Nikon D4S Field Test Part III

Shooting in the dark

by Eamon Hickey | Posted: 07/29/2014

For one of my last shoots with the Nikon D4S, I decided to do a little quasi-documentary photography around Greenwich Village. I specifically chose to shoot from late afternoon into the evening in order to put the camera's amazing high ISO capabilities to the test.

I began in Hudson River Park, where I found a nice flowerbed -- but it was in the shade and there was a brisk wind. It was 7pm, so still fairly light, yet this was a situation that called for a fairly high sensitivity. I needed to set a narrow f-stop of f/8.0 for adequate depth-of-field, and a high shutter speed of 1/320 second to freeze the wind-blown flowers.

Shaded flowers on a windy late afternoon. Hudson River Park.
50mm, f/8.0, 1/320s, ISO 1250

To make that possible, I had to turn the Nikon D4S' sensitivity up to ISO 1250 equivalent. Shown above, the resulting image is almost completely free of noise. It has the smooth tonality and rich color saturation that you'd have expected at ISO 100 or 200 when shooting with cameras from just a few years ago.

I stayed in the park until dusk, then wandered over to the path set aside for joggers and bicycles. By now, the light was down to about EV 7 (ISO 100), meaning I had to use ISO 6400 to get an action-stopping shutter speed of 1/500 second at an aperture setting of f/4.0. The autofocus system of the Nikon D4S had no trouble follow-focusing bicyclists and rollerbladers in the dim light. At this higher sensitivity, noise is definitely visible in the images, but they still retain an impressive amount of detail and color.

I needed to use a shutter speed of 1/500 second to freeze this rollerblader at dusk. Hudson River Park.
50mm, f/4.0, 1/500s, ISO 6400

As dusk turned to night, I left the park and began wandering through Greenwich Village. I had the Nikon D4S set to Auto ISO as I made a series of images of folks on the street, and sitting in and around restaurants. The D4S' sensitivity climbed from ISO 14,400 equivalent all the way up to an amazing ISO 229,880.

In very late dusk at Washington Square Park, I got a picture that I liked of some musicians and a dancer, which I shot at 1/125, f/4.0, and ISO 28,735. There is definitely noise in the image when viewed at 100%, but it retains fairly good color and at smaller magnifications, it looks pretty clean.

Playing for tips at twilight in Washington Square Park.
50mm, f/4.0, 1/125s, ISO 28,735

Near the park, I passed the entrance to a bar where a woman was sitting essentially in the dark, evidently reading an amusing text message. (I can't be the only street photographer who's finding it harder and harder to get a picture of anything other than somebody staring hypnotically into their smartphone.)

Although I could have opened the lens wider or even reduced my shutter speed slightly, I decided to force the Nikon D4S to its whopping maximum ISO of 409,600. The shot is very noisy, of course, but at small sizes, as you see here, it's recognizable for what it is. And the autofocus system locked on virtually instantly in this near-dark situation (about EV 0 at ISO 100).

Texting in near dark, Greenwich Village. ISO 409,600!
50mm, f/5.6, 1/125s, ISO 409,600

It's only a modest exaggeration to say that this camera can see in the dark!

Live View

As I noted in my previous Field Tests, Nikon has made a handful of small enhancements to the live view functionality of the D4S, and I ran through them making throwaway test images in my living room. Overall, live view works fairly well for the things I would use it for -- landscapes and still lifes, for example. A range of options for how the LCD monitor displays your shooting settings make it easy to focus precisely using manual focus, and get the right exposure.

The autofocus of the Nikon D4S in live view mode works okay for stationary subjects when you're not in a hurry, although it can have trouble locking on to low contrast subjects. I briefly tested it for street shooting on a late afternoon walk in the East Village, and it was slow and indecisive. That said, I wouldn't normally use live view on a DSLR for that kind of shooting anyway, so this isn't a big deal to me.

Restaurant window in the East Village at ISO 10,000.
50mm, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 10,000


To test the video capabilities of the Nikon D4S, I took it to Tompkins Square Park one evening. I wanted to experiment with the very shallow depth-of-field that the camera's full-frame sensor can deliver with the AF-S 50mm f/1.4 lens. I set up a shot where I could focus on some flowers in the foreground, and then shift the focus to people walking by in the background, and used a shutter speed of 1/125 for several clips at f-stops ranging from f/1.6 to f/2.8.

I found it easy to compose the shot on the LCD and check my exposure with a quick test clip. I had a little trouble focusing precisely using the Nikon D4S' LCD monitor at normal magnification, but solved this by increasing the live view magnification for critical focusing with just one button press. Although I kept my sensitivity at ISO 200 equivalent to get the best possible footage, Auto ISO is available for recording movies in manual exposure mode. This would undoubtedly be useful in some news and documentary shooting scenarios, where the light might be changing as you shoot.

Full HD video clip shot with the Nikon D4S.
Download Original

Summing it up

If there's one fundamental concept that separates a professional camera from amateur and enthusiast models, it's this. A pro camera is designed with the idea that, no matter what, you can rely on it to get you the shot. It'll have the versatility and performance to go from a wedding one day to car racing the next, and it'll keep on shooting through storms, riots, and hard landings on dirt airfields.

I didn't wade into any riots with the Nikon D4S, so I can only make educated guesses about its durability from its rock-solid construction. Its versatility and performance, though, are unmatched by any other camera I've ever used.

Of course, the D4S is a lot more camera than most of us need, including me. (Personally, I find it too expensive and bulky.) Still, I found it really pleasurable and satisfying to use such a responsive and well-made precision tool. That might be reason enough to get one -- even if you're not being paid to go into any possible situation and come back out with award-winning shots.

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