Camera Construction and Handling
Just like all top-of-the-line Nikon DSLRs, the D4s has a full magnesium alloy and weather-sealed construction that is designed to withstand all kinds of physical abuse. I have seen photographers accidentally drop their high-end D3/D3s/D4 cameras (I once dropped a D3s from 3 feet high), bump them against hard surfaces or get every hole filled up with dust when photographing Burning Man and those cameras continued to work without any problems. Cameras like D4s are designed to be used heavily by professionals for many years, so they are built like tanks. That’s why working pros prefer D4s-like cameras, as they know they can rely on them in the most challenging conditions.
As I have already pointed out on the first page of this review, the D4s is very similar in terms of handling and ergonomics when compared to the D4. The cameras look almost identical when looked from the front. The only difference is the grip – it is shaped a little differently and should be more comfortable to hold per Nikon (although I personally did not feel any difference whatsoever). Here is how the two compare when viewed from the front:
The back of the camera looks mostly the same, except for two changes – the memory card door is now shaped slightly differently on the top and the surface of the two smaller joysticks (for vertical and horizontal grip) has been redesigned for more comfort. I personally don’t care for the door, but the joystick change is a great improvement in my opinion, since I did not like the first version of joysticks on the D4, as explained in my D4 review. Here is the comparison of the back of the two cameras (Left: Nikon D4s, Right: Nikon D4):
Together with the change in the joystick surface texture, Nikon must have improved the joystick connection in the camera, because I have not heard of any reports of it falling off. The top-of-the-line Nikon cameras are usually very solid in construction, so I was rather surprised to see the poorly implemented joysticks that first appeared on the D4. Hopefully that was a good lesson learned for Nikon and we won’t see such problems again in the future. If you own a D4s and your joysticks come off, please report it in the comments section of this review and I will update this paragraph accordingly.
Handling-wise, the D4s is superb, with the exception of its heavy weight and bulk for those that hand-hold cameras a lot. At 1.2 kilos, the D4s is much heavier than the new Nikon D750, which only weighs 750 grams – and those figures are without the large EN-EL18a battery that weighs way more than the twice smaller EN-EL15. True, the D4s does yield a lot more shots than the D750 on paper, but that’s with a CIPA rating, which includes moderate live view and flash usage. Without flash, the D750 will probably yield at least half as many shots as the D4s. While I loved the image quality of my previous Nikon D3s, neither Lola nor I were happy with its weight when shooting those all day weddings, especially when coupling the camera with something like the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and a speedlight. My neck and my back would get sore by the end of the day with all that weight. Yes, I am comparing two different cameras with and without battery grips, but that’s the part that you have to figure out for yourself – if using a standard profile DSLR with a battery grip does not bother you, you will love the D4s. I personally quit using battery grips a while ago, because I prefer the smaller and lighter cameras for my style of shooting.
At the same time, the weight and bulk of professional camera bodies balance very well with long super telephoto lenses. This goes for both hand-held and tripod shooting. When mounting the D4s on a gimbal head, it balances easier than something like the D750 and you do not have to move the tripod leg to its tip just to get the balance right. Hand-holding something like the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G with the D4s is also easier on your hands, because the setup is not front-heavy. Although Nikon has been redesigning their super telephoto line with lightweight fluorite elements, making them comfortable to use with lighter camera bodies, the older super telephoto lenses were all front-heavy.
Just like all other top-of-the-line Nikon DSLRs, the Nikon D4s does not come with a built-in flash. While this is done primarily for better weather-sealing, it is a definite disadvantage if you have been using a built-in flash in emergency situations or perhaps as a master to trigger off-camera speedlights. It does not come with an AF assist lamp either, so you will have to use the IR beam of your speedlight when focusing in extremely dark environments, as explained in this article.
