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.
I know that I’m late to the party but, this might be one of the best review and discussion on cameras I’ve come across. The exchange between Nasim and Brad was very close to a tutorial for someone like me.
Great work here.
Nasim, thank you very much for trying to compile objective comparisons of the various Nikon cameras.
As a rank amateur (and being stuck in Africa, where things are more difficult to come by),I often use your comparisons as one of the bases for my decisions and opinions, as it is not really possible to compare cameras for myself.
I am currently thinking about upgrading (although in this case due to our rapidly weakening currency it is likely to be a very long process) from the D7000 which has served me well for nearly 3 1/2 years now. I am primarily a nature photographer and focus heavily on small and agile birds. I use a 500mm f4 lens, and am highly unlikely to be able to upgrade that any time soon.
My dilemma is that Nikon really doesn’t currently have a sensible upgrade from the D7000 (I feel the D7100 is to close in performance for the 70% increase in price here in SA), and am concerned about changing to full-frame as I already usually have to crop heavily.
However, in terms of image quality I am still quite happy with the D7000 (reading your and other work I suspect that may be in large measure due to not having experienced full-frame yet), but there are three things about this camera that bother me. Firstly, and least importantly, the size of the buffer. Secondly, and more importantly, I often bump the mode dial onto a different mode (mostly we are confined to cars here due to the dangerous game in our parks and their government’s opinion that we are all idiots, and you can imagine that being the driver and the photographer and with a lens that large, space is at a premium and things often get in the way of other things), ending up with useless photos.Most importantly though, I feel the need for a more responsive AF system. I see lots of photos of small birds taking off toward the photographerthat I simply cannot emulate as my camera is still focusing on where the bird was a few seconds ago.
I would therefore also request that you develop and include an impirical test on AF performance and response. I have seen one test where the photographer used a metronome placed at a 45 degree angle to the camera that you might be able to adopt fairly easily?
I’m just an avid amateur, but I thoroughly enjoyed the learned and gentlemanly interchange between Brad and Nasim. Great reading, thanks much to each of you.
Wholeheartedly agree. See 32, above.
Big contribution from DMT as well.
I would agree 1/2 the time you are 2/3’s right. Agree to disagree but it seems to this reader you did try and hijack his blog while including a link to yours. Show a little respect and if you feel the need to continue to harp, send him a private e-mail. And for what it is worth i am sure my father is bigger than your father!
Keep up the good work!
Chuck, come on bud, no need to go aggressive here – it is a friendly discussion and I am sure some people find these discussions helpful. Let’s not get personal over a camera. Simply not worth it.
Have a great weekend.
Quoting from your excellent 58 f1.4 review (a lens I own and absolutely love, it’s magnificent):
“…the lens could be regarded as a poor performer, if one were to look at it purely based on lab tests. But as I have always said, lab tests only reveal one side of the story. One has to look at other important factors such as craftsmanship, colors, depth and other often non-quantifiable features.”
The same applies to cameras. Pixel-peeping D4S noise tells you almost NOTHING about why this camera is so special. Not criticizing your tests in the slightest, they’re quite good, but just like you said they are only one side of the story.
DMT, absolutely! Please see my latest response to Brand Hill above. Image quality at high ISOs is just one part of the comparison. The D4s represents so much more than just that – faster frames per second, better damping between shots, better ergonomics, group AF and more. That’s why this article is called “high ISO comparison” – it just shows one side of the story :)
Yes, thank you, and I responded to that above as well. But part of my point is that there is more to noise/image quality than what DxO and other tests are showing (as Brad also pointed out above)…and that your “high ISO comparison” (good as it is, best I’ve seen anyway) also does not fully reflect real world results…there is more to the high ISO story than what these tests show.
For the event work I shoot, I often photograph banquet rooms beautifully decorated and lit with colored light but still VERY dark. With the D4 (or D3S), I had no qualms right up to ISO 8000 (with flash dialed down) before hesitating. I’m seeing that I now get similar results (noise/image quality) at ISO 16,000 with the D4S before I start pausing. I’d post a link from my blog demonstrating this, but it looks like Chuck Coughlin (below) would have a problem with it. However, my name on this post is linked to my website (like Brad’s) so folks can still go looking if they wish.
As a tool, I can do MUCH MORE now with the D4S. *This* is what’s important in a new professional flagship camera…at least to a professional.
DMT, I am sure it does. Again, I am not here to say that the D4s is a bad camera. Simply sharing what I see from the image quality perspective, taken in one controlled setting.
Maybe get out in some uncontrolled settings with it?
Nasim, great website with lots of valuable insights and info. Thought I’d chime in this subject.
