

It's hard to say anything particularly original about the viewfinder on the Nikon D4S -- you expect it to be big, bright and clear, and it certainly is. I'm generally perfectly happy with electronic viewfinders, but the D4S left me in no doubt that an optical viewfinder is still notably better for serious action photography. As I mentioned, I was also testing a mirrorless Sony Alpha A6000 side-by-side with the D4S, and there is no question that I could track subjects and respond to rapid changes in the action better with the D4S and its optical viewfinder.

A pair of noble beasts rendered with creamy tonality and bokeh from the AF-S 50mm f/1.4G.
50mm, f/2.0, 1/2,000s, ISO 200

Just a quick note on lenses: With most cameras, reviewers get a kit lens -- typically a slow, inexpensive mid-range zoom -- so it’s been a real pleasure to shoot with Nikon's pro AF-S 24-70mm and AF-S 70-200mm lenses, as well as the AF-S 50mm. The two zooms in particular just feel like professional gear, exuding the durability, reliability and precision you want from tools you might use to make a living. Click the links above, and check out our reviews of all three lenses over on our sister site, for more details.

In Part III of this Field Test, I'll take a look at the amazing low-light performance of the D4S, as well as its enhancements to live view and video.


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