While I have not yet received my copy of the Nikon D4, I had an opportunity to test it today and perform some comparisons against the original Nikon D3 and D3s cameras, thanks to my new friend Michael Sasser, who was kind enough to let me use his D4. The purpose of this Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO comparison is to show how the new professional D4 compares to the older-generation Nikon cameras in low and high ISO performance. I will start working on a full Nikon D4 Review once I receive it and hopefully will finish it up with plenty of image samples and my analysis sometime in early April (planning a couple of big projects for the Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras).
Some background information for the below crops:
- All photographs were taken in a controlled environment, with a single studio light (octabank, modeling light), placed on the left
- All cameras were set to 14-bit NEF / RAW format, Active D-Lighting, Noise Reduction, Vignetting set to Off
- White Balance: Auto, changed to 3300 Temp, +6 Tint in Lightroom 4 (Process Version 2012)
- Lightroom Settings: Default
- Due to the difference in resolution (16 MP on the D4 vs 12 MP on the D3 and D3s), images from the Nikon D4 were down-sampled to 12 MP for a fair comparison
Here is the full image and the cropped area:
1) Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO 100-800 Comparison
Let’s take a look at how the cameras perform at ISO levels between ISO 100 and 800. Here is ISO 100, which is considered to be the native ISO of the Nikon D4 (LO1 setting on the Nikon D3/D3s):
Nothing too exciting about the low ISO performance of these cameras – each performs extremely well at low ISO levels, even at ISO 800. Let’s take a look at high ISO performance – that’s where we should see some differences.
1) Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO 1600-12800 Comparison
Differences start getting slightly apparent at ISO 1600 – the Nikon D3 has a tad more noise than the Nikon D3s and the Nikon D4, both of which look about the same.
This difference is even more visible at ISO 3200 – the Nikon D4 and the D3s look cleaner than the Nikon D3. I cannot see any difference between the Nikon D4 and D3s though.
At ISO 6400, the Nikon D4 seems to be just a tad cleaner than the Nikon D3s, but the difference is too little – I would say less than 1/3 of a stop. The Nikon D3 is pretty noisy at ISO 6400 in comparison, as can be clearly seen from the crops.
Pushing ISO to 12800 again shows a slightly better performance by the Nikon D4 compared to the Nikon D3s, I would say around 1/3 of a stop. The Nikon D3 crop looks much noisier in comparison, about 1.5 stops worse than the D4.
3) Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO 25600+ Comparison
I personally rarely use extreme ISO levels above ISO 6400 on my D3s, but let’s see how all three cameras compare at very high ISOs. Shooting at such ISO levels obviously results in sharpness/detail and color loss, so the images are only usable when down-sampled to smaller resolution, in my opinion.
I cannot really see any difference in noise between the Nikon D4 and the D3s – both look more or less the same, with a little bit larger grains on the D3s – most likely due to down-sampling performed on the D4 image. The Nikon D3 is limited to ISO 25,600, but it looks really bad in comparison. In fact, if you take this Nikon D3 sample at ISO 25,600 and compare it to ISO 102,400 on the D4, both crops will look more or less the same (2 full stops of difference).
Again, very similar performance by both the D4 and the D3s, with slightly bigger grains on the D3s.
Interestingly, this is where the Nikon D4 clearly shows better performance – more details are preserved across the frame. Again, down-sampling certainly plays a role here.
4) Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO Comparison Summary
Looking at the above crop samples, we can see that the Nikon D4 performs very similarly to the older Nikon D3s – the performance differences seem to be rather small. At the same time, we should not forget that the Nikon D4 has a higher resolution sensor with a 4 megapixel advantage. This means that Nikon was able to push the camera’s resolution higher, while retaining the impressive high ISO performance of the Nikon D3s. As for the Nikon D3, it performs well all the way to ISO 1600, but starts to suffer from there in comparison to the D3s and the D4 (especially at ISO levels above 6400, where there seems to be 1.5 to 2 stops of difference).
To be honest, I was hoping for a little more difference in high ISO performance between the Nikon D4 and the D3s. When the Nikon D3s was introduced, it showed significantly better performance than the D3, as I demonstrated in my Nikon D3s Review. Sadly, the Nikon D4 does not seem to be that much better, even after its 16 MP image is down-sampled to 12 MP. While a higher resolution sensor presents better cropping opportunities, which is important for sports and wildlife photographers, it still caps the usable high ISO performance at the same level as the Nikon D3s. I think Nikon fully understood this, which is why they packed other nice features into the Nikon D4 such as better AF system with usable AF at f/8, built-in Ethernet port, higher dynamic range, advanced movie features, better shutter, huge memory buffer and better ergonomics. I will talk about these feature differences in much more detail in my upcoming Nikon D4 Review, but for now you can also check out my previous Nikon D4 vs D3s article.