I must concur with Brad, and add that in real world professional jobs over the past two weeks that the D4S shows at least a 2/3 stop advantage at what I consider medium ISO (3200-8000) and about a full stop at 8000-51,200. It’s not just the noise but the clarity, detail in the blacks, color, white balance and overall look of the image (this all 14-bit NEF I’m shooting). The problem with pixel peeping is that is misses the overall impact of the image and the multiple different things that add up to increased image quality. The D4S *does* have better IQ at higher ISOs, but that’s only part of the story. The really big thing is the AF, which is simply stunning, along with over a dozen detail changes to the camera’s operation that really add up to a significant upgrade.
How significant? Enough that there was no hesitation on my part about replacing all three of my D4 bodies with new ones (yes, “D4 upgraders” *are* part of the target market). Maybe not so much for someone not shooting professionally full time every single day, but for those shooting hundreds of thousands of frames a year it is instantly noticeable how much better the D4S is…just like the D3S was over the D3. I’ll take every advantage I can get, no matter how “small”. The D4S is far and away the very best camera I have ever used (and I’ve shot with most systems).
As for anyone pondering upgrading from the D3S…it’s not even close to what this camera can do (and I *loved* the D3S). Why some D3S owners continue to cling to the idea that it’s the “king” of the low light cameras is beyond me. It’s not. The D4S is.
Thank you for such a frank assessment of D3s v D4s from an highly experienced user of both. Time to take the plunge, methinks.
I think you’re right.
The IQ assessment is a complex and controversial matter that begins from the definition of the characteristics of illuminants to arrive to physiology of the human eye.
Laboratory data are objective and indispensable, but in real conditions play an essential role also factors such as the “perception” and “the accuracy of the measurement system of the camera (exposure and WB)”. The contribution of these factors is most important in the harshest conditions that occurs at high ISO.
For example, all else being equal, the images of the camera that reproduces the grayscale in a way closer to human perception will appear better to the final observer.
A measurement system that guarantees the most accurate exposure and WB under real conditions, provides an additional benefit for the perceived IQ. Etc.
The sum of many small improvements in all areas provides a dramatically improved results and can justify the discrepancy between the lab-tests and the results in the field.
What an excellent thread. Thanks to all posters, but especially to Nasim (of course) and to Brad Hill (stunning quality in those pictures). Fabulous insights, a degree of controversy, and all conducted by genuine enthusiasts who seek to enlighten and inform, all the while never veering from mutual courtesy and respect.
I’m still pondering whether or not to switch from D3s to D4s, with all of the expense which that will incur, and this thread has been SO informative and fascinating to read.
Although, as I say, still pondering…
Thanks Nasim for your testing and report on the d4s both today and the other pieces you have put up recently-thanks also to Brad Hill for his reporting on the D4s. I had a D4 and purchsed a D4s when they became available because I was rather sure that the update seemed like it would end up being more profound than the D3-D3s update. Tests aside after 4000+ shots I sold the D4 and I’m keeping the D4s with no reservations; the focusing has been better than I could ever achieve with the D4 and the low light performance I’ve seen is more on the lines of Brad’s report where he feels like it is 2/3-1+ stops improved over the D4. I shot a D4 group at an ice rink of about 1500 photos and then returned the following week with the D4s shooting 1200 and when the results seemed a little unbelievable I returned a couple days later for 1600 more-at this point I don’t feel the D4 and D4s really compared it is a distinct step forward and I’ve gotten better performance from this body than any 35mm pro body I’ve had since 1978–good luck all
Personally, I’m going to pass on both of these camera. I prefer to hold out for the D6s, which is sure to outclass both the D4 and D5 series as well as the D6 in terms of resolution, AF speed, and ISO performance.
Always great reviews and updates. My hope list includes the D4/D4s once my D3s gets to retirement age. I shoot wildlife and nature and also have a D800. I use a 300mmf2.8 vr2 with all 3 TC’s and a 70-200f4 and 24-120f4 . I learned to use what I have and also know the limitations of what I have. I would love a 500or 600 f4 lens but the cost is just to high. I have used a D4 shooting mostly birds in low light busy background conditions using my 300f2.8 with the different TC’s and my interest in the D4/D4s is more about the focus system than the ISO performance in low light. That in my book is more critical than ISO. My D3s is already great in low light and the D800 is also not bad. I have lost more shots as a result of slow focus in low light, buzzy backgrounds than ISO performance. I would like to know how they all compare in these condition on lenses linked to the different converters. My 300f2.8 with TC2.0 shot at f8 produce good quality IQ images in good light on both D3s and D800 but if focus conditions become difficult it is a pain. Please test and advise. Thanks for a great site