One issue that popped up in the first D4s that I had on a loaner was a freezing / locking problem. When shooting at 11 fps continuous shooting mode, the camera would randomly freeze and refuse to work, with all controls unresponsive, except the shutter button. The top display would show a blinking “ERR” message. Removing the lens, battery, card would accomplish nothing and the only way to fix the issue was to press the shutter button again, which would reset everything back to normal. Judging by the noise, there must have been some sort of an issue with the mirror getting stuck when the camera malfunctioned. The issue was very random, but it did take place at least 3-4 times during the time we tested the D4s sample. Although Nikon later reported that some Lexar cards had problems with the D4s, this particular issue had nothing to do with that. We’ve tried using SanDisk CF and Sony XQD cards and the problem came back on practically every card we used. This particular issue was an isolated case related to the sample we were testing, since the second D4s sample did not have this issue.
John Sherman also reported autofocusing problems with his first D4s unit, which he exchanged for another one. His second unit also had some problems initially, but they disappeared after John updated firmware to 1.10 version.
Camera Menu Changes
While most of the menu settings on the D4s are the same as on the D4, there are a few changes that Nikon incorporated into the camera menu. The “PLAYBACK” menu stayed mostly the same and now there are two additional menu items: “Slide show” for making slideshows and “DPOF print order” for printing needs.
The “SHOOTING” menu has been reordered and reorganized a little. “NEF (RAW) recording” now contains “Image size” for shooting in full-size RAW (RAW L – 4928×3280 / 16.2 MP) and sRAW (RAW S – 2464×1640 / 4 MP). If you do not know what the sRAW format is for, it is explained in detail on the next page of this review.
The “CUSTOM SETTINGS” menu has new options: “A11: Limit AF-area mode selection”, where you can pick between Dynamic 9, 21, 51, 3D, Group and Auto-area AF, and “A12: Autofocus mode restrictions”, where you can pick between AF-S, AF-C and No restrictions. These two new settings are useful for those, that want to limit the number of choices to a few that they actually use. This is a great feature, because once you make the change, you do not have to toggle between all the focus modes on the camera that you never touch. For example, if you only shoot in Dynamic 9 and Group Area AF, you can pick those two and exclude everything else. When you press the focus selector button on the front of the camera and use the dial to scroll between the focus modes, now you will only see the options you picked – the rest will not even show up as an option. The same with restrictions – if you never use AF-S, you can restrict the camera to only AF-C mode, so you don’t have to worry about making accidental changes. Another new option is “Matrix metering” with Face detection, which I actually found to work pretty well when photographing people. Basically, if the camera identifies a face in a scene, it will prioritize the subject instead of the surrounding scene. For example, if you are photographing a person in a shadow area, the camera will calculate the exposure based on the person’s face, which might overexpose the brighter background.
The “Controls” sub-menu has a few new options as well. If you never shoot in Live View mode and want to turn it off completely, you can now select “Disable” under “Live view button options”. Another new ability is to be able to actually program the focus function buttons on select lenses that have them (available on expensive super telephoto lenses) – you can now program those buttons for AE/AF lock, AF-area mode, etc.
Under “SETUP” menu, you can now calibrate the rear LCD under “Monitor color balance”. So if you see any color issues like the “green tint” problem reported on some Nikon DSLR cameras previously, you can now adjust the screen to display colors properly. Some rearrangements have been also carried out in the SETUP menu – for example, “Network” for the built-in Ethernet port has been moved to the bottom of the menu, while the “GPS” menu option has been renamed to “Location data”.
XQD Memory Slot
One of the issues I had with the D4 was its memory card slots. The D4 was Nikon’s first experiment to try the faster XQD format memory. For backwards compatibility reasons, Nikon incorporated one CF and one XQD slot, which in my opinion became a real nuisance for proper workflow. I was really hoping that the D4s would have dual XQD slots, but Nikon decided to keep both CF and XQD formats again. Why mess with different card formats? Being a high-end professional camera, the D4s should have either had two CF card slots or two XQD card slots, but not one of each.
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