Speed de­mon

Is the D4s Nikon’s best-ever SLR?

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The buf­fer ca­pac­ity has in­creased, en­abling as many as 200 JPE Gs or 176 12-bit NEFs to be cap­tured in a burst

Since its launch in Jan­uary 2012 the Nikon D4 has been the cam­era of choice for pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers who need the ul­ti­mate in speed, low­light shoot­ing ca­pa­bil­ity and AF per­for­mance. It’s also a rugged cam­era, built to sur­vive heavy use in the type of con­di­tions that news re­porters find them­selves in on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

The brand-new D4s is a rel­a­tively sub­tle up­grade to the D4, keep­ing the same pixel count and look­ing ex­tremely sim­i­lar, but pos­sess­ing a few re­fine­ments that can be largely at­trib­uted to the move to the newer Expeed 4 pro­cess­ing en­gine.

Fea­tures

Nikon has been tight-lipped about the changes made for the D4s’s sen­sor, but we are told that is new and has an ef­fec­tive pixel count of 16.23 megapix­els, while the D4’s count is 16.25 megapix­els. The pho­to­sites, how­ever, re­main the same size.

Ac­cord­ing to Nikon the new sen­sor and Expeed 4 en­gine com­bi­na­tion re­sults in an ap­prox­i­mately 1.5EV im­prove­ment in noise per­for­mance and this has given the com­pany the con­fi­dence to ex­pand the D4s’s na­tive sen­si­tiv­ity set­ting by 1EV on the D4’s to ISO100-25600. In ad­di­tion, the ex­panded range is ISO50-409600.

Thanks to the Expeed 4 pro­ces­sor, the D4s has a max­i­mum con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing rate of 11 frames per sec­ond. The D4 can man­age this speed, but not the ac­com­pa­nied abil­ity to fo­cus and me­ter be­tween shots. The buf­fer ca­pac­ity has also been in­creased for the D4s, en­abling as many as 200 JPEG Fine

qual­ity files or an in­cred­i­ble 176 com­pressed 12-bit RAW files to be cap­tured in a sin­gle burst. We found this was pos­si­ble with a UDMA 7 Com­pactFlash or XQD card in­stalled.

The D4s also has a new mir­ror mech­a­nism, which has bet­ter damp­en­ing than the D4’s, to give a more sta­ble im­age in the viewfinder and shorter black­out be­tween frames. This prob­a­bly ex­plains why the cam­era is able to fo­cus when shoot­ing at 11 frames per sec­ond.

Nikon has im­proved the aut­o­fo­cus al­go­rithms for the D4s, which uses an Ad­vanced ver­sion of the Multi-CAM 3500AF mod­ule found in the D4. It also has Group-area AF mode, which will prove help­ful when shoot­ing sub­jects that are com­par­a­tively small and close to a high-con­trast or dis­tract­ing back­ground.

In ad­di­tion, Nikon tells us that the D4s pro­cesses im­ages dif­fer­ently from the D4 as out-of-fo­cus ar­eas of im­ages are treated dif­fer­ently from sharp sub­jects in or­der to en­hance shal­low depth of field.

An­other, rather strange, new fea­ture is the abil­ity to record small four-megapixel, un­com­pressed 12-bit RAW files. It’s hard to im­age this be­ing used very of­ten, but per­haps those who shoot ex­clu­sively for the in­ter­net will wel­come it.

Build and han­dling

While the change to the shape of the mem­ory card bay door sug­gests that Nikon hasn’t used the same mould for the D4s as it did for the D4, most of the other changes to the de­sign are so sub­tle as to be al­most in­vis­i­ble. That’s no bad thing, how­ever, as the cam­era re­mains very com­fort­able in the hand whether you’re us­ing the hor­i­zon­tal or ver­ti­cal grip.

The two mini-joy­stick-style se­lec­tor con­trols on the back of the cam­era have a new, firmer, fin­ish and it makes them eas­ier to find and use when wear­ing gloves or shoot­ing

in the wet. They are also eas­ier to iden­tify when the cam­era is held to the eye than the rub­ber-topped con­trols on the D4.

Just like on the D4, the ver­ti­cal shut­ter re­lease is a lit­tle re­cessed into the body. While this but­ton is still easy to reach, it makes the front com­mand dial less prom­i­nent than the hor­i­zon­tal one and it’s harder to find with your fin­ger.

Other con­trols fall within con­ve­nient reach and are as re­spon­sive as you’d ex­pect with a pro­fes­sional-stan­dard SLR.

Be­ing an SLR, the D4s has an op­ti­cal viewfinder, and it’s a great one, show­ing 100% of the scene and be­ing large and bright. As usual, when a DX lens is mounted on the cam­era, the area out­side the au­to­matic crop­ping is dimmed so it’s easy to com­pose im­ages.

While the 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD on the back pro­vides a nice clear view and dis­plays colours ac­cu­rately, it does suf­fer from re­flec­tions in bright con­di­tions.

Pe­riph­eral AF is more re­spon­sive and the new Group-area AF mode does an great job of keep­ing a mov­ing sub­ject sharp

Per­for­mance

The D4’s AF sys­tem is no slouch, but the D4s’s raises the game even fur­ther. The pe­riph­eral AF points seem a lit­tle more re­spon­sive and the new Group-area AF mode does a great job of keep­ing a mov­ing sub­ject sharp. How­ever, apart from the num­ber of points in­volved (five in Group-area AF) it’s a un­clear how this dif­fers from the nine-, 21- and 51-point dy­namic-area AF modes.

While the Ma­trix me­ter­ing sys­tem copes well with ‘aver­age’ and bright scenes, there is a slight (and un­der­stand­able) ten­dency to­wards over­ex­po­sure with some scenes that are in­trin­si­cally dark in tone. It’s not a ma­jor is­sue and it only seems to oc­cur in those con­di­tions in which a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher might an­tic­i­pate it.

Al­though a pixel count of 16 mil­lion maybe com­par­a­tively low by mod­ern stan­dards, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that Nikon is now us­ing 24- and 36-megapixel sen­sors, the D4s can re­solve an im­pres­sive level of de­tail, which is main­tained a lit­tle bet­ter through­out the sen­si­tiv­ity range than the by the D4. There’s also lit­tle sign of noise through­out the na­tive sen­si­tiv­ity range, al­though higher-ISO JPEGs look slightly smoothed at 100% on screen.

Of course the burn­ing ques­tion that the D4s raises is, what does an ISO409600 im­age look like? The an­swer is: pretty ter­ri­ble. Even at small view­ing sizes there is banding vis­i­ble in the JPEGs, and at close scru­tiny they have a cross-hatched pat­tern. The RAW files look a lit­tle bet­ter, but there’s still some banding. How­ever, this is not a sen­si­tiv­ity set­ting for ev­ery­day use, it’s de­signed to be used by pros reporting im­por­tant events in near dark­ness.

In­ter­est­ingly, the lab test fig­ures for sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio in­di­cate the D4s falls short of the D4, but it does pro­duce sharper de­tail in the midhigh ISO range, which is a trade-off most users would be happy to ac­cept.

Nikon D4s ver­dict

The su­per-high ISOs avail­able on the D4s have a knock-on ef­fect fur­ther down the scale – we shot this at ISO12800 and got im­pres­sively good qual­ity

The most sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment for me is the fo­cus­ing speed, which is in­cred­i­ble

Matthew tried the new Group AF mode at an in­ter­na­tional rugby match, but pre­ferred sin­gle-point AF when there were lots of play­ers in the shot

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