I have been working on testing the performance of the new Nikon D4s to compare it to the D4 and see what advancements in sensor technology and image processing pipeline Nikon delivered in the latest revision of the top-of-the-line camera. Designed for sports, news and wildlife photographers that often have challenging light conditions and demanding environments, the high-end camera line is supposed to feed the never-ending thirst for more pixels and better low-light performance. Does the Nikon D4s deliver better image quality than its predecessor? While we know that the resolution of both cameras stayed the same, the big question is whether Nikon was able to enhance the existing 16.2 MP sensor and perhaps use better software algorithms to decrease noise – and that’s what we are here to find out today.
Before we start pixel-peeping at the 100% crops, I would like to point out that the Nikon D4s images below were shot in RAW (NEF) format, 14-bit Lossless Compressed and processed via Adobe Photoshop (Camera RAW 8.4). All Camera RAW settings were default, White Balance was set to Fluorescent (4) on both cameras and all in-camera features / corrections were turned off. As always, everything was shot in Manual Mode with identical exposure settings using the same Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G lens @ f/5.6.
I won’t bother with low ISO comparisons, because both cameras look pretty much identical. Instead, let’s take a look at how the two compare at very high ISO settings. Here is the first comparison at ISO 3200:
While the shadow details look a tad different, the overall performance at ISO 3200 seems identical between the two.
Increasing ISO to 6400 again shows very small differences in the shadow area, where the D4s seems to have a little less artifacts.
ISO 12800 and higher is where I expected to see bigger improvements on the D4s over the D4. While the D4s definitely looks cleaner, I just cannot see major differences here – I would say 1/3 of a stop maximum. More artifacts on the D4, but not by a huge margin.
Now here is where things technically should look different, because the native ISO sensitivity of the D4 maxes out at 12800, while the D4s pushes that by a whole stop to ISO 25600. The above comparison shows “boosted” D4 vs native performance of the D4s. I looked at this one over and over again, back and forth and once again, I simply do not see major differences. Slightly different pattern of noise, but nothing that shows major improvements, as we had seen between the D700/D3 and the D3s a while ago.
With both cameras boosted to ISO 51200, we have now reached very high noise levels that are beyond the comfort level for most photographers out there. And here we definitely see slightly different performance, with the D4s leading the game by having less artifacts and noisy color patches. The D4s also seems to retain colors a tad better.
ISO 102400 is terrible on both cameras, although the D4s seems to look slightly better overall.
If you want to see absolute mess with smaller details and colors completely lost, check out ISO 204800. Hard to say which one looks better here, because it is all just noise.
The Nikon D4s introduces a new boost level of ISO 408600, which is presented above. Not sure why Nikon even bothered with it, since it is no more than a marketing gimmick.
I am not sure if Nikon has reached the limit of the 16.2 MP sensor, because one thing is clear from the above comparisons – when looking at the RAW output, the Nikon D4s does not seem to deliver significantly improved noise performance over the D4. What I see above in some situations is a difference of under 1/3 of a stop, maybe not even that. Nikon said that it raised the base ISO from 100-12800 to 100-25600, but I just cannot spot much difference between the two even at ISO 25600. What we are seeing here, is similar to what we had seen before with the D4 vs D3s – only minor differences. Interestingly, it has been 5 years since the D3s came out, and aside from the change in resolution, high ISO performance has pretty much remained the same.
Also, please note that such comparisons in a controlled environment only tell one side of the story. As Brad Hill and others have pointed out in the comments section below, results might vary in outdoor conditions. Brad reported an improvement of about 2/3 of a stop, perhaps even more in some conditions. We will continue our tests with the D4s and if we find differences when shooting in outdoor conditions, we will report them as soon as possible. Lastly, please do keep in mind that a camera represents much more than just high ISO performance. The D4s is Nikon’s flagship camera and has many great features to make it an attractive choice for many working professionals and enthusiasts. An in-depth review of the D4s has been posted, where we go over those differences.
If you want to see feature differences between the new D4s and the D4, check out my earlier Nikon D4s vs D4 article.