Nikon D4s review - Two weeks and 1906 photos of pure delight! (31.05.2014)


For different reasons I am not usually the one to write gear reviews. First, because by the time I have had sufficient days out in the field with a new camera to say something meaningful about its performance, the Internet is already over flooded with hastily written reviews. To me the aim of such reviews seems to be a desire to be the first one to brag about a new camera or just to collect likes or clicks for a website rather than actually talking about the camera’s abilities. The second reason is my take about equipment in general. To me a piece of equipment has to be almost invisible, like an extended reach of my vision as a means of sharing my emotions. That’s why my writings have been more about the emotions I have encountered on my trips rather than about my equipment. Now I feel that the equipment has been somewhat unjustly left out of the spotlight. Until today. That is because with the arrival of my Nikon D4s camera a whole new world beckoned before me. A world, that I didn’t even think to dream about. All that evoke unfelt emotions towards my new camera. Why? Well, the answer to that question is the theme of this review.

My road to a new camera had a similar beginning as with my previous cameras. Somewhere far away in America, people started getting their hands on first D4s cameras and as soon as that happened, the first reviews started to pour in. They didn’t seem to say much else, than just mirror the official Nikon press release that the ISO is improved a little, focusing is slightly faster and the battery lasts a bit longer. How the writers came to such conclusions after shooting their bookshelves with different ISO settings for a few hours, I have no idea. 

Okay, now that I got that out of the way, it’s time to get back to my D4s. I got my new camera exactly two weeks ago. And even though I think writing a review after just two weeks might be a little premature, I do feel okay, because it’s springtime and I have been out shooting a variety of different subjects every day. My aim for the first week with a new camera was to gain perspective about the improvements promised in the press release. To find out how would they translate into my style of shooting. 

The first thing you always notice with a new camera is it’s ergonomics. I hope for improvements, but dread if they have actually made something worse. In that regard the D4s is Nikon at it’s best. All the good things from the D4 were carried over, plus they have improved the precision and responsiveness of the little joystick for selecting focusing points. So all was good in the ergonomics department and it was difficult to say wether I had a D4 or a D4s in my hands. All the controls were where I thought they would be, so the transition to a new camera was instantaneous, I could go on shooting without thinking about how to locate essential controls.

With my style of shooting wildlife there are two main characteristics that make a camera for me. First, the high ISO quality, so that I would be able to continue shooting into the very last light, when animals become active. Secondly, the autofocus system with it’s speed, accuracy and reliability, so that I would be able to shoot fast and chaotic action. In every other aspect of a camera I am willing to make compromises, but not with these two points. Luckily, with the D4s I do not have to compromise anywhere. So, my first mission was to head to the forest and find out about high ISO quality. And I was expectedly surprised. As promised, they had improved the ISO quality at higher settings, because ISO 20000 and 25600 were giving similar noise values to the D4’s ISO 10000 and 12800, but with a slight twist. Namely, with the D4 the ISO 12800 was usable in certain situations, but for a nice wildlife photo my highest setting somehow stopped at ISO 4000. That was a value based on my experience and the way I relate to noise. It was a setting, where I felt the result was not compromised, but indeed was a wildlife photo with excellent quality. With the D4s, the same uncompromised ISO setting for a superb quality photo is now ISO 12800. So, this was a great step for my photography. 

Great, round one to the D4s. Now, the second round brought on the autofocus test and I was almost convinced that I would not be able to pinpoint the improvements right away. The press release said that the focusing on the D4s would be faster, plus they had added a new focusing mode - group focus. My reason for doubting was that for an example when you improve something that only takes 0,1 seconds by 10% and and the result is that it now takes 0,09 seconds, the difference will be hard to notice in real life. The other reason was that I have never been a fan of automatic focusing modes like the 3D or Auto focusing point selection, because they lack control and due to the fact that the camera has to analyse all 51 focusing points, they also lack speed. Therefore, my focusing mode of choice had been AF-C with 9 assist points (d9 mode). So at this point I was really happy about the D4s ISO quality, but I was sure that without months in the field I would not be able to feel the improvements of the new autofocusing system. I have never been happy if I am wrong about something, but boy am I happy, that I was wrong about this.

The group focusing mode is a real revolution in the history of autofocus! The reviewers, who say that the D4s is a mere evolution of the D4 so just to give the users something until the D5, could not be more wrong. I suspect they just haven’t tested the D4s in the areas that it is meant to work - in high speed action, wherever it my occur. Shooting bookshelves doesn’t indeed make a D4s better in any way than the D4.

The group focusing mode is a miracle! The first time I noticed that Nikon might be on to something, was during my ISO test, when I stayed very late in the forest. An hour after the sunset, when it is really dark, I noticed that with the group focusing mode the camera was much faster acquiring focus of the subjects I pointed it at, than the D9 mode. Okay, interesting. That inspired me to give the new mode a chance in action as well. Something I didn’t actually want to do at first during my prime spring shooting time, because I thought I might miss an important situation. The next evening I was won over, completely. 

During my evening meeting with a Ural owl, I was in situations, from where I would normally return with a few sharp shots at best. At first I was quite far away from the owl, when it flew low over a field and taking up only a small portion of the frame. I almost didn’t point my camera at the bird, because I was sure the focus would choose the background over a small bird in the frame and never recover. But, because I was out with a new camera, equipped with a new focusing mode, I gave the situation a chance, pointed the camera and in total amazement of instantaneous focus reeled off 23 frames, of which only one! was not sharp. Wow, what was that!? 

The next situation though would prove impossible, I was sure. The owl had flown over the field and perched at the edge of the forest on an alder tree. In fact the forest edge was lined with alder trees, with spruces in the background. The Sun had set behind the forest half an hour ago, which meant the scene was like a prison cell. Lighter alders in the front with a black background. A high contrast background that is always problematic. Awful! But it seems that with the D4s I have a friend with me, who is just as keen on taking sharp pictures as I am. The owl presented us with a really tough situation, flying towards me with changeable speed on a high-contrast background. The owl swooped down fast from the alder it was perching on, then glided upwards, braked rapidly mid-air, before swooping down to the ground for potential prey. This time the photographer (me) was not at it’s best, because after initial fast take-off the owl slowed down rapidly, but out of inertia I continued following with the same speed. At this point all other cameras would have jumped at the opportunity to go for that appealing high-contrast background. But, not the D4s! No, my new friend hung on for half a second, which I need to recover and point the focusing points back on the owl. The result of this situation was a series of 11 photos, of which 3 were unsharp, because of the photographer (me). I was impressed! I couldn’t believe it, and still can’t whenever I go over the series of photos again. 

After that, the owl gave us a last sequence, it was as though the bird was also part of this test :). Now it flew sideways across this high-contrast background as if to give the camera it’s last and sternest test. Now, the photographer (me) was also on it and kept the points on the bird through the entire 13 photo series and the camera didn’t miss either. 100% sharp photos on the awful background. OMG! 

Now, I couldn’t keep my feelings to myself anymore and that is why I am sitting behind a computer and writing this review, because I wanted to share the news. During the next few days I shot flying butterflies and a black woodpecker flying through the forest, which convinced me that the episode with the Ural owl was actually reality, not a dream. The new revolutionary Nikon D4s reality!

Suggestions? Well, photographers, who rely on amazing ISO quality and superior autofocus speed in their work should really move on to the Nikon D4s. Nowadays, it is really difficult to express real excitement, without it sounding like a line from an advertisement, because every superlative has been used to death, but to me the Nikon D4s is definitely a camera that has provided most excitement. And only after two weeks.

Photographer Sven Začek



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